After having her first child in the midst of what would turn out to be a brutal Maritime winter, Brigid Milway regularly found herself at home with the baby, storm-stayed by Mother Nature’s ruthless whimsy. So, to ward off impending cabin fever, Brigid — who likes being busy — began finding, fixing, and redirecting old things once exiled to dusty basements and self-storage, to a new life — and new appreciation — in new homes.
Eventually turning her vintage obsession into What These Old Things?, an online provider of classic decor, furniture, and accessories, Brigid helps everyday people rediscover the value of old things. By showing them how to incorporate quality, vintage pieces into a modern life she helps soften the guilt many feel as family treasures get packed up and forgotten, or worse, abandoned to a landfill.
Although a lot has changed for Brigid since she first started WTOT — her daughter, Imogen (Midge), is 4 and she has a nearly 9-month-old son, Des — she still gets excited about finding a special piece, uncovering its beauty, and finding it a new home. Which is fortunate because after recently expanding into retail locations on both sides of the harbour (at ReFound in Dartmouth, and Dilly Dally Eats in Halifax), keeping her Etsy shop well-stocked, and getting ready to launch a new Shopify website the business of old things is notslowing down.
We spoke with Brigid about her love of vintage, following her passion, and why giving new life to old things is — to her — both a duty and responsibility.
How did What These Old Things get started?
My daughter, Imogen (Midge), was a January baby. And it was a six blizzard winter, so we were often stuck indoors. Being home with a new baby can feel isolating in the best weather but I was starting to get a bit shack wacky. Especially around the four-month mark when she started needing me a little less. So, I began filling that time with old furniture — refinishing and painting things — and it turned into an obsession. Eventually, I started taking photos of my creations and sharing them with friends. One said, “Oh, you should start a Facebook page!” I did, and it immediately took off.
I went back to work post-maternity leave as a freelancer so I could continue running WTOT. It’s taken a lot of different turns so far; I quickly moved away from furniture. We only have so much space and kids stuff just kind of starts taking over. So I switched focus to smaller vintage housewares that were easier to manage with a child on my hip!
Why Old Things?
I love the Nostalgia. I love the glamour. I’ve always been really interested in thrifting and buying vintage. I’d been casually flipping things online for 5 or 6 years when the obsession took over. It’s the excitement of taking something and transforming it. These days though, I do it with photography instead. I take something somebody tossed in the trash and I clean it up, stage it, take a photo, and make people want it all over again. That feels pretty great.
Where do you find your stock?
Everywhere — I’m always looking! There are a few really big sales every year that I won’t miss because it’s a chance to get a ton of stuff in one shot — like the PEI 70 Mile Yard Sale. I go every year. I don’t really do local Kijiji — the market is too competitive, and I like to find different things. And now that I’ve been at it awhile people have started coming to me.
So many of our parents are downsizing and most of us don’t want all their old stuff. A lot of it is about taste and some of it is about space, and they have to understand that. But we can end up feeling guilty abandoning family possessions. So, I’ll take their old china and show you how to find a place for it in your life. Even just a piece or two. I’ll help put a different spin on things so you can keep the pieces that mean a lot. To avoid dumping everything into the landfill. To give things a new life, in a new home.
How important is that to you? That you’re giving new life to old things?
So, so important. I feel it’s my duty. Even when I don’t have space I feel it’s my duty to find the right place for things. I’ve got a whole network of people to send you to if I can’t. These days a lot of people just give me things because they know I’ll find someone who appreciates them. That’s a big responsibility.
In the early days, someone approached looking to sell a large lot of silver their family neither wanted nor had space for. He sold them for very little, just so I’d find them a good home. It may sound crazy, but I felt sorry for the silver! Imagine the life it had, and now it was stored away in a cardboard box in someone’s garage. I made it my duty to make people appreciate it again.
Plus, I find old stuff is much better quality. Don’t get me wrong I love shopping, but when I started WTOT I stopped buying decor pieces at (places like) Winners or HomeSense. Why would I spend money on something made to look old when I can buy something vintage, of quality and character, that just needs a new home? My goal is to encourage more people to do the same.
Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer, bartender, and editor of the Whole Family Happiness Project. She lives in Halifax, with her son and a penchant for really strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.