Collecting Florida Memories
by: Myra Yellin Outwater
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2009
When my husband Eric and I first thought about writing a book about Florida collectibles and tourist souvenirs, we imagined a working vacation in the Florida sun, and evenings sitting on the beach, a glass of wine in hand, watching the gorgeous Florida sunsets.
So armed with cameras, pads, pens and bathing suits, we headed south.
Our research took us to such diverse places as Tampa, Sarasota, Everglades City, Miami’s South Beach, Palm Beach and the Everglades of the Seminole Indians. We drove across the state to Orlando, passing cattle ranches along the way and spent a day or two in Disneyland. We spent a weekend in gentrified ``St. Pete’’ admiring the Dali Museum. We went east and west on Alligator Alley, a barren strip of cement that slashes the state in half, and arrived in upscale Naples, now a sea of high rise condos. We sashayed and lingered in the hamlets along the Tamiami Trail, stopping at Seminole villages, walking along waterways filled with sunning alligators and searched for snail kites and wood storks. We went birding in the Ding Darling Bird Reserve in Sanibel Island and walked out on the boardwalks in Sarasota’s Corkscrew Sanctuary. We visited the Ringling’s Venetian Palazzo, Ca’ Z’an in Sarasota, Henry Flagler’s extravagant estate, Whitehall in Palm Beach and Henry Plant’s Moorish fantasy in Tampa. And we drove for miles and miles over the Overseas Highway to Key West and visited the homes of Ernest Hemingway, Audubon and Harry Truman’s Winter White House.
And along the way we met collectors of every sort and inclination. We met postcard collectors whose collections ranged from turn of the century cards showing young children astride alligators, black jersey clad and well covered bathing beauties, busty briefly attired beach cuties of the 1940s-1950s, kooky mermaids, ``wish you were here’’ and Pelican beak joke postcards from the 1940s and 1950s and my favorites- the early 1900s tinted sunset postcards.
We met racing car enthusiasts who concentrated on the early Daytona Beach car races. We talked to Circus collectors who knew the story of the Ringling Brothers from A to C’a Z’an. We toured gardens and saw hundreds of cups, plates, and fabrics showing off Florida’s exotic flora and fauna. We met history buffs who collected memorabilia from the Flagler and Plante eras, and rail road enthusiasts who showed us time tables.
Then there were the cigar and tobacco enthusiasts whose collections included everything from cigar bands to cigar labels to cigar boxes dating from the beginnings of the early development of the Florida tobacco industry.
And before long we realized that we had two books, ``Floridiana; Collecting Florida’s Best,’’ which concentrated on the more traditional collectibles and told the story of Florida’s development in the 19th and early 20th century, and ``Florida Kitsch,’’ which took a less traditional look at the popular culture of the 1940s and 1950s.
And as we rekindled our own nostalgic memories of our youthful visits to the Sunshine State, we discovered that Florida collectibles, like its history and early settlers showed an amazing diversity and reflected the many ethnic and economic backgrounds of those who populated this state. And the range in popular collectibles, arts and antiques reflected all these cultures.
The heyday of Florida tourism parallels the development of public transportation; the initiatives of wealthy railroad entrepreneurs such as Henry Flagler on the East Coast and Henry Plant on the West Coast as well as the creation of Route 1, the first north/south interstate highway system.
But while Flagler and Plante helped create beautiful beach resorts and built luxurious hotels to attract Northern millionaires looking for winter homes, the automobile democratized the state. Instead of hotels there were motels and instead of high end art and antiques, these newcomers wanted funky, affordable souvenirs. And the new highway systems, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the Overseas Highway to Key West brought in a wave of tourism of people dislocated by World War II who came to Florida in the late 1940s and 1950s seeking better climates, new homes, new jobs and a break from their old past. And like Ponce de Leon they too found a fountain of youth and opportunity in Florida.
Today traditional collectors search for remnants of the lavish lifestyles of these early millionaires, their vintage china, their ornate silver, the heavy Spanish and Moorish designed furniture, paper memorabilia and souvenirs such as hotel bills, menus and photograph albums, old hotel china with elaborate trims, logos and designs, old costumes, lace, fans, and forgotten pieces of the formal attire that stubbornly ignored Florida’s tropical climates and heat.
Some of my favorite traditional collectibles are the antique garden statuary and sculptures, period photograph albums of their lavish lifestyles and modestly dressed bathing beauties, and the 1920s Art Deco concrete flamingoes and cranes that used to be de rigueur on early walkways or were found perched in garden ponds.
But this later wave of tourists had little interest in high end objects d’art. They preferred the lower end, the funkier and more affordable souvenirs, the kitsch of the 1940s and 1950s. These often plastic souvenirs reflected the popular tastes of the era, and unlike those of more traditional collectibles, were affordable then and still affordable and priced to appeal to impulse buyers today.
And this kitsch was imaginative, often nonsensical and fun and still is. Even today one can’t help but be amazed at these funky, quirky and whimsical collectibles found in shops and flea markets throughout Florida.
Florida Kitsch was a revelation to Eric and Me. They were the kind of ``stuff’’ that makes you feel good, makes you smile and evokes nostalgic memories.
Who hasn’t vacationed in Florida at one point in their life?
And who hasn’t succumbed to the moment and bought at least one of the many outrageously silly souvenirs such as a shell person, a coconut head face, a bottle person, a bathing beauty figurine, a pink flamingo or a flamboyant colorful Florida beach shirt?
I remember when my family drove down to Florida from Connecticut in the 1950s, we were unique. Few of my friends had ever had a winter vacation. And yet fifteen years later everyone was going to Florida.
But when we set out for what was to be a three day drive with a trunk jammed full; the backseat filled with toys, books, crackers and bottles of juice. We stayed in Miami Beach at the Indian Creek Hotel, an exotically lit hotel with gardens full of tropical colored lights wrapped around palm trees and gardens filled with gorgeous flowers and plantings.
I was dazzled.
And then there were fountains, exotic birds, pelicans with their giant bills, parrots, and flamingoes and I returned home with a box of delicate glass flamingoes, a fearsome painted coconut head, and one or two little orange people.
What I never imagined then was that these souvenirs would someday have value, and in some cases, great value.
You can imagine my amazement when Eric and I started visiting Florida collectors and I found my flamingoes and coconut heads intact. Tears filled my eyes when I saw my long cast away shell hand bag and an elaborate and funky bakelite cherry necklace as well as charm bracelets filled with hanging charms of pelicans, marlins, sea shells, pelicans and alligators.
I was amazed to be part of a 1950s time warp with pink and turquoise tiled bathrooms, kitchen shelves brimming over with orange people, tomato people, grotesque stuffed baby alligators and stuffed snakes. And then there were the mermaids and bathing beauties in every form and on every surface and as for flamingoes, my favorite was a pink flamingo toilet plunger.
But looking back, my best Florida souvenirs of all were happy memories of lovely visits to the land of sun, sea, sky and beach.
``Florida Kitsch,’’ Myra and Eric Outwater, Schiffer Books, 112 pages 1999, $19.95
Floridiana, Collecting Florida’s Best, Myra and Eric Outwater, Schiffer Books, 160 pages 1999, $29.95
Whitehall was the home of Henry Flagler and his beloved wife Mary Lily. It was sold after his death and became a hotel. When it was first built it was described as ”the Taj Mahal of North America.” This piece of Whitehall China was made by Mayer China in Beaver Falls, PA.
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