Discovering Antiques: Inexpensive Party Decorations and Favors

Most people think of antique stores as places to buy furniture, oil paintings or old books.  But a little snooping around can easily result in amazing finds for other purposes.  Vintage items make great low-budget party decorations and favors. They are super conversation starters and everyone can leave with a memento from the event – a real keepsake instead of a Dollar Store throwaway. And (here’s the best part) it’s really fun to dig through a store’s treasure troves to make your discoveries.

Are you ready to party?  Here are some easy and very inexpensive ideas.

1. Bridal Showers and Luncheons. Old hankies are excellent. You can find them for a few dollars each, they look great when crisply ironed and folded, and everyone loves to pass them around and see the different styles. They might be embroidered with an initial or hand-tatted around the edges.  They come in every color – lacy or silky or patterned with flowers.

Antique hankies and tiny demitasse cups and saucers look lovely next to a luncheon place setting. 

Demitasse cups and saucers are also delightful.  They are tiny and less expensive than regular cups and saucers, especially singles that have been orphaned from their original sets.  Many of these are over 100 years old but are still widely found in antique stores. Pick out an assortment of patterns and shapes and set them by the water glasses.  Put a surprise inside each one – a wrapped chocolate truffle or a sparkly piece of costume jewelry.  Old brooches and pins are fabulous.  There’s an enormous variety and, if they are unsigned, can be purchased for under $5 each.

Old brooches and pins are fabulous to use for guest “surprises.” This brooch sold for $6.61 in 2013.

2. New Year’s Eve. “Out with the old” is a great theme and gives free rein to decorate with antiques. These party items might be a little harder to scrounge, but you can have a good time searching for bargains all year long.  Save them up for the big event. 

Old wind-up alarm clocks are pretty easy to score.  Find as many as you can and place them all around your party room, set for midnight.  Even if they don’t work and are a little rusty, they look fantastic on the mantle, bookshelves and end tables (and the more the better).  Pile vintage tin noisemakers in baskets.  The assortments are endless, with clappers, bells, ratchets, clickers and horns easy to buy at low cost on eBay (especially right after the Fourth of July and Halloween).  Rubber baby dolls from the 1950s can be found in piles at flea markets, especially cheap if they have lost their clothes. Put them in diapers and add “Happy New Year” sashes.  Candelabras are always a hit (tarnish and dings are perfectly ok!) and don’t forget classic champagne glasses (coupes not flutes) served on a round tray. 

Place vintage noisemakers and clappers around in baskets. This lot of vintage party clappers and noise makers sold for $10 in 2017.

3. Dinner Parties. These are my favorites, because you can combine vintage recipes with vintage dinnerware. The place settings can all be different – in fact they shouldn’t match – and it’s fun to present “lost” recipes in their original serving dishes. Like tuna casserole in Pyrex bakeware, tomato aspic in a copper gelatin mold, cheese soup ladled from a footed tureen and canapés on wooden Tiki trays.   Online, it’s easy to find 60-year-old menus from iconic restaurants.  And, if you like to cook, it’s a thrill to replicate dishes like beef wellington, Cornish game hen, creamed onions or cherries jubilee.

Vintage Trader Vic’s menus combined with tropical rum drinks make a nostalgic dinner starter. Most antique stores have old cocktail tumblers in funky patterns.

Display old cookbooks and cooking pamphlets for your guests to browse through – they can readily be found at every estate sale and used bookstore in town.  Pick ones with lots of retro photos – foodies love them and it will spark ideas for the next dinner party.  People can even dress in clothing from the particular period or tie in with a fantasy theme (like the last dinner served on the Titanic). 

Dinner décor and giveaway items are cheap and plentiful in most resale stores – swizzle sticks, souvenir spoons, drink umbrellas, shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers, tea towels, toothpick holders, refrigerator magnets, cookie cutters and coasters can be found to match your party’s era and reference.   

4. Just About Anything. Book reviews, car clubs, bridge parties, doll clubs, craft workshops, genealogy studies, travel discussions – just about any kind of get-together can be decorated with inexpensive collectibles and antiques. Early to mid 20th century postcards are incredible.  You can find them in virtually every subject and they rarely cost more than a dollar or two. They can be placed under the glass tops on coffee tables, clipped to lampshades and leaned against anything.  Change them out to match your occasion.

Low-cost postcards can be found in any topic for themed get-togethers. This lot of vintage postcards sold for $7.44 in 2013.

Search the cheaper aisles in antique shops and look for smaller items like bisque figurines, pin-back buttons, photographs, Christmas ornaments, thimbles, bracelet charms, Cracker Jack toys and medals. They often depict subjects as varied as animals, states, national parks, presidents, movies and much more. 

Use your imagination.  An illustrated deck of playing cards, for example, can be broken apart to make individual gift tags or drawn for door prizes. Old skeleton keys, apothecary bottles and magnifying glasses will dress up a murder mystery.  Coke memorabilia, parfait glasses and seltzer bottles are perfect for a kid’s ice cream soda party.   Start looking and have fun!

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.

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