Thursday, August 5, 2010

Smiling Iron

John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Every once in a while you come across an object in storage and it just makes you scratch your head. Usually it’s due to the fact that it isn’t in the right place, has a numbering issue, or some other issue that you have to figure out. But every now and again, I find an object that makes me scratch my head because it makes me think ‘What the heck!?’

When I was putting something away recently that’s exactly what happened. I’m used to finding objects in the collection that are strange and different; I mean really, we have a two-headed calf and an adult-sized potty chair! But these andirons just made me smile, probably because they were smiling at me.

Andirons, maker unknown, ca. early 1900s, F0035.1954a-b.

We don’t know an awful lot about these objects, though thanks to research done by Cooperstown Graduate Program student Erik Larson* several years ago, we can guess at the history of these whimsical andirons. Erik believed, and I’d say rightfully so, that these andirons were likely products of the early 1900s. Even though they’re cast iron, and constructed using historic methods, it wasn’t until the 1900s that smiley faces were used for advertisements and “the designs of the times mirror the style of these andirons.”

The museum acquired these andirons in 1954 and as Erik stated this eliminates “any reference to the popular “Smiley” fad which was to sweep the world [a decade later].” All I can think of in this reference is that great scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest, on his cross-country run, meets up with the t-shirt salesman who hasn’t done well in business until Forrest wipes his face on the shirt and voila the smiley face is born.

Whatever the history of these andirons turns out to be, one cannot deny the fact that they would be amusing to have in a fireplace, though I imagine with the open eyes and mouth, having a fire behind them could seem a little demonic. Demons aside, I agree with Erik: “The “Smiling Face” andirons are perhaps best viewed as their original maker most likely intended them to be: fun and functional conversation pieces.”

*Larson, Erik. "Untitled," unpublished seminar paper, CGP Methods of Artifact Study, 2002-3.

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