Thereby Hangs a Tale | Newberry

Thereby Hangs a Tale

You brought in some interesting things whilst I was off on holiday: vintage seed packets, an advertising magnifier celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the airplane, someone’s book of baby pictures from the 1930s (I WISH you’d remember to footnote these things. What exactly are you and your sibling dressed up as on the front ste[s, and what was the holiday. One, of you, at least, has antennae.) Not a single snuffbox, though.

Iy isn’t as though I WANT a snuffbox, though a nice solid gold eighteenth century one would be most welcome. It was just an example I was using in conversation: I was explaining that our ancestors collected snuffboxes two or three hundreds years ago, so why mock someone else who collects belt hooks? (Note to self: do people still USE snuffboxes? They still use snuff, but do they just take that boring circular can from the store and tuck it into their jeans? Ah, the passage of time and the damage it does to the amenities of life! We live in an age when you go use the computer and go online and BUY the disgusting stuff, but can you find a porcelain doohickey to carry it in? Baseball cards, now: you can buy baseball cards almost anywhere, in everyone’s price range, but where can we get that awful pink gum nowadays? Time changes our habits, but so often it’s…where were we?)

Anyhow, the conversation about belt hooks was caused by a continuing rush of donations of books on the identification and collection of netsuke. Netsuke were more widespread in Japanese society than snuffboxes were in ours, because they were universally useful. A person wearing a robe (kimono, say) had no pockets. So he would hang a pouch, purse, or handy box (sagemono was the generic term: the boxes, used by your better classes, were inro) from his belt (obi). He wouldn’t have a zipper to close it, so the boxes were held shut by beaded strings (ojime).

And this whole assembly was slung onto a little toggle or belt hook: THESE were the netsuke. All those bits and pieces are collectible, but netsuke were what really caught on, especially once the European and American collecting types found out about ‘em. They’re small and pretty and sometimes expensive. And one can spend one’s life identifying the era when they were produced, and sometimes the artist who produced them. They can be catalogued, too, either by what they’re made of (ivory, walnut shells, walrus tusk, wood, lacquer, wicker) or by format (solid, hollow, lidded, skewer-like) or by subject matter (kind of like stamps, really: you can be as specialized as you like. There are people, but there are also categories for military men or children or people in comic situations, or animals or just horses or octopi, or flowers or trees or various types of household items. Erotic, or shunga, netsuke caught the fancy of western collectors right away.) Here’s something that’s small and interesting, and capable of being sorted to the nth degree: what more does one want from a collectible?

So we have a LOT of books and magazines on these (nearly as many as we had about collecting postcards last year), and they will be found in the Antiques category, with the books on coin collecting and stamp collecting, and pewter collecting. PLEASE don’t stop me in the rush of action in July to ask me about them, though. I probably won’t know what you’re talking about.

See, the experts online agree about the history and collectability of netsuke. They do NOT agree on how you pronounce it. I checked, because I have always pronounced it like a typical clueless Book Fair manager: net-SOO-key. A volunteer who collected them corrected me, saying that the word is actually pronounced in two syllables: NET-skee.

The know-it-alls online tend to agree with her as to the first syllable: that’s the one you put the accent on, and it rhymes with, well, “net”. But the two-syllable people and the three-syllable people are about even in number. Some of them say NET-skee, but others say NET-so-key, some NET-soo-key, and some insist on NET-suh-kay, saying that middle syllable so shyly that it SOUNDS almost like NET-skee. There’s even one self-appointed expert who does two syllables, and rhymes it with “rebuke”: net-SOOK.

Why not just ask me about belt hooks? I will have forgotten the phrase, and STILL won’t know what you’re talking about, but at least we’ll pronounce it the same way.

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