You may recall the fake books used smuggle guns out of Germany after WWII which were shown on Pawn Stars this past June. While the German guns themselves were confiscated for violation of army regulations, the fake wooden books made it back home, into the pawn shop, and onto collectors’ minds.
We’ve discussed the sorts of collectibles you cannot own, and we’re certainly anti-smuggling her at Collectors Quest, but even when the smuggled items themselves may remain illegal to own, the containers the historical contraband once came in can usually safely be collected. And it might just surprise you just how many options there are in this area of collecting.
While history likes to describe smuggling in terms of large-scale enterprise, the transportation and sale of illegal items has been around as long as trade itself. As long as things have been forbidden, over-taxed, or simply over-priced, smuggling has been around. On the larger scale, people have built businesses and even nations on the premise of bringing other people what they wanted, be it tea and molasses or rock and roll and jeans. But individuals themselves have also worked hard to secretly obtain and keep hidden what they desired.
In some cases, like the fake wooden books and guns, the motives are likely personal ones; a soldier grabs himself some souvenirs of war and wants to get them to his home — even if he knows he’s not supposed to, and makes or commissions the means to hide them so the souvenirs can get to his home. Even when this act is replicated to some degree by a number of soldiers, and may be at least partially motivated by the pursuit of decidedly economic gains down the road, the act of smuggling is still largely a personal decision. But other times…
Other times, items such as guns are hidden in a more organized manner — an organized crime manner. Think of the Tommy Guns in violin cases.
It was as real a practice as Bonnie Parker taping her .38-caliber Detective Special to her thigh. (This gun, found on her dead body in 1934, was recently auctioned-off for $264,000 this past September.) The hiding of guns was prolific enough to result in early metal detectors.
Still there are other times when items are smuggled for much larger reasons. Take the Civil War, for example. Smugglers during the Civil War weren’t merely enterprising merchants trying to profit off the war, or even desperate merchants trying to continue to make a living during the war. Many who took on the risks of smuggling items across the Union lines were those who were motivated by ideology. Among the most successful and famous of these Civil War smugglers were women.
Women like Belle Edmondson, Hetty Cary, and “The Black-Eyed Smuggler” were ironically out and about exploiting the sexist notions of women’s roles and delicacy by spying and smuggling across enemy lines for the Confederacy. Some of them were good Southern women who found smuggling to be just an extension of their work as a Civil War nurse. Others were likely not satisfied with just wringing their hands and wanted to be involved in the war just as the men were; you might even call them early feminists. These smuggling women were most often wives and mothers who left their homes to bring information and much needed medicine and other supplies to soldiers.
The Union had their female spies and smugglers too. Among them there were some single women, like Elizabeth Van Lew and Harriet Tubman, who were able to use their freedom from traditional roles to work for their political ideals.
Whatever their side, female Civil War smugglers hid their smuggled messages and supplies in their hair, their petticoats and clothing, and other objects. (Note: Not all the petticoats with pockets, or hoops with chains, are necessarily related to smuggling; prior to purses, pockets were sewn into a lady’s underthings, and chatelaines, skirt-lifters, and other accoutrement was also used. But if you find a Civil War era note or antique bottle of medicine, I’ll allow you to get excited!) Among the other objects used for smuggling in the Civil War were dolls.
Another large area of historical smuggling items to collect are from the 1910′s through 1930s. During this time, Temperance and the ensuing Prohibition meant more than making and running the moonshine, for the illegal booze not only filled the bottles and glasses of the speakeasies, but those of private individuals as well.
Flasks of alcohol were hidden in vests, canes, shoes, and garters. (I bet Bonnie had a flask in one of her garters too!) And the booze was hidden in homes disguised as everyday items such as fake radios, and, again, false books.
Over the years, books have been popular places to hide and smuggle all sorts of things. Messages can be tucked within their pages — and the text itself can be used as a code. Hollowed-out books can hide lots of smaller objects. Books have been so common they have been considered innocuous, leading to the manufacture of book safes — and WWII soldiers creating wooden books to hide guns in. Just try to do any of that with your ebook.
Because of the secretive nature of smuggling and hiding contraband, most of these containers are unique. After all, you don’t want to buy the easy-to-spot fake item that alerts police or narks — you’d be busted! For the collector, this means having the proper provenance, documentation, or other means of identification to prove the handmade and altered items have the illicit history you seek.