There’s a peculiar irony in witnessing a country steadily lurch backwards to the worst ideals of the nineteenth century, just as our collective memory of its unique—and widespread—horrors falters. George Santayana’s platitude about history and the inevitable recycling thereof aside, these days the only lust for what’s left behind centers upon glossy ‘50s veneers, preferably with “Eames” or “Baughman” stamped underneath. Along with that pursuit comes a ready-made minimalist amnesia that renders the world straightforward and clutter-free, as though our Leave it to Beaver era did not usher in an incredible spike in abuse, domestic and otherwise. Never mind that Grandma hid her valium in that sleek credenza Jane Jetson would have been proud to own; they long for a time when families were nuclear, in every possible sense. “We will pay for the past!” activists shriek as our rights roll back, fire-sale style, and The Economist and its crisis chorus cry out that buyers won’t have it – not at any price. “Stuff it!” taunts the Washington Post, gleefully dispiriting parents and grandparents of the illusion that their collections might matter more than mere materialism, testing the tininess of their inheritors’ statement houses.
It’s a lot of meaningless junk—so says the market and the tastemakers—devoid of worth and indicative of decadence, congratulating themselves on their unembellished élan. Such out-of-hand rejections conjure specters: the Victorians who begat the Bloomsbury Group and Le Corbusier; Wallace Nutting and John Fowler who unintentionally, even unwillingly, sired MCM (mid-century modern). Exuberance, it would seem, breeds zealous restraint embodied as a moralistic mania; “less is more” becomes its offspring’s salvational salvo. Naturally, that perspective is relative in that it serves as a reactionary response to its design predecessors.
No fashionista myself, I succumb to seduction by style. Despite their deafening decrees about overladen domesticity, I continue collecting; I gather meaning, old-fashioned and frumpy as it may be. The Economist proclaims that “Social justice has not traditionally been one of antiques’ selling points,” even as it argues those antiques currently selling best are those with “character.” They contend that highly original and one-of-a-kind items continue to tempt buyers even as other antiques founder; but social justice, even activism objectified, and the problems of society linger still in nineteenth-century mass production. Though this inventory may not convey clean lines, it certainly lobs a liberatory lesson at the collector concerned with conscience.
Each of the pieces that follow are nineteenth-century pressed glass; they were mass-produced primarily, but not exclusively, in the U.S. At the time, their revolutionary production technology made glassware affordable for the masses, securing working class folks a chance at featuring finery on their dining tables as their wealthier counterparts had done for well over a century with cut glass. Demand was high and consumers—at least some of them, anyway —wanted to eat meals from services that conveyed meaning. In the majority of cases, I have discovered, no account of intended meaning was ever kept. Symbolism did the work itself; there was no mandate to record the significance of their elements.
I first encountered these disembodied hands several years ago in an antique store. A clenched fist holding a bar (or a scroll perhaps)—a pattern I later learned bears the inexplicable name “Pennsylvania Hand”—captivated me because I was certain it held deep symbolic meaning. I bought the sugar bowl and set about divining its meaning via Google. Instead of a great revelation, I found that a similar pattern, just called “Hand” or given a pattern number, had been made by at least two other glass houses. Speculation about the meaning, which I’ll share below, varies in its probability and possibility, offering shadows of a life now inaccessible to us.
More importantly, though, these objects represent dedicated labor manifested in a visual language intended to communicate with diners—be they guests or inhabitants of the home they furnish—and therefore serve several functions. Unlike the personality-free dinnerware we purchase today at places like Wal-Mart or Crate and Barrel, these pieces present possibilities: purpose, protest, and a point. Their very sensual nature and enigmatic symbolism invite engagement and contemplation, a charge all objects we possess ought to answer.
1. Detail of a Hobbs, Brockunier & Co. “Tree of Life” creamer (circa 1879)
With its references to world-making and the inherent creative capacity of human hands, it brings into question the very nature of industrialization while highlighting the masterful carving of the original mold-maker. The symbolism of the pattern name itself also introduces the divine, of course, alongside more practical considerations about procreation and the life force itself. In addition, its functionality demands human contact and an appreciation for the inherent beauty of the human form.
2. “Mrs. Hadley’s Hand,” Royal Worcester (circa 1864)
The original upon which this spill vase, designed to hold strips of wood to start fires, was designed by James Hadley. In an era of maximalism when it comes to the coverage of clothing, hands became fetishized as markers of social class—the ideal being a smooth, perfectly white hand unaccustomed to labor—they were also eroticized for their performative capacities. The sexual fantasy at work in this sculpture invites amorousness and physicality into the open while remaining demure at the same time.
