Downtown Providence – A Nostalgic Stroll Down Westminster Street

When I was an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I loved exploring downtown Providence and taking photographs. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of my RISD graduation on May 24, 1980, I’ll be posting a series of blogs looking back – featuring historic photos and postcards. The first blog is about Westminster Street and some of the wonderful landmark buildings that still exist. Also included are now-defunct businesses I encountered during my RISD years, as well as long-forgotten ones from the late-18th to early 20th centuries. I fondly remember walking on Westminster all the way past downtown to Olneyville to buy jewels at Wolf E. Myrow. During my RISD years, the portion of Westminster in downtown Providence was a pedestrian mall and closed off to vehicles. I loved the somewhat seedy quality of downtown Providence and would likely bemoan its gentrification if I returned. Department Stores Woolworth: Located at 185 Westminster in a five-story building from 1920, I would buy things at this five and dime now and then, but it didn’t have the charm of my favorite Chicago Woolworth store.     Thom McAn: I remember this retail chain on Westminster since it was near Woolworth, but I never went inside nor purchased shoes from this brand. Their retail stores closed in the late 1980s after being bought by K-Mart and subsequently Sears, who still sells this brand – that doesn’t bode well, although I think Walmart also sells them. Lerner Shops: Located in the former Wilkinson Building (mentioned separately later) at 210–216 Westminster, I never shopped here, nor at the location on State Street in Chicago. Founded in 1918 by Samuel A. Lerner and Harold M. Lane in NYC, New York & Company purchased the company in 2004 and they’re still in business.   …

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A Visual Tribute to Barber Shops

As a fine artist and photographer, I’ve always been obsessed with barber shops – visually. I don’t particularly like going to beauty salons to get my hair cut. I think barber shops are far more interesting and less snooty. After graduating early from high school, I would go on outings with my mom (who is also an artist) on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, where I photographed interesting storefronts. Even back then I was drawn to barber shops. My admiration of a few select photographers informed my early photographic work – especially those who worked for the Farm Security Administration, such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, as well as the great photographer Berenice Abbott. All of them took wonderful photos of barber shops.     Back when I was an art student at RISD, I photographed quite a few barber shops in Providence and NYC. Unfortunately, I didn’t note where the NYC barber shops were located, however, I do remember one because of the circumstances. The below barber (on Lafayette Street) came outside when he saw me photographing the exterior. He volunteered to pose, which seemed nice enough. Nobody else was there and after he made a few suggestive comments and asked inappropriate questions, I high tailed it out of there rather quickly.     Many barber shops are still decorated with really cool ephemera and antiques that add to the appeal of getting your hair cut. An example is the JMC Barber Shop, which I stumbled upon last August in Elmhurst, Ill. I have never seen such a visual explosion covering every imaginable wall space – you couldn’t possibly get bored when you get your hair cut here!   While I prefer my vintage late 1970s black and white shots, I have taken color photos of barber shops when…

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The RISD-Chicago Vintage Party Favor Connection

  My friend Barbara recently sent me a stack of old student newspapers from our days at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Perusing these was an enjoyable trip down memory lane and I certainly plan on mining these for future RISD and Providence-related blogs. I uncovered a completely unrelated, unexpected, and delightful surprise in the October 28, 1977 Halloween issue. Lo and behold, one of the contributors included visually-intriguing catalog pages from Van Housen’s Favor Co., Inc. My assumption is that they found this in the RISD clipping room (now called the Picture Collection), a wonderful historical archive of all sorts of paper ephemera. Naturally, the cool-looking graphics beckoned to the sleuth in me and I had to do further investigating. Dennison Was Primary Competitor Van Housen’s was a Chicago-based company located at 81 W. Lake Street. Their primary competitor was Dennison Manufacturing Company which was founded in 1844 by Colonel Andrew Dennison. They opened their first store in Chicago in 1864, with subsequent store openings in the 1870s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although Dennison already had a longstanding reputation for manufacturing high-quality paper goods, it was crepe paper decorations that set them apart. If you recognize the Dennison name, it’s likely because the company merged with Avery International Corp. in October 1990.   I couldn’t find definitive dates when Van Housen’s was in business, but I did uncover ads from 1922, 1923, 1924, and the 1930s. I also uncovered an interesting article on crepe paper decorations that appeared in the Autumn 1924 issue of Fort Dearborn Magazine, with excerpts below: During the holiday season when entertaining is the order of the hour, many a social affair is given festive background by the use of appropriate crepe paper decorations, favors and novelties. While the demand for…

