History as Entertainment

I’ve decided to review a television called Canadian Pickers that is currently ongoing in its 2nd season on History Televison.  It includes Sheldon Smithens and Scott Cozens who travel across the country attempting to purchase antiques and flip them for a profit.  In addition to the business side that allows viewers to keep score, history behind the antiques they discover are featured, as keeps consistent with other programming on History Television.

The hosts add credibility to the show, as they should be considered experts in the field of collectibles.  Sheldon is a third generation antiques dealer, along with being an appraiser and auctioneer.  On the website for the production company Cineflix Productions it further explains how he teaches continuing education courses at the University of Calgary along with being accredited by the Canadian Associationof Personal Property Appraisers.  Scott Cozens is a lawyer for Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Calgary, and has been a collector since childhood.  Although both of them are not history professors, they are both well educated individuals, and seem to be meticulous in providing accurate information and historical context.  They offer a more practical interpretation of history as they evaluate the worth of items on the open market.  In the final credits of the show, it is evident that a serious effort is made to be historically accurate.  Three people are employed as researchers and there is a senior director of factual content.  Archives are listed, and special thanks are given to various people and museums.

The episode I am choosing to focus on is titled “Adventure Capital” and was released in 2012.  The hosts travel to the region surrounding Ottawa, Ontario, and visit an acreage, farmhouse, and an English manor (which is part of a heritage site) in search for treasure.  They rummage through the properties, and interact with the owners attempting to negotiate prices on antique pieces they wish to acquire.  During this process, interesting pieces that come up are discussed, and their relevance to Canadian history is considered.  As the show caters to its audience, and is not detailed as academic reports would be, entertainment is paramount to fully explaining the historical significance.  Through this process quantity is emphasized over quality, and many small bits of history can be presented through the one hour episode.

Historical content

The show also gives an opportunity for those selling historical artifacts from their collection to speak about how the collection was formed, what meaning it has to them, and why they have chosen to select certain pieces.  Through watching multiple episodes, hardly anyone states that their collections were pursued in search of financial gain.  When selling items, it’s often done with reluctance, as individuals have an attachment to the collection they have formed.  Certain items were collected for their historical significance and preserving the past.  One such example is of a person who rescued a print from 1915 of soldiers in a train heading off to war, as families and friends were sending them off at the railway station.  About to be discarded at a yard sale, the collector wanted the picture saved to preserve the memory, especially for the families of the soldiers (many of which who did not return).  In addition to the collections themselves, the show allows observers to think about personal collections they may have, and reflect upon their relevance and meaning personally.

Historical content is often added to the show in post-production.  As certain interesting artefacts are discovered in a live setting, researchers for the show are able to dig deeper and provide additional content to the viewer.  During the single episode being discussed here, eight such blurbs appeared throughout the show.  A fine example of its use would be after the hosts discovered a Pequegnat clock that was believed to have been manufactured in Ontario in the early 20th century.  Each model of clock was based on the names of cities in Canada.  Two blurbs appeared shortly after:
Berlin model Pequegnat clock
“Pequegnat made clocks from 1904 to 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario.  Highly collectible, several of the clocks are now valued over $3,000.” 
“Kitchener, Ontario was originally called Berlin, but growing anti-German sentiment during WW1 led it to being renamed in 1916.”
(Both quotes were taken directly from the visual graphic appearing on the television show)
These blurbs allow for more detailed historical content to be provided promoting Canadian history, especially in the one referring to Berlin having its name changed to Kitchener.  Although the information provided is not a detailed account, or enough to truly completely understand all the history involved with it, an attempt is made to do more than provide entertainment.  Being broadcast on the History Channel, it is reasonable to assume that a certain minimum level of historical content must be provided to conform to network policies.

Although the show generally focuses on Canadian history in the 20th century, it is not bound by this geographic restraint or timeline.  Pieces from worldwide can find their way onto the show along with the stories associated with them.  Such an example would be when a concubine chair that originated from Cairo, Egypt was presented.  The owner discussed part of the journey on how it found its way out of Egypt.  As Napoleon’s army had conquered Egypt, his officers had stolen the chair from a palace as spoils of war.  Price was briefly discussed but the owner made it clear that it was a piece extremely high in value and would not be up for sale.  Nothing further on the history of the situation was presented which is typical to the format of the show.  However one should not dismiss the historical message that was able to be shared.  The viewer can take away that during the Napoleonic Wars, Egypt was conquered, and also traditions of warfare such as looting valuables from the conquered was practiced and considered acceptable.  The average viewer is not overwhelmed by a historical narrative, while those in search for deeper history can use the show as a survey, and further research topics of interest within more complete sources such as history texts.
Presenting history to the public

