The billiken and my father

When my father died many years ago, he left very little behind: a pocket knife and a cast iron bank of unknown origin were all I was aware of. He wasn’t the kind of guy to acquire things or to care much about those he had, except maybe his fishing pole. Trout flies. Besides fishing, he loved to read Scientific American, and to day dream. He grew up fishing and dreaming in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where he was one of eight children.

The bank, the knife and the few photographs from his childhood were saved in the years after my parents married only because my mother kept them for us. But the bank has always been a puzzle to me. Why that bank and nothing else? Why a bank at all—he’d never expressed any particular interest in money. Every Antiques Roadshow, I watched for another like it, but to no avail. It was  easy to see that it wasn’t worth much—I always knew that. But it was a mystery. An elfin character with a high pointed hat, big ears and a goatee, sitting with what would have been legs—if he’d had any—straight out. On the bottom of his feet it says, “ DO YOU KNOW ME” — there’s no question mark so I’m not sure how much of a question it was. I only knew that I didn’t know him. In fact, I hadn’t the vaguest idea who he was.

Finally, after years of assuming my ignorance was just one of those stubborn facts of life, I was inspired by a Roadshow to search online. An hour or so later I actually found others of his kind. Only two and with red hats and red lettering, but identical in every other respect. Ours had just lost his paint. Who was he? Rumplestiltskin, the dealers said. You remember the story. He’s the Grimms’ dwarf who spins gold from straw for a miller’s daughter since the miller told the king she could. For the last and best lot of gold, he extracts from her the promise of her firstborn. When she becomes Queen, she gives birth and, not surprisingly, begs to be allowed to renege on her promise. Okay, says the dwarf, if you can guess my name (DO YOU KNOW ME), you can keep the baby. Poor little guy: because he has a bad habit of singing about his prowess—and his name—when a courtier overhears him and reports back to the Queen, he loses his gamble. He’s so chagrined and stomps so hard, he falls through the earth in a temper, and directly to God only knows where. Rumplestiltskin. Famous for his bad temper. But why was he nearly all I had left of my father who almost never raised his voice?

Now, that I understood the “DO YOU KNOW ME,” perhaps I had begun to unravel the mystery. And there was another clue: the dealers called him a billiken. Why had I never heard of the billiken?

It seems that the billiken was created in 1908 (shortly before my father was born in 1909) when Florence Prezt, a schoolteacher in Kansas City, Missouri, who fancied herself a designer, had a dream about it.  He was a  little Buddha-like creature, a bit like the kewpie doll that followed a year or two later. As elf-like as my Rumplestiltskin, with the same prominent ears, mischievous smile and stretched-out legs, he had a red pointed head with a tuft of red hair instead of a red pointed hat. My chap was apparently one of an enormous number of toys, statues, banks, postcards, jigsaw puzzles, watch fobs, belt buckles, and even salt and pepper shakers that were all the rage between 1909 and 1912. On the whole, I think my father’s Rumplestililtskin is one of the better looking of the lot. Most of them, at least to my eyes, are quite unattractive. Florence Prezt was no artist.

The billiken’s motto was usually “Good luck.” He was “The Good-Luck God” and the “God of Things as They Ought to Be.” Owners were advised to “Tickle His Toes and See Him Smile.” Advertisers claimed that he’d brought luck to thousands. The creature was so popular, he became the subject of popular songs (“The Billiken Man,” “Uncle Josh and the Billiken,” the “Billiken Rag”), and he continues to this day to be a mascot for St. Louis University.

The only scholar to explore the phenomenon so far has been an anthropologist whose field of expertise was native Alaskan art. And therein lies the story of the power of this odd lot curio. The billiken craze had died out in the United States by 1912, but its power endured when a famous ivory carver, Happy Jack (Angokwazhuk), at the suggestion of a merchant, copied it from a figurine the storekeeper had imported from the states. Happy Jack kept producing them and soon, so did others, until the billiken became a popular sales item for the tourist trade. “It’s something the Eskimos always made” anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray was told when she asked about it. She began looking into the matter and soon found out otherwise.

"Happy Jack" the famous ivory carver with his latest wife. From Alaska's Digital Archives.

In her 1974 essay about the billiken, Ms. Ray wrote:

As I saw more and more billikens (in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Japan), it seemed remarkable that so many of the physical characteristics and meanings of the original invention had been retained over such a long time span and in so many media.

By user:MASA, photography place The Kushi-Katsu Shop "Ichiban" at shinsekai osaka-city

The billiken has cropped up in many places since his beginnings, but his presence became especially important in Japan where he was enshrined, and in Osaka where thousands still visit him every year, place a coin in his donation box and rub the soles of his feet to make their wishes come true. Ms. Ray discovered the billiken among the Chukchi people of Siberia. Since the place isn’t far from the Alaska island where the first ivory billiken was carved, this wouldn’t be surprising except for the place it’s established in the lore and beliefs of the people.

Amazing all of it. My father’s Rumplestiltskin. The art teacher in Kansas City. Our need for happiness and good luck. The easy dollar. Tourism. It’s such an American story. Capitalism at its quirkiest.

I still don’t know why my father kept a cast iron bank that was manufactured less than a year after his birth. It doesn’t seem likely that it was that special to him as a child. Perhaps it belonged to his younger brother, Glen, who died in a gun accident when my dad had just turned fifteen. Maybe that’s why he held on to such an unlikely artifact. Both boys had seen their father, the superintendent of the power house at McGaheysville, die in a flood only months earlier. The times were so dark. I try to imagine Glen’s things in the superintendent’s house. Not many probably. Maybe each of the kids kept something of what little he had when he died. Maybe my father, unsentimental about things as a rule, went against the grain that one time, and kept something that had belonged to his kid brother and best friend.

On the way to school. Glen and my father are the two boys sitting at the back of the wagon next to each other.

My father’s biography has always seemed cast in black and white to me. Knowing that Rumplestiltskin used to wear a red hat, changes the color of his early life. Not by a lot. But maybe just enough.

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3 thoughts on “The billiken and my father

  1. What an interesting story! I have a little cast iron bull dog that belonged to my grandfather. I barely knew him, but that bull dog has been in my life for its entirety. I guess he has, too, in his own way.

  2. Dear Friend,

    Forgive me if this message is in error. In 1975 I lived in San Miguel Allende, in central Mexico. I was acquainted with an Englishman who was traveling the globe with a large tusk, carving ivory jewelry wherever he went. We took a motorcycle trip to a nearby nursery and on the way back plowed into a string of donkeys crossing the road. We both survived, but I was threatened by the police and left Mexico shortly thereafter. I lost track of David, whose last name I never knew, and just today thought I would try to see what I could find on the internet. “Mexico” and “ivory carver” your site. If you anything of this man I’d love to hear from you. And, if not, continued success with your very interesting blog.

    Steve Frogley McGuirk

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