Category Archives: North Carolina

Dressing for the Occasion at the Carl Sandburg Home

The last home of writer Carl Sandburg is located in Flat Rock, NC, and I’ve visited the home, now a national historic site, many times. Besides taking hundreds of fifth graders to see where the great poet lived, it’s a great place to hike and have a picnic. The last time we took the tour through the house, it was a bit disappointing because most of the furnishings had been removed for renovations. The house felt naked.

When Sandburg died in 1967 his widow Lilian sold the house and most of the contents to the US Department of Interior, with the goal of opening it to the public. As a result, the house has the feel of the family having just stepped outside. Someone on today’s tour called it a time capsule, but it is much more than that. It’s almost as if the house retains the spirit of the Sandburg family.

With the renovations complete, I wanted to see how the newly spruced-up house looked. To my great joy and surprise, for the first time clothing of the Sandburgs was also on display. Most are the property of the house, while some are in the possession of the Sandburgs’ granddaughter, Paula.

The house, Connemara, was built in 1839 as a summer home for Charlestonian Christopher Memminger. The house has been altered somewhat by subsequent owners, but if you look closely, you can see that this is an antebellum house. Memminger was quite wealthy, and he served as the secretary of the treasury for the Confederacy from 1861 to 1864. And while the Wikipedia article on Connemara refers to them as “servants”, Memminger kept enslaved persons on the property. A building identified as the wash house, and later a chicken house, was originally the slave quarters, which is acknowledged by a Park Service sign.

But to visit Connemara today, you don’t get the feeling that it is a fine house. It simply feels like the Sandburg home. I loved taking my fifth graders here because they always questioned how someone so famous could live in such an ordinary house with ordinary furnishings.  They were amazed at how “lived-in” the house was.

But back to the present, I must say the old house looks great with its new paint and freshly cleaned rugs, and whatever else was done. In the living room we see Carl’s chair, and one of his many hats. And books. The house contains thousands of books, all cataloged by the Library of Congress, and many still retaining the small slips of paper Carl used to mark the place of  passages he liked.

Probably the grandest thing in the home is this grand piano.  Carl often played his guitar in this room in the evening. And he was quite fond of plaid shirts.

Carl’s office is next to the living room, and in it are more books, of course.  I learned not to make assumptions after seeing his sweater and set of silk scarves. I assumed they belonged to Lilian, Carl’s wife.

But no, these belonged to Carl who enjoyed a bit of silk around his neck! He also wore the green visor, a holdover from his days as a newspaperman.

This denim chore jacket and skirt belonged to Lilian who wore them while working with her herd of prize-winning goats.  Mrs. Sandburg never wore pants.

These two garments belonged to Sandburg daughter Margaret, and were on display in the dining room. Yes, even the walls of the dining room are covered with books. This room has a wall of windows, and the family also used it for bird-watching. The brown suede jacket was Margaret’s birding jacket. Margaret was the family librarian, and often served as her father’s editor.

Carl had a small room beside his bedroom which he used for writing. He wrote at night, went to bed around 5 AM, and then joined the family for lunch at noon.

The house curatorial staff did a good job showing the Sandburgs wearing similar clothing in photographs. Note Carl’s green visor.

This dress belonged to daughter Janet. Janet helped with the goat farming. This looks like a quite youthful style, but Janet would have been in her sixties when she wore it. Neither Janet nor Margaret ever married, and they remained in the home until their father’s death. The third daughter, Helga, lived in the house with her two children until 1952, when she remarried and moved to Washington, DC.

This is Margaret’s bedroom. I wonder if this dress was made on the sewing machine in the background.

Lilian had the best room in the house.

The dress shown in this room was worn by Lilian on a visit to the White House. That’s her wearing the dress, with Carl on the grounds of the White House.

When the Sandburgs bought the house in 1946, the kitchen was located in a separate building, a practice common in antebellum houses. Lilian had a modern 1940s kitchen installed inside the house.

This is a view of the guestroom, which featured Lilian’s dressy silk frock from 1935. And, look! Another sewing machine!

Carl often took his books and writing to the out-of-doors. What could be a nicer place to write?

I have a few words to add about visiting historic sites. While the group which which I toured the house was small (fifteen), there were some things that probably drove the volunteer docent to drink. The last thing she said was to silence phones. We stepped into the house and, you guessed it, someone’s phone rang. The guy ignored it, and so the person on the other end began yelling into the voicemail. The docent finally had to unlock the front door and let the guy out to take his call.

