Odds and Sods Around Our House

In the last post I mentioned a weakness I had back for buying sprees in the days when Neiman-Marcus and Horchow catalogues would appear in the post. Often it involved silly fripperies that would find their way under the Christmas tree or wrapped as a birthday present. For example: an antique silver brush to clean champagne flutes, a 24k gold-plated toothbrush with whisky and scotch flavoured toothpaste, or a toilet brush from a design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Hey don’t judge – they seemed like good ideas at the time!

This 24l gold plated toothbrush was listed in their “GIFTS UNDER $25.00” in 1980 – so I bought two. Laurent still has his.

But it wasn’t just small items. Oh no! Amongst other things we had tiki torches (nobody had them in those days), a hanging flower basket from Java, and two extremely esoteric tables delivered from the mother-lode in Texas to our door in Ottawa. The torches and basket have long since gone the way of all wicker but the past 40-odd years the two tables have graced living rooms in Ottawa, Aylmer and Charlottetown.

Back in the mid-1970s China was opening for trade with the United States. The good buyers from N-M and Horchow went mad scooping up the bargains to be had and selling them to those of us interesting in being on the cutting edge of interior design. Aside from the porcelain stools and pseudo-Ming vases one item caught my eye. It purported to be a “Chinese Wedding Box” from an undefined period. An octagonal box covered with lacquered calligraphy paper* it is made of a wood – perhaps cedar? – that has remained fragrant to this day.

The lock is an interesting piece of simple technology involving a brass carp, a thin brass strip, and an ingenuous metal spring.

Rather than trying to explain it I thought I’d do a short 20 second video to show how it works.

Though I question its authenticity as a wedding box the canny marketing text suggested that it would make a great side table. And indeed over the years it has!

The word for October 28th is:
Esoteric /ˌesəˈterik/: [adjective]
Intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.
Mid 17th century: from Greek esōterikos, from esōterō, comparative of esō ‘within’, from es, eis ‘into’.

*Though it was stated that the characters were wishes for health, wealth and happiness heaven only knows what it actually says. One N-M buyer was tricked into purchasing watches that had Chinese characters rather than our standard Arabic numbers. They were suppose to predict good fortune but when they appeared in the catalogue they heard back from a few highly amused customers who read Chinese. It actually said: “We shall take over America by force.” It was removed from sale.

Odds and Sods Around Our House

The town of Almonte, north-west of Ottawa has always been a bit of an artsy place but has now become a hotbed of boutiques, cunning little cafes and artisan workshops. I understand it has also become the fill-in for small town USA in many Hallmark Christmas movies. Never having had the pleasure (?) of viewing one I can’t actually vouch from that fact but apparently the town worthies are mightly pleased.

Looking towards the Old Post Office in Almonte.

One autumn day back in the early ’90s, when it was just becoming a bit of an attraction, we headed up that way for some lunch and a spot of window shopping. In one of the windows there was an interesting display of hand made throw cushions. They were fashioned of various leathers, patterned fabrics and braids, and resembled antique volumes in an old library. We were intrigued by both the designs and the craft involved in creating them. As we already had an end table that resemble an old library stack we thought they would be a good compliment and left with two of them elegantly wrapped in hand blocked paper. Talk about your actual *artisanal!

Of course once we got them home we realized that they weren’t exactly made for snuggling but they gave a certain air of studied elegance to our decor. And they do make for the occasional conversational gambit.

This weighty 15″x21″ tome purports to be volume XC (90) in what would appear to be a history – possibly of England. Given the 1066-and-all-that style boat and medieval script the previous volumes must go back to the Resurrection!

I remember at the time I was surprised at the fabrics – where on earth did the artist find them? Well apparently there is a thriving niche market for fabrics patterned with all manner of ephemera – musical, historical and cultural.

Given that Bach wrote over a 1000 compositions it’s not impossible that this could be volume CX. I have tried for ages – even before I needed progressives – to figure out the words on what appears to be a title page of a manuscript. Realizing that it is in German the only word I can make out is “cantata”.

