Its an antique, its a shelving unit, it moves with perfect rhythm, and that makes it a star of our museum collection. Valuable antiques by well-known makers are nice, but I don’t think they can compete with a quirky, one-of-a-kind item made by some creative individual in the past. We have woodworking tools redesigned by a craftsman to do a special job, and homemade rag dolls who love to attend parties with the fancy French playthings blessed with porcelain heads. The dancing whatnot is an enticing example of some unknown person’s determination and creativity.
So what’s a whatnot? Let us start with what its not. It is not an object of any practical use. It was vital for the Victorian housewife for its social uses, and as a communication device. A whatnot is a delicate and elaborately pretty bit of shelving. Usually it has about five shelves, wider at the bottom and quite small at the top. They are open shelves, with very delicately carved or turned supports. Don’t let the word shelves fool you into thinking this is a storage device. A good whatnot is obviously too small and weak to hold anything really useful, like cookware or provisions.
The whatnot was a stage, upon which the housewife showed the world possessions that reflected her family’s sophistication, good taste, and monetary success. At left is a manufactured whatnot in Millermore. The whatnot belonged in the parlor, the place of public reception where visitors could see that it held tasteful tchotchkes treasured by the discerning family. A few quality books made it clear that the family read. (Trashy novels were kept hidden in the bedrooms.)
But what if you were literate and tasteful but lacked the cash to buy nice furniture? Make a whatnot out of available materials. The supports for our dancing whatnot are made of 123 wooden thread spools, strung on wire and gathered tight at the top. At least, they once were pulled tight, but have now loosened so that if you touch the whatnot, it performs a sensuous hula, swaying back and forth. The spools sort of look like fancy turned woodwork. In fact, they look a lot like spool turning, named for their resemblance to a row of spools. They also represent a lot of yards of thread used in the family sewing, and are perhaps the collection of several women.
When we look closely at the shelves of the whatnot, we see that somebody slacked off on craftsmanship. They were made from pieces of packing crate, with lettering still visible on the front of the base. I think our whatnot was made by a family who lived where wood was scarce but dreams of a better future were strong. Maybe they lived in a single room with log walls, a room that served as kitchen, bedroom and workroom. This little shelf holding their prized possessions, would reserve one small corner of that room as a parlor. The most important thing it held was the promise of a better future.