For a Spicy Experience, First Take the Pants Off

Here’s a little guessing game.  This is a salt or pepper shaker:
blob man

So what do you think its companion shaker might be?  I suspect that most people would guess the other part of this pair would be another similarly doughy creature–possibly, in the light of the associations between salt and pepper and black and white, a black doughy creature.

In point of fact, however, the other shaker turns out to be an item of clothing.  In my last post, I described a set of shakers depicting somebody taking his pants off.  This time, it turns out, we’re dealing with a creature who has his or her pants off already.  And I know that because the other shaker is its pants:

blob pantsThe pants are much too big for the little guy, and indeed, with the set stacked as intended, as in the photo above, it actually seems that what the creature is doing is standing in an oddly-shaped barrel.  But the set was sold in a box identifying it as Salt & Pants.   That black barrel-like thing is, really, supposed to be a pair of pants, as can be confirmed by various web pages currently selling this set:

salt and pants

As the copy in this offering from suggests “This spicy little guy dispenses salt from the top of his head and he’s got something special in his trousers… pepper!”

Salt & Pants is the kind of shaker set known to collectors as stackers or, more specifically, nesters:  The salty guy fits onto, or actually, into the pants.  You can, then, actually put the creature into the pants–dress the creature up just like a little doll.  Or, if your pleasure tends more in the opposite direction, you can start with the pants on and then remove the creature from them.  Actually, come to think of it, and as the Perpetual Kids ad copy suggests, you have to separate the creature from its pants in order to help yourself to pepper–maybe even salt.  So this set then consists of what Robin Bernstein calls scriptive things”  that imply a strangely salacious script of actions for those who might choose to use them to season their food: an act of depantsing.  You don’t get to experience the pepper without first removing the clothing.  Such is life.

My thanks to Asa Nodelman for the recent addition of this set to my collection.

Wholly Cow, Partly Human

As did one of the flamingos of my last post, this cow is wearing sunglasses.

milk cow 1

But in this case, sunglasses is almost all she wears, except for what might be some grey fur on top of her head but what is probably intended to represent some sort of a motorcycle helmet . But like the pigs in scarves and hats of a few posts ago, she wears nothing below the neck.

It seems that the sunglasses are the helmet are necessary because the milk delivery vehicle is, it seems, a topless convertible.  The cow would get grit in his or her eyes if it weren’t for the sunglasses, and presumably needs some head protection in case of an accidental roll.

It is, however, still somewhat strange that a cow–or for that matter, any creature–might choose to wear sunglasses and a helmet but absolutely nothing else, Well, perhaps a human being in a hurry to get to or on the lam from at a nudist park might wear those things?  But it does seem odd enough to suggest once more how very little it takes to humanize an animal,  One scarf and hat, or as here, one little pair of sunglasses and the mere suggestion of a helmet, and suddenly the creature is transformed from a farm animal very much stuck in the wrong place behind the wheel of a vehicle to a dashing driver whom we can think of as being pretty well completely human, even without pants. Or a shirt  And what was just bovine is now throughly and completely cute.

Even cuter, the vehicle being driven here is in the shape of a milk bottle, as can more readily be seen here:milk cow 2

And also here, where we can see the label on the milk bottle top:

milk cow 3

That’s a milk delivery vehicle for sure.  I suppose that the ability to drive it is an additional way of humanizing the driver, on top of the sunglasses.  Cows don’t generally have their driver’s licences.  (Mind you, cars don’t usually look like bottles of milk.  But that’s a whole other issue–the cutification of non-humanized physical objects, perhaps?)

This is, incidentally, the kind of shaker set known as a go-with: the cow goes with the milk bottle truck.  and it is also a stacker, since the cow sits on top of the truck.

Scarfs Make the Man. And the Manly Bear.

Like the pigs in my last post, these creatures are also wearing headgear and scarfs:


What I find particularly interesting here is that wearing a hat and a scarf is merely a generic condition for one of these two, and not all surprising.  A hat and a scarf is what snowmen often wear, and I am assuming the one on the right with a carrot for a nose is just that, a generic, typical snowman, wearing a typical snowman’s scarf.

