COMPANION TO A COUNTRY AUCTION:
AUCTIONS AS SOCIAL CUSTOM
The estate sale, or auction, is a compelling and engrossing event that readily draws-in all who watch. Its a rhythmic, sensual, faintly archaic ceremony reverberating with a curious mixture of sentimental, celebratory, economic and pragmatic implications. The event itself demands our attention as an entertaining slice of rural American life - yet there is more to these events than meets the eye. A key fact about estate sales is that they follow a death. They are, if viewed in an expanded temporal frame, part of the whole series of arrangements through which a family, its neighbors and the surrounding community go about settling a death. Viewed in an even larger temporal frame, these auctions can be understood as part of a continuous process through which generations of people negotiate and mark their relationships with one another.
These auctions then, have not only pragmatic value in redistributing property, but also substantial symbolic implications for the social life of a community. Another instrumental fact about auctions is that they are customary here. They are "traditional solutions" for dealing with the kinds of issues a community has to face at the time of someone's death. They are social institutions, formalized devices, through which individual and community behavior is organized and the needs of each addressed. In producing this film then, our intent has been to demonstrate how estate sales function in these different capacities. We wanted to carry viewers past the entertaining surfaces of these events in order to portray the important activities that couch and interpret the single day of the sale and achieve its purposes for the family and community who together, work their ways through them.
The scholarly study of auctions and auctioneering has been largely confined to economics, with occasional forays into folklore and linguistics that focused on its marketplace qualities (Cassady 1967), or on the auctioneer's performance (Steed 1977; Aibel 1979; Barrick 1974; Rayfield 1972). Only anecdotal commentary about the auction as a social institution exists (Slack 1967; Gutelius 1922; Rockmore and Rockmore 1974; Westerfield 1937; March and Aspinall 1971; Brough 1963; Clark andf Halford 1978).[To be expanded]
In their comprehensive filmography, Ferris and Peiser (1976) list three films on auctions and auctioneers - Ray Lum - Mule Trader; Bus Mars - Auctioneer; and Folklife Number One. In 1977 Werner Herzog produced How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck?, about the world championship contest of livestock auctioneers in New Holland, Pa. Jeff Vaughn and John Schott produced a biographical film, Robert Scull, America's Pop Collector, organized around a Parke-Bernet fine art auction in Manhattan. Most recently, Dinty Moore made The Auction Film, a survey of several Pa. auctions. These films concentrate upon straight-forward description and upon the performance of the auctioneer. With the exception of the Scull film, no one attempted to place performance or the event into any socio-cultural context. They are character studies of "interesting" people and records of "exotic" events.
Our research and the Auction film have attempted to take the "closer look" at these events, in order to understand them as cultural events of major significance in the lives of those involved.
To understand the "place" of these estate sales in the life of a community, we can begin by initially examining how they fit into the life of the family involved. If we understand each family's history to follow a regular cycle from formation to dissolution, the estate sale is of course located squarely at the end of a family unit's existence. Its significance has therefore to be gauged first in terms of this temporal context. Fortes (1958) and others have described the normal development of a family as occurring in three phases, each of which shades into the other. The family forms and expands with marriage and the introduction and growth of children; it disperses as children mature and leave home; and the original unit eventually dissolves with the death of the parents. This latter, "replacement" phase concerns us when looking at estate sales. In the rural communities of Juniata County, this last phase may actually begin when the family farm is turned over to offspring, or when parents retire, but in all cases it draws to a close as parents die and are replaced in the structure of the family by their own children. This is a critical moment in the history of any kinship group. The family now has not only an emotional but also an organizational problem. It needs to restructure relationships, adapt customary activities and redistribute roles and responsibilities as well as the material and economic wealth of the parental household.
