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Florida homes can get kick from kitsch

I love everything about Florida: hot weather, crazy people, clogged roads, sunsets, beaches, ranches, orange groves, palm trees, alligators, manatees, mangoes and mangroves.

In heaven, I will live on grouper sandwiches and never take off my pink flip-flops.

So it only makes sense that I would fill my life — and home — with all things Floridiana.

When it comes to decorating, only in Florida can you get away with decking out your digs with the hideously camp and tropical. Up north it looks corny and slightly insane, but in Florida those vintage plaster parrot book ends (that you actually fill with sand!) and pink fringed satin pillow covers from 1930s Miami, look, well, nothing short of perfect.

The only challenge, in my opinion, is decorating cleverly enough that your house doesn't end up looking like a museum.

Recently, I was taking stock of my Florida collection, which I rotate according to mood and whim every couple of months when I'm feeling the need for a change.

Finding Florida stuff used to be cheap and easy until it got popular for awhile, and people, who knew what they had, raised their prices or started hawking it on eBay.

A fruitful trip to Goodwill a few years ago reaped a wooden bowl from 1970s Weeki Wachee Springs for 50 cents, while an afternoon of browsing in a Sarasota bookstore unearthed a book about Key West compiled by Florida writers and photographers during the Depression.

My kitchen shelves hold a collection of Florida salt and pepper shakers from mid century that only a tourist could have loved, including a plastic egg-shaped set from Ocala.

I often look at these and think: Who would have wanted a souvenir from Ocala in the 1960s?

Other trinkets seem more glamorous and obvious. Recently, my father gave me a salt and pepper shaker from the dining room of the old passenger steamship Florida that used to sail from Jacksonville to Havana.

The salt and pepper shakers are nestled in a tiny, sleek silver ship and came with an accompanying antique postcard. I wonder: Did someone pilfer this little treasure right off the ship's dining table or did they buy it in the gift shop as a souvenir of their journey?

I especially love the Florida of my childhood and the Florida I can only imagine — that of my father's childhood and my grandparents' youth.

That was the pre-Disney Florida of the magnificent tourist attraction and highways with names romantic enough to write songs about. I'm looking at a framed piece of sheet music on my desk, probably from the 1920s, called Tamiami Trail.

Flapper girls on the beach sway their arms beneath the palm trees while a slick band leader in white tails croons in front of a big microphone: "Soon, I'll wander down the Tamiami Trail, where it leads down to the sea," he sings.

I don't smoke, but I am the proud owner of an old Florida metal ashtray touting the state's tourist attractions, which didn't include Disney World, but rather the jewel of the era: Silver Springs.

It doesn't have to be old or rare for me to love it.

Last fall, I went to the annual Folk Fest in Orlando and bought a wooden alligator covered in bottle caps. It was made by an artist from Illinois who said she was trying to make something that related to Florida.

My bedroom chest is painted ocean green and decorated with a giant pink flamingo — the work of a Tallahassee artisan.

Over my desk hangs a 1960s reproduction of an 1855 map of Florida that I love to look at for the sheer size of some of the counties and the noticeable absence of many cities that make Florida what it is today.

I have yet to frame a rectangular, panoramic photo taken Feb. 20, 1952, of citrus workers at the Adams Packing Association in Auburndale. Hundreds of workers from the "sectionizing department," mostly women who are all wearing white, pose in front of trucks loaded with oranges.

But the most precious Floridiana items are the most personal: a 1940s photo of my grandmother, Florence, a happy beauty in her bathing suit; and a more recent gift: an 8-by-10 black and white photo of my father and his friends as teenagers at their Arthur Murray dance class on Miami's Lincoln Road.

Over Thanksgiving, I stayed with family at my grandfather's old house on Miami Beach, where the furnishings and just about everything else in the house are original and intact.

It's the ultimate Floridiana collection, only in 3-D. I spent hours examining everything, touching, feeling and remembering.

The kitchen smells like paint and wood and the sea. The bathrooms smelled like Ivory soap. The old saltwater swimming pool (long ago converted to freshwater) is still as I remembered it.

Before I climbed into my car late on a gray Saturday afternoon, I reached down and picked up a small rock from the front lawn — for my Floridiana collection.

Like everything else Florida that I collect, it's a piece of soul from the vanished past of a state I love. Where kitsch is always beautiful, always in fashion and always looks great in my living room.

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

Florida homes can get kick from kitsch 03/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 6:02am]
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