Forget about the fruitcake. Cancel the cookie order. This Christmas, the perfect presents for all the special somebodies on your holiday list might be just as close as the closest antique store.
That’s right. As songwriter Peter Allen once put it, “Everything old is new again. “In other words, when it comes to gift-giving, why stick to the tried, true, and brand-spanking-new? Finding just the right antique or vintage item, specifically suited to the personality of the recipient, shows a degree of thoughtfulness that a box of candy just can’t meet, even if it is homemade peanut brittle. Additionally, your gift may be a “gift that keeps on giving,” sparking a collecting interest and making future Christmas shopping a snap.
A few things to keep in mind when embarking on your holiday antique-shopping hunt:
Know What They Like.
Is your best friend a dedicated dog lover? If so, she may not be much interested in starting a collection of ceramic cat figurines, no matter how cute they are. On the other hand, a vintage dog figurine might earn you a hearty “woof” of approval.
Know Their Surroundings.
No matter how nifty that ‘50s-modern lamp looks in the store, if your friend’s dedicated décor is Early American it’s probably not going to be featured in a place of honor. And, your buddy with the one-bedroom condo is sure to find more pleasure in a holiday decoration that he only has to make room for once a year, rather than an oversized wall hanging he has to squeeze in somewhere year-round.
Know Their Budget.
If the intent is to inspire a collecting bug, keep costs in mind. An antique snuff box at 500 plus-plus-plus dollars might be an extra-special gift for the extra-special person in your life, but in most cases (unless you plan on doing all the buying all the time), it’s a one-shot wonder. If it’s something that not only piques their curiosity but also keeps their wallet happy—say a selection of colorful greeting cards from the 1940s or ‘50s, available in big batches for less than $25—chances are the impetus for a new collecting hobby will be a hit!
And now, here’s my Top Ten of Interesting Collectible Possibilities for Christmas Shopping this season, culled from a list of hundreds of worthy contenders. All are space-friendly, budget-friendly, and awaiting a visit from you at your favorite antique shop, show, or mall:
Mr. Spock recorded one. So did the entire cast of Bonanza, and “Lurch” from The Addams Family. Back when vinyl records were first in vogue, almost every celebrity who could carry a tune (sort of) put out a record album filled with the tunes closest to their hearts. In those days before auto-tuning, the results were often ear-splittingly hilarious. Your pal with a good sense of humor will relish Mr. Spock’s rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Earth.” Most of these unusual (and addictive) aural offerings, with their attractive color covers and extensive liner notes, are under $20.
Annalee Fabric Dolls.
Rumor has it that the facial features of each and every Annalee fabric doll, from jolly snowmen to caroling mice, were based on the features of their creator, Annalee Thorndike. Who can say for sure? (Well, probably Annalee.) No matter the inspiration, these whimsical pose-me-anywhere dolls, with their cheery painted faces and colorful felt-over-wire bodies, add a note of happiness to every home. And (good news for the space-challenged), since many have holiday themes, you only need to display the dolls once a year! Whether hanging from the tree or peeping out from a mantel garland, they’re sure to please. Under $25.
Christmas Serving Dishes.
Like those Annalee Christmas dolls, holiday serving dishes stop by for a brief visit and then, like Santa, disappear for another year. That makes them the ideal collectible for those whose walls and shelves are already chock-full. Shapes and purposes are many, from Santa coffee mugs to tree-shaped tidbit trays. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when “decorating for the holidays” meant “decorating everything for the holidays,” serving dishes like these were omnipresent. And, since many were mass-produced imports, they remain readily available, and all set to be pleasin’ for the season. Most are available at $25 and under.
Decorative Hair Combs.
Now here’s a way to brighten up a dingy dresser top: with a collection of decorative hair combs! Although few of today’s fashionable hairstyles call for them, jeweled combs, many in graceful fan shapes, were the crowning glory for a lady’s crowning glory from the mid-1800s until the 1920s; then the world flipped its wig for bobbed hair. Fashioned from a variety of materials ranging from celluloid and tortoiseshell to ivory and jet, in a rainbow of colors, and in sizes from 5-1/2” to 10-1/2”, decorative combs are attractive accent pieces that even folks with crew cuts will enjoy. Prices start at about $25.
