I can’t help being a collector. It started with a flat file of paper products and quickly escalated to cupboards brimming with tea cups, plates, and silverware.
The possession of something lost in time has always intrigued me, whether it was an out of print book, a tea cup without a saucer, or some other strange flea market flotsam and jetsam that finds its way onto the shores of my kitchen. One moment it’s lost under a sea of old TV Guides, and the next it’s plucked out and put on my shelf, ready to be admired.
Items like these are usually found by a combination of persistence and luck, but with a bit of research you can make the hunt a lot more effective.
The hunt, having a bit of story, and the special effort it takes to curate a vintage collection adds to the meaning of what you’re trying to build. And honestly, sometimes I just want something I can hold on to. Cheap white wear you use Monday through Friday is important, but that’s not what you’re going to wrap in tissue and give to your granddaughter someday. Keepsakes, physical tokens of memory, have to develop a special meaning. And driving down to a big store and buying an inexpensive, mass produced set of plates just doesn’t have the same effect as hand selecting items from your travels or slowly building a collection piece by piece.
The vintage items that make up my “kit” as a food stylist are deeply important to me. Whether it’s for a shoot or I’m just putting together a dinner party, how I style together these bits and pieces can add so much to the tone of the table. Am I going understated, modern, minimalist? Am I feeling “more is more” Hollywood regency glam? What about warm and cozy Americana? The items I choose to put forward will dictate that tone, and in a way, color the images or the evening I’m prepping.
Whether you’re a flea market veteran, or just starting to look for unique pieces of your own, here are some of my favorite vintage pieces and manufacturers, plus a few tips on how to go about finding these items:
(If you like Jonathan Adler)
Founded in 1921, Bitossi is a Florentine ceramic company that hit its stride in the 60s. Their blue glazed figurines were especially popular, and everything they produced had a fun, brutalist meets mid-century modern vibe. My favorites are their pastel and gold pieces from the Elbee Rayor era.
How can you tell it’s vintage? Hand made vintage Bitossi pieces have a rough texture and that incised sgraffito detail that creates their iconic look. Plus, they’re super heavy. Watch out for their recent reproductions, which aren’t the same quality and lack that vintage patina.
For a small bitossi vase, it should cost you about $25, unless it’s super rare. A large vase or piece may by about $50-75. If it’s more than that, head to Ebay and look for a better price.
(If you like Martha Stewart)
Jadeite (or jadite or jad-ite, depending on who you ask) used to be made by melting down green glass with other glass, pouring it into molds, and mass producing it for a post-Depression public. It was inexpensive, a pretty milky green, and very durable. All of that is true now, except for the inexpensive bit. Martha Stewart started collecting it and, well, welcome to the world of the $25 cup and saucer.
There are a lot of bad reproductions of jadeite out there, but they’re easy to spot. The piece will feel light, when it should be comically heavy. The glass will be dull and opaque, when it should be glossy and milky, as if a light could shine through it.
How to buy it: Look for Jeannette, McKee, Fire King, or Anchor Hocking for the best vintage pieces. If you find a single piece for under $10, it’s a good price, so nab it! Almost every dealer you’ll come across at a flea market knows the value of jadite, so camp out on Ebay or go to more obscure thrift stores and flea markets for deals.
(If you like Lauren Conrad)
Depression glass is the funniest name for this whimsical, colorful glassware. It was produced during the Depression in molds and was considered to be poor quality, making it the perfect product for the dime stores. It was so well liked and cheap that businesses would give it away as incentives for customers, “Get a punch bowl the next time you fill up your car!” Depression glass comes in a rainbow of colors, but pink is in my opinion the prettiest. It takes on a rosey glow, and is just gorgeous for serving drinks.
As with the jadeite, dealers know that pink depression glass is popular item, so prices have been going up. However, you can still find deals, especially on Ebay. Just be sure to look at the images closely and avoid the opalescent finishes.
(If you like Madewell)
Heath Ceramics is one of my favorite ceramic companies. They’ve manufactured artisan pottery since 1948 in Sausalito, California, and the Danish modernism meets Japanese Pottery meets NorCal vibe is still part of their aesthetic today. However, their vintage pieces come in a wider variety of glazes and shapes. In this little trio, two of the mugs are from the 60s and one is from now. I bet you can guess which one.
Funny enough, vintage Heath can sometimes be cheaper than current Heath, especially in the “Sea and Sand” stoneware collection.
(If you like Anthropologie)
Milk glass has been around since the 16th century, became a symbol of domestic statues in the late 1880s, and became a popular and cheap choice in the 30s. But it was in the early 60s that milk glass experienced a resurgence. The hobnail pattern — raised dots on the surface of the milk glass — was especially sought after. This means that there is a lot of milk glass knocking around.
You should be able to find it pretty inexpensively as well, but just know that for every chic and simple hobnail tumbler, there’s also a lot of fancy lady cookie tins and frilly, fan shaped tooth pick holders.
(If you like Zooey Deschanel)
Vintage tea cups are a love of mine. They’re delicate and comically small. By the time you fill them with tea and lift them to your lips the heat has completely evaporated. These are also some of the easiest items to find, anywhere, if you’re not particularly choosy. I’d recommend picking a color palette, and buying tea cups in that hue, to create a pretty mix and match situation. This way, you don’t have to worry about the added expense of getting a complete set.
My favorite manufacturers are Royal Strafford, Mitterteich, and Royal Albert, basically any that are British or Bavarian. Look for hand painted, produced before 1960 items for more delicacy and refinement. Tea cups with saucers can range anywhere from $10 to $100, and the most I’ve paid for a tea cup I loved was $30.
(If you like Anthropologie)
This is probably the biggest savings I’ve come across with vintage tabletop items. The key, however, is to go big. Gold flatware is a major trend right now, and I’ve seen prices as high as $18 a piece. My trick is that I buy “lots” of gold plated flatware, the largest being 150+ pieces, for about $100. You can do the math. You might have to plunk down a chunk of cash, but you end up getting so much more.
Another key is to be choosy. Anything that looks brassy or overly ornate will look cheesy. Search for flatware from the 50s and 60s, that have a mid century flare. Ebay is best for this. It’s harder to find at flea markets, and they’re usually marked up there.
(If you own a vintage fur coat)
Tiffin glasses have that gorgeous gold rim that just screams “luxury.” I feel like I need a champagne cocktail, evening gloves, and an exaggerated cigarette holder when I have one of these gorgeous glasses in my midst.
Tiffin glasses come in a variety of shapes and hues, and this is another one that buying in bigger batches will get you the best prices. A set of 10 may be $120, but that’s cheaper than buying 2 for $30. The best prices I’ve found (I bought dozens of these for my wedding) was $10/glass. So anything in the $10-15 realm is a good deal.
Warning: Anything vintage with gold on it is hand wash only. Your dishwasher will immediately strip it of it’s luster and eventually, the gold. It’s the one thing I watch like a hawk in my kitchen.
Are you a vintage collector? What pieces are your favorite?
Images via Claire Thomas