Now Bach wrote over 150 cantatas, recycling existing pieces and inventing new music sometimes at the punishing rate of one a week. Perhaps that CX stands for No. 90 – Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende (A horrible end will carry you off).

Sadly I don’t remember the name of the artist who created the these two pieces of art – and I do honestly consider them art. I do recall that it was a lady in the area. There no sort of discernible signature and a Google search, using various combinations of key words, has revealed nothing. It is a shame as I would love to give recognition to the imagination and creativity that she put into them.

The word for October 21st is:
Artisanal /ärˈtēzən(ə)l/: [adjective]
1. Pertaining to or noting a person skilled in a utilitarian art, trade, or craft, especially one requiring manual skill.
2. Pertaining to or noting a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.
Mid 16th century: from French, from Italian artigiano, based on Latin artitus, past participle of artire ‘instruct in the arts’, from ars, art- ‘art’ + adjectival suffix –al.
*And before the grammar police get the laces of their bustiers into a knot – yes I used it incorrectly as a noun.

Odds and Sods Around Our House

Well these two items definitely qualify as “odds” but useful “odds” none the less.

Back in the day excitement would mount around our house this time of year. It was mid-October when the Christmas book’s from Neiman-Marcus and Howchow would show up in the post. As well as my traditional silver ball (will you ever grow up, dear reader?) there would be all sorts of things you never really knew you needed but ended up wanting. I know that these two goodies came from Horchow but I can’t be sure that it was from their Christmas offerings as we received catalogues from them fairly regularly.

The Horchow Collection Christmas Catalogue – 1978.

The Horchow Collection was the brain child of Roger Horchow, a former N-M buyer, who started his own catalogue company selling unusual high-end but not necessarily high-priced chachkas, table ware, household items, etc. The U.S. dollar was pretty much at par, the duties were low, and shipping cheap so many things found their way from the pages of Roger’s beautifully crafted catalogues to our home.

This eye-glass cradle has graced the bedside table in all our homes. Over 40 years of prescription lenses – attesting to my fading eyesight – have nestled safely and scratch free in the brown suede cradle. I couldn’t tell you how much I paid for it but it has earned its keep over the years.

I have three pocket watches, which I really must write about one of these days, but back when I purchased this plexiglass cube I had only one: a souvenir of the days of the Ottoman Railway. It is a beauty and well worth displaying – wouldn’t you know that Horchow just happen to have something to display it on.

Both are certainly odd items to have around the house but damn have they come in handy over the years.

The word for October 12th is:
Tchotchke /ˈtʃɒtʃkə/: [noun]
1. A small object that is decorative rather than strictly functional; a trinket – often inexpensive.
2. A pretty girl or woman (slang)
A North American Yiddish word (c. 1960) deriving from a Slavic word for “trinket” which has many variations depending on the country e.g. Ukrainian tsjats’ka; Russian tsatski; Slovak čačka etc.
Yes I know I used the chachka but as I discovered the variations are as numerous as there are tsotchke in Aunt Zelda’s china cabinet.

Odds and Sods Around Our Home

Anyone who has followed my blog over the past 14 years knows that I am a fan of the late and, need I say, great Josephine Baker. Frequent posts have featured her performing, and in at least one I reminisced about My Night with Josephine. I’ve also mentioned the Hirschfeld drawing that has found a place in every home we’ve lived in. The famed caricaturist lined her on the occasion of her return to Broadway in February of 1964 and I bought it in Provincetown sometime in the 1980s. Then there are the books, the clippings from her final triumph and sudden death in 1975 preserved between their pages. Yes I am a big fan of La Baker.

Josephine at the Casino de Paris 1930 (?) – William McCaffery used a negative of this photo in his poster.

But there is another Josephine momento I’ve overlooked mentioning. Though how you can overlook a 2 ft by 3 ft poster on copper foil I don’t really know. Again its one of those things that have hung on walls of all our homes. I found it in a poster shop – long since gone – on Front Street on a trip to Toronto in 1977. In 1976 William McCaffery created it for a Variety Club benefit celebrating Josephine’s life and legacy. The image is a reverse negative of a photograph of Josephine in costume for Paris Que Remue, her first big revue at the Casino de Paris in 1930. The one-night only gala on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House featured appearances by Alvin Ailey’s dance company, Eubie Blake, Jeanne Moreau, Jacques d’Amboise, Ingrid Bergman, Ossie Davis, Patti Labelle Mohamed Ali, and a host of others.

