A Study In Vinyl The good old days: Baltimore City Life Museums will bring back the '50s in all their plastic glory.

January 17, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A green vinyl armchair with yellow piping seems an unlikely treasure, but to Jenny Heim it was the find of the year. More precious than the chartreuse plastic nut dishes. Or even the ceramic ashtray with matching cigarette lighter.

Ms. Heim is still in search of Fifties-style Monopoly games, plastic drapes, vinyl ottomans and Howdy Doody paraphernalia: Things that many view as woefully passe -- or as just plain junk. She wants to put them in a museum.

Ms. Heim is a part of a team at the Baltimore City Life Museums that is preparing a sweeping depiction of the city's history. The show, titled "I Am the City," will form the centerpiece in the museum's new building, the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, which opens April 12. Through these commonplace objects and by telling the stories of specific people and places within the city, the staff hopes to provide glimpses of life in Baltimore from the 1830s through the present. "We're creating environments that will help people remember the past or imagine it," says John Durel, executive director of the museum.

"One one level, it's just fun. On another, we want people to question and ultimately understand what life was like in different eras -- and how different people experienced it in different ways."

Ms. Heim, project manager for new exhibits, is focusing on the 1950s -- a time in which suburbs blossomed, smoking was stylish and plastic reigned supreme. She is re-creating a living room flash-frozen in time. Picture it: It's Saturday night. The card table is unfolded and ready, complete with ashtrays and drinks. The nut dishes have been filled. The TV Guide, with a young Jerry Lewis on its cover, has been set aside. The neighbors are about to arrive for an evening of canasta.

Ms. Heim, who has a master's degree in museum education, is in one way an unlikely candidate for the job: She was born seven years after the Nifty Fifties ended.

But, like any good researcher, she plunged into the culture of that so-very-distant era. She interviewed people about what life was like. She consulted history books and city maps. She perused "Betty Crocker's Guide to Easy Entertaining," the "Good Housekeeping Book of Home Decoration," and advertisements from Hecht's, Sears and Hutzler's. She flipped through craft books and learned how to make "octopus dolls" out of yarn; she studied the fine art of crocheting a liquor bottle cover in the shape of a "Perky Poodle." She familiarized herself with recipes for "Million Dollar Fudge," "Old-Fashioned Beef Stew" and "Smooth Luncheon Mold."

"There were a lot of things made with Jell-O and a lot of casseroles," she says.

Then she hit the streets, rooting through flea markets and snooping through antique shops. "Lots of times I brought someone with me who could recognize things that I might not," she says. "And they'd say, 'Oh! I made one of those for my mother.' Or, 'We had that in our living room.' "

At an antique show in Timonium, she found an unopened box of coasters and napkins -- from Hutzler's -- that originally cost 49 cents. Ms. Heim paid $5.

And the museum staff spread the word: Ms. Heim was a woman in search of plastic, cowboy kitsch, ashtrays, records, old gardening tools, decks of cards, photos and 45-year-old TV Guides.

People responded. They cleaned out their attics. They scoured their basements. They offered their junk, their treasures, their memories. One woman donated an aluminum tray with etching that she'd created when she was a member of the Parkville Homemakers Association. Someone else sent in a copy of "Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Women's Society of Christian Service of the Epworth Methodist Church" in Cockeysville, complete with a recipe for beef stew submitted by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

From Robert Halli of Baltimore County came a slew of objects: a 1950s world globe and a Regent tape recorder purchased when his son joined the Loyola High debate team; a 9-inch hippie doll (complete with protest sign and nine different slogans), which was a gift to his daughter in 1967 when she left for Bryn Mawr College; and a 1970s tank-shaped Electrolux vacuum cleaner.

The retired mechanical aeronautics engineer also gave the museum a food processing box from 1936. The box was the only way of cooling food in the apartment he and his first wife rented for $30 monthly on Woodleigh Avenue. "It was a tin box with two shelves. You put it outside the window and closed the window on it, and that's how you kept your food cool," he says.

Piling up

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