Hazelle Rollins had the world on a string. From her headquarters in Kansas City, thousands of “Hazelle Marionettes” made their way across America, delighting youngsters from the 1930s into the ‘80s. Thanks to their “airplane control sticks,” Hazelle marionettes could be manipulated by even the clumsiest among us. Characters were based on pop culture favorites, from Batman and Robin to Daniel Boone, plus such fantasy figures as “Alice in Wonderland” and the entire Wizard of Oz gang. Those interested in recapturing a childhood memory (even those with no intention of putting on puppet shows), will enjoy a “Hazelle” hanging around the house. $50 and under.
Have a friend with a weird and wacky sense of humor? Here’s just the gift to jump-start a collection: a weird and wacky “Psycho Ceramic” from Kreiss! For fun-loving fans of the 1950s and ‘60s, these quirky figurines provided plenty of chuckles. Although one horrified reviewer classified Kreiss novelties as an assortment of “deformed blobs, eccentric hillbillies, and fat, drunken Santas,” these aggressively ugly, yet still winningly winsome figurals have continued to amass fans over the decades. After all, who can resist a menacing “Psycho” creature with enormous teeth and devilish eyebrows, and a tag announcing, “We Welcome Your Suggestions With Enthusiasm?” Most, under $25.
Lady Head Vases.
For florists of the 1950s and ‘60s, “Lady Head Vases” were a lifesaver. These diminutive depictions of elegant ladies (well, at least of their heads and shoulders), featured openings in the hairdos or hats, just right for a handful of spare posies that would otherwise be discarded. No floral inventory went to waste, and buyers went home with a unique alternative to boring, everyday vases. That uniqueness retains its appeal, making the vases an ideal gift for those who appreciate colorful decorative ceramics. And, while prices for some rarities can shoot into the stratosphere, an attractive startup selection can still be found at $50 and under.
Magazines With Great Covers & Contents.
Now, here’s a two-fer: a gift just as nice inside as it is outside! History buffs, and those with a yen for paper ephemera, will appreciate vintage magazines with beautiful cover images, and page after page of interesting, entertaining content. Such a-bit-off-the-beaten-track publications as The Golden Book Magazine and Children’s Play Mate are time capsules of their eras. They make for fascinating reading and look terrific framed. Search for magazines without noticeable tears, stains, or fading, and keep the interests of your recipients well in mind. For instance, those who hanker for the holidays should love a Better Homes & Gardens “Christmas Ideas” magazine of the early 1960s. Most, well under $25.
Novelty Salt & Peppers.
Spice things up this Christmas with a gift of novelty salt-and-peppers! Mid-20th-century homemakers, looking to make table settings more enticing, sought out S&Ps that did more than just the obvious. How about a salt “Dish” running away with a pepper “Spoon?” Or a clever take on a 1950s TV set? (Just turn the knob, and up pop the salt-and-peppers.) Thousands of novelty S&Ps were produced during the 1950s and ‘60s, and thousands still pepper antique shops today. Even better: they’re small, so a sizable collection works in a limited space. Prices are nice too: many can be found at under $25 a pair.
Is there a tireless traveler on your gift list? Cater to that wandering spirit by prompting a collection of vintage travel pennants! If they’ve been to Niagara Falls or the Black Hills, what could be nicer than a pennant picturing the Falls or Mt. Rushmore? From the 1940s on, screen-printed pennants were a sure signifier that you’d “been there and done that.” Today, collectible pennants can evoke similar memories or inspire future travel plans. And, while travel pennants no longer flap from automobile aerials, their colorful illustrations and oversized lettering make these flags eye-catching wall displays that your friends will rally ‘round. Most sell at well under $25.
And there you have it: my Top Ten of Interesting Collectible Possibilities for Christmas Shopping. Of course, a walk through your nearest antique shop will add many (many) more to that list. Will any result in a lifelong collecting interest? Well, here’s a personal memory: one Christmas long ago, my Mom, knowing my love for all things theatrical, gave me a figurine of a ‘50s-modern lady in a long flowing gown, holding a smiling mask. On the base was the ink stamp “Comedy.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was probably a similar figurine somewhere, toting a frowning face, marked “Tragedy.” Sure enough, a search of antique stores in those pre-internet days turned up “Comedy’s” partner. The figurines were designed by Betty Harrington for Ceramic Arts Studio (CAS) of Madison, Wisconsin. That discovery led to collecting more CAS items (LOTS more), and an eventual book on the topic. Now there was a gift that really kept on giving!
Happy hunting! (And Happy Holidays!)
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including Postwar Pop, a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries (or Christmas greetings) to: email@example.com