Estate sales occur therefore not simply with the death of an individual, but with the death of a family unit. They occur when the parental homestead is dissolved, and thus become involved not only in dispersing the material remnants of the deceased, but also in the negotiations that follow the surviving family's efforts to adapt to the death. Goody noted similar significances to the inheritance process (of which estate sales are a part):
The linking of patterns of inheritance with patterns of domestic organization is not simply a matter of numbers and formations but of attitudes and emotions. The manner of splitting property is a manner of splitting people; it creates (or in some cases reflects) a particular constellation of ties and cleavages between husband and wife, parents and children, sibling and sibling, as well as between wider kin.(1976:3)
The process of dividing up property in effect becomes a vehicle through which family members test and develop their relationships and the new family order. As Goody suggests, inheritance arrangements can be used to reward or exclude, to promote harmony or sustain divisions and indeed in some cultures age and sex discrimination is institutionalized in the laws and customs regulating the inheritance process (see for example Sussman, Cates and Smith, 1974). The method of division thus both reflects, and does much to shape, the nature of relations between family members.
With this in mind we have to realize that the estate sale offers a particularly egalitarian and "democratic" solution to the problems of dividing possessions and defining positions. Residents in Juniata County will tell you that they don't want to argue, and they don't want their survivors to argue, over "who gets what" when they die. They're also just as firm in the belief that everyone in the family should receive an equal share of what remains behind and this is specifically what estate sales provide for. By requiring first of all, that the family bid on property in public, in front of a watchful community of friends and neighbors, these sales prevent the family from bickering in public and they assert a certain social control over any competitions that occur. They aim for equity and "fairness" by giving all heirs an equal chance to bid on and buy the property of the estate at auction. And, we might note finally, equality in the bidding for family members of different incomes is achieved, to some extent, by the fact that all money earned in the sale is divided amongst the heirs.
Not everything makes it to the sale in all circumstances. It will often happen that furnishings that are regarded as an important part of the family's legacy - venerable pieces of furniture for example that date back through several generations - will be bequeathed to particular individuals. It also happens when some agreement is possible, that family members will informally arrange for a partial division of what they consider to be major belongings at some point prior to the sale. (Always prior to the preparation of the sale bill. Once these bills are drawn-up the family is legally obligated to offer listed items for sale.) However, whatever the final mix of specified inheritance, informal negotiation or competitive bidding "at sale", the estate sale is commonly implicated in the sensitive processes of give-and-take that occur within the family at this point. As one auctioneer commented to us "If the family can get along, then fine they'll divide it up amongst themselves - but very, very, very, few can get along." For those who can't then, and for those who simply don't want to create the opportunity for divisiveness, the sale offers a method of redistribution which, consistent with local practice, minimizes disputes and the display of material inequities.
We assume a significance for these sales then in the negotiations and adaptations of families at a major, transitional moment in their lives. This is a narrowly conceived moment, however, for in actuality the events of family integration and familial exchange are continuous, on-going events. In effect the estate sale offers a specially marked moment in what is a repetitive cycle of events that spans generations within kin and community groups.
It has been shown in Juniata County specifically, that property customarily circulates between the homes of family and friends as part of a life-long process through which relationships are serviced and marked (Musello 1982,1985). When a young family is first setting-up for example, there is a heavy reliance on parents and siblings to help furnish the home. Furnishings come as gifts, as indefinite loans and as exchanges. In effect, the larger family's resources establish a flow of goods that is predominantly "inward" to the new home. As the family gets its feet, goods circulate more evenly between the various family homes as they all share furnishings or provide gifts for one another's homes. When the children's children then depart, their parents and grandparents turn their attentions and resources to these new households. Its a continuous process by which these frugal people share their resources and lend one another assistance throughout their entire lives. Goody recognized this in dealing with inheritance. He pointed out that the "things" of a home moved all the time, not just at one moment, at the time of death, and for this reason he preferred to use the word "devolution" rather than inheritance (cf. 1976:1-2).
Similarly as we study auctions and the significance of their redistribution of belongings, we have to recognize that they are understood locally as part of this lifelong process through which family homes come to be filled with furnishings "dating back" to to their intimate circle of family and friends. The custom is a manifestly pragmatic one, providing important material assistance, but it should also be pointed out that the custom comprises a symbolic resource for these people. Through these exchanges they offer one another tokens of concern and respect, mark important occasions, and signify ties and bonds of relation.
