Is collecting cottage kitsch making a comeback?


In episode 6 of season 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast, we hear an essay by Charles Wilkins that will make you cherish all of your tchotchkes.

I won her at the CNE by tossing a dime onto a plate. Her arms and legs were stuffed tubes of cotton about as big around as juice cans; her plastic face hinted at some bizarre genetic conclave of Nancy, Sluggo, and W.C. Fields. She stood four feet high and, within a day of my snatching her from the steamy sequester of the midway, I had transported her to Muskoka, named her Charlena, and sentenced her to year-round residence in the family cottage near Torrance. Not that we didn’t consider her for full family accreditation, but our winter home was in a distant part of the province: with three kids, two adults, a cat, and untold volumes of cargo to transport between summer and non-summer, there simply wasn’t room for her in our ‘54 Dodge Crusader.

At any rate, I was a boy, she was a doll. Furthermore, she was the ideal cottage kitsch: mildly exotic, unassailably tasteless and, in the words of the thesaurus, useless, dysfunctional, and unavailing.

So there she sat in the corner by the chimney, fading gradually, always smiling, thoroughly ignored. That is, until the summer of 1965 when, sitting across the room one night, I noticed a suspicious irregularity in her composure. Investigation revealed a family of mice had not only eaten the stuffing out of Charlena’s head—wads of it—but had encamped there, in numbers, somewhere in the region of the pituitary gland. They (or their ancestors) had probably been there for years, but how could we have known? Charlena’s enormous plastic face, the mind behind it consumed by rodents, smiled witlessly through it all. 

We wrapped her, mice and all, in a plastic sheet, packed her in the car, and drove her without sentiment to her final home among the shattered purchases and promises of the local dump.

But Charlena’s demise is neither the end nor the focus of my story. The huge, rodent-infested doll merely leads to a question I wish to raise about a defunct era in Canadian cottaging: Is it just me or is the junk and kitsch found in today’s cottages (if indeed there is any true kitsch left) a lifeless shadow of the funkery junkery that gave spunk to the cottages of yesteryear? 

The answer lies in the evidence, and my urge to make a point notwithstanding, I have few vivid memories of the summer homes to which I’ve been introduced over the past 10 or 12 years. My impressions of most of them revolve around latter-day flatliners such as ceiling fans, new bathroom fixtures, stainless steel sinks, vinyl flooring, pine panelling, aluminum windows, computerized alarm systems, Heatilators, VCRs, and front decking. Fine features, fine cottages all, but somehow lacking the redolence of, say, Grace Framsworth place at Glen Orchard, which, before it was sold and remodelled in 1964, housed a ghastly museum of stuffed mammals, reptiles, and birds. The little shop of horrors included a lynx, a massasauga rattler, a beaver, a heron (with a sunfish in its beak, as I recall), a snapping turtle as big as a car tire, and the pièce de résistance, a fair-sized brush wolf whose glass eyes, having fallen from its head, sat above it on the mantel, staring serenely from a mason jar. It was a cottage that tended to stick in your memory.

Not to place inordinate emphasis on the marvels of taxidermy, I might note that Bob and Ellen Sutka adorned a wall of their cottage near Parry Sound during the late 50s with a 4’x8’ depiction of the skyline of Toronto, created entirely of half-inch finishing nails banged into three-quarter-inch plywood. “It was a horrid thing,” Mrs Sutka recalled last fall. “But we spent so much time making it, we just couldn’t bear to throw it out. Whenever we had company we used to cover it with a Navajo blanket. I hope you’re not going to put it in your article.”

About a decade later, Barbara Church of Agincourt was adding her own impressive artifact to the Kitsch Hall of Fame by knotting together a macrame wall hanging that amalgamated some 50 mementos of an eight-month sojourn in Europe. “The thing weighed 40 pounds!” she recounts. “In the bottom corners, it had these two big stones, one from John o’Groat’s in the north of Scotland, the other from the island of Rhodes. Oh, lemme see, it also had an olive branch from Italy, a French wine bottle, a doorstop from Albert Hall in London where I went to see Judy Collins, a plastic street sign from Carnaby Street, a map of the Paris underground, and a little pair of Dutch clogs. I think there was even a bag of peanuts from my flight over—I carried it in my pack for eight months. I hung this thing up in my bedroom until one night its fasteners pulled out and it came crashing down. My parents thought a burglar had broken in.” Shortly afterwards, Barbara transferred the cherished tapestry to the most obvious depot, the family cottage north of Peterborough, where for nine years—nine years—it hung gathering dust until it again fell from the wall (and from grace) and was rudely dismantled. 

