Natural History Kitsch:

An Essay Designed to Irritate Nearly Everybody

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA


Hey buddy, look at the size of these shark jaws. They’re so big that I put a candle on every tooth of the bottom one. Tell you what, this is just the thing for the wall in your den. You want it, I’ll make you a special offer. I got this 5 foot long saw from a sawfish and I’ll make you a package deal.

And, I’ll throw in a sea urchin night-light for your wife.

For those of you given to hosting elaborate dinner parties specializing in haute cuisine, I can provide you with sets of sea urchin napkin rings whose rich brown and cream colors will blend with any table setting, cut a 2 inch hole out of the top, slightly enlarge the mouth hole at the bottom, polish the edges and apply several coats of high quality, clear laquer. A must for elegant dining.

You think I make this stuff up, but I’ve seen ads on the internet for these napkin rings and for the English sea urchin night-lights and I admit the candles on the teeth of the shark’s jaw are a bit of stretch–but who knows perhaps it might start a new fad. It is, also, indeed the case that you can buy shark tooth necklaces.

I know of a site where you can buy ram’s horns to make your own shofar or buy decorated ostrich eggs; if you’re into holiday traditions, such as Easter, I’m curious–how do you hide ostrich eggs? I’m not going to tell you what the site is; I don’t want you to be tempted.

Then there are all those athletic teams with animal names and plenty of entrepreneurs who are willing to provide suitable regalia. Hats with antlers–there must be a team called the Bucks–and hats with small, dried, real alligator heads attached to them for the Florida ‘Gators, of course.

Since before recorded history, humans have plundered the realms of both plants and animals to decorate themselves and their dwellings and sought out items they could use as tools or containers. Early tribal cultures often wore necklaces, headdresses, or other garb adorned with shells, teeth, and feathers before the missionaries arrived and encouraged them to discard such pagan symbols and replace them with crosses.

Certain kinds of shells served nicely for holding foods or sauces and even today, you can buy sets of large scallop shells for serving sea food dishes or tofu (toe-phooey), if you’re a vegetarian. (Is it true that Vegans come from the star Vega in the constellation Lyra?)

Sponges, of course, were highly prized even in ancient times, but now we have those wonderful synthetic “sponges” that have the texture of small blocks of pumice stone. So now, the craft types use the real sponges to stick dried flowers in or make arrangements in nets with shells and starfish to brighten up the walls of their yachts. Now, let make me one thing perfectly clear as our revered “I am not a crook” president used to say, I am not opposed to the display of natural objects and my wife and I have sea urchins, starfish, tropical beetles in Riker mounts, butterflies as well, glass sponges, fossils, crystals, and dried flowers and plants scattered throughout the house, but I don’t like Kitschy Nautilus lamps, painted hermit crab shells, or sand dollar earrings and it gets even better (worse). A bit later on I’ll give you some URLs to a site that displays some of the magnificent “creations” in full color.

I used to teach a course in aesthetics and I always devoted a week to a discussion of Kitsch and I had a small collection of examples in one of my file cabinet drawers. I would drag these items over to the classroom so that my students could experience these transcendental objects first hand. The two stunning examples that had to do with natural history were 1) an antelope foot with a thermometer attached to it (50 cents at a yard sale) and a 12" x 15" framed Christmas tree composed of shells glued to a piece of wood painted white (10 cents at a yard sale). (The non-natural history items included a small metal box with a number of lights and two switches. When you plugged it in and turned it on the first switch would cause the lights to flash randomly; the second switch did nothing. Another item was a cap made out of sections of aluminum beer cans sewn together with red yarn. When I retired, I gave my small collection to a professor in the Art department at the university, so regretfully I can’t show you any pictures.)

Dried sea life and especially shells seem to be a magnet for Kitschophiles. Check out the painted hermit crab shells at:

No household is complete without at least a half dozen of these beauties and for those gloomy, depressing days, the happy-face ones are especially appropriate. This company also has painted sand dollars; after all, the plain white ones are rather bland, but if you prefer the plain ones, you can get a sand dollar necklace with matching earrings.

However, shells still dominate. You can get cut shell necklaces, shell bracelets, shell hair clips, shell key chains, charms cut from shell–dolphins, sea horses, elephants, hearts, and whales–and, for the religious, there are shell crosses and, of course, for those into high fashion–Givenchy, Prada, Gucci, etc.–a shell handbag or purse is a must.

