Focused on Niche Areas of Collecting: USS Washington
What is the difference between a collector and a hoarder? It is a fair question that I often ask myself, especially when I am at a decision point before pulling the trigger on an acquisition. Some folks may decide to move forward with a purchase based upon a single element while others employ a matrix of factors that guide their choices. As many of these factors are subjective and are unique to the individual, it is impossible for one person to answer a the aforementioned question. Psychology professor Randy O. Frost (of Smith College) wrote a fantastic piece, “When Collecting Becomes Hoarding” that is rather insightful in guiding collectors in avoiding the entrapments that lead to the devastating condition of hoarding.
My (simple to suggest yet difficult to adhere to) advice to those who are interested in collecting militaria can be summed up with just one word: FOCUS! To some, focusing on a national military is focus enough. However, I can only imagine what their homes or storage areas (of someone who collects US Militaria) must look like as they gather pieces from four branches of the armed forces. In my estimation, the level of focus that makes the most sense is one that aligns with several criteria. For me these are:
- What story am I trying to uncover and convey with my collection and does the piece align with it?
- Does artifact meet with my primary interest?
- Does the piece meet my budget constraints?
- Do I have the space to preserve and protect the artifact from further decay and damage or to display and enjoy it?
My collecting has a few, very specific focuses and perhaps the most broad of those resides with baseball militaria. Thankfully, this category is extremely limited in terms of available artifacts which, if I pursued even 50 percent of what arrives on the market, I would still be very limited in what actually landed into my home. Being a Navy veteran, most of my collection touches naval history in some manner. Within this arena, I also pursue artifacts related to a few specific ships (the two that I served aboard and the one that my grandfather commissioned and served aboard during WWII). In total, there are about a half-dozen U.S. Navy warships from which I possess related artifacts.
One of those warships that I collect is the USS Washington – which is comprised of a few vessels beginning with the Tennessee class Armored Cruiser (ACR-11) that was commissioned in 1906. I also collect items from the three vessels that have carried the name (BB-47, BB-56 and SSN-787) bringing the total pool from which to draw collecting interest (with this ship) to four. Well, let me make a slight correction; The armored cruiser Washington experienced a reclassification and corresponding name-change due to the rapidly advancing technology and the Navy’s ship-naming policies. In 1916, the ship was renamed USS Seattle in order to free up Washington to be used for a new class and in ship-of-the-line-category. Just 22 days following congressional approval for four Colorado-class battleships (coincidentally, the USS Washington would be the only one of the three to not be finished due to terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty).
As I have been able to secure a modest array of pieces that are associated with the earlier USS Washington/USS Seattle (see: Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off and Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver), the artifacts that arrive to the market for this ship are scarce. In addition to a few homefront pieces and the cruise book, I have managed to assemble a small collection of original vintage photographs (including CDVs, RPPCs and a cabinet card) from this vessel.
It isn’t often that pieces surface onto the market from (or are associated with pr attributed to) a ship that effectively existed for a decade more than a century ago. Artifacts that actually came from a ship can be difficult to prove in the absence of rock solid provenance. Depending upon the time-period, the ship’s name is seldom, if at all, emblazoned onto a equipment or crew-used items aside from wardroom china or silver service elements. Enlisted uniforms (flat hat tallies before WWII and uniform shoulder UIC patches from the 1950s-on), depending on the era, can bear the ship’s name. In my collection are pieces that fit into a different category: ship-associated. These artifacts range from folk/trench art to sweetheart or family (homefront) pieces that serve as reminders of the sailor’s service rather than being derived from the ship itself.
One such piece, associated with one of the ships that I focus my collecting upon, was listed at auction several months ago and caught my attention for several reasons. Brightly colored and adorned with felt-applique lettering and naval adornments, a homefront pillow that bore some similarities to another navy piece that was already in my collection (see: Dream of Me When You Sleep: Homefront Military Pillow Covers). As I reviewed the listing, I began to focus on the similarities shared between my 1918 Navy pillow and this one that was being listed with the initial thought that it might pre-date 1916 (when the USS Washington ACR-11 was reclassified and re-named). I set my bid amount and waited for the auction close as the date that the pillow was made was quite secondary to my desire to have a piece associated with the Washington, regardless of the era or specific hull.
The pillow arrived a week after my successful auction bid secured win, and I spent some time carefully and gently cleaning the artifact as the felt fabric, though not brittle, could easily tear. The backside of the pillow shows considerable fading having been exposed to a constant light source for years (perhaps placed on the back of a sofa near a window). My assumption of the date of the pillow continued as I overlooked a very obvious indication of the true age. It wasn’t until I began to truly examine the pillow while making descriptive notes (just prior to authoring this article) that I finally recognized the most obvious indication of the artifact’s age. On the bottom corner is a felt applique representation of a chief petty officer’s cap device. The “U.S.N.” lettering was near-entirely horizontally aligned adhering to the pattern used by the device’s WWII design.
Despite my “discovery” of the USS Washington pillow’s actual age, it is a rather unique piece for the WWII-era considering that most of the WWII homefront pieces were silk-screened imagery on satin fabric.
