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
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
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
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
|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
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
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 (壽), 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
|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.)