The History Channel has long had its detractors, especially when it comes to historical accuracy and taking liberties. But it at least used to make an effort to live up to its name. In recent years, the channel is crowded with a bunch of shows about backwoods folks going about their weird, muddy lives, like what you see on “Ax Men,” “Swamp People,” “Mississippi Men,” and “Appalachian Outlaws.”
Those shows aren’t related to history in the least, and I think they belong more in the category of freak shows. But there are two places on the network where you can learn something about history and it’s in a Vegas pawn shop and digging through a bunch of people’s detritus for treasures.
That’s right, I’m saying that “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” are the most legitimate, historically-based, and educational shows on The History Channel. I’m not sure any of the stars thought their shows would end up being the channel’s only bona-fide historical hold-outs, but fortunately for them (and us), they have.
Here’s a breakdown of what makes these shows so appealing and why I feel a little bit smarter every time I watch one.
History Geeks Run the Shows
Rick Harrison, the owner of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Sin City, may look like the kind of guy you don’t want to run into in a dark alley, but he is full of historical knowledge. He can look at a toy, gun, poster, or book and rattle off a detailed history of the provenance of the type of item, how many were ever made, and why or why not it may be valuable. He’ll give you an encyclopedic run-down of a velvet Elvis painting and make you appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that went into making it.
But as great as Harrison is, he’s got nothing on the fellas behind “American Pickers.” Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz are childhood friends who seem to have sprung from the womb with a fascination and love for historical artifacts that is mind-blowing. Both guys have their areas of expertise and they love a chance to share every detail they know about that vintage gas station sign or rusty motorcycle engine.
You can’t gain the depth of knowledge these three guys demonstrate from putting your nose in a book. These guys love to get their hands dirty and obsessively study the items and history that fascinates them. They live and breathe history and it shows when they whip out an obscure fact about a piece of costume jewelry or a slightly scary clown figurine.
They Know Junk is Worth Money
One of the most compelling parts of watching these shows is finding out that some random item your grandma has displayed on her dresser might be worth thousands of dollars. We all hope to find a Picasso at a garage sale or walk away with a Faberge egg we found in an attic, but there’s a reason those types of finds are the thing of myth. Sure, it has been known to happen, but more often the truly valuable items are harder to spot.
That’s where Harrison, Wolfe, and Fritz really shine. They can spot a winner a mile away. From JFK’s cigar box (currently going for $125,000 in the pawn shop), to a vintage pair of Levi’s (that Wolfe bought for his own use), these fellows have a knack for finding value under layers of dust and cobwebs. Wolfe even dug up a vintage motorcycle the owner took apart and buried in his yard decades before.
But Sentiment Trumps a Payout Every Time
More than once we’ve seen Harrison spend more than he wanted to snag something he thinks is really cool. Wolfe and Fritz both haggle for items they never intend to sell. These history buffs let their passion for the history and experiences their items represent trump their business sense time and again. And that’s a big part of why we trust them.
They’re willing to give up a profit to snag a cool item or preserve a rare find, making them more than money-hungry treasure hunters. We see that they’re people we can admire and that’s why we’re willing to spend time with them every week.
You may not get a tutorial on the Civil War or a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, but if you want to improve your knowledge of historical trivia, I think there’s no better way to do it than tuning in to these smart and entertaining History Channel shows. And who knows, you may even learn how to spot that undiscovered piece of treasure tucked away in your garage.
Photo Credit: A&E