Dig Those Fringe Benefits

Remember the days when patio decor was fun and exciting? When chair cushions were covered in colors and floral patterns so vibrant they could be seen from space? Sure, the bare aluminum framework of those early sets probably scorched the hair right off your arms on hot days, but who even noticed when you were lounging amongst an array of harmonious hues reminiscent of a tropical destination right in your own backyard. Another Mai-Tai, please!

Sun Seekers, Unite!

The pièce de résistance of these early outdoor-living sets were the giant umbrellas clad in vibrant vinyl and festive fringe. These brightly colored beacons were the hallmark of happy holidays in the sun and could easily be seen from a distance, waving road-weary travelers off the highway.

From high-end hotels to roadside motels, they provided guests with swanky and stylish shields from the heat. Done sizzling yourself poolside with baby oil and iodine? Slide underneath the swaying fringe and order up a refreshing Tom Collins to cool down.

Wish You Were Here…

Whether scalloped, striped or solid, practically every sunny-destination vintage vacation postcard shows the poolside area decked out with these fantastic fringe beauties. Of course the swanky Biltmore Hotel in Palm Springs boasted some fancy poolside parasols, but even Bing Crosby’s “Blue Skies” Trailer Park offered a half-dozen sunny fringe umbrellas ’round the community pool. Oh buh-buh-buh-baby!

These umbrellas became such a popular piece of patio and poolside decor, even the indoor pool at Reno’s all-season Mark Twain Motel offered a fringe umbrella to lounge under. Perhaps as a cover from those blinding indoor spotlights. Better just keep those Ray-Bans on, Midge.

Summer vacations of the 50’s and 60’s were almost guaranteed to contain at least a few of these party-style parasols. My grandma can be seen below with a fringe umbrella swaying in the breeze behind her, as she poses on the high-dive of the Siesta Motel in Florida during a family vacation. And are those pockets in that bathing suit?


Tilt-O-Matic For The Masses

The overwhelming popularity of these swell shade-laden styles eventually translated into residential use and umbrella manufacturers began marketing the previously commercial patio sets to the masses. This meant everyone could have a glamorous holiday in their home backyard. And who better to sell patio glamour than Miss sex-on-a-stick Marilyn Monroe?

One of the most popular manufacturers of these fringe umbrellas was a company called SunMaster in California. SunMaster umbrellas offered easy-close operation and patented “auto-tilt” technology. But coast-to-coast popularity of these items prompted other companies to join in on the profits. By the 1960’s fringe umbrella manufacturers included CalPatio, Finkel, Embee Sunshade, Deeco, Macon, and even Sears.

Advertisements boasted “easy living” and “better bar-b-ques” with the addition of these patio and garden umbrella “out-of-doors” living sets for sixties sun-seekers.

On The Fringe

These swanky styles continued well into the 1970’s, which is where my own personal umbrella fringe fascination was developed. My parents and grandparents can be seen below, lounging poolside, under the shade of our very own turquoise, fringe patio umbrella in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. And the mod floral design on the underside of this umbrella was even groovier than my father’s ‘stache.


Unfortunately the intense heat and sweltering humidity of the southeast caused our umbrella fringe to eventually mildew and the vinyl to dry out and split. These umbrellas were not made from material that could endure the elements for more than a decade. Ours was tossed out in the trash like 96.5% of the other fringe umbrellas of the midcentury era, making them one of the most incredibly difficult outdoor decor items to find now. And if you can find them (on eBay or a local Craigslist), they usually go for upwards of $350 and generally aren’t in the best shape. Yikes.

Patio Perfection

I knew my search would take years, so I found two suitable retro-styled, teal and white, scalloped canvas umbrellas to grace the Retro Ranch patio in the meantime. They looked adorable, had a period-correct style, and provided us with much needed shade from the record-breaking 100+ degree Oregon heat last summer. But I never gave up hope on eventually furnishing our backyard with an original fringe-trimmed artifact of midcentury patio life.

And then one day, in the dusty corner of a junk shop only 3 miles from home, it magically appeared: a mint-condition, bright yellow SunMaster fringe umbrella in the original canvas bag. And even though we already had two brand new canvas umbrellas at home, I most certainly wasn’t leaving that store without this fringe umbrella (also see: cold dead hands; prying out of).

The cotton fringe was in perfect condition, and pattern on the inside of the vinyl was an amazing blend of soft colors and floral illustrations from the early sixties. And it cranked up and tilted with barely any effort at all, just like the original SunMaster ads touted. I truly couldn’t have been more excited about my retro discovery if Marilyn Monroe had handed it to me herself. The Retro Ranch patio was now period-PERFECT!

Make It a Double, Sam

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a small estate sale in NE Portland, and lying on the patio floor was another yellow fringe umbrella. I could hardly believe my eyes. And this time the scallops were even more pronounced and the fringe was longer and more dramatic. I dropped everything and scooped it up before anyone else saw it. And they were asking a whopping $25 for it.

Wait, what?

Maybe these things weren’t as rare as I thought? When I arrived home, I posted a photo of my fabulous fringed find on Instagram and immediately received remarks from several people in sunny states across the country asking how I ever managed to find TWO of these, because they had been looking for years and years and couldn’t even find one.

Huh. I guess after buying a midcentury time-capsule home in which to display them, and spending two exhausting years bringing it back to its original sixties glory, my retro-radar is more finely tuned than I thought. Fringe benefit indeed.


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