Trying to find information about objects that were added to collections a century ago is not always easy, especially when the object in question is more than a hundred years old. But sometimes you get lucky and someone has already done the legwork for you, which is what happened in the first week of my Growdon Collections Internship at Boston Children’s Museum.
I was looking through the drawers in the main collections storage for an object for my first lesson in how to create records in the catalog. I pulled open a drawer of Japanese artifacts and was immediately struck by grotesque faces staring back at me. While I haven’t been able to find any examples of this particular design, the record I was updating was already in the database, and I was able to use a clue left in the original catalog record- kiseru– to find other examples of the objects on a Website about Japanese antiques. They turned out to be a senryu-zutsu, a type of open case for holding a Japanese tobacco pipe, and a tabako ire, a pouch for holding shredded tobacco leaves. The design evolved from the tools of kodo, the Japanese art of appreciating incense. They were meant to be worn on the belt of a kimono, and were popular status symbols among the merchant class in Japan who, prior to the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868, were forbidden by law to carry weapons as commoners. The kiseru, the pipe, is missing from the above example, but I found another example in the Japanese collection that still had its pipe (below). Kiseru can range up to 45 cm (~ 17 in.) in length, though they typically measure between 15 to 18 (~6-7 in.), and the longer kiseru could actually be used as weapons, making them an ideal object to display (ours is only 8 inches).
Sadly we don’t have any information about how the donor acquired this object, but based on how long it was recorded to have been “in the family” and when it was donated to the Museum, we determined that these were probably made around 1870. I would love to be able to go back and try and find out more about these particular examples and why they were carved this way, but I have other objects that need to be photographed and cataloged. If you have a kiseru or know something about them, please post in the comments section, otherwise stay tuned for more posts about the things we’re finding in collections!