This week is going to be a short update because I was excited to record a video to show you guys. Remember when I wrote about the Karl Griesbaum musical bird box a couple weeks ago? And how I wrote I couldn’t find the key to the music box? Well, do I have exciting news! I found it and it’s bird-shaped!
The artist could’ve just designed a normal wind-up key but they decided to keep it within the bird theme. I love small ornamental touches like this. It really ties the entire product up! A little drawback is that the key can’t be kept in the hole because it sticks out beyond the foot of the box. You’ll have to remove it after winding it up. I suppose that’s how it got lost in a box of knick knacks after my grandma sorted through everything. That lady loves to organize!
Regardless, I’m happy I finally get to hear my grandpa’s music box. It might need some fixing up because it chirps a little slower than the refurbished ones that are posted on YouTube, but overall not bad! I was expecting it to not chirp at all.
Besides the sound, the bird itself is starting to show some wear and tear. When I cranked the key and the bird popped out, one of its eyes flew off. I guess the glue is starting to become brittle and will eventually chip away. It’s blind in one eye for now. I’m planning on doing some research in crafting with feathers to see what glue would be best to use. Let me know if you have any recommendations!
Bottom line, I’m pretty happy! This music box is becoming my favourite thing from my grandpa’s collection. I haven’t gone through everything yet but I hope I can find more treasures with this sort of charm!
So. Snuff bottles. Small bottles that were used to carry snuff (a.k.a. powdered tobacco). This week, I decided to take a break from embroidery and focus on these handheld bottles.
What is snuff?
In a nutshell, snuff is finely ground tobacco. The powder is inhaled through the nose and delivers a nicotine kick. It is also harmful and addictive and is associated with nasal and oral cancers, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Treatment of snuff addiction includes nicotine alternatives, medication, and a very close emotional support system. Basically, it is very, very harmful but people in the Qing Dynasty believed it was good for the health and used it to treat headaches and colds.
What are snuff bottles and who used them?
According to the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, inhaling snuff was a common alternative to smoking in Europe during the 17th century. This powder was imported to Europe from the New World and was stored in small metal boxes. These boxes would have hinged lids to preserve the tobacco powder. I was surprised to read this because during my research on the Karl Griesbaum bird box, I also read that bird boxes were initially based off of snuff boxes!
When snuff was imported to China in the late 16th century, snuff boxes could not compete against the more humid climate of East Asia. The hinges would eventually rust and fall apart and the powder would spoil. The boxes were also not every portable. Eventually snuff bottles were created as an effective alternative! Christie’s described that the bottles are typically 1.5 inches to 3 inches tall and fits comfortably in your hand. The material, colour, opacity, and size of the opening was determined by the type of snuff it would store.
Initially, snuff and snuff bottles were used by the elite in the 17th century but became commonplace amongst commoners in the 19th century. This also affected the quality and craftsmanship of the bottles. Bottles that were created for the Emperor would be crafted with the best care and attention with intricate details. Bottles that were mass produced by workshops were more generic and imagery would be printed on, rather than painted or carved.
The Snuff Bottle Society also stated that the end of the Qing Dynasty brought the end of the snuff bottle. Essentially, the fall of the Qing Dynasty marked the end of imperial rule in China. The royal family was overthrown during the Chinese Revolution between 1911 to 1912.
What are snuff bottles made of?
As stated before, the materials used were determined by the type of snuff it would store. When inhaling snuff became more commonplace, the design would also vary depending if it was commissioned by the elite or created for the masses. The use of snuff bottles were considered a status symbol. So depending on who commissioned them, the details, combination of materials, and the carvings of the bottle would vary in quality. As a result, some bottles are true works of art!
Snuff bottles were typically made of jade or glass. The jade bottles were carved and clear glass bottles were painted with a brush from the inside! Stone, agate, and wood lacquer (as shown above) were also used. These materials would typically be carved. Other materials such as porcelain were painted with a cobalt blue underglaze (as shown below). The stopper could be made of the same material as the bottle or a small precious stone could be adhered. Occasionally, a bamboo or metal scoop would be attached to the stopper.
