The Reason We Are All Drawn To Those Boxes of Old, Dusty Photos in Antique Shops May Surprise You

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the-reason-we-are-all-drawn-to-those-boxes-of-old-dusty-photos-in-antique-shops-may-surprise-you-1It was only fifteen minutes into the cleaning frenzy when I came across her photo. It was a vintage, black- and-white portrait of a young starlet, her long, wavy hair pinned gently back and a demure smile resting on her face as she looked away from the camera. Across the front, her signature was scrawled: Patricia Roc.

I was rummaging through the pile of old magazines, college essays and other odds and ends that lived in the top drawer of our guest room dresser when I found this picture. Nick, my husband, stood next to me with a garbage bag stretched open as I mindlessly chucked items into it. The process of cleaning out the house to prepare it for sale was underway. Sighing, we audibly wondered how we could have collected so much junk, occasionally stopping to read a random birthday card from an aunt or a crumpled receipt from the grocery store before tossing it into the accumulating garbage bag.

But when I came across this photo, in markedly good condition despite its age, I paused. I could have easily tossed it into the trash, but something stopped me as I reflected on the day that I bought it.

I had been thirteen years old, browsing a flea market with my Aunt Denise one Saturday in July. I was digging through a dusty box of random clippings, postcards, and pictures when I came across Patricia’s photo. Immediately, I was mesmerized by her beauty and charm that hadn’t seemed to fade from the sixty year-old portrait.


As I examined her face and signature, a gruff man in dirty jeans and a cap walked by. “Three bucks for the photo,” he said idly as he propped himself up on his stool and lit a cigarette. “Who is she?” Aunt Denise asked. The man shrugged his shoulders, “They called her ‘Queen of the B Pictures’ in Britain or something,” he said brusquely as he took another drag.

“I’ll buy it,” I replied, taking three dollar bills from my linen purse. I had no idea what I was going to do with the picture.

I’ve always loved to scour thrift stores, barn sales, estates sales, and flea markets for treasures. But there is something intrinsically sad about coming across pictures and photo albums, especially the ones that are so carefully documented. The black-and-white photos of young people smiling, laughing and enjoying life with captions underneath (“Ted and Sue at the fair” or “You and Me”) always make me wonder what became of them. Why weren’t their photos lovingly kept on a coffee table or bookshelf, or at the very least, thrown in a box in someone’s attic marked “Family Photos?” Were all of their relatives also gone? Were they estranged from their family? Or did their ancestors simply not care, assuming it was easier to give it away or sell it rather than half-heartedly keep it? What was their story?

When I got home, I placed the photo on a corkboard and imagined this young woman heading off to the big screen. Perhaps she got on a train, kissed her family goodbye and announced, “I’m going to make something of myself. I’m going to be somebody.” Maybe she had to knock on all the doors of the movie producers, pleading for an audition. The stuffy, cigar-smoking men gave her the once-over, telling her that she didn’t have the right proportions and that she would’ve done just fine in the silent movies, but nobody would want to hear that voice in the talkies. She probably encountered hundreds of fellow young hopefuls, crying in cafés, warning her that she’d only last a few months before they threw her away for someone younger, prettier, and more talented. Despite the struggle, she clawed her way into the business. Patricia must’ve signed this picture so proudly to a fan somewhere out there, dreaming of the day that she, too, would get her big break. Of course, I didn’t know Patricia’s actual story. The photo lived on that corkboard until I went away to college where it got shuffled from shoe boxes and dresser drawers.

I didn’t throw Patricia’s picture away. Instead, I put it in my pocket and we finished cleaning up the room, commenting on how we were excited for the next chapter in our lives and eager to experience the new adventures we were bound to have. No longer was I a dreamy-eyed teenager, imagining the starlet’s fans writing to her.

Now as a young professional, Patricia’s photo took on a whole new meaning. Perhaps it gnawed at me because it showed me how fleeting life is.

We can invest all of our energy into our life’s work: we worry, make deals, and make sacrifices in pursuit of our ambitions, hopes, and dreams. And in the end, long after we’ve passed away and the world has gone on without us, all that might remain is a single photo, slightly bent, selling for three bucks at a flea market. Real or imagined, the stories behind old photos give us an opportunity to connect to new and different people, places and experiences. We develop empathy, understanding, compassion and inspiration from people we may have never even met. These photos take on new meanings to us as we have different life experiences. That’s why I remain captivated by the picture of an actress I had never heard of before. Because when it comes down to it, when we try to understand these photos and the people in them, we’re really just trying to understand ourselves.

barbaraalvarezheadshotAbout the Author: Barbara Alvarez is a storyteller and a history lover. She is passionate about exploring the world through traveling and writing. She often treasure hunts at local flea markets, antique stores and estate sales. Barbara is especially interested in family history and is currently researching a nearly century-old romance from her aunt’s diary from the 1920s. You can follow along with her adventures on her website and Instagram feed.

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