Novelty Shakers

When I began putting updates about this blog on my Facebook page, a friend there asked an excellent question: do I ever actually use any of my salts and peppers–i.e., do I ever actually put salt and/or pepper in them and then use them to shake the salt and/or the pepper over the food I’m planning to eat?  The answer is, No.  I have in fact never actually done that.  But in not doing it, I believe, I have been using my salts and peppers correctly, or at least in the manner for which they were intended.  I am pretty strongly convinced that they never were intended for table use.  Of my almost two hundred sets, only one pair has any evidence of contact with salt or pepper–a few grains of very tired-looking pepper that alarmed me a little as they fell out after I received them when I removed the cork on the bottom.  I’m still not convinced they weren’t mouse droppings.  It’s possible, of course, that enterprising second-hand store owners have carefully scrubbed away the evidence of actual table use from all my other sets; but I’m fairly sure that most of them have never had anything but air inside of them.

So why, then, if people didn’t intend to put them on the dinner table, did they buy them in the first place?  the answer, of course, is to use them as I use them–as something to collect.

Or, perhaps, as something for other people than their purchasers to collect–for I suspect that a lot of them were bought to be given as gifts to make the people back home jealous of the adventures the vacationing purchasers were having: like, “my family visited beautiful Niagara Falls, and all I got was this lousy salt-and-pepper set that says ‘Niagara Falls’ on it.”  Or perhaps your great Aunt Effie displayed on her mantelpiece a couple of sets that her nieces and nephews had brought her back from Baltimore or Kapuskasing, and then other nieces and nephews saw them there and later, in a gift shop in Wasaga Beach or maybe Wichtia, said, “Hey, old Effie collects these silly things.  Let’s buy her a set.  These kittens in bowler hats are cute.”

At any rate, the shakers were always, as they are now, intended to be collectible.  Most of my sets are what are usually called “Novelty” shakers–of interest for their appearance more than their practicality.  In my childhood, sets like the ones I own now were on sale in gift shops and tourist traps along every highway, often emblazoned with the name of the town they were being sold in.  Some of them depicted cute animals, and some of them represented various forms of sexual innuendo and bathroom humour.  And a lot of them just depicted something connected with the place they purported to come from.  Like Niagara Falls, say.

But they didn’t always do that accurately.  Here,

The Ducks of Winnipeg

for instance, is a set I own that proudly announces its relationship to the city I live in: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It depicts some wildlife that then seem to claim to be representative or symbolic of the city, like New York’s Empire State or Boston’s baked beans:  a mother duck and her duckling among some reeds, the essence of Winnipeg.   Now you can sometimes see the occasional duck on the Red or Assiniboine Rivers that flow through this city.  But it is, in fact, a city, a fairly large one, with a population of 750,000 or so and its fair share of concrete and urban blight.  Ducks on shining blue waters amid rustic reeds are hardly a common sight here.  They’re here on the shakers, I suspect, because the people who made the shakers in a factory far, far away had only a vague idea that Winnipeg is in Canada, and that Canada is a northern place where there are lakes with ducks on them, so let’s put the stupid ducks on and call it a day.  Seventy or so miles east of Winnipeg, the Canadian shield begins, and there are many lakes and many ducks like the ones on these shakers.  But in the city, well, not so much.

So where was that place far, far away where they were putting ducks on the Winnipeg shakers?  Back in my childhood when every truck stop had its selection of novelty shakers, on display, most of them seemed to come from Japan.  In those postwar years, before the advent of well-engineered Sonys and Toyotas and all, Japan had a reputation for producing cheap junk that didn’t ever work very well or last very long.  The shakers, made of rough earthenware and often badly formed and luridly painted, are a good example of that.  They were never very expensive, they were always shiny and gaudy and cheery and inelegant, and they often misrepresented (or even sometimes misspelled) the places named on them.  In one of my sets,

The Crest of the Province of Manitoba

a blissfully ignorant racial stereotype of an Indian maiden comes to stand for the province of Manitoba, the crest of which appears on her chest–but she still quietly announces her actual origin in Japan on her base.