The death of an individual is more than just a family matter, however. It is as well the death of a member of the community and in a sense it, and death in general, threaten the continuity and order of this group. Hertz (1960) called death "contra-social". Radcliffe-Brown expressed its impact in this way:
For the society a death is the loss of one of its members, one of its constituent parts. A person occupies a definite position in society, has a certain share in the social life, is one of the supports of the network of social relations. His death constitutes a partial destruction of the social cohesion, the normal life is disorganized, the social equilibrium is distorted. After the death, the society has to organize itself anew and reach a new condition of equilibrium (1964:285)
Death is then a crisis for both the family and the larger society and it necessitates an organized response by each. Customary responses, including measures for the treatment of property, are commonly drawn-on at these times and these in turn, guide (or socialize) those involved to respond in socially appropriate ways. Fortes describes this relationship between personal and social events in this way:
Marriage, inheritance, succession, and so forth are events in the internal system, or to be more specific, domain of the domestic group; but they are simultaneously events in the external domain, where the domestic group is integrated into the total social structure in its political, jural and ritual aspects. The interests involved are those of society at large a well as those of the domestic group per se... it is through political, jural and ritual institutions and customs which derive their force from society at large then, that the interests of the total social system, as opposed to those specific to the domestic domain, are brought to bear on the latter(1958:6).
The interests of society at this point are essentially to provide for continuity in the succession of members and to undertake what Hertz called the "painful process of mental disintegration and synthesis" (1960:86). Blauer explains the community's needs in this way:
Death creates a further problem because of the contradiction between a society's need to push the dead away and its need "to keep the dead alive." The social distance between the living and the dead must be increased after death, so that the group first and the most affected grievers later, can re-establish their normal activity without a paralyzing attachment to the corpse... The need to keep the dead alive directs societies to construct rituals that celebrate and insure a transition to a new social status, that of spirit, a being now believed to participate in a different realm (1977:18).
Society's response to this and other times of crises and transmission are commonly characterized in terms of customary ritual - institutionalized behaviors and procedures which lead people through their changes in a prescribed fashion. Van Gennep (1960) has characterized these events collectively as "rites of passage" and defined a regular set of stages which characterize each passage. At death, the three main stages are characterized in this way: 1)Separation - which occurs at the time of death for both the deceased and, to an extent, for the living closely associated with them (this may vary by culture). They are "set apart" from the community in a sense as mourners. 2) the Intermediate or Mourning period - a transitional phase during which the deceased is mourned and separated from his former place in the community. It is here that the dead in essence are "pushed away" and it is at this time that the living begin to reconcile their relations in his/her absence. 3) The rites of Re-Integration or Aggregation - at which time both the living and the dead make transition to their new statuses. It is here that the deceased is "re-integrated" into the adapting family and community structures in his/her new status as an "ancestor".
Estate sales function as a specialized aspect of these rites of passage. As we have said, they occur most often at a time of death and the dissolution of a household and in this context they are implicated in the rites of aggregation through which family and community relations are marked and reaffirmed and the deceased's status codified. As customary "solutions" drawn on to meet the needs of this time, traditional estate sales represent a final phase of an institutionalized set of procedures through which society subsumes the events surrounding death and sustains its own existence.
These theoretical phrasings of the auctions as social rites readily take on a reality when you look at sales as they happen in this county. As large scale public events that invite extended community participation, the social nature of these "last rites" is undeniable. Auctions permit a degree of public scrutiny of the family, its belongings, and their handling of this crisis which is very unusual and effectively require them to think of the community as they carry-out their preparations. They are highly standardized and occur repetitiously through the course of successive generations and thus demonstrate the "fixity" of customary rituals ( i.e. they incorporate defined behaviors, towards specific ends, and provide for a certain amount of rigidity and historical continuity, cf. Bossard and Boll 1950:29). Finally even the timing of these events locates them chronologically at the "appropriate" moment in the cycle of funerary rites for them to be considered as an element of the rites of aggregation. They occur typically at some six to eight months distance from the death of the individual involved, and as secular, materially-oriented events, this locates them carefully at what is considered a "respectful" distance from the spiritual "work" that must be done immediately following each death. Indeed, to the extent that each new phase of transition is indicated, as Warner(1959) and Van Gennep (1960) suggest, by different "marked' forms of behavior, the estate sale may be considered as an activity which in itself reflects and/or stimulates the transition from mourning to renewal and re-integration.
