“Nostalgia,” some quip, “ain’t what it used to be.” But, that’s an old joke that’s just gotten older. “Vintage” is now in. What’s old is hotter, cooler, groovier and hipper than ever.
Thanks to Pinterest, eBay, HGTV and popular TV shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and (the granddaddy of them all) PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, there’s a giant audience of people infused with creative, shared and innovative ideas and a fascination with the past. Toss in their concern about their own individual environmental footprints, and they have made antiquing and repurposing old household and vintage items — turning yesterday’s landfill fodder into decorative or useful items with a personal tale — fashionable and profitable.
This month, it’s “in with the old” as we meet some Hoosiers who pan through the dustbins and ash heaps of history looking for the fab and fashionable that will be treasured into the future.
Scavenger hunts for vintage items reap unexpected rewards
The “Lightning” logo hit Mike Martin like a bolt from the blue.
Only four letters — just L-I-G-H — popped out of a bin of clothes at a Goodwill Outlet store. But Mike instantly recognized the distinctive “L” that turned into a jagged electrical bolt as “Johnny Lightning,” a brand of die-cast race cars he collected in the early 1970s.
“I got very pumped when I pulled it out,” Mike said. “There’s this perfect blue shirt, unbelievable condition.”
And while a shirt with an embroidered Johnny Lightning logo across the back would have been cool enough, Mike, age 53, sensed it was more than that. “Being an Indy 500 guy, I knew Al Unser had a two-year sponsorship with Johnny Lightning,” he said.
Those two years were 1970 and 1971 — when Unser won his first two Indianapolis 500s. Mike’s heart skipped a beat as he pondered: Could this be an authentic Unser pit crew shirt from then?
TAPPING INTO VINTAGE
Mike, an Avon, Indiana, resident, was visiting the outlet on Indianapolis’ west side when he found the shirt, but he wasn’t there looking for shirts. He was making a periodic stop on his way home from work for his wife, Tammy.
Tammy had just started a decorating business — Vintage Wedding Decor and Floral — which provides props and decorations for weddings at venues like old barns converted into event centers. “With a barn built a hundred years ago,” Mike said, “you want vintage wedding decorations. So, I started going out looking for items.”
Props for a vintage wedding might include old suitcases, lanterns, lace doilies, antique pitchers and Ball jars, ornate solid wood picture frames and even an antique fireplace mantle. They are used for welcoming signs, centerpieces and the like.
Vintage weddings have become popular in recent years as many couples shun the glitzy trappings of ballrooms and banquet halls. Instead, they are finding a bucolic beauty at venues close to nature which reflect the timelessness of the vows they’ve made.
Building an inventory of interesting vintage props took time. As Tammy’s principle prop procurer and roadie, Mike visited mostly garage and estate sales, flea markets, and thrift shops like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity ReStores. “It’s really about finding hidden gems,” he said. “You never know what you’ll find … I’ve found some incredible things.”
Back at the Goodwill Outlet, Mike dropped the Johnny Lightning shirt into his cart. For a buck, he was buying it; he loved the Johnny Lightning logo.
When he got the shirt home, he began researching what he had. Like a detective, Mike pieced together an open-shut case on the shirt’s authenticity.
There was the circumstantial: a Google search of the custom shirt’s maker, still tagged in the collar, showed it was made near the Torrance, California, headquarters of the race team Unser was with at that time, Parnelli Jones.
Then, Mike checked out the 1970 and 1971 photo archives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum where he found the contemporary evidence: scores of photos of Unser’s pit crew wearing the exact shirts down to the placement of the patches.
“I was able to verify that it was from 1970 which was the first of four that he won,” Mike said.
How the shirt ended up at Goodwill, Mike said, probably is a common tale.
“I bet it belonged to someone on the west side [of Indianapolis] who worked out there that month for him, had a cool experience, went home and stuck it in his closet. As what usually happens with a lot of this stuff, grandpa passed away, and they were cleaning out his closet.”
Though he loved the shirt, Mike decided he had more stuff like that than he could ever display. As he had been doing with many of the interesting items he’d see and buy while searching for Tammy’s business, Mike put the shirt up for sale on eBay.
He asked $1,000, based on race items he was seeing. “I pretty much know what it’s worth when I sell it, or my best guess,” he said. Still, nothing he saw compared to the significance of a 1970 Al Unser winning pit crew shirt. “This was a one-of-a-kind kind of deal.”
Immediately, an avid race fan from Michigan contacted him. After an offer and a counter offer, they agreed on $750. “It’s really just how much something is worth to somebody at the right time,” Mike said. “I happened to find the one guy who has an Al Unser/Johnny Lightning collection.”
