It’s easy to become enamored with the items you find at estate sales. It’s also easy to find yourself ready to spend far more than you were planning. Buyer's remorse? Never. But it is a little disappointing to open your wallet and see tiny moths flutter out of it like in the cartoons because you just bought a carload of fantastic stuff.
It’s hard. We understand.
But for those looking to liven up your life and shelfspace with some new collectibles, there are plenty of doodads for shoppers on a budget, with a variety to enjoy and a history to dive into. I’ve started many of my own budding collections based on the affordability of these and other irresistible estate sale items.
Salt & Pepper Shakers
Seasoning your food has never been more adorable. From kitschy 50s fare to the more traditional shakers of 18th century England, you can find them at a variety of price points.
It’s not uncommon to come across an estate sale with a large number of salt and pepper shakers—a goldmine for collectors. But the best part is, because there have been so many styles made throughout the 20th century, you can take your collection in any direction you want. Depression glass? Easy. Ceramic? Sure! Anthropomorphic vegetables? No problemo. Shakers that have a separate holding container, or somehow connect with each other? Why not! Sets with a matching flour shaker, even though you can't think of any occasion you've ever had to sprinkle flour on anything? Nothing’s stopping you!
We’ve talked before about teacups, from collecting them, to repurposing them as adorable candles. They make a lovely display in both large and small quantities, and it’s not uncommon to find them—and maybe even a matching saucer—at estate sales for less than $5.
And I think we can all agree that tea tastes better when you’re drinking it from a pretty cup. Maybe (definitely) with a side of cookies.
To be clear, you’ll also find some cups and saucers priced for well more than $5 a piece. But if you’re looking to dip your collecting toe into a collecting pool, this is a good way to go.
Some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen and playing Canasta or Kings in a Corner. If a card went missing, or a deck became a bit too well-loved, she would have another deck at the ready. As a frequent Las Vegas traveler, most of her cards had a hole punched straight through the middle—decks used briefly by a casino and then sold off as souvenirs.
Attempting to acquire decks from every current and / or defunct Las Vegas casino possible would be quite a task, but it's certainly a direction you could take. Or you could focus on the maker or the design. Some collectors dig deep into the early era cards. Others focus on playing cards with certain themes, patterns, or shapes. Maybe you’ll choose to collect from over 100-year history of Bicycle cards. Or perhaps you’ll only collect cards with kitty-cats on them. Player’s choice!
Sure, modern cookbooks have pretty pictures and contemporary and relatable anecdotes from Food Network personalities, or other celebrities you've never associated with food before but I guess they have a cookbook now. But if you want classic recipes, or to go on a culinary adventure in the wayback machine—from vintage trends to questionable diet recipes from previous generations—look no further than the bookshelves at your local estate sale.
One of my favorite parts of estate sale cookbooks is discovering marginalia, written thoughtfully by someone’s grandmother or great-grandmother, in that very grandmotherly handwriting (you know the kind I’m talking about). Notes from the women who cooked for their family daily, who adjusted recipes as they saw fit, and noted those changes for the future. And then let’s not forget the quaint spelling of “cooky,” in these books, which is something that brings me joy every time I see it.
Shirt buttons, coat buttons, campaign buttons—take your pick!
Political buttons of one sort or another date almost as far back as the country itself, with buttons emblazoned with “Long Live the President” to celebrate the inauguration of George Washington. But they really picked up steam with Eisenhower’s catchy “I Like Ike” slogan. The sheer variety of buttons, from the serious to the seriously kitsch, are all collectible, and are often very affordable.
Shirt buttons and coat buttons are also a popular collector’s item, and carry with them an interesting history as both a utilitarian device to keep one’s pants up, and a highly visible status symbol
You don’t have to attend the sale of an avid historical button collector to build your own collection. If you spot a sewing machine, you’re more than likely to come across at least a drawer of notions, if not a large and extensive sewing kit, sure to have at least a few.
You could use these adorable vases for their intended purpose: to hold a single flower, or maybe a stem of lavender. Or they can stand alone on their own beauty, because, let’s face it, they’re adorable. Picture them in a row on your kitchen windowsill, or spotting your favorite bookshelf.
Now you're getting it.
I’ve bought more than one bud vase at local estate sales for just a couple dollars each. And I regret none of them. How could I?
Not only cookie cutters, but many vintage kitchen utensils can be found at an estate sales for just a few dollars. Maybe you’re looking for the exact gingerbread man shape your mother used to use when making her Christmas cookies every year (I’ll find you yet, oddly-shaped smiling guy with the pointy hat), or perhaps you’re hoping to discover a gadget you’ve never seen before. (Rosettes, anyone?) Rummaging through kitchens is, personally, one of my favorite parts of attending estate sales. (I’ve even found some promotional Pyrex pieces for $3, and if given the chance, I will tell you all about that day in excruciating detail.)
My point is: never skip the kitchen.