Planting time: Fascinating figural planters

April 2024

SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

Planting time: Fascinating figural planters

by Donald-Brian Johnson

Spring is here at last! Time to break out the spades, and break in those new gardening gloves. Time to ferret out that trowel from wherever you stashed it last fall. Yes, time’s a-wasting, and Mother Earth is waiting!

That is, she’s waiting if you actually have a place to plant a garden. Or if you have a green thumb. Preferably both. If not, there are remedies besides artificial greenery: indoor ceramic planters! Not just your traditional bowls and rectangles, these are figural planters, which came into their own in the 1940s and ‘50s. Guaranteed rays of decorative sunshine, figural planters turn any environment into a garden party.

Lifting non-green-thumbers out of their doldrums was probably not the first consideration of the artisans who created these planters. During the early years of the 20th century, America had relied on overseas imports for affordable decorative accents. World War II changed all that. Imports were unavailable for the duration, and inexpensive home décor items (for instance, planters) needed to be home-grown.

Ceramic designers of the World War II years could, quite literally, be called “designing women.” With much of the male population otherwise occupied overseas, female designers surged to the forefront. California alone saw the rise of such talents as Kaye (aka “Kaye of Hollywood”), Yona Lippin, Betty Lou Nichols, Florence Ward (Florence Ceramics), and Jimmie Lee Stewart of deLee Art. But when it came to figurines, the most prolific of them all was Hedi Schoop.

A Swiss émigré, Schoop successfully translated her early work with plaster dolls to the ceramic medium. Acclaimed as “very whimsical and smart,” her figurines won fans due to their flowing lines, eye-catching glazes, and “in-motion” poses. Schoop also served as an inspiration to other designers, including both Kaye and Yona, whose career paths began at her factory.

At first, stand-alone figurines took center stage. Peasant girls, wistful maidens, and courting couples by Hedi and her contemporaries transferred quickly from store shelves to home shelves, as consumers snapped them up. Buoyed by the response, designers expanded their inventory themes. Soon joining the ceramic throng were international characters, children, animals, and even fantasy and fairy tale figurines. The public devoured these too, but still wanted more. Designers once again obliged, and released accompanying pieces (candlesticks, soap dishes, bowls, ashtrays, et al), in colors and designs that complemented the original figurines. Most popular though, were figurals that did double duty, such as wall pockets and “lady head vases” with openings intended to hold a small spray of flowers. At the very top of the double-duty list: figural planters.

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

“Fritz & Anna,” the “Pleasant Peasants”

“Fritz & Anna,” the “Pleasant Peasants” by Betty Lou Nichols. Fritz’s beer keg doubles as a planter. Tallest figure, 9-1/2” h., $150-175/pr. Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

“Blue Dancers”

Hedi Schoop’s graceful “Blue Dancers” kick up their heels. 12-1/2” h., $175-200/pr. (Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann)

 

 

No need now for extra pieces such as bowls or ashtrays. Here, the secondary use was built-in. It was a figurine. It was a planter; It was a figural planter! Even better, the “useful” part flowed directly from the figurine design. Now, those peasant girls by Hedi, Kaye, and Yona carried empty buckets, pails, or baskets waiting to be filled with greenery. Some held out open aprons waiting to overflow with the flowers you’d supply, or cradled their arms in anticipation of the floral bouquets that would soon fill them. Exotic Asian figurines held oversize open fans… sleepy babies curled up next to open crescent moons… and elegant ladies lounged against open-top tree stumps or columns. There were even the occasional oddities: the Betty Lou Nichols “Peasant” couple “Fritz and Anna,” with Fritz’s beer keg serving as a planter… the deLee Gay ‘90s girl with a planter opening in her bustle… the clown (by an unnamed designer) waiting for a cactus to grace the back of his baggy pants.

