Gendered Elimination?

Since my last few posts have been about creatures taking their pants off, a look at this shaker set seems appropriate:

toiletsAs a set, they have an interesting binary-oppositional relationship.  I’m tempted to suggest that they replicate the insistence of the shaker miniverse on dividing things into opposite pairs: salt and pepper, black and white, male and female.  They might be doing so in this case by suggesting a gender opposition:  one of the object depicted is used, usually, only by males, and the other is depicted in a position that makes it convenient for females.  And in that way, they might represent the common tendency in shaker sets of distinguishing the two components of each set in terms of gender: by dressing one cute bear in a blue shirt and the other in a pink dress, for instance.

The objects depicted in this set, however, are not wearing dresses or shirts (although, as a hardened veteran spectator of the salt and pepper miniverse, I can all too easily imagine someone producing a set that did show cute toilets in clothing and with smiley faces).  So maybe I’m just imposing that whole gender thing on this set.  After all, if you’ve decided to depicted plumbing fixtures that aid in human elimination in a salt and pepper shaker set, are there really any other choices of two objects to depict?  I can’t think of any offhand–it’s hard to imagine how you might go about depicting a hole dug in the floor of the forest.   Perhaps you could include an old-fashioned outhouse?  So maybe the manufacturer of this set, having chosen to do sanitary facilities, was merely lucky enough to be confronted with just two possibilities, one of which is usually associated with males and one which isn’t, a difference which then makes them suitably oppositional enough to act as subjects for tabletop containers of salt and pepper.

I am, once more, taken aback by the idea that you might get some pleasure out of putting miniature representations of sanitary facilities on your dinner table.  A momento mori sort of reminder of our essentially animal nature, perhaps?  Nor do I get the pleasure of symbolically shaking the contents of a toilet and/or a urinal on your food.  It somehow seems to be implying a reversal of the usual order in which the processes of eating and digestion take place. You put what was once food and rink into toilets and urinals; you don’t usually put what was once food and has now been deposited in toilets and urinals on food.  And call me an old-fashioned conservative, but really, why would you even want to?

An Odd (Really Odd) Couple in Lots of Clothing

I’m fairly well convinced that this pair was always intended as a shaker set, because their colour palette is more or less the same:  the same dark green, with dark pink accents–and the smaller one’s face is the same brown as the larger one’s hair and shoes:    
Odd Couple

But for all that, they are surprisingly unlike each other.  One is a bunny, maybe, or perhaps  a mouse–or at least so its perky ears would suggest.  The other?  Well, not only does it not seem as bunny-like as its companion, but if we turn it around, we can see that it has wings like a bug:

Odd Couple Back

So then, is this pair a fairy small bunny and a bug-sized bug?  Or is it a very large bug and  a bunny-sized bunny?  One way or the other, I can think of no explanation for what these two might have to do with each other, or why one is wearing a clown hat and sucking a sucker.

The clown hat might well be the only piece of clothing the bug is wearing–the rest of it might be just naked bug surface.  Oh, except what seem to be a pair of brown shoes.  The bunny, on the other hand, has on, not only a similar pair of brown shoes, but what might a pair of fancy patterned bloomers, a shirt the same green colour as the bug’s bugskin (but which seems to be a shirt because it stoops at the wrists and reveal hands of a different colour, unlike the still-green hands of the bug), an apron, and a bow in the hair near her (I’m assuming) ear.

To add to the strangeness of this pair, the brown dots on the bug’s hat are exactly the same as the ones on his wings.  So perhaps I am wrong in assuming that the cone of his head is a detachable hat; maybe it’s just the permanent shape of his head.  Or more likely, maybe those aren’t real wings at all, but just a costume, another item of clothing that is disguising an actually non-bug-like bunny child.  The two figures do have similar pudgy cheeks and half-moon eyes.

Or maybe not.  Once more, I have to conclude that these animal-like creature wearing items of human clothing in shaker sets are neither animal nor human, but often occupy an eerily ambivalent state of in-between, creatures apparently in the process of morphing from one species to another.  Seen in those terms, they are more like nightmares from horror movies than the apparently harmless cutie-poos a first glance at them would suggest.  Maybe looking too closely at novelty salt and pepper shaker sets like this is not actually a good idea after all.

Bath, Beneath, and Beyond

Continuing on with shaker sets that imply an invisible beneath, there is this pair:Bathers

Once more, the shakers represent something that is standing in water, this time two bathers.  We see only the top third or so of their bodies, but knowledge of the way things usually are allows us  to assume that the expectably normal other two-thirds nevertheless exists, hidden under the surface of the water their apparent nakedness, bathcap and washcloth, and the bubbles surrounding them imply.  Once more, they turn the surface they sit on into an implied body of water that they sit in–one that appears to continue under the impenetrable surface that  they seem to penetrate merely by being placed on top of it. 

For a long time after receiving the gift of this pair, I’d imagined they represent two somewhat cherubically sizeable ladies.  A clearly mistaken assumption, as my first closer look at their backs quickly revealed:

Bathers Back

Unless the one on the left is an unusually bald lady, he is clearly just an ordinarily bald gentleman.  So why didn’t I realize that sooner?   I think it’s because, in the miniverse of salt and pepper shakers and in the kitschy world of popular culture more generally,  nudes tend to be exclusively female: witness my postings earlier last year about shakers representing a variety of naked bodies and body parts, all of them female.  A quick Google search reveals a number of different shaker sets representing parts or all of female bodies, but only a very few of naked male torsos.

