Thursday, December 20, 2012

Collecting ... or not

When I once commented to my husband how I marveled at the quantity of stuff some people manage to amass in their lifetimes, as witnessed by the overflowing abundance offered at the estate sales I am fond of attending, he said, "Maybe they liked to go to estate sales."

I take that warning to heart, I really do, and try to limit my estate sale purchases to things I can actually use, especially quirky little items to include in my tins of "Stuff!" for kids, which have become a fairly popular attraction in my Etsy shop (of course you want to pop over to the toy section to see a few examples, right?)

So when I picked up these sweet little ceramic figurines that were scattered amongst the usual clutter and chaos at one recent estate sale, that's what I had in mind. Although I wasn't sure they were quite small enough to fit in the little boxes, which are the same size as an Altoid tin, but at something like a buck apiece, I figured it was worth the risk.

I like to see what I can find out about items like this when I acquire them, so I looked on the bottoms for any clues as to their origin, and found that the turtle had the words "Wade England" on it. The others simply had little ridges. And so I began my search.

Ceramic figurines like these have been manufactured by Wade Ceramics of England since the 1950s. They are known as Wade Whimsies and are apparently popular collectibles, according to several sources, including the Wade Ceramics website, which promotes a collectors' "club" and continues to manufacture a variety of animals and characters, from Pokemon to Disney characters (according to Wikipedia) to Bette Boop. Their primary market these days is distillers, though; they make ceramic whiskey flagons, too.

Only the earliest figurines had the "Wade England" stamp on them; soon they started putting the ridged texture on the bottom instead, which became a kind of trademark and also has a practical function—you can strike a match on them. Although it's not clear to me whether that was the intention, they were supposedly used in this way in kitchens and pubs, according to the Red Rose Tea company, which has given away Wade Whimsies in some of their boxes of tea as a promotional item since 1967.

 I don't know whether the currently manufactured figurines have this feature, there's probably not a lot of demand for things to strike matches on these days. But it's a novel idea; I may just try it out sometime. Oh, wait—I think our matches are all "strike-on-box" types.

Even though they are considered collectibles, the little figurines are not particularly valuable; at least, not the ones that I have. Some of them are offered for sale online for up to $50, but most are in the $2–$5 range. And I'm not so keen on the cynical world of buying and selling "collectibles" for speculative prices, anyway.

But I still don't know if they'll fit in the little tins because I haven't tried them out yet. I'm kind of inclined to hang onto them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Counting Crows—and Wrens and Chickadees and More

Cooper's hawk (drawings by Sharon Parker)
Today begins the 113th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a comprehensive bird census conducted by fans of birds all over North America and coordinated by the National Audubon Society.

With tens of thousands of birding enthusiasts tallying up millions of birds, the count provides useful bird information to scientists, allowing them to track the distribution of birds in winter and bird population trends, which in turn can be indicators of threats not only to birds but to the environment in general.

But it wasn't really started as a citizen scientist project. Rather, American ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea in 1900 as an alternative to the then-common tradition of the Christmas Side Hunt, in which gangs of hunters joyfully went forth on Christmas Day to slaughter as many small critters, both feathered and furry, as they could. The game was to see which party could count the highest number of little carcasses after the hunt.
Black-capped chickadee

The origin of that tradition may stem from the custom of hunting the wren on the day after Christmas in parts of the British Isles.

Chapman suggested that people skip the hunting part and just go straight to counting instead. Twenty-six others joined him on that first Christmas Bird Census—in Toronto, Ontario, and Pacific Grove, California, along with several cities in Northeastern North America. The number of participants has grown tremendously ever since.

Chapman was an officer in the recently formed Audubon Society, and he was among the scientists and amateurs in the fledgling conservation movement who were concerned about declining bird populations in North America.

The count continues through January 5 and anyone can participate. The Audubon Society website has all the details for those who would like to head out into the snowy field to count birds alongside fellow (peaceful) avian enthusiasts.

Don't look in pear trees for partridges to count, though. You won't find them there; they don't like to perch in trees.

Wild turkey

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hanging of the Greens

The greens on my front step
Today being the first Sunday of Advent, churches everywhere are festooned in the rich evergreens and glittering ornamentation that have come to symbolize the entire season for so many of us. I remember our church's hanging of the greens festivities, when congregants cheerfully gathered to decorate the fragrant trees that had been brought into the sanctuary, and hang garlands about the halls, then join in a convivial meal that we had all contributed to.

