An Introduction to
Mineral Label Collecting
Richard A. Bideaux and Ronald E. Bentley
Throughout the last 200 or so years of mineral collecting, most collectors, dealers and museum curators have attempted to attractively and scientifically label the minerals passing through their hands. Furthermore, in an implicit recognition of the historical value of such labels, they have often made an effort to retain and preserve earlier labels with the specimens, in addition to adding their own.
Tucson, Arizona - 1981
In the 1960's and 70's a number of mineral collectors independently became interested in these specimen labels as objects to be collected in their own right. In addition to preserving old labels for specimens in their own collections, which they had always done, they began to seek out the occasional label which had somehow become detached from its specimen, or to buy specimens which were perhaps of more interest for the labels accompanying them than they were in themselves. Hoards of these labels were sometimes given away by uncaring museum curators.
After many years of accumulating such labels, we are now in a position to say what we are about, and perhaps to attract others to this endeavor.
We were among the first to appreciate mineral labels by themselves as collectibles. We must also mention especially L. Neal Yedlin, who freely exchanged with both of us, and whose collection is now in the possession of one of us (Ronald Bentley). Neal devised the method of systematically arranging the labels on 3 x 5-inch filing cards, adding as much ancillary information as possible. John Sinkankas was the first person we know of to have mounted his labels in albums. Paul Patchik wrote several columns in Gems and Minerals magazine regarding label preservation, as did the Kruegers in Lapidary Journal. Bill Pinch once reproduced a series of older labels as part of the literature published in conjunction with the Rochester Mineralogical Symposium; the catalog of Krantz reproduced later shows an awareness of old labels by Arthur Neiderbacher, since deceased.
WHY COLLECT MINERAL LABELS?
Mineral labels are a record of those individuals and institutions collecting minerals, as well as a record of changing tastes in label design and styles. They have an intrinsic interest bearing on the historical aspects of mineral collecting. The oldest labels offer a direct record of the growth of mineralogical science, sometimes predating the mineral being named (as, for example, "gelb bleispath" = yellow lead ore = wulfenite) or giving only a chemical composition (green arsenate of copper). Their study is an education in languages, especially regarding the different forms mineral names have taken, and also a memory exercise; both kinds of challenges are useful training for evaluating collections, individual specimens and their probable dates. A label collection can also assist in the authentication of unknown labels, and provide verified examples of the handwriting of a particular collector.
If a new label design is contemplated, it is interesting to scan over thousands of past examples to garner ideas. Also, we believe that some of the labels in our collections may be the only surviving examples, and as such the only tangible evidence for the existence of a particular dealer or collector.
WHAT TO COLLECT?
Both authors of this booklet collect labels in almost the broadest possible sense (and quite competitively, we might add). Our goal is to obtain the finest examples of one each of every possible label. We restrict ourselves primarily to printed labels, meaning machine-made to some degree, although this may be just a rubber stamp. Manuscript labels are collected only if printed examples are non-existent or very rare, and then only for very prominent individuals. While old labels may be the rarer and more interesting, any label qualifies; all will be "old" labels someday.
The criteria discussed here are somewhat similar to those employed in stamp collecting (admittedly, the following may get a bit too refined for some people's tastes). The most obvious variation is in size; many otherwise identical labels exist in a series of different sizes, designed to fit in specimen boxes which were, in turn, designed for various sizes of specimens. Different printings of the same style of label can be distinguished by slight or major variations in type style, spacing of the type, flaws in the border, or different border designs. Color variations can also be considered. In fact, if fine distinctions are carried to extremes, especially for those labels that were individually printed, the variants representing a single prolific collector could conceivably run into the hundreds.
The ideal label, we suppose, would be the collector's own handwritten label for a specimen of the mineral species named after him (preferably the type specimen!), and dated (we haven't ever seen one!). Nevertheless, the best and most historically interesting labels show some association.
Speaking practically, considering that label storage can become moderately expensive, the best collection would consist of labels showing the greatest variety in the fewest examples.