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Once Upon a Time on Maiden Lane – NYC

I’ve always been fascinated by the name Maiden Lane, an east-west street in NYC’s Financial District. It has such a charming and magical Old World sound to it. The western edge is close to the World Trade Center site and I likely discovered it for the first time in 2005, when my daughter and I visited the Ground Zero memorial at St. Paul’s Chapel. The street’s original name was Maagde Paatje, which is Dutch for Maiden Path. It was a footpath along a rippling brook frequented by lovers, as well as mothers and daughters who washed their laundry there on sunny days – sounds idyllic, indeed. After the street was cobbled over in 1698, the Fly Market opened where vendors sold fresh produce, fish, and meat under a covered roof until 1823. The Maiden Lane of old was a far cry from the bustling street that is home to the Federal Reserve of New York, other imposing buildings, and of course, Starbucks and McDonald’s. Two of the jeweler’s buildings still exist – Cushman at One Maiden Lane and the Diamond Exchange at 14 Maiden Lane, which was constructed specifically for diamond merchants and jewelers and completed in 1894.   I collect beautiful fraternal jewelry – primarily Benevolent Order of Elks (BPOE), Masonic, and Odd Fellows. In fact, back in the late 1980s, I drew illustrations for the F.N. Kistner catalog, a huge supplier of fraternal jewelry and gifts in Chicago’s jeweler’s row. Unfortunately, I wasn’t collecting these pieces back then, so I didn’t acquire any from Kistner. What inspired the idea for this blog were gorgeous sterling silver pieces I kept seeing on eBay marked Alfred Schickerling, 51 Maiden Lane. Most had patent dates of 1910 or 1911. This opened a proverbial Pandora’s Box, or in this instance, jewelry box….

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A Tale of Cribbage – Boards & Fun Facts

In 1998 when I met Jeff, he introduced me to the game of cribbage. He grew up playing this game, while I had never played it. It quickly became a Sunday morning routine along with Jeff’s delicious homemade pancakes. It was also a nice activity to involve both our daughters, who enjoyed playing with us when they were pre-teens. Jeff and I played regularly for a few years and now only play once in a blue moon. Over the years, we also accrued quite a collection of vintage cribbage board and playing cards. If you’ve never played cribbage and are curious about the rules, click here. If you decide to play, be warned that the odds of attaining the elusive perfect 29 score in a two-player cribbage game are 1 in 216,580, and 1 in 15,028 for 28. Just once, I had a hand of 28, but not really because Jeff counted his hand first and won the game! A Brief History of Cribbage     British poet, playwright, and gambler Sir John Suckling popularized and described the rules of cribbage in its approximate modern form around 1632. Suckling lost his mother at age 4 and subsequently his father at age 18, inheriting significant wealth that he squandered on travel, women, and gambling. He invented a variation of an earlier Tudor-era game called Noddy, in which only three cards were dealt to each player, no discard, and therefore no crib. The turn-up card was counted in both players’ hands and the game was 31 points. Suckling’s cribbage game introduced the crib and was played with five cards versus today’s six. As for Sir Suckling, he lived a charmed and cursed life, was charged with treason in 1641, fled to France, and committed suicide by taking poison. He died destitute after…

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Products Then and Now … From 1960 to 2017

I recently found a 1960 wholesale catalog from First Distributors at 4204 W. North Ave, Chicago at a garage sale. I have no idea how long they were in business, but I became fascinated with the pictures and ads in this quaint catalog. They sold practically everything and also had a showroom! It’s hard to tell from the catalog whether anyone could buy wholesale from First Distributors or whether it was intended for retailers – this is not explicitly stated. The catalog is reminiscent of Sears and Wards vintage catalogs, with less clothing and the added feature of wholesale pricing. They sold everything from lawn mowers to patio furniture, sporting goods to humidifiers, toys to scuba equipment, tires, jewelry, vitamins specifically for teenagers, lingerie, clothes, and yes, even the kitchen sink. In this catalog, they offered two nifty all-in-one refrigerator, range, and sink models – a great solution for tiny apartments! I thought it would be intriguing to select a few products from this catalog, circa 1960 and see how they compare to modern products, circa 2017.

