They'd never been to Schaumburg. They weren't sure of its location, knowing only that it was within a geographical construct called "Chicagoland." They knew that meant it was in the metropolitan area. In planning their trip from New York City, they made no provision for a breakdown in Toledo. They learned: everybody breaks down in Toledo.
Betsy Reid and Shirley Solomon arrived on Thursday, one day before the official opening of the sixth annual convention of the Novelty Salt and Pepper Shakers Club. This was bound to be a landmark convention, the largest ever--more sets of novelty salt and pepper shakers in one place than ever before. To get a selection of the finest (or in this category, the oddest), it was necessary to arrive in advance of the greater part of the flock, as those with the largest collections would set up first. Betsy and Shirley left their own collections behind. They haven't been collecting long, and they're attached to what they have. Shirley likes shakers made of chalk; Betsy likes variety, whatever strikes her eye. "If I don't have it, I just get it," she said. They hope to barter for a few prize pairs from the other collectors with commemorative mugs they designed ("the first ever, in a limited edition," Betsy said). In case trading mugs doesn't work, they brought cash.
Novelty salt and pepper shakers are as different from antique or crystal salt and pepper shakers as the Rockefeller mansion is from the House on the Rock. Five years ago the novelty collectors were asked very politely, in an undertone hushed by a repugnance bordering on horror, to leave the Antique and Art Glass Salt Shaker Collectors Society, to hit the road with their assorted Noah's Arks, Laurel and Hardys, grinning duckies, and smirking bellhops lugging salt and pepper suitcases. At the very last joint convention, this desire was summed up in a comment by a lady from Roanoke, Virginia, to Irene Thornburg of Battle Creek, Michigan, now membership coordinator of the novelty club. Irene was looking over a pair of glass swans, and wondered aloud whether they were crystal or novelty glass. The lady replied, "This isn't crystal. It isn't glass. It's just vulgar." The new club had its first convention the following year, in Pittsburgh.
The collectors are a diverse lot, bound only by their collecting habits. The club has 1,123 members, hailing from nearly all the 50 states and five countries other than the U.S., including England--the home of eccentric collectors. Nigel Dally was one of the Englishmen who showed up in Schaumburg, his 19-month-old son in tow. Nigel had so many sets with him the kid had to vacate his crib early to allow room for display. With his long hair, shades, and dangling cigarette, Nigel is a shadowy figure in the shaker world. If the shakers in his collection were piled into a mound, they'd show up on the radar at O'Hare. He's been referred to as the William Randolph Hearst of the salt and pepper set. It's said that Hearst himself collected novelty shakers (salt and pepper in Disney figurines joined Heinz catsup in a bottle to form the condiments offered at his table), but then, he collected everything.
In the room next door to Nigel was Ruby Montana, owner of a shop selling collectibles and kitsch in Seattle, Washington, and the subject of a profile by Tom Robbins in July's HG. Robbins is a longtime friend and customer, but he doesn't collect shakers. Ruby Montana, who wore a bandanna around her head, looks after her little figures as if they were pets. "He's got a little chip in him, but he's OK," she said, cradling a grass-chewing pickaninny, made in the early 30s, paired with a watermelon. Such pairs, joined by association but not identical, are called "go-withs." Older pairs of go-withs frequently enter collections showing the scars of earlier use, and in some cases, as with many Laurel and Hardys, only one survives. Shirley explained: "There are a lot of Hardys, but Laurel, because he's so tall and thin, tends to fall over and break. So he's rare." Almost everyone had a small table with a group of "singles" on it, lone shakers searching for replacements of their lost mates.
Down the hall from Ruby and Nigel was Larry Carey, from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most visible collector, he was as clean-scrubbed as a Rotarian, with an attitude as aggressive as a hot dog vendor's. He brought with him over 6,000 sets--they blanketed every surface in his room, like a tiny standing army. Asked for a ballpark figure of how many shakers might be in the hotel this weekend, he said "Probably around 55,000 sets." "Enough to fill every seat in Shea Stadium," added Betsy, who is also a rabid Mets fan. Larry Carey was proud of his Disney figures, unlike other shakers generally in that they were glazed first, then painted over for a smoother finish. His collection includes every type of set: the go-withs (a hammer and thumb), the three-pieces (a ship with removable smokestacks), the nodders (a type of three-piecer where the shakers sit in a decorative encasement and nod), the nesters (a mother kangaroo with a baby nesting in her pouch), the vegetable-head series, the advertising series, miniatures, bridal sets, shakers with sex themes (removable breasts), and on and on--all of the popular and marginal obsessions of the last 50 years represented in salt-and-pepper-shaker form. There are enough categories within categories to fill several chronicles, of which there are in fact many.
Larry Carey was upset about rising prices. "Ever since they found shakers in Andy Warhol's estate, prices have gone through the roof. When a celebrity collects, it has a ripple effect on everyone." He wasn't entirely unhappy about it. He was hoping for a good price on his vintage Mickey and Minnie Mouse shakers at the auction. Every one of the novelty-shaker conventions has hosted such an auction: each collector is asked to provide five sets or more, and half the proceeds go to the club, the other half to the collector. Betsy and Shirley brought nothing from their small collections for the auction this year. Maybe next year.
Betsy was hopeful of finding living celebrities here who collect. "I know that they must be out there, but how am I going to find them? Ads? A letter to William Morris?" Shirley remarked, with some cynicism, "What this is really all about is capitalism." But Betsy disagreed, and at the meeting that night, after the traditional presentation of the rubber chicken to Larry Carey by the outgoing president, Melva Davern (the club's first and only president, who handed the baton during this convention to Sylvia Tompkins, a collector of shakers with water-related themes), the talk was not of prices or celebrities but of how many new members had joined since the start of the convention. Three guests in the hotel who'd never heard of an organization for novelty salt-and-pepper-shaker collectors had joined, kicking in their $15 yearly dues. "There's a lot of people out there who do this," said Betsy. "Subcultures on parade," said a man named Mike, from Chicago, who collects cactus shakers. "A lot of the people in the club are named Shirley," added Shirley. "But," she whispered, "I'm the youngest."
Betsy and Shirley finished trading on Saturday night, saw Chicago's sights on Sunday, and after gathering together about 100 pairs of shakers and a few leftover mugs, set off back to New York in Shirley's Isuzu Trooper on Sunday night. They planned to skip Toledo this trip. They were in a hurry, having to get back to businesses that were hardly running themselves; but there was one more activity left.
"It's not collecting, not quite," Shirley said. "But we plan to hit every bowling alley on Route 80 between here and New York." Betsy pointed out that they were in a league together, and that there weren't many alleys left in Manhattan: "We've got to bowl at least one game in every bowling alley we find." And pick up a few salt and pepper shakers with ball-and-pin motifs? "Maybe," Betsy nodded. "But the main thing is to roll those games." Two days later I called and they were still rolling.