Irish-American Interior Design: Historical Collectables

There is now, and always has been, a market for antiques. And if you’re the sort of person who wants to fill your house with Depression glass or, I don’t know, banjo clocks, have at it. There is a whole industry to support you, from fellow collectors to various antiques publications to Antiques Roadshow. Everybody seems to want a silver bowl made by Paul Revere, and let them go after the decorative stuff.

There is less of a market for what I will call historical collectibles, for lack of a better name. This is especially true of artifacts that represent regional or ethnic histories. I work in a historical society, and we discover with alarming frequency that whole collections of invaluable historical documents have just been dumped because it was assumed nobody would want them.

We Irish-Americans have to take responsibility for preserving our own history. One day, perhaps, there will be a really fine museum of the Irish-American experience, but, until then, our houses and apartments will do the trick just as well. Better yet: These collectables often serve as excellent decorative items, and conversation pieces, because they generally have a story associated with them.

Here is a handful of examples, but these are illustrative, and not merely intended as recommendations. My suggestion is that you do a little reading and find a subject that especially interests you. It might be a local Irish-American group, or a publication, or a specific person. Go ahead and search the web for an item that represents that person, or several items, or as many as possible. Congratulations: Your home is now a historical archive!

1. Barney Williams Photograph, currently $53.55

Why, it's Ragged Pat himself!

Why, it’s Ragged Pat himself!

The history of Irish-American vaudeville and melodrama seems to regularly make an appearance on eBay, as demonstrated here by one performer from the era: Cork-born, New York-based actor Barney Williams, who was popular in the middle part of the 19th century, sometimes as a minstrel, and more often playing Irish roles. All sorts of memorabilia from the early days of Irish-American performance is out there, most of it under $100, much of it available for much less.

2. 1934 Chicago World’s Fair Irish Village, $1.99

Actual Blarney.

Actual Blarney.

Properly titled the Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago is famous for many things: Fan dancer Sally Rand, an exhibit of baby incubators that contained actual premature babies, and a Homes of Tomorrow exhibit. It also featured an Irish village, the second time such a thing had appeared at a Chicago World’s Fair. Irish Village souvenirs from the 1934 fair are generally quite reasonably priced, 0ften coming in at under $10. It’s also possible to find souvenirs from the village at the 1893 fair, but those tend to go for more money, such as an Irish Village token now on sale for about $150.

3. Martin Sheridan tobacco card, $5.99

Policeman and Olympiad Martin Sheridan.

Policeman and Olympiad Martin Sheridan.

Martin Sheridan was part of a group of Irish-American athletes called the “Irish whales,” all associated with the Irish American Athletic Club in Queens (and many, including Sheridan, were NY policemen.) Famous for their athletic prowess and ample girth (Sheridan himself won nine Olympic medals between 1904 and 1906).  Irish Whales memorabilia isn’t hard to find, and, best still, it’s often low-priced.

4. Antique St. Patrick’s Day postcard, $11.99

St. Patrick's, also known as Nervous Frog Day.

St. Patrick’s, also known as Nervous Frog Day.

One of the easiest items to find online is old postcards, and Irish-themed postcards, especially those meant for St. Patrick’s Day, are often both strange and hilarious. Even cards from the Victorian era will sometimes go for $5-$10, so fill an entire wall with them!

5. Irish Power button, $3.49

Don't try to buy this one; I already did.

A green fist extended into the air.

There are a lot of Irish-themed pinbacks online. I like this one, which is just like the one worn by Dick O’Connor to kick off his 1978 Congressional campaign in Trenton. He doesn’t seem to have won, so perhaps don’t use the button to forward your own political ambitions, or, failing that, look at other button options. You might even be able to find the earliest “kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons, which seems like it might have debuted at the 1965 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, where it sold like gangbusters at an event that was otherwise marred by hooliganism.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.