I spent nearly the entire past weekend cleaning my house in preparation for Christmas decorating. For as meticulous and anal as I can sometimes be, I really, truly despise cleaning the house. It’s when you discover that your home is so much more filthy than you thought. Each new nest of cat hair behind a chair or ceiling magically hiding billions of spider webs in plain sight really just makes you want to move into a smooth white bubble that can be hosed down periodically. But there is one thing that I do enjoy about giving everything a good, deep clean—the quality time I get to spend with the little things in my house that, on a normal day, I’d just walk right past. Granted it’s all those little dust collectors that make it such a chore in the first place, but still, it’s kind of like going through my toy box.
My house is a town home and it’s small. But that small footprint spread out over three stories necessitates two large staircases, each creating large wasted spaces. At the foot, head and landing of each staircase is about a three foot wall that any normal person would probably ignore completely or perhaps “liven up” with an innocuous artificial potted palm. But for someone like me, these are great little nooks for stashing all the small wonders that I find at estate sales and thrift stores. There are six of these spaces in the house, but one of my favorites is in the third floor hallway.
Wedged between a bathroom and the head of the stairs is a patch of land just big enough for nothing. For several years I had a small useless cabinet and a large mirror here, but then I found this cherry Globe-Wernicke barrister bookcase on Craigslist. Its narrow depth made it perfect for displaying a lot of goods but still small enough you could get around it. The best part is, it came with an oak bookcase that I was able to sell for as much as I paid for both, so it was basically free! And with that, I began moving the only direction you can in a small house—up.
From the start it was a haven for whatever small, homeless items I had around in drawers and cabinets. While I wasn’t intentionally building any particular vignette, it just sort of happened over time. As I found and grouped things I loved—a mantle clock, my great-grandmother’s schoolhouse bell, some 1930s trophies, a civil war era portrait, a tin globe, a total stranger’s high school diploma from 1904—it all really comes together to tell a story of a person’s life that, well, never really existed.
What I always loved about my great-grandmother’s house, my grandparents’ houses and any estate sale I ever go to is the interesting stuff you find in curios and bookcases. I always thought they seemed so random and yet held some significance to the person that put them there. You don’t know why it’s there or who put it there, but you know it’s special because it’s safe behind glass. It’s impossible not to let your mind fill the gaps.
The first case holds a lot of fun academic feeling things I’ve found. Old globes, academic medals and letters, scientific models and equipment, an antique French telescope—it immediately evokes the smell of old books and mahogany.
On the practical side of things, the glass doors do protect everything and keep it dust free. I also love that the individual shelves give the flexibility to build several different vignettes of stuff.
Things get fun on the second shelf with a mix of children’s toys ranging in age from Victorian to the 1960s.
There’s a wonderfully weird thing that happens when you mix all these strange toys together: they definitely appear to be interacting with each other to some degree. Despite an abundance of foot soldiers, that stern rabbit candy holder is clearly the commander of the group.
Several years ago when I bought this German-made wind-up tin motorcyclist at an auction for $40, I thought I was throwing crazy money at it. I just liked it. It turns out it is pre-WWII and quite a good deal at that price. I still simply love it for the form and lithography. Plus it’s pretty fun to wind-up and set loose on the kitchen floor.
The third shelf is full of super old and wonderful things, think the Academic from shelf one all grown up. It’s actually kind of a hodgepodge of things that didn’t seem to tie thematically but also didn’t fit anywhere else. I still love the result.
This was another great score that I unknowingly made. Again, bought at auction for $9, I was a little perturbed that I had to pay so much for such a tiny German bisque figure. I thought it was kitschy and fun. Bathing lady figurines such as this were popular boudoir ornaments from the turn of the last century through the 1920s. Some can be extremely valuable, but again, I just think it looks fun.
As a graphic designer I love antique printing block letters. I buy them whenever I come across them and I’m sure someday I will have amassed such a quantity that they will beg some sort of project based around them. For now, they just look really cool surrounding my stereopticon, which in itself is purely decorative at the moment because I have no stereo cards to view with it.
Really, really old stuff just impresses me with its sheer oldness. These books were bound before the Civil War even happened. Cars were still a relatively new thing when that Buick pennant was given out. The medals were given to a solider after WWI. It boggles my mind to think the lives and history these objects have spanned. The detail on each item is something to behold, especially the gold cases on these ambrotype portraits.
Things get a little weird on shelf four. My Steiff collection lives here as well as a sinister-looking figure of the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Wait, is that a monkey riding a Shriner’s fez? You’re darn right it is. Once again, a visual connection occurs between things that shouldn’t normally appear together. A monkey on his hat from a mystic fraternal order, a worldly rabbit and his tin of pipe tobacco—it all feels weird and right at the same time.
A tiger chases an impala across a WWII edition of the Iowa State College (now University) yearbook while a kitten bats at it from an 1880s cash box above. You just don’t get quality scenes like this at the natural history museum. They’re such sticklers for accuracy there. And to spice things up, although you can’t really see it here, there’s a big apothecary jar of poison stashed behind the woodchuck. He looks friendly, but I wouldn’t trust him.
This bookcase isn’t exactly a testament to my abilities as a curator, but it is a great example of why you should have a little fun with your display spaces. I could have gone the Pottery Barn route and filled it with sea shells or cool looking antique books that I don’t read, but it’s so much better filled with stuff I love to look at everyday, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. Just like those great cabinets in my grandparents’ houses, this shelf might just tell some future young explorer a little bit about the crazy man who put all these things behind the glass.