Then there was the family – two little boys of around two and four and their parents. I usually cut parents of small kids some slack, but the docent had to continually tell the kids not to climb on the furniture, swing on the rope barriers, and keep hands off the artifacts. And the parents did nothing at all to keep the two in line.

In comparison, there was another family of older kids, maybe six and eight, and they were really well-behaved, and even asked questions. It was fun being with them, or would have been if not for the other family. I got the gist of the real problem as the tour was coming to an end and the docent asked if there were any other questions. The father piped up, “Yeah. Can we leave now?”

It was perhaps the rudest thing I’ve ever experienced in a museum or historic setting. But boy, does it not explain a lot about his kids?

 

 

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Mount Airy Regional History Museum

I am a fan of museums, and throw in the word history in the name and I’ve just got to pay a visit.  On a recent trip to a flea market, we made a stop in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’ve written about Mount Airy in the past. It is a thriving little town in the northern North Carolina foothills; thriving because of its association with the 1960s television series, The Andy Griffith Show.  But there’s more to Mount Airy than Andy, and the Mount Airy Regional History Museum was there to educate us.

One never knows what to expect when visiting a small regional history museum. There’s the very good, and unfortunately, the very, very bad. I suppose a lot of the difference is due to the amount of money available to each museum. I suspect that history museums are not terribly high on the county budget priority list.

Local museums are also often a victim of donations. Several years ago I had a long and insightful discussion with the director of a small history museum in another NC town. That museum had, in the past, had such a liberal policy concerning donations that almost anything was accepted into the collection. As a result, the museum had  six large spinning wheels, a dozen treadle sewing machines and nineteen vintage typewriters.

So many small museums end up being old stuff warehouses. Over the years I’ve been in many museums that are pretty much the same, with the usual assortment of old tools, spinning wheels, and taxidermied wildlife. But this was not (thankfully) what we found in Mount Airy.

Instead, the museum truly tells the story of the town and the surrounding area, All the exhibits are place specific. Of couse I was mainly interested in the textiles and clothing, but I also enjoyed learning about the Native inhabitants of the region and the very important granite industry.

There were actually two exhibits on textile manufacture, one of home manufacture of the early settlement, and the other on the cotton knit manufacturing that was formed in the region in the early twentieth century. Part of the home manufacture exhibit is above, and it uses period photographs and artifacts to explain how people made their textiles and clothing at home.

And, yes, there was a spinning wheel in the exhibit, but it was used within the proper context. They also had this giant loom set up in the middle of the room. These are sometimes referred to as “barn looms” as they certainly did not fit into the small pioneer homes. I’m betting there are still dozens of these in barns scattered across the eastern US.

At one time Mount Airy had several factories that made socks, underwear, and other cotton knit items. That green machine made socks, and actually, some small makers across the South still use similar machines.

The long underwear in the background had a label that sort of rang a bell. It was not until we left the museum that I remembered where I’d just seen the name.

In the next block down the street was the old Spencer’s factory.  In business for over 100 years, Spencers closed in 2007, and it looks like the buildings are being converted to condos.

There were also quite a bit of clothing on display as well. Another celebrity from Mount Airy is country singer Donna Fargo. This fringed mini dress was worn by her for performances at Disneyland in 1973.

This dress was described as an “… an antique lace top and skirt worn by Donna Fargo, was featured on her 1981 album, Brotherly Love.” To be honest, it looks more like an assemblage of old lace pieces made into an ensemble, a practice not unknown at the time.

There were some actual antique clothes, all worn by residents of the town. The 1890s suit above was a wedding dress worn by a member of a prominent Mount Airy family.

This dress was made by an unidentified bride, who also made the lace.

The wearer of this (1905ish?) dress was not identified either, but I thought the presentation was quite nice.

Another resident of Mount Airy who went on to fortune (if not actual fame) was Katherine Smith Reynolds. I’ve written about her before, as she was the owner of Reynolda House, and her husband was the founder and owner of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.

But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be this girl’s basketball uniform from JJ Jones High, which was a segregated Black high school. The museum has a great display of artifacts from the school, along with an explanation of how Jim Crow laws affected the educational system.

Outside the museum is a tribute wall of sorts, that honors people who were important in making Mount Airy what it is today. It warmed my heart to see the textile mill factory worker included in the tribute.

And here’s a close up view just to make sure you could see that the statue is made from bricks.

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Appalachian Button Jamboree

I’m not completely clueless when it comes to button collecting, and I even knew there was a Western North Carolina Button Club. But I recently attended my first button show and I was completely blown away!

