Simplex Sigulllim Veritas. I bought this in Nepal in 2002. It functions beautifully, is made from the simplest of materials and costs virtually nothing to manufacture. A bolt, two nuts and a scrap piece of wood. But the man I purchased this from specialized in making or reselling these- he had hundreds, and it was a very common item in restaurants. To use it, it is turned upside down and the the bottle cap inserted at the end,then the head of the bolt lifts the bottom it off. I think I paid about 5 cents for it and it even comes with a hang hole.
I bought this stick a couple of weeks ago at an antique store. It is about 12 inches long and the squared end on the right is about 1 inch thick. I didn’t know what it was, but liked the smooth, worn surface and seemingly intentional shaping. As I paid my three dollars, the mother of the owner of the store, who was 85, asked me if I knew what it was. I replied that I didn’t. “It’s a hot wash stick,” she said. “I used to use one like this when I was a girl. When we had really dirty cloths, we would bleach and boil them on a stovetop. We would use a stick like this to lift them out.” Then she demonstrated how she would hold the knob on the right, while poking in the pot with the other end.
Suddenly this old stick was transformed into a useful tool- desiccated from being repeatedly dipped in hot water, the left side bleached and the handle darkened from hand oils. Although simple, the squared handle is quite comfortable to grasp, and could easily be used to stir the pot as well. Without this verbal labeling, this tool most likely would have spent the rest of its life as an odd shaped stick.It is similar to another tool, called a spurtle, which is a traditional Scottish wood rod used to stir stews.
Usually, I analyze the material makeup of objects, the technologies used to create them and examine evidence of use to theorize about what an object is. Here, however, information not directly contained in object gives it context and meaning.
How many other extant objects have lost their labels?
I found this stick while I was walking in upstate New York, and was amazed. It is remarkable how close the beaver came to eating all the bark and cambium, without biting too deeply into the sapwood, which are the slightly rougher areas. The marks reminded me of a David Pye bowel– using a hand placed gouge as an example of “workmanship of risk”. But this was teeth/paw/eye corrodination.
This stick is not craft, because craft is a learned human activity. This stick is the left over activity from a meal, the bones of a beaver brunch. If this stick were used by the animal for some purpose, we might consider it a tool, if shaping enhanced its use. Could we consider non-purposeful shaping a kind of animal art?
An average sized beaver is about 60 lbs. They can swim underwater for 25 minutes, and eat through a 5 inch diameter willow tree in about 3 minutes. To chew, they hold the stick in their front paws, much like we hold corn on the cob. The stick below was about 2 inches in diameter. Look at those crisp bites through the endgrain.
I started thinking how many tools I would need to replicate this stick– a somewhat dull chisel to get the bark off, a small gouge for the cross grain slices, a curved bowel adz to slice the endgrain. I would most likely have to make a miniature scrub plane to get this high degree of regulation on the surface. And even with these tools, I doubt I could do such a good job. And it would take me much, much longer.
I realize that teeth are not tools, and that a beaver is not a craftsman.
But looking at this stick reminds me that the skillful use of simple tools is an efficient, beautiful expression of craft.