A childhood collection not to be toyed with. 

A hobby collection can be serious business, helping future generations get a glimpse into by-gone days and sometimes from the unintended unique perspective of a child. Having recently processed a collection of 182 pencils gathered up by a young lad during the late 1960s-early 1970s, Sarndra Lees - Collection Manager, History, examines what this little treasure trove can teach us today.

As a child of the early 1960s through to late 1970s, I was absorbed with stamp collecting. Through tiny pictures this hobby gave me a glimpse into the world that was back then, inaccessible to many. Overseas holidays even for the working class were rare and we had to learn mostly from television programmes. 

Although I didn’t know it at the time, collecting satisfied the tidy ‘freak’ that was later to emerge (don’t look at my work desk! *grin*). Having to sort each stamp by country; soaking off some stamps affixed to torn off corners of envelopes then dry them and making sure they didn’t curl up. I then went on to sort the best page positions in my albums to allow my favourites pride of place.

I also loved First Day Covers. It made you feel you had something special all to yourself. Looking back now I learnt a bit about myself - I can see how my personal traits showed through via my collecting. I still have those stamp albums, they were a big part of my life, both in and out of school. My primary and intermediate schools had great stamp collecting clubs which of course I was a member. Collecting can be an incredibly social activity.

Another very popular collecting theme around the time of my childhood years, were pencils.

Children's collecting and what it's worth

Children's collecting and what it's worth

I've recently processed a collection of 182 pencils donated to us a while back which were gathered up by a young lad during the late 1960s - early 1970s. The pencils are in all stages of use. Several are unused and typical of a child, others had ends that have been nibbled on. 

He stored them in a repurposed ‘Mimosa’ branded lingerie box, possibly his mums or maybe his grans and had staked his claim to it by writing “PENCIL COLLECTION” on the front. The box itself has become an interesting part of the collection due to now being vintage itself. It is being kept with the pencils.

Pencils were a powerful form of advertising and knowledge sharing for businesses in those decades, and they were quite ubiquitous. They were a useful tool for the customer and highly visible when used – a recommendation, an endorsement by the user and hey, who doesn’t like a giveaway! I can even remember collecting a few myself. 

Taking into consideration that a few of the pencils in this collection may have been given to the boy by friends or family, these still tell of everyday family life. From holidays to supermarkets to home improvement, a glimpse into the life of one Auckland family. There were a couple that had bright, fluorescent plastic lids and when the lid was removed from one, the scent that was originally infused into its wood at the time of manufacture, was still strong enough to be noticed after 50 years!

There were a few from a wineshop, duplicates of butchers, hardware stores and pharmacies and several Bardahl oil examples, fabulous with their stickers and erasers on the ends looking very smart. Mostly Auckland and surrounding towns extol their own virtues and tell us of their wares on these - telling us of locally made products and pride of place. 

These pencils also tell us of the evolution and longevity of a business. If they have stood the test of time to trade into the 21st century, maybe with just a name alteration (with a bit of research) or faced being left behind as progression and other large businesses took over -monopolised by chain stores. The small sole trader was often the mainstay of the local community, but in recent decades they have struggled to remain in our communities, empty shopping blocks giving a desolate community feel, rather than a bringing together of the masses.

The advertising pencil is also a ‘time capsule’ of the business logo and technology, for example among the art on these pencils are cars and trucks that look to be from the 1940s aimed at a specific class demographic and phone numbers with 2 digits in rural areas – how different are our logo styles in these times, and all the options we have of making contact with a business. 

Do your children collect anything? What is the theme or pattern to the collecting? Will the objects tell a different story in 50 years’ time far from the original intention they were collected? Who would have thought that these humble pencils – a method that seems defunct as an advertising tool in this world now - would end up in a museum, thus allowing data to be extrapolated and collated about a different time in society, rather than like most ephemera, used and thrown away? Now… I might go drag my stamp albums out!

Preparing the collection for permanent storage

Preparing the collection for permanent storage

First, the whole collection is pest treated – a routine task for all objects coming into the Museum. 

They were then sorted (I did this by size), then they are measured and described for each of their records in our collection management system database ‘Vernon’.

I have made trays with dividers. Three trays per small box. This allows easier, safer handling.

Some of the pencils have fragile paint which makes affixing any labels to the pencils themselves not an option. I instead prefer to have a swing tag, and good database descriptions and photos of each for identification.

Now in their boxes which mainly contain 15 in each, they await photography.  There is something truly satisfying about seeing the task completed and all in order.

Each box is allotted an individual ‘packing unit’ number and the pencils in each are then related back to that packing unit within our database so they are easy to find in our collection store.

Once they are photographed, the items are stored and their images are added to the database.


About the author

Sarndra has been involved in the museum world for seventeen years, fourteen of those at Auckland Museum.  

As the Collection Manager for the History department, she tends to the requirements of the Social History and War collections including bespoke storage solutions, cataloguing acquisitions, preventive conservation etc.  Liaising with donors, she ensures legal documentation is completed. She also deals with queries from the public.

A keen genealogist for over four decades, she recognises the importance of objects to the families and communities they are from. Keeping them safe and ensuring they are well documented for present and future generations is her calling. 

Want to know more? 

Join us behind the scenes in these two fascinating blogs from Sarndra. 

In the process

When you visit the Museum and see objects in cases, it's easy to gloss over the vast amounts of work that goes into making our displays look effortless. In this blog Sarndra Lees, Collection Manager, History, takes you step-by-step through the elaborate, sometimes tedious, always crucial processes required to ensure that the priceless objects in the Museum's care are looked after for generations to come.

Read more

Cataloguing Covid

While the world grappled with COVID-19, the last thing on anyone's mind was how best to preserve the pandemic’s objects.

But for Collection Manager History, Sarndra Lees, preserving the cultural artefacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was a top priority. In this blog, Sarndra offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as she worked to preserve the story of the pandemic in objects.

Read more