Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Cabinet of Curiosities: Teenage Boys on Telephones

I recently came across a wonderful blog called The Haunted Lamp which describes itself as “a collage about the unusual for the eccentric. It includes objects, design, art, ephemera and spaces -usually with a unique vintage twist. Expect to see the sculptural, eerie, humorous, magical, and the little bit queer.”  Well, being a bit eccentric myself and more than a little bit queer, it appealed to me immensely especially this post about a Russian figurine of sailors and this other post about sailor cocktail napkins from the 1940’s.  The one napkin depicts a sailor who rides a carousel horse with great enthusiasm.  It reminds me of how representations of sailors are given greater freedom in culture because of the long history of their sexual ambiguity.  I doubt one would see a napkin with a marine riding a carousel horse with such unbound joy.

The Haunted Lamp has inspired me to dig into my own cabinets and draws and reveal some of my curiosities that are also a little bit queer.  When I saw the Russian figurine of the two sailors on The Haunted Lamp, I was reminded of 3 porcelain figurines of teenage boys in my vitrine from Japan made by the J L Co. and  probably dating from the 1950’s or early 1960’s.  Items like these figurines were sold in store such as Woolworth’s for very little money.  What makes these small figurines ( 2.5”x3”) a little bit queer is the fact that the boys are all on the telephones.  Two are speaking on the phone and one is seemingly just picking up the receiver as if the phone has just rung.



In the mythology of the phone and the culture of the teenager which emerged after World War II, was it not teenage girls who were always on the telephone especially while they were babysitting?  These three figurines represent a minor disruption of the gender norms and rules of the dominant fiction.  Boys are not supposed to be obsessed with the phone.


All the boys have that 50’s/60’s clean cut collegiate look: with  crew cut hair, a sweater, loafers and white socks.  Their mainstream appearance makes their gender transgression all the more tantalizing and appealing as if we are witnessing a secret conversation.  Who are they talking to on the phone?  A girl or perhaps another boy? What are they talking about?

And what I also love about these little sculptures is the fact that all the boys are sitting on the floor while using the phone.  Sitting on the floor seems like such a teenage phenomenon, the space of the young.   The boy in the orange pants, for example, has his legs up at an angle as if propping them up on  the invisible wall or couch. 


I often wonder too who was the intended consumer for this small treasures.  Certainly not, teenage boys.  Perhaps teenage girls.  And I wonder when they looked at these figurines did they sense their difference, their queerness?  One can only imagine, but I am glad that these 3 boys now reside in my apartment.


  1. What a funny social niche sailors occupy. They sing and dance in musicals ('On the Town,' 'South Pacific,' Anything Goes'), a version of the uniform is commonly worn by children and women, they are mean to be hard-drinking and sexually voracious but also unthreatening and sort of cuddly and cute.

    Love the figurines. I can kind of see them as romantic fantasy figures for teenage girls - boys who happily spend time on the phone talking to their girlfriends.

    Great post!

  2. These are really great and very strange! I have never seen these before. There are girl/phone figures and plaques, but I have never seen a boy/phone theme. It is very surprising for the period.

  3. Thank you for your comment Mr. Bluehaunt. I have seen the teenage girl figurines as well and was struck by the teenage boy pieces when I saw them. I found 2 at one time and the another one several years later. And indeed, they are strange, but so appealing.


  4. Thank you Punctured Bicycle for your comment. I remember reading a diary of a gay man during World War II and he spoke about how easy it was to pick up sailors. He also commented that when a friend bedded a marine how surprised he and his friends were, a sailor yes, but a marine oh boy! His personal history is again testament to the way the sailor is configured in culture, correct as you say, he is lascivious, but friendly and approachable and he is always thought to be sexually available to other men.