Whether the blossoms you plant are real or plastic, vintage figural planters make attractive containers for mini-gardens. And, since the majority sell for well under $100, the prices are equally attractive. You might say it’s a collecting hobby that just sort of grows on you.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

Hoppin’ down the bunny trail: America’s Easter traditions

March 2024

SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

Hoppin’ down the bunny trail: America’s Easter traditions

by Donald-Brian Johnson

“Here Comes Peter Cottontail,
Hoppin’ down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity, Easter’s on its way!”
(Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins, 1950)

That Gene Autry. First, the cowboy crooner set his sights on Christmas, giving us the lowdown on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and offering the timely reminder, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Then, Gene sidled on down the trail a-piece, until he found another holiday worth celebrating. The result: 1950’s bouncy “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.”

Holiday-happy Irving Berlin put all his eggs in one basket, too. “Easter Parade” started off as a song, then became the title of the 1948 Judy Garland/Fred Astaire movie smash. No bunnies, just a tuneful tribute to a beloved Easter Sunday tradition: folks decked out in bandbox finery, strolling down Fifth Avenue (Berlin was a master of re-invention. When an early composition “Smile, and Show Your Dimple” flopped, he put it away until 1933, when “Easter Parade”– the same tune with new lyrics – debuted).

Sprightly songs are one thing. But marshmallow Peeps? Be-ribboned bonnets? Frisky bunnies delivering candy-stuffed baskets? Just how did a major Christian holiday become teamed up with such unlikely springtime bedfellows? Well, blame it on that ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess “Eostre.” When Christianity arrived, it meant easing converts out of long-held pagan practices. Since the spring observance of Christ’s Resurrection roughly coincided with the timing of “Eostre’s” festival, a new celebration supplanted the old. The name remained (sort of); so did “Eostre’s” earthly symbol: the rabbit.

Lent was a period of penitence, “Mardi Gras” the final fling leading into it, Easter the grand celebration of its close. Gradually, Easter’s religious aspects were joined and complemented by secular traditions, celebrating spring as a season of rebirth and renewal. And, from the early 1900s onward, many of those traditions have enjoyed their greatest popularity in America:

Easter eggs
In medieval times, eggs, a symbol of new life, were not eaten during Lent. When Easter rolled around, exchanging Easter eggs seemed egg-zactly right. Back then, the wealthy wrapped theirs in gold leaf; the rest of the world settled for eggs color-stained with flower petals.

The Easter Bunny
In Germany, the “Oschter Haws” (“Easter Hare”) hides nests of brightly colored eggs. German immigrants brought the tradition to America in the 1700s (Incidentally, says the National Confectioner’s Association, 76% of Americans think chocolate bunnies should be eaten “ears first!”).

Easter cards
To boost sales, a printer in Victorian England spruced up generic spring greeting cards with bunnies. Today, while not leading the Easter parade, Easter cards follow Christmas, Valentines Day, and Mother’s Day cards in popularity.

 

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Honeycomb chick table decoration

Honeycomb chick table decoration, egg dye kit, and metal eggs with Easter decals. New/old stock from Campbell’s Department Store, Bridgewater Iowa, late 1940s. Chick and dye kit, $15-20 each; eggs $5-7 each. (Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann)

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Flexible fabric Easter Bunny

All set for his big day: flexible fabric Easter Bunny by Annalee. $20-25. (Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann)

 

Easter lilies
Early Christians viewed the lily as a symbol of purity. The white trumpet lily made its U.S. debut in the early 1900s, by way of Bermuda.

Peeps
Every Easter, we choke down more than 700 million of these marshmallow confections. Yellow chicks are the most popular, although there are Peep bunnies and eggs, too. It takes six minutes to make a Peep. In 1953, it took 27 hours.

Jellybeans
16 billion are gobbled up each Easter Sunday (and swept up for weeks afterward). Boston candy maker William Schrafft came up with the concept during the Civil War; customers were encouraged to send these nearly indestructible treats to soldiers.

Easter bonnets
It’s long been considered “good luck” to wear something new at Easter; 18th-century author “Poor Robin” advised, “At Easter, let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.” Even in the direst days of the Depression, a new Easter bonnet, (or, at least a refurbished old one), remained within the range of most pocketbooks. As the inimitable Irving Berlin put it:

“In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady
in the Easter Parade.”

