Mel’s Musings: Strings attached

If, while browsing in a flea market, antique shop or junk store, you may happen upon a small figural item with a hollow back and a tiny hole somewhere in the front. It might have the face of a human or animal. Very often the hole is in the center of the figure’s mouth.The item might be made of cast iron, plaster, ceramic or chalkware.

If you lived during the Depression years of the 1930s, you will recognize this as a string holder.

Before tape, paper bags and staples became commonplace, packages were wrapped and tied with string. String holders had a prominent place next to the cash register in general stores, grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies. Packages were wrapped in paper, usually brown, and tied with the string.

Early patents for cast iron holders date from the 1860s, and they gained mass appeal and popularity during the late 1930s and 1940s. Retailers like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s began selling string holders for home use; early ones were made of cast iron, but later they were made of ceramic and chalkware. By the 1950s, string holders were a thing of the past.

Unlike antique furniture or other large pieces, a collection of string holders can be displayed on a wall or in a cabinet. Since they can be found in the form of fruit, animals, people, bird houses and many other categories, a collection can fit in with many themes.

Prices for vintage string holders can vary widely, from hundreds of dollars for a hard-to-find item in mint condition to just a few bucks for a more common piece.

When shopping for an antique string holder, it is advised that you be alert for fakes, forgeries and modern reproductions. One common method forgers have used to deceive buyers is to alter a figural wall plaque; the ones made to look like fruit (popular in the 1950s) are often used. The forger will hollow out the plaque, drill a hole and sell them as vintage string holders.

Be especially careful at flea markets. Unscrupulous vendors sometimes offer to sell counterfeit items “at a loss, so I can get home to my family.” Though they may sound and look sincere, it is wise to keep Charles Dickens’ words in mind: “I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.”

The best way to avoid buying a fake or forgery, in all areas of antiques and collectibles, is to know your dealer. Cultivate a relationship with someone who knows the business, knows what you’re looking for, and who will look out for your best interests.