African American Pancake Pushers

In previous posts, back in March, I tried to come to grips with my responses to the sets of shakers in my collection that depict Native North Americans.  I began by saying of one pair that “It’s that rendering of the toxic as perfectly harmless that most fascinates me about them.”  Later, I described a set representing aboriginal children as “too cute to be offensive, surely–unless we start think about how offensive it is to make them so cute, so harmless, so barely human.”  My basic response, then, was a squeamish revulsion to the dehumanization of the subjects these shakers supposedly represented, a squeamishness that seemed to be being deflected by the miniaturized cuteness and Edenic shininess of the depictions.
I have that response in an even more intense way to a shaker set representing a different racial stereotype:

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose

This is a version in highly glossy earthenware of two characters out of advertising lore: Aunt Jemima, who has been the public (albeit changing) face of a manufacturer of ready-made pancake mixes and pancake syrups for well over a century, and, as represented in paper dolls and other ephemera produced by the pancake company, her husband, Uncle Mose.  In fact, this set was at one time sold by the pancake mix company.

jemima ad
Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Shakers on Offer from the Company in the Nineteen-Fifties

They are an entirely obsequious pair, she offering up what might a plate of pancakes tucked under her capacious bosom, he with his hat in the hand and happy to oblige.

This is a particularly crude version of this happy pair; others found on various auctions sites and collector’s pages on the internet show them with more clearly defined facial features, and with the plate of pancakes more obviously a plate.

other j amd m

But the crude broad strokes of their depiction in my set of shakers merely offers a slightly more obvious and exaggerated version of the stereotypes these characters always represent–and as such, a paradigmatic version of the essential and essentializing African American stereotype: a dark brown face with white dots for eyes and a broad hump for a nose and a bright red line for lips. These features are so generic that the only difference between Aunt Jemima’s face and Uncle Mose’s in my set is the white lines outlining his eyebrows.  This is the stereotype in shorthand–a few broad strikes that act less as reminders of the kind of people they supposedly depict than as reminders of the already circulating and taken-for-granted stereotypes of such people.  They are cartoons of cartoons.

So what is the stereotype, then?  What does it want us to think about African Americans as a type?  First, obviously, there ARE a type, a separate class of human beings from the intended audience of white folk who presumably produce and collect such objects, and clearly, given their barebones typicality and ability to be so readily summed up in such a clear and simple way, an inferior class.  Can you imagine a pair of shakers that could so successfully and completely conjure up an image of white stereotypicality? I can’t.  We whites are, it seems too human to be stereotyped in terms of our whiteness.  We have to resort to other aspects foo our being than our skin colour–our gender, our occupation, our sexuality, our age–to conjure up suitable generalizing and dehumanizing stereotypes.

Beyond that, as not just African American but two specific African Americans characters, Jemima and Mose are, as depicted here, almost aggressively over-assertive images of bright happiness, a world without shadows.  They wear bright red and bright white and bright yellow–no subtle or gloomy shades for them (except, of course, their skin, which is what has consigned them to this exclusively happy state of manic bright colourfulness in the first place).  They are also, clearly, loving and loveable servants, obedient and obliging, nostalgic reminders of the supposedly good old days in the Old South where servants were happy to serve, and indeed, as we all know, slaves were ecstatically happy to be slaves.   Slaves to white folks, of course: the image of Aunt Jemima not only implies the down-home goodness of processed foods–if she represents them, they must be just like the ones that professional home cooks used to make back in the good old days–but also, the extent to which taking advantage of the pre-processing and buying the pancake mix is going to be something sort of like having your own slave in your own kitchen.

I still haven’t come to grips with why I spend my money on these noxious things and put them in display in my home.  I understand that those who forget about history might be doomed to repeat it–but i wonder if remembering it with figures like these might be an act of repeating it anyway.  But I’ve been reading some theoretical discourse on that subject lately, and I plan to report on it in my next post.

Dog and . . . What?

As I was suggesting in my last post, the range of possible go-withs for any specific shaker is as large as the linguistic ingenuity and/or cultural repertoire of its manufacturer.  Consider dogs: We are already familiar with the territory-marking little fellow on the left, happily claiming ownership of the somewhat damaged fellow on the right (note how his paws have been clumsily reattached by some owner prior to myself).  We know the peeing one went with a fire hydrant–so what else might a dog go with?

