Let us consider now this set: I’ve chosen it to discuss here because, all things considered, I think it is absolutely the ugliest set in my collection. It’s the flamboyantly lurid orange colour of the shakers that does it, and also the touches of glittery gold paint here and there. Why would a western-type wagon be orange? Why this awful orange? All it does is draw attention to the proportional wrongness of the wagons being depicted, for surely wagons of this height would normally be much longer than these are when joined? And what’s the point of each shaker representing half a wagon and needing to be placed together to create a whole one? For that matter, they’re wobbly and unstable enough when they stand on their own apart from each other that, in order to prevent breakage, they clearly need to stand firmly against each other at all times? And how about the strange collection of symbols of cowboyhood emblazoned on them: a hat, sure, and a gun; but just one boot, and just one horseshoe? And are these objects merely symbolic, or are they supposed to be real things hanging on the canvas of the wagon? And if the latter, do the large horseshoe and relatively small boot imply a cowboy with very small feet and a horse with large ones? I know that taste is personal, of course; but I have to admit that I find it hard to imagine how anyone could honestly like these lurid objects.
And yet, I know that there must have been once, and there might still well be, people who’d like these shakers exactly on their own terms, as nostalgic reminders of something that matters to their owner, perhaps, or as the perfect thing to put on the table when company’s coming and you’re putting out your special lurid orange company dinnerware. It’s easy to understand how someone with a lurid orange dinnerware set might be happy to own these things. What might be less easy to understand is why I have them. Why, if I fell so much disdain for them, do I have them?
The answer to that question has something to do with irony. I think these shakers are ugly, and yet I still like them. I like them ironically, in quotes, sort of. The same goes for just about all of the shakers in my collections. I enjoy having them at least in part because I think they’re so ugly, so silly, so just plain wrong. I like them for being awful, in ways that make me laugh or, sometimes, give me insight into the culture that chose to make them and sell them and buy them and declare them cute.
And yet I have to admit that I feel a little guilty about that. Not much, but enough to worry about it a little. Isn’t it just a tad arrogant of me to enjoy these objects for what I perceive as their inherent awfulness, just a teeny bit supercilious and condescending? It certainly seems to imply that, in my malicious pleasure, I’m revealing how much I might look down on people whose response to shakers like these was less tainted by irony.
I know such people exist. For a year or so, as a result of a gift subscription, I was a member of an organization called the Novelty Salt & Pepper Shakers Club. According to its website, this is “a collectors club comprised of members from around the world with various backgrounds who have one thing in common – the love of collecting novelty and figural salt and pepper shakers. . . . Our purpose is to provide services and education to people interested in the history and the collection of novelty and figural salt and pepper shakers.” As well as publishing a newsletter, the Club also hosts an annual convention where members mingle and, among other things, enter a display contest in which they arrange their shakers into groups in a miniature landscape and a costume contest in which they themselves dress as their favourite shaker sets. Now I suppose it’s possible that some of these Club members wear their costumes with irony–as a sort of camp masquerade revealing their actual distance from and disdain for and dislike of the role they purport to take on. But I suspect that’s rarely the case; mostly, I guess from the descriptions of these contests in newsletters, they’re just having good fun and a good time.
I admire them for their ability to do that. I really do. But I also know that their enthusiastic adoption of good fun and good times have little to do with my own reasons for having my shaker collection and adding to it and writing snide things about it here. I have to face it: the members of the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club are nicer people than I am.