As part of these rites, we can see that estate sales provide for a "dis-integration" or "pushing "away" of the dead as it serves to dissolve and then re-distribute the material remains of their homesteads. The point is made graphically again and again, when after each sale the "pieces" of the household leave in cars and trucks for points all around the county (and country in recent years). The house stands empty at the end of the day, and members of the living exchange papers and make arrangements for a new family to fill its spaces with life. Yet even as these sales serve to dissipate the material remnants of the deceased's life, they serve an integrative function within the community.
This redistribution of goods serves the community in a number of ways. It has, to begin with, been a pragmatic way of sharing material and economic resources at reduced cost. Many young families have relied on such sales to provide the myriad furnishings, from buckets and clothespins to couches, needed to set-up a household. And similarly, many established households draw on such sales to supplement or replace tools, appliances, linens and so on, while avoiding the costs of new goods. This is a poor county and these sales seem to represent an important resource for many families - there is accordingly no stigma attached to "second-hand" items.
These things are not possessed solely of an economic or utilitarian value however. Many carry lineages, associations, identities and relationships. For as Blauer notes:
Society's groups are fractured by the deaths of their members and must therefore maintain their identities through symbols that are external to and outlast individual persons (1977:195).
Such symbolic use of belongings is ubiquitous in the communities of this county. Here, where history is celebrated as a primary component of family and community identity, and where lineages are exchanged routinely as a matter of idle conversation, the vast array of furnishings in a home may be called upon to summon up accounts of others or otherwise encode references to people, events and relationships. When talking about anything from a house to a hat pin in this county, you will frequently be told where it "comes from" and this connection of the object to other people may well be treated as its most notable feature. Each estate sale becomes an occasion through which members of the community may self-consciously (at times) set-out to acquire such remembrances of the deceased and their family. Objects acquired for this reason may be pointedly commemorative (china, knick-knacks and various display items will be used in this way), or their use may be more complex - but all but the most common and least durable objects may be used by members of the community to encode a wealth of references to their previous owners. And in subsequent years, they will be used to raise stories about the deceased and pointed to when some allusion was made, as tangible evidence of the person concerned - "that's her dry sink over there." (Cf. Musello 1981, 1984,1985)
The integrative function of this process of redistribution therefore is embedded in part in the ways in which these objects are invested with mnemonic and commemorative significances in this community, and in the pattern of distribution itself. For here relatives will collect relics of other relatives, friends of another friend, club members of another club member. People look for items to mark their relationships. The pattern of people collecting such items at a sale will therefore, mark the deceased's network of kith and kin, just as the pattern of objects in any individual's home will mark the network of people whom they consider to be important.
These objects may record actual relationships or, as is often the case with prominent and/or respected families, they may simply be acquired to document those not personally known but admired by the community. (Conversely, residents of the county will often not even consider attending the sales of families they dislike or who are held in low regard in the community.) In this way then, the distribution of these objects serves to commemorate, and in fact index, not only bonds of relation and networks of affiliation, but also patterns of prestige and status in the county. In essence, the distribution of property will to an extent mark the shape of the social structure of the community itself. Perhaps more simply, we can note that ones attendance at a sale and the simple act of buying some piece can be taken in the community as a way of honoring the deceased.
Finally, these sales may also be said to serve in sustaining the continuity of social life in the community by serving a kind of social control function. Blauer, again, has observed that in many groups, the life of the deceased will be summarized and evaluated at the time of death:
...his qualities, lifework, and accomplishments must be summed up and given appropriate recognition; his property, roles, rights, and privileges must be distributed so that social and economic life can continue; and finally, the social units - family, clan, and community as a whole - whose very existence and functioning his death has threatened must have a chance to vigorously reaffirm their identity and solidarity through participation in ritual ceremony (1977:188).