I also found an awesome video of an artist painting various scenes into a glass bottle to give you an idea on how glass bottles would be painted!
One last thing to mention was that the intricacies of the carvings and paintings typically reflected the culture at the time. Some contained traditional auspicious Chinese symbols, folklore characters, or the bottles showed their interest in Western culture and technology.
If inhaling snuff was still a common practice today, I definitely would not doubt that internet memes and Marvel characters would be printed onto glass bottles. The Gangnam style craze from a few years ago? Sure. Doraemon and Pokemon? Absolutely. Eventually a couple hundred years into the future, people would start auctioning an Iron Man carved bottle. That would certainly be… interesting.
I’m a little late on updating this week because the history of Chinese silk embroidery dates back thousands of years with many different styles and schools. I wanted to take more time to do some further research to make sure I was describing the right timeframe and style of embroidery.
At the beginning of my research, I was told that these pieces were from the Qing Dynasty. But, based on what I found about the Sixi Wawa last week, there was a cultural bleed from the Ming Dynasty to Qing! So artistic interests and practice could easily have been passed down. That grey area could make it difficult to date these pieces. In other words, research brought more questions than answers. Once I have more time to do further research, I’ll post an update!
Anyway, worries aside, I took photos of two embroidered pieces.
What were they made of?
The panels and sleeves are typically made of silk threads sewn into silk fabric. The fabric can also be dyed a certain colour, but they are typically beige. Occasionally, gold thread would be used on its own or woven into the silk thread to give the piece some glimmer. Typical stitches that were used include the seed stitch, satin stitch, Pekinese stitch, and couching stitch. I don’t have a picture of the seed stitch. This article by Marla Mallett has some great information on the seed and Pekinese stitches!
Currently, these types of panels are priced based on the condition of the stitches (if they’re still intact), the colour vibrancy of the threads (they are not colourfast), the colours that were used (bright yellow, purple, and red were reserved for the royal family) and the condition of the silk fabric (presence of any stains, pulls, and pills). Some pieces were intended to be appliqué on clothing which could show some wear and tear. Also, the fact that these pieces are organic makes fixing stains and preserving colour very difficult. So you’re very fortunate if you own a brightly coloured piece!
What were they used for?
Historically, the royal family would employ hundreds of embroiderers to create pieces and clothing for them. For example, some of these requests included clothing for the royal family, palace decor, and costumes for the royal theatre troop.
As you can see, these panels and sleeves are very versatile. During the Qing Dynasty, they were used as wall hangings or the two reflected pieces were separated and sewn into clothing as decorative panels. This practice of decorating walls, pillars, and screens was also done throughout the past dynastic periods as well!
I also found a panel on the website for The Metropolitan Museum of Art called Fairy and Crane. This panel is dated to the 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty (although, the metadata states it’s from the Ming Dynasty as well… Remember what I said about overlapping cultures?) and is sewn in the same style as the ones we own. Based on the condition of the colours and the type of stitches that were used, I’d say I could safely date my grandpa’s panels to the early Qing Dynasty as well.
Note: This is just an estimated date. I’m not a professional!
I encourage collectors to also check out The MET! The website has some great pieces! It’s also a great resource for collectors as all their pieces are dated in dynasty and century.
I’ll have to say goodbye for now and update with a part 2 later on. I’ve only skimmed the very surface of a very deep and interesting history. I’ll try to keep all my updates to Sunday morning but research-intensive topics like these might push me behind schedule. We’ll see what the future brings! See you next week!
This week, I decided to go really niche and showcase the Sixi Wawa. The origin of the Sixi Wawa dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and was believed to be created by scholar Xie Jin as a request by the Yongle Emperor. This antique figurine was typically made of stones (for example jade) or porcelain and is shaped as four baby boys conjoined together. The four babies form an optical illusion. From the front view, they look like they’re crawling and from the side view, they look like they’re sitting down. These figurines can be displayed at home or a string can be thread through the hole and worn as a good luck charm.
