Fright Before Christmas (or at Least a Healthy Panic)

Christmas is almost upon us, and your Hostess, like everybody else, is facing some specific goal-oriented challenges.

Which is marketing-spin-speak for, "Freaking Out."

I am freaking out because the greeting cards that I considered so very fun and festive and Victorian and "Me" in the store, now peer out of their shopping bag wondering why I never stop by, I never write. And I just know I will be writing them in such a hurry, my family and friends will take one look at my already-unfortunate-looking scrawl and wonder whether I've finally gone off my nut. Because, well, they knew it was coming, didn't they, when I started hoarding lamps, and joking that decorative cherubs should unionize. But they really hadn't expected the dementia to advance so RAPIDLY.

I am also freaking out because the Christmas gift I've been working on for a dear friend since late this summer was almost done when it decided to explode. And I mean EXPLODE. In an actual "unexpected bit-o'stuff-breaking-off" sort of way. I am not certain how it even happened. But never let it be said that The Thrift Shop Romantic hasn't experienced a healthy share of Good Intentions Gone Wrong.

I would go into more detail, so you can enjoy a nice, big cup of holiday schadenfreude at my expense (it goes well with cookies). But I am still deluded enough to believe that while this particular gift project is a wash and has been safely replaced, that my original concept was doable. So I must keep mum about my nefarious plans, since that same dear friend actually reads this blog sometimes. (Hi there, how's it goin'?)

Lastly, I am freaking out because my More-is-More decorating style for the holidays has meant I've spent an inordinate amount of time trimming everything in sight... doorways... window ledges... passing neighbors' cats...

...But now there is this mound of Christmas gifts still to be wrapped. And to my stupid, irrational fingers, wrapping is not decorating. DECORATING is fun and rewarding and happy. WRAPPING is clumsy and hard-to-estimate and somehow involves tape in my hair.

It will all be all right in the end, of course. It always is. And Scotch-taped hair, redrum handwriting and some lengthy wrap-sessions are small potatoes compared to, oh, pretty much every other thing that's going on in the world.

So this week I leave you with some photos of The Decorating Which is Not Wrapping, that's been going on at Waterhouse this season. Many of the Christmas ornaments you see here, and even the bowls they sit in, were off-season thrift store finds.

Wishing you a safe, happy holiday season where none of your gifts explode (unless they're supposed to-- like someone gives you hot air popcorn or somethin'...)

And I'll see you again bright and early in January 2007! As always, thanks so much for spending some of your time here.


Hey, Baby New Year, Pass Me That Mantle Scarf!

When those post-Christmas sales hit, and I hit the stores, I don’t look across the ransacked aisles and see a rumpled, partied-out spirit of Christmas Past…

I see Victorian decorating on a budget.

After all, what we largely consider a “traditional” Christmas actually has its roots in Victorian England. So, many decorative items slated for the holidays work perfectly well in a Victorian home on any day of the year.

The Victorians were all about jewel tones—rich reds, greens, blues, and purples. And while these colors can be impossible to find during spring and summer, at Christmas they’re a staple (and after Christmas they’re a steal). So if you’re looking for slipcovers, goblets, lampshades, candles, or throws in red, deep blue, hunter or plum, this is the time to snap them up. They’ll be gone once that Annual Retail Time-Warp happens and Spring pastels bloom mysteriously in February.

And while we’re on the subject of bold colors... if you love Victoriana, all that glitters might very well be gold. Often considered too-gaudy for its own good most of the year, at Christmas, suddenly gold has this seasonal popular resurgence, with stores boasting displays to even satisfy Midas.

Then, come January, once again it’s, “Be gone! Away with you, gold! You are tacky and sicken me! Silver is the new gold now!” (Home fashion is so darned fickle.) But for folks who like Victoriana, the mercurial nature of retail is really just bonus; because from stately chargers and candlesticks, to elegant mirrors and bejeweled picture frames, if you’re going to go for the gold, the time to get it is now. And cheap.

It’s also the right time of year to secure heavy Victorian fabrics like jacquard and velvet. I got these velvet table runners at Dollar General right before the holidays at just a few bucks a piece. You’ll probably want to avoid items printed in holly or other seasonal patterns (and on jacquard, the pattern can be subtle, so it’s smart to look carefully). But it’s easy to find appropriate mantle scarves, tablecloths and tablerunners to use whenever. The Victorians loved their textiles, and Christmas offers some luxurious options.

And while you’re shopping, don’t forget to visit the craft store. Craft stores can be an unexpected resource when you’re a bit of a neo-Victorian. My favorite ornament to use all year round is the Victorian tassel. No, they don’t serve any particular function—unless you have a playful cat or a high-stress job. But the look is distinctly Victorian. And on a drawer pull, doorknob or curtain tie-back, they can be a fun little addition.