The perverse inventiveness of human beings appears to be endless. The list of these “creative” monstrosities seems virtually infinite: Christmas ornaments made from shell slices (snowmen, angels, candy canes), starfish painted with a Santa or a snowman; shell “vases” for air plants; shell pieces cut and dyed or painted to make refrigerator magnets in the forms of parrots, turtles, frogs, angelfish, mice, and flamingoes; abalone or mussel buttons, pill boxes made from section of Nautilus, red coral, abalone, oyster, and wood inlaid with cut pieces of shell to form various designs.

Cut Capiz shell has been used to make clam bowls, plates, trays, baskets, napkin rings, tissue boxes, and incorporated into wind chimes with (Heterocentrotus) sea urchin spines attached at the bottom to provide the “music”, and hanging baskets and chandeliers. Versatile stuff!

In case you think the kitchen (or should it be Kitschen?) has been neglected, there is a selection of painted or dyed pieces of shell attached to magnets for your refrigerator or stove in the forms of parrots, turtles, frogs, angelfish mice and flamingoes.

Surely we have exhausted the possibilities for shells. Not by a long shot! There are all of the nice pieces of cut shell just crying out to be carved. You can get dragons, galleons, marlins, angelfish, and God know what else, in sizes large enough to glue on a clasp on the back and make a brooch and small ones that can be used for charm bracelets, including a set of carvings of the signs of the zodiac. Now, these are not the products of sailors with time on their hands during long voyages; this is not like scrimshaw. These carvings are produced by the thousands and by woefully underpaid workers both adults and children from China, India, Bangladesh and Central and South America as well. So, if you don’t like the quality don’t complain. Send the stuff to your obnoxious teenage nieces and nephews.

I have always found cowrie shells to be a rather pleasant, but undistinguished kind of shell, but surely they don’t deserve to have the zodiacal signs carved into them, nor praying hands, and especially not the Lord’s Prayer. (Resonances of the old political slogan: Kill a Cowrie for Christ.) No, the cowrie doesn’t deserve such treatment and, I would think, Christian believers should be quite offended at the trivialization of one of their major touchstones like the Lord’s Prayer.

No one is left out. For small children, there are Pearl Nautilus nitelights. What’s’s the difference between a regular Nautilus and a Pearl Nautilus? Take a regular Nautilus, grind off the top layer to reveal the nacre under the white and the stripes and–voila!–a Pearl Nautilus. For those who imbibe–I didn’t say what; it could just be lemonade: my recipe for lemonade is a tumbler full of gin or vodka and 2 or 3 drops of lemon juice–bamboo coaster inlaid with bits of shell on which to set your glass of lemonade. Some of the patterns are rather attractive, I must admit. For the cephalophiles, there are not only the various “creations” made from Nautilus shells, but you can also get a “darling” little octopus constructed out of sea shells or miniature flower bouquets made from dyed and cut sea shells.

However, I think the epitome of Kitsch is to be found in the mirror and picture frames with shells glued on them and in the heart-shaped jewelry boxes with dozens of shells glued on them.

Browse around on the site; you’ll find them. I suspect that the kinds of jewelry kept in these are things like rhinestone-studded rings with a cameo sporting a likeness of Elvis carved from shell or black velvet earrings with pictures of chihuahuas painted on them. However, I must admit that the Porcupine fish lamp is up there in the top 10 Kitsch parade hits.

Porcupine fish are indeed fascinating creatures, but why on earth would anyone want to bore holes in one, place a socket with a cord inside and create a grotesque caricature of an intriguing organism? To have a specimen for display is fine; even better to get a second one, some dissecting tools and reference books and try to learn something about this unusual being. Porcupine fish are one of the puffer fishes which inflate themselves when they feel threatened. Some puffers are smooth and hope to rely on blowing themselves up large enough so that they can’t be swallowed by a predator. Porcupine fish have the added deterrent of spines. So, to these people who buy the lamps, I say: No, get up off of your derrieres, quit watching American Idle or Miss Cosmos Contests and go teach yourself something about Porcupine fish.

In case you’re wondering, there are the botanical Kitschers as well. They go to craft shops and buy Lotus pods mounted on long, thin dowels stained brown, take them home and paint them!–usually in garish colors which clash with their dollar store prints of Norman Rockwell. The more enterprising of this breed go out into the countryside and pluck wildflowers, press them, and when dry, make arrangements and frame them. Some of these arrangements when done by individuals with real aesthetic sensibilities are quite lovely and transcend Kitsch but, unfortunately, all too often, they end up looking like grade school projects. The same is true for dried flower and plant arrangements; in the right hands with the right vase and the right selection of plant materials, the results can be exquisite; in the wrong hands, a botanical disaster. When any of these sorts of items are mass produced for decorating the walls or furniture of motel rooms, apartments, or houses, then you can be pretty well assured that they are Kitsch.

