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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Collecting Historical Items Associated with the Wright Brothers

A number of years ago, I began collecting items associated with early aviation, and then began to specifically concentrate on the Wright Brothers. Initially I purchased a number of early post cards, books, and newspapers. Coin and stamp collectors have ready made albums available for storage of coins and stamps, but such is not the case for collecting odds and ends of aviation history. Below, I offer my experience of how to acquire, and display your collection if you choose to delve into this hobby.
  1. Know your subject. The more knowledgeable you are of the history of the Wright Brothers, the less chance you'll be fooled by misrepresented items, and the greater your ability to identify an item of historical significance. 
  2. Be aware that sellers don't always know their subject. They may unknowingly describe an item inaccurately.  I've lost count the number of pictures or postcards I've seen for sale on E-bay identified incorrectly by the seller as depicting a Wright aeroplane, or one of the Wright brothers.
  3. Research previous sale prices of the items you'd like to collect. Search for items you're interested in collecting on E-bay, and keep a record of what the items sell for. On-line auction houses are another source of information- register free with a number of sites, and search their sales history for prices.
  4. Take your time. Build your collection slowly; the fun is in the search. 
  5. Watch your budget. If you're like most of us, you have a limited amount of cash for purchasing items for your collection. If you purchase this item today, and see a more desirable item next week, will you regret your purchase? 
  6. Beware of purchasing from sellers with little or no history. This is not a hard fast rule, as the first time seller may have a unique item worth purchasing, but just be aware of the risk involved. On the other side of the coin, I have seen examples of sellers with a decent history of sales, who then suddenly make a string of dishonest sales over a short period of a few weeks, and then disappear. 
  7. Tell a story with your collection. Collect similar items related to a specific event that together can visually provide an account of history.
Suggestions of subjects for your collection:
  • Items associated with the 1909 Wright Brother Homecoming Celebration, ranging from the many postcard views of the event which can be purchased for a few dollars, or an original lithograph poster of the event for a mere $35,000!
  • Items associated with Wilbur Wright's Hudson-Fulton flights of September and October of 1909.
  • Items associated with other family members, such as their father Milton Wright, or their sister Katharine Wright.
  • Collect postcards showing various types of Wright aeroplanes.
  • Collect newspapers from 1903-1910 or later providing accounts of flights by Wilbur, Orville, and others in Wright aeroplanes.

The following is an example of a small two page collection of items associated with the telling of the story of the reaction to Wilbur's first flights at Les Hunaudieres, August of 1908. James Tobin tells the story well in "To Conquer the Air", chapter 12, "The Light on Glory's Plume", pages 308-310, writing "It was over in less than two minutes- the first tight half-circle; the race down the backstretch of the track, high above the steeplechase hurdles; a second half-circle; the straight course back to the starting point; then the descent with extraordinary buoyancy and precision and a smooth skid along the grass........people were shouting and cheering......After the figure eight on Monday, (Wilbur) told Orville (by letter), 'Bleriot & Delegrange were so excited they could scarcely speak, and Kapferer could only gasp and could not talk at all. You would have almost died of laughter if you could have seen them.' Henri Farman was in New York...not having seen Will fly, he said: 'I believe that our machines are as good as his'." So the collection of items associated with this account is a postcard signed by Delegrange, a postcard signed by Kapferer, a period picture of Farman, and a period picture of Bleriot, accompanied by the account as written by James Tobin. The account tells the story, and the items bring it a bit to life.

