Vintage and Antique Shopping in Nashville

Before I get into my post, indulge me for a minute so I can describe where I am. Here, let me give you a visual:

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This is the view from the balcony of my room at the huge “Gaylord Opryland” hotel in Nashville. For most of our trip we were at a rented condo, but this week my husband has a conference so we got a free room here. It’s pretty ridiculous. There are three large atriums with full size trees, waterfalls, restaurants, shops… all under glass domes and surrounded by hotel room balconies. I have a two story waterfall right below me, which I love because it provides the greatest white noise. I feel like I’m outside, in a garden, without heat or bugs. Talk about ideal writing conditions! I could get used to this.

Anyway, before I found myself writing in a fantasy tropical paradise, I was hitting the streets of Nashville looking for antiques. I didn’t get to see a lot, but I did visit the 8th Ave. South area. This is considered one of the main Antique districts in the city. The first place I looked, Classic Modern, was also one of my favourites. It had a great selection of vintage (1950s – 1970s) furniture and accessories, as well as antiques from the 19th century, jewelry and folk art. They had quite a few complete sets of furniture – a full 1950s chrome kitchen table set, or a 1960s couch and chairs for instance. Very cool. Prices were reasonable for the quality of the items. I also talked to the owner and a fellow patron for quite a while – real friendly people around here!

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The second place I visited was “Pre to Post Modern”. I liked the signage out front because it reminded me of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It said something like “Come inside! It’s fun in here!” on the clapboard, and you can’t resist that.

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It was fun inside! They had a well curated selection of mid century accessories, advertising, clothes, decor and even some furniture. Everything was organized in themes so the clothes, hats and purses were together in a room, there was a rec room with albums and posters, the tiki stuff got its own corner etc. Very fun to browse. The best part was the prices! I was looking at smalls, but even the furniture was affordable. I wish I could have schlepped home one of their bar carts, but as it was I took three tiki mugs for a grand total of $12. If I lived in the area I would be popping in all the time.

Finally, the last place I visited was a good old fashioned antique “mall”. This one was called 8th Ave Antiques. The booths were a bit spotty in terms of age and quality, but I did find more antique furniture, china and art here. Some dealers had recognizable interests like pop culture memorabilia, kitchenware, or country furniture. Others were seemingly random with antique, vintage or even new and reproduction items. I didn’t see anything I had to buy (and pack – a deterrent for sure). Still, there was enough selection that if I were in the area I would gladly try again.

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Although I didn’t see everything the area has to offer (I missed a whole antique mall further up the road!), I enjoyed my antique and vintage shopping on 8th street in Nashville. There was a lot of mid century to 1970s decor, country smalls, and fun kitsch. Antiques (as in pieces over 100 years old) were harder to find but there were some good examples. Prices were overall lower than in Toronto, especially for the mid century modern stuff. Let me put it this way - shopping at even these three stores I’d have no problems outfitting a fabulous vintage rec room. Now I just need to get some bigger luggage!

A Brief History of Tiki

Vintage Postcard of Don the Beachcomber's

Summer is in full swing around here (you’re ignoring those “back to school” commercials right? Good). The tropical climate always makes me think of the bamboo bars and Polynesian themed decor of Tiki. Tiki today is sometimes confused with inflatable palm trees and plastic coconuts, but this is not real Tiki. Real Tiki isn’t plastic, and real Tiki is vintage. Technically a sub-set of the Modernest movement (lasting from the 1930s to the 1970s), Tiki was more than a style – it was a uniquely American pop culture form. It can be found in food, clothing, music and architecture of the mid 20th century. Tiki has a history, and it can be serious stuff for the vintage collector.

Tiki culture as we know it began in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood (that’s a postcard image of the dining room above). A world traveller, Don took elements of real South Pacific locations - Tiki statues, lush tropical vegetation, bamboo furniture – and created a fantasy of simplified tropical splendour. It was not authentic of any one place or society, so it became known as “Tiki”. Three years later, Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, adopted a similar Tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland California. Born of the restaurant industry, Tiki was originally symbolized by dark wood toned decor, Asian (usually Cantonese) inspired food and an escalating competition for extravagant rum based drinks.

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Tiki culture spread inland from California and was fuelled by an interest in travel. When soldiers returned home from WW II, they brought stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. In the 1940s and 1950s, the expanding middle class could afford trips to far away destinations. For the first time, suburbanites were looking at places like Tahiti and planning their next vacation under the sun. Popular books and movies of the time featured exotic beaches and locations. Even the possibility of Hawaiian statehood drove interest in the tropical lifestyle, and Americans fell in love with their romanticized version of a “Tiki” culture.