It felt like the true beginning of the Christmas season, and it didn't bother us a bit that our Puritan forebears would have been appalled at such an ostentatious display that incorporated pre-Christian —pagan!— customs.

Modern Christians seem to have gotten over that, though, and our midwinter observances are much more cheerful for their having done so. Although it can be a bit ironic when the occasional disgruntled individual complains about all the other holidays and customs that crowd into December, insisting that there is only one "reason for the season." Indeed there is, but it's a purely scientific one: the tilting of the earth's axis. The festivals of many religions are tied to this one dispassionate fact.

All of this leads me to share a rather interesting discovery that I made recently, when researching historical customs around Christmas for a planned self-published chapbook on the 12 Days of Christmas (which, unfortunately, has been set back again, so it won't be done for this Christmas season).

In Medieval times in England right up until the Puritans tried their best to do away with Christmas altogether in early America, advent was not a time for decorating our homes and churches or shopping or parties. It was observed in a manner more comparable to Lent, with dietary restrictions and general austerity. It was a period of spiritual preparation for Christmas, rather than one of material preparation for the holiday, writes Ronald Hutton in The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994)

In fact, going even further, author and historian David Cressy writes in Bonfires & Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England that advent was one of those periods, along with Lent (and one other season known as Rogations that I know too little about), when weddings were forbidden.

This period of fasting — all rich foods were avoided, including eggs, meat, dairy and, of course, sweets — fell between the end of the various harvest feasts, which began with Lammas ("Loaf Mass") on August 1 and continued through Martinmas (St. Martin's Day) on or around November 11, and the beginning of Christmastide.

Churches and homes were decorated on Christmas Eve, and after church services on Christmas Day, the feasting and festivities of the 12 Days of Christmas began and lasted through Epiphany, January 6 (which is actually 13 days, for which I have yet to find a truly satisfactory explanation).

Maybe if we observed Advent in a similar manner nowadays, we would curb some of that holiday weight gain!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Confessions of a Calendar Nerd

The Useful Calendar has been my annual project for about eight or nine years now (I think the first one was 2005, or else it was a 2006 calendar I made in 2005), and it changes a little every year, both in appearance and content.

I have really come to enjoy the whole process, from researching the dates to drawing the main image, to tweaking the design a little each year, and even the rather tedious task of putting it all together: printing it, cutting the little cards, and assembling them.
It started out as a simple one-page calendar of national and local observances, which I conceived as a promotional giveaway when my husband, Craig Cox, and I were publishing the Minneapolis Observer.

You've probably received several promotional calendars; sometimes they're kind of cool, but too often they are just too generic and not very useful.

Which brings me to the Useful Calendar. What I wanted — and so extrapolated to everyone else because everyone is just like me, right? — was a calendar that you could look at without having to lift pages to find out when is Easter this year or on what day of the week is the Fourth of July, and things like that. So I designed my own, and endeavored to include all the dates that I thought would be handy to be able to check quickly and easily when making plans of one sort or another.

I decided that it should include various cultural observances so that a person planning a luncheon or other food-based get-together could be considerate of their Muslim friends and business associates and avoid scheduling it during Ramadan. Or a ham dinner during the Jewish High Holy Days. Soon I was also researching major Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahá'i holidays, doing my best to ascertain which ones called for some sort of restriction in activities, again so that a non-adherent of those religions could be considerate when planning events.

When we stopped publishing the newspaper and started a little quarterly journal of "the bucolic city" I continued the annual calendar as a gift to subscribers and a promotional item to give away at the Twin Cities Book Festival.

When we stopped publishing the quarterly as well (publications as business enterprises are challenging enough, then you compound that by our lack of business acumen and you get a good formula for going broke in a hurry), I wanted to continue making the Useful Calendar, but it didn't make sense as a promotional giveaway anymore.
Also, with my obsession over inclusiveness, the little one-page calendar had begun to get a bit crowded, so for 2012, I went to a larger format (11x17); and I also made a second version as a set of cards that could be carried in a purse or pocket.

And I started selling them in an online shop on the e-marketplace — Arty Didact.

It has continued to grow and change each year. Since I no longer had a strictly local audience (in fact, most of the calendars last year were purchased by people from all over the country), I changed the calendar's focus for 2013 to be about as inclusive internationally as it has been culturally.

