Saturday, May 16, 2015

P&PC New Acquisition: Mighty-Maurice the Pot-Holder

Everyone knows about the Kitchen Debate between then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the opening of the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow on July 24, 1959. But who knew that the Cold War American kitchen was also full of poetry? About two years ago, we introduced P&PC readers to a wooden ring holder and a "Pinkerstink" cocktail glass, both of which had poetry on them. And now we have the pleasure of bringing you our latest find—the "Mighty-Maurice Pot-Holder" produced by Gilner Potteries, a company that operated out of Culver City, California from 1948-1957 and claimed to be "California's Largest Art Ware Manufacturers." Unfortunately, our recent acquisition is only the box, but even though we don't have the pot-holder or the pottery, we're happen to at least have its poetry—two stanzas of self-introduction straight from Mighty Maurice's mouth:

For neatness in your kitchen
Hand your hot-pads on my arms
I'm the guy for whom you've been wishing
And being handy is one of my charms.

I can also hold your watch and rings
Whenever you do the dishes
Ever see another fellow
Who is quite so ambitious?

Apparently, Maurice is one of the "Happy People"—little male pixies that, apparently, fed and responded to the "pixie craze" of the 1940s and 1950s. (Maurice's female counterparts, like the one pictured here, were called "Merry Maids.") Tempted though we are to tie Mighty Maurice and his kind to The Borrowers (which was published in 1952), we're more moved to think back in time—like, to fifty or sixty years earlier when Palmer Cox's "Brownies" were all the rage. Wiki writes, "Not unlike fairies and goblins, Brownies are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. Never allowing themselves to be seen by mortal eyes, they are male, drawn to represent many professions and nationalities, all mischievous members of the fairy world whose principle attribute is helping with chores while a family sleeps."

Imaginary little sprites? Male? Helping with chores (like holding pot-holders, rings, and watches)? Sounds a lot like Mighty-Maurice to us. A Canadian illustrator and author, Cox made his Brownies into a pioneering name brand in advertising. There were Brownie books. There were Brownie pamphlets advertising patent medicines and soap (you might remember us talking a bit about that here.) There were Brownie dolls, games, mugs, plates, flags, and more (though we can't find a Brownie pot-holder). Like Mighty-Maurice, Brownies also wore funny hats. And as the picture of the Brownie pictured here suggests, Brownies also had a special relationship to poetry, oftentimes speaking in verse just as their pixie cousin Mighty-Maurice does. But perhaps the most telling and interesting connection between Brownies and Mighty-Maurice's "Happy People," however, is the semantic one, as the name "Maurice" (which means "dark skinned" or "Moorish") can't help but link up with the brownness of Cox's ethnically-other Brownies.

The upshot of all this? Both the creations by Cox and Gilner are little idealized racial or ethnic others who happily help with chores around the house. (Cf. "Happy People" and "Merry Maids.") Who knew, then, that even as Nixon was extolling the virtues of capitalism and the labor-saving technology of the modern American kitchen, some kitchens in America contained a nostalgic kernel of the past—the ghost of the African American or ethnic housekeeper and/or kitchen maid whose physical labor and position in the American economic system would have never been mentioned, much less extolled, by an American politician debating social progress with a Soviet Premier.