Sunday, March 21, 2010


Did your family have a What-Not shelf? Until I had my own home, I don’t think I’d ever been in a house without one. The name’s origins are lost to Time, but I imagine that it began as a catch-all word for the little rinky-dinks which accumulated there.

I can remember one such collection of souvenirs, miniatures, tchotchkes, and what-have-you little doo-dads in almost every place of my childhood---my Mammaws both had one, all their neighbors one or two---sometimes quite ornate spirals or corner tiers or towers of things.

The items which sat on those narrow displays were always small, quite often of either china or wood, and even more often, had the name of a vacation spot/gas company/service station/ insurance company/fraternal organization/military unit/foreign place someone’s son had been stationed during the war.

And I was totally fascinated by the wee things---where else could a child, bored with visiting on a Sunday afternoon, just stand in the corner and be occupied just LOOKING at stuff for an hour? Mammaw’s one neighbor had several grenades on hers---her son had brought them back from WWII, and he SAID they were all still loaded. Another shelf held a few of the long-point shells, angry as wasps, sitting on their flat bottoms; she dusted and POLISHED those things with lemon juice and salt, every time she did her Revere Ware, for goodness’ sake!

Yet another neighbor’s collection was of glass balls, flat on the bottom, and filled with the most enchanting flowers---I would just get lost in those, glinting in the sunshine, and I know I wore out my welcome several times over, for they had no kids my age, and I’d just knock on the door, asking to look at the glass things. Later I learned that they were called paperweights, and I coveted a paperweight SO badly---though the fact that I HAD no paper to weight did not seem to occur to me—all mine was in tablets and booklets, before we were all allowed three-rings.

And lots of the guys in my high school, all being smalltown or country boys, took classes in the Agriculture Building---mechanics and shop and actual FARMING classes. And the Shop guys got to make What-Nots. I think those were their second assignment, right after a birdhouse, all culminating in the final pinnacle---either a chiffarobe (mirrors included, sometimes) or a cedar chest.

The What-Not plans came out of a book, the same ones every year, and so the patterns were limited; there was your Three-Tier Corner model, with little lathe-cut spindles along the sides; the Two-Flat-Shelves edition , with a heart or some-such jigsaw-cut out of the shelf-back, and the REALLY fancy arrangement on either three or four little legs, like a tiny open étagère.

And they all contained humorous salt-and-pepper sets, tiny sets of parlor furniture, dolls and bells and wooden shoes and miniature cup-and-saucer sets inscribed “See Rock City” and “Souvenir of Biloxi, Miss.” Flamingoes abounded, as did things made of seashells, and the number of ashtrays, ring holders, pictures, picture frames, keyrings, shotglasses and coasters which could be made featuring both---boggling.
There was also a strange profusion of smaller-than-a-matchbox shellacked outhouses, each with a tiny moon in the door. Everyone seemed to have a set, S&P or not. It was as if some weird, hypnotic Privy Salesman came through with a suitcase full of half-price bargains, and glamoured the whole populace into saying, “Wow!! Isn’t that CUTE?? Might as WELL!”

And I can still name most of the little goodies which sat on the incongruously-tacky little corner What-Not in our otherwise really pretty living room. Even after Sis and I had both married and moved out, and Mother could indulge in custom-made gold silk drapes, with a puckery-green divan and little spindly chairs, that dark old shelf just SAT there, like a wart on a pickle, holding all those same old tacky things like ancient talismans.

There were saltshakers--- A pair of Schlitz bottles---glass, with tiny real fluted caps; a yellow porcelain bird, a Hummelish girl-with-goose and boy-in-cap, a little shiny wooden chest with a microscopic clasp, a small parlor chair with a bordello-looking red velvet pouf (pincushion), and of course, the ever-present Privy Set. I was just glad it sat there in silence---what if it HAD been a S&P, and someone actually put them on the TABLE??

There was also a stuffed yellow turtle, its flannely back pocked from countless pins and needles during its days as a pincushion, and a little roll-out tape measure inside. I’d rescued it from Mammaw’s machine drawer when I was about five---I’d felt sorry for it, for its small black embroidered eyes had frayed, and I thought it was blind. Mammaw had said, “You don’t want THAT old thing!!”
And I’d blurted, “Maybe I can get it a seein’-eye snail!”
And quite some time later, I DID, at Ben Franklin---a tiny stuffed snail, with a pink shell, about the size of a thimble. She and Turtle got on quite well, sitting there on that shelf in the morning sunshine. I always felt that Snail was describing pretty things to Turtle.



Jeanne said...

Good morning Rachel,I am sorry I have not been visiting. Busy as can be but this 'AM' I have a bit of time on the computer. Yippee. I agree, what not shelves are a part of my memory too. Little collections of numerous different things. The out houses put me in mind of the cabin my grandpa had in Northern MI. There were two outhouse on the property. We used them for years. They were named PARIS for the girls and ROME for the men. HA! the cabin is still there since the early 1930's and owned by my cousin Bob. Still in the family. My gramps and family hunted there every year. We vacationed there in the summer. You reminded me of a wonderful memory.

I am planning still to do a special feature on your blog this Wednesday. Just a reminder.Smile!

Have a wonderful day.
Hugs xoxo,Jeanne

Keetha said...

My parents had, among other things, a plastic cube that held pictures, those old 3x3-inch square ones. I loved that thing. I wonder where it is?

When you mentioned Schlitz, that took me back. My parents had a Schlitz beach towel and I loved it because it reminded me of Laverne and Shirley.

My grandparents had a whatnot shelf, too. There's had beer mugs/steins from different places - Chattanooga, Hot Springs.

Wsprsweetly Of Cottages said...

Well, we called them "nick nack" shelves. IF that is how you spell it...but I kind of like "whatnot"...anyway..
Mine has and had cups and saucers until the very bottom..then it became seriously whatnot. It had a tiny potato masher, a tiny wooden tea cart with itsy bitsy wooden plates on it and a piece of cheese and a tiny mouse. There was can see here that I am about like you were with the blind turtle and the seeng-eye snail. It's just one of those things. I still have all my stuff as housed in a curio cabinet. Two of them to be exact!

My mom's housed three naked little cupids that I gave her representing my three little ones ...who later turned into seven. After her death, I took them home and they were so covered with nicotine from that they were a dark yellowish color. They are pink again...
I miss my Mom. I do! Yellow cupids or not!
Sob! Now I'm thinking of the stuff she had on that shelf!
Hugs and thanks for the memories, you sweet thing! :)

L Vanel said...

My whole house was a whatnot shelf. Great post.

Kim Shook said...

What-not shelves must skip a generation in my Momma's family. I can remember Bomo having shelves crammed with souvenirs, S&P shakers, and, shamefully, what a good friend calls “Negrobilia” – kerchief headed Mammys and Uncles with white whiskers. When she was a little girl, one of Momma’s chores was to dust all this stuff, so we had NOTHING in our house. I harkened back to Bomo, though, and my shelves are stuffed with pictures, Jessica’s childhood artwork, family mementoes, etc. A decorator would come in and tell me to clear the decks, but I just feel happier with all those items within view. I think that you've inspired a blog post, if you don't mind my borrowing!