Victorian-styled ornaments like tassels, fans, old-fashioned shoes, and cherubs are also a nice way to top off a gift any time of the year. Many come in sage greens and rose colors, which work as appropriately on packages in June as they do in December.

So if you begin to suffer from the post-holiday blues, just remember: the comforting richness of the season can stay with you all year round. And for a fraction of the cost you’d expect.

Spruced up for the Holidays

It started with one. A nice fresh Christmas pine each year, decorated in whatever I had on hand. Then I bought my house. And while I still put a real tree in the livingroom-- like the red-and-gold fellow up above-- I soon stumbled on these four-foot-tall fake trees at Family Dollar for just $10. So I treated myself to a second tree, especially for the dining room, and decked it in mint-and-rose Victoriana that color-coordinated with the room.

Shortly, I determined the spare room needed a little “sprucing,” too-- and lo, the “Fun Fir” sprung up, all bedecked in a hat, scarves and vintage jewelry...

This was followed by the entry-way tree-- AKA the “Sweetie Tree”-- covered in enough candies and cookies to tempt Hansel and Gretel. (Sorry, kiddies, no cookie for you-- the food is faux.)...

In no time, I was decorating the potted palm in my Victorian/India-influenced bedroom with glittering bulbs in spicy shades...

And peer pressure drove my housemate to add a tres chic tree to her French blue abode...

It’s not quite a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees here at Waterhouse. But it’s close…

And I love every minute of it.

Now, you might think having all these trees must be completely unmanageable. You might say, “There’s enough to do around the holidays without causing extra trouble; you have obviously been hitting the eggnog too hard, missy.”

Ah, but no: I am no fan of ‘nog. And also, decorating these mini-trees has been very, very easy. I simply set up the tree and decorate it once. Then when the holidays are over, I cover it in two trash bags (one over the top, one over the bottom) and store it in my attic for the rest of the year. The tree remains dust-free. If any bulbs fall, they fall into the bags. And the tree is ready-to-go for next year with minimal effort.

The joy of these trees has been in decorating according to theme and room scheme. And because I pick up appropriate ornaments at Christmas sales and at thrift stores around the year, I’m able to keep the costs low, too.

So if you’re looking to branch out in your Christmas d├ęcor this season, I can safely say, a mini-tree can make some mighty pine--er, fine-- memories.

Thrifting Away in Margaritaville

Ah, Thanksgiving. Where we all gather round the table, the peel-and-eat shrimp piled high on ice before us, cocktail sauce trickling down the front of our shirts, stuffing ourselves with cracked crab until we have to loosen the drawstring on our Hawaiian-print shorts, while Jimmy Buffett plays over the loudspeaker and...


Oh, right. That's just MY Thanksgiving. My dad lives in the Florida Keys.

But hey, we all have our traditions. And one of Dad's and my traditions-- in addition to a little seafood-- is thrift shopping.

I believe I've mentioned it before: Dad likes stuff. Dad likes stuff, if possible, even more than I do. More than ANYBODY, really.

And Dad especially likes stuff if he isn't quite sure just what it is. Then it's really excellent. If it's got fine craftsmanship, is made of interesting carved wood or metal or stone, and he can't for the life of him figure out what it's supposed to be used for? He's ALL OVER IT...

Like once, at a flea market, I had to stop him from unknowingly buying an artistically-designed bong.

This also means that at Christmas time, I receive some rather... UNUSUAL... gifts. I hesitate to even include this here because, while Dad is a very good sport about his penchant for the Strange and Unusual, I also suspect public discussion will only encourage him. But the item here is a reasonable example of the sort of things Dad revels in finding and passing along.

(And Dad, I'm TOTALLY good on Creepy-Owl-Dragon-Satanic Mirrors for now, thanks.)

Is it Asian? Does it have Egyptian Influence? Does anyone KNOW? O please tell me. Before I accidentally open up an inter-dimensional portal with it to somewhere unpleasant.

Anyway. Dad likes stuff. So, naturally, when we think "Thanksgiving," we think: thrift shopping and antiquing in the Keys and lower Miami.

Thrifting in this area always feels a bit different than it does around Pittsburgh. Many of the donations have a tropical look to them-- from donated papasan chairs to reggae CDs to palm tree prints. Because many of the communities themselves aren't terribly old, vintage items are typically from the 60s or 70s, though it is possible to stumble on some older merchandise. It also appears there are a lot more consignment shops than there are up my way. And as you can see here, many take advantage of the tropical theme in their marketing and signage.

Name-wise, the establishment below is one of my favorites. The "Antique Mall Y'All." Great antique mall: entertaining name. If this were a Pittsburgh business, it would translated into, "Hey Yinz Guys. Old Stuff n'At."

And what did we come away with after a happy day of thrift-shopping and antiquing?

