Miscellaneous Cheese and Salt & Pepper Shakers

Somewhere along the line I came across a cheese shaker (back left) and was taken by the stereotypical Italian imagery of a mustachioed man in a red brimless conical hat à la Chico Marx playing the accordion and accompanied by a monkey (not seen) at his feet. It is a curious object in keeping with a panoply of derogatory ethnic and racial figurines (e.g., the African American “mammy,” the sleeping Mexican in a sombrero) from the American past. Not long afterwards I found a similar cheese shaker (back right), this one of an organ grinder—with an accompanying chimp—its eyes closed, its mouth open as if in song, and its ears pierced with dangling metal bells for earrings. This is a quintessential rendering of the male Italian immigrant stereotype. While rendered in a buffoonish style, organ grinders had a more troubled place in U.S. cities, where they were considered a nuisance, ominous, violent against children and animals, and suspected kidnappers and members of the Black Hand, as Betty Smith reminds us in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The rendering of the Other in a comic register has long been a way to tame and domesticate. In time I found three other figurines—all with pepper shakers in the form of monkeys—to round out my modest collection.

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