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Florida kitsch stars in new history center show

The Tampa Bay History Center’s latest exhibit highlights Florida collectables, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s, and runs through April 17.
The Tampa Bay History Center’s latest exhibit highlights Florida collectables, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s, and runs through April 17.
Published Jan. 21, 2016

TAMPA — As part of the festivities for opening day of the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891, ladies in attendance received elaborate hand fans as souvenirs.

Made of wood and heavy green paper, the fans pictured camels, for some reason, and the facade of the new hotel, now the University of Tampa.

Three of them are known to exist, and the one in the best condition — likely worth more than $5,000 — is on display now as part of the Florida collectibles exhibit running through April 17 at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"Bringing Home the Sunshine: Collecting Florida Souvenirs" celebrates tourist keepsakes and kitsch through the decades.

One display features early Gasparilla items, including a pennant touting the 1914 invasion, and a ceramic honey jar adorned with a pirate head, commissioned by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla for the 1940 festivities.

Collector John Osterweil, who owns the hand fan in the exhibit, said he found it at an antiques show in Atlantic City and wasn't sure of its importance. He called his neighbor and friend Tony Pizzo, the late, celebrated Tampa historian, and described it to him.

"He said, John, it's a blockbuster. Buy it!"

That Atlantic City show was a lucky one for Osterweil. He also found the last piece in a series of rare postcards. They depict Florida scenes bordered by embossed alligators, produced at the turn of the 20th century. Osterweil had waited 15 years to find that card, which pictures the Saratoga Hotel in Palatka. It is framed as part of the history center exhibit.

"This really represents the tenacity of a collector," museum curator Rodney Kite-Powell said.

As the show reveals, the alligator always has adorned Florida souvenirs because they were as exotic as dragons to Northerners. An alligator straddles a carved wood letter opener bearing the date 1900. It's also pictured on the hand fan from the Tampa Bay Hotel.

In a reach back through the centuries, Frenchman Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, sketching Florida scenes in 1564, created an alligator nearly the size of an elephant for edification of the folks back home. The scenes, published in 1591, showed how American Indians killed the beasts by driving a pole down their throats and flipping them over to expose the vulnerable belly.

Among the more curious items are the two framed bills issued by Tampa banks in the early 20th century, when banks were allowed to do that.

A $5 bill from the First National Bank of Tampa pictures President Benjamin Harrison, not normally thought of as a political luminary.

A $20 bill from the National City Bank of Tampa featured the obscure Hugh McCulloch, who served twice as secretary of the Treasury in the 1800s.

Postcards and road maps from the mid-20th century show beach beauties in one-piece bathing suits. A 1925 road map lays out "the best two motor routes from New York to Florida."

The exhibit does not include many items from decades beyond the 1960s, Kite-Powell said.

"We really wanted to go to kind of that peak era of kitsch, the '40s and '50s."

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.