Definition: Sixi Wawa (四喜娃娃):
Si (四), four
Xi (喜), pronounced like “she”, happiness
Wawa (娃娃), baby, doll
Surprisingly, it appears that the figure is more commonly known as Sixi Wawa rather than an Anglicized name in English-speaking communities. I’m guessing it’s a Chinese name that can be easily spoken by English-speakers. Alternative translations I’ve seen besides Four-Happiness Doll is Four-Happiness Baby, and a long string of words like “Four Baby Boys Sitting Upright”.
Note: If you’re looking for audio pronunciations of Chinese characters, you can copy and paste the characters into MDBG.net! It’s a great Chinese-English dictionary/translator that I’ve been using for years. I highly recommend it.
The figurine that I have is sculpted in porcelain into a hollow square shape. The four boys are wearing different coloured children’s dudou (commonly translated as a bellyband, a piece of cloth that covers the chest and belly, tied around the body).
Why does it represent “Four Happiness”?
Beijing Tourism has a great summary about the Sixi Wawa! It is commonly theorized that the name is inspired by four things that scholar Xie Jin values. These are “one’s wedding night, to succeed in an imperial exam, to have a welcome rain after a long drought, and to come across an old friend in a distant land.” This quote was pulled from the Beijing Tourism website which I thought was beautifully written.
Although the figurine was created in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the Sixi Wawa was popular during the Qing Dynasty (1636 to 1911) as well. These figurines were dubbed by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty as the “God of Happiness” and was valued during weddings.
(A word of warning, Beijing Tourism cites another website as the source of this information. Do not go there because it contains malware!)
In recent times:
Sixi Wawa are still produced! But they’re usually molded out of metal rather than porcelain, jade, or petrified wood. The figure is not very well known in the Western world, but if you search 四喜娃娃 into a search engine, many listings of metal Sixi Wawa will appear for sale on Chinese websites. To be honest, I’d rather be gifted a metal Sixi Wawa than something delicate so I could take it with me for good luck! Maybe it would’ve helped me with exams during my undergrad. I would’ve had to put the charm in that giant anti-cheating ziploc bag under my desk but the placebo confidence boost might’ve helped me succeed!
This week I wanted to showcase something cute. Compared to the previous weeks’ items, this one is more of a novelty toy. Decades ago, my grandpa went on a trip to Japan. During his trip, he picked up a miniature daisho letter opener set. These letter openers resemble a katana (the longer sword) and wakizashi (the shorter sword).
daisho/daishō: (大小), literally big-little, refers to the pair of big and little swords.
katana: (刀 or かたな), a long, curved sword with a single-edged blade, commonly used by samurai.
wakizashi (脇差), worn with a katana, symbolizes the wearer is a samurai.
Both swords can be used to open letters. The blades aren’t sharp enough to cut you, but they can smoothly run through the edge of an envelope.
These swords are commonly sold as toys or as a novelty office conversation starter. If you search phrases such as “katana letter opener”, “miniature katana”, “toy katana”, you’d see website listings for these swords. I’ve also read that these swords are a popular gift for Japan’s Children’s Day holiday!
These swords are commonly sold as a single sword, others (like this set) has both the katana and wakizashi on a stand. I’ve also seen a set of three swords!
So how do you display them properly?
According to Paul Chen Hanwei, from Paul Chen Hanwei Swords, typically in times of peace, a katana would be sheathed. The blade is also stored pointing up with the handle on the left. An interesting tidbit he mentioned is that the katana is typically held in the samurai’s right hand. In times of war, the handle would be displayed on the right side which makes it easier to grab. So, if a handle points right, it symbolizes hostility. When it points left, it symbolizes peace. The wakizashi would then be mounted underneath the katana in the same fashion.
So if you want a passive-aggressive way to subtly show your coworkers that you dislike them, point the handles to the right. Not this image though! I don’t hold any hostility toward you guys!
How you display your swords can symbolize different things, but many times, a sword could be displayed unsheathed for aesthetic purposes. The sheath would be stored underneath the blade, rather than a wakizashi. Also, other hobbyists prefer to display their larger swords underneath the smaller swords. According to Samurai University, the smaller sword (tanto) would be displayed on the top shelf because that is the sword that is removed first when they are placed on the stand. The larger sword (daito) is then placed on the bottom shelf.
