Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Weird Chinese Antiques: An Anti-Pilfering Device


In Chinese galleries and museums, we see impressive examples of carved jades, imperial porcelains, and Ming furniture. However, a whole other world of Chinese antiques and artifacts exists, objects which people used in their daily lives. Many of these are easily recognizable, such as mirrors, paperweights, or teacups. Others are remarkable for their strangeness, either in form or decoration, hence this new series dedicated to exploring them.

I don't use the word 'weird' in any negative way, but rather in its sense of fantastic or bizarre, something that stimulates the imagination to wonder about the people who created it, and what needs they had that these items could fulfill. 

Objects can be weird in different ways. Some are strange only to Western eyes, but familiar in Asia, for example the constant use of bats and dragons. Others are obsolete and strange to modern eyes, but familiar in earlier times. Many had a very specific use only known to specialists, things like spokeshaves or watchmaker's tools.


At the very highest level of oddity are those relics with no conceivable use or explanation, but which have survived nonetheless. The patina of time usually manages to enhance the strangeness and mystery of these obscure vestiges of the past, which are among the most delightful to seek out and collect.

In short, a weird antique is anything that evokes a sense of wonder and delight, that serves as a window to a dramatically different place, age, or mindset.





Mystery Object #1
  
First let me thank you for all of your perceptive and interesting guesses. Many realized that the pattern on the face was meant to be transferred, but the question remained transferred to what?

This maze-like object is a device to prevent pilferage of flour or other grains. Flour was kept in a barrel, and when meals were prepared the housekeeper would measure out the needed quantity, then press this onto the surface of the flour to make a design, so it would be easy to tell if the flour were later disturbed. (This flour print would work equally well in a restaurant or store.)


The light was somewhat harsh. The wood actually looks richer and more natural.


The old days are constantly touted for their honesty and ingrained moral values, but people back then were in the habit of putting locks on almost everything. Think of most antique furniture—a lock on every drawer and cabinet door. Closer to the kitchen, tea caddies were always provided with locks to prevent filching of tea leaves.

Fair or not, servants were distrusted, and supplies kept under lock and key. Jennifer Davies’ excellent book The Victorian Kitchen outlines the housewife’s daily schedule: “She then went to the store cupboard, unlocked it and doled out any extra provisions that the cook might need for the day.”




It is important to closely examine unusual items before making judgments. The present flour stamp is about eight inches across, and thus the right size to insert in a barrel. The finger grips on the back would likewise have been necessary for a stamp that was meant to be pressed down from above. The labyrinthine design seems to be a variation of the longevity character shou (), frequently found on decorative and lucky objects. The design is very deeply cut, which would work well for flour, but be rather unusual for other purposes.

Some of the alternate suggestions that readers offered deserve careful consideration, as rare objects can be misidentified or have multiple uses. This does look a lot like a printing block, and there might be traces of black ink on the surface. However, print blocks were not cut this deeply, and as a rule are deeply stained with ink. Also they generally were not as attractively finished as this flour stamp, with its nicely rounded back.


This print block shows evidence of much use. The deeper areas in the middle were for replaceable text.



Another suggestion was a mold to make cookies or moon cakes. These pastries, impressed with traditional designs, are still available everywhere. Most are two to four inches wide, but larger ones exist. The problem with using this for moon cakes is that the design was normally carved in the bottom of the cup-like molds, and usually not cut so deeply.


Typical cookie molds, one with a design of butterflies, the other of flowers surrounding a double-happiness symbol.



Several people noted the maze-like appearance of the design. This vaguely resembles some of the patterns on ancient bronzes, but this is another point requiring research. It does work as a maze, even if not a very challenging one:

Follow the maze. Two solutions ending at points A and B.


Have you encountered anything like this, or any unusual anti-theft devices, either as an antique or perhaps in an old novel? I have not met with another of these, although I now have something to look for in the kitchens of house museums. So there you have it—flour stamp, cake mold, or printing block? I think that the preponderance of evidence points to an anti-pilferage device, not to mention that explanation makes the best story.

(All objects and photos property of the author.)

33 comments:

  1. Very interesting indeed, my dear Watson. But would you hang on your wall?!

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    1. Certainly I would, providing I had the right spot for it. It might look good displayed with some of those cookie molds. It actually has a more pleasing wooden tone than shows in the photos.

