26 October 2017




This time two years ago, I purchased my first (and only) antique typewriter. As a collector I'm very particular - and I wanted my dream typewriter to be of the big, clunky variety. After five years and many unsuccessful Kijiji inquiries, I finally struck gold when I went to the Aberfoyle Antique Market.

Time is ticking away at the Aberfoyle Antique Market near Guelph, ON. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
On that antiquing trip with my aunt, uncle, and sister in 2015, I found this wonderful wide-carriage Underwood, and I knew it was perfect. I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree, so my aunt and uncle generously bought me the beautiful typewriter as an early graduation gift.

My Underwood typewriter, affectionately christened "Frank". Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, the fall antique market/garage sale/church bazaar season got me thinking about how buying second-hand items is similar to acquisitions in museums. Of course, the big question when acquiring objects is often: where did they come from? 

In other words, provenance is as big a deal with everyday collecting as it is in museums.

So how can you find out more about the stuff you've collected in your latest church bazaar haul? I've listed a few options of ways to find information about your antiques:

1. Examine the object itself. 

What material is it made of - anything that could situate it in a certain time period or place? Can you find any distinctive markings? Serial or model numbers? Does the item belong to a collection, like a dinnerware set (in the case of cutlery, china) or collection of literary works (books)? For example, my typewriter has this cool insignia on the side.

"Underwood, Elliott Fisher Limited, Toronto, Canada." So I at least know it was manufactured in the city. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.

2. Do some self-guided research.

Depending on what kind of object you've got, there are online databases and literature on manufacturers' products. Take the Classic Car Database, for example, or The Typewriter Database, both of which have an index of models by year, complete with photographs.

3. Contact an expert: get an appraisal. 

You may have watched Antiques Roadshow or the like. These shows are often centered on how much an object is worth, since for some reason quantifying the object helps us understand and assign value. But there is something to be said for finding someone who specializes in the type of object you've got - for example, there are typewriter experts or even hobbyists who are well-versed in the different models.

More objects on view at Aberfoyle Antique Market. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
An online site like Value My Stuff can also help, but if you're after more qualitative information about the object, you'll need to find an appraiser who can give you a thorough breakdown of the object's date, possible origins, manufacturer, etc.

4. Surrender to the mystery and enjoy it. 

I'll confess: I don't actually know the full provenance of my typewriter yet. In two years I've made only a couple of efforts to research the model and find out the exact year it was produced. The vendor at the antique market suspected that it comes from the 1940s, but he conceded that it might've been made as late as the 1960s. Maybe one day I'll take more time to find out more about it - but for now, I can revel in the intrigue of wondering.

Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.

Perhaps part of the reason antiques are so appealing is that they have stories attached. Other people owned and used these objects before we did, and even if we do choose to look for the provenance, some truths can't be unlocked by material evidence. We'll never know exactly where our used objects have been, and that's an exciting fact in itself!

Do you have any interesting stories about an antique or secondhand object you've found or collected?


  1. Enjoyed your column, Serena. It happens to coincide with an interview Tom Hanks just gave on PBS regarding his recent book release. He revealed his interest in typewriters and the collection he has apparently been accumulating. s.y.MEADS.

    1. Yes, I heard about that! I'm going to try and watch the video - apparently John Mayer is in it too. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!