So it appears that there is an agreement on handle symbolism, but displaying swords depend on how you were taught.
tanto/tantō (短刀), a type of short sword, worn with a katana or another longer sword.
daito/daitō (大刀), literally large/long sword, not to be confused with daisho.
shoto/shotō (小刀), literally small/short sword, describes short swords in general. Combining the words daito and shoto creates the word daisho (大小).
This is honestly such a cute letter opener. If you ever have the opportunity to buy one of these, I highly recommend it! You don’t have to display it in your office, it’ll look nice on a bookshelf, fireplace, display cabinet, by your TV… The list goes on! Just remember to dust it once in a while. It looks the best when the metal is shiny and polished!
This bird cage was actually sitting in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. When I was little, sometimes she would take this out and show us. However, this was a rare treat because this bird cage meant a lot to her and she would rather leave it untouched. Buuut, during those couple decades, it would literally be collecting dust! Before I went to take photographs, I had to dust off their feathers with a very tiny and very soft watercolour brush. It felt like delicate surgical work. I was so anxious about poking the head off or scraping off a feather. But the good thing is none of that happened and I managed to clean most of it off!
Last time, when I wrote about the Karl Griesbaum bird music box, I couldn’t demonstrate how it worked because it didn’t have a wind up key. Fortunately, this cage came with the key attached! I’m a little hesitant on winding it up. You’ll see restorers and collectors wind up their cages many times. The most I’m comfortable with is two. But anyway, I recorded a video of how it sounds!
The history of the Karl Griesbaum musical bird cages actually is more obscure compared to the music box. Possibly because logically, if you have a pet bird, you would put it in a cage. Even if it was free roaming in your house, it probably has a cage to sleep in. On the other hand, the idea of a tiny bird popping out of a silver box to sing to you is charming. Maybe that’s why the boxes were more popular. The other factor is that Bontems bird cages from France appear to be more common. The birds look more realistic and models can come in life-like sizes. They also behave and sound chirpier and twitchy (you know how small birds move in a twitchy manner?), basically more realistic overall compared to the Griesbaum models.
The birds can appear very lifelike! Here is another model from Bontems. Very cute and fluffy.
The mechanisms for this bird cage is very similar to the bird music box that I covered last week. The sound is produced by whistles and bellows. All mechanical and no electricity required! In the video below, restorer, appraiser, and collector Troy Duncan explains how the mechanism works.
I believe my grandpa acquired both the bird box and the bird cage at the same time. They were stored together in my grandma’s display cabinet for decades. The way the birds are put together and how they sound also seem to be pretty much the same.
Unfortunately there will be no history blurb because historical information is flooded by auction listings. But I hope the videos were interesting enough.
I was digging through my grandpa’s collection again, trying to find something really cool and I came across this music box. After some research, I’m pretty sure it was produced by the German firm Karl Griesbaum around the 1940’s. Similar ones as described by antique dealer Troy Duncan are also dated approximately 1940’s. Unfortunately I don’t have the means to test the materials or the resources to work with an appraiser, but based off of other similar boxes by the Griesbaum firm, this box appears to be crafted in sterling silver with a glossy enamel finish. The image is also likely to be handpainted.
Another unfortunate thing is that I couldn’t find the wind up key. But, luckily, there are plenty of amazing videos on YouTube that show the music boxes in action. This video by nakrul987 on YouTube really shows the mechanics of the music box. It is quite the automaton! But in general, you just crank the wind up key on the bottom of the box and push the switch to open the lid.
A little history lesson for those who are curious.
According to Flights of Fancy. Mechanical Singing Birds written by Christian & Sharon Bailly, The firm was founded by a clock maker named Karl Griesbaum. Griesbaum began his journey into mechanical music boxes after he was asked to replicate a Swiss snuffbox. These boxes became popular with locals and tourists and cemented his name in music box and snuff box manufacturing. Together with his five children, the Griesbaum family manufactured three grades of music boxes, depending on the materials and the quality of song.