You can’t collect old clothes without seeing a lot of buttons. I even have quite a few of them just in case I need some replacements or a random one to match a set. And I have a lot of interesting old ones to use in my own sewing. But to see thousands of buttons mounted, sorted, and ready to buy was a new experience.

Buttons are a big business to a lot of people. Even in a small local show the buying and selling seemed to be brisk. As a button neophyte, I decided to just look and learn. And I learned a lot.

One category I liked was painted wooden buttons. I actually have a few, mainly florals like the black one at bottom right. But what about that ice skater?

I also saw lots of interesting ceramic buttons. I can see how in this medium the possibilities would be limitless.

Celluloid buttons  were plentiful, but most were pricier than these examples. But look at that little clothespin!

More celluloid.

My favorites were the metal buttons. This little owl with stars and moon was great.

There were also lots of sports themed buttons, like this skier.

But “Wow”is right. These metal with enamel bits and “jewels” were so stunning!

Some of the sellers told me they got into button collected as a result of trying to find unique buttons for their weaving, knitting, and sewing projects. I can relate to that. Imagine this button as the closure of a wrap or coat.

Most of this tray of buttons had thread or textiles as part of the button. I do love the wrapped and embroidered ones.

A few sellers also had some additional haberdashery and dry goods in their booths.

There were also a few vintage sewing machines. It does stand to reason that most people who are interested in buttons would also want to see machines and ribbons and sewing patterns.

There was also a display area where members’ collections were shown off.

But my favorite thing of all was a small display of antique clothing that was laid out on a table.  Attendees were allowed to examine the garments. It’s not often that I get the chance to look at so old a garment, both inside and out. This 18th century gentleman’s coat showed many signs of having been worn and repaired quite a bit.

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Golden Pirates of the Silver Screen – NC Maritime Museum

On our recent trip to the North Carolina coast, we visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. It was a big surprise when we got there and saw they had a special exhibition of movie pirate costumes and other great stuff.

If you ever visit the NC coast you can’t escape all the pirate references.  Our coastline is full of inlets and hidey-holes that were custom made for the colonial era pirates. The notorious Blackbeard is especially associated with the region, as it was a favored hideout and playground for him and his crew. He eventually lost his life in a battle at Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of NC.

The NC Maritime Museum thus is a natural place to tell the story of colonial piracy. In fact, Blackbeard’s famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was scuttled in Beaufort Inlet, within sight of where the museum stands. When the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in 1996, the museum began receiving artifacts from the find.

My hat’s off to the people at the NC Maritime Museum for taking advantage of the renewed interest of pirates and the pop culture associated with them. Yes, movies tend to glamourize piracy, but the museum’s permanent exhibits on piracy give a perfect counterbalance to the Hollywood version.

This is the costume worn by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film, Captain Blood.  This was the movie that made Flynn a Hollywood star and which first paired him with Olivia de Havilland.  The costume is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Let’s not forget that women were pirates as well as men. The 1995 film Cutthroat Island starred Geena Davis as a pirate. This costume was labeled as a “woman’s pirate costume” from the film, and though the mannequin is styled to resemble Davis, there’s no indication that she wore this costume. I could not find a photo of her in it either.

This is a man’s costume from Cutthroat Island. Both costumes are in the collection of a local event, the Beaufort Pirate Invasion.

This costume from a private collection can be seen the the television series, Black Sails.

And here is Blackbeard himself, as portrayed by Ian McShane in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The costume is on loan from the Disney archive.

When looking at movie costumes, it pays to keep in mind the period of history which is being represented. I found it interesting that all these costumes have some version of a colonial era man’s waistcoat (vest).

 

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Education, Museums, and the Daughters of the Confederacy

One of the reasons I love travel to historic sites is that it gives me a chance to reconcile the past with current events and with my own thoughts about the past. Growing up in the South, one can’t help but to have been exposed to the ideas spread through the Jim Crow era. We are all still under the influence of what we learned in school and from our elders in the aftermath of The Lost Cause. Much of that education was greatly influenced by a group of privileged White women, the Daughters of the Confederacy (DOC).

Actually, my exposure to these ideas was probably much less than the average Southern Baby Boomer, being brought up in the Appalachians of North Carolina. The great majority of Whites living here in 1860 were not slave owners. That does not mean they thought slavery was wrong; it means they could not afford the high cost of enslaving people. When the call to arms went out in 1861, men from my region signed up to fight. I can’t say what they thought they were fighting for. The mythology says it was to “whip the Yankees’ asses”, and a big part of me believes this.