It is important to realize that the show is not a documentary, but a reality show.  Instead of focusing on criticizing what the show lacks, a far more constructive approach is to evaluate how the show succeeds in promoting history.  While in class we had investigated fiction and myth’s impact on history, yet entertainment seems to be something little explored.  History is full of interesting stories of people and events.  Knowledge of history is difficult to profit from without treating it as entertainment.  By promoting stories that spark general interest, and employing a format such as the bargaining process, allow for a larger viewership.  When considering the general public, there is most likely a trade off between entertainment and investigating historical subjects more comprehensively.  Succeeding in high viewership has allowed the show to inform a large amount of Canadians with a broad and shallow level of content. 

We also must view the degree of history that is demanded by the general public.  To start with an example of a parallel field, I would like to look at financial advisors and their relationship with clients.  Reports to clients are very simple, and attempt to not overwhelm the recipient who is generally not knowledgeable to the subject (which is why they have hired professional help).  The actual analysis and construction of a portfolio is a far more complicated process involving accounting for risk along with numerous financial ratios.  Although informing the client of the complete process would make them better informed, most likely the information would overwhelm them, and lead to them not reading the information available, even the simple comprehendible information that was presented in the simple version.  Similar to Canadian Pickers, it was determined that less can be more.
Potential improvement

Although being satisfied that the program is successful in promoting the level of history it has deemed appropriate does not mean that there cannot be room for improvement.  Focusing less on quantity of artefacts showcased every episode, there is still considerable time available further the historical background.  Certain items with entertaining historical backgrounds could be focused upon, and given more time to be explored.  Having 5 minute segments on historical background on these items could definitely further the historical context in which they existed, and provide a deeper understanding to the viewer.  In addition, perhaps a spinoff could be created, or special episodes in which items from a similar era or region could be combined to further investigate their history.  Whether there is enough consumer demand for such a program is questionable, however if the goal is to increase historical content, it can easily be achievable. 
Why is this important?

Through investigating the television program Canadian Pickers allows a view of how history can be presented.  Documenting and interpreting history seems of paramount importance to an academic understanding, however there is another side of how to present it to the public most effectively.  The show was effective in providing historical content, and including it into a format in which people who are not overly interested in history can still be informed.

Links to pictures in order they appeared:


  1. I have caught bits and pieces of this show, along with the American version, though I haven't shown any real interest in it. Personally I find they tend to focus a lot more on the price of objects rather than the history, like you mentioned in your improvements paragraph. I do agree that history is more important than quantity. They hosts also happen to be a little too ostentatious for my likings.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kaitlynn. I definitely can understand how the show does not appeal to you. It is not a show that I normally watch, but have caught it a couple times when visiting my parents. I agree that historical content can often be overwhelmed by prices being bargained for.

      That is why I thought investigating how history is portrayed through entertainment. With individuals having varying tolerance for historical content, we can view to what extent the general public seeks depth in historical narratives. Just as children absorb history through board games, or the process where historical fact gets blended with fiction, history can be presented in many ways.

      Maybe a question that could be further investigated is whether the historical content on this show is sufficient enough for a program broadcast on a channel called History Television.

  2. I am always amazed by how much people like to keep antiques for such a long time. Unfortunatly, i am not keen in collecting antiques but whenever, I turn the channel and these types of program is on then it does grap my attention. For instance, one time, they were showing this "spoon" and i thought to myself...so what's speical about this spoon...they talked about that particular spoon for about fifteen mintues and it ends up to be victorian time spoon etc...and the lady sold it for lamb some money:)....The spoon had historic element...amazing;)

    1. Hey khushbo, pretty interesting comment, and made me laugh. As you are amazed how long people can keep these antiques, I am additionally amazed at the sheer quantity that collections grow to. I am quite positive that many of the collectors on Canadian Pickers could be classified as hoarders.

      When you mention the story about the spoon from the Victorian period, I believe this brings up an interesting dilemma. Investigating a spoon for 15 minutes seems difficult to keep an audience interested for this amount of time. Possibly if there are exciting enough back stories that this would seem feasible. History definitely has exciting tales to present if people take enough time to research and seek them.