Articles Of War

Patriotic collectibles gain popularity in times of national crisis, and America's fight against terrorism is no exception

January 03, 2002|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

President Bush rallies the troops. NATO stands tall alongside America. New York's bravest toil, undaunted.

News headlines? No. Trading cards in foil-wrapped packs.

Rushed to press by the baseball card giant Topps Co., the 90-card series depicts America's might and resolve. The good guys are glossy, in full-color Associated Press and Defense Department photos with red, white and blue borders. Osama bin Laden's card, though, looks like a miniature wanted poster, in stark black and white.

Patriotism is for sale: The merchandise has arrived. You can trade a Condoleezza Rice for a John Ashcroft. You can plaster your car bumper with new "American Pride" and "United We Stand" stickers; or join a group making angels, origami cranes, beaded flag pins or gifts for Afghan children. At Lord & Taylor, you can buy a Waterford crystal paperweight etched with an American flag ($99) or snazzy eagle-and-stars suspenders ($140). You can hang Martin O'Malley's rally-the-homefront-economy poster in the window - "America: Open for Business" features a shopping bag made from an American flag.

"This is cultural triage," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "This is a way of processing and memorializing and dealing with what's going on, and it's a lot faster way than putting up a monument.

"The fools of pop culture rush in to an event like this war, and then in time we'll get the novelists and poets and historians. It's going to be a long time for all the thoughtful, classic stuff to come out and until then, this is filling a need. People are reaching out and looking for a way to participate other than sitting in front of the television."

The production of patriotic and war-related trinkets and trash is a market activity as old as war itself. Academics who study popular culture point out that even the Crusades produced souvenirs, including faux relics.

Collectors of war bond posters, national security warnings, church fans adorned with soldiers' photos, ration books and other evidence of World War II's grip on everyday society give the stuff a name: homefront ephemera.

"Some of it was partly invented to provide for a common bond," says John Hench, a Worcester, Mass., collector of popular books and magazines printed for World War II troops. "It's not always altruistic, and there was a lot of commercialism to it."

He sees parallels to today's patriotic collectibles: "You saw an awful lot of corporate advertising tied to the tragedy and you see concerns about keeping the country safe."

Still, he notes, there are major differences. Watching television today makes the war on terrorism feel pervasive, though it's far away and cleaned up for public view. President Bush issued calls for voluntarism, but these fall far short of World War II's full-scale civilian mobilization.

Sacrifice? What sacrifice?

There are economic differences, too. The message inherent in the homefront ephemera of WWII was ration, conserve, sacrifice. The key words today: spend, spend, spend.

"It's a uniquely American thing. I think you end up feeling that an act of patriotism may be an act of acquisition. It's a big change," said Dr. Ronald Bishop, a professor of communications in Drexel University's department of culture and communication.

He calls it "the commodification of history."

"We're just trying to connect to each other in our grief and show our support for the government and the troops and have a piece of the action. We want to have a record of it. The culture has endorsed this way to participate. It's part of the patriot's call to arms: Go stay in a hotel, go fly in a plane."

For the cynics among us, it may be convenient to bash merchants, manufacturers and Madison Avenue. But popular culture experts say they feed a populace willing to pay for a piece of history or a sense of belonging.

An event as colossal as war must be commemorated.

Former President George Bush shares display space with Star Wars characters and pennant winners at Sports Card Heroes, Rick Currence's trading card shop on Main Street in Laurel. His "Commander in Chief" card is in Topps' 1991 Desert Storm series, still available for around $20.

At Ace Sports Cards in Olney, adults - not children - request the Enduring Freedom cards. The set contains breathtaking photos of military hardware: Apache helicopters, F-15 Eagle fighter jets, aircraft carriers. Heroes are represented: Firefighters and Army generals and departing New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, giving a thumbs-up sign.

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