Reminders of the time our country was the lead manufacturing center of the world can still be seen today, albeit in a museum-type exhibit, rather than inside bustling factories.
Tom Greenwood, manager of the Habitat ReStore on Big Pine Key has been preserving this period in history in the first-ever Americana exhibit at any Habitat for Humanity.
Greenwood, a former curator at the Audubon House and Museum, recognized the connection that exists between the vintage household items and the goals of Habitat for Humanity in that both were created for and by the working class people of America.
"At Habitat, we try to keep the middle class workers in the middle class, and the manufacturing jobs that created these products did exactly that," Greenwood said. "In the years our country was producing these goods, people could receive a reasonable salary without a college education."
The Lower Keys Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Big Pine Key has been attracting visitors from all over. They shop among the quality secondhand furniture, appliances, household goods, books and artwork, then pause in front of the Americana display case, where a collection of "Made in America" items dates from the late 1890s to the 1980s.
The organization receives donations of items from Duck Key to Key West and Greenwood only preserves in the exhibit the best quality artifacts that are no longer made in America.
"About 95 percent of these companies are not in business anymore," said Greenwood. "The remaining places moved their manufacturing overseas."
Some of the items in the exhibit include glasses by Ned Smith from the 1960s, handcrafted pottery from Ohio, a blender from Chicago, decanters made with 24-karat gold, back when there was a lot of gold in circulation, and a copper pot from the 1890s in near perfect condition.
"America used to have its own aesthetic look that was different from Asian, European or Indian design," said Greenwood. "We were home to great designers like Homer Laphlin who originated a style of pottery."
People are always fascinated by the collection and they all find something on the shelves that was once an unnoticed part of their daily lives.
"The biggest response people remembering things from childhood or memories of something that was always at Grandma's house," Greenwood said.
The facility was considering disassembling the exhibit a few years ago, but had to reinstall the collection after customers urged him to keep it. Greenwood emphasizes that this country's industrial and manufacturing history needs to be remembered.
"There is a book titled Exploring Mars from 1956 that notes we have nine planets in our solar system," he said. "We now have rovers on Mars, so it's important to see how far we've come."
Alex Press is an intern with The Citizen and a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.