Similarly, Goody comments:
Of great importance here are the social control functions of ceremonies. Funerals are inevitably occasions for summing up an individual's social personality, by a restatement not only of the roles he has filled, but also of the general way in which he has conducted himself during his lifetime. (1962:29)
If these things indeed may be said to be true of the funeral, they are probably more manifestly the case for estate sales. For these sales are by definition grand viewing events. Prior to the sale, the family cleans, sorts and prepares the home for viewing by the community - we have in fact observed several elderly women actively acquiring furnishings and redecorating their homes in anticipation of their own passing. During the days leading up to the sale and all through the course of the auction itself, people walk through and paw through the house and its possessions, discussing them between themselves and quietly evaluating the goods, the family and their way of life. In this sense the estate sale provides for extraordinary access to the home and all it contents for the community. Many will see the interior of the house for the first time on these occasions and indeed, many will attend in order to take this opportunity. The event thus becomes a final, most thorough, "viewing" by members of the community en masse and therefore implicitly serves as a kind of collective last evaluation of the departed - and perhaps in the process as a quiet testimony to some shared values.
This film aimed then to show that estate sales constitute a two stage exercise in social comparison and cross-referencing through which the norms and beliefs of the community are publicly applied and reaffirmed. The first stage of the exercise incorporates all the activities of the family in preparing the home for viewing - perhaps one of the most formal presentations a family makes of itself. And the second stage provides for the evaluation of this presentation by the community at large.
A final feature of estate sales to be considered in our analysis concerns their relationship, as an economic activity, to the county and to the larger society. Estate sales can, of course, be seen as a subset of a larger form of economic activity known simply as "sales" or auctions. And, as mentioned, this activity constitutes an important component of the economic system endemic to this county. Nonetheless, while we have discussed the auction to this point as a localized event, they have been distorted in recent years by the increasing influx of outside economic interests - i.e. antique dealers and collectors from outside the county. These dealers frequently come from distant counties and places like Philadelphia or Baltimore, but they are also served by local and regional dealers who act as agents for collector/dealers from all over the U.S.
These dealers in a sense "re-interpret" the objects of these sales as "antiques" and graphically inflate the prices they bring at auctions. Their competition has often proved too much for local buyers and a result has been that the supply of older lineage items has been steadily depleted as a growing percentage of the county's pool of material and symbolic resources is siphoned-off for sale throughout the nation. This has inevitably created some tensions between county residents and the outsiders and to an extent, has "integrated" this once insular county into the economies and practices of the larger market system. Tracing these influences and their effect upon this tradition of auctions was the final goal of this film. [This section on economic dimensions should be expanded.]
Summary The estate sale occurs at the end of a life, at the end of a family's life-cycle, and within the repetitive cycling of successive generations. In the cross-generational view of family life, estate sales are recognized as a means for dealing with the crises of transitional moments when one generation succeeds the next. Estate sales provide a ritual through which the family may recall the deceased and attempt to reconcile their loss, while simultaneously working to adapt and affirm the relations of the living. As part of a continuous process of pooling possessions, they also offer a last chance to collect material symbols of the deceased and thereby sustain a symbolic continuity between the generations.
At the level of community process, the estate sale can be seen as a ritual institution which draws the family crisis into the public sphere by prescribing traditional methods for dealing with the death and opening the events to public participation. Here the sale is seen as part of a regular cycle or rites - rites of passage - each of which establishes customary procedures for dealing with the major periods of change that occur in the life of an individual or family. We have described estate sales as the last phase of a set of funerary rites. They carry the family and community from "mourning" to an activity through which the community can collectively recall the deceased and symbolically "re-integrate" him with the community as an ancestor. These sales present important occasions in which the possessions and lives of the deceased and the surviving family may be evaluated by the public, and they work at various levels to define and re- affirm the structure of community values and relationships.
