by Phillip M. Pollock

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 1996

All photos are from the author's collection.

When it comes to Florida kitsch, you can hardly serve it up any better than on old Florida souvenir plates. Through the years, these plates have been offered as gifts over and over again to hungry tourists anxious to take them home and put them up on the wall, mind you, not on the table. Many still hang in mom and dad's kitchen, a wonderful reminder of a whole string of attractions that the family visited on vacation in Florida.

The airborne dust and grease that has settled on them in no way clouds the adventures these plates represent. Oh sure, there may have been a few no-see-ems, mosquitos, cockroaches and a gnat now and again, but this is part of Florida. When you drive all the way from Ohio, what difference does a bug make, after all? And so what if you ate the shrimp tails, too. Who would have known? It's not like they tell you this before you leave Cleveland.

For many of the kids who made the trip in family autos with tail fins taller than themselves, the souvenir plates are now significant collectors' items. They are reminders of sunny days. That's how they remember Florida! The souvenir plates harken back to those wonderful trips filled with one great roadside park after another.

Collectors of souvenir plates find them mostly in junk shops and flea markets, though antique dealers have now been known to taint a whole table full of Picard China with a souvenir plate. They, too, have now realized the collectibility of these souvenirs. In a way, they offer way more plate for your money. For example, when was the last time you saw a piece of Picard with a map, a fish, a speedboat, a couple of bathing beauties, flamingos and a building generic enough to be your home back in Cleveland or an elegant hotel in Florida?

You can also find these souvenirs at garage sales, where it's possible to buy one right off mom and dad's wall. Collectors take them home and wash off the dust until they are as bright as the Florida sun, then hang them like fine art. As a collection they serve as rainbow-like trim around the walls of a Florida great room, or they are grouped to form a single piece of art-a colorful mosaic of funky attractions in a kitchen or dining area.

These plates are fun because they offer a whole myriad of styles, designs and places. They often evidence considerable overlap, since the idea was to show as many tourist spots as possible. Several landmarks appear over and over again. The Singing Tower in Lake Wales is certainly one of them, as well as The Old Capitol building in Tallahassee, (though one plate listed many Florida cities, but did not list the state capital at all). Silver Springs is also highlighted on many souvenir plates, along with Cypress Gardens. Pyramids of men and women on water skis often represented Cypress Gardens graphically.

Some plates were produced to appeal to visitors who stopped at less-well-known places like the Key West Aquarium, Lincoln Road in Miami Beach or the Monkey Jungle, also in Miami. "Florida's Oldest Friend-Old Uncle Allie," an alligator so famous as to be named, is shown on another plate. Since "Old Uncle Allie" appears so infrequently, it's likely he wasn't much of a draw. On another plate, an event known as the "Sailfish Derby" is promoted near West Palm Beach, a happening that apparently had appeal at one time.

Dating these collectibles is often a challenge. There are usually a combination of images that can give an idea of time, though you can rarely date the plates definitely. Plates that show the capitol can be dated somewhat by its elongated entrance which was foreshortened in 1980. Combine this with the use of "Cape Canaveral" or "Cape Kennedy" or, in one unusual instance, "Cape Canaveral Guided Missile Base," and you can get a sense of time of production. (Cape Canaveral's first American launch occurred in 1950, was then renamed "John F. Kennedy Space Center" in 1963.) Look closely at the race cars on Daytona Beach or the speedboats scattered here or there. These little graphic clues are often very useful.

Regardless of age, all the plates have a certain whimsical flare-they were produced quickly, which is quite evident. On one plate, Florida's capital city is spelled "Tallamassee," while another listed Tallahassee as the "State Capitotol." Three colorful parrots grace a plate advertising Busch Gardens, and an inscription on the back describes this beautiful garden site, resplendent with its breathtaking plants and animals. Oh, and by the way, "the birds shown on the plate are Dolly, Trudy and Betty." Oh, and also by the way, the plate was manufactured in Watertown, Wisconsin, where it's kinda obvious just how many parrots these folks see in a year!

Probably the neatest thing about the old Florida plates is that they're moderately priced and still easy to find. The further north of Florida you travel, the less expensive you'll find them, where perhaps the sunny memories of Florida fade quickly with the onset of winter. In Florida, where the demand is greater and the sun is always shining, prices are higher, but still reasonable. These colorful (some might say gaudy!) souvenirs of mom and dad's big adventure are truly a case of "the cheaper the better!"

About the author:
Phil Pollock is an author and photographer for Florida Heritage Magazine as well as an avid collector of political buttons and Florida plates.

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