Well, I discovered an Express lined velvet jacket for $9 at the Goodwill, in perfect condition. (Can't beat going to a warm place to pick up hardly used winter weather coats!)

Then antiquing brought me some nice examples of the 1900s whiteware plates I collect (ironically one of which is from East Liverpool, Ohio), as well as a very sleepy little metal cherub, who managed to snooze his way home in my carry-on luggage.

And Dad... Ah, Dad is not one to disappoint. Yes, in a store packed to the rafters with stuff, Dad's keen eye immediately was drawn to this.

What is it? Um, yeah, we don't know either. But it's brass. And it was only a few dollars. And the amount of enjoyment Dad has had already. just trying to figure out what the heck kind of animal it is (cat? monkey? You tell me) and what it might have been offering on the half-shell, well, that pretty much made it priceless. Dad also found an electronic Starship Enterprise, a couple of field guides to fossils and minerals, and this clock which is also a lamp, which is also an anchor, which is also a ship's steering wheel...

It also makes smoothies. (Kidding.)

Nonetheless, fun was had by all. But now-- now I must say goodbye, and apologetically so, with no pithy sum-up or clever turn-of-phrase. The Thrift Shop Romantic is a very tired gal this week-- what with all the travel... And the MRIs to get through airport security... And the stress about whether my liquid lipstick could threaten the safety of my fellow-passengers (Cinnabar, I'll have you know, is a specifically non-terrorist color)...

So for those reasons, I'll just ride off into the sunset.

Thankful Thrifting

Once again it’s that time of year we turn our thoughts to the things for which we’re grateful. Because:

1.) In this hustle-bustle world, it’s so important to take stock of the meaningful things in our lives…


2.) We have a day off for it.

And while I try to be appreciative o’ the good stuff all year round, sorta as it comes in, there’s no better time than now to share my top ten reasons I’m thankful for thrifting…

Okay, here goes.

I’m thankful for thrifting because:

  1. I’m able to support worthy causes, shop and participate in the circle of recycling, all at the same time. (It’s good to multi-task.)
  2. Thrifting leads to the kinds of craft projects that keep me safely and merrily occupied. So I’m not, you know, off embarking on a life of crime. Or sucked into watching all five seasons of “24” straight through, without ever leaving the house.
  3. At thrift stores, the vintage look is always ‘in.’
  4. I get to experience quirky fellow thrifters, like Grouchy-Man-Who-Wears-All-Over-Denim. Or Incessantly-Humming-Goodwill-Cashier. Writers need to encounter unique personalities, and thrift shopping presents a wealth of them. I bet that’s how Wes Anderson got his start.
  5. If it weren’t for thrift stores, I would have had no clothes at all in high school; and I doubt it would have increased my popularity.
  6. I can satiate my vintage lamp addiction 100% guilt-free. (“It’s $6! It has to come home with me for $6! So what if there’s already enough light in the dining room to bring in small planes for landing? This one is $6!”)
  7. I get to snicker when guests ask me if something is a family heirloom.
  8. I can buy velvet all year round.
  9. How many other places can you shop with such serendipity?
  10. Otherwise, I would be sitting on the floor with my keyboard as I wrote this. (Thrift store desk and chair!)
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Talk to you next week.

Taking a Shine to Lusterware

I’m a total magpie. Anything that sparkles, twinkles, has an iridescent glow or rainbow sheen is fair game for feathering my nest; in fact, it’s just a wonder I haven’t accidentally bashed my beak on an over-clean window.

At home, mirrors glint on walls and tabletops, colored glass sits on window sills, and one of my favorite types of porcelain is lusterware.

See that opalescent sheen, like a child’s soap bubbles? This is lusterware. That rainbow gleam is caused by metallic oxides which are added to pottery glaze after the porcelain is baked and enameled.

Like so many of today’s collectable vintage items, lusterware was considered commonplace back in the day. It was inexpensive, functional and sold in stores like five-and-dimes. Much of the lusterware you see today was made in Japan after World War II. But some turn-of-the-20th-century lusterware was made in Czechoslovakia and Germany. And because many of the pieces are marked, that makes collecting from a particular region or time period a lot easier.

Yet lusterware of different styles, time periods and brands works well together. Here you’ll see my German lusterware canisters.

These are representatives of three different sets made by two different companies: White & Block and Mepoco. Yet because they’re in the same basic colors, they give the feel of a matched set.

Best of all, vintage lusterware turns up at thrift stores. I came by this tureen and ladle, as well as assorted luster bowls and tea cups at different thrift stores over the years.

Sometimes, I’ll find an orphaned saucer while I’m thrifting and I’ll just set it aside. Since lusterware looks good with any number of other lusterware pieces, it usually isn’t long before I find a saucerless cup looking for an appropriate match…

Yes, basically, it’s my own dating service for lonely porcelain.

