Wednesday, November 25 2020 9:05

Collectors, Questers, Seekers of Joy

Written by Karen Jessee

Got a collector on your holiday list? You may be tempted to add to the collection with a gift. But is that really the best idea?

No one knows the thrill of the hunt, the joy of victory and the fun of bragging rights better than collectors.

The word “collections” can conjure up images from a kid with his bundle of baseball cards to the back room of a museum stacked with archival boxes and everything in between. Ranging from the small, silly and simple, to the hefty, unique and rare, collectibles always say something about the collectors themselves.

And there’s no shortage of ephemera—if it was created, it can be collected and antique shops, auction houses, estate sales, on-line sales, thrift stores and flea markets are only too happy to help those treasure hunters fulfill their undying passion for just one more.

Many collections bespeak the past laced with nostalgia, reminding us of how we once lived, worked, dressed and even how we played.

Take for example New York’s Mike McKenna, who works in costuming at the Metropolitan Opera. He has a personal collection of over 300 fedoras, 75 men’s straw hats, 40 bowlers, 40 top hats and 75 women’s hats, a collection running from the years 1880 to 1950. Mike says, “These beauties have been rented out for stage and screen, and I have delighted in seeing pieces on some prominent actors.”

Then there’s Sandy of Wilmington who has beautifully encased and displayed her vast collection of vintage Barbies (she got her first Barbie in 1960) along with their fashions. Sandy says, “I was drawn to the original ones, which were haute couture, meaning their fashions were designed by a ‘name’ designer and hand sewn by Japanese housewives. My 1966 Barbie is signed by her creator, Ruth Handler. I have around 150 Barbies, of which about 30 to 40 are true vintage. ”

Michael Messitt from Lewes, Delaware has a sizeable collection of cuff links, some with matching tie tacks, accessories that were once part of a gentleman’s attire for special occasions and even work—long before casual Fridays and working from home with no pants were options.

Another type of collector, Andy of North Carolina loves vintage technology and has a collection of 65 vintage vacuum cleaners, 7 Sunbeam mixers and 20 cameras.

Christmas Collections

For some, the holiday season is the reason for all those Santas and nutcrackers they’ve accumulated. For Nancy Sakaduski of Lewes, the interest lies in vintage Christmas storybooks. Through a bit of serendipity, some of her books now can be seen each year among the trees and toys at Winterthur Museum at Christmas.

“The collection started 40 years ago when my husband, Joe, bought me an 1874 book of Christmas stories because he knew how much I loved Christmas,” says Nancy. “I now have approximately 400 books as well as boxes of vintage Christmas cards, postcards, sheet music, records, Christmas issues of magazines and other ephemera. While none of these items is particularly valuable, the items provide Christmas spirit both in my home and at Winterthur, where I loan some items each year to help decorate the rooms for their Yuletide Tour.”

Another Christmas-themed collector, Linda Maddux of New Castle, Delaware started collecting in 1968 in Argentina. “I began collecting small unusual pottery figures for a crèche. I have since collected from each place and country I’ve visited. It’s now vast and too large to get out each Christmas, but the collection is totally unique and holds a lifetime of memories,” she says.


When it comes to collectors, Delaware can boast a powerhouse of people who have not only filled their homes, closets and curio cabinets with remarkable pieces, but who are well versed on the historic and educational value of these objects.

Questers, a national organization, is a group dedicated to history: preserving it, speaking on it, traveling to see it, and, of course, collecting it. Questers know only too well how a collection can grow from a few items to a few hundred.

The organization itself began in 1944 during World War II in the home of Jessie Elizabeth “Bess” Bardens who worked for the Red Cross. Her simple antique-store find of a blue syrup pitcher displayed on the corner of her desk garnered so much attention that she began gathering people in her home to talk about history and collections.

This group became the first Questers chapter, and what had begun as merely a distraction from the war grew into hundreds of chapters. Today Questers are both national and international with chapters abroad and in 41 states in the U.S. Pennsylvania alone has over 101 chapters with more than a thousand members.

Brandywine Questers

The Brandywine Questers chapter in Delaware was founded in 1977 by Carol Harvey, owner of the children’s clothing store Hansel and Gretel. Carol, who claims she was born a collector, began with a childhood collection of soap in the shape of animals that grew into her adult collections of Victorian antiques, ladies’ hand fans, vintage Valentines and a myriad of beaded vintage purses.

As most collectors will tell you, it began with “just that one that caught my eye.”

For Carol, it was that vibrant red-orange beaded purse found at a garage sale. Among her varied collections, Carol is perhaps best known for her Christmas collection, which includes hundreds of antique decorations as well as Russian hand-painted Santas. It’s a collection she’s shared over the years with hundreds of groups and individuals.

“I’d been a Quester in another state before moving to Delaware where there were four other Questers chapters when I arrived. Today, only Brandywine Questers is left,” says Carol.

Within the Brandywine Questers are some prodigious collectors. One has a houseful of historic and vintage hatpins and can speak on their history and materials. This collection began with the few pieces inherited from her grandmother.

Another member has a vast collection of historic German and French dolls that’s beautifully displayed in two rooms, one with lighted cabinets. Yet another has had her collection of Madam Alexander dolls on display at Wilmington University. A collection of Hopi Indian pottery has caught the eye and attention of the Smithsonian.

Through research and study, members of the group have given presentations on historic fashion, vintage accessories, trading cards, silver, jewelry, Valentines, lithographs, textiles, antiques and more. Some have given lectures or taught classes at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware.

When asked how she began her group, Carol says, “My husband, John, worked for DuPont, and I began teaching courses in antiques at the DuPont Country Club, back in the 1970s. People would fill the ballroom for those classes,” she says. The Questers began with a few of the women who were taking the classes and were already collectors themselves.
Besides sharing their knowledge of history, Questers go further. They donate funds to the preservation and restoration of historic buildings, landmarks and artifacts.

Carol says, “Our group has given to many charities and organizations. We’ve sponsored fellowships at Winterthur for students majoring in history and art restoration. Money for these groups is made through an annual auction among our members each spring.” The group also works with the national organization headquartered in Philadelphia, has attended the national conventions, and contributed money and research papers.

There’s nothing more exciting for a collector than that bloodhound-like search and victorious discovery of yet “one more” to embrace and carry home. Whether a member of Questers or not, every collector knows their motto: “It’s fun to seek and a joy to find.”


Interested in becoming a Quester? Contact President Carol Harvey at The group meets monthly in homes and has a schedule of speakers, projects and trips.

For years, Karen Jessee has been a contributing writer to Delaware publications. A former teacher and business woman, she is now a speaker on women’s history and the accessories and clothing that tells women’s story. Her articles and presentations have won both state and national awards.