Defining the 1980s from the Collector’s Point of View

I collect merchant/trading stamp redemption catalogs that picture the merchandise obtained when filled stamp books are redeemed. The collection of more than 500 examples includes almost complete runs of Gold Bond Stamps, Plaid Stamps, Top Value Stamps, and S & H (Sperry & Hutchinson) Green Stamps catalogs. At the moment, the collection is packed in four legal-size archival file boxes awaiting transfer from Rinker Enterprises’ headquarters in Vera Cruz, Pa., to my home in Connecticut.

Harry RinkerMerchant/trading stamp redemption catalogs are a primary source to identify the ceramics, glass, furniture and other household items found in the average American home between the 1950s and the 1990s. They help define decade; a key collecting concept. Collectors think decade – 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Pick a decade, close your eyes, and envision a bedroom, den, dining room or kitchen. The room you see has a distinct look. Variations are possible, but they conform to decade norms.

The year 1980 is 30 years ago, and now is the time to attempt to define the 1980s from a collecting viewpoint. What design styles and objects were unique to the period? When you think 1980s, what do you see?

Recently I received an e-mail from Lynne Rainer, a New Jersey resident, who offered to send me a 1985 S & H Green Stamps Awards redemption catalog for free. Free is one of my favorite words. I responded immediately, offering to pay the postage cost. She declined, indicating she was glad the catalog was going to a good home.

The catalog arrived today, just as I was getting ready to write “Rinker on Collectibles.” A dedicated procrastinator as well as accumulator, I set aside my writing obligations in favor of paging through the catalog. Since the catalog was from mid-decade, I hoped to find evidence that would provide the foundation for describing the 1980s.

Confusion instead of clarity resulted from my perusal. At this moment, I question if the 1980s has a distinct character. If it does, its look may not reside within the average American household.

The decade of the 1980s was the Reagan era, a period when America returned to a traditional, conservative, comfortable lifestyle. Comparing three photographs of the same person—the first taken in 1955, the second in 1970, and the third in 1985. The similarity between the 1955 and 1985 photographs will be far greater than either compared to the 1970 photograph. Popular taste in furniture and other household furnishings, decorative patterns and designs on ceramics, glass and metals, and recreational objects appear to have recessed rather than advanced.

Color defines decade. The 1950s is identified with pink and black. The end of the 1950s and 1960s saw the advent of turquoise, copper and chrome. The 1970s is marked by avocado, golden harvest (yellow) and rust. The 1990s is the era of mauve and ecru. It appears so easy until you consider the 1980s. The 1980s does not have a distinct color scheme. The 1985 Awards redemption catalog suggests a love of bold, colored floral motifs. Motif is not a color. Textiles have white and light tan grounds. Pastel tones dominate. Pastel is a hue, not a color. I am at a loss.

Beginning in the 1930s, Colonial Revival styles—whether American or European in origin—and the upholstered (stuffed) furniture became the favorites of the average American. However, most decades contributed one or more new looks to the furniture vocabulary. The 1950s saw the arrival of the generic “Early American” and “Western” maple. Kitchen furniture modernized through the use of chrome and Formica. The Scandinavian and the post-Modernist leather/chrome styles are identified with the 1960s. The Mediterranean look came and went within the decade, a blessing to period collectors who can ignore it without compromising their integrity. Although introduced earlier, the 1970s continued the 1960s funk created by the womb and Bean Bag chairs and saw an increased desire for outer-space/futuristic styled objects. The furniture styles in the 1985 Awards catalog are traditional, no matter the design style. Colonial Revival pieces become more formal. High-style forms closely copied William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale and the Federal Era design style, especially Hepplewhite and Sheraton period pieces. The 1985 Awards redemption catalog also included a 1960s Post-Modern modular sofa and Newport Arts and Crafts style modular bedroom suite, each almost exact copies of their historic counterparts.

Do not confuse the 1980s offerings of multiple design styles in the Awards catalog with the 1990s eclectic, mix-and-match, anything-goes look. Nineteen-eighties rooms were period statements. Furniture pieces matched. Accessories complemented the chosen look.

As I studied the Awards catalog, two recurrent thoughts ran through my mind. The first was obsolescence. The lifetime of many of these objects was measured in years, not decades. Second, many objects will never be collectible; not now or in the future. I saw more candidates for the landfill than I did for a collector’s home or office. A partial list includes braided rugs, brass desktop objects, compact exercise bikes (even when left on the curb with a free sign attached, no one picks them up—not even me), computer table/desk (forget the computers), Oneida silver-plated casseroles and other tabletop accessories, Panasonic Portable VHS video recorders, Olympus OM-10 35mm SLR cameras and Sony Walkmans. Many of these objects have no long-term collectability. They were replaced so quickly, thanks to technological advances, that owners never formed long-term attachments to them. Other objects will end up in the landfill because of their inability to complement 2010 decorating tastes.

Perhaps I am biased. My collecting philosophy was formed during the 1950s and 1960s. Car designs differed dramatically every three to four years. Subtle changes occurred every year. It was possible to tell a 1956 from a 1957 model just by looking. Color and design schemes and the application of new materials and electronics to household items were the norm. Differences were expected and appreciated.

Ask A WorthologistA look through the garden and tool section of the 1985 Awards catalog raised the question: have I not seen some of these same items recently? The answer is yes, at the Danbury, Conn., Home Depot I visited last week. The lawn mowers, gardening tools, table saws, and wrench sets had a same-old, same-old appearance. No doubt there are subtle differences between the 1985 and 2010 versions of these items. But if they exist, they are not apparent to me.

Memory is a tricky commodity. As I get older, I forget the minute details of earlier times. Yet, my vision of those times seems to become clearer, less muddled. The 1980s were yesterday. Its memories have not gone through a filtration process.

It is possible to identify the 1980s through its movies, music, television programming and toys, all of which are missing from the Awards catalog. Since these collecting categories are the first to attract period collectors, perhaps the solution is to allow collecting to follow its natural progression, a progression in which collecting period household furnishing lags 10 to 15 years behind. Taking this position is the coward’s approach.

Now is the time to tackle the issue of defining the 1980s. If the collecting community or other pundits fail to do this, the collecting community will cast aside a century-old tradition of the principles governing how it collects. This is serious.

It can easily be argued that I have concluded far too much from a single source. Having lived through the 1980s, not something someone under the age of 30 can do, I claim historical insight in defense of my initial thoughts. However, once I do move my merchant/trading stamp redemption catalog collection to Connecticut, I plan to look through a full 10 years worth of catalogs to hone and possibly revise my thoughts.

How would you define the 1980s from a collector’s viewpoint? I welcome your thoughts. E-mail them to me at As I have done in the past, as a result of such requests, I will share my readers’ thoughts in a future column.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site:

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. You can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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