Bar Fly

Everyone needs a brass fly, right? (Of course you do, particularly at Halloween, when gross things are more important.) And like Catherine, the Dutchess of Cambridge, I have an heir and a spare.

Fly Guy 1 guards my desk. He’s a 1930’s brass fly whose wings lift up to reveal an ashtray. That I do not smoke is a moot point, because even if I did, I would be freaked out by dropping ash into the abdomen of an insect. Fly Guy was made in Italy, and is considered “barware.” Can’t you picture some slender man, pleated pants, flipping it open and lighting up next to his cappuccino?

The dealer I bought it from at the fabulous Brooklyn Flea said it was a reproduction of a Victorian design, which would make sense with all their botanical passions, but I haven’t been able to find anything relating it to that era. If there are any Victorian fly experts out there–form a line, please.

My fly, enjoying a more natural habitat than the usual spot on my desk.

My fly, enjoying a more natural habitat than the usual spot on my desk.


Fly Guy 2 is a 1920s model I’ve seen listed as a “match striker.” He’s darker, smaller, heavier. Far less elegant, as flies go. But he was a buck at a garage sale, so there you go.



The funny thing about these is my younger daughter cannot stop playing with them. She’ll step over Barbie and blow off Pinkie Pie pony on her way to get her little hands on these flies. She stuffs the flies’ crevices with her plastic gems for safekeeping.

And that’s not weird at all… Happy Halloween!

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Midcentury Copper Masters

I’ve been collecting copper jewelry for about 10 years now, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to write a story on Renoir of California (1946-1964) for the Costume Jewelry Collectors International’s website.

For research, I spoke to the sons of both founders: Peter Fels, the son of Jerry Fels, and Robbie Freiler, son of Curtis “Kurt” Freiler. I also talked with Dr. Barry Harwood, curator of decorative arts for the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Matthew Burkholz, of Route 66 West vintage store and author of Copper Art Jewelry: A Different Lustre; and Rick Benveniste, who worked with both Fels and Freiler.

Selection of Renoir and Matisse jewelry from the collection of Robbie Freiler.

Selection of Renoir and Matisse jewelry from the collection of Robbie Freiler, the son of founder Curtis Freiler.

I hope you’ll read the piece in its entirety, but here are a few fun facts I discovered while writing the story:

  • Jerry Fels and Robbie Freiler married a set of sisters.
  • Enamel gets fired at 1,700 degrees. The enamel designs were overseen by Curtis Tann, who is considered an important African-American artisan.
  • Kurt Freiler lived to be 103.
  • The Glendale factory had an enormous, walk-in safe that the metal was kept in. The building is no longer Renoir/Matisse, but the safe is still there.
  • Despite its association with the California Casual movement, Renoir/Matisse was sold all over the country, and is as commonly found on the East Coast as the West Coast.
My favorite Matisse, the design called "Scarab." This came from an estate sale in Chicago.

My favorite Matisse from my own collection, the design called “Scarab.” This came from an estate sale in Chicago.

During our interview, Matt told me Renoir/Matisse is “a niche market for redheads and people who love midcentury modern style,” and I was like, “Man, he is like psychic!

Guilty as charged.

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Vintage Clothes Go from Trashy to Hip

I’ve been enjoying a “Sex-and-Malls” movie fest, which has included screenings of “Clueless,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Heathers” and “Pretty In Pink.” The weird thing is, I’d never seen “Pretty In Pink” before, despite the fact that I was just an infant in 1986 when the movie came out. Ahem.

Shoulder pads, anyone?

Shoulder pads, anyone?

I learned a few things from watching “Pretty In Pink.”

1) First off, James Spader was hot. The man is an outstanding actor, but middle age has certainly changed him quite a bit. Feathered hair and white linen pants really worked for him.

2) Despite the fact that tons of people love this movie and call it a classic … oo, I’m scared that the God of the ’80s will strike me down … but no, I’m gonna say it: This is not a good movie. Here, see what I mean:

Steff (Hottie James Spader): “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just… nail her, and get it over with? Why are you getting involved?”

Blane (Andrew McCarthy, and were people really so into him?!): “Is there something wrong with that?”

Steff: “I just think it’s stupid, you know. It’s pointless. I mean, your parents…. Listen, I’m getting really bored with this conversation, all right, Blane? If you want your piece of low-grade ass, fine. Take it, you know. But if you do, you’re not going to have a friend.”

Low-grade ass? Threats of dumping a friend? None of this, or anything else in this script, rings true. But the cool thing I learned, the reason I’m including this movie on this blog, is

3) That shopping at thrift stores used to be deeply uncool. Poor Andie (Molly Ringwald) is literally from the wrong side of the tracks. Her pink, repurposed outfits make her an outcast, while today, she’d have her own blog and Instagram followers. In 1986, going to Goodwill meant you were poor, maybe a hippie, but certainly dirty and weird.

