Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heather Cunningham
At Retro Productions we concentrate on the 20th century, so most of my advice comes from researching the decades of that era. I have no insight into researching the Elizabethan or Victorian eras, nor can I help you with the Civil War. But ask me about the Great Depression, World War II, Mid-Century modern, Woodstock or Viet Nam and I can probably point you in a few good directions.
As a prop designer my favorite research books are the Taschen All American Ads series. They chronicle print ads by decade and are divided into useful categories such as Alcohol and Tobacco, Technology, and Fashion and Beauty. I also recommend tracking down Sears catalogues from the year you are researching; they sell a little bit of everything and the models have the most “up to date” hair and make up. And most vintage magazines, be they LIFE, LOOK or even LIVING FOR YOUNG HOMEMAKERS will offer fantastic insights from both their articles and their ads.
Also on my bookshelf are the Time Life This Fabulous Century books that break the century down into volumes by decade. They offer insight in to the political climate of the time, popular entertainment, historic events, and even youth culture. And they do it all with some of LIFE and TIME Magazines best photos of the decade. Please note, however, that I am a fan of the actual books, not the booklet versions, which are more like magazines and have a lot less information and illustrations to offer. The kicker of this is that they have the same exact titles. If you are looking for these, you will do well to make sure you are looking at the hardback editions.
Another decade by decade series to look for is the Getty Images Decades of the 20th Century. These are smaller books but have beautiful photographs of everything from famous entertainers to day to day life.
If you are hitting any year from 1955 to 1981 I strongly recommend reading Thomas Hine’s books Populuxe and The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) in the Seventies. Hine is incredibly readable and includes fantastic illustrations. He really analyzes the design of the time as well as what made the popular, well, popular.
If you are heading out to the library to find any of the above titles I might also suggest a quick visit to the Picture Collection. And the National Archives are online now too… and searchable! They have many digital images you can peruse, for free, on their website.
One item of warning. Although I do quite a bit of prop searching on ebay I have come to learn that the sellers, while often well intentioned, don’t always know exactly what they have. I do not recommend using ebay as a place for research unless you are prepared to follow up with a more reliable source.
And remember, if you get the basic shape, tone, texture and material of the time period, the pieces themselves don’t have to be vintage! That goes for costumes, props, music, you name it!