(Unless, of course, you’re Fred Astaire. In that case, a top hat will do, and you’re the “grandest fella!”)
Happy Easter!

 

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

Valentine boxes evoke childhood memories

February 2024

SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

Valentine boxes evoke childhood memories

by Donald-Brian Johnson

Here’s a memory-jogger: it’s Valentine’s Day in mid-20th century America, and across the country, nearly every elementary school classroom has something in common. Atop each weatherbeaten desk sits a “valentine box.” It began life as just another old shoebox, but now, carefully covered in colorful construction paper, and festooned with cutout red hearts, it’s been transformed (For the less artistically inclined, there were “valentine bags”—grocery sacks, minus the construction paper, but still sporting an array of drawn or pasted hearts).

Each receptacle had an opening cut into it, ready to receive its quota of cards — and there was a quota. Everybody gave a valentine, and everybody got one. That included the tough kid across the aisle who, every so often, “borrowed” your lunch money—and that girl with the braids, who accidentally mushed your favorite Crayola.

Lessons over, the teacher finally announced, “you may look at your valentines.” Box covers came off, bag tops were unrolled, and each student eagerly perused his or her “take” (after carefully counting them first). There were generic “to a friend” valentines, with illustrations of romping cats or puppies.

There were funny valentines, with chortle-provoking corny puns. There may even have been a valentine with an innocent romantic message — one that had you looking at that girl with the braids through different eyes.

Then, the school bell rang. Your valentines were packed up, brought home, and piled in a box of “school papers,” alongside their compatriots from previous years. Out of sight, and out of mind. Remember?

According to legend, the first valentine greeting was sent by the man himself: St. Valentine (Actually, there are at least three “St. Valentines,” each clamoring to be recognized as the day’s patron saint, but here’s the most romantic story).
A third-century clergyman, this Valentine was imprisoned for performing marriages in defiance of Emperor Claudius II, who’d decreed that all men of military age must remain single. While in prison, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, declaring his feelings in a note signed “from your Valentine.” Since Valentine was eventually beheaded, the story lacks a happy ending, but nonetheless, a tradition was born.

The oldest-known written valentine dates from 1415, a poem the Duke of Orleans sent to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shortly thereafter, King Henry V began sending valentines to his favorite, Catherine of Valois, although Henry hired a professional poet to do the heavy lifting.

By the 1700s, kings and dukes weren’t the only ones dispensing valentines. Each Feb. 14th, handwritten valentine messages made their way across all levels of society, often accompanied by small gifts. The dawn of mass printing and inexpensive postal rates meant that, by the early 1800s, just about anyone who wanted to could send, (and hopefully, receive), a valentine.

In the 1840s, ready-made valentines swept the United States, thanks to Esther A. Howland (now hailed by grateful retailers as the “Mother of the Valentine”). Her creations were quite lavish, incorporating ribbon, lace, and colorful bits of material. Joining the traditional visuals of hearts and flowers was “Cupid,” that little winged fellow with the bow and arrow. It was a logical choice: in ancient Roman mythology, Cupid’s the son of Venus, goddess of love.

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Vintage Valentine card

A Nautical-themed single-sheet Valentine from the 1940s. Image courtesy of the author and photography associate Hank Kuhlmann.

 

Nowadays, the Greeting Card Association notes that more than one billion valentines are sent annually, vs. two-and-a-half billion Christmas cards. Women buy 85 percent of them (which should have plenty of husbands and boyfriends hanging their heads in shame).

Valentines (including the ones you saved from grade school), remain popular with collectors, who enjoy their colorful visuals, whimsical themes, varied functions (for instance, pop-up, or moving-part valentines), and affordable prices (most are under $5). Displayed singly, or framed in a montage, vintage valentines add a touch of nostalgia to any décor. They’re also guaranteed to rekindle plenty of nostalgic memories—of carefree days, childhood friends. . .and, of course, the “valentine box.”

