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Corks, fruit (pomegranates, pears), rocks (with the guests name written on them)...
One really simple idea I've seen is reutilizing wine corks. You slice a small sliver horizontally to give the cork a flat bottom to keep it in place on the table. Then cut a slit along the cork however long to fit your place card inside.
I also saw through a blog called centsationalgirl another simple idea that probably would require no more than a trip to Michael's. She spray painted clothespins and added a little fall foliage. I've attached her image to see.
Surely I saw this elsewhere, Martha Stewart perhaps, but mini pumpkins with a slot cut in them and the name card inserted in the slot or maybe a mini flag stuck in there. I've also had the kids make the placecards using whatever they like, which, while not refined, is heavy on the charm factor.
This one has always been a big hit for my parties. Use vintage recipe cards and put the guest's name on one side and a recipe for whatever dish you're serving that night that you think a particular guest will like the best on the other. That way, your guests have a take away from the evening that can be used to recreate part of the dinner on their own.
We do smooth small stones from the beach in long island - with names in sharpie or glitter pens - we keep the rocks - because truth be told - we usually have the same rotating group of about a dozen people that we feed - they sit in a pretty bowl on the bar - and we just keep slowly adding to the pile.
I have always liked the idea of a pine cone place card holder for fall and winter gatherings, see picture and here is a link on how to make them:
Love wingirl's idea of the rocks! We use whatever is at hand -- right now, the sugar maple leaves are starting to turn and they look great with names written in glitter glue. You might take a nice piece of stationery, roll it up, tie with a Thanksgiving colored ribbon and add a crayon for everyone to write down what they're thankful for. As the season progresses,you can glue gun two 3-inch evergreen branches (thickness of a pencil) together, place the name card in between, and add a sprig of evergreen leaves or holly - here's a photo from Martha Stewart .
I saw where someone took old forks (you could get them at the dollar store) and bent the prongs back so that they stood upright then set the hand written names on index cards. It was really card.
I'm sure I saw this somewhere... You can use the tile holders from Scrabble and the tiles to spell out the guest's names. You'd need a few, of course, but if you're like me, you have at least 2 versions of Scrabble in the cupboard and many friends who own the game as well.
Also, if you collect superhero action figures, make the figures sit and hold the business card-sized name cards.
I think any of the hearty and firm, spherical root vegetables would be fun card holders. Slice off the bottom to make them stand up and slice a slot for the card on top. In particular, I think those dazzling jewel-colored ruby and crimson radishes would look great.
It's rare I set a table with place card holders, but I've done two that are holiday-ish: take a small clusters of kumquats (2 or 3 on a branch, preferably with a couple of leaves attached), cut a similarly shaped leaf out of pretty green paper - easy shape to cut - and poke a small hole at one end. Then write the name on the paper leaf and tie it to the branch with a piece of silver or gold thread. (I suppose you could also do this with a small seckle pear or a lady apple, or other tiny winter fruit.)
Buy plain glass votive holders - clear or frosted - and write the name in silver or gold glass marker (available in most craft stores) on it; leave a lit, unscented white votive candle at each place. These simple glass holders/candles are very inexpensive at Bed, Bath & Beyond, craft or party stores.
Tie a small bundle of cinnamon sticks together with twine and insert a small place card, so it stands up. (Saw that one somewhere, but can't remember where.)