But I hate to disappoint those who are in the Twin Cities area, so I added a Twin Cities Supplement card with those local observances.

Several sets are now for sale in my Arty Didact online shop, and I'll have them with me at the Women's Art Festival on Decmber 15 in Minneapolis, as well.

I expect to have the 11x17 poster version ready in another week or so.

Whichever version you look at, I think you'll still find that it's pretty darn useful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Bloomsbury Group in Gordon Square

We biked to the Bloomsbury Farmers' Market today, and after a little breakfast and a cup of coffee, took a walk around nearby Gordon Square, that hub of early-twentieth-century intellectualism known as the Bloomsbury Group.

Gordon Square Gardens, directly across from the row of houses also on the eponymous street, is a lovely little park, with a pretty little café (if we hadn't just had coffee, we would have taken some there),  some gorgeous roses in the lush but not overly tidy gardens and a monument to Indian poet Tagore.

The sign at the entrance to the park offers a nice little overview of the Bloomsbury group, identifying which house numbers were theirs. Interestingly, I did not see a plaque on No. 46, which the sign identifies as most strongly associated with the group. (You should be able to read the signs below if you click to enlarge.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

English Strawberries and the Islington Farmers' Market

Local strawberries from the Islington Farmers' Market
"Strawberries do not travel well," says the English gardening website Garden Action, after claiming that most strawberries found in stores in the UK, "have been grown abroad and transported all the way from the Canary Islands to England."

Ah, but England has farmers' markets, and a good many of them right in London, and on our first full day here, we walked to the Islington Farmers' Market and bought, among other things, some good English strawberries from Eden Farms, an organic grower located on the Lincolnshire Fens. These will pair well with creamy organic yogurt from The People's Supermarket for our breakfast in the morning. With both a food co-op and farmers' market so handy, we are well-provisioned to greet the day with happily fortified tummies.

Since we rented a flat for our 10-day stay here, we planned to prepare many of our own meals not only to save money, but because we have found, when traveling, that eating out begins to lose its appeal when you have no other options.

But after we arrived at the market having passed several attractive pubs and cafés along the way, and sat down at an outdoor coffee shop to savor a latte while watching the passing scene and discuss our meal plans, I surmised that we really weren't going to want to spend much time cooking and washing up when there is so much to savor in this magnificent city. So I suggested that we only plan to eat breakfast and an evening snack at the flat, and was pleased that my husband needed no arm-twisting to agree.

The Islington market sprawls across the length of Chapel Market, a street that we would say is about two blocks long (even though I know the word "block" isn't used in the same way here). At the first part, near Penton Street, are the local and organic growers, then as you walk along a ways, it gets more wide-ranging until it turns into a general flea market, with vendors selling shoes, pictures, and assorted items. We walked through about 3/4 of the market and then turned back, confident that what we wanted would be found at the Penton Street end.

So we bought a round loaf of crusty bread, cheese, smoked salmon, apples and a cucumber—as well as those very delicious local strawberries.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A vintage Italian toy story

On one of my estate sale expeditions earlier this summer, I came across a charming set of coasters with little figures attached, and I thought I could remove the little wooden figures to use in the random toy sets I assemble.  But before taking them apart, I wanted to find out if they were valuable. Besides, I enjoy learning the stories behind vintage objects that I find.

There was no label or logo on the coasters themselves, but they were in a falling-apart box bearing the name Sevi, the year 1831, and the phrase "made in Italy." I cut the logo out and taped it to the bottom coaster for future reference.

 As so often happens when I start to search something online, I came across numerous sources offering the same information with pretty much identical wording, such as this: "The Italian toy company Sevi, founded in 1831, is the oldest European toy manufacturer." These companies (Nutwood Toys, My Sweet Muffin, and Rainbow Puppen, for example) were selling various Sevi wooden toys, but none were selling coasters. It became apparent that the toys were still being made (those sites were not selling vintage Sevi toys), but not in Italy (some said "designed in Italy" and some admitted they were made in China, but insisted that strict quality standards and safety were followed).

A bit of persistence and much tweaking of my search terms later and I came upon a Wikipedia page on wooden trains, which mentioned Sevi briefly and actually provided a link back to the company website.