Reaction to Wilbur Wright's August 8th, 1908 flights.
Suggestions on where to make your purchases:
  • Antique Malls- I've had some success with finding items at antique malls, but my wife and I have searched through a lot of stores. But something of historical nature might be hiding in one of those stores, so we keep looking. This is a hobby, and the fun is in the search. Antique shops have been a good source of books and bound magazines associated with the Wrights.
  • Antique Shows- One of the local County Fairgrounds hosts Antique shows once a month through the year. Many times I've returned home without a purchase, but occasionally I've found something of interest. As an example of the importance of knowing your subject of collecting, a number of years ago I came across a seller that had a stack of Religious Telescopes for sale. At the time, I didn't know that Wilbur and Orville's father Milton had been editor of the Religious Telescope from 1869-1877, and a contributor to the Telescope up to 1889. I just glanced over those Telescope issues, and went on. Today, if I came across that stack, I'd have been all through those issues. But I was lacking knowledge at the time. Since that time, I have acquired a nice collection of Religious Telescopes from other sources.

  • On-line Auction houses- I recently made a purchase on Cowan's Auctions. Cowan's is a Cincinnati Ohio based antiques auction house, and founder Wes Cowan has been featured as an appraiser on PBS's Antique Roadshow. Information for upcoming auctions is available at the website, and you just have to be diligent with checking the various auctions for aviation related material. I've been disappointed more than once to become aware of a neat Wright Brother item only after the auction had been completed; especially disappointed when seeing the selling price well below what I would have been willing to bid! Other auction houses are out there, but if interested, check out Cowen's Auctions.
  • E-bay-The majority of my purchases have been made on E-bay. The most basic search I use is "Wright Brothers". But this search only brings up some of the many items available that week. Again, knowledge is helpful here. One of my searches is "Bound 1908". This will bring up bound sets of magazines or newspapers from 1908. Why 1908? This was the year the Wrights demonstrated their flyer to the world. I also search "Biplane photo", and this turns up old photos of biplanes, and occasionally a Wright biplane. I actually have a large list of search words that I use, but I don't want to give up all my secrets just yet, or I'll be bidding against you!

Once you've made your purchase, preserve the item under your care. It is a piece of history, and you are its temporary owner. Preserve it for future admirers.

1. Store paper items such as postcards, newspapers, photographs, letters, brochures, etc. in acid free storage folders, such as those manufactured by ITOYA of America , Ltd. They make a variety of sizes of storage/display books. Prestige makes a nice archival folder with removable pages, at a higher cost.
ITOYA archival books of various sizes, and Prestige archival folder at right.

The 8.5" by 11" is ideal for letter size documents. The 18" by 24" size is great for storing and display of historic newspapers. Locally in Dayton, the folders are available through United Art & Education store locations.
ITOYA 8.5" by 11" works well for letter size documents. 
2. Newspapers from the early 1900's are very brittle. Handle them carefully, and protect them by storing in an acid free archival folder. Front page news stories are desirable as they are easily displayed in lieu of a story hidden within the newspaper pages. For newspapers that contain the story of interest on the inside pages, you can make a copy of the story and slip in front as seen below to keep an easy visual record of the story within.
18" by 24" archival folder works well for newspaper storage and protection.

3. Small booklets, or magazines and other items store and display well in the Prestige archival folder also sold at United Art & Education. Though more expensive, the plastic and paper are of a heavier gauge, and offer more support for heavier items such as the Smithsonian report below on Samuel Langley.
Prestige Archival folder works well for magazines and small thin booklets.

4. Postcards can be displayed in acid-free photo albums, protecting the cards and allowing viewing of card from either side if desired, without handling.

Dayton 1913 flood postcard collection.

Consider eventually donating your collection. One of the benefits of collecting is the preservation of historical material that might otherwise be discarded. If you are able to obtain unique items associated with the immediate family members of Wilbur and Orville Wright, consider an eventual donation of the items to a museum. Wright State University has an extensive Wright Brother archive, and would appreciate any donations of significant items directly related to Wilbur and Orville Wright, and to their immediate family. For more information, go to the WSU Special Collections website. Under Featured Services, select Donating.

Check out related posts-
"Value of Historical Collectables associated with the Wright Brothers"

"Buyer Beware When Collecting Wright Brother Items"

Index of Topics

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Great Scott! It's Wilbur Wright Back in 1909!