      I know what you are getting at, though, based on the very interesting discussion from your recent post: http://corcol.blogspot.tw/2012/12/face-off.html
      Although this is not fine art, and its maker intended no statement, nevertheless in another way it comments on the society that created it.

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  2. Cool! I am guessing that goods were not locked up against staff pilfering, unless the goods in question were expensive or hard to get. I have a Georgian timber tea caddy with two containers and a mixing bowl. Each of the containers was lockable because tea leaves were outrageous expensive, back then.

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    1. Hello Hels, I am not so sure that cheap goods were not also carefully husbanded. Think of novels like Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, in which even those who were better off were very parsimonious with food and ingredients. Now when I read old novels, I'll take more careful note of these situations.

      Your Georgian tea caddy sounds like a beautiful item; you must treasure it.

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  3. A brilliant little device, aesthetically pleasing.
    Like Hels, I was going to mention tea caddies which were locked and the key retained by the owners. Also the spirit Tantalus sets which locked their glass decanters within wooden structures.
    By the way I noticed that your second photo is round - did you achieve it on picmonkey?

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    1. A locking Tantalus, another great example. In the movie Desperate Living (probably not one you'd care to watch), they mark the liquor bottles, which at least detects the maid's tippling, even if it doesn't prevent it.

      I'm glad you noticed the round photo. You have inspired me to try it, and the shape of this stamp seemed an ideal opportunity. I was having trouble following your directions, so I figured out a way in paint.net. I made a round cut-out, then pasted it over a base layer that had its transparency set to 100%. The only problem is the Blogger puts those light frames around the pictures, so you can't achieve a floating effect.

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    2. You can eliminate the frames, I can't remember how I did it. If you put that you want to eliminate them in blogger help you should be able to do it.

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  4. What a super device! Now that you have explained it, it makes perfect sense. I can picture how it was done too and was thinking that you would have to have had access to the 'seal' if you ever wanted to pinch some extra flour!

    I found this to be not only entertaining but informative. Thanks Jim.

    Regarding keys and such, we have a photograph of my great-great-grandmother back in the 1860s, wearing her chatelaine with the keys to all the locked up goods. Tea however was the domain of my great-great-grandfather. Only he supervised the tea caddy for some reason. Perhaps he thought his wife might be too frivolous with it!

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    1. Hello Kirk, It's funny that you mention access to the seal, which of course would have had to be protected in its turn, probably in a locked cabinet.

      That sounds like a wonderful picture of your great-great-grandmother; perhaps some day you can show us some of your old family pictures on your blog. About your great-great-grandfather controlling the tea, I'm assuming that they were British, since the English have been known to have very strong and specific views on tea!

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    2. P.S. I still like your idea about the buttons. If this pattern were reduced in size and cast in metal, I think it would make very attractive ones.

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    3. Hello Jim,
      No the family were English - living in London - but the ancestry was Welsh, very Welsh in some ways. My g-g-grandfather was also very VERY Victorian in outlook which caused some friction among his large brood of strong minded children. Actually I should write a post about him one day because he was a rather interesting person.

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  5. I could not imagine that it was an object used for guarding one product! Very clever! I remember my mother telling stories about war and the locked basement with food. This might be guarding her grandmother , so do not close anybody !The food was for all persons in the family !Very interesting post dear Jim !
    Olympia

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    1. Hello Olympia, You reminiscence about your family adds an important consideration to this discussion. I was imagining a sort of petty theft, with a mean housekeeper cracking down on shiftless servants, but there would have been times, such as during a war or famine, when attrition of supplies could have had serious consequences.

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  6. Fascinating--and makes complete sense now that you tell me. I can't think of any equivalents, but it did make me think of spy gadgets and the ways (in movies) people will set something up to tell if someone's been there, such as putting a hair in a door when closing it. Your object is much more elegant and spphisticated.

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    1. Hello Jen, I love the way all the facts fall into place when the correct explanation comes along. Your comment about spy gadgets is very interesting. It makes you wonder what devices James Bond would use to accomplish (or thwart) the same goal.

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  7. I'm glad all has been revealed - I've been perplexed since you posted the photo! What an interesting explanation.