Thus Tiki was more than masks and rattan furniture; it was a byproduct of American wealth and growth in the mid twentieth century. At its height of popularity, Tiki architectural form (A line roofs, wood panelling, interior gardens) cropped up on all types of buildings – churches, shops, hotels, even tract row housing. Is it any wonder that once Hawaii did finally become a state in 1959 Tiki had begun to wear out its welcome? As is always the case, kids didn’t appreciate the same “square” things their parents enjoyed. Tiki began to be seen as a symbol of decadence and cultural ignorance. As the 1960s progressed the younger generation rejected Tiki and by the 1980s almost all the biggest and best examples of Tiki style had been replaced.

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We are currently experiencing a resurgence of Tiki culture, thanks in part to our interest (finally!) in fancy cocktails, but it begs the question: What does Tiki mean now? Tiki was always a form of cultural appropriation. A real “tiki” for instance, is a type of wooden carving representing the first man. The Maori used tiki statues to mark sacred land. Tiki culture used those same forms to hold fruity drinks. Tiki was an invention to bring in business, without deep understanding of the societies it represented. On the other hand, Tiki was also always a fantasy. It was a hodge-podge of influences, put together to resemble a tropical dream. I’m not an expert (I wasn’t even born until after Tiki stopped being cool) but it’s easy to believe that in the confines of 1950s America people wanted an escape. Not everyone could afford to travel, but most could afford a Singapore Sling in a bamboo covered bar. It was a version of paradise everyone could reach, and it still is today. It’s up to you, but I prefer to remember and enjoy Tiki in this context.

I’m new to collecting, but here are some of the pieces in my vintage Tiki barware:

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If you want to put a little Tiki into your home, you can easily start small. Vintage tiki barware, artwork and postcards can be found online and in shops. Tiki mugs (ceramic and sometimes branded like mine from the “Hawaiin Inn”) were often sold as souvenirs and are probably the most popular type of Tiki collectible. If you want to enjoy the full Tiki experience, Tiki bars are popping up once again in urban centres, including here in Toronto. While some complain that the modern revival of Tiki isn’t “primitive” enough, I personally don’t mind a little glamour with my Mai Tais. For me, Tiki is about being in a fantasy tropical paradise, even if it’s the middle of winter and there’s no beach in sight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play some Yma Sumac, mix up something with rum, and pretend my backyard is a white sand beach.

As an amateur fan of Tiki, I found the following sites really helpful:

Tiki Central – Forums with everything Tiki. These people know A LOT about tiki culture.
Modernist Architecture: Tiki Modern
– Amazing photographs of Tiki architecture.
Tiki Culture - Well written dissection of Tiki culture in the past and today. Also has a handy “this is NOT Tiki” list.
Behind the Scenes at the Enchanted Tiki Room (youtube video) – A short behind the scenes look at the room of computers needed to make those audio-animatronic birds sing, shot when the attraction first opened. One guy in the comments section calls the Tiki Room an “insidious early 60s nightmare”, so there’s also that.

My Favourite Mountie Painting

I’m back! For all my readers (hi mom!), I should explain that I was on vacation last week in lovely, sunny Cuba. It was a wonderful break from our mild but dreary Toronto winter. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a photo I took looking out my home office window a few weeks ago:

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Yipee.

Now here’s a photo of the sunset on our last evening in Cuba:

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That's more like it.

Although it’s good to be home I still feel sluggish. Therefore, today I’m going to lazily post some photos tell you about my favourite Mountie painting. I can’t believe I forgot to mention it when I wrote about my Mountie collection before, since this painting has been on my walls since I was sixteen. If I remember correctly, my dad picked it up at a yard sale. He knew I liked Mounties, and he was smitten by the painting’s iconic image and overly dramatic staging. For me, it was love at first site:

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The Mountie and his noble steed.

She’s a beaut, ain’t she? Everything art critics would tell you – that the figures are too rigid, the setting cliché, the whole thing is kitchy – is true. I don’t think that this is a particularly good painting. But, BUT, what it lacks in artistic sophistication it makes up for in enthusiasm. There’s a signature on the bottom that says “J. Hamilton”. I’d like to believe the artist was an older man who was a hobby painter. One day he decided to paint the most noble, upright (very upright – he’s almost jumping off his horse) Mountie he could imagine. He put his subject in the classic Canadian wilderness where grass, meadows, mountains and clouds meet sky.