The family felt lasting success until 1988, after Griesbaum passed away. The art of music boxes was not an interest to young Germans who were beginning to join the work force. So, the firm was sold to Siegfried Wendel. Wendel later on would create Mechanische Musikwerke Manufaktur GmbH in 1991, which to this day continues to manufacture bird music boxes.
I referenced a book but it seems like it’s been out of print for a while. I actually found an excerpt from the website Museum Collection/Музей Собрание. This is a museum in Moscow that focuses on the collection of vintage and culturally significant antiques.
Now more recently, these music boxes appear sleek, rather than ornate. How It’s Made actually featured the Swiss company Reuge in one of their episodes! Prior to Griesbaum’s success, bird music boxes and snuff boxes has a long history in Switzerland and Reuge began manufacturing in 1865! I thought it would be appropriate to find a video on a current Swiss manufacturer.
My grandpa seemed to appreciate cute ornate vintage items.
I think anything detailed and mechanical drew his interest. That might also explain his appreciation for insects since he specialized in entomology in university. Personally, I would never consider studying insects. I remember receiving a search-and-find book from Scholastic book orders in public school. It was to replace the book I actually ordered which was out of stock by the time they processed my order. So, I ended up with a giant bug book.
I never looked at it since the day I had to pick it up at school.
I have to admit though, insects are interesting little creatures (or occasionally, scary huge creatures). When you observe how insects move and how their features are connected to their body, they also appear like automata. Have you ever watched a fly clean their legs? Or how spiders crawl? (I know, they’re arachnids) They seem to steadily move in a rhythmic pattern, just like mechanical wind up toys. I guess studying insects carries the same appeal as collecting little mechanical music boxes.
By the way, Karl Greisbaum also produced mechanical singing bird cages! This will be featured next week!
Dec 2, 2019 UPDATE:
I ended up finding the key to the bird box! I wrote about it in a separate blog post here! The bird finally found its voice after several decades! 🙂
For the inaugural post, I wanted to write about something special. I am excited to share my grandpa’s circa 1930’s vintage Voigtländer camera!
This camera appears to be an unnamed 9×12 Voigtländer folding plate camera. It also seems to be very similar to the Voigtländer Avus. Like the Avus, this camera has double extended bellows and a similar Anastigmat 13.5 cm f/4.5 lens. But, it does not indicate that it is the 13.5 cm f/4.5 Anastigmat Scopar lens. The brilliant finder is also mounted on the top right corner, rather than the centre. This camera also does not have a timed shutter release. I tried to find the exact model of camera through auction sites, camera wikis, and online videos and the closest camera I seemed to find was the Avus. Was this camera a prototype model? Limited edition? Please let me know if you know what this is called! I’m really curious.
When we found this camera in his collection, it was stored in a leather box, along with 3 metal sheets and a shutter release cable. One sheet contained a glass plate, I’m assuming to hold film. When out of the box, the camera is neatly folded up. With a press of the unfolding button, the front cover opens, revealing the lens and the folded bellows.
The camera is pulled out of its box by squeezing two metal grips under the black metal frame, then pulling it along the metal tracks. Now, the bellows is extended. If you wanted to continue to adjust your image, you can extend the bellows further or vertically/horizontally. You just need to rotate the knobs next to the tracks and on the black metal frame. The sports finder can also be swung away from the camera.
If you wanted to take a picture, you simply swap out the back cover with a metal plate. The plate would hold a photosensitive sheet. Once this plate is inside the camera, the photographer can release the shutter with the cable and take a picture!
I was told that my grandpa was an avid photographer. Apparently, he appreciated very technical and detailed forms of art. We actually found many more cameras in his collection such as a Yashica box camera and a couple of retro SLRs but personally, I thought this one was the coolest. Very different from the DSLRs and our smartphones!
The wooden frame and leather box of the Voigtländer also gives such an uncommon sensory feeling. The soft knocks and thuds the box makes as you open and close the lid is different than the taps and squeaks of cold plastic packaging. The wooden clacks and metallic taps really sets in stone that you’re handling a mechanical camera, without an ounce of digital technology. I’m getting way too purple prosey but the sensory feedback from handing the Voigtländer really is a satisfying experience. It really lets you appreciate how far technology has evolved!