(If you prefer, you can listen to this as a podcast! Smells Like Grandma, episode 1 – 5.)

A few weeks ago I spent the weekend washing out old perfume bottles. Well, technically, washing vintage & retro figural eau de cologne bottles – because perfume rarely comes in such bottles. Which is why most of us refer to such bottles as “fragrance bottles,” but collectors consider the category to be “perfume bottles,” a subset of vanity collectibles, or “collectible bottles”, a subset of “decorative collectibles.” But I digress.

I was washing old fragrance bottles. The majority of these were Avon bottles – primarily the figurative types. And perhaps it was the strong smells from the near 100 different bottled grandma scents, but I started giggling.

At the risk of further digression, I feel the need to address a few other things before I completely offend a great number of Avon ladies & Avon fans.

I’ve been an Avon Lady – not once, but twice, including after having reached one of the highest points in the beauty products game by working for Estee Lauder. So I’m not knocking Avon.

Not only is Avon the oldest beauty company in the United States, with a long history of economically empowering women, but Avon has for decades been the #1 fragrance-cosmetic company in the US with high rankings worldwide. Not so much #1 recently (which is a longer story about marketing and changing markets – and corporate buy-outs), but Avon still ranks in the top 10-15 worldwide every year. This means lots more people than grandmas are wearing Avon. But the nickname still holds – as we shall see.

In any case, there’s a whole lot of Avon bottles circulating. And being collected.

While most collector pros will focus on the obvious things (condition, condition, condition – the importance of boxes, true limited runs, fan favorites, etc.), in this podcast we like to talk about objects in context. In this case, the objects are vintage & reto Avon bottles, and the context of “grandma scents” is also a nostalgic nod to scents of the past.

According to science, smell and memory are linked. Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says, “The quickest way to affect somebody’s moods or behavior, quicker than with any other sensory modality, is with smell.” So collecting perfume bottles, Avon or not, is closely linked to memory.

Vintage scents may link you to your grandma, yes. Maybe it’s a scent she wore. My grandma wore Avon’s Charisma for special occasions, so it’s part of Christmas for me. But vintage perfume scents may remind you of your grandma, or grandmas in general, at least in part, because most fragrances tend to go bad & get that funky old smell after 3-5 years – and who doesn’t have a grandma who has old fragrance bottles getting dusty on her dresser? (Hence all the washing I’ve been doing!)

Or the scents may link you to your own past – a special occasion, your first big girl perfume, your first kiss – your own teen spirit, if you will. Meaning you might now be the “grandma” part of “grandma scent.”

But another part of the context of collectible Avon bottles is the heading-toward-us-like-a-bullet-train holiday season.

As I found in my sink, there is a ton of evidence of the gift-giving of Avon. Perhaps none as obvious as the array of men’s fragrance decanters.

There are a ton of cars, which may seem gifty enough for the generic men in your life. I mean, I guess glass cars look cool… I tend to like the kitschy stuff, including white poodle Avon decanters, so who am I to judge?

But there’s more. Including a plethora of men’s footwear options…

So.

Many.

Boots.

As a woman who used to sell men’s shoes, let me tell you there is nothing – & I mean nothing – like the odor of a teenaged boy’s feet. You learn in the shoe business to inhale deeply before you even begin to bend toward the feet – slowly exhaling as you go, so that you will not need to inhale again before you have exited the danger zone. You also learn to smile with commiseration with any mothers about – because they know what you are going through and are suffering in mortified silence as well.

So anyway, the notion of selling any fragrance in footwear form is, well, it just doesn’t smell right. Yet Avon has more variations of boot cologne bottles than seems possible.

Not that Avon figural bottles are necessarily shaped like scents. For example, the car decanters don’t smell like car exhaust or those cardboard trees. The 12-inch tall grandfather clock Avon bottle doesn’t smell like… clock. Nor does the spool of thread with thimble cap portend of a specific olfactory delight. In fact, most of Avon’s figural decanters seem perplexing to those of us who understand the marketing of fragrance… But still, men’s boots do suggest unpleasant scents. So I wrinkle my nose.

Perhaps my favorite – and by favorite, I mean most giggle-worthy – Avon men’s figural fragrance bottle is the weather vane – cupola combo.

