What leads a person to want to collect things?
Irene Deitsch, whose Palo Alto home includes museum-quality displays of teacups, rolling pins, paperweights, antique scent bottles and Victorian-era posy holders, cannot really explain it.
"I didn't start out that way (as a collector)," said the former art teacher and Stanford art librarian, who also operated her own jewelry store in Palo Alto in the 1980s and 1990s. "It all sort of evolved."
Perhaps it began with her childhood collection of trading cards -- seven or eight cigar boxes full. Or maybe it was later, when she bought a little snail at Allied Arts and her two sons began bringing home snails from their school art projects. "All of a sudden I had a snail collection I never intended to have," she said.
In any case, Deitsch's more than 15 years of collecting "tussie-mussies" has transformed her into an authority on the Victorian posy holders crafted in an array of materials including ivory, gold, silver, porcelain, glass, mother of pearl, tortoise shell and animal horn. She now owns about 200 of them, and has sold off another 150. In 2016, she published a book: "Tussie-Mussies: a Collector's Guide to Victorian Posy Holders."
Deitsch had never heard of a tussie-mussie when she first laid eyes on an exhibit of them at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., around 1999. She felt, she recalled, "thunderstruck."
"I'd never seen anything so charming, beautiful, romantic and unusual," she said. "I didn't even know what the word 'tussie-mussie' meant, but I was just taken away. I said to my husband Marshall, 'You know, I'd like to collect these.' I had no idea what I was getting into."
Marshall Deitsch, a retired metallurgical engineer and serious collector of paperweights, told his wife she'd have to make a real commitment if she wanted to collect. And so she did, purchasing her first tussie-mussie -- a small, cornucopia-shaped one made of silver a few days later from a shop in Charleston, South Carolina.
Deitsch's subsequent quest for information about tussie-mussies and for the rare objects themselves -- has taken her all over the world, including research trips to the Library of Congress and London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
For centuries, she learned, flowers had played a prominent role in social events not only because of fashion but also to mask the unpleasant odors of life with infrequently laundered clothing and no proper sewage systems.
By the 1730s, Paris jewelers advertised "porte-bouquets" -- small gold and silver tubes lined with glass vials that could then be lined with sponges or moss to keep flowers fresh. The porte-bouquets had reached England by 1745 and became known as "tuzzy-muzzys," "tuzzy" being an old English word meaning "knot of flowers" and "muzzy" referring to the damp moss wrapped around stems to keep them moist, Deitsch wrote in her book. Ultimately, "tussie-mussies" became the accepted name and spelling.
"Nosegays would feature a very strong, sweet-smelling flower in the center of the bouquet," the book states, "with smaller, less fragrant flowers and herbs surrounding it; and wealthy ladies would hold these fragrant bouquets, sniffing and admiring them as they walked through the muck."
The fashion for tussie-mussies reached its peak between 1837 and 1901, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
"When Victoria was crowned, it was said that many attendees carried tussie-mussies," Deitsch wrote, "And during her reign, dignitaries would often bring posy holders to present to the queen. Being very fond of them, Victoria often carried an ornate tussie-mussie herself, and she favored them as gifts."
The Victorians also became enamored with a "language of flowers" around their small bouquets, Deitsch said, connecting certain blooms to human emotions -- red roses signifying passion; yellow roses jealousy or infidelity; daisies freshness and modesty.
The use of tussie-mussies declined following Victoria's death, although Deitsch's display cabinet includes a 1912 childhood photograph of her father, Benjamin Levin, and his 5-year-old sister Clara, who is holding what appears to be a tussie-mussie with a bouquet.
Deitsch's richly illustrated 130-page hardback book (available at Amazon.com) covers the history of tussie-mussies and their range of styles, including some designed to hold dance cards and others with a ring so they can be held by a finger, or a pin so they can be worn as brooches.
She offers guidance for would-be collectors, including where to find the rare objects that most people have never heard of, and how to display them.
"If you decide you want to collect tussie-mussies, take a deep breath," she wrote. "...You will have to hunt long and hard to find them. But when you do manage to acquire one, it is a very rewarding feeling. After all, the hunt is half the fun of collecting."
Asked about her own future plans for collecting, Deitsch emphatically responded, "Nothing. Nothing. I'm trying to decollect. I'm giving away things -- you can't live forever."
And yet, in the "afterword" of her book, she indicates she might have difficulty keeping herself away from the thrill of the hunt. "As people discover their beauty and charm, the competition to buy (tussie-mussies) becomes more intense," she wrote. "In fact, watch out! If you are bidding against me in an auction, I may send Bruno over to 'break your thumbs.'"
on Mar 6, 2017 at 2:17 pm
on Mar 6, 2017 at 2:17 pm