Retired funeral director Hart takes away pieces of history with various collections

Morris Hart stands in just one corner of the area that houses his many collectables, displaying his case of more than three dozen “shoe knives.”
Morris Hart stands in just one corner of the area that houses his many collectables, displaying his case of more than three dozen “shoe knives.” Photo by Lauren M. Wilson.

Originally published Sept. 24, 2012.

The beginning of the 20th century was a turbulent time in the history of the United States.

Many events, including the Great Depression and two world wars, transformed the nation.

Every American takes away a little part of that time and makes it their own, and Morris Hart is no exception.

The retired funeral director collects an array of products from that era, from glassware and pottery to what he calls "shoe knives."

Hart owns more than 500 antique toy tractors, an assortment of American Flyer trains, Tootsie Toys and Danbury Mint model cars. Each of his trinkets came at a price - some costing him just pennies, and some are worth upwards of $3,500.

Of all his collections the most unusual is his collection of three dozen shoe knives.

Hart says the knives were produced in Germany and were sold with handmade shoes at the beginning of the 1900s to allow consumers to "cut the ribbons in the shoebox."
He says most of the knives are black, but he has some colored knives.

The knives are unique in their size and shape. Each knife is small - roughly the size of a pinky finger - and its casing (they resemble a modern pocket knife) is shaped like the woman's or man's shoe it accompanied.

Hart's interest in knives began as a young boy, he says.

He remembers in grade school the boys would "drop knives" - trade knives with other school boys.

"I had a pretty good knife, and I traded it for a knife with a split blade ... I learned right fast not to drop knives," he says with a laugh.

Even after that poor trade, his interest in knives never diminished. Years later, Hart says he bought his first shoe knife at a yard sale from previous owners of the home where he now lives with his wife, Gloria.

Shortly after he found the first shoe knife, he says he remembers his daughter asking him, "Dad, why don't you collect something small?"

So he took interest in the inch-long knives and has since traveled across the Midwest with Gloria looking for additions to his collection.

Hart explains that every year for Father's Day, he and Gloria travel to Iowa to visit his daughter. They make a stop in Walnut, IA, a town that claims to be "A town that measures yesterday's treasures" and was named Iowa's antique city in 1987.

They also frequent antique shops in Michigan and Illinois.

He says he never knows when he is going to find a shoe knife - some stores have several for sale and some have never heard of them.

He recalls a great find at a store in Galena, IL. He says he asked the store clerk if they had any shoe knives for sale, and the clerk invited Hart to take a walk through the store with him. They stopped at a three-ring notebook, the clerk opened it up, and two shoe knives dropped out.

"And that's the fun of collecting," he says with a smile.

And he certainly enjoys it. He has enough display cases and collections to make a visitor think he's in a museum, and he's still collecting.

Hart knows exactly where he bought each of his thousands of his knick-knacks, how much he paid for it and how much it is worth. To tour the space that houses the throng of items, with Hart describing the significance of each piece, takes (at minimum) two hours.

Hart can explain the history of American Flyer trains, and knows that they are wound either by key or electricity, depending on the year of production. He knows that the "key wind" train cars are made of tin, which is light enough for the engine to pull.

He has an assortment of Danbury Mint cars and models, and knows the intricacies of each one - the model, make and year produced.

Auburn Rubber cars and tractors are scattered throughout, and Hart can tell you the significance of each.

Tootsie Toys are also on display throughout his cases - simple little things that are more than 100 years old.

Hart's collection of Oliver antiques includes wrenches, tractors, some of their first ever produced arcade plows, a typewriter - the list goes on and on.

Other collectables such as an outboard motor he describes as "salty, salty," pocket watches, Louis Marx wind-up trains, old tools and wood figures.

But he isn't done yet -Hart also dabbles in his own restoration and building. He restores mechanical toolboxes and constructs homes and toys using intricate woodworking techniques.

"There is nothing he likes better than talking about his toys," says Gloria.

"It's certainly been interesting," he responds.