“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

In case you haven’t seen “American Pickers,” the show centers on two junk collectors, the lanky, expressive Mike Wolfe and his stocky, quieter, bearded compadre, Frank Fritz, who drive a van around bucolic parts of the Midwest and other regions of the U.S.A. seeking so-called “rusty gold” hidden in the barns, sheds, houses, and fields of compulsive rural collectors. When the pickers “pick” an item, the show often gives a brief history of the object, then the duo of Wolfe and Fritz haggle over the price in hopes of eventually selling the item in their shop, Antique Archaeology, for a profit. The shop on the show is run by a hipster-styled burlesque performer and clothing designer named Danielle Colby, who also acts as the pickers ace locater of hidden junk.

Like every “reality” show, “American Pickers” is entirely scripted and staged, having been packaged and presented to networks as a simulation of the life of junk buyers, though Wolfe has indeed been in the antique business for over 20 years. The show’s appeal, however, stems from the Laurel and Hardy-like banter of Wolfe and Fritz, and, more importantly, the showcasing of old stuff — everything from rusty car and motorcycle parts to antique pottery. Americans love old stuff, especially when that old stuff takes them back to a bygone era. Americans buy old cars because owning such vehicles transports them back to their youth. Other collectors choose items from before their own time because material objects connect them to centuries past in a way history books simply can’t do. Books recollect history, but antiques are part of history. Americans like to connect with the past because they envision the past in an idealized fashion. They view it through nostalgic lenses.

Way back in 1961, historian Arthur Dudden identified the real importance of nostalgia in American life in his (unfortunately paywalled) seminal essay, “Nostalgia and the American.” According to Dudden, nostalgia is a psychological buffer of sorts that Americans have used to navigate the relentless onset of modern progress, with all of its disruptive social and economic changes. Modern progress has always fueled an American “preference for stability,” rooted in the “familiar human desire to recapture fleeting conditions and former circumstances.” Dudden defines nostalgia as “a deep-seated, romantic, heart-felt longing for the yesterday that is gone but not forgotten.”

For Dudden, nostalgia is Americans’ preferred tool for recapturing the past not as it was, but as how they imagine it to be.* This is why the collectors on “American Pickers” collect, and why the pickers themselves purchase those rare items from collectors to sell to other collectors. Every toy owned by collectors takes them back to their childhood; every car they restore invokes memories of youthful vigor; every old machine part they mount harks back to a more authentic time when America actually made machine parts.

The "American Pickers" haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

The “American Pickers” haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

“American Pickers” shows that nostalgia and collecting are intimately connected: the former drives the latter. So why is collecting such a powerful past-time in the U.S.A.? As cultural historian Leah Dilworth observes in her book Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, Americans create collections to construct narratives about the nature of the world around them, usually through nostalgia-colored glasses. Collections are driven by the idea of loss; the idea that the modern world has taken away something that was good and valuable. Collections “represent lost worlds or worlds distant in time and signification” such as childhood and a past that Americans want to re-experience with all of the bad memories filtered out.*

Old stuff, the material objects known collectively as “antiques” that are showcased on “American Pickers,” are tangible, physical representations of times gone by that serve as vessels in which Americans store their idealized memories. Leon Rosenstein, historian of material culture (a fancy term for a guy who studies old stuff and the ideas people associate with old stuff) offers a pretty comprehensive definition of what an antique is in his book Antiques: The History of an Idea:

An antique is a primarily handcrafted object of rarity and beauty that, by means of its associated provenance and its agedness as recognized by means of its style and material endurance, has the capacity to generate and preserve for us the image of a world now past.*

The role of antiques in the success of “American Pickers” cannot be overstated and reveals a whole lot about how Americans construct their own narratives of history. The pickers might best be described as “memory merchants” whose stock in trade is nostalgia. But how do you sell an abstract idea, you may ask? Simple: the pickers sell an abstract concept by selling the antiques that serve as very concrete manifestations of that concept. This is why items such as toys, motorcycles, pottery, old machines and machine parts, old paintings, and numerous advertising signs that invoke the golden age of American consumerism have such a wide appeal. These antiques appeal to the collectors showcased on “American Pickers” and to the viewers watching the exchange of these antiques on their t.v. screens because, for both audiences, antiques generate that “image of a world now past.”

Maine-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of "American Pickers."

Upstate New York-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of “American Pickers.”

That this image of the past is highly idealized and romanticized by nostalgia is a feature, not a bug to Americans who are wracked by the anxieties of modern life. In keeping with a long tradition, the march of modern progress generates a host of worries about keeping up with the Joneses, especially in a post 2008 economic crash environment in which staying afloat — as opposed to merely getting ahead — is the prime concern for most Americans. In such a stress-laden society, its understandable that people would turn towards nostalgia. In a recent article, the Atlantic crowned the U.S.A. “the planet’s undisputed worry champion,” and this trend shows no evidence of abating:

Things only seem to be getting worse, unfortunately. “Surveys show that stress levels here have progressively increased over the past four decades,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, Chairman of the Board of The American Institute of Stress. New research indicates that anxiety will continue to grow with modernity: Millennials and Generation Xers are more nervous than their elders and less capable of handling the pressure in their lives, much of which comes from worries related to money and work.

For many Americans, the best way to relieve themselves from the anxiety associated with modernity is to embrace the past via nostalgia. And the best way to experience nostalgia is to buy old stuff that reminds them of supposedly simpler times. Indeed, nostalgia is its own market niche: PBS’ program “Antiques Roadshow” has been popular for years, magazines like Reminisce invite geriatric Americans to share “vintage photos and nostalgic stories that celebrate the American experience,” and websites like Nostalgic America do the same for a more digitally minded audience. “American Pickers” is but a tributary to this larger nostalgia stream that helps t.v. viewers revel in the pursuit of history and simpler times through the exploits of two guys who “travel the backroads of America looking to buy rusty gold.”

So, does this mean that nostalgia is a bad thing? Not necessarily. While nostalgia can, as historian Stephanie Coontz observes, “distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation,” it also offers much-needed therapeutic relief to Americans increasingly under assault by modern selfish capitalist culture and its associated social fracturing and status anxiety. Besides, nostalgia isn’t going to go away any time soon, and if current trends are any indicator, its only going to become a more significant factor in American life. So I say turn on “American Pickers” and get your fix of antique-based nostalgia while you can. Just beware that the past was never as good as you remember it, and maybe, just maybe, the present isn’t as bad as it seems.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961), pp. 516-17.

* See Leah Dilworth, ed. Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 6-7.

* See Leon Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 14.

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