 

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

This month: ‘Just an old Christmas card’

December 2023

SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

This month: ‘Just an old Christmas card’

by Donald-Brian Johnson

Here’s when the Christmas season really gets underway: one wintry day, amongst the deluge of bills and ads, your daily mail coughs up something out of the ordinary. Maybe it’s an envelope dotted with stenciled snowflakes. Maybe there’s a grinning snowman on an address label. But you know, even before opening it, exactly what you’ve received. It’s your first Christmas card. Let the holidays begin!

Commercially-produced Christmas cards first came to us courtesy of Sir Henry Cole, director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cole had a tradition of sending handwritten holiday greetings to family and friends, but by 1843 the list was lengthy. Inspiration struck: he commissioned John Calcott Horsley, a member of the Royal Academy, to create a card that could be lithographed and colored by hand. “Extras” in the initial printing of 1,000 were then made available for sale to the general public.

Horsley’s 3” x 5” card illustrated three scenes: A family enjoying a holiday toast filled the central panel; the side panels featured folks performing charitable acts. The cards were roundly condemned, however, because one figure shown sipping wine in the central panel was a child. They were quickly withdrawn from the market; today, only about a dozen remain.

Over the next several years, the custom of card exchange grew in popularity, although initially only the wealthy could afford them. Then, thanks to the use of less costly paper and the development of the steam printing press, production costs plummeted. And, thanks to England’s Postal Act of 1840, even mailing a Christmas card was extremely affordable: postage was just a penny to anywhere in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, those sending “season’s greetings” had to make do with imported cards until 1875. That’s when Louis Prang, the “Father of the American Christmas Card,” began to sell them domestically. Prang’s “chromos” utilized zinc plates, which proved much less expensive than previous methods of color printing. The Christmas card tradition caught on here just as quickly as it had overseas; by the 1880s, Prang produced nearly five million cards annually.

By the 1920s, the Christmas card thematic pattern had become well-established, offering up a unique blend of nostalgia, sentiment, and season-specific visuals. Holiday wishes became particularly poignant during World War II, as greetings were sent to those overseas, keeping morale high, both at home and abroad.

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

“From Our House To Your House”

A Christmas greeting that never grows old: “From Our House To Your House,” by A & W, early 1950s. The homes are festooned with flocked snow. Image courtesy of Donald-Brian Johnson and Hank Kuhlman

 

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Week Of Christmas Blessings

Each candle on this early-1950s “Week Of Christmas Blessings” offers a different wish. Among them: “Hope,” Peace,” and “Good Will.” Image courtesy of Donald-Brian Johnson and Hank Kuhlman

 

 

While later cards incorporated photo art, those of the 1940s and ‘50s relied mainly on illustration. Novelty additions, such as glitter, flocking, window cut-outs, pop-ups, and pull-out tabs were often used. Card trim could include everything from lace ribbon bows to cotton snowdrifts to metallic foil accents.

Photo Cards

Today, many families wouldn’t consider a Christmas card complete without a family photo. The fad began in the late 1930s, with amateur black-and-whites adorning semi-glossy one-sheets.

Studio Cards

More upscale than a box of dime store holiday cards, the “studio card” of the 1950s and ‘60s provided understated elegance at overstated cost. Each season’s selection was displayed to prospective buyers in humungous “sample books.”

Hi Brows

Instantly recognizable by their tall and narrow shape, “Hi Brows” were introduced by American Greetings in 1957. The “Hi Brow” deconstructed the traditional Christmas greeting, reconfiguring it as hip and offbeat, with just a dash of snarky humor.
Over the decades, Christmas cards have been prized, not only for their individual, intrinsic charm, but also for the nostalgic memories they evoke. Memories, if not of a time we personally recall, at least of a time we’ve heard about, or read about, or dreamed about. Arranged individually, or as part of a larger holiday display, vintage Christmas cards remain an extremely affordable collectible; most average well under $15. They also provide an ongoing visual impetus for peace and good will, not just at Christmastime, but year-round.

The mail is here–and so’s that first card. Merry Christmas to all!

 

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

This month: ‘Heads Up! Character Wall Masks by Bossons’

November 2023

SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE

This month: ‘Heads Up! Character Wall Masks by Bossons’

by Donald-Brian Johnson

Ever wanted to study a “Tyrolean” up close? How about a “Smuggler?” A “Fisherman?” A “Fiji Islander?”