Collectively, lusterware can make the kind of cheerful table setting that I’ve used for dinners and even a tea.

So if you’re looking to put a little shine in your dining and retro in your room, lusterware can easily give polish to your own occasion.

Field Trip!: Floral Meets Fable at Phipps Conservatory

Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, exhibits dazzling flora year-round, so it's always worth the time to wander through their gardens. The peaceful atmosphere and beauty alone can provide gardening inspiration and a mini-vacation from hectic life.

But a recent Phipps show, "Mystical Beasts," showcased a twist on topiary tradition. And if you've read about my garden, you know I am a gal who loves a good topiary. So today, come with me and we'll explore a world of magic and whimsy...

These are not your average lollipop trees.

Step off the bus... Venture through the doors... And there before your eyes is one of the most revered and elusive of mythic beasts-- the unicorn. This is one of the more traditional topiaries we'll be seeing today.

Topiaries usually come in one of two types: a tree or shrub cut-to-shape, or a wire form upon which plants like ivy wind around to flesh out the form. And--

Oh no! I think we've disturbed it. Shhhh... let's move on to the next room...

YIKES! It's a dragon archway with heads at either end! Based on those teeth and that smoke coming out of THIS mouth, I do believe this must be a case of two heads NOT being better than one-- not for our health, anyway. If we dare inspect it more closely, we can see this dragon had been fit together on a wire form... Then the eyes were...

The eyes, er, look kinda... hungry... don't they?...

Here's some nice plant food for you, Beastie. That's it: Miracle Gro, yum-yum.

(...Let's pick up the pace just a bit, shall we?)

Most of the creatures you'll see here are a clever combination of sculptural objects and greenery, so they're not all technically topiary design. But, honestly, how often do you see a candy-colored snake having a sip?

A centaur with more bark than bite?...

And a misting Medusa?...

The room here below is the one I always find most inspirational for my own gardening design. This little English formal garden has varying looks throughout the year.

As you see it here in autumn during our magical Mystical Beasts tour, it's lush and untamed, like the layout has overgrown. The colors, too, feature cooler looking blues, greens and purples than usual.

Because this: this is what the same room looked like in Spring. The low hedgerows, trimmed appearance, statuary and symmetry are all elements you expect to see in formal gardens.

Well, let's take one last look around and make sure we didn't miss anything important here at Phipps and--

Oh NO! The hideous Hydra!...

(Er, and an attacking plant, too.)

...Run away! Run away! Back on the bus!...

Everyone make it? Phew! So much for peace and tranquility.

Go and have a nice lie-down, and I'll see you next week.

Spellbound by Savings

Thrift stores and Halloween go together. Like the Blair Witch and shaky camera angles. Like Scooby-Doo and musical chase scenes. Like Bruce Campbell and sarcasm.

Thrift stores are where you go for that shirt so campy, you just have to build a costume around it. Thrift shops spawn gypies, hobos, and disco-dancers. They're the places where bridesmaid dresses are fit for a queen. And a Western shirt can make you The Duke.

And if you're short on time or creativity? Stores like the Goodwill or Salvation Army often have ready-made costumes available, donated from stores like Target, or smartly gathered together by staff throughout the year. Adults... children... pets.... hey, there's something for everyone here.

Speaking of pets, meet Paddington, a friend's cat, as she silently... DEEPLY... resents her thrift store chapeau. ("If I WERE a witch, I'd turn you all into mice and EAT you!... Stop laughing, it's not funny. NOT. FUNNY.... Oh, get a hobby!") The schadenfreude we experienced over this alone was worth the 59-cents for the costume.

But say you're not into humiliating your pets. Say you're more of a Halloween decor person. Well, a savvy thrift tore shopper can still find what they need to celebrate the season, either ready-to-go or by letting the imagination run free.

I'd estimate a good 50% of the items I used for my Harry Potter party came as thrift store finds, including these candlesticks and potions bottles.

The potions bottles were just plain old jars, bottles and decanters in their previous life. I made the labels for them in Microsoft Word and adhered them with a glue-stick. Alone, they're ho-hum, but together and filled with questionable potions (the Polyjuice Potion is Nickelodeon Gak), they really do the trick.
So to speak.

By the way, craft stores are another great source of inexpensive Halloween decor. The photo at the top of the page, and here below, shows my dining table decorated almost exclusively in craft store and thrift store items. The faux pumpkin, chargers, mirror and assorted creatures all came from craft shops (heavily discounted and well before the holiday! LOVE it!). The table cloth isn't a table cloth at all-- it's purple velvet curtains I bought at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.

So if you'd like to get into the spirit of Halloween, but you're spooked by the prices in traditional stores, thrift stores and craft shops can offer some very devilish solutions!