Not even the mineral kingdom is spared. Metals and precious stones have been fashioned into pieces of jewelry that are garish and pretentious even though some of them are worth enormous sums of money, in some cases millions of dollars! Merely economic value does not preclude something’s being Kitsch. In some instances, these pieces look fake, partly as a consequence of the sheer size of the jewels; they look like paste stones and frequently are, because the “lucky lady” is wearing a copy–the real item being too valuable to wear is kept safely locked in a vault. What a colossal absurdity–wanting to possess something that’s so valuable in order to make a public display of your wealth and status and then having to wear an imitation for security reasons. However, no reason to worry; nobody at your soiree would have the effrontery to bring out a magnifier to check the authenticity of the stones. Besides, everyone knows you own the real thing; they read it on the society page and furthermore, they couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing and the copy anyway unless you were really being a cheapskate when you had the copy made. And, the real irony is that you, the proud possessor, probably can’t tell the difference either without the labels on your jewel cases.

And then there are all the little animal carving in soapstone, jade, malachite, bone, ivory, anything that can be shaped. I sometimes think that there is an ancient gene deeply buried in each of us urging us to possess a totemic talisman or two or three or... Some of these carvings are dreadful–pure Kitsch–others, especially some of the larger Oriental carvings of human figures, are works of art. When I was in Berlin, I went to a museum which had an entire, sizeable room devoted to Oriental jade carvings. The most striking were of magnificently and elaborately carved female figures, about 18 inches high, done in light lavender Burmese jade which was translucent and appeared to radiate light from within. If I were an art thief, those are the sorts of object I would go after.

Scale can also be a factor in the conceptual battle between Kitsch and priceless art but, of course, the talent, skill, and materials are also crucial. Miniature paintings have long intrigued me and apparently a lot of other people, for there are “artists” who have created a cottage industry producing them in quantity. The quality ones are quite splendid and far beyond my reach economically. Then there is the other end of the continuum–massive monuments. Stonehenge is impressive and especially if it truly was some sort of primitive “observatory”. The Egyptian and Mayan pyramids are impressive for their sheer size if nothing else, but there’s something oddly inhuman about them. And then there is that outrageous plan in Texas to carve Mount Bushmore.

Even microscopy has not escaped. Fine mounters have been commissioned to produce microscope slides of bizarre sorts. J.D. Moeller, with the help of his brothers, produced a slide with “1715 diatoms included for the Emperor of Brazil. His brothers assisted him in the work, and his most famous plate the Universum Diatomacearum Moellerianum, contained 133 rows and 4026 diatoms in a space of 6 by 6.7 mm; it took forty days just to place the diatoms.” [From Brian Bracegirdle’s excellent book Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, p. 68.] I wonder if it still exists and whether or not there is even a detailed description of it. Photo-reduction was also popular and you could buy all kinds of slides of tiny photos–Queen Victoria, the houses of Parliament, and even female nudes. These all still appear on eBay from time to time. I bought a “slide” for a few dollars which is made of plastic and the text measures only 2.6 x 2.7 mm. and it is a photo-reduction of the entire King James Bible! You have to use about 125 magnifications or slightly more to read it. I bought it simply as a curiosity, but why on earth (or in heaven’s name) would anyone produce such a thing?

In case you think I’m being stuffy about all of this, let me conclude by saying that there are some pieces of Kitsch which are fun; they are (whether intended to be or not) celebrations of silliness, unwitting parodies of certain dimensions of human being. There are also intentional spoofs of aspects of culture, like Dada, which target that which has become overly serious and vapid. One of the delicious ironies of history is that there were those who came to take Dada seriously and wrote “learned” treatises about it. By all means, enjoy silliness, create outrageous things, exploit people’s bad taste, but please don’t plunder nature to do so.

I will leave you with one last example of Kitsch that my wife and I encountered at a combination flea market/antique store. It is clearly19th Century, is about 2 feet high and 3 feet long and is heavy cast metal. The price was $4,500. It is so flagrant that it almost transcends being Kitsch. Behold the double Nautilus desk lamp with inkwell.

(Thanks to my dear wife for going back to the store and taking this picture for me.)

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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Published in the July 2009 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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