Regardless of the age, the Washington piece fits nicely into this narrow niche of my collecting while keeping me selective with what is added to my collection. Finding the balance in collecting, as with life, helps maintain my sanity, keeps the hobby enjoyable and helps me to avoid cluttering my home and making life miserable for my family.
Sound Timing and Patience Pays Off
I am a sucker for U.S. naval history. There, I said it. I love it all from John Paul Jones and the USS Ranger to the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the lead ship in the newest class of aircraft carriers, I can’t get enough. My tendencies and preferences seem to take me to more contextual aspects of naval history – anything to do with the geographical region of my birth holds my interests (unless, of course it is connected to the ships or commands where I served).
I seek out items that can be associated with ships named for geographic locations (city names, place names, etcetera), pieces that can be connected to the local naval installations or anything that originates with local naval figures, such as the Rear Admiral Robert Copeland group in this earlier post. To date, the majority of these items have been vintage photographs…until yesterday.
While searching online, I stumbled across a listing that contained a piece of history that made my jaw drop. To see the price was so much lower than it should have been made me giddier than a kid on Christmas morning. I placed my watch on the item and planned observe it for a few days to see if any bids were placed. A few days later, with no one bidding (that I knew of) I configured my bid snipe and hoped that all would work out.
Around the time of the auction close, I was out and about when I received an email that my sniped bid was the winner and that no other parties had bid against me, leaving the closing price the minimum amount. The item, a World War I cruise book from the USS Seattle (an armored cruiser of the Tennessee class) that was placed into commission in 1906, documents the ship’s WWI service during the war, serving as a convoy escort as she provided merchant vessels protection from German U-boats during trans-Atlantic crossings to the United Kingdom.
As cruise books were produced in small numbers (for the crew), they are quite rare typically driving the prices close to, and sometimes surpassing, $500. Like most vintage books, condition is a contributing factor in the value. My USS Seattle book was available at a fraction of these prices making it affordable when it would normally have been well out of my budget.
Good things come to those who wait…and who check at the right time. For me, the waiting continued right up until the time that I tore into the package moments after it was delivered by the letter carrier (yes, I can behave as a child, still).
Naval Heritage Commemorated in Silver
When you have a specific area of collecting interest; a focus that keeps your eyes peeled for items that are beyond the realm of the obvious, you will eventually discover the oddities or atypical pieces that you wouldn’t have intentionally sought out. Collecting can be fun when these discoveries surface, prompting you to act quickly in order to secure the piece for your collection.
Since I started collecting militaria, I have progress from a somewhat broad stance; being very unfocused and undiscriminating about what I would acquire. Lacking in direction can be problematic in that your collection grows in such a manner that you have glaring vacancies that would have otherwise helped to convey the story that you want to tell with your collection. For example, one area (of militaria collecting) that has piqued my interest baseball within the armed forces (uniforms, equipment, photographs, ephemera). Because I remain diligent in keeping my attention on this particular sport, I have abstained from allowing myself to be distracted by other sports-related areas. I have passed on several very impressive pieces that are football-oriented and would be great for a military-sports themed collection. However, these items would have detracted from focus while diverting funds away from another piece that would have been a perfect fit.
Being geographically-centered on my home region, I have been seeking out naval militaria that relates to my home state. Again, what I have been interested in are pieces that have ties to any installation, operation, event, person and, in particular, naval vessels named for cities and geographic features located within my home state. This mini quest has yielded some interesting artifacts that are predominately of the ephemera and antique photographic variety. Two of the most recent pieces (that are not paper or pictures) are not artifacts derived from the ships or the men who served aboard (having a flat hat with a ship’s tally are like gold) but are, instead, commemorative items that may have been presented to crew members.
I am not at all interested in collecting souvenir spoons but I made an exception for these two examples from historic ships.
The first spoon that I found a few years ago was in an online auction. The ornate design combined with the silver content made it easier to pull the trigger on purchasing. That it was from a ship with a great history and was named form my hometown made the purchase a no-brainer. The USS Tacoma (Cruiser No. 18) is not only a veteran of five World War One convoys, she also escorted the (then) recently discovered remains of Revolutionary War naval hero, John Paul Jones to the United States from France.
The second spoon in my collection arrived just a few days ago – again, purchased from a seller in an online auction. This spoon, slightly longer and more broad than the USS Tacoma example, commemorates the Armored Cruiser, USS Washington (ACR-11). This spoon, along with the relief of the ship (in the spoon’s bowl) has “Christmas 1911” imprinted, indicating that the spoon may have been given to crew members for that year’s holiday. By 1916, the USS Washington was reclassified and renamed USS Seattle. She went on to serve as a flagship during Atlantic convoy operations during WWI. After the war, the Seattle would be relegated to training duties and then as a receiving ship before being scrapped during WWII.
I have had no success in my research attempts regarding either of these pieces beyond what is imprinted on either one. For now, I am content with having them as artistic enhancements to my collection.