But them what am I to make of the fact that wearing a scarf makes him a pair with another scarf-wearing creature?  This one is, I think, meant to be a bear–a bear who, like the pair of pigs I discussed in my last post, is humanized by a scarf and headgear, in this case earmuffs (I think that’s what those red blobs by the ears are supposed to be) and a hat.  Wearing a scarf (and a hat) is, really what makes a pile of snow into a snow man–what humanizes it.  So, therefore, I think, wearing a scarf and a hat is what humanizes a bear–but if the equivalency to the snowman means anything, then the presence of the scarf and hat on a bear reveals to extent to which clothing on animals, in salt and pepper sets or elsewhere, is always a sort of masquerade, a way of implying humanness that depends on exterior signs and a sort of playacting.  And maybe, reveals how significant an element of defining humanness the wearing of clothing is.

Does that make any sense?  Probably not, since I’m having a hard time understanding it myself, and a hard time finding words to say what it is that’s concerning me here.  It has something to do with the way both an apparently living bear and an inanimate pile of snow can become equally humanized, equal partners, by putting on similar items of human clothing.  Their humanity is then a matter of what they wear, but more than that, it is only what they wear.  You could, presumably, put a scarf and a hat on a book or a sofa or a lamppost, with the exact same results.  The scholar Judith Butler has suggested that gender is a matter of performance–something we perform and that we recognize in each other’s performance of it.  And the performance is often a matter of clothing:  dressing young girls in pink frills is a way of getting them to perform gender and communicate the significance of their own presumed gender to themselves and others.  Wear enough pink frills and you will eventually learn to think of yourself as inherently girlish and teach others to think so, too.  This snowman and this bear make me wonder if being human is also in some important way a matter of performance, a performance signalled by the right articles of clothing.  Humanity as form of drag?

On another matter: what makes a snowman and a bear a pair, a suitable pair of binary opposites?  Well, it seems to be a polar bear, and it’s white, like the snowman, so that both pieces of this set are associated with cold northern places.  But it still remains strange that one should be a representation of a real, living creature and the other a representation of a representation, not an actual man but a man represented in snow.  There appears to be a binary opposition between what’s alive and what’s actually dead, then, or what’s real and what just an artistic imitation.  And yet, what is most striking about this set is how similarly round and chubby and jolly-looking this pair are.  Their significant differences seem to be subsumed, finally, by their overriding cuteness.  That what one represents might bite your head off and what the other represents merely melt hardly matters at all.  They are equally and perfectly harmless.

Duck, Ducking

Here is a mysterious object:Half Duck

Some kind of abstract sculpture, perhaps?  Or is it a ghost or an alien or a member of the Ku Klux Klan carrying scrolls?  Or are those sausages, perhaps, or maybe cat-tails?

Cat-tails they are.  For if I place this shaker beside its partner, all is revealed:

Two Ducks

Those are in fact, cat-tails, or some similar sort of reed, and they are the backdrop for a depiction of a duck–a duck in the process of dipping its head underwater.  The presence of one mostly whole, and more or less wholly visible, duck makes it clear that the other, formerly abstract object is to be interpreted as another, albeit not quite so visible duck.

And interpreting the half-duck as in fact part of a duck means that this set performs the same visual trick as the Bluenose schooner I discussed in my last post.  By implying that more of it exists below what can in fact be seen, it transforms the surface it sits on into the top of a body of water, with the illusion of depth beneath it.  In this case, the illusion is somewhat qualified by the sculptor’s decision to actually include a layer of blue water around the ducks for them to sit in and on.  But it is still a satisfying illusion, an intriguing way of making a hard surface seem to be penetrable simply by placing the right sort of object on top of it.

The Last Egg

The last egg in my collection of eleven has also appeared previously on this blog in “Go Withs“.  It  is half of this set:
goose and egg

It is a golden egg, and so it goes with a goose.  In the light if the relative size of the egg and the goose, and if I am right in assuming that the goose is the producer of the egg, then I am guessing that it must be a goose in serious pain.


Recently, my friend Joseph Thomas made a comment on Facebook that relates to my interest in salt and pepper shakers:

What I think is wonderful about salt n pepper shakers: although they come as a pair, they so often aren’t bound together, save by their maker’s intent or owner’s whim. Thus, even pairs “meant for each other” can have dalliances with other shakers or mills, and should one’s mate be smashed, the remaining mill (or shaker) can make a nice home with a crew of very different shakers. A metaphor for polyamory, these anthropomorphized little critters.

