“Let’s see. I have 1638 of them,” said Betty Thoenen, as she sat at her kitchen table in a farmhouse near Frankenstein, Mo. She was referring to her collection of salt and pepper shakers.
As the mother of 10 children, and consequently the grandmother to 23 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren, Thoenen said, “I started in 1988 because they [the family] kept bringing me nice things to hang on the wall and my walls wouldn’t hold anymore. And my mom always collected bells and that was always a good thing – my kids always knew what to get Mom for Christmas.”
Her kids and grandkids know what to buy her, and they have been scouring rummage sales, auctions, flea markets and other spots to find her that elusive set she has yet to own.
“Now, I have lots of animals, but I have a hard time finding sheep. I’ve only got two sheep [sets].” She continued, “I have cheap ones and I have expensive ones. The old nodders are very expensive.”
My 3 friends who accompanied me could be heard nearby in the living room, admiring the colorful pairs of shakers.
We got up from the table to start the tour, which began at one of two huge cabinets in the living room, where she took out a pair of nodders – named for their bobbing heads.
Thoenen’s son, Jim, has modified her curio cabinets with several shallow shelves, as opposed to a few shelves. She stacks her collection from tall to short, making the viewing easier. Jim and her son-in-law, Dennis, built her a corner cabinet in the living room.
Not only does she carefully number each pair underneath, she also logs each set in a record book, and notes who gave her the set and the date. During the tour, she would pull out a pair, and comment on it. One pair was a maid and a butler. When she tipped the butler over, he said, “Achoo!” The maid said, “Bless you!” She remarked, “You don’t dare put these on the table with the kids ‘cuz they’ll put salt and pepper on everything.”
Some of the pairs included a sandwich and a jelly jar, a cat sitting on a fish tank, a thread spool and a thimble, acorns, telephones, a hillbilly and his woman fussin’ at him, lots of kissing cousins, a car with a trailer, nuts and bolts, Beethoven and a piano, a pitcher pump and bucket, and one of a few “naughty shakers” – the back end of a horse with a partner shaker that reads “There’s one in every family!”
My pal Julia said, “I just can’t believe all this.” To which Thoenen answered, “Now let’s go into the other room!”
In the spare room stood 3 more cabinets full of shakers. She had a curio cabinet with hundreds of Christmas shakers. In back of a corner cabinet, she kept the “naughty ones” – the nudies.
Julia, also a grandmother, commented, “Oh, for pity sakes, I never expected to see that many in my life!”
Shakers from Japan, England, India and Germany stood mixed with dollar-store cheapies and expensive ones. She gave us a lesson: “Old salt and pepper shakers have corks to stop the holes, whereas new ones have plastic stoppers.”
She went on to explain that oftentimes at auctions the sets get mismatched or one of the pair gets lost. She said, “A lot of times people don’t know what goes together. My little granddaughter, who is six, she goes rummaging for me. One day she found a rabbit that had no partner and she looked and she looked, and she finally found a carrot to go with it.”
According to Thoenen the reference books on collecting salt and pepper shakers would judge her as not yet having a substantial collection. “I don’t have a favorite,” she says. “I just love them all.”
Besides collecting salt and pepper shakers, Thoenen quilts and often adapts patterns to suit her style. In fact, she had 30 quilts for us to see. From the leftover quilt remnants, she weaves rag rugs.
A mistress of understatement, she said, “After raising 10 children, it’s hard to sit down and not do anything.”