Little Bitty Pretty Ones: Vintage Risque Towels

These vintage towels are not only pretty, they’re a little sexy!

Often labeled as “risqué” towels, these fun vintage linens were popular in the 1940s and were placed in guest bathrooms.

When I saw these first I thought they were made by those loving hands at home and just reveled in the image of proper 1940s housewives having a little fun by making these and feeling a little scandalous.

I have since seen many of the towels, and cocktail napkins with similar designs, with original labels and price tags and know that, while they were made completely by hand, they were made by experts, probably as part of the Madeira linen tradition, which was begun on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 1860s. Madeira linens are known for exquisite quality of materials and handwork.

So, I had to re-vamp my mental image, from women making these and feeling scandalous to, instead, spending their egg money on them and feeling scandalous. Not much of a difference when it comes right down to it!

To me, in the 21st-century, when our ideas have changed about what defines titillating, these towels are a charming reminder that a sense of humor and a love for a little fun know no era. I display them in my guest bathroom, as my foremothers might have, and smile every time I see them!

Why Vintage? Reason #5

IMG_2564 - Version 2

The things that make me different are the things that make me.
A.A. Milne

For the past month, I’ve been examining and trying to articulate the reasons why many people love vintage. The first reason I discussed was the fashion appeal of vintage design; the second was a sense of ethics and commitment to re-use; the third was the related issues of cost and quality. Most recently I wrote about the sentimental and nostalgic reasons people choose vintage.

I’m going to quote one of my readers to sum up the final reason for choosing to incorporate vintage into our lives; as she put it, she likes vintage items because they are “unique and uncommon.” Yes! Exactly!

Let’s face it—we live in a world that has been Target-ed and Ikea-ed. Nothing wrong with those stores—they’re stylish, fun, and inexpensive. But the things one can buy there are not individualistic, uncommon, and unique.

If you like stylish, fun, and inexpensive, PLUS individualistic, uncommon, and unique, I bet you love vintage!

If we’re trying to better understand what draws people to choosing vintage over new, I think it would hard to over-estimate this desire to express oneself with the unusual, one of a kind, quirky, special.

Vintage is all your own. You’re very unlikely to find exactly what others have, even if you go looking. Even items that were mass-produced 50 years ago are not likely to be plentiful now.

For instance, I sell vintage linens. I have reference books about these items that show pictures of hundreds of examples of kitchen towels and tablecloths but most of the items that I have found and kept (or sold) do not appear in these books—there were just so many out there over the years that what you can find now seems endlessly varied!

Pretty much any style, or amalgam of styles, can be expressed with vintage. I know I like the classics and I like quirky—and my home is full of vintage purchases that express this.

I’ve never been a frilly person. I’ve never been too interested in trends. I like timeless and I don’t care about matchy-matchy. I am hard pressed to find what really says “me” in stores. But by going vintage, I can get the balance I like.

When I shop vintage, I am regularly drawn to quality white linen tablecloths and napkins. They’re elegant, without appearing to try too hard, and they can be pressed into service all around my house.

IMG_2572I also am drawn to metals in classic styles. I have about 50 silver-plated Revere bowls, all sizes, all from garage sales (except the one I won as 3rd runner up in the Junior Miss pageant 1000 years ago)! They make quite a statement all displayed together. Similarly, I snap up simple copper pieces when I see them. I like the tarnish and the dings, the patina that develops over time.

IMG_2555

I like furniture that had clean lines, is casual and slightly rustic, with being too chippy and beat up. And I like it authentic; again, a patina that has come from use and love, not from a process applied at a factory.

Shopping vintage lets me find the balance that says “me,” by cherry-picking a lot of looks and styles from across the years. And it lets you do the same, to meet and express your tastes.

I’ve also learned, by paying attention to what I keep around, that I like the quirky, the slightly off-balanced.

I want to leaven the classic and timeless with the off-beat, a tiny bit of weird. IMG_2564 IMG_2569 I’ve collected these towels over the years—they’re always referred to as “risqué” in listings on Etsy or eBay, even though they’re pretty tame. They make me smile every time I’m in the room where they’re displayed and I’m not ever going to see this collection in someone else’s house.

Since we live in a rural setting, I also like a touch of “Adirondack” without going completely native. So, if I see an oddball planter or piece of fungus art, I can indulge myself. Really, you’re not going to find fungus art at Pottery Barn!

IMG_2560But that’s just me! I’m not you and, if you love vintage, you already know that it allows you to express your preferences just as specifically as I can express mine! And that’s part of the appeal. Those of us who love vintage see it, partly, as a means to express a sense of self in a highly individual way.

