QUESTION: I like to browse thrift shops. There are several in my area in which I’ve found some unique antiques and collectibles. One of the most unusual has been the string holder. This kitchy item has an almost comic character. I’ve purchased several over the last few years but know practically nothing about them. Can you tell me how string holders originated and how long they were made?
ANSWER: String has been a common item in homes and businesses for a long time. But string can easily get tangled, so inventors came up with ways to keep string in line. During the 19th century, the traditional shape of cast-iron string holders was the beehive. Others were egg-shaped with openings around their sides so storekeepers could see how much string was left.
People often associate string holders with general stores, when storekeepers wrapped purchases in brown paper dispensed from a roll mounted on a frame with a cutting bar. Then, the storekeeper secured the package with string or twine. The wrapping paper generally sat on its frame at the end of the counter, and the string holder was suspended from the ceiling right over the. counter. Some of these holders were elaborate, complete with a sign promoting some product, such as Heinz pickles. Others, were simply a cast iron hole tin frame that held a ball or cone of twine and fed the string through a hole in the bottom.
By the early 20th century string holders had come into the home. These were usually figural pieces that hung on the wall and had a compartment to hold a ball of string. A person could feed the string through a hole in the figure, typically through the mouth in a face, where it could be pulled out for a given amount, then cut off for use. While some of the early examples date to the 19th century, these decorative figures became popular from the start of the Great Depression through the 1950s. Manufacturers produced string holders from a variety of materials, including cast-iron, wood, glass, and porcelain, but the predominant choice of material was chalkware, more commonly known as plaster of paris. Many string holder manufacturers used it because of its low cost and ease in which it could be cast.
Once it cured or hardened, workers removed the plaster holder from the mold and painted to give it strong eye appeal. It was a popular item sold in five and dime stores, and the designs seemed to be endless. More often than not, manufacturers produced a broad line of wall pockets, of which string holders were one of the line. Wall pockets were designed to hang on the wall and hold a variety of items, such as stamps, matches, flowers, letters, etc. Some of the better known manufacturers of`wall pockets and string holders include McCoy, Roseville, Weller, and other established firms.
One of the companies that produced unique string holders was Miller Studio of New Philadelphia, Ohio. Miller Studio made string holders from 1947 to 1958. Some of their early designs included Jo-Jo the Clown, a wormy apple that featured "Willie the Worm, Susie Sunfish, and a kitten on a red ball of yarn. In 1949 they dropped the clown and sunfish and added "Miss Strawberry" and "Little Chef." In 1952, Miller replaced “Little Chef” with "Prince Pineapple." Then a year later, Miller dropped “Prince Pineapple,” replacing him with "Posie Pig." Because of its short time on the market, “Posie Pig” is the most difficult to find today.
String holders came in a large variety of shapes and designs. Most collectors focus their collections on a single category. Fruits and vegetables have always been a popular design for producers. Collectors can find everything from apples and bananas to green peppers and pineapples to hang on the kitchen wall. Animals have always been a top selling category, from cats and dogs to birds of every description.
While the cartoon characters and animals have always been popular with collectors of string holders, some choose to focus their collections on people designs, which include black memorabilia, girls and women, fairy tale figures, boys and men, chefs, clowns, and comic cartoon characters.
Another category popular with col tors are designs featuring cartoon characters or advertising icons, including Elsie the Borden Cow, the Coca Cola Kid, Aunt Jemima, Smokey the Bear, Popeye, Shirley Temple, Betty Boop, and a rare 1940s Mickey Mouse.
But beware of the many reproductions and fantasy string holders currently for sale online. This is especially true in the category of black memorabilia where many of the figures of chefs, mammys and other black character figures are being copied in off-shore facilities and are flooding the marketplace. Don't confuse these reproductions with the new limited editions crafted by various artists and sold as new.
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