your guide to paper placemats

didn’t know you needed one, did you?

see, if i hadn’t told you…you may have lived your entire life not knowing about my collection of paper placemats.   yes, it’s true, circa 1963-1969 or so, a wall of my bedroom was devoted to placements that were collected not only by me, but also by relatives & friends who went on trips around the country.

they are mostly regional in representation; restaurants, motel chains (howard johnson’s was a big deal when it opened a motel on the highway just outside of rapid city in 196_); they come from montana, north & south dakota, saskatchewan (oh, that’s the time i nearly got left in canada because i proudly declared my birth city, “wurzburg, germany,” & of course, canada was happy to see the backside of my 9 year-old being, but the good ole u.s. of a. was not too pleased to see the front side, since i was still a green-card carrying foreign national, but alas & alack without my papers–not my fault, obvsly, what did i know from crossing borders, right?  my mother, in hushed confidential tones with the border guard seemed to smooth things over [did she slip him a sawbuck?] & we tootled on through,) wyoming, nebraska, colorado, utah, idaho, washington, oregon–well, you get the idea.

you wouldn’t have known this, but i have about 50 of these pieces of paper (this is what graphic designers did in the ’60s,)  and the majority of them are little tidbits of history (with a caucasion bias, mais oui); how we dominated the native americans (or how they slaughtered our infantry, men, women & children,) but mostly they try to show some pride of place and really, you can’t fault them for trying.

the prairie states are rather unforgiving geographically and meteorologically; they are open space incarnate & it takes a certain kind of person to love it (i do,) and a certain kind of person to make their life there (we did.)

i thumb-tacked each one of my treasures up on one wall of my bedroom.  they were side-by-side, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.  i did not group them according to design or state, only as they came into my possession did they then find a life on my wall.

you should know that the rest of the walls of my bedroom (its size: possibly no more than 9′ x 10′) were hung with national geographic maps, even their sky map was on the ceiling, so when i laid on my twin bed against the west wall (until, of course, i discovered ‘angles’ & then it jutted out into the room; discovering angles most likely occurred about the same time as puberty, i’m sure you understand.)

this then represents my first collection.  i would not have it had my mother not saved it in a hard cardboard folder & one day before she died, sent me home with a box filled with my childhood:  books & clothes, & baby shoes, & report cards, newspaper clippings, you know, the things that all mothers tuck away (i’ll stop now a moment while i get a kleenex to blow my nose & wipe the tear from my eye — truly.)

but back to collecting:  i don’t know why i collect, but i do know that it gives me some comfort & some satisfaction & some sense of belonging.  i’ve always said that collectors are driven by a need to control the chaos of the world around them & owning & cherishing a group of things is an excellent way to impose a sense of order on a world that is, understandably impossible to understand.

i can say that i don’t get much of a frisson of emotion from these placemats now.  i admire some of the design elements & the marketing ideas & how businesses reached out to their clientele through history and comedy and cuteness/sweetness, but no emotion is really attached to them any longer.

however, you don’t see me getting rid of them, do you?

because i can’t for the life of me imagine imposing a dollar value on them or likewise consigning them to the trash heap.  so they’re safely tucked upon a shelf in my closet & today, for the first time in maybe 30 years, i took them down & looked at each & every one of them & tried to call up who, what, when, where & how.

sometimes i was successful, other times it was a big “huh?”  but even when i knew where they came from & who may have brought them back to me from a trip, there was still little or no emotion attached to them.

it may be time to move on & let them go.

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6 Responses to “your guide to paper placemats”

  1. June 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Great obsession, Robert! I used to love these as a kid growing up in rural Arizona in the 60s. I remember studying these, especially ones with desert life; cacti, poisonous insects and reptiles, etc.

    Growing up on an Indian reservation and going back/forth to Mexico a lot, I was intrigued by the ones that showed American Indians too. Especially because none of them resembled any of my friends or their families. These things were like magazine teaser headlines with an insight to something mysterious yet familiar.

    This reminds me also of souvenir drinking glasses that we used to get at gas stations also.

    Good collection!

  2. 3 Byron Fogel
    August 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm


    I came across another website that indicates that you are considering disposing of your placemat collection. Are you aware that you can donate your collection to the Smithonian Institution as I did? If you’d like more information, let me know.

    Byron Fogel

    • August 8, 2011 at 9:29 am

      Well, Byron, that sound interesting. I’ll drop you an email…although I talk a lot about ‘de-accessioning’ I rarely do so. As you know, it actually requires that you let go of a thing. All my best, Robert

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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