Obsolete? Not Necessarily

Obsolete? Not Necessarily

By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News

I’m not ashamed to say it: I grew up in the days of the typewriter. Yes, I’m talking about that heavy machine with little black letters and numbers on white keys — or vice versa — along with the exclamation points and question marks and periods.

I grew up with metal toast racks on the table to hold just-toasted white and raisin bread, hot and ready to be buttered.

I also grew up when ashtrays were placed by Granny on the end tables and nightstands in every room of the house, which is sad, in hindsight, but true.

I grew up when bathtubs stood on feet and had reclined backs. I sure miss those bathtubs and the long length that would fit almost anyone’s legs. And I’m happy that they are still manufactured for those of use who like the look.

I grew up when a television set was part of the furniture in a room. We even had one in our living room, a set that had paneled doors to close off the screen. It never occurred to me back then that one day the screen would be practically as thin as a notepad and mounted on the wall.

Oh, how the world turns and moves on. But what happens to the items we discard along the way?

Some antique markets carry baskets of typewriter keys saved from broken machines — worth looking through if you’re artistic and inventive. Those old typewriter keys can become cuff links, as I know firsthand. I have a pair featuring a “C” for my left cuff and a “V” for my right. I’ve seen bracelets made from typewriter keys as well — you can spell “I Love You,” even if it requires two O’s.

If you can’t find the keys already separated, of course, many an antique shop will have old-fashioned typewriter perched on a high shelf. (And believe it or not, I have a friend who still types the old-fashioned way, carbon paper and all.)

When it comes to toast racks, some are still in use by the eccentric and those who prefer to dine in the tea-time manner. But I’ve seen design-minded genius types put those racks to use as letter holders. They also might hold slim, beautifully bound copies of favorite books. There are, of course, porcelain toast racks that can add a decorative touch in a powder room, holding dainty paper hand towels.

Now, when it comes to vintage ashtrays and handsome old cigarette lighters, we seem to be in far more trouble. There are still those who smoke, but gone are the days when ashtrays and lighters were de rigueur in a well-appointed house.

I suppose the silver Ronson lighters that resembled a pasha’s lantern could still be used to light the dinner table candles. But what to do with ashtrays?

I know a woman who decorated the walls of her library/bar/den with vintage ceramic ashtrays from what seemed to be every major hotel in the world. There was the Ritz-Paris, of course, plenty of nightclubs de rigueur El Morocco, The Cotton Club, the Stork Club. I’ve seen vintage black-and-white ashtrays bring thousands at auction. Why? Who knows!

If I had to suggest a use, the right size ashtray could hold soap in the bathroom on a counter where one need not worry about breaking glass or shattering ceramic. You could use a handsome ashtray to hold loose change or even cuff links. Could a large ashtray serve as a dog bowl? Has anyone tried it?

Give it some thought, and there’s almost always a way to re-purpose items that stir strong memories yet don’t serve today’s lifestyle in their original capacity.

As we see again and again, an artistic eye can go a long way.


  • Melissa Fadim on

    p.s. I have several of your scarves…

  • Melissa Fadim on

    Hello, I know of your imaginatively, creative and beautiful designs from my many summertime vacations at Grand Hotel and a few stays at The Colony.. I have not been to the Grand in several years. With the Mussers gone it won’t be the same place. Things started to change when Mr. Musser died. My daughter worked there as a teenager for a few years. Mimi was very good to her.
    I, too am of an age that I distinctly remember my mother’s silver lighter, cigarette holder cup and ashtray on the living room coffee table. Thankfully she did not smoke but my father did and so did ladies from the bridge club. I skipped the manual typewriter and learned on a Smith Corona electric.
    Thank you for the nice memories.
    All the best and stay safe,
    Melissa Fadim

  • Kathy Sawyer on

    I LOVE your writings!
    I LOVE your books!
    I LOVE the Greenbrier
    I LOVE the Grand Hotel
    I’m so grateful for all you do and all you have done.
    I’ve admired your work for many many years. I think I began with a little paperback book called the A B C of design. Someday I hope to meet you if I ever get back to PB or you ever get to Kansas City. I know the designer I worked with before retiring met you in PB a few years ago when he was shopping for a client
    Do you remember Daniel Houk and his partner Carl Thoeman? Ohhh my, how envious I was to hear of that meeting. Blessings to you and I hope you continue to make this world pretty and joyful for many more years!
    Kathy Sawyer
    I’ll be on Sanibel with my family beginning December 26 I just may bring my books of yours with me so you can sign them if I get to PB.

  • Lana Freeland on

    We have a great clock whose “body” is made from a toast rack. My husband loves it because his mother had one when he was a child.

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