Finally, estate sales should be understood as economic activity. In this role they are an integral part of the local economy, providing an important source for low-priced household goods. But as a major source for antique furniture, they also attract the interest of outside, mass market economic influences and tie-into consumer trends and economies developed on the national level. These outside interests have functioned increasingly in the past decade to distort the social and symbolic aspects of these sales and their impact offers a perspective on the interaction of symbolic and economic needs in the social life of this rural county.
History of Sales
The methods of Sales
Planning a Sale
Estate sales have evolved as a means for dissolving a homestead and converting a family's property into cash. They are held most often when a last surviving homeowner dies and their estate is to be divided amongst their heirs. They also frequently occur when the elderly find the need to leave their home and retire to a convalescent home. In these cases the estate is sold both to "unburden" the elderly of the requirements of their property and to raise the cash they will need to live on through their remaining years. Our film has focused on the first instance, but it can be said that each occasion produces the same kind of sale event. Each is tinged with the melancholy sense of a homeplace at its end, and both of these sales draw family and community members to meet the kinds of pragmatic and symbolic objectives we will be discussing below. The procedures and economics behind these sales are also essentially identical.
When a sale is necessitated by a death, the sequence of events leading to the auction are usually set into motion by the heirs or the executor of the will. The executor is a person, either a family member, a lawyer or bank officer, who is named in the will to act as the deceased's agent in guaranteeing that the terms of the will are fairly met. They are legally bound both by the terms of the will and various state statutes which govern the process. It is unusual for people in this county to actually specify in a will how the various furnishings and property of an estate should be divided amongst heirs. Auctions or any other method of settlement are rarely specified by the deceased in their wills as a way to handle the division problem. What the heirs are most often left with in a will then, is a simple requirement that things be split in a certain way - most often with equal shares for all. Survivors then have two problems at this point - they need to find a means for dividing-up those belongings people want to keep in a way that doesn't prompt any antagonisms; and they need to convert the remainder of the estate into cash. In Juniata County, auctions are one of the most common solutions used to meet these needs. Those who want to keep some item can bid on it at sale; those things the family doesn't want will be sold-off quickly in one day; and the estate will be liquidated in a way which tends to bring-in the most money for the least work. It is usually the heirs therefore, and not the former owner who make the decision to expose the home to public sale.
Once the will is probated, the decision to sell confirmed, and an auctioneer contacted, the process of preparing the home for sale begins. At some point either before or after cleaning starts, the auctioneer sorts through all the materials in the home and prepares a listing known as the "sale bill" which will be used to advertise the auction. This becomes a kind of semi- legal listing of what will be available at the auction and anything shown on the bill must be available for sale on that day. The auctioneer is generally responsible for overseeing all phases of the preparations and as the home nears readiness he will return to the home to instruct the family on items to keep or discard and how best to set things up for the preview and sale. Preparations may at times be made by people working for the auctioneer, however in most cases the family is anxious to make sure that this responsibility is taken on by someone related to the deceased. Clothes must be disposed of, closets and desk drawers emptied, and all the personal papers and memorabilia of lifetime sorted through and disposed of. The whole house is essentially broken-down in this process, and then slowly cleaned and re-organized for sale. The preparations may take months, at times a year or more, but when the day of sale arrives, the family has one more very long day before them.
[More on Advertising the sale - the different strategies? More on the idea behind drawing up the sale bill? Any more on clean-up?]
Sales may be held right on the grounds of the estate to be sold, as in this film, or located in a public building such as a grange hall or firehall. A variety of pragmatic considerations regarding such things as the weather and space for parking go into making a decision on the location, however, auctioneers will tell you that if the real estate is to be sold, "it just seems right" that that the sale be held at the home, and people have that last chance to walk around the homestead. Whether the auctions are located at the home or in the firehall, however, the setting will have to make room for a range of people, activities and materials that are an invariant part of any "sale-scape".