Anyway, as the war dragged on, enthusiasm for the war began to wane. Deserting soldiers from the mountains made their way home (Cold Mountain tells a fictional version) and were hidden by their families. Families that were barely making a living before the war were pushed to the brink of starvation without men to help with the farming and because of high taxes imposed by the Confederate and state governments. There were bands of raiders and life was perilous. The only positive was that the region saw very little actual warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the war left a bad taste in mountain people’s mouths. But over time, things began to change. Prosperity returned as the men who fought for the Confederacy were aging and dying. Across the South, even here in the mountains, there were grand reunions where the old guys were brought out to have group photos taken and for them to tell wild tales about the glory of battle.

And that’s where the Daughters come in. All those Confederate monuments scattered across the South were largely the work of the DOC. It was their mission to memorialize the heroes of the Confederacy, but more than that, they were able to change the way people in the South viewed the conflict. And in many states they were able to have history textbooks written that supported their view of the war and The Lost Cause.  For several generations the ideas put forth during the Jim Crow era by organizations like the DOC have continued to be spread. People tend to believe what they were taught as children, and these ideas are passed on to the next generation.

I’d really never given the  DOC much thought until a worker at a small museum we visited on our trip east somehow got on the topic of Confederate monuments. He told us that most people were wrong in thinking the KKK was responsible for all the monuments because they were the work of the Daughter of the Confederacy. This seemed to somehow justify the monuments, as how could a bunch of privileged White middle-aged women a hundred years ago have had anything but honorable intent.

His words really stuck with me, and I spent the rest of the trip looking more closely at how the Confederacy was represented in museums.  The photo above shows an apron made by a Mrs. Dewey early in the war. The eleven stars represent the eleven states that had joined the Confederacy at the time the apron was made. According to the exhibit notes, Mrs. Dewey wore the apron at tea parties at her home in New Bern to show her support for the Confederacy.

Down the street in New Bern is the historic district that is administered by the Tryon Palace. This is the Jones House, which was used as a prison by the occupying Union troops after the city was taken in 1862.

The building was closed, but a display outside told a bit of the story of the most famous prisoner held here, Emeline Pigott. I didn’t know the story of Miss Pigott, but evidently she is quite well-known in the New Bern and Morehead City area, as we encountered her story in both towns.

This is a display in a history museum in Morehead City, near where Miss Pigott lived. They have a recreated dress and hoop skirt, showing how Pigott was supposed to have smuggled supplies to the Confederate soldiers hiding in the area. She was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Jones House.

The carriage in the photo is said to be the one she rode in when returning home  after being released from prison. According to a leaflet given out at the museum, she was released after threatening to expose the crimes of some influential New Bern men. The leaflet reads like a silent film melodrama, with Miss Pigott turning to spying after her lover was killed by the Yankees at Gettysburg. She had incriminating papers on her when arrested which she sneakily tore into bits and ingested.

In order to get a full picture of how the Civil War is presented in museums in the South, you would have to visit many more than the half dozen or so we saw during this trip. Above is part of Fort Macon State Park, which guarded the entrance to the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort. Normally there is an excellent display of artifacts (including Confederate) in the fort, but the artifacts were damaged due to high water from Hurricane Florence last year. It’s a shame, because Fort Macon does a really good job of interpreting the fort’s participation in the conflict without romanticising it.

I know it must be difficult for small historical societies to fully interpret the history of a region considering the lack of funds and the fact that displays have to be built around the artifacts in the collection. Often the story of a place is as much legend as it is historical fact. As in the case of Emeline Pigott, sometimes it is difficult to determine what is truth and what is legend. Still, it seems a bit odd that two historical organizations put so much emphasis on the story of a Confederate smuggler and spy.

As much as I want to see the stories of women included in our museums, I was left feeling disheartened that of the two women I encountered, one was known for her tea parties, and the other was the old female spy cliché. The objects associated with them seemed more like relics than artifacts.

The Morehead City chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy was named in Miss Pigott’s honor. In 1926, several years after her death, the chapter erected a Confederate monument in the county seat of Beaufort.  All the while the DOC was busy pushing their version of the Civil War and The Lost Cause.

In a more positive note, a new museum opens tomorrow, May 4, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia. The American Civil War Museum has a very interesting backstory, and so to learn more I suggest you listen to an episode of the podcast Backstory which explains how an old Confederacy museum based on relics has become a modern museum that attempts to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives.