As I thought about that, I realized how very true it is.  Earlier last year, I wrote a number of posts here exploring my particular fascination with the “go-with” aspect of shaker sets, and how it takes some insight into the mental activity of the person who chose them to go with each other to understand just what it is that connects them.  As I said then,

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.

As Joseph suggests, and if it’s true that the paradigm of the pair is powerful, then paradoxically, then you can defy the connections made by manufacturers and shopkeepers just as easily as you can observe them–be your own deliriously postmodern creator of new pairs, new combinations, new possibilities.  You can become the new god of the shaker miniverse.

Thinking about all that, and in celebration of Joseph’s idea of polyamory, I remember two particular sets I’ve discussed in earlier posts, this one.


And this one:

briefcase and newspaper

Polyamorous perversity then leads me to this combo:


The sexual politics here are pretty astonishing.  Think about it.

I should also say that I have also indulged in some mismatching of pairs in a previous post–the one about Santa Claus giving a big smack to a bunch of bad guys.

All Nature Is But Art


This is another set of salt-and-pepper shakers that my son Asa made me, this one a few years ago. As you can see from this view of their tops, he made them of modelling clay formed around an already-existing set of plain ceramic shakers.


I’ve asked Asa for an explanation of what he intended them to represent, but he tells me he’d rather hear how I interpret them. So here goes:

To me, this set is the ultimate expression of the idea of binary opposites. They are an animal–most likely a bear?–and a robot. And they are wearing boxing gloves, as if ready to start a match. What can they be but symbolic representations of the most basic conflicts at the heart of our view of life for us on this planet? The bear, clearly, is nature, the wild. The robot represents what we make of the natural–civilization, perhaps, or artifice–what people create as opposed to what remains as we found it. Asa was clearly intending to make a profound statement about our relationship to the environment, right?

Except, of course, that’s not quite right: for a bear in the wild does not smile, as this one appears to be doing. And a bear in the wild does not put on boxing gloves, or for that matter, what appear to be boxing trunks or any other form of human clothing. Meanwhile, also, robots are equally unlikely to be programmed for boxing. And if they were, how likely is it that they put on human-type boxing gloves? Wouldn’t battering rams be better? So while the two things these creatures represent might be understood as being in a conflict, at war with each other, in an eternal and ongoing symbolic boxing match, the characteristics of the actual creatures they represent have been distorted in order to make them express that conflict symbolically. In this way, then, they are more like allegories or political cartoons than like representations of actual creatures. Or perhaps more likely, they are more like typical creatures of the salt and pepper miniverse than like real bears and robots. They are humanized. They are cute. Despite whatever sizeable dangerous forces they represent, they appear to be entirely and completely harmless. Unlike the ship and wave I discussed in my last post, this pair seem to fit quite readily into my collection. They are, alas, and unlike that ship and wave, not art.

One other thing about this pair: they remind me of my days as a grad student in literature studies many decades ago, before structuralism or deconstruction or cultural studies or feminist studies or queer studies existed,when what was still then called “the New Criticism” was at the height of its power. As New Critics, what we literature students did above all (or even exclusively) was produce close readings, detailed interpretations of poems and novels that teased out the structure or pattern of images and ideas that sustained their plots and stories. And we always wrote essays that had two opposites in their title, like “Love and Hate in Hamlet” or “Appearance and Reality in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.'” Back then, there was a common belief amongst the students I knew that, if you couldn’t think of anything else, you could always write an essay about “Appearance and Reality in–” well, in whatever text you’d been assigned to write about. But it was also true that, if all else failed, you could also always write a persuasive essay about “Nature and Artifice in” whatever text you’d been assigned to write about it. We did a lot of talking about nature and artifice, a whole lot. It came naturally to us, and it was the basis of our critical art.  So for me, these shakers of Asa’s remind me of what it was like to be a graduate student back in the sixties.

And come to think of it, maybe it was my grad school training in binary opposites that lies behind my interest in novelty salt and pepper shakers?

And hey, maybe Asa’s set of shakers is actually a clever New Critical interpretation of a favorite of my grad school days, Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” with the bear as the dying generations and the robot as the artificial bird:

The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I totally could write an essay about that. Actually, maybe I just did.