Strings Attached: String holders are a delightful collectible
Before scotch tape, Velcro, super glue and household adhesives were around, cord was used to tie things up and no pantry was complete without a ball of string, kept handy for household chores.
String was saved and reused, piece-by-piece and tied together to create balls by thrifty homemakers who knew the value of a penny saved. Used by bakers, grocers and storekeepers of all types, string was as common a packaging material back then as plastic bags are today, making it easy to find and save.
To dress up the household balls of string and keep it convenient, containers were made to conceal and dispense this handy household item. The early string holders were made from heavy cast iron and looked like a beehive or bell. These were typically found in commercial businesses and even the U.S. Postal Service.
Later ones were more decorative and became common in homes. These novelty versions of string dispensers were made of chalk or ceramic and often were cast in animal shapes and faces.
Today, if you spend time browsing through flea markets, antique shops or second hand stores, you will see these odd figural pieces hanging on the walls. You can be sure it’s a string holder if it has both a hollow back and a small hole clearly evident in the front of the figure, often smack dab in the middle of the figure’s mouth, for dispensing the string.
These are fun to collect and make a great conversation piece in a modern kitchen.
The early cast iron string holders date back as far as the 1860s, according to patent records, but string holders grew to mass popularity in the late 1930-40s. Five and 10 stores sold them with housewares and just about everyone picked one up to brighten their kitchen and allow for convenient use of string.
Today’s collectors enjoy searching for interesting examples and since the ceramic string holders were turned out in every shape imaginable, there is a vast variety available.
Some string holder enthusiasts trim their collection by saving just one type, for example cats or people.
Reproductions have been made, so it’s best to shop at a dealer you know and look carefully at your purchases. Prices start cheap for common ceramic string holders but rare ones, like a black face porter, might sell for hundreds of dollars. Chalk string holders in really excellent condition are very desirable, because chalk doesn’t wear well and many of these have been repaired.
The ones shown in today’s column include three figural holders that date to the 1930s and one that is from the Victorian age, a beehive-style cast iron model. All are part of the Wymer General Store collection at the Oglebay Institute Mansion Museum in Oglebay.
For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing in care of this newspaper.