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The Conversation . A feature of The Beacon newspaper



People's stories drive Acton resident's interest in history
By David Brose / Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2004


Acton resident Henry Deeks is a historian and collector of Civil War artifacts. He has owned Deeks Antiques in Maynard for four years and over the years has also had stores in Cambridge and Boston.
When asked about what interests him most about history, Deeks said, "It's all about the people."


Q: How did you become interested in history?
A: My interest in history comes from an interest in photographs, which I've had since I was a teenager.

Q: What did you like about them?
A: That I could see the people. As I came into my twenties and studied history and handled artifacts and things, I realized that I could hold the original photograph of somebody involved in the period, or a particular event, in my hand. It was something that was personal to them. The type of photograph that I'm most interested in is something called the carte de visite, which is French for "visiting card." Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., described it as a "social currency" in the period, which was the 1860s.

Q: Did you go on to study history?
A: In high school, and then I started working, and this became my business, dealing, buying and selling cultural history, specializing in photographic history.

Q: Your focus is Civil War history?
A: Civil War, yes. I do Civil War, and I do the 20th century through a medium known as the Real Photo postcards. An individual could acquire a commercially produced photographic postcard, or they could have their own roll film for their own life events produced in post card form. It was a way of saying, "This is the progress of my life, both in terms of my work and my family."

Q: What about the Civil War interested you more than other periods?
A: Less the war itself than the effect on people's lives, people's individual experience, whether they were a soldier or a citizen.

Q: In what ways did the impact of the war on different types of people vary?
A: Well, there were issues North and South, and there are economic issues for people. Just as now, people are having difficulties suggesting to people serving away from home. It was a burden on family and business for people serving. Very often a woman found herself running a farm, raising children, running a business.

Q: When you look through artifacts, are there parallels between those and things that happen today, or things that people collect today?
A: Well, regular people didn't especially collect in the 19th century. There were things relating to antiquity and things relating to art, but people didn't collect something just because it was old or someone else used it. That's a new question for me, I'm not quite sure how to answer it. One of the things that people did a lot in the 19th century was collect things from places they had been. They would tag a piece of a ship that they had served on, or they would press a flower. The Adams Family Homestead in Quincy, that's an example I have a distance recollection of, somebody walking in a garden and collecting something from there. Surely people have always had a sense of history, because people traveled to tour antiquity in the old country ... People would collect photographs of places they had been. Sometimes in a large format, and sometimes in a stereograph card.

Q: What about this kind of history, either from a personal or business standpoint, has changed since you became interested in it?
A: One of the questions that is somewhere always part of this is, "What is it worth to have and enjoy, and what is it worth to have, enjoy and also have as an investment?"

Q: Have the answers to those questions stayed consistent over the years?
A: I don't get too involved in the discussion. I have a couple of almost street-talk phrases that I've picked up over the years, and one of them is a guy named John Cowells, who collected records, in the early 1970s in Cambridge, said, "The sign of a true collector is they want it to be less so they can have more of it."

Q: And you think that's true?
A: I do. I don't like to use the word "pure", but it certainly speaks to people who pursue things strictly for their enjoyment. In the case of records, what is it? It's not the record, it's the music. We're not talking about the value of the object, we're talking about the value of what's on the object, the music. If you want, you can take that even further and say, it's not the painting, it's how you feel about the painting.

Q: Is there a divide between the financial aspect of collecting and the aspect of collecting for collection's sake?
A: In the Civil War community, if you put everyone in the same room, which happens at sales shows, for the most part, it is the material that reigns. It's the enjoyment of the material, and people from all financial interest in it get along and share in it.

Q: Is there much interaction among people who are interested in different periods of history?
A: Yeah, we have a show in Hartford in October that covers the colonial period through the Spanish-American War. Just as an aside here: you wouldn't go out bird-watching with a bunch of bird-watchers and say, "We're only going to focus on goldfinches today."

Q: How has technology changed collecting?
A: It's opened up a communications online, both in terms of research and the marketplace. I think also in this particular time, museums are looking at a combination of how to maintain a business, preserve a collection and be part of a community.

Q: Is that a balance that you have to strike as a business-owner?
A: The only thing I'm struggling with right now is the economy and people's money concerns. That's a whole separate article, almost. Trying to find the quality that people want, people want to spend their money wisely.

