Vintage-Hunting in the USA

fuzzy head vase with carnival glassAmerican Retro and Western classic memorabilia have a big following here in Britain – we love to collect everything from 1950s kitsch – gumball machines and carnival glass – through to gambling memorabilia and pyjama-party chintz. Much of what’s available here, though, is either replica, tatty original or very expensive. It’s hardly surprising – dealers have to import goods and that will always put the price up.

If you’re planning a holiday to the States, chances are spending time seeking out some bargain vintage-ware is on your list of things to do. Finding the best places to buy, though, is not always the easiest of jobs. America is a very large haystack in which to find a tiny antique bobby pin.


Something to remember: the antiques/vintage game is a food chain. Knowing where the outlet you’re shopping at is on that chain is the secret to getting something really special.

Yellow kitchenware 2

One of the first hurdles is definition. ‘Antique’ in America can mean anything from a 14th Century Ming vase to 1990s trash-fashion – the terms ‘vintage,’ ‘classic’ and ‘retro,’ though recognized in the States, are not widely used yet.

True antiques are few and far between and fetch huge prices. European items too, are rare and generally poorer quality. But who goes to the States for European goods? Where the USA comes into its own is in 20th Century memorabilia – advertising, kitsch and diner-chic is everywhere, and though commanding higher prices these days, are still good quality and reasonable for British pockets.

diner booth

doug spots ice cream churnerAs in England, the internet has hurt traditional ways of trading. A Texan pal of mine, Douglas Harman, who collects vintage western gear, doesn’t care for the new school. “You don’t get the sensual pleasure of wandering round and it cuts out all socialising,” he says.

To prove his point, he takes me to a garage or ‘yard’ sale in Fort Worth. We are beginning to have them over here a little more, but in America, they’re institutions. Who can forget the tragic moment Woody accidentally gets into a job-lot of old playthings Mom’s selling in Toy Story 2?

“Garage sales are the bottom feeders of the antiques world,” Doug says. “They’re picked over by the flea market dealers. The last part of the chain is formed by the antiques shops and high-end auctions.”

garage sale sign

Yard sales are advertised in the local press – but the best bet is just to drive around a relatively well-heeled neighbourhood of a Saturday morning, looking out for hand-made signs on telegraph poles and lamp posts. “Folk just set up on their front lawn,” says Doug.

It’s best to start early-ish – around 7.30am as, just as in Britain, the dealers go out early to snaffle up the best buys. But this is ordinary families clearing out their storm cellars on a Saturday morning – don’t be surprised to find sales starting at 10.00 or 11.00am.

yard saleWe pick a road at random. A hundred yards or so sees a telegraph pole with several cardboard signs; we head towards the nearest, but see another, unadvertised, before we get there. Let’s not get too excited about this. Most yard sales are people getting rid of the kind of everyday detritus we all acquire. But among the dodgy LPs, religious paperbacks (so many religious paperbacks…), 1980s video games and nasty ornaments nestle real gems. Within seconds of stumbling upon our first Toy Story-esque yard sale, Doug’s delighted to turn up an intact 1923 ice cream maker. The lady wants $15 but is only too happy to take $10. On hearing my English accent she wants to chat – this is clearly more a social event than a financial transaction.

bowling pins

SouthernwareThe next couple of yard sales are less productive but just as relaxed, friendly and fun. I dismiss an original 30s Art Deco lamp for $20, later kicking myself, but pick up some fabulous 1950s “bubble” fairy lights (buying, of course, two sets to be wired together to allow for British currents – our different power system is something to be borne in mind when buying electrical goods) The pace is slow. Horsey and Spidey 2Everyone wants to talk, and I reflect that this is possibly the closest I’ve come to finding ‘real’ Americans on any of my travels. After buying a 1920s chrome and bakelite cocktail shaker for a mere $5 (I later see an identical one in a flea market for $150) we make our way to the next part of the antique chain.

In America, flea markets are not the same as we would understand them, which in turn is not the same as the famous Parisian marchè aux puces.  In the States they’re more like we would call collectors’ fairs, and often in permanent or semi-permanent venues.

Giant flea marketThe Fort Worth Flea market – held every Saturday morning in the giant barns behind the Will Rogers Center in the Cultural district has an intriguing combination of professionals and amateurs who are both more interested in showing you their restored 1957 Thunderbird than selling their wares.

fansDouglas Harman sets to finding his western memorabilia. He picks up a polystyrene cup of 200 civil war bullets and a spittoon full of army buttons for $60, some Indian arrowheads ($7- $20) and a coffee grinder from a cowboy chuckwagon ($8) He doesn’t care that it’s incomplete – because of the way the West was won, much of its history is fragmented and for Doug, the very fact that it’s flawed is part of its story.

