More Adult Indigenes

Unlike the sets of salt-and-pepper shakers I’ve been describing in my last five entries, this set does not appear to represent children, and is not particularly cute.  The binary opposites are preserved, as they almost always are in the salt-and-pepper world, and it’s still a male and female couple.   But  the male is a noble and fairly serious-looking fellow in a war bonnet and with a prominent nose–a large, often hooked nose often appears in traditional caricatures of aboriginals, as in this portrayal of the redskins of James Barrie’s Neverland  in Loisel’s French language bandes dessinées series Peter Pan:

And the female?  Well, she’s grown up enough to develop some rather astonishing breasts, and the exceedingly low cut of the top she wears makes it clear that she isn’t the least bit modest about showing them off.  She also appears to have a pretty uplifting wired bra or corset on under that baby blue top, to emphasize her sizeable attributes.Unlike her partner or her breasts, on the other hand, her nose is not the least bit bulbous or prominent, for as again often happens with aboriginal stereotypes, the women often look more like conventional white ideas of beauty;

Loisel's Tiger Lily from his Peter Pan

if her skin were a little paler, the salt-and-pepper Indian woman could pass as the young Debby Reynolds.

Aboriginal Metallica

This set once more represents an aboriginal couple as adorable children, and with more or less the usual stereotype markers: both with chubby cheeks,  both with pigtails, both, this time, wearing headbands with a single feather, he in a loincloth, she in a fringed long-sleeved dress.  While the two figures are both the same  height, he is represented as sitting, she standing, which means he must be substantially taller than she is.  But putting that aside, there is something that makes them somehow more solemn and serious than my other cute natives: they are made of some kind of brass-like heavy metal.  It gives them weight, both literally, and somehow, more symbolically.  They seem Important.  Part of their Importance is the shields they bear, ceremonial regalia that makes them representatives of the province of Manitoba:  for him the provincial shield, and for her the crocus, the provincial flower.  And they are surprisingly detailed, even the backs:

But the weightiness disappears in another set I have:

This set appears to be the same couple, but this time, they are made of some kind of light plastic in a tinselly silvery colour.  They have lost their gravitas–not to mention some of their details; while it’s possible that they were made from the same mould as the brass-like pair, their relative crudeness suggests that they might have been made using something like a set of the brass pair as the base for a new mould.  And now they represent, not Manitoba in detailed imagery, but just CANADA in plain letters, as well as the mundane initials of the specific seasoning they are meant to dispense.

But while there’s some loss of seriousness and artistry, they remain triumphantly stereotypical, triumphantly happy to declare iconic representations of indigenous peoples, dressed as surely no specific Manitoban or Canadian First Nation ever dressed, as symbols of a province or of the entire nation: as signs of its northernness, perhaps, or its connection to the wild?  The paradoxical relationship between this co-option of a stereotype as a marker for a place, a representation of what identifies that place or makes it unique, and the actual often hostile colonial treatment of the real people the stereotype purports to represent is telling.


Cute Natives Yet Again

Are they children, or just sort of generically pudgy cuties?  One way or the other, this set confirms the prevalence of certain characteristics as markers of a stereotype.  They wear fringed leather-coloured garments.  They have round eyes and chubby cheeks.  The male has the usual war bonnet, the female the usual one feather sticking up from a headband. Both have very black hair.  And she has pigtails.   This short list of attributes represents just about all the things that stereotypically identify a stereotype of cute and harmless aboriginality.  (There are, of course, more savage and more brutally primitive stereotypes out there, but those don’t appear to be represented all that much in the world of salt and pepper shakers.

Like many characters in cartoon movies, this pair appear to have only four fingers on each hand.  In other words, very much not quite human.  But they are very, very happy.  I especially like the guy’s impossible smile, which actually does seem to go from ear to ear.

More Cute Aborginals

More of my population of youthfully chubby natives.  These guys come with their own teepee–which has a mysterious large hole and a Thunderbird painted below it.   Despite the somewhat mucky colours and unglossy surfaces, these two appear to be utopianly young and adorable, as she holds one of her braids with a come-hither look and he ever-so-cutely ponders the invitation.There are mystical markings on the base which remain mysterious to me–another Thunderbird in outline, perhaps, and some crossed arrows?  Additional markers to confirm the absolute stereotypicality of the stereotype?

Cute Aboriginality

The set of shakers I talked about in my last post stands out from most of the other pairs I have that represent stereotypes of indigenous people in one key way: it depicts adults.  Most of the others are more like this set: Image

They seem to be representing children–cute chubby-and-rosy-cheeked children, even in spite of the official-looking war bonnet the male of the pair sports.  There is, in other words, an even further diminishment of the people supposedly being depicted.  Not only are they shiny, early Technicolor miniatures–they are harmlessly young.  And they are so endearingly and cutely small that they actually fit into the pair of moccasins they sit in, the moccasins also miniatures but ever so much larger in scale than the diminutive and adorable children within them.  These are 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.

The boy, incidentally, is carrying something, but since most of it appears to have broken off, I had no idea about what it was.  I did, though, find another set being sold on Etsy that seems to another copy of the same pair, and the image of that set reveals that what the boy is waving around is a tomahawk.  Does that make him more dangerous than I was assuming above?  Or does it in fact make him even cuter and more stereotypical, and thus diminish the danger even further?  (We might also wonder why he’s waving it at his partner in the other shoe; but that’s a whole other story.)

Miniature Aboriginality

The racial and ethnic stereotype population of my salt-and-pepper collection consists primarily of shakers depicting the indigenous peoples of North America: I have nine pairs of them.  But of course, these shakers don’t really look anything like any actual former or current members of indigenous nations: what I have on my shelves can be more accurately called by the names than I am fairly certain they were more widely known by in the mainstream novelty shaker marketplace that originally produced and consumed them: Indians, or better, Injuns. Breeds. Savages. Redskins. Bucks and Squaws.

And yes, I know how offensive those terms are and how rightfully indignant lots of people get when they hear them–and not just people with aboriginal backgrounds.  I find them exceedingly offensive myself.  They are offensive.  They belittle  people.  They hurt people who belong to the groups they so wrongly distort and misrepresent by confirming their supposed sub-humanity  Nevertheless, I feel the need to use the offensive terms here, for they exactly match the offensiveness of the salt-and-pepper sets that purport to represent them.  These are not Choctaw or Anishnabi or Pueblo people.  They are Injuns.  As well as being Injuns, they are, for the most part, cute dehumanized Injuns–small and shiny and ever-so-toylike and adorable.

Well, that’s not totally true.  The first set of aboriginal stereotypes I bought remains the least cute one:

While sort of expressing cuteness in their miniature brightness and shininess, the overall aura of the couple in this set is less cute than stolid.  He seems to be wearing ceremonial headgear but with a bare brick-red torso, while she is wearing an orange garment only slightly less intensely reddish orange than she is herself.  Both appear to be looking upwards in an expression that appears to be something  more like annoyance than awe: yeah, sure, white man, shake some seasoning out of me.  Make my day.

They are, also, clearly, one male and one female–as in every other set of supposedly indigenous people on my shelves, a squaw and a buck.  Binary opposites, in other words.  All the eternal verities and rigid distinctions of the world of stereotypes are preserved in them, then: big us and the belittled others, male and female, salt and pepper.  And yet they look so harmless.  It’s that rendering of the toxic as perfectly harmless that most fascinates me about them.

What Is It?

This is the most mysterious set of salt and pepper shakers in my collection.  I have no idea at all about what it’s supposed to represent. It appears to be a humanized creature of some sort holding a musical instrument.  But what sort of creature?  While it’s dressed like a human in what might be a jumpsuit, a vest, and a tie, it has wings like an insect–a fly or a wasp–and a beak like a bird.  Also, it’s wearing a fez–does it then represent a member of some sort of service organization, like the Shriners?  A bee or fly squad of some sort,maybe?  the Marching Winged Nuts Band?  The musical instrument is a sort of giant tuba, and its size seems disproportionate to the figure it accompanies.

But I’m fairly sure that the two pieces do actually go together, because the intense orangey-red colour of the giant tuba is the same as the creature’s fez, vest, and shoes; and in any case, the giant tuba nests nicely into the creature’s extended right arm, as if it were made to belong there.

So: what is it?  some sort of allegorical representation of a popular saying or catch phrase I don’t recognize, something like “busy as a bee” or  “blowing your own horn”?  Something more arcane, maybe, like “Tuba or not to bee”?   A representation of some long-forgotten tuba great named Wings Feston, or something like that?  What ties together a tuba and a fez-wearing bird-or-bee-like thing?  Who is this beaked stranger?  I’d be grateful for any and all suggestions.

Ethnic and Racial Slurs

Shortly after I bought my first set of salt-and-pepper shakers, I came upon this one:

It’s a perfect representation of the kind of adorable miniaturized  cuteness that defangs–or at least makes less immediately noticeable–its toxicity.  What could be less harmful than this cheerful pair of people at rest, depicted in a world of shiny primary colours?  But look again: the thing in the middle appears to be some sort of cactus, and the two figures wear what appear to be sombreros.  They seem to be Mexicans, then–sleeping Mexicans, the essence of a “mañana” stereotype, as in the old song:

My mother’s always working, she’s working very hard
But every time she looks for me I’m sleeping in the yard.
My mother thinks I’m lazy and maybe she is right.
I’ll go to work mañana but I gotta sleep tonight.
Mañana, mañana

Mañana is soon enough for me.

(Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour, 1948)

Or in other words:  this set is an ethnic slur, a nasty evocation of a cultural stereotype.  I bought it because I found it fascinating that such a thing as this set existed.  It meant that its manufacturers assumed there was a market for such things, that people actually wanted to occupy their home environments with insulting depictions of a cultural group that, I have to assume, they themselves didn’t belong to.  Somehow, then, they were deriving comfort and cosiness from an environment that represented their superiority to and distance from the members of the other group thus represented.  Part of what made their home homey was its expression of an inherent prejudice against those different from themselves–different enough to be cute and decorative as a result of it.

I soon discovered that Mexicans were not the only minority group populating the sunny but toxic world of salt-and-pedderdom.  As I’ll describe in future posts, my own collection has grown to include stereotypical depictions of various Asians, Africans and African Americans, and above all, North American Natives.   It’s become a second major thread of my collecting, along with the sets that depict two different objects as part of the same set.  And it’s these ethnic-and-racial-slur sets that most express my ambivalence to my possessions, and my sense that no matter how ironic and un-empathetic is my appreciation of them, there’s still something weird about choosing to keep them in my own house.  Perhaps the many African Americans who have become such avid collectors of  salt-and-pepper sets and other household ornaments and such representing racist stereotypes that they have driven up the prices for such objects exponentially share my ambivalence.  (As I write, a set of “Vintage Black Americana Aunt Jemima Mammy Cook JAPAN Salt and Pepper Shakers” is currently available on eBay for the astonishing price of $145.00.)  It’s certainly a strong memory of an ugly history that shouldn’t be forgotten–or in the case of the lazy Mexicans and the savage Natives, a strong reminder of a still widespread and even commonplace prejudice.

About the  Mexicans, meanwhile:  One is for salt and one is for pepper, clearly, but I’m not sure what the cactus they lean on is supposed to be used for.  It comes with a small spoon, seen in the photo above leaning on the tray the three objects sit on; so maybe it’s a mustard pot?

The Ironic Collector Confronts Himself

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.

Cute Newt?

And continuing the theme of cuteness as a way of defusing danger, there are these guys:

I’m not exactly sure, but I think they’re supposed to represent Humpty Dumpty.  But why would you have or need two Humpy Dumpties at the same time, unless one were whole and the other smashed?  Or, come to think of it, maybe they’re supposed to be Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee?  At any rate, though, these are clearly people who look like eggs, or perhaps eggs with the faces of people.   But you ask, which people?  Don’t they maybe remind you of someone–especially the one on the left?  Someone who maybe looks a little like this?

I mean seriously, it’s the same face, right?

The same chubby cheeks, the same self-satisfied grin?  I’m fairly sure the people who designed and made this set of shakers didn’t actually intend them to look so Newt-like.  but once I noticed the similarity, I had no choice but to admire the way the shaker both captured the eggy essence of Newt, and the way in which the egginess of that essence diminished, for a few seconds at least, my personal distaste for the hypocritical egocentricity and self-proclaimed eggheadedness of the patriarch so exactly evoked.  Would that the actual Newt were so harmlessly cute.  Then there’d be no need at all for a wall or a fall.