Another race-related find — this one at a garage sale — also brought a huge return.
For $10, Mike bought a box full of old sprint car racing programs and penciled in heat sheets from the 1960s. They came from dirt tracks around Indiana and neighboring states. Some of the programs included autographs of famed Indy 500 winners like Johnny Rutherford and Tom Sneva who must have still been doing the dirt-track circuits.
Turning again to eBay, Mike divided the box into three bundles and sold them separately, netting $390 in all.
HUNTING OUT THE VINTAGE
While the pit crew shirt was the most profitable find Mike’s made looking for Tammy’s vintage decor, his favorite, most amazing find he’s not sure he’ll part with. It began at the same Goodwill Outlet store.
About two years ago, he was looking into one of the bins and saw the cover of an old book and a few of its signatures of stitched pages. “This book was all in sections. It almost looked like someone had ripped it apart,” Mike said. “So I find the front cover, and I see the year it’s published.”
The book was Maclise’s Surgical Anatomy, dated 1859. It was a manual for surgeons that included illustrations of human cadavers with cutaway sections noting the internal organs, bones, muscles, veins and other body parts.
For the rest of the evening until the store closed, Mike said he was on a mission to find as much of the book as he could. “I stayed for two and a half hours and kept finding pieces here and there. I had no idea if I had it all or not until I came home and started putting it in order.”
To his amazement, he had every page, and the front and back covers. “I just thought I had a cool medical book that was from 1859,” he noted. That was at first.
As he went through the sections of the book, additional items started falling out. There were hand-written letters from the 1860s which included the name of the man he believed originally owned the book — Dr. J.E. Linck from Terre Haute.
Then, Mike found a telegram from January 1864 giving Dr. Linck’s wife permission to travel from Louisville to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to join her husband where he was serving the Union Army. The authorization came from Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant.
“From what I researched on the internet,” Mike said, “[Linck] was a prominent battlefield surgeon who was very good in the area of amputation and patient survival.”
Some of the fragile faded and yellowed hand-written letters were to other doctors. Some, dated from 1866, read more like speeches a doctor would give to other surgeons. They named specific battlefields where he attended to wounded soldiers, Murfreesboro, Stones River and Hoover’s Gap, and explained methods of amputation.
“First, they would get a shot of whiskey,” Mike said, noting some of the content he’d read. “Then this would happen. Then, there’d be another shot of whiskey. And then this would happen. You got the feeling he was speaking at a conference.”
Mike said he’s not sure what he’ll do with the book, but he did take it to the medical library at Indiana University in Indianapolis. “Once I took it to the IU library and had them get excited about it, that’s when I thought, ‘OK this is really cool.’
MEMENTOS & MEMORIES
In just the few years selling finds on eBay, the Martins were able to fully fund an entire week’s vacation to Daytona Beach last year, including condominium, car rental and air fare for seven.
“It was the week of my in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary,” Mike said.
“We wanted to take my dad to Florida one more time,” Tammy added. “And he died the next month. He got to go, and we had a really nice time.”
It’s ironic that one person’s discarded memories could generate new, precious memories for others. But scavenging for treasures not only funded special family time for the Martins — it helps them fashion wedding decor for couples beginning their journeys as families. Some things old really do create something new.
What’s the story?
NineStar consumer decorates with items that have a ‘history’
There was no joy in McCordsville the day Dylan Gray shattered more than just the air in his parent’s living room with a new baseball bat.
The bat, an inch longer than the ones he’d swung in there before, clipped the edge of his mom’s favorite serving tray resting on an ottoman. Even at a brush, the carbon polymer bat mangled the tray’s mango wood handle.
Dylan, a travel team and high school player, and dad, Bryan, who was focused on Dylan’s batting stance and feet, immediately ran to mom and spouse, Kim, to fess up about the foul tip. “They both were overly apologetic and taking the blame,” Kim said. She couldn’t be too mad.
Kim tried to fix the tray, but its splintered handle was beyond repair. Instead of trashing the tray, though, she let her knack and passion for creatively repurposing items take a whack at it.
It wasn’t as if the tray was a valuable heirloom. The white-washed hand-carved vine pattern was just something she saw and liked at Pier 1. But when she was done, the “upcycled” tray became part of a multidimensional picture frame in the very room it was damaged. Part of those dimensions is the colorful story behind it. It’s yet another to go with the many decorative or useful items in the Gray home that have “history” behind them — in more ways than one.
“I didn’t want to throw it away because it was still pretty, even though it was cracked,” she said.