Today, thrifting is seen as clever, eco-friendly, unique and stylish. People like Rachel Zoe and Dita Von Deese, who can certainly afford to shop anywhere, talk about their best finds, their curated collections of older clothing, and their favorite places to shop for vintage. So huzzah: our passion will not stop us from going to prom.

If this post puts in you the mood for Molly’s pearls, I couldn’t possibly come up with a better photo gallery than Let Them Eat Vinyl already did, and if you still need a vintage ’80s fix, check out the Pretty In Pink trailer.




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How to Shop a Yard Sale

Is there anything better than a bright Saturday morning, a wad of bills and a yard sale? Nope. Well, maybe bragging later about the awesome thing you scored for a buck. In fact, one of my favorite LBDs of all time was a whole dollar at a church rummage sale. Garage sale-ing is a pretty cheap and harmless diversion, especially considering how much adrenalin you can generate when you find the perfect score. Here’s how to shop a tag sale like a total pro:

Where to Find Yard Sales:

  • Twitter
  • Community Facebook pages (a church’s or neighborhood association’s, for example)
  • Tooling around nice neighborhoods early on a Saturday, looking for signs. Those dudes from American Pickers would call that “freestyling,” which sounds way better than “stalking.”
  • Craigslist and local newspapers
  • The website, which has a zip code finder, listings, maps, newsletters and printable directions. Yard Sale Search is a little more bare bones but has a mobile component.
  • Tip: Group sales, like a church rummage sale or multiple-family yard sale, are by far the best ones to find.

I brake for yard sales.

I brake for yard sales.

Plan Your Attack:

Wear a cross-body bag so your hands will be free to rummage, a sun hat and comfy shoes. Pack your bag with lots of small bills, a tape measure, a foldable shopping tote and a bottled water. If you’ll be trying on clothes, wear a tank top and a skirt so you can easily slip stuff on, sans dressing room. And hand sanitizer. Because how long has that coffee table been in the basement, Mrs. Hanta Virus?

Prep your car with a cardboard box to stow purchases in, a rope to secure large items, and newspaper to wrap fragile things.

Junk Safely:

  1. Look inside battery compartments to ensure they are not corroded.
  2. People may be unwittingly selling items that have been recalled or now deemed dangerous, so shop wisely. For example, kids’ clothing with drawstrings, drop-side cribs and used car seats can be found but are all considered no-nos.
  3. Hard furniture–a shelf, a table–is fine but skip the soft furniture, like stuffed chairs or couches. Hello, bedbugs!
  4. Plug electronics in to make sure they work and don’t fry any circuits. When the power blows in the neighborhood, point accusingly at the waffle maker.
  5. When you get home and want to give a toy to Junior, always check it first. Make sure it hasn’t been recalled and that the box doesn’t have any hidden surprises, such as extra pieces from a different toy or game that could be choking hazards. Or that it’s booby-trapped. Kidding. Jeez.

Savvy Shopping Moves:

Don’t set it down. If you see something you like, hold onto it while you decide if you want it, because otherwise, someone else may scoop it up.

Feel free to haggle. On bigger items, try to get the seller down by least 15 percent of the price. But don’t bother haggling over small-ticket items, because that can get a little insulting to a seller. 50 Cent is a rapper, not a negotiation. You can bundle a bunch of items together, though, and suggest a flat rate, like “How about $20 for this pile?”

According to the Journal of Consumer Research, people assign a greater value to things if they are feeling insecure or emotional. So a sentimental item may be priced way higher than it should be. “That lamp was Gee-Gaws!” If you want to haggle over that lamp, start by complimenting the item, and affirming the seller’s beliefs, before getting into money.

If you see something you love, but can’t afford, you can always try coming back to the sale close to its end, and see if they’ll lower the price. Or, give the seller your number and say how much you’d love to make an offer if they don’t find another buyer.

Mark your territory. “If you have to come back later in the day to pick up the item, take a small piece of it with you before you leave the first time, like a cushion or drawer,” suggests The Yard Sale Queen. “It will prevent other zealous customers offering the seller more money than you paid for it. You don’t want to go back to the house and have the seller saying, ‘sorry, here’s your money back, someone else offered me a higher price.’ Most sellers are reputable, but…”

Happy hunting! If you’ve made a great score at a tag sale, share it in the comments section.


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A Surprise on my Plate

Last month, I wrote a post called “Traveling Companions,” detailing a pewter pitcher and sugar bowl I’d found. You might remember I’d bought a pitcher and blown off the matching sugar bowl, but had a change of heart after I realized the importance of the set.

But there’s more to the story.

When I had gone back for the sugar bowl, it was sitting on a wonky, banged-up pewter plate. I knew darn well this wasn’t a set, but they were being sold as a pair for $20 and I really wanted that sugar bowl, so I bought this silvery odd couple, figuring I could quickly ditch the plate.

