Auctions offer wild-card opportunities

Auction items
Although this photo was taken some 40 years after Kate Sanborn, it's the kind of auction she might have attended. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8c28922)

“Going, going, gone!” I once went to many auctions, but no longer ‚ my hearing has gotten so bad that I can’t understand the auctioneer and I’m afraid of a repeat of an experience I had long ago.

I had bid on a stack of ten 90-pound suitcase weights and congratulated myself on getting them for only twenty-five dollars.

Then, when paying up, I discovered that the price I’d agreed to was per weight. Luckily I had enough cash on me to cover it.

Kate Sanborn (1839-1917) was a teacher, lecturer and writer, and in 1891 wrote of her experiences after renting a small, run-down Massachusetts farm. One of these experiences was attending auctions.

• • •

Kate wrote in part: Next came the excitement of auctions, great occasions, and of vital importance to me, as I was ambitious to furnish the entire house for one-hundred dollars.

When the head of a family dies a settlement of the estate seems to make an auction necessary. I am glad of the custom; it proved of invaluable service to me, and while I deeply regretted the demise of each and all, still this was opportune for my needs.

Calm and cool

At an auction, you must be wide-awake and cool, or you will be fleeced. An experienced friend, acquainted with the auctioneer, piloted me through my first sale, and for ten dollars I bought enough really valuable furniture to fill a large wagon ‚ a large desk with drawers, little and big, fascinating pigeon holes, and a secret drawer, for two dollars; queer old table, ten cents; good solid chairs, nine cents each; mahogany center-table, one dollar and sixteen cents; and, best of all, a tall and venerable clock for the landing, only eight dollars!

Its “innards” sadly demoralized, but capable of resuscitation, the weights being tin-cans filled with sand and attached by strong twine to the “works.” It has to be wound twice daily, and when the hour hand points to six and the other to ten, I guess that it is about quarter past two, and in five minutes I hear the senile timepiece strike eleven!

The sale had been advertised as beginning at 10 a.m., but at eleven the farmers and their women folks were driving toward the house. A dozen old men, chewing tobacco and looking wise, were examining the stock to be sold, the carts, farming tools, and a flock of hens.

The really valuable possessions, if any, are kept back, either for private sale or to be divided among the heirs. I saw genuine antiques occasionally ‚ old oak chests, finely carved oaken chairs ‚ but these were rare.


After the horses have been driven up and down the street, and the other stock disposed of, it is time for lunch. In the kitchen, you see two barrels of crackers open, a mammoth cheese of the skim-milk species with a big knife by it, and on the stove a giant kettle in which cotton bags full of coffee are being distilled in boiling water.

You are expected to dip a heavy white mug into the kettle for your share of the fragrant beverage, cut off a hunk of cheese, and eat as many crackers as you can. It tasted well, that informal “free lunch.”

Finding after one or two trials that the prices raised rapidly on anything I desired, I would send my hired girl or man, and they would return with an amazing array of stuff. We now have everything but a second-hand pulpit, a wooden leg, and a coffin plate.

We utilized a cradle and antique churn as a composite flower stand; an immense spinning-wheel looks pretty covered with running vines, an old carriage lantern gleams brightly on my piazza every evening.

I nearly bought a horse for fifteen dollars and did secure a wagon for one dollar and a half, which, after a few needed repairs, costing only twenty-six dollars, was my pride, delight and comfort, and the envy of the neighborhood.

Kicking tires

Men came from near and far to examine that wagon, felt critically of every wheel, admired the shining coat of dark-green paint, and would always wind up with: “I vum, if that ‘ere wagon ain’t fine! Why, it’s wuth fifty dollars, now, ef it’s wuth a cent!”

A sleigh was bought for three dollars which, when painted, is both comfortable and effective. At one auction, where I was the only woman present, I bid on three shovels (needed to dig worms for my prize hens!) and, as the excitement increased with a rise in bids from two cents to ten, I cried, “Eleven!”

And the gallant old auctioneer roared out as a man opened his mouth for “Twelve!”: “I wouldn’t bid ag’in a woman ef I’se you. Let ‘er have ’em! Mum, I can’t pernounce your name ‚ but the shovels are yourn!”

Anytime a new and tempting auction calls, I rise to the occasion and hasten to the scene of action, be the weather what it may. And many a treasure has been picked up in this way. Quaint old mirrors with the queerest pictures above, brass knockers, candlesticks of queer patterns, cups and saucers and plates, mugs of all sizes, from one generous enough to satisfy the capacities of a lager-soaked Dutchman to a dear little child’s mug.

A warming pan and a foot stove, just as it was brought home from a merry sleigh-ride, or a solemn hour at the “meetin’-house.”

Sometimes I would offer a little more to gain some coveted treasure already bid off. A friend told me of overhearing a man who had agreed to sell to me for a profit! How he chuckled as he told of “one of them women who he guessed was a leetle crazy.”

“Why, jest think on’t! I only paid ten cents for that hull lot on the table yonder, and she” (pointing to me) “she gin me a quarter for that old pair o’ tongs!” One day I heard some comments on myself after Wealthy hands. I had bid on a rag carpet and offered more than the other women knew it was worth. “She’s got a million, I hear.”

“She married?”

“No; just an old maid.”

“Judas Priest! How’d she git it?”

“Writin’, I ‘spoze. She writes love stories and sich for city papers. Some on ’em makes a lot.” I once bought several chests, half full of rubbish, but found, alas! no hidden treasure, no missing jewels, no money hid away and forgotten.

Jake Corey, who was doing some work for me, said: “Sometimes there is a good deal to be made that way, and then ag’in there isn’t. I never had no luck that way, but it’s like getting married, it’s a lottery!

Folks put money in some spot, where they’re apt to forgit all about it. Now I knew a man who bought an old hat and when he got home dummed ef thar warn’t three dollars in good bills, tucked in under the hatband!”

• • •

So, have fun at the auctions you attend, but don’t look for me there.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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