Vintage ornaments at Miss Pixies – Photo: Todd Franson
There are two types of people when it comes to holiday gifts: the ones who tell you exactly what they want and the ones who say “Get me anything.”
The former are easy. It will be “Oliver Peoples Executive II Half-Rim Sunglasses, in Amber Tortoise,” “PlayStation 4 1TB Bundle” or the “Nesco 400 Watt Four Tray Dehydrator.”.They will send you specs and links and the only issue you’ll have is how long you’ll be eating macaroni and cheese to pay for it.
The “get me anything” crowd, however, is another story. Although there are a few who will be pleased with a set of hotel-style towels or one of those foot spas from a Big Box store, we all know they are a saintly minority. There is a far larger cohort here whose idea of “anything” comes with a massive, blinking neon asterisk attached to the following small print:
“And, of course, when I say ‘anything,’ I mean anything I will find utterly charming and unique that has not been within a container ship’s reach of a Chinese factory (including a Chinese factory in Prato, Italy) or Pier One.”
Since this rules out virtually everything produced within the last decade, the options are perilously narrow. And unless you sail with a near-limitless budget, navigating such gifting straits requires ingenuity, time and a good sense of direction.
Shopping handmade can be one way around the dilemma, but it often consigns you to modern styles and, this year, an awful lot of beard balm. For a more creative solution, consider going vintage. Not only are there a wide range of possibilities and price brackets, thanks to the internet, it is also one of the most gratifying forms of recycling. Even better, if your giftee has deep pockets and yours are filled with crumbs and lint, buying vintage can be a great way to show taste with an indeterminate price tag.
Of course there are many vintage aficionados out there for whom none of this is news. But for those of you new to the concept, here are a few budget-conscious ideas to get you started:
Old books carry the magic and charm of ages past. They are often delightfully outdated, have intriguing illustrations, and can look very attractive on shelves. Browse eBay’s vintage or antique offerings using search terms linked to your giftee’s interests, such as travel, recipes, gardening or golf. Or go odd and creepy: try late Victorian anatomy, zoology or dental. Filter to illustrated editions. Keep an eye out for listings in which old newspaper clippings, pressed flowers or attractive inscriptions in flowery handwriting come with the book. For more curated offerings, check out Etsy.com and RubyLane.com. Tip: although first editions of notable books are elegant gifts for the discerning, they can be very costly. Don’t enter these waters unless you really know what your target wants. Start with a search of ABE.com or biblio.com for a good picture of what is available (to amateur collectors) and what it will cost.
Vintage and antique maps can make for an intriguing gift, especially if they have some meaning for the recipient. Look for one that shows a vintage rendering of your giftee’s state and hometown, a place of fond memories, or a dreamt-of-but-never-visited destination. Frame with flare. Tip: antique maps can be costly, so consider 20th century atlas or map books, too — they often have a pleasing retro vibe. Ebay, Etsy and Ruby Lane are good sources.
Modern globes are a dime a dozen and are often pricey. But many vintage globes are quite reasonable and come in enough colors, sizes and styles to make for good conversation pieces and interesting decor. If you have a history buff on your list, look for a Cold War era globe, or one that shows some other historically-interesting names and boundaries. Tip: consider a celestial or moon globe for a space-obsessed or mystical friend.
Vintage holiday items at Miss Pixies – Photo: Todd Franson
Expand Your Era
Certain mid-century items (so-called Atomic and Eames era) are super-hot and currently commanding higher prices. Avoid these specialty terms and simply search “vintage,” “old” or by item. e.g. “figurine.” It takes longer to peruse these listings, but you may turn up many less-expensive treasures. Look for small, unsigned sculptures, oil paintings or sketches. Be open to bric-a-brac — some pieces have aged into high style. And remember: the seventies — and even the eighties — are back. Tip: if you are at a loss, consider a vintage ashtray. Many offer great style or humor and make unique ring, key or trinket holders. Etsy, Ruby Lane, eCrater.com and Bonanza.com are all useful sites. Ebay often has better prices, but be sure to inspect the photos with care.
Mix and Match
For smaller presents or host/hostess gifts, look for cheap but attractive vintage fine bone china and combine it with another gift. For example, buy a flowery side plate and tie a nice bar of soap to it with a ribbon; pick up an attractively decorated gravy boat and fill it with sachets of bath salts or bombs; or buy a gorgeous old teacup and saucer and fill it with tiny wrapped chocolates. The possibilities are endless once you get the idea. Many sellers will combine shipping charges, so always see if you can cover more than one challenging giftee with a click. Tip: if you find a named pattern that you like, search and compare prices across the websites already mentioned.
If you have the time, D.C. and surrounding areas offer some decent venues for vintage trinkets. Eastern Market on Capitol Hill (easternmarket.net) is a reliable go-to, Ruff N Ready Furnishings (4722 14th St. NW) has smaller items (as well as furniture), and Miss Pixie’s (misspixies.com) has a fantastic selection. If you find yourself in Arlington, check out No Place Like Home at 5140 Wilson Boulevard. Tip: if you want to make an afternoon of it, the highly quirky Mansion on O Street (omansion.com) offers (paid) tours of its vintage-filled hotel and almost everything on view is for sale.
As you’ll find, there is a lot of vintage to be had and some of it is, without doubt, junk. But keep an open mind and think of your giftee and not yourself. After all, one person’s hideous chachki is another person’s delight.