When Susan Mullikin started her business, Mother and Daughter Vintage Clothing and Antiques, in 1990, she sold a mix of things. But a couple of years later when she became interested in antique clothing and narrowed her focus on just that, it widened her business opportunities — including providing some clothing for one of the biggest movies of all time.
“There have been a few times in my antique career that I have felt truly honored. Once for sure when I was called to provide clothing for what I feel is the greatest movie ever made, Titanic. At that time, they were in desperate need for a lot of clothing and I did have on loan to them some Edwardian dresses, amazing hats, even jewelry and handbags,” Mullikin said. “Another amazing opportunity my business had was when I was asked to be a donor to George Washington’s birth night ball, held in honor of his birthday every year, and as a donor, my business that night was advertised at the ball. Some experiences I will never forget and I always walked away from them with incredible new insight.”
Although her main passion is antique and vintage clothing, ladies accessories and textiles, she has a great interest in many other areas including pottery, old toys, first edition books, and early religious items.
She puts her knowledge of many different subjects to great use as one of Antique Trader’s three Ask the Experts. Dr. Anthony Cavo and George F. Marchelos are our other two.
Since being an appraiser with the magazine since 2014, Mullikin has researched 84 items. Her top three favorites include the first appraisal she did for a slag glass lamp shade and a Victorian sideboard that catered to her interest in that time period and also helped her learn of its importance in the dining room.
“Probably my favorite, though, was appraising a menu from the Hindenburg dated May 12, 1936. I felt my research led me to discover so much about the Hindenburg and the food served on board,” said Mullikin, who became a certified appraiser through the Asheford Institute of Antiques.
Mullikin’s advice for readers who send an item in for appraisal is to provide detailed pictures of it from as many angles as possible and especially the bottom, because even if there is no marking on the bottom, it can still offer a clue about age by the amount of wear it has. Providing as much information as possible about an item is also a big help.
“The more information we receive from the reader in regards to their item, the more accurate the appraisal, as well as the more interesting to read,” Mullikin said. “When I get the inquiry and see the pictures, either I know the item and what it is or not exactly, especially art, and that is where research comes in. I try to exhaust the research I do, take notes in the process and write up the best appraisal possible based on photos alone.”
Mullikin added that if she could hold items or see them in person, that would answer remaining questions, so she often recommends that readers take the item to an appraiser in their area, so they can get definitive answers to their questions.
Mullikin started her professional career as a staff accountant at the Chicago Board of Trade, but changed direction and became an antiques dealer when she felt she had the business sense to start her own.
“I grew up with an appreciation of antiques and attending antiques shows; leaving Chicago, moving back to Wisconsin and buying my Federal-style home built in 1862 gave me my inspiration that I have to this day to succeed at my own business,” Mullikin said.
“The world in 1990 when I started my business was a smaller world without eBay. When I discovered vintage clothing was hot, I found Lady’s Gallery Magazine ... and finding Lady’s Gallery Magazine seemed to head in a direction I never knew possible in the early 1990s,” she said.
Mullikin put together a catalog of her vintage clothing, placed an ad in the magazine, and started selling items by mail order. She said the responses she received connected her to so many interesting customers all across the United States and also to the other few dealers from Washington and California to New York, who were also offering vintage clothing by mail order.
“This connection led my business to be involved in things I would never have dreamed possible, from being part of a child’s reference book on children’s clothing, to being written up in Warman’s Today’s Collector magazine as a source to contact for clothing, and the connections seemed endless all through the mail at that time and by phone,” Mullikin said.
“When eBay started in 1995, I felt like the antique world changed almost overnight. It most certainly changed how dealers did business, and it felt like I had an immense amount of competition,” she said, noting that not all dealers at that time were a fan of eBay, herself included. She still isn’t because she said she has always believed that photographs only show so much, and being able to see and touch an item “is the only way to be a satisfied customer.” She noted that she’s noticed other people have been feeling the same way and have been visiting brick-and-mortar antiques shops more often these days — at least before the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think that any of us would have seen the current situation of COVID-19 coming and stopping the world for the time being. But for myself and others, dealers and collectors as well, I feel that this is a time to step back and re-examine our businesses, as well as our collections; are we on track as to fulfilling our goals and our business plans? This is a great time for sure to stay connected and plan for when things do re-open. This is also a great time to learn and read all you can about your favorite antiques,” Mullikin said.
Mullikin still sells her items out of her home and by networking with many other dealers and collectors, and has also had spaces in two “excellent” antiques malls, one of which she has been in for the past 13 years — Antiques Unlimited in the small town of Cuba City, Wis.
“Since I have been a dealer here, this small town has grown into an antiquing destination now with five shops and a salvage store as well. It is located near the Illinois, Iowa borders, and only 97 miles away from the home of the American Pickers, Le Claire, Iowa. It is also close to the Mississippi River, Dubuque, Iowa, and historic Galena, Ill. Being at this mall has led me to working with the top designers of Lands End stores and helping a new and coming theater in Galena,” Mullikin said.
Mullikin loves all antique and vintage clothing, although the older the better, and she is also particularly fond of hats from before 1840, which she also collects.
“My favorite era is the Edwardian era, only covering the years between 1901-1914. This was, I feel, a time period of great change for women. The years’ lovely clothing featured the famous S curve. A great change was ahead, the 1920s. The hats of this time period were my favorite; a few in my collection, I am just in awe of the workmanship and the amazing wide brims,” she said. “Over the years, I have sold so many lovely dresses, ball gowns, amazing hats of every period, and unique ladies accessories. I feel my holy grail items are my favorite because they are all from my most favorite customers I have ever worked with over the years. They are special beyond being beautiful.”
Mullikin said that each generation of her customers are interested in different things, but unique and quality items will always sell the best.
“Labeled vintage handbags, I have noticed, are hot, vintage oriental robes or jackets with gold or silver woven threads seem to be in demand, and of course early hats or dresses and gowns not easy to find as before sell well. Each customer I feel is as unique as each era is,” she said.
In this down time with COVID-19, Mullikin has various projects keeping her busy including restoring some “gorgeous” older dresses from the 1850s for a customer, doing private appraisals, cleaning out her collections and networking all the time. Another idea she’s been tossing around even before the pandemic is writing a book.
“I have had quite an interest in the Victorian time period, Victorian fashion, and why women did what they did and wore what they wore. I also have many pictures of ladies fashions and accessories from all of my catalogs, things you hardly see anymore that I would like to be included in the book in some way,” Mullikin said. “In the meantime, though, I am reading All American Girl, the ideal of real womanhood in mid-nineteenth century America, by Frances B. Cogan. It’s very interesting as to what advice writers at that time said of women in all aspects of life.”
Mullikin said she has always run her business by certain principles that she recommends to help others succeed:
“First of all, I feel that it helps to have a business sense, and know what you are selling; second, portray this to your customer, be professional, sell only quality things, and stand behind your merchandise; third, advertise and always network, let others know you are in business, and be on the outlook as to what they are looking for; fourth, be different and unique in what you sell, make your business stand out; fifth, have a business plan and set goals; and finally, educate yourself, stay on top of the market, actually read a reference book or go to a museum and really study what is there. This will help you in identifying reproductions. And, of course, read your Antique Trader magazine!”
Readers are welcome to contact Mullikin at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, requests for special items you may be looking for, restoration, or for appraisals.
To read a related story of a man who reinvented himself as a traveling appraiser when he found himself out of a job, and the delightful discoveries he's made on his journey, see On the Road to Find Out.