Solstice, Snow and Faintly Disturbing Antiques

Last night might have been the coldest of the year – in fact it got even colder after I posted, the temperature dropping to minus 16 degrees Celsius – but this is the longest night of the year, i.e. winter solstice. It’s also officially winter now, not that the weather leaves any doubt of that fact. BTW, North Germany is even colder than the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest (and normally coldest) mountain at the moment.

This afternoon, I set out on foot to run some errands. I don’t walk a lot in the neighbourhood – most of the time I combine neighbourhood errands with those further away and drive. But driving isn’t particularly pleasant given the current road conditions, especially since most town councils and other authorities seem to have stopped believing in the virtues of keeping roads clear of snow and leave even major roads and highways uncleared. There’s some talk about there not being enough salt, but that’s bullshit. It’s only December and winter lasts all the way into February and sometimes even March. True, many councils ran out of salt last winter due to excessive cold, but only in February or so. They simply shouldn’t have run out so soon, never mind that the roads weren’t cleared last week either. I suspect that this complacency is due to a mixture of money saving and some ecological concerns (valid, but human lives are more important). Plus, there seems to be a kind of “Well, people got by last winter, so perhaps we don’t need to clear all of those roads” attitude going on. There’s also the usual suspects saying “We need to decelerate our lives”. Uhm, decelerate yourselves, guys, and leave the rest of us alone.

The weather was clear and sunny, ideally suited for walking. Never mind that being stuck indoors all day isn’t exactly conductive to anyone’s wellbeing either. I delivered a Christmas present to a neighbour’s kid, a stack of Christmas cards to the mailbox and went to the local drugstore, bakery, butcher and pharmacy.

The nearest mailbox is next to what used to be a small neighbourhood grocery, long since defunct, and is now an antiques shop. The antiques shop is going out of business, too. Not really a huge surprise there, the antiques business is tough. I should know, I worked in an antiques shop for a while in my teens and sometimes only one or two people came in per day. And that shop was located in a neighbourhood famous for its antiques stores. This one isn’t.

However, the shop was still open and so I thought to myself, “What the heck, why not take a look?” This antique store specializes in furniture, which is not really my thing – my home isn’t big enough to start collecting antique furniture (though I have a mid century modern living room ensemble straight out of Mad Men). But the shop also had some nice glassware and china and the like and decorative china and ceramics are very much my thing. I ended up buying a pair of small china figurines shaped like stylized naked kids performing gymnastics dating from somewhere between the 1920s and 1950s. No manufacturer’s label and not much chance of identifying the manufacturer either, though I’m pretty sure they’re German made. Going by style and material, I’d suspect Goebel, but Goebel usually labels their products. It’s probably one of the many other German manufacturers of decorative ceramics that used to thrive before people started furnishing their homes with cheaply made crap from China.

The shop also had some stunning larger figurines from the 1920s to 1950s, naked women doing all sorts of things from bathing to playing the flute to getting bitten in the breast by a snake (I suspect that one was supposed to be Cleopatra). Really lovely, but not what you’d want to carry home jumbled inbetween your groceries on a snowy and icy day. Maybe I’ll go back in the next few days, if I feel like it.

The shop even had a big “Mammy” type cookie jar. First one I’ve seen in ages. They went out of fashion for obvious reasons and were never particularly common in German anyway – European manufacturers of housewares and decorative ceramics usually depicted black people as the exotic other (I have a Vienna bronze figurine, most probably a Walter Bosse design, along those lines) rather than as happy servants. Different stereotype, just as racist.

If you collect antiques, you often have to deal with problematic and downright creepy imagery. It’s not just the exotic dancers and nasty ethnic stereotypes either (and don’t even get me started on the really creepy Nazi stuff that sometimes shows up but never goes on the public market). Even the figurines of somersaulting little kids I bought today are faintly disturbing because the sexualized poses. Nowadays, no manufacturer would consider depicting young children that way, but fifty or sixty years ago no one saw a problem with it. Though it must be noted that many of these figurines were so heavily stylized that they do not seem human at all.

One of the things that have always fascinated me about antiques is that they give us a glimpse into the mindset of another time. And unexamined racist, sexist, etc… attitudes are a part of that. I wouldn’t buy that cookie jar and put it in a pride of place in my kitchen, but these things are still part of our history.

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2 Responses to Solstice, Snow and Faintly Disturbing Antiques

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