When my own family cottage burned to the ground in 1975 (it has since been rebuilt), we lost items of distinguished junk too numerous and numinous to properly recount. Gone: one slightly disintegrated monkey head, carved from an unhusked coconut and brought to Torrence from Tahiti as a good luck talisman (shortly before the cottage burned). Gone: my great-grandfather’s saddle, a pathetic puddle of cocoa-coloured leather that surely could have offered no more comfort or protection than a deflated whoopee cushion. Gone: a large reproduction of the family coat-of-arms, bearing a dragon or wyvern and the motto Estoffe Prudentes, Beware Thyself. The true distinction of the piece lay in the materials from which it was constructed: cardboard, sequins, and that fairest conveyance of the heraldic craft, painted macaroni. Gone: a puffy, blood-coloured baseball glove that hung above my bed and once belonged to Bruce Fleury, a boyhood hero who had a tryout with the Milwaukee Braves. Gone: a piece of driftwood shaped like bagpipes and an 18-inch pepper grinder.

And what have we done to replace these riches?

Nothing, dear reader. For you know as well as I that the Golden Age of Cottage Kitsch is defunct. Everywhere, tottering reliquaries have been transformed into model digs resembling outtakes from a home-improvement manual.

Even the libraries in today’s cottages are a dim hearkening to the scuzzy bookshelves I remember as a kid. Authors with hairy backs and cigar breath (you could smell it in the binding of the paperbacks)—writers like Louis L’Amour, Mickey Spillane, and the soul-stirring Mignon G. Eberhart—have been supplanted by civilised practitioners such as Robertson Davies, Margaret Visser, and Carol Shields. It’s not the compromising of the literature that smarts, it’s the compromising of the effect of that literature. As far as actual reading goes, it doesn’t matter what books are on the summer shelves, since people who read at cottages bring their books from the city. The point is that cottage libraries used to be stacked with books that, if unread, inspired no sense of guilt. The virtue lay, rather, in not reading them, in never getting more than a paragraph or two beyond their steamy titles and lurid covers. And now, shame, they’re being pushed aside by books we feel we ought to pick up and get serious about.

I have never been much of an analyst or seer (every September I call the Leafs for the Cup), but in observing how we have sophisticated ourselves out of the old style of junk husbandry, I have paused to wonder whether the cause lies in the mere march of civilization or, rather, in some specific of our time and place. Is it possible, for instance, that we find it less appropriate to exhibit junk in a $200,000 summer refuge than we did in the $8,000 cabin we owned in 1965? Or perhaps it’s just that in decades past, cottage junk appealed to something marginal and needy in sensibilities dulled by the torpor of winter. It has been postulated by no less an authority than my sister that the months from October to May have become so hectic, bizarre, and overbulged, that by the time we get to June we want nothing more from cottage décor than orderly functionality—no coconut monkey heads, no macramé nightmares.

Or, could all this grovelling after extinct junk be nothing more than rank nostalgia? Nineteenth-century poet William Cullen Bryant advised nostalgists to weep not over change. If the world kept “a changeless, stable state, it would be cause indeed to weep.”

Change, of course, can be retrograde; while the only true junk repository at our own family cottage is now the boathouse—where ruined water toys are piled on useless deck chairs atop abandoned bedsteads—I have reason to believe that junk as an indoor sport may be making a comeback. Last summer an aunt and uncle of mine had a cottage garage sale. During a half-hour on the site, I watched strangers carry off everything from hopelessly rusted antique tools and inflatable goose decoys, to old licence plates and a large porcelain Donald Duck. One man bought a complete set of hubcaps for a ’39 Packard. “Have you got a car for them?” I asked as he was leaving. “That’s mine over there,” he said, pointing to a vehicle that was distinctly no Packard. He said, “Last summer I was given hubcaps from a ’46 Buick. They’re on the wall of my cottage. That’s where these are going.”

This essay originally appeared in the March 1991 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Featured Video