On our way to a family vacation, we stopped at a small country auction not far off the highway leading to our getaway.
By now, our three kids are used to such quick stops and the whining is at a minimum when we tell them there will probably be some box lots of toys to poke through.
Walking along a row of tables covered with clocks, lamps, boxes of kitchenwares, I spotted a small majolica bottle with an impish grin. The telltale signs of a majolica glaze shown through years of shelf dust. A closer look sparked my memory and visions of plump little figures dishing wise nuggets came to mind. It was one of illustrator Palmer Cox’s little Brownie creations staring up through the grime.
Cox’s Brownies are famous for being the first commercially successful pop culture figures, first appearing in 1883. The Brownie characters were based (in part) in folklore but were adapted to help marketers sell everything from breakfast cereal to cameras. The figures were so popular with collectors and children that Eastman Kodak named its handheld Kodak Brownie camera after them.
As in most purchases, my interest was in curiosity rather than value. When the auctioneer called the item a “whiskey nip,” I knew the little bottle was going on vacation with the whole family.
When we got back, the research commenced. That’s when I learned about Schafer & Vater, featured on this week’s cover. [CLICK HERE to read the article.] Although they didn’t make the Brownie whiskey nip, I became fascinated in the company’s diverse history.
According to research done by collector Don Bergsengs, Schafer & Vater used various types of clays. Items made of hard paste porcelain, soft paste porcelain, jasper, bisque, and majolica can be found. You can find the jasper in green, blue, pink, lavender, and white.
Most appealing to me is that the company made its fortune in the novelty whiskey bottles that poked fun of “the drink” at a time when Prohibition was sweeping the globe. The bottles were being sold through the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog just 10 years before Prohibition was adopted in the United States; it was already adopted in parts of Canada and across Russia.
The bottles represent craftsmanship and work ethic and are one more example why we shouldn’t take life too seriously.
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