You collect what?

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Groucho Marx

I’m an admitted history nut, which is probably one reason I really like antiques. The love of antiques and my long-time association with them through my family (and that’s not necessarily a crack about their relative ages. Really) is undoubtedly one of the reasons I became so interested in first preserving the Little White School Museum as a historic structure, and then helping to organize its collections.

Nowadays, I serve at the museum’s director, a post that certainly has its ups and downs. While I love the access to the vast storehouse of Oswego area history and heritage, I could really do without the administrative side of the deal. Because, my main goal in life these days is to do history, not record-keeping. But I guess that’s life.

So when I got involved with the Oswegoland Heritage Association’s formation back in 1976, and then with the restoration and later the museum’s operation, I found there really was a conflict with my love of antiques. According to most museum ethics statements, museum staff should not have a direct interest in collecting the kind of antiques that might find their way into the museum’s collections.

That seems like common sense. Would an antique dealer or collector be amenable to making sure a particularly valuable antique made its way into the museum’s collections, or would there be a strong impetus to keep that item for the individual’s collection?

With me, probably not, but still, I decided that other than the antiques with local connections I already owned as part of the collection created by family members and passed on to me, I’d have to find other stuff to collect.

4th addn CAMIt was about that same time my buddy Paul Baumann was contemplating writing the fourth edition of his seminal Collecting Antique Marbles book. A friend since third grade and long-time fossil-hunting and fishing buddy, Paul started to talk me into collecting ceramic carpet bowls.

Now, of course, is the point at which you wonder, what is a carpet bowl? Right?

The game of carpet bowls was invented in Scotland in the early years of the 19th Century as a way of taking the extremely popular game of lawn bowls inside for play during those extremely long Scottish winter nights. The game is played much like lawn bowls, but the bowls themselves were apparently designed as much for their aesthetics as for their game-piece attributes.

 In 1846, I. Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland included this delightful advertisement for “parlour bowls” from William Grant’s Kingfield Pottery in Glasgow. Apparently then a new game, the advertisement notes it is well suited for women, unlike curling, which might (at least according to the advertisement), cause “over excitement.”

In 1846, I. Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland included this delightful advertisement for “parlour bowls” from William Grant’s Kingfield Pottery in Glasgow. Apparently then a new game, the advertisement notes it is well suited for women, unlike curling, which might (at least according to the advertisement), cause “over excitement.”

Eventually, the game pieces were sorted out into a jack, or target bowl, which was white and which sometimes was imprinted with the logo of the sporting goods firm that sold the sets. The sets further contained glazed ceramic bowls roughly 3” in diameter that came in matched pairs of striped bowls and bowls imprinted with some sort of spotted type decoration. Four to eight of these matched pairs made a complete set, along with the white jack.

The Scots played carpet bowls in church halls, pubs, and in houses with long enough hallways. It didn’t take long for the game to spread to England, and then overseas to British possessions, mainly Australia and Canada.

When suitable plastics were invented, the manufacture of ceramic carpet bowls by Scotland’s numerous small potteries ceased. With the advent of the new, tougher bowls, the ceramic sets were broken up, and they became very collectible.

Carpetbowlset3

A complete set of carpet bowls from a Canadian fishing resort. Note that half the pairs are decorated with spotted patterns, the other half with stripes.

So, thought I, this would be a suitable antique for me to collect since the bowls really had no connection with Illinois or my hometown of Oswego. So off I went collecting these fascinating, colorful ceramic spheres. My interest in them and their history eventually coincided with Paul’s efforts to get the fourth edition of his book published, and he talked me into writing a few chapters in it on the history of collecting carpet bowls and the joy of collecting them. We even made a pilgrimage to Scotland to photograph collections of bowls in museums there, as well as in northern England.

This carpet bowl fragment was collected during archaeological excavations at James Madison's Montpelier suggesting the game may have been enjoyed by those living on the estate.

This carpet bowl fragment was collected during archaeological excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier suggesting the game may have been enjoyed by those living on the estate.

Ironically, along the way I found that carpet bowls had been indeed manufactured here in the United States at potteries in the Ohio River Valley. Further, remains of a carpet bowl were recovered during excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier, suggesting that either Madison or his relatives or friends enjoyed the occasional game of bowls.

Today, I still collect them, and occasionally speak on the topic to area antique study groups and organizations of antique dealers, mostly to explain just what they are and the joy of collecting them.

The nice thing about them is that they really have no local connection at all, which gives me a chance to dabble in the history of something other than Illinois and the Fox River Valley.

And, I hope, I’m maintaining a few of those principles to which Groucho was referring.

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