Victorian Gentleman’s grooming is especially big in the States just now. A silver moustache comb will set you back $150 and a gold matchbox $500. But my eye is still on the 20th Century. kitchen cabinet1950s Kitchenware is particularly good quality here but more expensive than one might think – mint examples are rare and as Americans are beginning to understand why their European cousins love vintage so much, they’re getting rarer.

Barbiemobile 1I find myself drawn to a 1960s Barbie Cadillac for $40 and a stall that sells beautifully reconditioned 1920s electric fans for anything from $75 – $1500. The friendliness is palpable. The fan man spends a long while telling me about his dream cottage in Yorkshire.

general memorabiliaThe Buchanan Markets are held monthly in Dallas Fair Park and are considered to be among the best in the States. Visiting the next day, though, I am not entirely convinced they are better than the Cowtown version in Fort Worth. Buchanan clearly means business. The dealers are more hard-bitten; the atmosphere less party-like. The quality is generally high, though some new goods and repros have been slipped in – and are rarely labelled as such. Buyer beware.

Some of the antiques are shocking to British eyes – I physically recoil at a stand selling a “coloreds only” sink, iron slave chains and ku-klux klan memorabilia.

“Mainly black people collect that kind of thing,” explains the frankly seedy vendor, noticing my face. “Slave stuff’s very popular.” I don’t linger to find out how much he wants for the Coon Song Sheet.

sporting goodsBritish visitors may be equally uninterested in the assortment of stuffed animals, the vintage canoes, sleds and the peculiarly American architectural salvage – embossed tin ceiling tiles and weather boarding – which are probably more interesting to look at than to purchase. But if your dream is to own the complete contents of a 1950s diner or a set of Betty Crocker cookie cutters, this is your place. Be prepared to pay, but you’ll get top stuff.chromeware

The ‘Antiques Trail’ between Dallas and Austin on Interstate 35 really starts in earnest just outside Waco. Dozens of warehouses comprising mini flea markets clutter the roadsides. These are mainly booths where dealers leave their wares for a central cash desk – which makes browsing obligation-free but can be frustrating when trying to get more information or clarifying prices.

I am forced to give up entirely when I can find nobody to give me a price on a 1950s pink fringed headboard lamp – bedroom kitsch at its very best. Generally prices are still low though, as with a lot of antiques mini markets in the UK, quality varies widely.

The largest warehouse of all is Montgomery Street Mall back in Fort Worth behind the flea market. This is so huge that it has its own restaurant with napkins and wine glasses. Prices are higher, but so is quality.

proper antiquesThe heavy-duty antiques shops, the top of Doug Harman’s chain, are to be found in the smaller, posher towns across the USA. Generally anywhere calling itself ‘historic’ and looking well-heeled should fetch up at least one or two smart antique shops. Granbury, 30 miles SW of Fort Worth has an historic square mainly comprising Antiques and excellent quality reproductions shops. I am particularly taken by a solid oak poker table for $450 – this is, after all, the Land of Texas Hold ‘Em.

Deco ClockUltimately, though, my favourite bargain is in Ennis, about 30 miles south of Dallas. A job lot of 91 wall-mounted 1960s chrome tabletop jukeboxes is selling for just $75 each – or $60 if you buy 5 or more. The only reason I leave empty-handed is that I can’t physically lift one.

Which brings me to the issue of shipping. Some of the bigger antiques shops will arrange shipping but most flea markets and smaller shops won’t want to know. Equally, the big international carriers like DHL are unlikely to be keen about transporting what they call ‘negotiable goods’ i.e. goods without a fixed value. A flick through the yellow pages will find couriers prepared to carry such cargo but remember to factor this into the price of your bargain.Merry Go Round Horse

As with all antique shopping half the fun is in not knowing what you will find. You could buy the entire furnishings from an Art Deco ex-cinema (sadly, like us, they’re still pulling down mid-century gems, from cinemas to diners) or you may find absolutely nothing. The higher up the chain, the better the quality will be. But for my money, the local garage sales are hard to beat – they’re the most unpredictable and consequently the most exciting places of all to find true Americana.

This feature, by Sandra Lawrence, originally appeared in the Financial Times

Ladies rummaging


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