Some possibilities that occur to me:

  • a cat
  • a bone
  • a home, as in Lassie Come Home
  • Flanders, as in A Dog of Flanders
  • a bowl of kibble
  • a dog trainer  (and this one is, after all, nicely sitting)
  • a blind person
  • a narcotics officer at a luggage carrel in an airport
  • a doghouse
  • fleas
  • a stick (the kind you throw)
  • a dead lion ( Ecclesiastes 9:4-5: “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
  • a bitten man
  • a mechanical rabbit
  • some vomit to be lapped up (old saying: “a dog returns to its vomit.”)
  • The King, as in Pope’s “I am His Highness’ dog at Kew/Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
  • another dog

But in fact, none of the above.  This dog goes with something else altogether:It is, then, a version of the RCA Victor dog, the one that appeared for many decades on the labels of phonograph records, along wit the slogan “His Master’s Voice”:

This image was originally based on an 1899 painting by Francis Barraud:

For more information:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Master’s_Voice

So in this case, then, a dog goes with an invisible master’s unheard voice, circulated as an endearingly cute image in popular culture. Seeing either the dog or the gramophone on its own is not likely for most people, I think, to evoke the idea of the other; every dog does not deserve its gramophone, or vice versa.  But together, their being together seems totally obvious.

More on the Tyranny of Pairs

I’ve been thinking further about the tyranny of pairs in the world of shaker sets, which I discussed in my last post. It has occurred to me now that it’s the implied connection of the two disparate things in a pair that is, often, the source of the comedy or even the cuteness. A dog and a fire hydrant–but of course they go together. How funny. How cute. A drunk and a lamp-post. How funny. How cute. Or, heading backwards through the history of other shaker sets I’ve discussed on this blog earlier: a lobster cooking itself in a lobster pot, a buttock and another buttock, a female body and a pair of separable breasts, a mouse and a piece of cheese, an angry worker and a broken computer terminal. All funny. All cute. In each case, the single shakers go with something else that might not be the first thing you’d expect, but, once you get it, you get why it’s connected to the first thing in a cute or funny way. It’s the sort-of unexpectedness of what, in the long run, is pretty expectable, but not to begin with totally obvious–a connection between two separate and quite different things that nevertheless satisfactorily and convincingly ties them together, by means of references to old sayings, old jokes, old ideas about stereotypes. While the two separate things remain separate they are nevertheless connected, by means of language and the network of cultural repertoire they refer to and pass on.

The Tyranny of Pairs

Out on the street, you can find, as well as street signs, the occasional fire hydrant:And along with a fire hydrant, you will usually find . . . ?  A fireman, perhaps?  No.  A group of children getting a free drink on a hot summer day?  No.  What a fire hydrant goes with, of course, is a stream of running liquid:The liquid, in this particular example, emerges not from the hydrant itself, but from the animal who is not only making use of the hydrant as an eliminatory convenience, but also, letting others of its kind know it has been there.  Or in other words, a fire hydrant goes with a peeing dog:

What intrigues me here, as with so many of these go-withs, is the impeccable logic that clearly joins two things together, even though a first glance at one or the other of them would not likely have automatically or even very quickly evoked the other as an obvious accompaniment.  Honestly, when I look at a hydrant I do not automatically think about dogs (although perhaps I might have if I sent more time looking at old cartoons–for I guess this is yet another cartoon cliché, a true go-with for the drunk and the lamp-post).

At any rate, the practice of viewing the world through the paradigm of salt and pepper, this and that, go-with and go-with, both creates strange bedfellows, matching pairs, and imposes a persuasive logic of pairness: the bedfellows may be strange, but obviously, since they are together, they do and must belong together, each the most obvious and most logical companion for the other.  Of course a dog goes with a hydrant.  What could be more obvious?  And not because both emit streams of running liquid, but because one is a salt and one is a pepper, and they are sitting beside each other, and that’s that.

Some of the more interesting sets of salt and pepper shakers I’ve seen in antique shops are ones that are not in fact, clearly sets–or at least were not necessarily designed to be the sets they now are being sold as.  Not surprisingly, for salt-and-peppers consist of two objects that are in fact physically detached from each other.  It’s quite possible, then, that one of the two might break, or that the two might end up somehow separated from each other–a result of a nasty divorce settlement, perhaps, or a simple error in packing when a roommate leaves, or a salt incorrectly grabbed up along with the remains of dinner and thrown in the garbage, while it’s now sadly lonely pepper partner remains behind.  What more obvious thing for a store owner to do when such a sad single shows up in the shop but  to find some other woeful isolate that might by some stretch of the imagination be considered to go with it, and try to sell them as a pair?  And lo, as if by magic, they do, sort of become a pair, as would-be purchasers like me look at them and, more or less inevitably, I think, try to decide what is the intended connection between these two objects now identified on their sales tag as a pair.

The paradigm of the pair is powerful.  It can join what some man (or woman or child) has put asunder.  In the shaker universe, linguistic binarism rules.