One aspect that needs to be considered is the place to be held by blank labels. Usually a label which has been filled in is more desirable, but sometimes the blank label is almost impossible to obtain (for example, Mineralogical Record Auction labels). The cleaner and more perfectly centered on the card stock, the better the label—but those that have cut marks showing are certainly of interest as well. Photocopies of original labels have their place; made from originals that are hopelessly rare or unobtainable, they at least show what exists.
WHERE AND HOW TO COLLECT?
Obviously the place to start is to preserve the labels associated with specimens in one's own collection—without losing the connection between each label and its specimen. A secondary source is trades and gifts; the people listed in the appendix are a good place to start. In our experience, labels are usually freely traded, from duplicate stock, with collectors making their duplicates available to each other without cost or limit. No inequity seems to result, as occasionally there is a label to fill a gap, perhaps unknown, which makes the owner of a large collection quite happy, and willing to trade a large number of more commonly available labels.
In the past, labels have occasionally been sold, usually through necessity. This seems to have become more infrequent in recent years, though, perhaps because interest in label collecting, and therefore the market for labels, has declined. Nevertheless, the law of supply and demand will rule.
Then there are the "label finders"—people who appreciate but don't personally collect old labels, and who scout out interesting examples for collectors. Their finds may be offered at a price or, with the associated specimen, at an exorbitant price—the collector then has a decision to make.
Several museums were found to have drawers full of labels which had unfortunately become disassociated from their specimens, but these troves are long since exhausted. Some museums, unconcerned with the historical value of original labels, have systematically expunged from their collections any labels but their own. In some cases, private label collectors now have better records of labels than the museums themselves. On the other hand, some museums will not release a single label, or, if they do, it will be every label but their own, or only the mutilated examples.
HOW TO CARE FOR LABELS
As received, labels are often dirty and in very poor condition. In the worst case, they are almost illegible and torn apart. The collector's goal is preservation, which may involve cleaning and patching. The labels should be kept intact and safe from further possible damage. Two main methods seem to have evolved:
- The first preservation technique utilizes file cards, 3 x 5 inches, with the labels mounted in stamp collectors' glassine envelopes. This offers the maximum in flexibility and updating for newly acquired labels. The backs of the labels, which often show pricing and date information, may be studied easily. However, they require considerable time for access, and do not make a dramatic display.
- A second method is album mounting, which is harder to adjust as new labels are added, and can get expensive, but makes for easier viewing en masse. Glue and old-fashioned stamp hinges should be avoided. Modern stamp albums have horizontal rows of slots covered by clear plastic in which the labels can be arranged. The only drawback, other than price, is that the label must be removed in order to view the back side. In either case, arrangement is usually alphabetical.
HOW MANY LABELS ARE THERE?
Obviously, many millions of labels have been printed, and there are probably some tens of thousands of different kinds, depending upon the criteria used to distinguish them. Although dealers must, of necessity, have their own labels, the fashion among private collectors has shifted in recent decades, and many of today's private collectors do not have any printed labels to represent their own collections. Richard Bideaux's collection has about 2,500 different labels, from about 1000 different collections and dealers. Ron Bentley's collection contains roughly 2,000 labels. [Both collections are now preserved in the Mineralogical Record Library, but the degree of overlap between them has yet to be determined.]
One very rough measure is the rate of accumulation of new labels. This has been slowing down finally for the authors, but nevertheless, when presented with a "random" selection of labels for trade, it is not unusual for the authors to find that as many as 50% of the labels offered are new to their collection. This indicates a tremendous number still outstanding. Yet, we think that between us we have most of the "interesting" labels, representing the most famous collectors, dealers, and museums.
Some remarkable collections exist. For example, the Natural History Museum in London has a specimen of bournonite with nine labels of previous owners. And the Harvard Mineralogical Museum has preserved the labels for the first 77,000 specimens in its historic collection, all carefully mounted in books!
A label collection shows, first and foremost, who cared. Some collectors and dealers obviously took great pride in their labels, utilizing many different styles appropriate to their specimens. The collections show also the deterioration in handwriting, from the beautiful copperplate script of previous years through the uglier typewriting of today. We can easily exhibit here only the highlights from our collections: the largest, smallest, rarest, most beautiful, most interesting associations, most famous collectors, and so on. But we hope thus to interest others, and to convince mineral collectors that these fragile pieces of paper deserve to be appreciated and not lost.