Kim, 54, is among a generation of folk – of all ages — which dimly views the “disposable society” we have become. Borrowing the prudent “waste-not” trait from the generation that came of age in the Great Depression, this generation has made “repurposing” and “upcycling” buzz words for both the fashionable and environmentally conscious.
“Part of it is I don’t like putting stuff in the landfill,” Kim said. The other part, she said, is the creative challenge of “making something out of nothing.”
“Usually it starts as inspiration — with a piece like the tray where I didn’t want to throw it away. Then it becomes an obsession where I won’t stop till it’s done,” she said. “I’m happier when I’m creating stuff.”
The former Electric Consumer staff member and member of NineStar Connect electric/telecom cooperative on the east side of suburban Indianapolis, had previously devised a system of turning scrap wood into backgrounds for store-bought frames to enhance her photographs.
She did the same with the battered tray. She used it as a background, centered a square picture frame in the middle that she affixed with a nail and velcro.
Trained in various forms of communications at Purdue University, Kim likes the stories behind both the simple and major pieces of furniture and art that decorate her home. Some have family ties; others she was able to research and learn the background.
When she and husband Bryan, an Indianapolis entrepreneur, began planning to build a new home on Geist Reservoir some 20 years ago, she wanted many of the home’s significant features to be antiques or reclaimed items. At the time, she handled classified ads for Electric Consumer and placed her own ad looking for antique fireplace mantles. She received responses from almost 20 readers.
After she and Bryan had left a Louisville antique shop where they saw a beautiful wooden mantle that had a shell design for $9,000, she got a call from an Electric Consumer reader in Brookston, north of Lafayette. He described an old mantle he was selling for $500. It was just like the one they saw. “I saw how much the shell was, so it made me think, ‘I need that shell.’”
The mantle, probably dating to the 1870s, was rough but was in great shape overall. It had been used last as a prop in a display window of the Baltimore Clothing House in Lafayette to help display mannequins modeling suits.
As a Purdue graduate, Kim loves that it came from the Lafayette area. After she stripped it and cleaned it up, carpenters built it in with the bookshelves, wainscoting and other woodwork of the new home’s study and finished it with the rest of the room.
A marble fireplace in their home, however, doesn’t have such a pedigree. “It really bothers me that I don’t know where the marble fireplace comes from because it was from an antique store,” Kim said.
While Kim and Bryan do some shopping at antique stores, she echoes the comments of others: The best places to shop for vintage items with which she can get creative are estate sales, garage sales and Goodwill.
The key piece of advice she offers to those interested in joining in the upcycling movement: Don’t go looking for a specific item. “You can’t go with: ‘I need a chair’; or ‘I need a —,’” Kim said. “Right now, I’m looking for a little console table, and, of course, I can’t find it. If I weren’t looking for it, I’d find it.
“You’ve got to go with an open mind.”
What to avoid when buying used electrical devices
Second-hand stores are great places to find bargains. They’re meccas for people looking for low-cost useful items and “upcyclers” looking for trendy vintage items to repurpose.
But buyer beware when it comes to used electrical devices.
Worse than not working, those devices might be defective, have been recalled long ago by the manufacturer or have been damaged. Any of those things could make them fire or shock hazards.
Before buying a used electrical device, ask if you can plug it in to see if it works. If you can’t do that, check the device and power cord carefully. Don’t buy it if you see:
- cracks or cuts in the cord’s insulation or the insulation feels brittle;
- damage to the plug or prongs;
- burn marks or discoloration where the device or cord may have gotten too hot;
- deep dents, dings or cracks in the outer housing which could mean the item was dropped or mistreated;
- scratches in the paint or damage to the housing of the device near the tiny screws that hold it together or to the screws themselves. This may indicate the device was opened by an untrained person, and its integrity may have been compromised.
If the item looks OK and you purchase it, it’s best to have it inspected by an electrician before using it. If you decide not to do that, at least plug it into a ground-fault circuit interrupter first when you check it out just to provide yourself a layer of safety.
UPCYCLING LAMPS IS A BRIGHT IDEA
Go into any second-hand or thrift store, and you’re bound to see a brigade of old lamps varying in shapes and sizes and standing in formations like old soldiers waiting to be put back into use.
Unlike a lot of electrical devices, table and floor lamps are generally straight forward and easy to rewire for even the most rookie DIYer. Hardware stores carry a variety of new sockets with various switches, cords and plugs, and all the threaded pieces, grommets and parts necessary to rewire an old lamp — or to create a new one from “upcycled” items — and attach the shade.