Making Sculpture with Matches: A Cure for the Summertime Blues

The Cotsen Curatorial Blog is going on vacation until August 7th, but a golden oldies will be run once week to help keep away the summertime blues…   The first in the series offers ideas for some safe and sane projects that can be made with safety matches.

Dog days are here. It’s so hot and humid that all kinds of mushrooms are popping up in the grass, but that’s no reason for being bored and out of sorts waiting for school to start! There are zillions of great crafty ideas in the collection of activity books in the Cotsen Children’s Library.

paulinchenSome people can’t resist playing with matches, like Heinrich Hoffmann’s Paulinchen, shown at the left. If she had lived to adulthood, perhaps she would have discovered the creative potential of the match as a building material. Constructing things with matches is a much safer way to have fun with them, although it is possible to dream up projects that require considerable outlays of time and money, plus studio space. All the replicas of famous buildings below were made entirely of matches by retired British carpenter Brian Wherry.

article-0-14D81796000005DC-125_634x409Twentieth-century activity books for children feature many doable projects creating little sculptures from matches and found objects. Three of my favorites are beautifully illustrated books from Denmark and the Soviet Union published during the early 1930s. This Soviet pamphlet by Eleonora Kondiain offers wordless pictures for making things out of acorns and matchsticks. About all that is needed is a table top and a jack safeknife.

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Getting started. Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki [Acorns and Matches] Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 3 (cotsen 18308)

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Acorn and matchstick piggies from Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki, p. 5. Cotsen also has Kondiain’s little book with instructions for making a doll from straw and for whittling a stag from a twig.

Matches can be stuck in potatoes for the same purpose too, although it raises the question whether perfectly good food should be used this way… Kuznetsov’s illustrations of the match-potato sculptures make it look as if anything done to the potato is completely reversible before peeling, cutting up, and popping into a pot of boiling water. Would anyone care if the vegetables had been part of a cat or equestrian figure a little while before dinner was put on the table?

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A sculpture of potatoes, matches, string, etc. I. P. Meksin, Kartoshka [Potato] illustrated by K. V. Kuznetsov. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 7 (Cotsen 21419). Opinion in the office was divided as to whether the animal being ridden is a bull, a reindeer or a donkey. Or none of the above…

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This is clearly a cat. Meksin, Kartoshka (1930), p. 4.

The really ambitious crafter can build backdrops so the figures can be arranged in tableaux. For inspiration, look at the scenes E. Fetnam created and Kay W. Jensen captured on film in Nodder and Propper [Nuts and Corks]. The cover design makes delightful use of matches and mixed nuts…

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A kangaroo family conversing in E. Fetnam’s Nodder og Propper. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Hansen, c.1933, p. 29 (Cotsen 95045).

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Now can you make this friendly ladybug without instructions?

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To see more activity books in the collection, check out Cotsen’s virtual exhibition about the Pere Castor books

The “Fanaticism” Frederick Douglass Found in the Columbian Orator

The thirteen-year-old Frederick Douglas put down fifty cents for a copy of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, which had been first published in 1797.   He described the anthology both as “a rich treasure”  and as a source of fanaticism because its contents included the fiery speeches of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Chatham, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox.  Armed with this volume, Douglass said “My own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the coloured people.”

But the selection he describes in the greatest detail is a dialogue between a master and his slave, who has been recaptured after a second attempt to run away.  Instead of being punished, he succeeds in winning his freedom  through the cogent analysis of the arguments for and against slavery.   Douglass recalls that “I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance would find their counterpart in myself.”

This dialogue work had been extracted without credit by Caleb Bingham from the sixth volume of Evenings at Home (1796), a collaboration between John Aikin and his sister Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of the celebrated Lessons for Children (1778-1779) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). “A Dialogue between a Master and His Slave” was one of Aikin’s contributions to the project.  While the attribution has been known for some years, its significance has not always been appreciated.  Aikin and Barbauld were born into a family of Dissenters, which meant they were denied full religious liberty in their own country.  While their situation was not analogous to enslavement, they knew first hand the pain of  intolerance and alienation.  Aikin and Barbauld wrote as members of the cultured and liberal British middle class, they embraced the responsibility of teaching children how to read, analyze, and evaluate so that they would act as ethical social beings.   Here is the dialog:

Douglass was by no means the only nineteenth-century reader deeply influenced by a piece from Evenings, even though it is unclear if he ever learned that its author was John Aikin.  It was also among the favorite children’s books of George Eliot and John Ruskin, to mention two other distinguished writers.  We may never know what edition of The Columbian Orator Douglass owned or if it has survived in some collection, but it is testimony to the power of a school book to shape the minds of young readers who were not fortunate enough to own many books, but were hungry to read, analyze, evaluate, and act.

John Aikin, author of “A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave”