“I’m a little girl who hasn’t grown up yet, and I like to play dress-up,” said Norma Spurling of Bar Harbor, explaining why she has been collecting vintage clothing for well over 30 years.
She now has hundreds of garments, mostly women’s dresses and hats, dating from the late 1830s to the 1950s.
Her collecting started with a chance encounter at an annual Way Back Ball. She was wearing a vintage dress that she had originally bought to wear in Bar Harbor’s Fourth of July parade.
“Irene Marinke, who had a big house on West Street, came up to me at the dance and asked me if I liked old clothes,” Spurling said. “I told her, ‘I guess so.’ She told me she had a lot of stuff that had belonged to her mother and she wanted to get rid of it.
“Two days later I was at her house and she had all these beautiful dresses from the late 1800s and early 1900s in perfect condition, and she told me to take them. She called me two or three more times to tell me she had found more. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff she gave me.”
“The ladies walked around showing off their pretty dresses, and we had waitresses serving lemonade and cookies and a piano player playing music from each decade,” she said. “That’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Spurling is a long-time, active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). In 1990, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the DAR, she volunteered to put on a program for the local DAR chapter. She gave a short talk on the organization’s history and showed dresses from each of its 10 decades. It was so well received that at the next statewide DAR meeting she offered to do the program for other chapters.
“Well, I was on the road with a friend of mine for over two years, going all around the state,” she said. “And everywhere I went, people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve got this pocketbook or dress or hat in my house. Would you like to have it?’ People just kept giving me stuff.”
Her reputation grew locally, too. It wasn’t unusual for her to come home and find a box of old clothing on her porch. Sometimes she didn’t even know who had left it.
Spurling was a nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital for 38 years before retiring in 2006. Her co-workers were among those who contributed items to her collection.
She has done hat shows and pocketbook shows. About five years ago, she started putting on vintage bridal shows, first at the YWCA in Bar Harbor and then for various DAR chapters. One show, organized by the Augusta DAR chapter, was at the Blaine House, the governor’s official residence.
“I was very honored to be doing it there,” she said.
Spurling has lent vintage clothing to area organizations for special functions, such as the Rusticator’s Picnic at the Seal Cove Auto Museum last year.
She said the oldest item in her collection is a dress she got from Irene Marinke, who said it was dated 1838.
“It was a cotton housedress of that time, worn by one of the Rodick ladies who lived on Rodick Island before it was called Bar Island,” Spurling said.
“It’s in perfect shape except for one little worn spot on a sleeve.”
She said that in the last few years she has gotten rid of a number of garments from the World War II years and after.
“The 50s don’t interest me, and even the 40s I find boring,” she said.
But the older clothes…well, those are her passion.
“I’ve had more fun with those darn clothes,” she said. “I’ve been all over the state of Maine with them. I’ve had a ball.”