Oakwood's Hawthorn Hill was never home to Wilbur Wright. Wilbur succumbed to typhoid fever in May of 1912, and construction of the new home was not completed until 1914. Orville, his sister Katharine, and their father Bishop Milton Wright began the process of moving into the home on April 28, 1914. A century has since passed, and you now find yourself walking these same halls. 

Hawthorn Hill, taken April 27th, 2014, one day before 100th anniversary of move in date by Wrights.

You tour the first and second level with the others in your party, and eventually find yourself again at the basement level near the open vault door. You have been here before, and you wonder. Would it happen again? You turn away from the vault to watch your fellow companions begin to walk back up the stairs to the first level, when suddenly someone or something pulls you backwards into the vault, the door quickly shuts, and you find yourself standing in the darkness. All is silent at first, but then you begin to hear voices. The sound of water nearby. And you know somehow, though you don't understand it, you've just passed through time to another century, another place.
As your eyes begin to adjust, you feel a breeze blowing against your face. You find yourself standing in a field of grass.You sense some activity around you, and then you see two figures, difficult to make out in this dim light. They are in a large wooden shed working on a biplane. Something unusual though about their activity, as they are in the process of attaching a red canoe to the skids of the machine.....and you are suddenly hit with the fear that you have somehow torn the fabric of the space time continuum because of your presence here. Why else would they be doing such a bizarre thing? And then your memory kicks in, and you see a picture in your mind of a canoe in the skids of a flyer that you had observed at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton. "Now I remember!", you think to yourself, "the display at Carillon.....they attached the canoe because Wilbur intended to fly over water, the Hudson River....I'm at Governor's Island, New York! Great Scott! It's Wilbur Wright back in 1909!"

Original canoe on display at Carillon Park. The canoe's original color was red in 1909, which can be seen to the left where green paint has worn away revealing the original underlying red. The canoe had been stored at Orville's Lab.

You find yourself standing amongst a group of reporters, waiting patiently a short distance from the hanger in which Wilbur Wright and his mechanic Charlie Taylor are working. You see a young man walk over to Wilbur and hand him a letter. Wilbur looks at it briefly, and then continues his work. You know this scene. You know what will happen next. Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in July of 1909. Wilbur Wright was about to become the second person to fly across a body of water, but this one much more dangerous, due to the unpredictable and unknown characteristics of the air currents and updrafts due to the city environment.
You strike up a conversation with a reporter next to you. He says his name is Smith, works for New York World, and he's having the time of his life. He enthusiastically shares with you his impressions of Wilbur.
"I've spent days with this wonder of the air, waiting for the moment when all should be right for him to leave Governor's Island behind and soar up into the skies. I saw him every hour. I heard everything that he had to say. Yet not once during those eventful days did I hear him make a boast, or brag about the wonderful achievements which have set the world to talking. And of the equally splendid achievements of his brother Orville was he just as silent." (You remember fondly of meeting Orville on your first adventure as told in "A Journey Back in Time- An Interview with Orville Wright". You marvel that you traveled back from 2014 to 1940 to meet Orville, and now in 1909, that meeting won't occur for another 31 years. Your head begins to swim.) The reporter continues talking.
"Don't imagine for a moment that Wright is rude or boorish- that is the last thing in the world one may say of him. Discourtesy is not in his makeup. Ask him a point blank question and he will give you an answer. But his answer is always short. There is no chance for misinterpretation. Nine times out of ten it shuts up the interviewer like a clam- the interviewer who makes his questions annoy Wilbur Wright you find it out. He doesn't like to be annoyed. The minute you meet him you get the impression in some way or other that Wilbur Wright wants to be left alone with his own thoughts.....He likes solitude. 'I'm not a sport', he told me one day. 'I'm making these flights for the good of mankind, for the good of the future. I'm not sport enough to fly for the amusement of people'."
Smith stops talking as he's suddenly drawn to the movements occurring at the hangar nearby. Wilbur and Charlie are beginning to move the Flyer out the shed! You hear him say "It looks like a good day for flying". He points his finger toward your way and the group of reporters you stand amongst, and he says "It'll do you boys good to do a little work after loafing around here for a week." The crowd surrounding you immediately rushes toward the machine, moving it from the hangar several hundred yards over the sand to the starting monorail.

