Topper Meets the Material Girl

Author’s Note: Topper (1983-1997) was a one-of-a-kind dog who started with me back in Indiana and spent the last ten years of his life on the Central Coast. In 1990, while a reporter for the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, I used Topper as the basis for a series of popular articles called “Walking Topper,” where we would find interesting people in the community and profile them. Here’s one of my favorites. Topper perished in a house fire on December 14, 1997, but his memory lives forever.

If Topper could speak, I suspect he would have a zillion questions about human behavior. And somewhere amid his canine inquiry, there would certainly be the question that has plagued Topper and his predecessors for decades.

Why, oh why, Topper would ask, would any human being ever want to visit something called a flea market?

I would send him to Pam Simon for the answer. Topper may have fleas, but Pam has the bug. Pam collects things. It is a hobby that borders on an obsession; a lifelong love this San Luis Obispo woman has had for the artifacts of a bygone era.

The 31-year-old woman has been attending flea markets since she was a small child in Pennsylvania. Pam has collected everything from dishes to old beaded sweaters over the years, but lately her interests have formed a new pattern. Pam now scours flea markets across California in search of antique fabric–the silks, barkcloth and rayons that were popular in this country between 1920 and 1960.

That fabric was used mostly for household draperies and bedspreads. Little value was placed on the material; at the time; most people would give it even less today. But Pam looks at the same fabric and sees a unique art form that reflects the different moods of the nation–the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and the Post-War Era.

Pam invited Topper and me to come see her fabric collection and learn why she is so materialistic. I grabbed the leash and we headed for Pam’s garage. There is no room in Pam’s garage for her car. The reason is the shelves that line the space and fill the center of the room like a library. But instead of books, there is shelf after shelf of fabric on display.

Her fascination with antique fabric is immediately clear to any visitor. There are more than 400 bolts of material in the garage–Pam estimates that she has another 300 in a separate storage space. Even in the dim light, there is an overwhelming sense of color that fills the room. Pastels and pinks. Ruby reds. Baby blue and silver. All used to create very colorful patterns, what Pam calls an art form.

She started collecting fabric about four years while visiting her sister in the Midwest. They happened to visit a store that had a large inventory of fabric on sale. Pam bought out the entire lot. “I’ve always had a strong background in art and theatre,” Pam says. “When I saw this material, it made an immediate impression of me.”

After returning home, Pam spent time in Los Angeles, researching at the LA County Museum of Art. She studied old textile magazines and drawing patterns, and worked with library staff members, determined to know more about her new fabric. Now, four years later, point to any bolt of fabric and Pam rivals the best Hearst Castle guide.

Pam highlighted some of her collection for us. One bolt was covered with little clocks and ironing boards, “Kitchen Kitsch,” popular back in the 1950’s. Right after WWII, “Banana Leaf” caught on with its bright yellow tropical pattern, designed to be exotic and appeal to soldiers returning from the Pacific. Other material included cowboys from the 1950’s, Chinese and Hawaiian themes, and cretonne florals from the 1920’s.

I asked Pam to pick her favorite, a task she found impossible. Instead she talked Hawaiian, explaining that old Hawaiian shirt material is what all the serious collectors, including rock stars and movie icons, are particularly fanatic about. The material was made from rayon. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the only copy of the original rayon formula in the early 1940’s. A new formula was developed, but the original material commands top dollar at $85 a yard.

Pam’s fabric collection is one of the largest in California, so it wasn’t surprising when Hollywood came calling, looking for new material to use in movies, fabric that is historically accurate. Warren Beatty and Annette Benning laid on it in “Bugsy.” Kim Basinger wrapped herself around it in “The Marrying Man,” and Val Kilmer almost trashed it when he played rocker Jim Morrison in “The Doors.”

The interest from Hollywood has been fun for Pam, but she collects primarily to preserve a lost art form. “There was just so much attention paid to detail in these patterns. Then somewhere along the way, it stopped being art and just became another mass produced product.”

I asked Pam where the collecting bug might take her next. She invited Topper and me inside her house, trying hard not to laugh. I found the reason why in a large bag on her coffee table.

Buttons. And more buttons.

And even more buttons dropped out of the bag. All bright colors. And, not surprisingly, all from between 1920 and 1960. Pam began laying the buttons, made of celluloid and bakelite, out on her table, obviously proud of her newest collection.

“People who collect fabric also collect buttons. It’s natural because it’s the same time period.”

She spread the buttons around the brim her summer straw hat and put it on.

“There. What do you think?’

San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (September 6, 1992)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

One thought on “Topper Meets the Material Girl

  1. I have a button collection from when I was in elementary school. My grandmother helped me put it together with many of her old buttons. Won 1st place in our school’s hobby show in the 4th brade!


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