MLB from Chicago sends my worst nightmare, a turn of the last century German bisque piano baby figurine at about 8 inches long. In size, anywhere from 3-4” to 30” long, these infant-style figurines gratuitously laid on top of grand pianos, holding down ubiquitous piano shawls draped over piano lids. All of these piano babies are life-like, chubby, blue eyed and blonde. Most display fat naked thighs and bottoms. They usually lie on tummies or backs; some are in the act of playing with their toes, and toes are often seen inserted into little pink mouths set with tiny realistic baby teeth. In all, revolting! But like all fantastic fads of material objects that once captured the market, the object tells us about the philosophy of their time. In this case, we will learn something about the mixed sentiments around children in 1900.
Some late Victorian parlor pianos had whole menageries of these little bisque figures perched on top of the grands. Some piano babies are naked: the reason for this is unfathomable, yet some collector’s guides give the following excuse for this prurient practice; they say, “The baby is freshly bathed,” as if that story makes a (licentious!) difference. That’s what is dangerous about hyperrealism: it taints the imagination. To be more than real is to invite a nightmare.
The worst feature of this particular realism is the attention to meticulous life-like detail. This detail lies in the threefold process of the medium: firstly, the bisque, which is a low-fired type of porcelain, was incised, an “intaglio technique,” used, for example, around the eyes where a line was etched to create depth. Secondly, detail was applied in diluted pastel paint colors, horribly but expertly applied. Thus, little baby teeth are molded in the bisque, then etched, then painted pearl white, and surrounded by a coral pink bow-lipped mouth.
Most of these piano babies are, as I have said, (most unwholesomely) half-naked or naked: baby dresses, gowns, and sleep shirts (tantalizingly) open, either exposing bottoms and legs, or falling off rounded shoulders. The most notable manufacturers of these piano babies, the German Heubach Brothers, tinted the bisque medium called slip (which is usually bone white) a delicate “baby flesh” PINK, so baby’s skin looks and – because bisque is smooth – feels real, including artfully placed (concupiscent) dimples in cheeks. I mean in all cheeks.
Some of the poses of these babies are voyeuristic, to say the least. Here’s some popular attitudes: a little girl in a sunbonnet drooling over a peach, a baby in an adult’s shoe, a baby crawling from an egg as if newly hatched, a child on pillow teasing a puppy, or reclining with thumb in mouth, or in all-white underwear, or on a tummy, naked, reading an oversized book, or a little toddler with torn romper and long blond curls, with trembling lip.
All this begs the question of the turn of the last century’s social attitude regarding young children. Ironically, children were seen and not heard, AND highly romanticized. Most children’s clothes were miniatures of adult’s styles and just as restricting and structured. Boys and girls wore bows, dresses, stockings and high-topped boots, hats, collars and little fitted jackets, if the family had money. If the family was urban or rural poor in 1900, a child might dress in rags, and work in the mines, or clean chimneys, or hawk newspapers, or tend the farm animals. Realize that when these idealized baby figures were modeled, most children worked to support their families, some to their death. It was not until the late 1930’s that Congress passed a law protecting children across the U.S. For example, my grandfather, born in 1899, delivered ice as a child. His brother stoked the coal-fired heater and stove, his sister filled the kerosene lamps. (Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb until 1879 – and by 1910 many cities were not yet wired for electricity.) When a child took sick, in 1900, a child was dosed with “patent medicines,” tonics and syrups claiming to cure anything. Not until 1906 did Congress outlaw miracle cure-alls for children. So how pink and chubby were the children of the turn of the last century? Not as pink and chubby as these piano babies, I’d wager.
Yet there are collector’s clubs for these piano babies, and I read with interest on three such club’s homepages that many collectors of these figures are men. I leave that bit of information with you. The piano baby is worth $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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