To begin with, the entire inventory of the home - from wash buckets to automobiles - has to be laid-out for public viewing. The most common approach in house sales finds furniture, boxes of hardware and large appliances lined in rows around the borders of the yard. This allows for easy examination and through the course of the day people browse along these rows, opening drawers, turning chairs over and climbing under tables to consider their condition and the price they might bring. When the time comes to sell these large pieces, the auctioneer leaves his stand and walks along these rows pointing to each piece in turn as he calls for bids from the crowd that follows. The remainder of the home's contents will most often be displayed in boxes and on tables arranged throughout the house itself, and here again the curious will take time out throughout the day to pour-over these displays and walk through the home. In Firehall sales, little that is readily movable is arranged outside the hall. The entire inventory is instead usually packed around the borders of the room, making these louder and more crowded events.
The auctioneer's stand is placed strategically in a position which on the one hand accommodates the most number of people with the best view, and on the other allows for the steady flow of goods from the house and tables. Auctioneers move fast and call auctions for hours without stopping. They want both to make sure they complete the sale within the time available, and that they keep the crowd's attention riveted to the objects being sold. A major emphasis will be placed as a result on setting up a system of tables and helpers which moves things steadily and efficiently to auctioneer's stand. In some cases the auctioneer hires the people who help him keep things moving, in most sales however, relatives of the family will take primary responsibility for these jobs and also serve as the "runners" who carry the objects out to the buyers after "knock-off".
The seating area is then spread-out in a rough wedge shape pointing in towards the selling stand. In the firehall, seats are usually provided. In outdoor sales however, people bring their own lawn chairs and the seating area takes shape as couples, families and friends arrive and stake out their territories. Outdoor sales are of course subject to weather and the frugal auctioneer or executor who fails to provide a tent for shelter may find his audience arrangements calculated more to avoid the sun or rain then to follow the sale. "A crowd's like a bunch of chickens," one auctioneer told us, "they'll hunt every bush to get under if its hot and you don't have a tent - and then you can't control their attention. You've got to have their attention." Not surprisingly then, many outdoor sales in this county take place beneath the pleasant cover of a canvass big-top. It adds a certain carnival atmosphere to these already festive events.
Regardless of the auctioneer's ambitions however, these auctions are usually multi-focus events with several different coinciding spheres of activity. Through the course of the day you will see a great deal of movement in the crowd as people shift their attention from the sale to visit with friends , walk around the grounds and get themselves something to eat. The seating area in front of the auctioneer will usually be surrounded by crowds of standing sale-goers and attention in this group may be widely differentiated. Those closest to the seating area may be most attentive and you will often find antique dealers clustered together in these inner margins. Friends will cluster out here to talk while keeping a casual eye on the sale, as will children and teens who prefer the less restricted atmosphere of the outer margins. Men also seem to gravitate to these outer surrounding rings more than women, and you will often find women moving together in the seating areas through the course of the day as the men withdraw to share the company of their friends.
Methods and Participants
The auctioneer is the "master of ceremonies" throughout the course of these events. He controls the timing and pace of each phase of the sale, decisions about when different kinds of items will be brought up for sale, and how they will be sold. In choosing the order of items to be sold, the auctioneer takes several things into account. Generally a rough order of sale is announced before things begin - real estate at such a time, furniture at another, and major items of special interest such as farm equipment or a gun collection at yet another time. The order in which remaining items may be sold is more flexible however, and the skilled auctioneer shifts and adapts the kinds of items presented throughout the day in order to maintain his audience's interest and attention. He knows that people are there with differing interests and for different purposes, and he also knows he has things to sell that few will be interested in. Most auctioneers will try, therefore, to sell the limited-interest items early while the audience is fresh and "willing", and hold off on those things which reliably draw the most attention - such as quilts, good china, toys, guns and tools - until they are needed to pull the crowd back into the sale. The auctioneer, again, has always to work at sustaining the audience's attention in order to get the best prices possible for each item.
