"Oh, I'm just being nostalgic." I've said it so many times, and yes, it does come with a slightly negative connotation, but I never knew it could kill you!
Recently while preparing some listings for sale I came across the December 1978 issue of The Atlantic Monthly which contains the six-page article "A Short Natural History of Nostalgia" by Anthony Brandt. That sounded interesting. I allowed myself to get sidetracked to give it a read, expecting a peek back at days gone by from the perspective of a 30-plus year old article.
The opening paragraph actually cataloged much of what I'd expected the entire article to look at:
...a feeling which finds its most visible expression in television shows set in the 1950s, revivals of old Broadway musicals, a rage for the cheap oak furniture mass-produced in the early 1900s, clothing styles that veer back to the 1920s or 1940s or whatever decade captures the designers' fancy, a run on Mickey Mouse watches, and so on.
Brandt runs through some examples of the trivia associated with nostalgia ("the name of the drummer in Glenn Miller's Band, the year Pee Wee Reese retired...) before asking, "Who cares?" (I do!). This first paragraph closes:
Was nostalgia ever anything but this superficial enthusiasm for the out-of-date?
An unexpected turn. I almost abandoned the article at this point figuring it wasn't suited to my original intentions. But I was curious, so I pressed on.
And I was glad I did, as I learned something. Brandt suddenly takes us back to the 17th century to discuss the origins of nostalgia as a form of homesickness, a form so strong that it could kill:
By 1688 all this had changed; the sadness of the exile had become so intense that people were actually dying of homesickness.
Whoa, I never knew this. I'd never even associated nostalgia with a feeling so specific as homesickness, the first thought that pops to my mind when thinking of nostalgia is the old Joe Franklin Show. But my (nostalgic) peek inside this old magazine reveals that nostalgia in the distant past was a lot more serious than fond memories of an old song or film, that it had traceable origins and a history its own:
It's in that same year that medical student Johannes Hofer came up with the term nostalgia, taken from the Greek roots of home and pain, and published it in a medical treatise on the subject.
While continuing to plead ignorance I feel a little better when I have a look at the definition of nostalgia over on Dictionary.com:
a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time: a nostalgia for his college days.
But the Wikipedia entry for nostalgia also includes the story of Hofer and even outlines the symptoms of a soldier in 1781:
"a melancholy hung over his countenance, and wanness preyed on his cheeks", a "universal weakness, but no fixed pain; a noise in his ears, and giddiness of his head". The young soldier would not eat, and he got weaker until the nurse happened to discuss his hometown with him.
Once they started talking about home the soldier cheered up and was soon able to eat again. The page also notes that nostalgia began losing status as a disease in the 1850's and was reclassified as a form of melancholia.
Brandt delivers a detailed history of the development of nostalgia, which in short he traces from the illness sickening and killing 17th century soldiers and sailors to the late 18th century poets of the Age of Sensibility who romanticize it and picture nostalgia as "a sad but rather pleasant sense of loss." In the 19th century the loss went beyond place or home to include one's actual past. The author comments that in the 18th century the past was studied to learn how one should properly conduct themselves, while in the 19th century the past was "something one felt." In the 20th century:
this emotion has become so widespread, so common, that it is difficult not to be nostalgic. People feel homeless, ill-at-ease in a world which has once more become a place of exile.
From there Brandt takes a look at how 20th century America most commonly celebrates nostalgia, through museum villages and historic restorations such as Colonial Williamsburg. It's actually a pretty interesting history of this movement beginning with the preservation of Andrew Jackson's Hermitage and the birth of Lincoln's birthplace at the Columbian Exposition in the 19th century, to John D. Rockefeller, Jr's financing the Williamsburg restoration and Henry Ford's more general restoration efforts of which Brandt writes were "less an attempt to represent history than a record of what Ford himself found moving."
More to the point is a 1904 quote from Henry James: "History is never, in any rich sense, the immediate crudity of what 'happens,' but the much finer complexity of what we read into it and think of in connection with it." Put simpler, we create the past we think about, romanticize, etc, and we do so without caring about what actually happened.
Did our idealized past ever exist? Not as we wish it was. Brandt's article serves as a reminder that those things which we so miss are really the highspots of an existence which was surely more ordinary on the whole than today. From his closing, in direct reference to restorations:
They represent value which, however unlikely it it that they were ever embodied in the actual past, at least attest to the endurance in us of a vision, a dream of an alternative way of life, quieter, more contented, in the fullest sense of the word, gentler ... We must not confuse the restorations with history, but once that caveat has been absorbed, perhaps we can enjoy them for what they are, emblems of paradise, reminders of a past which, although it may not have been real, is nonetheless sacred.
Bringing these ideas around to collectibles my mind drifts quickly to baseball. Digging through old issues of The Sporting News from the 1940's and 50's I'm constantly amazed by how similar in tone the articles are in echoing more modern complaints. Yes, when Joe DiMaggio was young fans hearkened back to the good old days and when someone hit a lot of home runs in April everyone wondered if the ball was juiced. Broadcasting games on radio and then television was considered a threat to gate receipts. On and on, just change the names and upgrade the technologies and we have the same gripes today.
The Brandt article is a reminder that while the past can be appreciated, and in our cases collected, remembered, celebrated, that we should keep ourselves grounded in the present. The little pockets of boredom we suffer, the ones so often responsible for a game of "Remember when..." were around then too.
There was a time when most folks worked sun-up to sun-down with very little recreation to enjoy--these people didn't have time to dwell on the past. Luckily, we do. Nothing wrong with that. Collecting actually pulls an activity into what's otherwise somewhat fruitless reminiscence.
So to turn the entire Brandt article around from what I'd perceived upon my first reading of it, the history of nostalgia seems to prove collecting is a tonic for those of us prone to heavy nostalgia. Yes, we make the puzzle pieces fit our preconceptions, but it keeps us happy.