Once I did realize that one of these bathers was male, I also realized the rarity of this one being depicted as old enough to be bald.  Once more, there are occasional very stereotyped depictions of old people in salt and pepper shakers–see earlier posts showing some–but not all that many middle-aged ones.  Both older people and young people can easily be understood to be, and depicted as, cute.  It’s harder to depict middle-aged people as cute.

Unless they’re chubby enough to look roundish and adorable.  As these two do.  And that makes them fitting residents of the salt and pepper world, all set to mildly scandalize us by taking a bath together before (or maybe after) who knows what.

The Implied Beneath

While it might not be apparent on first glance, this is a salt and pepper shaker set:


This set represents the Bluenose, the Canadian fishing and racing schooner from Nova Scotia that has been appearing on Canadian dimes for many decades:


While it’s a little hard to make out, since it consists of slightly raised brown letters on the same brown background, the side of the shaker schooner proudly announces its name:

Bluenose name

Well, actually, the name on the shakers specifies that it not the original Bluenose, but rather, Bluenose II, the replica of the original Bluenose built in the sixties.  That replica has itself recently been in the process of being restored at a shipyard in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, as this photograph shows:


What this photograph also reveals is what might not first be apparent when you look at the shaker version:  the shaker version does not depict the complete schooner.   It shows only what would be visible above the water if the schooner were at sea.  In other words, the shaker set implies that part if it, actually not seen, is nevertheless there, under whatever surface you might happen to put it on. 

I like the idea of the implication of something beneath, something unseen but that a viewer can know is there.  Something like that does, of course, occur again and again in photographs, painting, sculptures.  A bronze bust implies the rest of a  body that comes below the parts it actually depicts.  A painting of a figure looking out, even a full length one, implies a back that isn’t actually there.  We viewers are assumed to be willing and able to extrapolate beyond the borders, to assume they represent not the actual edges of whatever is being depicted, but just a point beyond which what still exists nevertheless cannot be seen.

But there’s something special, something unique, about the way in which these shakers do that.  I’m not exactly sure about this, but I think it’s that, in cutting off the bottom part of the ship that would in fact not be visible if it were a real ship floating in actual water,  the shaker Bluenose II magically transforms the surface it sits on into a representation of water.  There is no water, and the shakers contain no depiction of water–and yet they manage to transform part of their environment into something that has a quality of water.  In other words: the magic is that in putting them in relationship to something else, a mere flat surface, a tabletop or window sill, they have the ability to transform that flat surface into something else, something different and more meaningful than it ever was before.  And they imply a depth beyond the surface of a solid object, an apparently but nevertheless impossibly penetrable depth that the unseen underside of a ship might float in.

Again, that the kind of magic a painting often performs–it suggests that the flat wall it hangs on is actually a window into another world beyond and behind the flat surface.  But that’s a magical aspect of paintings that many of us are so used to that we simply take it for granted.  It happens less often with three-dimensional objects like my Bluenose shakers than it does with two-dimensional ones like paintings or drawings.  And painting don’t appear to turn the still visible surfaces of the walls they hang  on that surround their frames into something else.

For those who might be wondering why I keep identifying what appears to be just a single object, a depiction of a schooner, as a set of shakers: it is actually a set.  It does consist of two separate and separable pieces, as can be seen here:

half blueThe designer of this set has solved the problem of turning one schooner into two shakers through the simple act of just dividing the ship in two, right down the middle, and making each of its separate parts a separate shaker, two fragments that become one whole ship if probably placed beside each other  It is, then, an example of what I identified in a previous post an example of bisectionality.  I have a number of other strangely bisectional shaker sets, which I might get around to discussing in later posts.


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.

Two Santas, and Some Guys Who Haven’t Been Good

In honour of the season, I offer yet another salt and pepper shaker set that consists of two male figures:Two Santas

Two Santas.

And yet, of course, this makes no sense, no sense at all.  There can only be one Santa Claus, surely. Other shakers, operating safely within the logic of a rigidly binary world, represent various ways of solving the problem of representing the right jolly old elf in a salt and pepper set.  Here, for instance, Santa has a surprising companion:

santa bear

It’s a polar bear, I think–a logical pet for a North Pole resident.  And here, a very young Santa (or Santa imitator?) has a Mrs. Santa-or perhaps, given her age, a Miss Santa–to accompany him:

santa and santess

They seem to be singing–some carol that makes Santa swing his hips, it seems.

But I have no idea about what to make of a set consisting of two, count ’em, two Santas.  Maybe Santa has a secret twin brother named Eugene Claus or Luigi Claus or Klaus Claus that nobody ever told us about?  Or maybe the set is depicting an incident at a convention of department store Santas, and so it’s two different Santa pretenders?  Or maybe these two are supposed to be just the one same Santa, but caught in different moments, like a series of photographs of the same subject?  Figurines that represent different times?

One way or the other, I have found myself unable to resist the implications of that one Santa’s raised arm.

santa close

I’m not sure I know what the raised arm is supposed to mean.  Is this Santa in the midst of belting out a loud chorus of “Here Comes Santa Claus”?  Is he pointing to yonder star?  Whatever it’s supposed to be, the raised hand does offer some fascinating possibilities in relation to a few of the other shakers in my collection.  Especially because those mittens look like boxing gloves.

For instance:  the Santa who has no use for clowns:

Santa and Clown

Or the racist Santa, being defied by a jovial club-bearing native of Banff:

Santa and African

Or the Santa who isn’t afraid of the sizeable Paul  Bunyan:
Paul and Santa

Or, finally, the Santa who gets into a brawl with an angry computer user:santa and computer guy

No question about it: this raised-arm Santa clearly knows who’s been bad or good and knows exactly how to encourage everyone to be good for goodness sake.

Be good.  Have a merry Christmas.