Friday, December 11, 2009

Etymology and Decorators

My fingertips are so raw and sore right now – the consequence of trying to finish another big quilt project by the end of the year, in addition to the descriptor project. (And a couple of small, crafty projects, too – I just noticed the gesso on my fingernails.)

Attention Deficit Disorder runs in the family, and I suspect I have a mild, manageable form of it: it manifests itself in a need to multi-task. I do crash from time to time, but I know my tolerance levels, and I'm operating well within them. If anything, I could probably take on another project or two...

Back to the project at hand. Today's topic will be the spare, rare history of the Decorator.

As I hinted before in our 3-part discussion about Christmas Decorators, documentation for actual Decorators is also extremely sparse. In fact, we have only four pieces of documentary evidence:

  1. A “Supplemental Price List” dated April 1, 1964, that lists all of the models we now call Decorators. There are actually two near identical copies of this pricelist, one printed on light blue paper, and the other, on yellow (blue and gold, get it?)

  2. A picture in the 1964 Alden's Christmas Book, featuring a pair of “Copenhagen Dappled Horses” for the hefty sum of 6.99. The catalog copy: “magnificently detailed of china-like fine quality plastic. Break-resistant! Lovely mare with foal for her novelty shelves or a favorite youngster's room.” (The Running Mare and Foal, obviously.)

  3. A full-color photograph showing the entire Decorator line, complete with numbers. Stamped on the back of this photo is the notation “Please mail your order to J.C. Unger ...”

  4. The photograph of the Copenhagen Belgian that appeared in an issue of JAH back in 1980.

That's it. It doesn't seem like a lot – and it isn't – but it's a lot more than we have for many early Breyer releases. But did you notice what's missing from the paper evidence?

On none of these pieces of evidence is the word “Decorator” even used.

Looking through my early ephemera, the closest we come to the word Decorator is in the Dealer Catalog references to the Modernistic Buck and Doe, who are called “Delightfully Decorative.” Marney labels them as “Modernistic/Decorator” and includes them in the Decorator section of her book, but provides no other evidence or documentation linking the two together, only noting that the Deer were “originally created as Christmas decorative pieces.” The two existing catalog pages that feature the Deer also note this, seen here on the ca. 1961 catalog insert page:

They are metallic gold – and predate the horses by at least a year – so it's possible that this is where the term originated. But was the term “Decorator” itself an internally-created one that we simply don't have the documentation for – yet – or was it a term that just arose in the hobby organically, like “Chalky” did?

Marney was pretty much the source of all Breyer knowledge back then, so I'm inclined to believe that the origins of the term, or its popularization in the model horse lexicon, are with her somehow.

It's possible that Marney may have overheard the term from someone at the factory, or may have seen the word used in conjunction with a local store's advertising campaign, or had access to a document, now lost, that used it specifically. Or maybe Marney just made it up – based on the promotional stuff for the Buck and Doe – and the hobby just adopted it as a matter of course. (Who were we to doubt Marney's knowledge then?)

I also remember – I truly can't say where or from whom I heard this bit of information – that the term Decorator was also used to describe Woodgrains. (Marney, again?) The earliest references I have for Woodgrains – the sepiatone ca. 1960 Dealer Catalog, and two Mission Supply House fliers, ca. 1961 – only refer to them as “Wood Grains” or as part of the “Wood Grain Series.” If true, it might be a point in favor of the “in-house” theory for the origin of the term: maybe it was just the word they used around the factory to describe all of the “nonrealistic” finishes. (Charcoal, at the time, was probably considered “realistic.”)

By the way, the term didn't become the single word “Woodgrain” until 1970, and only then on the pricelists. The Fighting Stallion – the only remaining regular run Woodgrain, seen in the Collector's Manuals from 1968 through 1973 – was always described as “Wood Grain.”

Oh, to have had access to Marney's original research notes and documentation. What new discoveries could be made there, what mysteries could be revealed, with fresh eyes? If only, if only.

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