For collectors of Bossons Character Masks, opportunities like those are as close as checking out what’s hanging on the wall. There, in all their ethnic or character-inspired glory, are three-dimensional “heads,” celebrating the world’s diversity. There are characters from countries read about, yet still to be visited (“The Himalayan”; “The Corsican”; “The Rumanian”). Denizens of the Wild West (“Rawhide”; “The Old Timer”; “Tecumseh”). Working folk from all walks of life (“The Chef”; “The Lifeboatman”; “The Clown”). Ray Bossons’ intricately-detailed depictions run the global gamut, each encapsulating, in just about 6 inches, the essence of their subjects.
Unlike wall-mount “lady head vases,” which have an opening for flowers in the crown of the lady’s oversize hat, Bossons heads are solid plaster. The firm’s publicity referred to them as “wall masks,” which hits it right on the head. Not Halloween masks. Not pandemic masks. These are “life masks,” capturing facial likenesses with as much precision as possible.

Based in Congleton, England, the company was founded shortly after World War II by W. H. Bossons. With an extensive background in ceramics and tile work, W.H. saw a future in the manufacture of decorative plaster items. Following military service, son W. “Ray” Bossons joined the firm. A trained potter with considerable marketing experience, Ray became Bossons’ principal designer.
Plaster art had long been dismissed as a “poor man’s marble,” especially by those who could afford the real thing. For those who couldn’t (which included most prospective Bossons customers), attractive home décor items at attractive prices were just the ticket. Not “the real thing?” They were the next best thing, and that was good enough.

Bossons early success came with the release of high-relief plaques celebrating “Beautiful Britain,” from “Shakespeare’s Birthplace” to “Salisbury Cathedral.” Ranging in size from small “plaquettes” to whopping 14” rounds, the hand-painted plaques, with their sculpted three-dimensional highlights, brought a touch of class to any home (Most of those homes, incidentally, were outside of Great Britain. Due to a domestic sales tax of 125 percent, exports over the years accounted for almost 75 percent of Bossons’ business).

Bossons plaques and products were easy to find. If fine jewelry stores turned up their noses, there were plenty of other options: gift and collectible shops, tobacco shops, and souvenir shops on cruise ships. There was soon a bounty of Bossons products to choose from, including shelf ornaments, mirrors, barometers, thermometers, book ends, and lamp bases. In addition to scenic views, the 3-D variety encompassed everything from floral groupings to hunting scenes. And then, of course, there were the heads.

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Rawhide

“Rawhide,” 1968. Image courtesy of the author and Hank Kuhlmann. Bossons heads courtesy of Doug (Pete) Petersen (djtoysandtreasures@gmail.com

 

 

Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

Tyrolean

“Tyrolean,” 1972. Image courtesy of the author and Hank Kuhlmann. Bossons heads courtesy of Doug (Pete) Petersen (djtoysandtreasures@gmail.com).

 

Ray Bossons designed his initial “Character Wall Mask” in 1958 (a “Snake Charmer”). The masks made their official debut in the 1959 catalog. From then on, Bossons masks were at the head of the company line. Each year’s catalog introduced new members of the Bossons community, and consumers couldn’t get enough. In addition to character and ethnic heads, there were animal and bird heads; heads modeled after fictional characters (including a generous assortment of Charles Dickens’ all-stars, from “Mr. Pickwick” to “Ebenezer Scrooge”); and even the occasional historical favorite, such as Sir Winston Churchill. While other modelers were employed over the years, the design impetus always came from Ray Bossons. If a mask wasn’t yet deemed ready for release, it was held back.

In 1996, Bossons ceased operations. Since then, appreciation for Bossons masks, and the company’s other plaster and pottery products, has been the realm of a devoted band of collectors. Annual conventions are held, two Bossons books have been written, and nearly 1,500 Bossons heads are available on eBay each day. Of those, the majority have a “buy-it-now” price of under $50. As in the past, Bossons prices remain as attractive as Bossons masks. In other words, head and shoulders above the competition.

 

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com