So what to do with one old plate, pockmarked and unshiny? I couldn’t eat off it: Pewter is a mix of a tin, copper and antimony (a silvery, hard, chemical), but used to be made using dangerous lead. I knew I shouldn’t polish it, as old pewter turns a dark gray, an effect called a patina, that collectors like. I researched it, but nothing was adding up right. It didn’t have any hallmarks, and at 7 inches, is smaller than most vintage pewter plates. I was stumped.

plate rim image

Click on this to see the hand-hammered rim up close.

After quite a bit of online noodling, I found a cool chart on the Pewter Society’s website, and suddenly I had my answers.

The plate is English pewter, which is commonly not marked. It has a raised area where there once was an owner’s mark, again, a common trait. This type of early pewter is called sadware, which refers to a plate, charger or saucer. “If you look on the back of the bouge you will normally see rows of small hammer marks. This hammering was done to strengthen the metal here.”

I flipped the plate over. Hammer marks. I looked at the style of the rim, then the chart, and back again. Holy crap, this plate is 300 years old, made around 1730. It’s uneven because it was hand made by some guy going tap, tap, tap.

Now I know what to do with my plate. I run my fingers across it. I connect with a long-gone pewterer, a disappeared place and vanished bread. There is nothing like the electrifying sensation of touching the past.

This is why I love vintage.




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How to Wear a Vintage Choker

Serpentine and sexy, this Kramer necklace is, I believe from around 1959, based on similar pieces in vintage ads of that time. I love how heavy it is, and how it’s held up incredibly well through the years.

vintage Kramer necklace

Kramer made jewelry from 1943 to about 1980.

But if you want to wear, not just admire, a vintage choker, it can be tricky. First off, people were much tinier in the past than they are today, so a vintage necklace may not fit a modern neck at all (always try vintage on before you commit). If you’re buying vintage online, Vintage Swank has a handy chart of old versus modern sizes so you can compare. Speaking of sizes, don’t believe that “Marilyn Monroe was a size 12” baloney. I’m all for body pride and diversity but a 12 then is a 4 now. Sizes started at 8; there were no size 0s and 00s in the 1950s, even though the average woman back then had the kind of 25-inch waist today’s kale-juice-imbibers would kill for.

Luckily, this leaf-inspired necklace is adjustable, keeping it from being a literal choker. Yet even if you aren’t strangling in the name of fashion, this style can still be hard to pull off, because the initial impulse is to wear it with a pencil skirt. Which is fine if you’re in costume mode, but if not, here are three ways you can wear an old-school choker with contemporary clothes:

  1. Pair a choker with blue chambray shorts and a white, sleeveless V-neck top.
  2. Show it off while wearing a drapey dress in a hot tropical color, like tangerine.
  3. Keep it simple, yet surprising, by teaming the choker with a black bustier top and miniskirt.

On the other hand, you can throw caution to the wind. Wear a choker, a headpiece, earrings and heavy, early-’60s eye makeup. Who am I to stop you?

Cleopatra (1963)

In her choker, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra looks positively plain Jane next to the lavish getup on Richard Burton.



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Never Take off the Sticker

I normally wouldn’t have bought this vintage vase, which I found in a junk shop in Monrovia. I prefer wackier ceramics—give me something covered in three-dimensional frogs, please. But check out the fabulous sticker. It’s made of metallic copper-toned foil, shaped like California and definitely original. Totally worth the $1.99.

West Coast Pottery

Without the sticker, I wouldn’t have been able to research much on this, since the bottom marking is only three slashes, not a name stamp.

The sticker, and oh, yeah, the vase, came from West Coast Pottery, which opened in 1940 in Burbank and closed by about 1950. Based on the mauve and turquoise glaze, common on the company’s designs from 1940 to 1945, I’d date my vase to the early 1940s. Some poor soul must have gotten this as a gift and not found it to their taste. “Oh, thanks, Myrtle! I’ll put it … in the back of this cabinet here.”

West Coast Pottery

Pink was a popular color in the 1940s. Surprisingly, California pottery production went up during World War II, due to the lack of availability of European imports.

One Kings Lane has a much fancier example of a vase by West Coast Pottery, and in the product description reports the company was owned by “respected ceramicists Lee and Bonnie Wollard. The company’s designs were frequently inspired by plant life and form.” Also, ladies in bonnets, judging by what else you can buy online.

The company operated during the Golden Age of California pottery, when the state’s  ceramicists were influenced by the bright colors and simple shapes they saw in Asian and Mexican art, design and culture. There were eventually more than 1,000 pottery companies in California, spread through the state. During World War II, production actually increased, because you couldn’t import things like tiles and artware from Europe. After World War II, when it was easier to get European imports, many California potteries went out of business.

There are two other reasons pottery was flourishing in California. One is an abundance of good clay soil. The other, as so nicely puts it, “California has always attracted talented and ambitious artists and entrepreneurs.”

Amen to that.

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