____________________________________

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked about the reasons why I think people are drawn to vintage items. It’s a complex mix, with a number of ingredients. Each person who chooses vintage has a different recipe for their mix: 2 parts individuality to 1 part ethics to 1 part sentiment; 2 parts trendiness to 2 parts commitment to re-use. Only we know, for ourselves, what mix motivates each of us.

I’ve found it interesting, and informative, in terms of self-knowledge, to articulate these reasons. I think, for me, it’s 3 parts sentiment to one part frugality, with a soupcon of individuality thrown in for good measure.

What about you? What’s your recipe for vintage love? Is it a choice motivated by 1) a sense of fashion; 2) a sense of ethics; 3) a sense of finances and quality; 4) a sense of nostalgia and sentiment; or 5) a sense of individuality? Or all of the above?! Do tell!

Why Vintage? Reason #4

IMG_2328I’m a sentimental fool. That’s why, since I started this series asking, “Why vintage?,” I’ve been looking forward to reason #4.

The question was, why do some people love vintage so much? The first reason I discussed was that vintage is fashionable; the second was a sense of ethics and commitment to reuse; the third was the related issues of cost and quality.

All of these aforementioned reasons are legit but the one that really gets to me, and to many lovers of vintage, is that these old things either belonged to, or are associated with, the people, places, and eras we loved and have lost.

4) It’s a choice motivated by a sense of sentiment and nostalgia

Some people just don’t get this at all. We all know these people. They can’t understand why anyone would want old, used stuff. They live in the present and don’t look back. I’m sure they love their families but they don’t need used belongings around to prove it!

If you’re one of those people, read on to learn about what makes the rest of us tick! The rest of you, the ones who get it already—think about your own precious reminders as you read about some of mine!

First let me make a distinction—the difference to me between sentiment and nostalgia is that the former has to do with affection for people and the latter has to do with a desire for a simpler time or place.

I get sentimental about the old things that bear the imprint of my family. Every vintage or antique item from my family tells a story. The story may be based on facts or it may be just one that I sort of made up to fit my memories but the story is what makes the object precious.

I have my grandmother’s baby cup. It has some extrinsic value—it’s fine quality, it’s an antique, it’s a lovely design.

Inscription: Lydia 1905

Inscription: Lydia 1905

None of that matters to me. All I can think about is the baby Lydia, born in 1905, who received the cup as a namesake gift from her great-aunt Lydia, who was born in 1847, and was the daughter of another Lydia born in 1808! Thinking of the baby Lydia playing with the pretty cup adds a dimension to my idea of my grandmother and has encouraged me to learn about the Lydias who came before her.

Lydia Bowen Wright, 1905

Lydia Bowen Wright, 1905-2002

Lydia Bowrn Thomas, 1847-1939

Lydia Bowrn Thomas, 1847-1939

Similarly, every time I fold a big old damask linen tablecloth, I have visions of that same grandmother and how she would fold one, to minimize the wrinkles at the fold lines. And that Jadeite coffee cup, just like the one my mother carried around the house all day when I was little! The old things aren’t just things—they speak to me about people.

I also get nostalgic in response to the vintage items I come across that were never owned by my actual family. If I see a table at a flea market with that 1960s Formica that had the boomerang shapes and the glitter, it transports me right back to the kitchen of the house we had when I was a happy little girl.

I have also accumulated vintage maple syrup tins because some of my fondest memories of growing up center around the sugar house we had on the farm and the process of making maple syrup. The tins just give me a warm, fuzzy feeling! And how about that great paint-by-numbers picture of sugaring down?

IMG_2321I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, too! The interactions I’ve had with people who buy vintage items from my Etsy shop and with blog readers tell me that sentiment and nostalgia are behind a lot of vintage love. Just a few of the comments I’ve received:

  • Thank you for the lovely damask napkins. They are every bit as soft as my grandmother’s were!
  • I was so pleased . . . It reminds me of linens my Grandmother had.
  • My mother had one just like this!
  • I especially cherish a bread basket liner she crocheted with the word “bread” misspelled. I think I love it more so because it isn’t perfect.
  • I wonder who owned these things, what was their story? . . . I guess I see a lot of character in those old items while new shiny items have no stories to tell yet.

There sure are a lot of us out there!

It’s true one can become overwhelmed by the reminders of the past. I know people who have so many knickknacks from their grandparents, recipes from their mothers, toys from when they were children, concert tickets from when they were in college, pictures of their children, etc., etc., that they find it difficult to surface from the memories and the detritus.

I am trying to reach a point where I pick a few extra-special items that connect me to my past and let the rest go. My cousins plan to line up all the stuffed toys and dolls they’ve kept from their childhood and take a photo and then get rid of the toys themselves. But I know I simply will not want to part with a lot of things. And so I won’t!

How about you? What is your most treasured piece of family history? What do you collect for reasons of sentiment or nostalgia? Christmas ornaments? Mid-century dishes? Or does it all just leave you cold?