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I love how the clouds arrange themselves with almost heavenly reverence around the Mountie. I love how the horse is restless, but the Mountie sits with complete poise and control. It’s all pretty great. You might not respect me for admiring this painting so much, but that is the risk we all take when we find original art and put it on our walls. At the end of the day, I think it’s much more interesting to have questionable but well loved original art, versus bland and mass produced consumer art.

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You sir, are a true Canadian hero.

My Mountie painting is not so loved by my husband, but then again he once bought a frame to properly display an “A-Team” poster so I take his opinion with a grain of salt. He really likes other folk art, and I admit this particular piece has a niche appeal. For the RCMP fan, however, it’s the Mona Lisa of Mountie art. If my hallway were the Louvre, this baby would be the star attraction.

Shiny Brite Ornaments

Shiny Brite Reproduction bulbWhen I was a kid, my parents (being antique dealers) always had a hodge podge of different antique decorations for the holidays. Tiny plastic choir boys, a somewhat weary looking elf, a flapper styled angel, and an abundance of colourful metallic glass bulbs adorned our tree. To this day, when I think Christmas I think of those cheerful glass ornaments. They were from the 1940s and 1950s. Although ours were from a variety of companies, the most popular of these vintage glass ornaments was made by a company called “Shiny Brite”.

Shiny Brite ornaments were created by American businessman Max Eckardt in 1937. Shiny Brites were proudly made in the USA (a selling point during WWII as previous to this many glass ornaments were imported from Germany). They were mass-produced in a process that started with unadorned glass bulbs supplied by the Corning company that were then hand decorated and machine lacquered in Eckardt’s factories. The inside of the bulb was coated in silver nitrate giving the decorations a, well, bright and shiny look. They eventually came in a large variety of colours including classic red and green, purples, pinks and icy blues. The colours could be solid or patterned. They also came in a large variety of shapes including balls, tear drops, icicles, finials and pinecones. They proved extremely popular and at their peak came out of four separate factories in New Jersey.

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The classic Shiny Brite box. Notice Uncle Sam shaking hands with Santa Claus!

Interestingly, the history of the Shiny Brite ornament was directly impacted by wartime America. Early pre war ornaments often had large sections of opaque silver and metallic colour. After WWII was declared, decorative silver nitrate became a “nonessential” use of metal, so many of the ornaments were stripped of any silvering, and were mainly transparent with only hand painted colour on the outside of the bulb. These transparent bulbs are some of the most sought after and prized for collectors.

The hooks are also a good indicator of age. Early Shiny Brites had metal hooks and tops. During the war, these hooks were replaced with cardboard tabs from which the owner would use string to hang the ornament. Some bulbs from the wartime era also included a sprig of tinsel inside the bulb for added sparkle, but even this small use of metal was eventually prohibited.

This image from I Adore Style

When the war finally ended in 1945, restrictions on metal receded, and the iconic “Shiny Brite” ornament was reborn. Using sharp metallic colours, glittery mica flakes, and metal hooks and distinctive crinkled tops (stamped with the words “Shiny Brite” and “Made in U.S.A.”) these ornaments became even more popular. They remained affordable for families and flourished until plastic ornaments came on the scene in the late 1950s. For reasons I guess had to do with durability and cost, plastic was preferred over glass, and the Shiny Brite company closed their doors in 1962.

Close up of an original Shiny Brite top

Although this is an antiques blog, I must point out that there are some really nice reproduction Shiny Brites made by the Christopher Radko company. Since 2001 Christopher Radko has reproduced some of the most popular Shiny Brite lines and you can find them in lots of stores (I found some at our local Homesense). They are quality decorations and a great way to get the vintage look in new, pristine condition.

As nice as the reproductions are, however, real Shiny Brites are a great piece of history and well worth the search. They are still quite easy to find online and in vintage stores. If you want to collect real Shiny Brites, there are a few words of warning: Some sellers mistakenly use the manufacture’s name “Shiny Brite” to refer to any ornaments of this type. In some dastardly cases, the tops and hooks may also be replaced to “create” a Shiny Brite from just another vintage bulb. Also, people recommend buying only in original boxes, but it can be tricky to determine if a box for sure contained the ornaments for sale.

