The American Pickers show has always been a favorite in our household, a show my husband and I could both agree upon, where American history comes alive as two middle-aged men forage through garages and barns to rediscover America’s past through discarded items. Last year, I visited one of their American Archaeology stores in Nashville where the dust and smell of nostalgia was ever-present. This home of Americana (mixed with a bit of Gil Pender wisdom) offered me a perspective on understanding nostalgia.
The shop is jammed with interesting examples of the past which reflect the quirkiness of the show as the hosts relive their childhood through old Indian motorcycles or Texaco memorabilia. But the cynic in me says they have figured out the price of memories—and it’s a gold mine. They have capitalized on the fact that we all find life a bit sweeter in the past.
For example, this red gravity pump priced at $2800 was featured on Season 20, episode 18 in North Dakota. I don’t know what a gravity pump actually is, but apparently, its current-day function is to pump out dollar bills from one’s pocket by either gravity or the power of memories. I don’t know what life was like in North Dakota when this pump was in its prime, but I imagine some North Dakotan grandpa must have demonstrated the importance to enough subsequent generations for this red gravity pump to live to see another day as a piece of expensive nostalgia.
Regardless of the item or the price, we seem to value yesterday more than today. That’s why people write about history, that’s why we are captivated by old family photos, that’s why the American Pickers are going to be able to retire early! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing this phenomenon because I have bought right into this concept.
My husband and I love the Black Dawg Salvage store in Roanoke, VA, a take-off on the American Pickers concept. On several occasions, we have made their store our destination on a birthday celebration or a random day trip. We love romping through the stuff (a.k.a. nostalgic junk) in order to remember but also to see what the inventive minds of the shop owners have done to repurpose some unused item for a new life in the present. A glass panel door turned into a coffee table. A scrappy boat hull turned into a bookshelf. So interesting.
Apparently, there are sound scientific reasons for our love of nostalgia. Dr. Juliana Breines, PhD, has studied the effects of nostalgia on our brain and explains that it can:
- Improve our mood.
- Make life feel more meaningful.
- Connect us with others.
- Makes us feel warmer (literally).
- Make the future look brighter.
Makes sense. We love the past because it makes us feel good, something the folks from American Pickers have figured out. And so have writers. One of my favorite Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris, features an angst-filled writer named Gil Pender, trying to figure out his own obsession with the “Golden Age” of Paris, a time permeated with the legendary men of words such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Gil pontificates that we love the past because we are all “a little unsatisfied with the present.” (I’m not sure I agree, but I’ll indulge the notion for a bit.) His view of the writer’s role is significant and surprisingly optimistic for a Woody Allen character. After a rather lengthy soliloquy on nostalgia, and his realization that many modern conveniences would be missing from the so-called “Golden Age” (like Novocain and Pepto-Bismol), he delivers the point of the writer’s role in examining life (past and present) to which Adriana (his love interest) delivers the best line of the movie.
Gil: It’s my job as a writer to try and come up with the reasons why despite life being tragic and unsatisfying, it’s still worth it.
Adriana: That’s the problem with writers – you’re all so full of words.
Touché, Adriana. Touché.
I would argue the past is sweet because of the people we shared it with and the warmth we felt by being in their presence. Whoever ends up purchasing that red gravity pump will likely remember frigid days on some farm, working at the side of his grandpa, endeavoring to measure up, admiring and appreciating the example of a life well-lived. Who am I to judge its worth with my words?