Collecting Coastal Antiques

“The seaside vacations we had when we were young, defined forever our love for the sea.”

The coast has always been a point of departure. But for me, it’s a point of return. My childhood memories are filled with the feel of the cool salty air licking sunburnt shoulders and of golden days spent barefoot on a glistening beach in search of the perfect seashell.

I was a hopeless coveteur. Foraging for sea glass, sponges, polished pebbles and whatever else the sea gave up. On occasion a tiny sea urchin could be found, or those baby abalone shells glistening in a tide pool, or on a really good day, a complete and unbroken sand dollar. It was an endless treasure hunt for precious gems to a beachcomber such as I.  

And while my sisters and I loved diving into salty waves, or the way our feet would sink in the sand when the surf pulled back, or building our lopsided sandcastles adorned with seaweed and starfish, we would always migrate back to our tin buckets of found beach stuff. 

Today, that infinite world still engages all the senses. To bring that feel inside the home and into the garden, vintage coastal pieces are having a moment. The look is very minimalist, in colors of shell and sand and oyster grays, which reinforces the simple appeal of coastal architecture.

There are wonderful stone seahorse fountain spitters and the ever whimsical mermaid. The magic of the ocean has brought forth these legends of the sea and are highly desired by collectors. And, if you are truly fortunate, an obscure wooden sign with traces of its original painted words, can be salvaged from an old wharf storefront. We never know what we will pirate out from the depths of seaside towns along the coast.

As Monterey is steeped in history, fragments of concrete walls embedded with abalone shells built by the Portuguese fisherman in the 1920’s, are starting to emerge at estate sales. Abalone has a history in the Carmel, Monterey area. The Ohlone, tribes of Native American people of the Central Coast, were attracted to the abundance of these mollusks within the coastal tide pools. It was part of their indigenous diet as well as an early form of currency used to trade for goods. At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, an old trail leads down toward the water at Whaler’s Cove. Along the way, crushed shells in the sea bank offer a glimpse of the abalone feasts some 3,000 years ago.

For a woman of the sea, it is said that a day spent near the sound of the waves brings back the elation of a special moment. There is a connection to those moments by collecting faded letters, postcards, books, and anything written, that hint about the sea, speak of it’s sorcery, it’s draw and allure. Anything Steinbeck, particularly Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, are highly sought after, while old postcards depicting early Monterey and the canneries are a rare find.

Authentic maritime anchors, heavy chain, and nautical boat brackets can still be found at antique malls and shops at fairly reasonable prices. It’s an industrial look that is sweeping the designer showrooms from coast to coast, driving the prices up.

Collectors and designers can create a coastal vignette merely by placing an old steel anchor on a bleached table surrounded by glass floats.

The salt air can be harse on anything woven. Fabric is less fortunate than coastal wood and stone as time can take a toll on it’s fibers and what remains today can often be fragile. But I adore funky beach umbrellas and fishermen’s nets and nautical uniforms of old. Their frayed beauty blends with the pale shades of the seashore, adding texture to the maritime environment.

And there’s something warm and comfortable about sun-bleached wooden garden chaises and folding chairs and boat oars. It’s somewhat shabby which makes it all seem so beachy. And give it up for the ever nautical surfboard. If you never ever set foot in the waves, just owning one gives you a feeling of empowerment.

So here’s to picnics and tide pools and sand in your hair with pockets full of memories and seashells. It doesn’t matter what sort of house we have or where we live. Collecting and living with the cool aesthetic of vintage coastal pieces allows us to return to the sea, time and time again.

The seaside mind, freed of noise and complication, finds beauty in the faded, weathered and rusted fragments of these salty remnants of the past.