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.


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


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?


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…


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…

nodder kangaroo

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

nodder cover

Now can you make this friendly ladybug without instructions?


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

Samuel Marshak’s Tribute to the Everyday Miracle of the Mail

Samuil Marshak, Pochta. Illustrated by Mikhail Tskekanovskii. 5th edition. (Leningrad: GIZ, 1930). Cover title. Cotsen 35487.

In 1927 Samuil Marshak wrote the poem Pochta to praise the efficiency of modern communications with some droll humor and a little dash of wonder.  The plot is brilliant in its simplicity.

A little boy writes a letter to the children’s book author Boris Zhitkov, but Postman Number 5 delivers it to his Leningrad apartment after Zhitkov has left for London.  The letter is forwarded to London, where it misses him again.  It doesn’t reach him in Berlin and has to be redirected to Brazil.  The letter goes around the world before catching up with Zhitkov in Leningrad.  When he receives the letter, covered with cancelled stamps and addresses crossed through, he is amazed at the remarkable network of postmen in different countries connected by trains, airplanes, and ships it represents.

The letter’s voyage can be tracked on the map to the left.

Pochta is such an inspired collaboration between author and illustrator that it is hard to imagine the text being brought to life anywhere as well by another illustrator.   But the late Vladimir Radunsky, a wildly creative Russian-born American artist, conceived a delightful interpretation all his own that pays tribute to his brilliant predecessors.  Hail to the Mail (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1990) is not a literal translation of Marshak’s poem, but a cleverly expanded version with an American spin by Richard Pevear. Pevear, as you’ll see below, gets top billing on the Radunsky’s title page, with its clever allusions to the design concept of the Soviet one.Here is the first attempted delivery of the letter to one John Peck, which Radunsky dramatizes as an encounter between Postman Tim and an unidentified gentleman who seems to be living in Peck’s New York apartment (his portrait is hanging on the wall to the left).  The letter now travels west across the vast North American plains to Boise, Idaho.

Peck has decamped for Zurich, so the letter flies west across the Pacific and Asia to Switzerland.  Of course he has left for some place else–Brazil.  The letter, safetly stowed in the special cabin in a transatlantic ship, arrives after his return home to New York City.Peck the world traveler is amazed that the letter has followed him from place to place, thanks to the dedicated mailmen.  When Postman Tim finally places it in his hands Peck sings “Glory to them, I saw, and Hail / To their heavy bags that bring the mail.”

It is incredible, Internet or no Internet, and Pevear found the right English words to recreate Marshak’s:

A letter can travel / Without / Any trouble / Take a stamp / And lick it — / No need for a ticket — / Your passenger’s sealed / And ready to whirl / On a few-penny / Journey / All over the world. / And it won’t eat or drink / On the way / and there’s only one thing/ It will say/ As it comes down to land: / Certified.

So with only ten shopping (and shipping) days until Christmas, let us carol “All hail to the mail” and give thanks to those tireless folks at USPS, FEDEX, and UPS who process and deliver the packages that do so much to make the season merry and bright!