I like to frequent antique shops, even if I am not buying. Truth be told, it is a museum of the arcane, and more than that, a record of human ingenuity. The thing I like best is that antique shops showcase an all but lost portion of North American history, the making of household items from wood. These items are precious because they are one-off’s. They are the art of the vernacular - made by everyday people for mundane purposes.
There were many reasons for using wood. It was ubiquitous, especially in rural areas. If you owned land, it was the building material at your disposal. Wood lends itself to the rigours of making. Look at a Windsor chair and it tells you a tale of three basic wood types - soft, hard, and bendable. Seats carved from close-grained pine or poplar, smaller spindles turned from hickory or maple for hardness, hooped backs bent from ash or oak for flexibility and tensile strength according to purpose. It was common and necessary that a man understand the properties that made each type of wood useful. The household items were born out of practical need, but ended up decorative as well. Why not? It is nice to have attractive things around you. It’s the stamp of the human need for beauty.
And so I looked at the little butter mould, and laughed at the rooster carved into it. I pictured the butter, formed when soft, and then likely stored in the well so as to preserve the shape of the rooster, proclaiming himself every time the family gathered to break bread. The rooster guards the henhouse. He is the gatekeeper who signals if there is an intruder. He is also the steward who presides over the waking and sleeping of the household and therefore an appropriate symbol of the domestic.
I like that wood is accessible. To work it you need only a sharp iron, and to sharpen iron you need only a harder stone. All three were available to the common workman in every time and place throughout human history. We tend to dismiss personal objects like a whisk or a rolling pin as having little value. But somewhere out there, someone needed one and a store was not close at hand. And so a piece of wood was cut, and shaped on the lathe. Once completed, it was kept over the course of a lifetime and perhaps even handed down. Such personal items were not lightly dismissed like the cheap grist we get at the Dollar Store today.
This one was neatly done. I wondered how much time the workman had invested in it, just to adorn his butter with a happy symbol that reminded him of rituals close to home. I thought the body of the mould must have been turned on a lathe, but I was wrong. If you have ever inspected a turned bowl, chances are it has dried somewhat oblong. It is the tendency for wood to shrink more on one axis than the other, in relation to grain direction. A workman would know this and anticipate it up front. Therefore, the small mould was put together even more cleverly, patiently coopered from many long strips glued together edge to edge, to form a cylinder like staves on a barrel. To make such a form required precision and skill. The joints were virtually invisible and well put together. They had not split over time, despite the changes in air temperature and humidity. To operate the mould, you filled it with butter and pressed down to form a pleasing shape, adorned with folk art on top.
We have weathered many ages. The age of making things from wood gave way to the machine age, where wood was replaced with metal which worked harder and lasted longer. We went from the age of machines to the age of electronics, and now we have morphed into a digital world where a lot of physical things have vanished and have form only in imagination, and on a computer screen. The tactile is gone, and it is good to periodically visit an antique store to touch and feel and inspect, and to remind ourselves that when not wedded to a screen or a phone, human beings can do interesting and varied things with their time.
It’s also a great reminder that work did not used to separate a man from the domestic. Our ancestors found their happiness in the circle of home and field. It’s a cue to remember that the best things in life are often close at hand and found in the everyday.
Common animals were a part of all this - their role recorded on the artifacts left behind. The household menagerie might have also included a faithful pig on the weather vane, or a team of patient horses carved on a bread platter. I am perhaps most ticked that the rooster was included in the family. How could you but smile, as you ate your morning eggs and reached out to put some butter on your toast?