 

 

 

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Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for whites only, though some black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.

 

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Shopping with The Vintage Traveler at the Liberty Antiques Festival

We just returned from a trip to the eastern part of North Carolina, which is a very different world from the western part of the state where we live. Think beaches and tall pines and lots of water and marshes as opposed to mountains and rolling hills with rushing rivers and scenic vistas. In fact, the slogan for NC tourism used to be Variety Vacationland.

On the way home our last stop was the twice a year outdoor old stuff market at Liberty, NC.  I’ve been going to Liberty faithfully since 2005 and I’ve never been disappointed. The show has changed a bit in nature to reflect changing styles in home decorating. More on that in a bit. The show advertises that no new stuff is allowed, but many dealers ignore the uninforced rule. Still, it’s the best I’ve found in the Southeast.

So, here are the things I found interesting, but did not buy. First, the hooked Scottie rug above was a great temptation. Probably from the 1930s, he was a great example of that popular little dog, but I already have two Scottie rugs and do not need another.

There are several sellers who specialize in sporting collectibles, and I love looking through their things, even though the great majority is from male athletes.

I loved this photo. Are they tennis stars ot movie stars, or just stars in their own world? I promise to try and find their identities, so feel free to help me.

I really liked this skates case, but I was put off by the condition. What I really loved was that the woman appears to be wearing slacks, though it could be tights.

I spotted this pennant and my heart skipped a beat. I thought it could possibly be a suffragist’s item, considering the purple color. But no.

Instead it was from The Hub Clothiers in Ottawa. Right Clothing at the Right Price.

I spotted a 1928 yearbook from Appalachian State Normal School, which would become Appalachian State University. A normal school was actually a teacher education school, back in the days when most states did not require a teacher to have a college degree, but were starting to see the advantage in teachers having advanced training. My second grade teacher attended a normal school, and at some point she had to return to school to get a bachelor’s degree.

Thumbing through the book I saw immediately how the majority of the students were young women. There were enough men to have a basketball team, but they were not nearly as interesting as the girls’ team.

In 1928 the girls were still wearing bloomers, but they were above the knee. And how about those sleeveless knit jerseys? App’s colors today are black and gold, and I really hope the bits of color on these uniforms were gold as well. The socks are interesting. They are really more of a legging with a strap that goes under the foot, much like a modern baseball sock. I bought a pair of these years ago, hoping to find evidence that they were worn by women as well as men. Now I have it.

Public service announcement: Appalachian is pronounced  Appa-LATCH-un if you are referring to the university or to the southern mountains.

I love the tiny hatboxes that were given as Christmas gifts. A tiny hat within could be exchanged for an actual hat.

This creation was under glass, so my photo is not as good as I’d like, but this was the most charming little thing. The face is a real photo, but the rest is made from various textile bits. Even the striped stockings are cotton knit.

It might be obvious that the heart on the right is a pincushion, but what about the apple? Yes, it is also a pincushion, with a silk covering that is positively real looking. Even the stem looks real. Can you see the price? $110.

One seller had a pile of 1950s and 60s shoes, all in the original boxes and all labeled and dated.  I know that sounds like a seller’s dream come true, but the shoes within the boxes had signs of having been surrounded by acidic paper for fifty something years.

I’ve got to thank the people of the past who were considerate enough to save the original packaging. Imagine this as only the contents – a lipstick, brushes, and powder box – with no box and brochure. It’s not nearly as appealing.

Here’s a great little give-away item from United Woolen Mills. The flicker action no longer works, so the girl seems to be caught in a perpetual half-smile.

I’ll admit that at first this was St. Francis getting ready to bless the puppies, but then I saw the streamer and realized halos don’t have ribbon streamers. It’s a farm boy with the farm’s new pups.

I know it’s not called this any longer, but will Shabby Chic ever end? Just when I thought it could not get any nuttier, the passion for old bed springs is kindled in the home decorating obsessed heart. Along with springs, add the miscellaneous paint-pealing architectural element and old rusted out buckets.  And in a few years it will all be passé, I hope.

And I hope that little observation did not offend anyone’s taste, but I’ve come to realize that anytime words come out of a human’s mouth, another human is offended. So one should just go ahead and throw caution to the wind, firm in one’s knowledge of what is and is not tacky.

Finally, this great hat was not seen at the antiques show, but in the excellent Design Archive Vintage in Winston-Salem. Is this hat tacky? Possibly, but it is fantastic never-the-less.

 

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