In case you aren’t familiar with a cupola, it’s a small structure on the top of a building. They were used as lookouts, or to hold a bell or clock. Today, these small clocktowers typically provide ventilation or are purely decorative, perhaps holding up a weather vane. Just like this Avon bottle of aftershave. A decorative barn-red cupola topped with a black horse weather vane. “Thanks for thinking of me, grandma!”

Oddly enough, the weather vane – cupola combo container holds Deep Woods or Wild Country aftershave. And neither of those cologne names – i.e. the scent fantasy of a rugged outdoorsman who can’t be tamed – sounds like it belongs to a dude who wants to be domesticated by a farmhouse decor style.

This bottle does, however, lend itself to a gift-seeking grandma or & aunty who doesn’t know what to get a gent over the age of say 12.

Clearly, Avon has banked a lot of bucks from grandmas… But I think most folks would prefer the traditional $5 in a greeting card.

Feel free to share this with a grandma.

This Week's Story Avon Podcast Fargo Fair Oaks Antiques
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Hi, I’m Deanna Dahlsad of Fair Oaks Antiques, here with This Week’s Story, and I am a paint by number collector. (If you’d prefer, you can listen to the podcast here.)

Deanna Dahlsad paint by number collection
This Week's Story podcast paint by numbers
vintage paint by numbers dahlsad

Many mock paint by number paintings, saying the works are kitsch – meaning they are of poor taste. Even those who love kitsch in an ironic or humorous way may discount paint by numbers by saying they are not art, they are conformism. But knowledgeable collectors of PBNs, like myself, know that these works are important cultural icons – and anything but conformism.

The mere popularity of paint by numbers is a very American thing. Inspired by childhood memories of coloring and the art history lesson of Michelangelo assigning his students to paint pre-numbered sections of his famous Sistine Chapel, paint by numbers hold significant places in both mass merchandising commerce and the freedom of anti-establishism.

The matter of paint by number paintings being art — or, rather, not being art — wasn’t really an issue in the 50′s. Recreation specialists & home economists had begun to speak of hobbies as more than a way to beat the unemployed Depression-era-nothing-to-do-blues, more than a way to improve morale, but as “the fifth freedom,” along with freedom of speech and worship and freedom from want and fear. The prevailing wisdom of the postwar period was that creative hobbies enhanced life and made it worth living, prompting popular celebrities like Frank Sinatra & Dinah Shore to paint as a pastime. With “Sunday painters” like President Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, even the military had adopted this mindset, setting up hobby craft shops in the Pacific Theater and opening the first hobby craft shop at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California.

In 1952, an amateur painter in San Francisco entered and won third place at an art competition with one of Craft Master’s kits. Both the press and the public had a field day noting how judges could not tell the difference between a paint by number work and Modern Art — an art style in its hey-day, but one many people at the time were confused by &/or fed up with.

This was the tipping point for paint by numbers. They became so popular that The White House even hung paint-by-number paintings by J. Edgar Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller and others in a West Wing corridor along with other artists’ original works.

Karal Ann Marling, Professor of Art History and American Studies at the University of Minnesota, has written several books about the sensibilities of the 1950s. In her book, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, Marling paints the PBN trend as an outgrowth of World War II hobby-ism rather than a sign of conformity:

National surveys taken in the 1930s, when the Depression curtailed spending on equipment and travel, disclosed a sedentary pattern of recreation: respondents were reading magazines and listening to the radio and visiting with friends. What they really wanted to do, however, was to play tennis and golf, plant a garden, go swimming or skating. In the 1940s, wish became reality. Between 1947 and 1953, revenues for spectator sports and amusements showed a marked dip, despite increases in population and income and the insatiable demand for TV sets. …Market research proved that it was the heaviest TV-watchers who were liable to be most interested in painting a still life or reupholstering the living room sofa. Power tools and other do-it-yourself accessories were a $12 billion industry by the end of the decade; $30 million more went for amateur art supplies. “There seems to be a major trend away from passive, crowd amusements toward active pursuits that people can carry on independently,” concluded a highly regarded study of this “Changed America” with plenty of time on its hands.

More than other pastimes which grew during this time, the do-it-yourself spirit was also a way for man, woman, and child to find his or her way in this new world. It was non-conformist:

Do-it-yourselfism, in particular, was the last refuge for the exercise of control and competence in a world run by the bosses and the bureaucrats. It was a throwback, a rebuke to a buy-it-in-a-box world of TV dinners and ready-made everything.

As Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1994 is Art View for The New York Times (Painting by Numbers: How Bad Was It?), “Paint-by-numbers enthusiasts and Abstract Expressionists alike were affected by the same 50′s Zeitgeist: the tension between social strictures and personal freedom.”

Painting now could be an enjoyable pastime, a therapeutic outlet; not only reserved for the trained and talented.

However, painting by a kit was a very American idea.

Marling says paint by numbers were, “the most American thing you can imagine in that you package up everything you need in a box instead of going through lengthy instruction in how to paint or how to mix colors. It was a personal experience for the painter.” She continued, “You could almost call it supermarket Freudianism.”

While some object to the stamped boards of sameness which are to be painted according to ordained rules, we PBN collectors know that many did paint outside the lines, adding images, painting over what they didn’t like, or otherwise personalizing their works. And even when folks didn’t, they still produced unique folk art pieces. The kits may have been mass-produced, but individuals created each painted piece.

Many say that the paint by number hey-day is long over. Yet the kits continue to be painted — and continue to be made. Some may say this is primarily the pastime of children, but one needn’t look any further than the adult coloring book phenomenon to see that adults enjoy creative outlets too. It’s obvious in the popularity of shows like NBC’s Making It and entire cable channels dedicated to DIY programming.

Thanks to the current pandemic, crafting has exploded. The Smithsonian, which had an exhibit on paint by numbers in 2001, noted that the lockdowns have resulted in hands-on hobbies gaining traction as relaxing alternatives to screen-heavy activities. Etsy, arguably the world’s largest e-commerce website for craft supplies, handmade items (& vintage), has documented the uptick in the DIY trend. In May of this year, Etsy said that there had been a 346% increase in searches on Etsy for “diy”, a whopping 956% increase in searches for “embroidery kit”. Huge gains in other specific classic crafty hobbies were seen as well.

Clearly, there are shades of what Marling noted in the 1940s & 50s happening right now.

And there are other similarities as well.

The original paint by number kits consisted of rolled canvas (like window shades) and numbered glass jars containing paint – though they were “mystery” pictures, where the painter only discovered what they were painting only by applying the appointed colors.

If this reminds you of today’s trend of mystery boxes, you are not alone.

Loot Crate is often credited with the mystery box phenom, beginning with its subscription box service in 2012. Since then, it has become clear that it’s human nature to delight in surprises – even when they aren’t your own. One needn’t go any further than the huge number of views on YouTube unboxing videos to see the vicarious entertainment value of simply watching someone open to reveal the contents of a mystery box.

A rather jaded Luke Winkie at Vox says the appeal of mystery boxes is based on how much fun it is to unwrap presents. “Essentially, the mystery-box gambit is a clever trick to fool millennials into paying for a year-round Christmas experience.”

But I say the huge popularity of mystery boxes is proof that you shouldn’t underestimate the power of anticipation, of human curiosity, the love of surprise – or, for that matter, the love of having an experience – not just an object.

Crafty types, especially those who love to work with ephemera and found items, have always loved a mystery box – only we’ve known them by their vintage name: Grab Bags.

The act of grabbing a wrapped random item or a bag containing an assortment of miscellaneous items without knowing the contents has always been a thrill. It began when I was a kid – primarily because it was an affordable thrill. It continues today because the serendipity of discovery leads to creative inspiration. The Germans aptly call grab bags Wundertüte – and I think that encapsulates the joy so well.

Like paint by numbers, mystery boxes and grab bags may seem kitschy simple thrills for easily entertained minds – but their popularity exposes so much more about our culture, about what we crave, that I think dismissal of them is rather sad. There’s nothing wrong with a joyful, creative experience, whether we stay in the lines or not.

This has been Deanna Dahlsad sharing This Week’s Story for Fair Oaks Antiques. 

We sell online and in the Fargo North Dakota – Moorhead Minnesota area exclusively at Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market in booths #25-27.

 

Fargo vintage grab bags
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This Week’s Story is prompted by a vintage piece of lingerie. You can listen to the audio podcast here.

