Displaying Your Collections: Thinking Beyond the Shelf

A collection of vintage rug beaters are displayed on the walls of the staircase. Don’t constrict where you display your collections by sticking to shelves.

A collection of vintage rug beaters are displayed on the walls of the staircase. Don’t constrict where you display your collections by sticking to shelves.

You’ve spent years compiling your collection, finding one-of-a-kind pieces at auctions and estate sales, driving across the country to attend specialized shows, scrounging through antique stores, networking with other collectors, studying reproductions and counterfeits—and always learning from your mistakes. Your heart and soul (and money) have evolved into your prized collection. This is your passion.

So why are your collections hidden from view? Display it and enjoy it!

Turn those books and record albums so their front covers show. Put your Murano art glass in a lighted display case. Mount your vintage game boards on the walls. Use your fireplace mantle for Victorian high-top shoes or chocolate molds. Decorate the edges of your stairways with postmodern radios and old guitars. Put your gumball dispensers along the hallway and your ceramic poodles around the tub. So what if your non-collecting friends and family think you’re a bit odd? They just don’t get it. The rest of us will always appreciate your efforts and enjoy sharing your finds.

Vintage cameras in a display case.

Vintage cameras in a display case.

Sometimes it’s hard to think of imaginative ways to display more unusual treasures. But as an avid collector with many collector friends, I’ve seen it all. And that includes hundreds of cereal boxes on accordion shelves (in a formal living room), lunch boxes lined along all the wood floorboards of an antebellum home, bustle dresses on mannequins in every single corner of a house and100-year-old flow blue plates grouted into tile floors. I’ve seen breathtaking 18th century olive jars lined around an indoor pool, an entryway armoire filled with American Indian artifacts and entire rooms dedicated to puppets.

One of my favorites was a laundry room with shelves full of yesterday’s soapboxes and bluing bottles. Old hand wringers, washboards and rug beaters lined the walls. The cavity for the pull-down ironing board contained shelves holding antique steam, coal and flat irons. Old-fashioned bloomers and vintage doll clothes dangled from a clothesline strung across the ceiling. They were even attached with primitive wood clothespins.

Collectibles on display in shadowboxes.

Collectibles on display in shadowboxes.

Another was an entire kitchen outfitted in mint-condition 1950 appliances (all color-coordinated in pink)—including stove, oven, refrigerator, stacked washer and dryer, can opener, blender, radio, clock, dinette set, spice canisters and lighting. Chrome, vinyl and Formica were everywhere. Drawers held Bakelite utensils and cooking implements. Even 1950s magazines filled a retro magazine rack. It was simply fabulous.

We’re in good company. Many emperors and kings first collected international coins in the 16th century—with the goal of these early efforts to accumulate all of the different portrait heads. Princess Margaret collected ornate seashells from around the world and displayed them on mirrored shelves in the sunroom of her apartment at Kensington Palace. Franklin Roosevelt developed an extensive stamp collection and Thomas Jefferson owned tens of thousands of books. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld collect classic cars, Diane Keaton amasses clown paintings, Shirley Jones collects Lalique crystal, Malcolm Forbes loves Fabergé eggs and Demi Moore has dedicated an entire empty house to her dolls.

What do you collect—and more importantly—how do you display it? Please let us know the creative ways you display your collectibles.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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