Wilbur Wright, Governor's Island, October 1909.

This is the moment the reporters, and the local population have been waiting for. You think how we take flight for granted in our century, but in 1909, most people have never seen an airplane fly. In the words of the reporter Smith, "When Wilbur Wright arose from the sands of Governor's Island, soared past the Battery, glided up the Hudson, passed the battle-ships riding at anchor 200 feet below him, and then returned to the starting point, not twenty feet from his monorail, he accomplished the most spectacular flight in American history- probably the most remarkable flight ever achieved by man in the air. People had been waiting days and days to see him fly- as I had. He was taking on a flight for all New York and its legions of visitors to see, hundreds of thousands of them. The word flew round like magic; in cohorts the people rushed to points of vantage along the river front or to the tops of tall buildings. All New York wanted to see this human bird essay the air. All the way up the river, making history with every whirl of the propellers, tooting whistles and rousing cheers greeted this man-bird; guns saluted him, flags were dipped to him. It was an ovation from one end of Manhattan Island to the other for this wonderful man- enough to turn the head of even the best poised of us all."

Wilbur Wright flying at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 1909. Wilbur circled the Statue of Liberty September 29th, and flew to Grant's Tomb and back over the Hudson River from Governor's Island, October 4th.

You watch as Wilbur lands. As he climbs out of the seat, you hear him say "I'm mighty glad I came to New York, and I'm glad I was able to do a little something."
"A little something, think of that!" Smith says to you. "After sailing twenty miles through the air at a speed of fifty miles an hour, faster than most railroad trains travel; successfully navigating the unseen eddies and holes in the air that exist nowhere else as they do around sky-scraping Manhattan Island, swooping down from a height of 200 feet to within ten feet of the waters of the Hudson, skirting close to the docks along the shore so that people could get a good view of his craft as it sailed through the air- after performing this most marvelous of aerial feats, to say that he was glad he was able to do a 'little something'!"
The morning turns to the afternoon, and you see Wilbur and Charlie at the propellers, starting the aeroplane for another flight.  Then suddenly, an explosion, causing you to jump.The cylinder head of the engine blows out. Wilbur turns toward you and the reporters and says "I hope that everybody will realize that it is not my fault, and that I would have done the best I could if this accident had not happened. I never saw as ideal flying conditions and I really think I could have done pretty well."
Smith says to you "That's the nearest that I have ever heard the man come to bragging".
You want to meet Wilbur and shake his hand; warn him that he should avoid shellfish while traveling. You follow 20' or so behind him as he heads for and then enters the shed. If you can just convince him somehow, perhaps he'll avoid the deadly meal in early 1912 that gives him typhoid and brings a close to his eventful life. He'll likely think you're a bit odd, and you just might risk "annoying" him, and Smith warned you that Wilbur doesn't take well to being annoyed. As you approach the shed, you hesitate for a few seconds, but then you swing the door open, and step in.

In lieu of the interior of the shed, you find yourself back in the basement of Hawthorn Hill. Turning around, you see the open vault door. Peering back in, just a small room of storage items is evident.

You might be interested-
About Hawthorn Hill, read Wright State University "Out of the Box" blog by Lisa Rickey-  100 Years Ago Today: Wrights move into Hawthorn Hill  Lisa provides links to some interesting early pictures of construction.
For a good chapter on Wilbur's flights at Governor's Island, read "To Conquer The Air" by James Tobin, 2003, chapter 13, "The Greatest Courage and Achievements"

For historical accuracy, quotes from reporter H. M. Smith are taken word for word from his October 17, 1909 article in New York World, "A Week with Wilbur Wright".