Ephemerists who joke lightly about the existence of a "collecting gene" need look no further than Philip Jones for evidence of such an inherited trait.
"My mother was a collector," Jones said during a break in his buying at the Ephemera 25 paper fair. "She liked antiques. My father, though, was an accumulator â€“ everything from old felt boots to leather scraps.When we cleaned out his shop, it took us three months."
Jones himself didn't start collecting until illustrated letter sheets sparked his interest in 1949 as a 31 year old. Jones's collection ranges from the 1820s to the early 20thcentury and covers everything from automobiles to zeppelins. His interest in the graphics of these ornate sheets gradually shifted to an interest in the letters' contents.
"That was back when you could get a whole box of letters for almost nothing," Jones recalls. "A Boston dealer used to send me shoeboxes filled with them. He had no interest in the contents, but for me it was like digging in a gold mine."
How many letters Jones has collected is anybody's guess, but they certainly number in the thousands. They need not be from the famous, in fact most of them were written by, as Jones says, "common folk now lost to the ages, but whose toil and contribution to daily life added together give us our present-day America."
As drifts of paper began filling the family home near Shelton, CT, Jones began sharing his passion with his wife, Elisabeth, two sons, and a daughter, Sandi.
"Dad was interested in letters about the Mormons, the California gold rush, slavery, and the Civil War," Sandi Jones says. "I can remember him reading letters to us at the dinner table. I was enthralled and sometimes what he was reading to us matched what we were learning in school. I think that's why I'm still fascinated by social history."
Jones has had better luck prospecting than most of those who sought their fortune in the California gold fields. There is, he says, generally a redeeming paragraph, a nugget, in nearly every letter. They may be joyful, sad, funny, or define historic moments in the everyday words of random witnesses. Take this letter from Flora Hahn dated in April 1865:
"We moved to the farm three days before Lincoln was killed . . . as we rode through WashingtonI don't know as I saw a house but that was draped in mourning . . . The top of the coffin was perfectly covered with white flowers . . . I cannot say I thought he looked natural ."
The saddest, Jones recalls, are those written about the death of a child. He offers one from the 1840s written by a Maine woman who ventured outside to pick a basket of apples. She returned in a few minutes and found her daughter dead. The letter begins: "Oh, Mother, the story I have to tell you!"
"With letters, you can put yourself in the writer's place," Jones continues, "the life they led, the company they kept . . . many of them were struggling, but they had courage, they were going to stick to it, make it go."
Jones says he enjoys these anonymous messages from the past mainly because each tells "a good story." But sometimes it's hard to appreciate those good stories without having lived one yourself, like running a farm that has been occupied by seven generations of Joneses, each one (with the exception of the newest toddler) committed to "making it go."
His great grandfather, also named Philip Jones, sailed from Ireland in the 1840s to visit his brother in Connecticut. After storms, calms, and seasickness with rations reduced to beans, his great grandfather vowed to stay rather than endure the return voyage. He worked and saved his money for 10 years before starting a farm about 15 miles north of Long Island Sound that eventually grew to 300 acres and now totals 400 acres.
It was Jones that made the switch from a dairy operation to a tree farm, and, he says, many people thought he was "a little hooty" when he borrowed $50 from his grandfather and planted 6,000 trees back in the late '30s. Today there are more than a quarter million trees at any one time and Connecticut families flock there each December to cut their own, or take the easy way out with a pre-cut tree.
"I didn't like being tied to a cow's tail," Jones says with a smile. "It was too demanding. I don't want to offend anyone, but I've heard it said that the only thing stupider than a cow is the man that owns one."
His son, Terry, expanded the farm by planting strawberries, blueberries, and pumpkins and manages the farm with his wife, Jean. A Jones grandson, a Cornell plant science graduate, has started a family winery. Jones' other son, Dan, hasn't strayed far from the fold. He owns a landscaping business and garden-oriented gift store in Denver, CO. Jones' great grandson is the seventh generation.
Beside his collections of letters, illustrated letter sheets, a separate collection of Charles Magnus letter sheets, rewards of merit, hidden object cards, and miniature books, Jones also has retained a few outstanding examples from his valentine collection. In the 1980s, Jones said he was in demand as an "entertainment lecturer" on the history of valentines. Speaking to groups was interesting for a few years, but he finally had had enough of it.
"At convalescent and retirement homes, my talks seemed to evoke two reactions," Jones remembers. "They were either of great interest, or a tonic that put the rest into a deep sleep."
The valentines were sold through auction houses, partly to make room for more ephemera. Jones admits to living in "Clutterville," but says there is some order to the chaos. He also claims to "have stopped buying," but was seen leaving Ephemera 25 clutching several bags from different dealers.
And has the collecting gene been passed on? Unlike some diseases, it appears not to skip generations. Sandi Jones joined the Ephemera Society at Ephemera 25 and paid $5 extra for a family membership so she and her husband could both gain early admission to next year's paper fair.
Jones raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing wink as if he'd just hooked a trout he'd been teasing with the same fly for years.
"She's intrigued now," he says. "Before she came to the show, she didn't understand what we were all about.
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