Q: Do people have any misconceptions about collecting?
A: I suppose, very loosely speaking, when I was growing up in the 1950s, there was the stereotype of the tweed jacket and the pipe. Because what people think is important to study has expanded so much in terms of gender, culture and ethnic history, there are no boundaries or stereotypes at this point.

Q: As the Civil Rights movement progressed, did that change how, generally speaking, people looked at the Civil War and artifacts from the Civil War?
A: I don't know where this fits in, but one of the things that one of my buddies says is, "You're really not re-enacting the Civil War unless you're washing your clothes on rocks." You can go out and create a perfect campground, and an American goes by and sees how soldiers lived, but it's very different studying it and looking at the artifacts and doing the research than it is having lived the life. Most people in the Civil War community are white, so they're not going to have the same tuned-in-ness that a black person is going to have studying the Civil War. There was a television program, "I'll Fly Away," on PBS a few years back, and a black guy said to a friend of. mine in Cambridge, "That's as close as you can get." It wasn't that you had separate fountains, it was everyday, knowing that you were [perceived as] one step below. Whether it's the Civil War or World War II or the Holocaust, or whatever it is, I don't think you can feel it just through study. You can have empathy. Certainly if you try every aspect of study, if you do reading, if you do original manuscript research, if you visit sites, you could put together a pretty good package. You could talk to survivors, in terms of more recent history. If one went to Rwanda and Cambodia and looked at a room full of skulls, that would get you pretty close. You wouldn't be able to hear the machetes and feel them, but it would be close.

Q: Is it a challenge to have that distance and still be able to study it?
A: Yes, it is. I don't try to distance myself from the present. I don't vacate my life today to go back there, and I'm not suggesting I want there to be mystery for me, but I don't need to know everything.

Q: Was it a hard decision to turn this hobby into something you wanted to do for a living?
A: No. I never viewed it as a hobby, I viewed it as an interest.

Q: What's the difference?
A: I guess it's a generational thing. Are there words that your folks use to describe situations, that you've rejected? ... I'm willing to look at any way my life relates to your life. It doesn't mean I'll go with you if you say, "Let's go do this," I might say, "I don't think so. I'm glad to have talked about it with you, but you go to the lecture," or "you go to the hunt," or the meet, or the show, or the exhibit. Hobby gets back to that pipe and tweed coat. It was a cliché where things were categorized and I felt that hobbies tended to categorize things. I just feel that you can see by my clutter here that I'm dripping in a variety of interests. I share the computer space with the kids. I have a collection of two sign-maker's boxes: a career in a box. Those have more meaning to me, at this point in time, than well over 50 percent of the Civil War stuff I handle in my life, because of what they represent.

Q: What other interests do you have that aren't in the Civil War realm?
A: The Real Photo postcards has opened up a lot for me, because it's the whole 20th century, with people's communication and travel and experience and sense of community.

Q: Are there parallels between looking at the post cards and other things that don't have to do with the Civil War, and the Civil War?
A: People's lives and their portraits. A parallel in both the case of the carte de visite and the Real Photo postcard, they're paper images that people wrote on. In either case, people could have as little as a personal identification, a salutation, a presentation. I've had carte de visite that people wrote a quote-unquote Civil War letter on.

Q: Anything else?
A: If I had to reach within this article and say, "Do something," it would be to encourage young people to know that people older than them are interested in their interest. There's a terrible thing that's been perpetuating in the antiques business, and that' s "children don't touch." That's just wrong. It shouldn't be that way. There should be some meeting point where children and young people can share some kind of together hands-on experience.

Q: Why is hands-on experience important?
A: You can't put a piece of glass between the person and the object, there are times when you need a feeling, you need to handle it, and if two people are sharing an object, having it go between them in their hands and with a dialogue, there's just more to it. It's fun to learn walking through a museum, I'm not trying to take away from any museum set-up. but part of the success of Sturbridge Village is that somebody can go there and actually watch someone make something. I encourage people to learn as much as they can about their interest, so that when they go into the marketplace and meet somebody selling something, there's a dialogue that's not just "You're a kid, what do you know?" One of the things I've learned raising kids is that kids know a lot. they just don't tell you they do.

Staff writer David Brusie can be reached at dbrusie@cnc.com.
 
 
 
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