As is the case with anything, there is an element of “buyer beware” to collecting Shiny Brite ornaments, but this warning should not dissuade you from these charming items. Most dealers are honest and will answer your questions truthfully. Shiny Brites used to be an easy flea market find, but now depending on the style and age of the ornament the price will vary. Even in you find damaged ornaments, you can still use these to create wonderful decorative wreaths or as filler in vases and bowls. With a little searching and a keen eye you can still find affordable vintage Shiny Brite ornaments that will bring sparkle, cheer and history to your Christmas season.

Vintage Mounties

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A few of the vintage Mounties in my collection

As a Canadian, not to mention a general fan of square-jawed, stoic men in uniform, I’ve always been fond of the classic RCMP officer. Red coats, Stetson hats, a hair cut you can set your watch to, and a noble steed to ride. The classic RCMP  (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) or “Mountie” has it all. The Mountie is an icon of Canadian culture. When you say “Canadian” in other parts of the world, the Mountie is probably an image that comes to mind (maybe along with a hockey player, snow and the general idea of trees). He might be a cliché and not at all representative of the diverse people who comprise the modern RCMP force, but the image endures thanks in large part to the plethora of items made in his image. Some of these items are souvenirs and some are advertising to capitalize on a Canadian association with certain products. As a kid, for instance, I remember being in France and seeing Canada Dry commercials featuring a friendly, fully uniformed Mountie sitting in a bar pushing ginger ale. It was silly, but darned if it didn’t make me feel patriotic.

Since the RCMP formed in 1920, the image of the “Red Serge” or “Review Order” uniformed Mountie became so popular it actually became a problem. By 1995 there were so many shoddy, illegal copies of  the RCMP image running rampant on everything from pro wrestlers to cartoons that they famously struck a deal with the Walt Disney corporation to help control their copyright. In 2000 the RCMP decided  not to renew their Disney contract, saying they now had enough knowledge and experience with commercial licensing to protect the image on their own. Today the RCMP sell their own lines of souvenirs with reproduction images.

While new RCMP merchandise is actually really nice, there’s nothing stopping you from collecting the real vintage stuff. By and large, because there was so much made with Mounties, you can pick and choose different types of objects to collect depending on your space and budget. Let’s take a look at some of my items to give you an idea:

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This handsome fellow makes sure the plants are well protected.

This is one of my plastic Mountie figures. These were made in Toronto, Canada by the Reliable Plastic Company. The Reliable Company made, well, pretty reliable toys and these figures have held up well over the years. They have varying degrees of ware and tear. Some of them still say “R.C.M.P Canada” on the base, but on mine the letters have worn off. The back of the base is stamped with the words “RELIABLE MADE IN CANADA”. They are 8″ tall, and sell for around $15 – $30 depending on condition. These figures were made between the 1950s and 1960s, and can be quite easily found today in antique shops and online.

The following two plaster figures are vintage advertisements for Drewrys beer featuring RCMP officers and real glass beer bottles. The Redwood brewery (not the Drewry brewery for reasons one can only assume had to do with alliteration), was founded in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1877. The company also opened a brewery in South Bend, Indiana in the 1930s following the end of prohibition. By 1936 all actual beer production took place on US soil.

Even when the beer was made in the USA, the Mountie was still used to advertise Drewrys beer. The figures that feature the trio of a Mountie, horse and beer bottle are especially sought after by collectors. Most of these figures were made in the 1940s and sell for $100 – $200 dollars today. I bought both my Drewry Mounties at the same time from the same dealer, and made a deal for both. The first one is smaller and has a miniature glass bottle. The second figure (with horse) has a full size bottle and a flat back for easy mounting on a wall. It’s a great item for a kitchen or bar area.  The Drewry Mounties are a collectible that straddles two fairly large areas of collecting: RCMP and beer. For that reason they are a good investment for the money.

Drewrys Mountie #1Drewrys Mountie #2

Mountie Salt & Pepper shakers

Finally, I’d like to show off two little men who make salt and pepper a charming addition to any table. I don’t know what company made these salt and pepper shakers. I can guess that they are from the 1950s but I’m not sure. They have small chips and discolourations. These are not prize pieces but I like them and they probably cost less than $20.

My point is that even if you don’t pay much, or expect to recoup your investment, vintage RCMP pieces can add charm and interest to your home. Plus who can resist a man in uniform? I’ll show you more items from my vintage Mountie collection later. If you have any comments I’d love to hear them!

Oh, and remember that deal the RCMP made with Disney to stop fraudulent but perhaps hilarious use of their image? Thank goodness it didn’t take effect until after Monty Python gave us this: