Kitschen Kitsch Day 5: Friday Finale

After this post, I’m done with the Kitchen Cupboard of Shame (if you’re just tuning in, you can catch up here)…But I have to say, this salt and pepper set is my favourite. Cowboys!

Identical twin cowboys that bear a striking resemblance to a young Conan O’Brien. I have my own personal Team Coco!

These are also made in Occupied Japan, so are vintage 1945-52. Conan O’Brien wasn’t born yet, however. They’re cute, and yet kind of disturbing, actually, as twins. I’m ok with matching tomatoes, and turkeys, and fruit-like objects that may or may not be oranges, but somehow the matching human heads are a little off. I hope real twins don’t get that reaction from people. Maybe it’s just the two-Conan thing.

And how did they decide who got to be salt, and who pepper?

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Kitschen Kitsch Day 4: Uh…Fruit?

I don’t know if these are supposed to be oranges or lemons. The colour is ambigious.


Not to mention the fact that they are the most unnatural shape of orange/lemon ever. Before I noticed the flower blossoms on the top, I thought they were ears of corn. But then, they’re not shaped like corn, either.

These are Occupied Japan items. You’d think the Japanese would know what oranges are shaped like, given mandarin oranges come from there. And given their skill with ceramics, it’s not like they couldn’t make them round (see: Tomato Ware). Maybe they were playing a joke on the Americans who would be buying their wares. I really can’t explain it.

I think this was the point where I realized collecting salt and pepper shakers was truly weird, so I may as well go all out. Really, these are weird.

Kitschen Kitsch Day 3: Fruit

Vegetable salt and pepper shakers led to the inevitable fruit salt and pepper shakers. The strawberries were also the same red as the tomatoes, so at this point the addition was rationalized purely as a nice little colour hit for my dull kitchen.

These strawberries are the size of actual strawberries. This set also has a tiny sugar bowl, but it lost its lid. And, I’m imagining, a very, very tiny matching sugar spoon, although that might be stretching it a little. Anyway, it’s so small that it must be from some place that rationed sugar during the war.

The strawberries also almost led to a whole fruit-related sub-category, but I managed to stop myself. Tomorrow I’ll show you where I stopped.

Kitschen Kitsch Day 2: You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato

I have not one, but two, sets of vintage salt and pepper shakers that are shaped like tomatoes.

This is because I already owned a teapot shaped like a tomato. And a matching tomato cream and sugar set. Now that I think about it, that tomato teapot was the actual beginning of my vintage kitchenware collection. I had a dark kitchen that needed brightening up, and that red was just the ticket. I quickly found out that, like the Japanese salt and pepper shakers, tomato-shaped items were everywhere in Retro Land. It’s actually called Tomato Ware. At some point in the 20th Century making ceramic items shaped like tomatoes became a world-wide phenomenon; the Tomato era actually stretches from 1920s to the 1970s, although the bulk seem to be 40s and 50s. Tomato tea pots. Tomato salt and pepper shakers. Tomato cookie jars. Tomato jam pots. I still haven’t found an explanation why.

I never actually used the tomato teapot, however, because I couldn’t get past the thought that the tea would come out tasting like tomato juice. Yes, that is about as logical as Tomato Ware collecting. But I guess a lot of people really, really like tomatoes.

Kitschen Kitsch

I have a confession. Those tacky vintage turkey salt and pepper shakers aren’t the oddest things in my kitchen. The turkeys have company. The turkeys were, in fact, the start of what people on ebay would call a “collection”…but what others might call “temporary insanity.” You see, once I bought the tacky turkeys, it just seemed, well, sort of normal to buy these.

I was at a flea* market when my normal taste went right out the window and I somehow thought it would be cute to have a pepper shaker named “Pepe.” (*I initially typed this as “flee.” Freudian?) I’m not sure if Salte and Pepe are supposed to be Mexican or Italian. They were made in Japan, by people who had most likely never been to either Mexico or Italy. Among other things, while Pepe is usually a male name, this Pepe seems to be the girl of the pair.

Japan has long been known for its porcelain and ceramic production. High quality Noritaki china is still coveted. But on the other hand, the country also produced a bewildering array of salt and pepper shakers, figurines and other kitschy items, primarily in the ’40s and ’50s. All my vintage salt and pepper shakers come from Japan. (Yes, I said “all”.  There are more. I know.)

After buying Salte and Pepe, I was shocked to learn that one of my friends (who shall remain nameless) had a huge collection of vintage salt and pepper shakers. He explained to me that the Made in Japan items were more collectible than non-stamped or North American ones (due to the Japanese reputation for quality porcelain), and those stamped “made in Occupied Japan” were more coveted still. Japan was occupied by the U.S. and its allies from 1945 to 1952. Americans boycotted Japanese products during the war, but the post-war “Occupied Japan” labels assured Americans that part of the proceeds from items made in the country of their former enemy would go toward war reparations.

(These shakers may make a full-on appearance later.)

I’ve been trying to figure out why salt and pepper shakers became collectible. More specifically, why I temporary got caught up in it (it was a long time ago—I promise). The best I can figure is that it has something to do with the sheer variety of them. Go on ebay or any collectible site and look up “vintage salt and pepper shakers.”  Hundreds of them. All different.  It’s like hockey cards. Once you have a few that are different, it becomes an obsession to find all the others that are unique from the ones you have. There’s always another out there that’s better than the one you just got. Luckily, I managed to stop before it became interventionable.

If there’s any interest, maybe I’ll pull out the rest. We can have Kitsch Week! Yay or Nay? Will you think less of me if you see what’s really hiding in my cupboard?

Score(s)!

Speaking of musicals…I was lucky to be gifted this week with some great vintage sheet music (thanks Jesse!). This was the first one that caught my eye.

First of all, it’s Elvis! Second, this is a beautiful song. I first heard “A Fool Such as I” sung by my friend Colonel Tom who sings a lovely, traditional country interpretation of it. It was actually recorded by Hank Snow before Presley rockabillied it up. Third, it has ukulele chords! My vintage banjolele has been fixed and restrung, and is rarin’ to go.

Among the others I snagged:

  • “Unchained Melody” (1955): A beautiful tune…I didn’t know it came from a movie called Unchained. This also has ukulele chords (See? The Uke really was popular in the ‘50s.)
  • “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (1955): I don’t particularly like this song, but I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since one of my university classmates pointed out that every Emily Dickenson poem can be sung to it.
  • “Tiny Bubbles” (1966): Also, not a song I’m actually fond of, but it’s Don Ho! Right on the cover! I vaguely remember seeing Don Ho on TV, but I also have a childhood memory of seeing a drunk (or acting drunk) Dean Martin singing and hiccupping his way through this song. The sheet music that I have actually has Hawaiian lyrics as well as the English. It sounds way better as “Hua Li’l”. More ukulele!
  • “There Ought to be a Moonlight Saving Time” (1931): Fox Trot! 1930s style graphic of a mooney couple holding hands and sitting on the moon. Twoo Wuv. I really do love the music from the ‘30s, so I’m looking forward to hearing this one.
  • “Just a Cottage Small (By a Waterfall)” (1925). Never heard of it, but it’s also “with UKULELE accompaniment”. Big selling point in the ‘20s, as now. Plus, I love cottages.
  • “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908; this version, 1936). I am likely never to perform this song, “the official baseball song”, I’m told, even though it—yes—has ukulele chords. But this version was marketed as being from “M.G.M.’s Gay Technicolor Musical!” And the cover is graced with the disembodied heads of Esther Williams, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. I heart Gene Kelly.
  • “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”(1913). Again, never heard it before. This one is the only one without ukulele chords. But it has a great cover: A cowboy, with his horse; a waterfall (this might be a variation on the Cottage Small By a Waterfall); a lonely pining gal in a bonnet, gazing at the waterfall (thereby not noticing the handsome or creepy cowboy spying on her from afar). Plus, according to the cameo in the bottom corner, this song was made famous by a slightly crazed-looking woman named Edna Whistler, who has, sadly, fallen into obscurity. Some smart-ass has penciled in a couple of her teeth, to predictable effect. All I can find out about poor Edna is that she was a vaudeville performer, had a few minor roles on Broadway, and died in 1934…but she was apparently big enough in 1913 to be a selling feature on this sheet music.


The Company

This was the production that got me hooked on theatre.

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I was in the seventh grade and had a school assignment to see a play and write a review of it. I had most of the term to do it, but left it rather late. I got out the theatre listings and started calling various theatres around Toronto, to find tickets to something—anything. But I had little luck, because a) tickets were too expensive, or  b) shows were sold out, or c) it was the ’70s, and there were a disproportionate number of shows that involved nudity and therefore off limits to an adolescent. One ticket agent reamed me out over the phone because she thought I was deliberately trying to get into a nude show, when, really, I was just ignorant.

Finally a nicer ticket agent from one of those verboten nude shows suggested I try the Bayview Playhouse Theatre. She said there was a show there that I’d probably like that was ok for under-14s. I knew nothing about the show other than it was a musical and at a theatre I could easily take the bus to, and I lucked out and found last-minute matinee tickets. I dragged along a friend who had a different English teacher and didn’t have to write an assignment about it.

I didn’t just like Godspell—I loved it. Ridiculously, giddily loved it. I’ve been a sucker for musicals ever since. I ended up going back and seeing it three times before the run ended, even dragging my whole family along for one performance. Even as a 12-year-old I was aware of something extraordinary going on. And no wonder—check out the cast:

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Gilda Radner, Jayne Eastwood, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, etc.,…all before they were famous. And the musical conductor was Paul Shaffer, of David Letterman fame. People still talk about this production, for good reason. The combined talent nearly blew the roof off the place.

A while later, the same friend and I saw another musical at the Bayview Playhouse that also featured Martin Short. We ran into him on the sidewalk afterward and turned into blubbering idiots. He was friendly and gracious, and had all the time in the world to talk to a couple of star-struck kids. At least at the time I had my youth as an excuse. If I ran into him today, I’d still be a blubbering idiot. Hopefully he’ll forgive me if I told him I saw him in Godspell…squee!

As you can see, I still have the program. I wish I still had the assignment that I wrote about the show. I know I gushed about the production, but it would be interesting to see a 12-year-old’s take on a seminal moment in Canadian theatre history.

Welsh Rabbit

Not the tasty dish with beer-soaked melted cheese…a little book I picked up in Aberystwyth, Wales.
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I won’t give away too much in case any of you plan to read it, but it’s an exciting tale about a character called Pwtan who has adventures (while his milquetoast siblings, Fflopsi, Mopsi and Cwta Wen, stay home with their mam). There is a suspenseful scene in Meistr Morus Huws’ garden that might be too frightening for young readers, but rest assured Pwtan does escape to return to his family. Critical takes on the ending are ambiguous; while some consider that the book advocates spirited rebellion in children,  other critics point out [spoiler alert] that Pwtan may be punished for his transgressions in the end, as he is possibly stricken with annwyd and sent to bed, while his non-adventurous siblings are rewarded with a delectible supper of fara-llefrith and mwyar.

Mrs. Malkin’s Purse

A few years ago I went in search of a vintage purse for a wedding I was attending. Hitting up my favourite haunts in Kensington Market, I decided on this little black silk-taffeta number:

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I found it in the same store where I later found my 1920s banjolele. I seem to have some kind of interesting vintage karma going on with that place.

The purse is vintage 1940s or 1950s, with a label that says “Styled by Du-val, Toronto, Canada.”  I’ve since found a few other purses online with “Styled by Du-val” labels, but their labels said either “Hong Kong” or “Japan.” I can’t find out anything about this company. Not that it matters…while I don’t know much about this find’s provinence as a vintage purse, I do know something about its previous owner.

When I got home I discovered that the small pocket in the lining was actually a double pocket, and deep in the second pocket were hidden a few surprises: a tiny clear lucite comb, two pennies (1941 American and 1951 Canadian), and two handwritten place cards from a long-ago fancy dinner, with the names of one Mrs. Malkin and her husband.

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I have a friend who’s last name is Malkin, who I hadn’t seen in a long time since he’d moved across the country. Mrs. Malkin’s place cards made me think of him. I wrote him to tell him that I may have just bought his grandmother’s purse. We don’t actually know if this Mrs. Malkin was any relation or not, but we both think it would be nifty if she was.

I think Mrs. Malkin was something of the sentimental sort. That dinner must have been special for her to keep the place cards, and it’s sweet that she kept not just hers but her husband’s as well. And the two pennies…

For some reason it never seemed that they were just random change that had fallen to the bottom of her purse, especially since they were in the inner pocket, and women would have kept their coins in a change purse. They felt like lucky pennies deliberately kept in the purse. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a lucky penny in a purse. There is a superstition that you should never give a purse or wallet as a gift without leaving a coin in it. It’s supposed to ensure that the purse will never be empty. My grandmother did this, and I still do it. Some of us also do this with purses we donate to charity, so it will be lucky for the new owner.

But here were two pennies, not one. And since the comb and place cards were still in the purse, I’m more inclined to think these were Mrs. Malkin’s lucky pennies, forgotten in the purse rather than deliberately left there. Why did Mrs. Malkin have two lucky pennies? Because I’d already found a love token made of two dimes, and two having symbolic significance for partnerships in many cultures, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to think that the two pennies somehow belonged, symbolically, with the two place cards…a penny for Mrs. Malkin and one for Mr. Malkin. Were the dates and countries of origin significant in any way? Sometimes they are, with lucky pennies.

All speculation, of course. I don’t know what Mrs. Malkin’s real story was…but it does seem like her purse is trying to tell one.

Are You There, Nessie?

Here’s something else from my cabinet of curiosities that has a story. It’s my souvenir of Scotland. Not what you’d normally expect…it’s a piece of fossilized bone, given to me by a marine biologist, on the shores of Loch Ness.

dinosaur fossil

Several years ago, on an extended trip to the British Isles, I went up north to Inverness for a few days. While there, I heard about a day trip to Loch Ness offered by a company called Gordon’s Mini Bus Tours, which came with good recommendations. I signed up. I’ve recently learned that, sadly, Gordon died in 2002, after being hit by a car in his home town. This is supremely unfair. While it seems some of Gordon’s colleagues have attempted to carry on his tours, it just wouldn’t be the same without Gordon.

Some things I found out right away:

  • The bus was truly mini, holding a maximum of 10 people, including the driver and our guide, Gordon, in very close quarters.
  • Gordon sounded exactly—and I mean exactly—like Cary Grant, and was charming as heck.
  • Gordon’s tours were one part tourism and one very large part participatory theatre.

Our first stop was a local village, where Gordon handed each of us cryptic notes and sent us off in different directions on a scavenger hunt. I was sent to a bakery, where I exchanged my note for a mystery bag that contained buns. Someone else was sent to the butcher and came back with a bag of sausages. No explanation at the time…was Gordon using us to do his grocery shopping?

But as it was a long drive to Loch Ness, we eventually stopped for lunch. The bus pulled over on the road in the middle of nowhere and Gordon led us down an embankment to a ravine, at the bottom of which was an unlit campfire. While Gordon lit the fire, he told us stories about various Scottish kings and battles and other historical highland goings-on that had happened near this ravine. Lunch was not only the aforementioned sausages and buns…Gordon also boiled a haggis over the fire, and passed around whisky in tin cups. He also handed out sheet music and had us singing songs about Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the full-on Scottish Experience.

By the time we arrived at Loch Ness, we’d learned that Gordon—a.k.a. Dr. Gordon Williamson— had a Ph.D. in marine biology, and had also worked at some point as a kindergarten teacher. One the one hand, he had a solid understanding of the real science that could verify or debunk the possibility of the Loch Ness Monster. On the other hand, he had a childlike sense of wonder and openness to the possibility of magic and myth, not to mention a mischievous sense of humour. He told us about various hoaxes, but also about documented sonar experiments that found very large moving somethings in the lake. Did he believe in Nessie? He left that up to us, but he did provide a few scientific theories that made it at least possible, such as the fact that there are many species around today that are descendants of prehistoric animals that haven’t changed much, like alligators and whales, and that it’s not impossible for the descendents of prehistoric marine creatures to be present today in remote northern waters. It was possible that something large and rare, viewed as a “monster” by those who have seen her, actually existed in the murky depths of Loch Ness.

This piece of fossil that Gordon gave me was, he said, from a dinosaur bone, supposedly found nearby. At the time I didn’t know if it was true or not. He was a good storyteller, and never came clean on whether he truly believed in Nessie or not. It was a fossilized something, anyway. I’ve since found out that Dr. Gordon Williamson did indeed use real plesiosaur fossils in demonstrations. If the Loch Ness Monster is a descendant of a dinosaur, the plesiosaur is one of the more likely candidates, so say the believers.

Gordon put my (possibly plesiosaur) fossil in a plastic tube and wrote my name and “Loch Ness” on it, and also added a little message from Nessie:

On our way back to Inverness, we again stopped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Gordon sent us off up a hill and gave us directions to follow, like “turn left at the big tree at the top of the hill, then down to the rock pile, then look for the cattle gate…” He didn’t come with us, however, and while it was picturesque, we had no idea what we were looking for. We hiked through a cow pasture (with cows), climbed a couple of fences, crossed a large purple and green meadow and slid down a hill before we found ourselves back at the bus. “What was that about?” we asked. In his Cary Grant voice, Gordon said, “Well, you’re in Scotland! You must go traipsing through the heather!”

So my souvenir of Scotland is, maybe, perhaps, possibly, a piece of a Loch Ness Monster. Or not. Either way, it is a unique souvenir of a truly memorable day. Cheers to you, Gordon, wherever you are.