3. A cruet stopper in the “Hand & Bar” pattern, maker unknown (circa 1880)
Variants of this pattern were made by O’Hara Glass Co., Bryce, Higbee, and Bros., and Tarentum. This particular symbol has been attributed to causes most frequently labeled “liberal” today. Among them are the right of labor to organize; advocating for the abolition of slavery; advocating for Black power—and education if one sees a scroll—post-slavery.
4. Another hand vase, maker unknown (circa 1880)
In addition to evoking the erotic potential of the human hand, these vases also illustrate darker truths. Can a hand stand in for an entire woman? Are women just their hands and the labor they produce? Why are these vases always right-handed, conveniently avoiding the collision of marital status and sexual fantasy?
5. French “Beggar’s Hand” toothpick holders made by Vallerystahl (circa 1900)
These pieces, which appeared in a variety of colors, invite diners to contemplate the horrors of poverty and social injustice even as they endeavor to remove the detritus of their recently consumed meal.
6. A lady’s powder box made by the O’Hara Glass Co. in 1875
The objectification of hands was apparently equal opportunity in the nineteenth century, as women caressed muscular male hands in the service of powdering their presumably nude bodies.
7. Atterbury “Hand with Fan” tray (circa 1889)
The traditional reading of the symbolism at play here centers upon feminine coquetry; that of course, depends upon one’s perspective. The piece may also be taken as a tribute to feminine agency, deciding what is obscured—sheltered even—from the male gaze and what is not. Originally, the ring on the forefinger would have sported a sizeable ruby-hued jewel, suggesting affluence or pretension considering the social class attributed to the hand.
8. Dalzell, Gilmore & Leighton “Mitted Hand” Bowl (circa 1880)
The lesson of this bowl depends upon its fullness; to discover it heaped with treats too tempting to turn down leads to the discovery of the gloved hand hiding underneath. The lesson here is two-tiered: an unseen hand enables the luxury at hand and the commingling of that flesh with the luxury it produces proves unsavory. Luxury, it suggests, operates most pleasurably without clear antecedents.
10. An outstretched milk glass hand, maker unknown (circa 1885)
Meaning here, of course, depends upon the use to which the dish is put. Fantasy, utility, and virility all vie for its possibilities. Frequently marketed as a pin or ring tray, this artifact becomes a lesson in women’s labor, just as it might operate as a comment upon the leisured classes. Here a handful of diamond brooches tells a remarkably different story than one covered in pennies.
11. Hobbs, Brockunier & Co. “Tree of Life” epergne (circa 1879) (incomplete)
Originally this piece would have featured a large central vase, phallic in its erectness, jutting 5-6″ above the bowl. Such centerpieces were a favorite of Victorian dining tables, and this one takes on all the glory of heterosexual desire by featuring a fondling woman’s hand holding the central horn aloft. Once in place, the piece was filled with fecundity: fruits, vegetables, frolicking nudes, and wildlife all took center stage for diners to contemplate fertility, sexual union, and eroticism as they consumed their courses—all while buttoned up and laced-in as tightly as they could be.
12. Atterbury “Bird in Hand” covered box or butter dish (circa 1889)
The allusion to the time-worn proverb announces, of course, that it is better to stick with what one has rather than gambling upon chance. It may also have served as a not-so-subtle rebuke to husbands reaching for butter who might find their own wives hands slightly less lithe and lovely.
These interpretations, of course, are my own handiwork, comprised of equal parts function and fiction; desire and documentation. They are a forgetting, as Jack Halberstam uses the term in The Queer Art of Failure, “that becomes a way of resisting the heroic and grand logics of recall [… that] unleashes new forms of memory that relate more to spectrality than to hard evidence.” The clean lines of minimalism—much like linear, progressive narratives of history—discourage such evocations, advocating for a different forgetting: one that is rootless and yet prone to reversion. Theirs is a purposely omissive style purportedly sprung out of thin air—it’s no mistake outer space features so referentially in such designs—incapable of recalling the past they mindlessly recreate in their chrome-plated future. In the end, in these days when our government agents endeavor to pare down our protections until they’re as puny as a Panton chair, I’ll take the homely histories of these once haute hands knowing that they symbolize selfhood, sexuality, struggle, style, sensibilities, and above all, substance.