Many people know James Naismith invented basketball when he was a YMCA instructor. Some might even know that a Y instructor invented volleyball.
But most people, even among YMCA employees, probably don’t realize the Y had representatives in the fields of the Civil War and World War I, when they wore red triangle patches on their uniforms. And the number of those WWI uniforms still in existence is likely smaller than those who know.
With the growth of the Internet and online auctions, and even the popularity of PBS’s Antiques Road Show, organizations are finding and recapturing pieces of their history that could have been lost forever. It has also made gathering bits of history for anniversary celebrations that much easier.
Dan Meier, who edited the YMCA’s history book for the organization’s 150th anniversary this year, has led the YMCA of the USA’s effort to acquire rare items from the past, though he often found himself bidding against local Y employees in the process.
Meier estimated the national headquarters in Chicago has obtained more than 1,000 items online. He found in online auctions a WWI YMCA uniform and even some old camping equipment, "which, frankly, doesn’t smell so sweet anymore," he said. "Most others are in private persons’ hands."
Meier said the collection of such items for its celebratory conference in New Orleans later this year enabled the organization to present funders with something unique to pique their attention. "It has paid for itself in corporate sponsorships and other stuff we’re getting."
Meier said the organization purchased approximately 1,000 items, many for a dollar or less; the most expensive was $150. The total cost of the effort was less than $10,000. "Our budget was zero," he acknowledged. "We started to realize we had to reallocate funds."
The effort also required officials to quickly assess their priorities and determine which items they could pass on. Basically, the decision came down to how widely available an item was, "how priceless it is to us," he said.
For example, though they’re old and somewhat rare, there are probably tens of thousands of WWI items and postcards from soldiers quietly collecting dust in people’s attics. But a World War I YMCA uniform with YMCA buttons and YMCA triangles on the lapels and sleeves was a real find.
Among other unique items Meier found were the first waterwings, made in Hoboken, N.J., and an Estonian driver’s license, issued by the Y there in the 1930s. Even offline, he has come upon YMCA theater seats and items from Y bowling alleys.
Also collecting items for an upcoming anniversary, Goodwill Industries International has taken to cyberauctions as well.
"I’ve been going on eBay every day looking under the search word of ‘Goodwill’ and looking for various physical artifacts," said Dave Berringer, senior vice president for branding. "I’ve been able to get books, old posters, collection bags, old postcards. It’s things that I haven’t been able to find even through asking our own members. It’s been fun and not really expensive."
Goodwill, celebrating its centennial in 2002, obtained these items as part of its effort at holding onto its history. "One thing we know we don’t have are all the great stories of people who’ve been helped by Goodwill," Berringer said. "That’s the kind of history that may be lost forever.
Though he hasn’t found any of Goodwill’s original burlap collection bags, he has acquired some official Goodwill paper bags. Berringer’s deck of postcards shows the various collection box styles and trucks Goodwill has used in the past. Berringer said the Goodwill in Boston used to bottle its own mineral water. "For $4 I got one of the bottles," he said. "It looks new."
Berringer also found himself occasionally bidding against other Goodwill employees. Despite the in-house competition, he purchased most items for around $5, and he said he’s spent about $100 for the items. "Not a lot," he said, "I spend almost as much in postage."
But not every large organization with storied histories, or even recent anniversaries, spends time seeking for its history. Teresa Whitfield, a spokesperson for the Salvation Army’s national headquarters, said other than some territories holding museums, there is little collection of artifacts and remnants of its history in the United States. "It is new territory that we’re not aware of being explored," she said.
Gregg Shields, spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America, based in Dallas, said the organization does not actively look for items online, though it is aware of many collectors. "The Boy Scouts of America has a pretty good collection already," he said. "I’ve never heard of the organization going online to supplement (what it already has.)"
With more than 100 million people who have been involved in the organization over its nine-plus decades of existence, a veritable museum of artifacts is out there, he said. And many people look back fondly on their experience as scouts and keep memorabilia, such as various editions of the BSA handbook, sashes, and of course, the uniforms and merit badges. "Those kinds of things are very popular," he said.
The question remains, however, how can one verify these are the genuine article? "We had to make an educated guess," the Y’s Meier admitted. "I can’t say there was any scientific method. The Smithsonian wouldn’t be impressed."
He may be right in more ways than one. Evelyn Bane, who serves in the Smithsonian Institute’s visitor information center, said it doesn’t have nonprofit artifacts as a class of item. Some items from the Red Cross, for example, might be included within medical-field exhibits. "It’s not because they’re nonprofit," she said. "It’s because they’re specialized in something."
Steven E. Shulman, the executive director of the American Red Cross’s historical resources department, said the organization is not acquiring items via online auctions. He knows all too well, however, a market exists there.
He has kept up on prices and has occasionally been astounded watching people create "memorabilia before it is memorabilia." For example, he said, an eight-year old poster with Mickey Mouse and Red Cross sold for $10.60 on eBay minutes before he was interviewed by the NPT. "We sell the same poster currently for $4.81," he said. "We buy the posters, it’s a series of four, for $15 from our Orlando chapter."
The Red Cross had a museum, which was closed with the start of WWII when the space was needed. Items were lost and forgotten, but Shulman said the organization intends to expand its current display of its history in a new museum in a couple years.
He added that the organization is conserving its acquisition funds at this point, though it may make random purchases if the items are small enough for petty cash. "Major things of major value, no one has come to us with anything like that," he said.
Anytime an item is purchased, it helps to set a value, albeit a tenuous one. "We don’t want to expand the market or put it out so it makes things more expensive," Shulman said. "Rather than get into that right now, it’s not to our best advantage from a business perspective."
When acquisition time comes, however, ARC will likely utilize the Internet, Shulman acknowledged, and it may find high prices regardless of its wait. "Rather than having a market of 17 people in a flea market," he said, "you have a market of perhaps 17 million people (online) with an interest in Red Cross."
Timing issues aside, ARC will still bear in mind where its purchasing power comes from, Shulman said. "I think we have to be prudent with our approach to acquisitions, because we have to be sensitive to our donors," he said. "Whatever we do acquire has to be the best way we can acquire (an item)."
NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story