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    1. Hello Merry Wife, That's the fun of these mystery objects. Once the puzzle has been introduced, it engages our minds and we are not satisfied until we find the explanation.

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  8. Wow -thats so interesting -i had never thought of this or, oddly enough, of the locks on old furniture and boxes! Imagine how that flour or grains would look with the imprinted design on the top - delightful.

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    1. Hello Stefan, Some features become so commonplace and standardized that they recede into the background and we never think of them. That's an interesting thought about how the flour would look afterward. If I ever have some flour that I am going to discard, I might stage a demonstration.

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  9. Brilliant! I would have never guessed. A very clever and beautiful way to prevent dishonesty, etc. This flour stamp would look fabulous on a stand. I love it's patina.

    Look forward to more "weird" items, Jim!
    Cheers,
    Loi

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    1. Hello Loi, You are right, a stand or easel is the way to go with this, so it can be picked up and examined. I also generally prefer 3-D objects on shelves or tables rather than on walls. As I mentioned elsewhere, the patina looks even nicer in person; the lights I used to photograph it were somewhat harsh.

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  10. Hi, Jim - This object has a fascinating story to it, and I love that once the answer is revealed, we all get to say "of course!" The cookie molds are absolutely gorgeous!!

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    1. Hello Mark, Like you, I am attracted to collectibles with stories, in this case about the unusual history of the object itself. About those cookie molds, there are many charming and attractive ones; they will be revisited in a later post.

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  11. Oh, how interesting and clever, would have never guessed!

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  12. Hello Cindy, That's the fun of collecting. Each acquisition is its own little research project.

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  13. Dear Jim,
    Thank you for this wonderful post-- what a clever device,perfect for RTP: amusing, offbeat and excellent! Now, when I see the pile of flour in the jar sitting on my kitchen counter, it looks sadly un-tended and unmarked... It seems that without the threat of theft, I'm missing out on an opportunity for an aesthetic and decorative experience! :) I envy your shopping adventures there...
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Hello Erika, Perhaps you could try using a cookie-stamp, which is more on the scale of a modern flour canister.

      Yes, it has been a lot of fun shopping in Taiwan for such interesting and unusual items. I am currently working on the next installment of the Chinese desk series, which I believe you will find interesting.

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  14. What a terrific post this is, and so thought-provoking. Certainly an ingeneous use for this device -- imprinting flour to prevent (or at least discourage) pilfering. Every door in our house (built in 1817 and then expanded in the 1830s) has a working lock on it, most of which are original to the house (we replaced several that had been updated with contemporary, lock-less ones in the 1920s). Interesting how carefully locked everything was, as you write. Most of the keys to our antique case piece furniture (incuding two tea caddies) were long lost before we acquired them. There is a fellow near where we live who has an enormous store of antique keys, and we've hired him to find ones that work in a number of our locks over the years. He came by with several boxes of them, and found a few that fit. Who knew such a resource existed? Reggie

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    1. Hello Reggie, Yes, this is an ingenious invention--I like its simplicity. Instead of having to lock the barrel itself, or lock up the barrel in some pantry, they just made it apparent whether the flour had been disturbed. Preventing pilferage of supplies also reminds me of more recent jokes about marking liquor bottles to see if the staff has been tippling--one reference to this technique was in John Waters' movie Desperate Living.

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  16. As a specialist who deals exclusively in Chinese antiques, I get sent these sort of things all the time and asked what it was used for. Alas China is filled with so many small artifacts, quirky devices and unusual things that one could spend a lifetime studying them. But I do love it when people dig into the topic and search out the story. Your post is a great example of this and well written explanation too and I will try to link to your post. Do feel free to visit at:

    http://www.antique-chinese-furniture.com/blog/

    I get requests for guest posts all the time and almost always reject them, though if you ever want to contribute some more on Chinese antiques, do let me know. Like I said - there is always something fascinating to discover...!

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  17. Hello R. Schwendeman, I just checked out your endlessly impressive site, and am now following it. You are right about all of the small, strange objects from China; I have so many of them, and it often seems impossible even to discover what they are for.

    By the way, did you see my recent post on the luan-bi? Those aren't as mysterious, but are visually striking.

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I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: clavicytherium@yahoo.com