Monday, February 18, 2013

American Pickers: An Appreciation

Jonathan Rees

Most of the history professors I know refuse to admit that they ever watch the History Channel, but I’ve become hooked on one show in particular. The concept of American Pickers couldn’t be simpler. The program features Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they travel across the country, looking for antiques to stock in their two “Antique Archeology” stores (located in LeClaire, Iowa, and Nashville, Tennessee). Sometimes they get calls from the home office telling them where to go, sometimes they go “free-styling.” That means walking up to
houses with lots of old cars or advertising signs out front and asking if they can look around. When they find something they like, negotiations begin. Often, at the end of the episode, a particularly mysterious item gets appraised to see how much the guys will profit from it if they can sell it at market price.

Obviously, the concept owes something of a debt to Antiques Roadshow, but the reason I like this show much better is the obvious enthusiasm that these guys have for all the objects that they’re selling. The “contestants” on Roadshow generally only want to know about their items to figure out how much money they can make, but Mike and Frank can get incredibly excited over objects for aesthetic reasons alone, whether they end up buying them for their stores or not. Even if you’ll never make any money from what’s stuffed inside your garage, you can’t help but feel the thrill when they discover “rusty gold” of all kinds. I expected to see car parts and motorcycles when I started watching, but I’ve also learned more about toys, bicycles, beer, petroliana (see the clip above if you don’t recognize the term)—even surfing—than I ever thought possible. Mike and Frank learn as they go so that they can spot diamonds in the rough on later journeys, and you can’t help but learn with them.

The people they meet are also well worth your time. Sure, the only thing that separates them from the people on Hoarders is that these folks seem to be able to afford all the stuff they purchase, but Mike and Frank really have met some characters over the years on TV. My favorite has to be “Dr. Evermore,” who built a gigantic folk sculpture he calls “Forevertron” that resembles a space ship in front of his home in Wisconsin. You’ll never see the likes of him watching PBS! The cameras always capture the person who got picked after Mike and Frank leave, and usually the person in question recognizes that they’ve been shortchanged to some extent since the Antique Archeology stores couldn’t exist if they haven’t been. Nevertheless, they’re always more than happy to have been visited. Maybe it’s the chance to be on TV, but I think it’s everyone’s shared enthusiasm for history that explains this attitude better.

In my case, I love the show because these guys are about the only people I’ve ever seen on TV or in person who share my enthusiasm for industrial history. I tear up at old roadside advertising and cool pictures of machinery. To see items like these rediscovered in someone’s attic or spare barn makes it doubly exciting. Perhaps more importantly, the show also helps satisfy my suppressed desire to be a pack rat. A few years after eBay debuted, I started buying original World War I posters as I was amazed at how cheap they were. (The framing cost more than the posters themselves.) When I got married, I no longer had the space or the money to keep up that hobby. Watching American Pickers helps me scratch that itch without any out-of-pocket costs. 

To me, all this is “public history” of the very best kind.

Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University, Pueblo.  He’s stuck writing far too much about MOOCs over at his own blog and posts here to get away from that.


Jonathan Dresner said...

I will admit to a slight fascination with "Pawn Stars" for precisely the same reason: there's considerable discussion of historical context of the items, usually (as far as I can tell, anyway, reasonably sound) and some real enthusiasm for real historical documents and objects.

hcr said...

I'm totally with you! I love hearing people get going on historical subjects they care about. The other day, I admired the ancient gas pump at the station where I was getting my car inspected, and the guy started talking about petrolina. When I was a kid, there was a giant-- well, ok, it seemed giant to me-- ceramic tiger on the roof of a tiny gas station in Woolwich, Maine, on the north side of the Wiscasset bridge. It disappeared when the station got converted to some other use, and I have always wondered what happened to it (hence the detail in where it was, in case someone chances across this comment and knows the answer). He gave me some suggestions about where to look, and then told me great stuff about that whole "tiger in your tank" ad campaign. He got me so curious about petrolina I went home and googled it. I found surprisingly little for what appears to be a pretty big field. (Would love some blog posts on that!)