Made in Japan

When I mentioned this blog on Facebook, one of my cousins reminded me that an aunt of ours had collected salt-and-pepper shakers, too.  That would have been back in the day when you could easily find them new in inexpensive gift shops and touristy places along the highway.  They were like commemorative stamps, then, or china figures of cute kittens and milkmaids: produced exactly and primarily in order to be collected.

The New Irregulars

Christmas, 2011:  A number of new recruits to the irregular army, all to be discussed in more detail in later posts.  Many thanks, J and J.

Beyond Number One and Number Two to a Plethora

Having a few salt-and-pepper sets is one thing; having close to two hundred is quite another.  There seems to be something harmlessly  but nevertheless so, so sadly eccentric about having all that many.  Why would any rational being want to surround himself with so many different versions of more or less the same sort of objects, objects whose only obvious purpose, unless you are determined to ingest enough salt to die of a massive coronary and enough pepper to create a sneeze large enough to blow the CN Tower down, seems to be to fill up too much space and offer an endless nagging reminder about how much you hate dusting.   Which I do.  I hate dusting a lot.  So how did I end up with so many, many things that need dusting?

I feel safe in saying that it wasn’t really my fault.  I admit that I did buy that mouse and cheese–and that, in the months following that first fatal purchase, I did buy a few more pairs that interested me, for reasons I plan to talk about later.

But then, ah, then–

Then my children noticed them.  And realized that I had been buying them.  For me.  And said Eureka!–or something to that effect.

The thing is, they’d been complaining for years that when gift-giving occasions came around, on Father’s Day and my birthday and at Christmas, they could never figure out what kind of gift to give me.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have needs and desires–anything but.  it was that, as they saw it, when I had those needs and desire, I immediately went out and did something about it. I bought whatever it was that would satisfy my craving.  I was, in other words, way too self-indulgent to ever need anything the might think of giving me, for by the time they gave it, I already had it.  Or maybe even two of them, if two is what i felt like it.  It was impossible to get me a gift.

But, now, finally, there was an apparently endless supply of gift possibilities for an ongoing parade of gift-giving occasions.  When all else failed, they could always get me some salt-and-peppers.

And so it has been.  For years now, I’ve received two or three or four or more salt-and-pepper sets every birthday, every Father’s day, every Christmas.  The collection has become a family activity, not just mine.  Everyone seems to be always out there, on the hunt, wresting various weird sets of unusual binary opposites from secondhand shops and flea markets everywhere.  And everyone has to watch and join the commentary as I open the packages and unveil the eccentric treasures inside and taslk aobut how quirky or vulgar or interesting they are.

And here is the result:

About forty feet of shelves.  An army of salts and peppers.  Not a large army, I realize, as I look around the internet at collectors with thousands and thousands of shakers and an apparent lust for ever, ever more.

As I look at my collection as a group, I’m reminded of trips I took as a child to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where they were what seemed to acres of rooms full of low tables of marching Chinese armies made of terracotta or porcelain–figures buried in the tombs of great warriors, I believe.  Those miniature armies were interesting in theory, but boring in fact: each warrior looked so much like all the other warriors, and each army looked so much like all the other armies.  They were no competition for the dinosaur skeletons and halls full of medieval armour in other parts of the museum.  But salt-and-peppers, had there been any in the ROM in those good old days, would have been competition, I think.  They may have, en masse, the teeming anthill effect of the funeral troops–but  they are intriguingly unlike each other, in a rainbow of colours and a cornucopia of shapes and offering a deep pool of implications to think about.  That’s why I’m writing about them here.

So I’m not the least bit sorry I have them.  They give me much pleasure.  I just wish I also had someone willing to dust them.

Number One and Number Two

The purpose of this blog is to make a record of the salts and pepper sets I have collected–to account for why I collect them, to think about why they interest me both as individual sets and all together as a collection, to explore what my having this collection might say about the culture that has produced and then purchased, given as gifts, used, and collected the salts and peppers over the last century or so–and perhaps, even, what the collection might say about who I am myself.