The auctioneer's song, or "spiel", is loudly amplified and continuous, and forms a rhythmic sound environment which dominates the setting. This speil becomes another instrumental part of his control. He may vary its height, range, rhythm or intensity to pace the bidding or catch the audience's attention. He might even stop abruptly if he feels there is too much noise or too little attention.(cf. Aibel 1979) In these last cases the effect is usually dramatic since people are so accustomed to the undercurrent of his voice - people stop what they're doing and turn to the stand for an explanation. The auctioneer may also "keep the crowd with him" during the day through an on-going round of jests, comments and insults shared with members of his audience. This adds to the entertainment, it sometimes serves to cajole continued bids out of an unwilling participant, and for some of the auctioneers we've seen in the county it clearly works to build the size of the crowd they draw to the sale.
When items are brought-up to sell, the auctioneer first decides how they will be sold (individually, by the lot, "so much the piece and take the lot" and so on), and then begins the bidding by asking a certain price for it - usually the amount he feels it should go for. If, as is customary, he gets no immediate signal of a bid at this price from the audience, he backs down steadily until he does get one. From this point the auctioneer starts back up, raising the price at increments that he sets - depending on the item, he might go up a quarter, a dollar, five dollars or ten dollars with each bid. The audience usually accepts these increments, but in some cases they may offer less, as in shot 134, where Joe Herman crosses his fingers to indicate he will go up half of what the auctioneer is asking. The auctioneer will move the bidding at the fastest pace he thinks he can. The buyers, hoping for a bargain, will try to work the auctioneer down as low in price as they can and may stall their bids or use other tactics to slow him down. Other audience members may also become involved in the midst of all of this by bidding against someone they hold a grudge against simply in order to raise the price they have to pay. There is a great deal of gamesmanship involved in all of this, and again, it is regarded as a fine form of entertainment throughout the county.
Throughout the bidding, the auctioneer has to catch people's bids (anything from a blink to a wave of the arm), recall who is "in" the bidding and where they are, let those who are out of the bidding know it, look for others who may be joining the bid late, and try to convince those who have dropped-out to offer just a little more money. If he has a partner, the second auctioneer will help him catch bids, otherwise most auctioneers are assisted by a clerk who sits beside him to record each sale.
The clerk works as part of a simple system of accounting through which sales are noted and bills for each bidder tallied. In recent years this system has come to rely almost universally on the assignment of numbers to each bidder. But as recently as 1980, clerks in a majority of these auctions were confidant of knowing most of the people attending the sale and purchases were entered by surname. Through the numbers system, sale-goers acquire a number at the beginning of the sale, after showing some identification if they're not personally known. The clerk then records each object sold during the course of the auction and places the number of the purchaser beside it. These lists are in turn totaled throughout the day by a cashier who is usually located inside the home being sold, or in a corner of the firehall. When a buyer is ready to leave the sale, the clerk then has a record of all purchases made and the amount owed.
All of this changes somewhat when the real estate is sold - usually at the mid-point of the day. All people interested in bidding on the property generally have spent time going over the lands and buildings before-hand and they must have made arrangements with a bank for a mortgage before the sale. Typically they arrive at a maximum figure that the bank is willing to finance and this determines the bidder's limit at the auction. When the sale is complete, the successful bidder must be prepared to hand-over a 20% down payment that day. This is, needless to say, an especially public way to buy a home and in the days proceeding the sale, speculative gossip runs willy-nilly through these little communities about who will be bidding, how much they'll be willing to pay, and who local folks tend to favor. The actual time of bidding is a dramatic moment then for many in the community. The crowd becomes unusually quiet as the auctioneer presses the bidders with emotional appeals: "this house is your whole future," they'll be told, "don't let her go now, for just a few hundred dollars." For their part, bidders in real estate hide their bidding more carefully than at any other time in the sale. As members of the audience crane their necks and sweep the crowd to find them, bidders touch the brims of their hats or cover their mouths in signals often pre-arranged with the auctioneer. In filming the real estate sale for this film, we were able to locate and record two of the bidders only to find later that their movements were so subtle that few could see them when watching the footage.
With the real estate sold, the sale will usually move to the long awaited furniture, to quilts and then to masses of little things that remain. By the early evening the house stands bare and all the small things that made it a home have been carted off in cars and trucks to other parts of the community, county and country.