The company modestly claims to only "probably" be Europe's oldest toy maker. It was founded in 1831, by an Italian wood carver named Josef Anton Senoner, who coined the company name from his son's, Senoner Vincenz (I suppose he switched the name around because Vise doesn't sound nearly as charming, even in Italian; a few of the above companies confused the son's name with that of the founder).

The Senoner family lived in the Val Gardena, which is a valley in the Italian Alps that was known for its skilled wood carvers, who carved religious figures for Catholic churches throughout Europe and also made peg wooden dolls, rather like the figures on my coasters, that later came to be known as Dutch dolls.

The company made a variety of wooden toys at its factory in Italy up until the 1970s, when they began outsourcing the work. They've continued to develop and introduce new items and have maintained a reputation for quality, even after they were acquired by the Trudi company in 1998.

But I never found any reference to coasters, not even someone trying to sell them on eBay for an outrageous sum (or at all), so I had no qualms about taking them apart to use the little figures after all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Before the storm hits ...

I wanted to get out on my bike for a little ride, and was pretty confident the predicted thunderstorms wouldn't reach us before 3ish, so I took my library book and a plastic bag to protect it and headed off to nowhere in particular, thinking I might just go for a little ride and back home, or I might go for a coffee and take my chances.

There are a few coffee shops about a mile from my house in different directions, but my favorite these days is Peace Coffee, which is a bit more than two miles. By the time it started to rain and I thought maybe I should be a bit more cautious and stay closer to home, I had passed the Riverview Cafe by several blocks and was well on my way to Peace Coffee. So I figured, what the heck.

It was still mostly a misty kind of rain when I got there. I ordered a large latte, hoping this was not the beginning of hours of increasingly intense rains.

The barista said, "Look, I made you a squirrel."

After nearly an hour with my squirrel latte and Vita Sackville-West traveling in Italy — ... Then to the Pineta, where we were extremely arty: left the motor and went into the wood, and lay under the pines, and read snatches of the more obscure poets to one another. ... *— I noticed that it wasn't raining and decided I had pushed my luck far enough and so headed home to harvest peas from the garden just as the next round of rain was getting underway.

* Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings. Mary Ann Caws, ed. (NY: Palgrave, 2002); page 101.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tea and Memory

I have read about how a smell or flavor can trigger a memory response, and I have occasionally experienced it, but as it's not something one can really ever anticipate, it's always a bit of a surprise.

So. About this cup of tea.

I had this idea to make some sort of little booklet that would be small enough to fit inside those packets that tea bags come in. I thought I would stitch them with a three-hole pamphlet stitch, with the tail to the outside, and attach a little tab to the tail so that you could pull the booklet out of the packet just like you do a tea bag.

Naturally, the booklet needed to be about tea. But how so? A collection of quotations about tea seemed too obvious and, besides, it's been done.

I started doing a little research on the history of tea, which led to many interesting ideas, all of them a bit too involved for the tiny booklet I had in mind.

Then I came across a little story that I dubbed a tea koan. Like a koan, it poses a question to which there is no clear answer, but, unlike the typical koan, it's not so obtuse as the sound of one hand clapping.

Having found my story, I made my booklets, and I inserted them into a variety of tea packets that I had been saving, and I listed them for sale in my Etsy shop. A few of them were also accepted by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts to sell in their gift shop.

Recently, a woman who purchased one of them from my Etsy shop asked if I had a Darjeeling tea packet I could put it in. I did not, because I haven't had Darjeeling tea since maybe the 1980s, after which I developed a taste for the stronger Assams and such.

Ever eager to please, though, I went out and bought some Darjeeling tea, made myself a cup, and saved the packet for her booklet. And a funny thing happened when I stirred a little honey and milk into my tea and took a sip: I was, ever so fleetingly, sent back to college, where I drank Darjeeling tea with the man I would eventually marry, and to whom I've been married for over 32 years now.

All that, in a cup of tea.

Monday, May 21, 2012

From the wee to the Wowza

I do tend to follow the same route when I walk the dog a little too much, so today I decided to turn a different way, to provide her with some new smells and myself with some new views. Besides, I had learned from our letter carrier, Marianne, that there was a rather ostentatious house going up over on Edmund Avenue, and I was curious to see it for myself.

This route, as it turned out, provided a rather distinct display of contrasts, as far as houses go, so I went back later on my bike, with my camera, so that I could share it with you.

On the wee side, there was this charming little door in a tree. With windows, even.