Taking It to the Streets

We continue the go-with chain with what appears to be another pugnacious guy, all ready to return the blow being struck by the enraged data-entry fellow of the last post:

But why, you might ask, if he has his dukes up and is all ready to fight, is he sitting on the ground?  The answer becomes clear as we view what he does actually go with:

He is actually, it now becomes clear, a rather drunk man-about-town, the town apparently being New Orleans, the street being Bourbon Street, the condition being, too sozzled to be able to stand up.  In other words, this drunk goes, not with the traditional lamppost of cartoon cliché, but a street sign.  I suppose that makes him a souvenir of Bourbon, the major tourist attraction of New Orleans–not just the street but the controlled substance.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trolling the internet looking for an example of the classic drunk-hanging-onto-a-lamp-post cartoon–and I can’t find very many.  Apparently it isn’t as classic as I thought it was.  The drunk with a lamp-post seems to be most popular around the internet these days in three jokes:

A drunk loses the keys to his house and is looking for them under a lamppost. A policeman comes over and asks what he’s doing.

“I’m looking for my keys” he says. “I lost them over there”.

The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?”

“Because the light is so much better”.

And:

Statistics in the hands of an engineer are like a lamp-post to a drunk–they’re used more for support than illumination.

And:

A drunk leaning against a lamppost stares up at a signboard and yells, “It can’t be done, it’s too big!”

Another drunk staggers by and asks, “What can’t be done?”

The first drunk answers, “That sign says, ‘DRINK CANADA DRY.’ “It’s just too damn big, it can’t be done!”


Miniaturized Workplace Rage

This is a bit of a cheat, maybe.  The typewriter on a desk, I now declare, goes with . . . a computer terminal: Well, it has a keyboard, right?  And it’s sort of like a desk.  You sit at it while working, right?   Or at least, you used to do so, in an earlier world of bulkier computer terminals.  It is certainly a work station, because what it actually goes with is the man who sits in front of it, and whom, apparently, is in the process of giving in to his urge to punish it for what it makes him do all day: The man is looking suitably enraged as he smashes his fist into the screen.  It is a mighty punch, as can be seen when you turn the computer terminal around: the blow has gone all the way through to the back:

This, like the set I posted about earlier revealing the results of mature people enjoying  “One More Time” is a visual joke.  When I was first given this set, I thought it might be a guy having bad luck with a gambling machine–but this terminal looks much too business-like for that, as does the man’s tie.  It has to be work-related rage.  Interesting, then, that the two shaker sets I have that represent life in the business world of offices should both depict people who clearly hate their jobs.  And one of them has actually done something about it.  Something pretty drastic.

And note that once more, as with the tomahawk-bearing aboriginals I discussed in earlier posts, the hostility and threatening danger of what is being depicted here is totally subsumed y the miniaturized and softened cuteness of the object doing the depiction He may be gone totally bonkers, but this guy is just so roly-poly and chubby-cheeked and adorable.  Who could fault him?  Who could fear him?  I mean, sure, I’d hate to run across someone like him in an office I’m in the process of doing business at.  But then, I’d hate to meet a Cabbage Patch Kid or an actual living breathing Elmo in real life, too.  Or for that matter, a young lady with eyes actually shaped like tear drops. She’d probably be hiding them behind sunglasses instead of bravely smiling through the tears of having them.

Two Seated Ladies

A seated woman sits down for a chat with another seated woman:The newcomer is a much more business-like looking woman.  She has a crisp white collar, and no flowers, no puppy, no gardening hat.  Is she, perhaps, a therapist of some sort, trying to assist our old friend with whatever horror it is that has caused those eyes to be shaped like teardrops?  Or no, wait, our new arrival looks rather morose, too, and is clasping her hands to her chest in a way that might imply some inner agony of her own–perhaps she is the one with the problem, and she has come to her chubby old friend miss sunshine to unburden herself and hope for comfort?  The newcomer is, at any rate, a quite different sort of person than the puppy lady; much more business-like, more severe, a little thin-lipped, and anything but cute.  So what does such a sobersides go with?  This:So that explains the sad expression: she has a boring office job.  She is a typist, it seems, at work at her desk.  While no work is visible–no papers to transcribe, etc.–she appears to have been doing a lot of typing lately, for why else does she appear to be considering the state of her manicure so woefully?  Or perhaps there is an annoying boss nearby, and some workplace harassment going on, for she is also making sure to keep the legs visible below her fashionable miniskirt are very close together.   She represents a fairly common kind of go-with: a person at work and the tools of his or her labour.

I bought the typist and her desk at a little shop in the Camden Passage antique market in Islington, near the Angel tube stop in London.  I was surprised to see her there, for I’ve looked for novelty salt-and-pepper shakers at various places in London and elsewhere in the UK, and never actually seen any.  I’ve assumed, then, that the novelty salt-and-pepper shaker set market was mostly restricted to Canada and the U.S–a North American phenomenon.   But if that’s the case, what was the typist doing on the wrong  side of the Atlantic?

Next question: what else goes with an office desk and a typewriter?