Souvenirs exhibit recalls a Florida before Mickey Mouse

Florida scenes were once sold by the artists along highways. One of these artists was Harold Newton (American 1932-1994), who painted this oil-on-board beach scene. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Burchard Galleries Inc.

Florida scenes were once sold by the artists along highways. One of these artists was Harold Newton (American 1932-1994), who painted this oil-on-board beach scene. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archive and Burchard Galleries Inc.

VENICE, Fla. (AP) – Nancy Eaton is a retro tour director with her collection of alligator ashtrays, hand-painted palm-tree jewelry and water-skiing girlie postcards that generations of Florida visitors sent to people back home to say “Wish You Were Here.”

“It’s everyman’s art,” said Eaton, 57, a New York native and Nokomis, Fla., resident whose exhibit of vintage Florida souvenirs from the 1900s to the 1960s opened this week at the Venice Archives. “It’s the world of tropical cool drinks, the land before air-conditioning and smoked mullet for dinner.”

And with souvenirs, taste was sometimes beside the point.

The souvenirs were a fun way of saying “ha-ha, we are here and you aren’t,” Eaton said. “And a lot of it was created for children.”

Amid the shell and gator-themed salt and peppershakers and tchotchkes, Eaton displays a rare table-height 1920s-era iron flamingo ashtray and cigar holder; in another corner, a foot-wide conch table lamp decorated with three-inch pink flamingos and shells.

Then there are museum quality linen tablecloths from the 1930s and flamingos on everything, including a more contemporary toilet plunger that is not included in the collection.

“Early Florida tourism was nature before they injected Mickey Mouse,” Eaton said. “It was exotic to see an alligator.”

Early postcards of beaches and landscapes were produced on linen paper and hand colored, giving them a painted quality, she said.

Palettes give clues about the era. In the late 1940s and ’50s, artists used a chartreuse, rose, maroon and forest green.

An airbrushed painting of a heron in those colors turned Eaton into a collector in the 1970s. “I bought it for $5 in a Land O’ Lakes thrift shop,” Eaton said. “It reminded me of childhood.”

She has since picked up items at garage sales, antique shops and on EBay.

The painting that started her collecting is on display with the rest of the collection until late November, but typically hangs above Eaton’s bed, in an Old Florida house loaded with period pieces.

Her collection is so vast that she decorated three nearby vacation rental bungalows with the items to give tourists a feel of what Florida used to be like.

After living on the West Coast and working in marketing, Eaton returned to the area in 1998 to live full time.

The vintage souvenirs remind Eaton of childhood treks to Sarasota from New York in the ’50s and ’60s in the back of her grandmother’s “Pepto- Bismol pink Studebaker Lark,” which did not have air-conditioning.

“It would take us 2.5 days to drive and we’d sometimes get stuck for 20 minutes or more waiting for a train,” Eaton said.

She remembers the bands and the nightclub at the Lido Casino until it closed in the late 1960s, and standing in the middle of U.S. Route 41 and not seeing a car.

The archives’ director James Hagler was so impressed with Eaton’s collection when he visited her home recently that he decided to start an annual guest-curated exhibit beginning with a sampling of her collection.

“Wish You Were Here” will be on display through Nov. 23.

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