On Edmund avenue, I walked past this understated brick rambler, with its low profile and modest inclination to recede into its woodsy garden.

The path leading round the right side of the house looks inviting, doesn't it? Back that way, the company whose sign this is, Alchemy Architecture, is building them a deck. All the more to enjoy the natural surroundings and their neighbor's back gardens, would you say? (Interestingly, you may note that the url of this company is

Oh, but look, just two houses down, this is going up between them and the park at the end of the block. A big and blocky house that spreads nearly to the very edge of the property line on either side, and almost all the way back to the alley, with a flat roof so as to provide even more upper floor space than the usual peaked roof you see to the left. So much for everybody else's view.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Flowers

In a normal year, April 30 would be the middle of spring, but this year it's late spring. Likewise, I'm a bit late to Jane's flower party — nothing unusual there, however.

The lilacs have been blooming since Easter, and I was a little worried that that would mean no lilacs in May, but my neighbor's fragrant blooms reaching over the fence are mostly still looking lovely, though showing their age; so, yes, I believe there's time for one more lilac bouquet.

The purple ones I paired with the one fernleaf peony that's almost ready to open, and a couple of crabapple stems, discretely cut from the tree we just planted last spring, and which is blooming quite abundantly for its first spring in the ground, as you can see.
 And the white ones were arching over a rogue amur maple volunteer, so I thought, why not? And white is such a good color to set off this little blue glass vintage pitcher I just picked up at an estate sale on Friday. The company name is Rainbow, but so far I haven't been able to find out much about it, except that somebody is selling an identical one for $18 and I bought this for $3. Don't you love it when that happens?

That's Julia to the left of the white lilacs, btw. She came from the estate sale that was held at this house right before we closed on the purchase. I named her for the lady of the house before me.

As for flowers on the house, the pansies outside the kitchen window are sure enjoying this cool weather.

That's all for now, though I just might gather a dandelion bouquet later in the week — I've got a bountiful supply. What would you pair dandelions with in an arrangement?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Fun and Games, 1930s Style

More estate sale fun. A bachelor who died at age 85 had hung onto all sorts of items that had once belonged to his parents. The scattered collection of items in this small house was diverse and fascinating. I'm just going to show you the games for now.

The people who work for these estate sale companies also have a clear interest in and enjoyment of these old things. I don't know how they manage to avoid buying up all the best stuff themselves! There must be rules about that. For me, it would be a challenging and counterproductive job (I would end up spending more than I earned).

I was looking for games first, because I like to use the pieces in the mini toy collections I package in small tins and sell in my Etsy shop under the imaginative title Stuff! (Yeah, I didn't exactly use a focus group for that one, can you tell?)

I have often thought that it would be great to find a used Monopoly game some day, because few things have more little kid appeal than the fanciful game tokens used in Monopoly.

And, whaddya know, there was a Monopoly game — a very old one, possibly from the 1930s, with wooden houses! Apart from that, the game appears to have changed little, if at all. The board, the game tokens, the money and the Chance and Community Chest cards all look pretty much the same.

But then I saw another game I had never heard of before, Easy Money, and when I opened the box I was struck at how the little houses looked like Monopoly houses.

Easy Money game tokens and houses
As it turns out, Easy Money was introduced in 1935 by Milton Bradley, right after Parker Brothers came out with Monopoly, and there's no question that it was intended to grab some market share from the popular game the company's rival had introduced.

Give-or -Take cards instead of Community  Chest & Chance
According to World of Monopoly, Both Milton Bradley and the Parker Brothers originally turned down Monopoly when the game's inventor approached them in 1934, but then Parker Brothers got smart and changed their mind. They secured a patent on Monopoly by the end of 1935 and forced Milton Bradley to make some changes to its copycat game. The one I have is the 1936 revised edition.

The board is so colorful and delightfully graphic that we will probably mount it on the wall in the basement TV room like a poster.

Easy Money is no longer around, although the game went through many revisions and modernizations right up into the 1970s. One of the women working the sale said she remembered playing Easy Money as a kid.
Easy Money wooden dice and houses

The play money for this game is smaller than Monopoly money, at 1.5" x 3"
You can read more about the history of the two games, and about Milton Bradley, who was also a supporter of the kindergarten movement in the Progressive era, at these sites:
World of Monopoly
Reference for Business (Company History Index)
The Play & Playground Encyclopedia