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Amazing Tales From the World of Vintage Underground

As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.

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Antique Employee Badges Offer a Unique Glimpse into American Industry

It seems appropriate to be posting this in honor of Labor Day, which is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. A few years ago I picked of a mixed lot of vintage and antique ephemera at a Pace Auction. I sold most of the items – which ranged from political tie tacks to celluloid pinbacks, but held onto one piece for quite a while. Pictured above, this was a well-worn, but intriguing employee photo badge of a woman, circa 1940s from the M.H.R. Company. I’ve always been drawn to vintage photographs of random people and have collected a few over the years, including daguerreotypes in beautiful tooled leather cases. I love doing research, especially in the realm of Americana and defunct industries, so this type of collectible is a perfect fit for my sensibilities. These badges offer a glimpse into yesteryear – back to a time and place in America where workers sometimes toiled long and hard hours in poor conditions. I found out that these badges are highly collectible and most of them are well out of my price range. I wonder why they are so sought after – are others as fascinated by the visual qualities and historic aspects as I am? The finest examples sell for as much as $200 – while even poor, damaged badges sell for $25 and up. Since my interest is primarily historic, I don’t need to own any to fulfill my fascination with the companies’ history, so I sold mine. Alas, it only fetched about $20.00, likely due to the obscure company. While some have the names of the employees, most are random faces and employee ID numbers of workers who have grown old and passed away. Only surviving relatives would possibly know who they are, but nevertheless, they possess an intriguing aura. Here is a selection of…

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Inside the Collector’s Mind: True Tales from the eBay Front

Weird Cheeto

I consider myself an eBay pioneer, with a seller account going back to the e-commerce Stone Age – or January 1997, to be precise. In the beginning, eBay was a fantastic place to sell genuine antiques with provenance and vintage collectibles like footless Pez. In the last decade or so, things have drastically changed as the massive marketplace has become flooded with fake designer purses, huge lots of genuine Gillette blades that fell off a truck (wink-wink), and countless other new merchandise. While vintage and antique merchandise still can sell, it is a spin of the roulette wheel compared to the early days – with more than 700 million items listed on any given day. I have experienced my share of non-paying bidders, kooks, and insults and so have family members – providing amusement and provoking more than a few f-bombs. I have often wondered if people are compulsive bidders in the same way others are compulsive gamblers. My faith in humanity was restored about 11 years ago when I heard from the sister of a buyer who never paid for an antique purse. I’ve heard every story in the book, but this one was heartwarming and true. The buyer had been hit by a car and was in intensive care for two months. She was slowly recovering, and finally cognizant enough to tell her sister about outstanding commitments. It astonished me that despite facing rehab and what had to be horrific hospital bills, she cared enough to tell her sister to pay off eBay sellers!

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My Love of Jewels – Past and Present

My love of jewels, cabochons, beads, gemstones, rhinestones, vintage jewelry and other baubles goes way back to my early childhood. So it was with great anticipation and near glee, when I stumbled upon a terrific article heralding a wonderful hidden treasure trove of such things in NYC. The 17 Apart article prepared me to some degree, but when my friend Barb and I actually ventured into CJS Sales last month, we were dumbstruck. This was a dream come true for me – reminding me of my youth, but on a much grander scale.   When my younger sister Janet and I were very little – probably 3 and 8 respectively, we had a secret stash of jewels in a little cardboard jigsaw puzzle box. We carried this beloved stash on outings, including when our mom traded in her massive light blue Chevy station wagon for a new car. Much to my dismay – Janet was really too young to panic – after we drove out in our new vehicle, I realized it had been left behind, hidden under the seat. Luckily, we were able to reclaim it and we had this box for at least another 5 years, adding to its content here and there.

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