Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mystery Wooden Object

Straight off I should say that I love a mystery. Puzzles and riddles too. I especially like them when they are connected to real objects. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is a quest for small truths. Or just intellectual curiosity. Maybe it is wanting to discover the secret clues to how each small part of the story fits together as the whole.

Or maybe – wait, I think I am doing it now – the mystery of the mysteries! Aaagh! Well, I guess I do fit my sometime nickname of “Mr. Theory”.

Anyway – here’s one I have been thinking about. If you like this kind of thing then enjoy – and feel free to speculate or poke holes in my theory. If you don’t – well, it’ll probably bore you to tears and you might want to stop now – but take a look anyway, because maybe you have some ideas about this…

Item: Mystery Wooden Thing

Known History: Not much. The woman at the store didn’t know anything about it, but said she bought it because she really liked how it looked and felt in her hand. I agreed and ponied up.

Front View: (Hand included for scale…)

Rear View:

Side View:

Detail View of Bracket:

Features I’ve noticed:

Faceted, rather than true curve on outside.
Thickness varies somewhat – not uniform.
Strange square insert in back – could be cut off tenon or just a patch.
Bracket opening at bottom (just feels like bottom…) shows wear pattern on inside.
Besides rosette, there are fainter decorative lines carved on the bracket.


It had a purpose. Seems overly complex to just be a “doodle”.
It was handmade. Way too much character for anything else.
Something went through that bracket – a cord maybe? Functions like a pulley?


Why the square mortice? Wouldn’t boring a round mortice be faster? I can think of two reasons. First, if this was used as some sort of pulley it would need to resist pivoting back and forth from the friction of the cord being pulled through it. Square mortice and tenon clearly better here. Second, maybe he/she didn’t have an auger big enough, or even a brace. Could this thing be entirely carved with a knife?

One of a kind, or a lone wanderer from a set?

What type of wood is it?


Okay, time to take a crack at it.

Here’s what I think: It is a pulley or bracket that was hung on the wall by way of the square mortice, now plugged by the tenon cut off when it was salvaged, and it’s use was somehow connected to window treatments. Handmade by the owner.

Theory Weaknesses:

Tons. Primarily, that the “cut off tenon” is very smooth and has similar surface quality to rest of piece – does not look like a recent salvage job…


I don’t know what it is but I think it is a great example of how form might follow function, yet is not tied to it. I don’t know the function, but I really appreciate and love the form. Someone put a lot of time and energy into making this, and I love it for its form alone – I just wish I knew more about it. Any ideas?


  1. Inside the bracket, is the wear on the top or bottom? That would give you a clue as to which end is up. If you turn it upside down, it looks like a decorative pull for a rope or ribbon. Interesting piece!

  2. That is an interesting piece.

    Perhaps it was an end for some sort of loom or other reciprocating machine?

    I was racking my brain (actually searching Google) trying to figure out what flower that represents. I am guessing that it might be a flower that was common or somehow represented the maker or place it was made.

  3. VC and Luke – Great ideas! Thanks!

    VC – The wear is on the surface inside the bracket that is the furthest away from the rosette. Since I was envisioning this mounted up on a wall, with a cord or such passing through the bracket and hanging down, this wear made sense to me as being the “bottom”. However, I really like your idea of the opposite setup – the rope or ribbon holding the piece up by the bracket – making the worn side “up”. Hmm. But then what about the mortice/tenon? Could it have been some sort of peg? You pull the rope/ribbon down and then keep it there my placing the protruding tenon (now MIA) into a mortice? I think I need to learn more about pulls…

    Luke – The flower! Cool approach – hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was just assuming it was standard chip carving type decoration. Please let me know if you come up with anything. What do you mean by “an end for a loom” – I can’t picture that – again, time to learn more…

  4. As for an end of a loom, I was imagining perhaps a shuttle or some reciprocating part of a an old fashioned loom that consisted of a long shuttle or bar with an end on it (our dear piece being the end cap with a corresponding piece on the opposite end of the shuttle or tensioner) that was either tensioned or controlled by a cord passed through it.

    I am not a weaver, so I may be all wet with my description. Also, there were a lot of different styles of looms. I wonder what was used for weaving moose hair...

  5. Luke - Thanks for the explaination. I think I know what you mean now about the loom. I have been looking into weaving/looms on the web and haven't seen anything like my piece yet, but I have learned some fascinating things. I almost want to give it a try, but I don't think I have the patience - plus it looks like a lot of sitting. I did weave some plane shavings into a placemat looking thing once...

    I haven't heard much about weaving moose hair up here - but the undercoat of Musk Ox, called Qiviut, is woven (by hand I think) into amazingly warm stuff!

  6. Actually, I haven't heard of weaving mooose hair either, but you never know.

    It seems like a piece that had a unique purpose, but yet was part of a store or home or possibly even a small shop of some sort since its design goes beyond the purely utilitarian.

  7. The late Mr. Abernathy, a Quaker made this as part of a bathroom furnishing. This part had a match on the other side, This was a holder for a simple hand towel. After Mr. Abernathy passed away, and Mrs Abernathy had to move in with her grandson, Evan Albert. She cut this off to take with her as a keepsake. She had no pictures to remember Mr. Abernathy by.

    That would be my guess, but I have made stew with no oysters to be had.


  8. Bob - I like it! Is this purely speculation, or have you seen a similar furnishing? Regardless, a great "stew". Thanks.

  9. It could be a brake handle (used for tensioning) on a very small loom (not enough leverage for a big one). The insert in the back does not make sense though. Brake handles are made to slip off easily.
    My thought is that it is a child's hand brush from the Carolina's. The insert was the brush head that has somehow broken off in the insert hole. Little fingers through the slot (or mother's last two). The Palm tree design on the back could be the State emblem. My grand mother had a brush similar only it was a silver back with a floral pattern. The brush inserts came out so you could replace them.

  10. Mikhael - Well, that brush idea could take this in a whole new direction. Hmm. I don't suppose you would know where I might find some pictures of similar brushes online? Does that type of brush have a special name? Thanks for your ideas.

  11. I saw these for sale in a gift store on Martha's Vineyard.
    They are cattle charms from Pakistan and they are used to identify cattle instead of branding them. How civilized!

  12. Bacci - Yes! We figured that out as well (see later post). Oddly, my niece also saw them in New England. I wonder what the connection is between Pakistan folk art and New England stores.

    Thanks for commenting.


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