This particular lingerie piece, in a powder blue satin, is more slinky sleepshirt than naughty negligee. With its built-in shoulder pads and double-breasted suit jacket front, this nightie looks more like an oversized power suit jacket than something you’d find in the ladies’ intimates department. It’s oh-so 80s.

vintage 80s double-breasted lingerie with shoulder pads

But the garment’s roots are in the 1940s. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli may have lit the shoulder pad fuse in 1931, but it wasn’t until World War II began that the big bang of shoulder pads in women’s fashions really exploded.

Women’s fashions became steadily militarized, heavy in masculine styles with shoulder pads becoming increasingly bulkier and positioned at the top of the shoulder to create a solid, strong look.

Soon the style was ubiquitous in female fashions, found in all garments except for lingerie.

So leave it to the 1980s, decade of excess, to put shoulder pads in the lingerie.

Fashions of the 80s rigorously borrowed from many previous decades – exaggerating things as it went.

From the 40s – big shoulders and double-breasted suits.

From the 1950s, the 80s took rolled jeans and rocker leather. Those soft 50s pastel angora sweaters were back – now paired primarily with black for higher contrast. And the classic 1950s ponytail become the exaggerated side ponytail.

From 1960s fashions, the 80s took mini-skirts, bold colors, and mod geometric patterns.

Of course, there was a great backlash to all this big, bold, exaggerated 80s fashion too.

Brands such as Laura Ashley & Jessica McClintock’s Gunne Sax surged forward with their fond looks backward towards a softer, feminine, romance associated with prairie and Victorian-styled designs. A time when women were women and men were men. (Of course, leaving out the facts that back in those good old days manly men and womanly women had to use outhouses and chamber pots, as we often do when romancing the past.)

This gender power struggle dynamic displayed in culture as fashion can be seen clearly in the 1980s television show Dynasty. The show’s costume designer, Nolan Miller, dressed his stars, Linda Evans and Joan Collins, in more than just the glamorous gowns of the wealthy. Their wardrobes were built on establishing and displaying the female leads’ authority and power. Big shoulder pads were needed for such big ambitions!

But even as those huge-shouldered power suits represented the power in the new working woman, it was also necessary to show that underneath her “bitch in the boardroom” persona, she was “all woman” underneath. Enter lingerie.

All things silky and lacy were paramount to a woman’s 80s wardrobe. Whether it was underwear as outerwear, a la Madonna, or it was a silky soft teddy beneath that tough power suit, lingerie was an 80s necessity. In the case of this vintage 80s piece, one would balance the “I mean business!” double-breasted, shoulder-padded night-suit by wearing the “Monkey business, baby!” of an all lace bodysuit (typically with stockings) beneath it.

This is the intimates fashion equivalent of Enjolie’s “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.”

Like I said, classic 80s.

Item details: Available in booth #27 at The FARM. Ladie’s size Medium. Cloth label: Charmeuse, 100% polyester. Machine wash; tumble dry low. Price: $26.95

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We will be at Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market’s annual summer flea market this weekend! Not only are we bringing in fresh finds from farms (& other places) for the flea market outside – but we will be having a huge sale inside too: 50% off! That’s half off all items with vendor code YES, in our spaces & cases. (Unless already marked down, of course.)

Saturday, June 20th, from 10 am until 6 pm

Sunday, June 21st, from noon until 6 pm.

No early sales.

50% off Fair Oaks Antiques at Fargo Antiques & Repruposed Market's Annual Summer Flea Market
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Someone made a nifty little list or directory of great places to shop for vintage in the Fargo-Moorhead area – and we are super psyched to be on it!

There’s also a nice little area on what happened to some of the old shops which have closed. Go check it out! Vintage Travels In Fargo-Moorhead.

Directory of vintage shopping & junking in Fargo, North Dakota & Moorhead, Minnesota
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I fell in love with Iris Apfel when I spotted her documentary on Netflix – I sent everyone to watch it. Whether you adore vintage costume jewelry, fashion & textiles, whimsical decor, or spunky old broads, you’ll love Iris. Most of the world now does. She’s become an icon. And most of what she exudes is knowledge that every self-styled vintage lover already knows. Following her is really following yourself. Rock on, Iris! Rock on all of us!

PS Iris is more than an icon – she’s put in the years of work too.

Iris was a decorator and textile designer for the better part of her career. In 1950 she and her husband, Carl, opened Old World Weavers, a textile firm they ran until 1992, servicing everyone from Emily Post to Dorothy Draper. Iris also was responsible for many White House restorations, including those of the Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton administrations.
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