So I begin with old number one, or, I guess, old number one and number two–my first pair of salt and pepper shakers. I bought them not much more than a decade ago.  We found ourselves, my wife Billie and I, once more, wandering through a second-hand store–something we often seemed to end up doing in the different cities we ended up in.  There was really no point to our doing it, for we never actually got around to buying anything.  It tended to be more like a aimless visit to a poorly organized museum, as we ambled casually around the aisles and appraised various items from the amused distance of superior connoisseurs, commenting on how ugly that thing there was, and how the thing over there on the next shelf was even uglier or even, on rare occasions, more attractive, telling each other how our various parents and grandparents did or did not once own such things and how useless they had become or perhaps always were.  But for all the pointlessness of these visits, we somehow often ended up making them anyway.  We were walking around in the touristy parts of town, and the shops and ther flea markets were always there, waiting to amuse slightly bored tourists on loose schedules like ourselves

Then, one day, in the middle of a visit to yet another such store, I came upon a salt and pepper set that I really did find interesting.  It interested me because it took me quite a while to figure out that it was indeed a set.  It looked like two quite random objects that just happening to be sitting beside each other on a shelf, albeit both with a few small holes on their tops that signalled their practical purpose.  I supposed, for a while, that they were the remains of two separate sets, each having lost its partner, and now placed beside each other in a desperate attempt of the shopkeeper to persuade gullible buyers of a connection between them that did not actually exist.

They belong together.

And then, suddenly, it hit me. They were an actual set.  They did belong together.  the connection did exist.  One of the figures represented a mouse.  The other represented a hunk of cheese.  They were a pair, then, by association: two quite different objects that belonged together only because of the connections the people who used them might make between the objects they represented.  The cheese did not, in fact, stand alone.

It had never occurred to me until that moment that salt-and-pepper sets might and often in fact did consist of two different objects.  I simply sort of assumed without really thinking about it that they would always be two things that looked more or less like each other: two dogs, or two shepherdesses, or two angels, with one marked S and one marked P.  Although, I quickly, realized, I’d noticed a lot of male-and-female sets in my time–one dog with a blue bow, one with a pink bow, or perhaps a Santa and a Mrs. Claus.  But those pairs looked pretty much like each other.  The idea that two quite different-looking things like a rodent and a hunk of dairy product might form a set if you looked at them long enough and thought about them hard enough fascinated me–fascinated me enough that I actually bought the mouse and the cheese.

I suppose I need to account for why that idea of different things combined to belong together fascinated me.  In my work as as literary critic and a specialist in theoretical understanding of texts written for young people, I’ve often found myself thinking about how children’s literature so often operates in terms of what I’ve come to call binary opposites: providing characters that represent, and plots and structures that confront and work to resolve, the oppositions between qualities first presented as opposite:  good and evil, child and adult, home and away, adventure and security, having fun and learning things, being obedient and being rebellious, being childish and growing up. I’ve spent enough time worrying over opposites like these that I sometimes seem to conclude that the structure of human thought might be a matter of dividing what we experience out into opposites and figuring out ways of relating them to each other in order to give structure to our thoughts and our lives–the structuralist theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss once suggested something along those lines.  At any rate,the mouse and the cheese seemed to represent a version of one of those sets of binary opposites, things that belonged together by virtue of their special connection with and perhaps even opposition to each other: the living and the dead, the natural and the manufactured, the raw and the cooked, the eater and the eaten.  And I could easily imagine another set consisting of this very mouse and a figure of a cat, another version of the eater and the eaten.  In fact, the next time I found myself in a second hand store, intrigued by the idea of one thing meaning something different in relation to a different other object, I spent my time looking for just such a pair.

I didn’t find that other pair–but I had finally found a reason for being in those stores.  From that point on, my visits to them consisted of my finding where they kept the salts and peppers and then spending my time looking at those, considering how the different objects represented in various pairs related to each other and suggested in miniature hunks of china or plastic the kinds of relationship that form the very basis of our thinking about ourselves and our world.  Sometimes, even, I bought a pair.  I had found a million-dollars worth of theory in a somewhat more than five-and-ten-cent secondhand store.  And while I hadn’t realized it quite yet, my collection had begun.