Unfortunately it is difficult to photograph anything framed behind glass and this photo does do the gleaming copper justice.

I was overjoyed to see that on November 30th Josephine will be given the honour of being reinterred at the Panthéon in Paris. After her state funeral in 1975 she was buried, in full military uniform and medals, in Monaco. She is being recognized primarily for her activities with the French Resistance as an ambulance driver and a spy during the Second World War. She will be the first entertainer and first black woman to be buried amongst the greats of France. There are only four other women buried at the Pantheon: Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, one of France’s most revered politicians; Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz; and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie.

The word for September 5th is:
Pantheon /ˈpanTHēˌän,ˈpanTHēən/: [noun]
1. A group of particularly respected, famous, or important people.
2. All the gods of a people or religion collectively.
Late Middle English (referring especially to the Pantheon, a large circular temple in Rome): via Latin from Greek pantheion, from pan ‘all’ + theion ‘holy’ (from theos ‘god’).

Odds and Sods Around Our Home

At one point in time we had quite the collection of masks, primarily from Africa and Mexico. However as possessions multiplied and space changed from house to house a culling was the only solution. We whittled the inventory down to two from each area. Should further downsizing be required there is one mask that would stay no matter what.

Sandwiched between Ghana and Benin, Togo is one of the smallest countries in African, and one of the narrowest in the world.

In 1981 Laurent was working on a project for the government of Togo and was required to go to Lomé for a few weeks. I must admit I was a little uneasy about him heading out to a place that I knew very little about. However he made it there and back, without incident and had an interesting time. And he brought back several masks including this beauty.

Though we think of African masks as as face coverings, many are actually meant as totems to be carried, worn, or displayed. They represent spirits of ancestors, animals, or figures from tribal mythology in ceremonies, dances and rituals. A common subject is the cultural idea of feminine beauty. This mask fits that model: the face is a long, narrow oval, the eyes are almond shaped and the nose small.

Though Laurent found this mask in a market in Lomé it is quite possible it came from neighbouring Benin where that type of mask is common. If not, then the influence is certainly there which would not be surprising given that the borders were the work of colonial powers. Prior to the creation of Togo and its neighbours’ borders were fluid. They very much along east-west tribal lines not the artificial north-south boundaries created by the French, German, Portuguese and British interests.

I don’t know the type of wood that it is made from but there is a good chance it is African Teak or Iroko which has been stained. It should not be confused with the teak we commonly know from Scandinavian furniture which is of Asian origin.

Save for the carved face the front surface has been covered in a hard setting pitch. Various elements have been inlaid in the tar: stones, small metal triangles and tooled metal strips coloured to simulate bronze or copper, and multi-coloured beads. There are several places where the triangles change colour indicating that the craftsman may have run out of a material and use what was at hand to complete the work.

The lack of eye or mouth openings suggest that this was to be carried during a ritual or possibly hung as a symbol on a tribal building or shrine. I recall that the person who sold it to Laurent told him it would hang outside the dwelling of the wife of a Chieftain. That of course may have been a story for tourist consumption.

Behind the scenes – I am not sure what the wood is – possibly African teak stained to resemble ebony.

As the first of many gifts that Laurent brought home from his travels it has special meaning. But it is also, to my mind at least, a beautiful piece of art, crafted by an artisan. I treasure it on both those levels.

The word for August 17th is:
Totem /ˈtōdəm/: [noun]
1. A natural object or animal that is believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and that is adopted by it as an emblem.
2. A person or thing regarded as being symbolic or representative of a particular quality or concept.
Late 18th century: from Ojibwa nindoodem ‘my totem’.
Though we tend to think of the word as being an North American term it can be applied to the cultural heritage of all civilizations.