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,
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,
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.
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.