Third Annual Writing Contest with an Antiques Twist… Now for Adults Too!

Third Annual Writing Contest with an Antiques Twist… Now For Adults Too!

Posted on June 14, 2013

Child Writing

The Antiques Depot is once again hosting its short story writing competition as a part of the Nantucket Book Festival. We have been encouraging young people and teens to develop their creative and literary talents, all while exploring the world of rare and special antiques. This year, by popular demand, we have expanded the contest to include a section for adults as well.

Contest Now for Adults Too!!!

Contest Now for Adults Too!!!

 

Contestants are invited to come into the Antiques Depot on Nantucket, and explore the wide variety of treasures from our past on display, to find that one piece that sparks their imagination (no purchase necessary). They may be amazed to learn that antiques aren’t just that fragile china dog on their granny’s mantle… they may find harpoons and relics from old ships, tribal pieces made by American Indians or Pacific Islanders, mysterious objects from the Orient or ancient Egypt, or rare artifacts from age of the Pilgrims or the Revolutionary War!

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After asking whatever questions they wish about the object’s identity and history to get started, they can have fun researching and exploring their chosen piece at the library and the many island museums, and then put their new found knowledge and imagination to work by writing a story about their object. The author can write a fictional “biography” that follows their object through the various imagined hands that have owned it over the years since it was made, perhaps exploring some of the ways it had been used. The author may choose to write an exciting story that takes place sometime in the past, where the chosen object plays an important role.

All of the authors are encouraged to think of their object as a real character in their story and address when it was made, where it was from, what was its purpose, what was its life like, what did it witness? The contest is an opportunity to learn about our culture and get a better feel for Nantucket’s past, all while having fun with a creative project. The Antiques Depot is hoping the young authors in particular will discover that exploring antiques will inspire a lasting appreciation of history and heritage.

The story writing contest will launch during the Nantucket Book Festival… stop by and visit our table at the author’s tent in the Atheneum garden on Saturday, June 21 from 10:00 to 4:00. The contest is open to everyone, and the authors will be divided into a groups aged 8 and under, 9 to 12, 13 to 16, and adult. The stories will be judged on the accuracy of information related, creativity and of course writing skill. The stories may be hand-written or printed, may be delivered either in person, by post, or by email, and must be submitted by August 16.

The winners may pick their choice of grand prize from among a Kobo ereader (generously donated by the Nantucket Bookworks), a vintage hand-crafted Ship-in-a-Bottle, a selection of classic Nantucket books (generously donated by the Egan Maritime Foundation), or a gift certificate to the Antiques Depot.

The winning stories will be published in the Antiques Depot Blog, and will also be submitted to the Chamber of Commerce website, the Inquirer & Mirror, Yesterday’s Island, and the Nantucket Chronicle.

Best of luck and we look forward to reading your entries!

The Antiques Depot is located at 14 Easy Street and is open 7 days a week from 10 am to 4 pm. Inquiries are welcome at 508-228-1287, and at info@nantucketantiquesdepot.com. Follow us on facebook and twitter by going to our website at www.nantucketantiquesdepot.com

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Once in a Lifetime Irish Silver Collection… and Opportunity.

The Republic of Ireland is in desperate need of a philanthropic angel to preserve an immensely important part of its history and cultural heritage.

The National Museum of Ireland currently has on exhibit a phenomenal collection of 107 choice pieces of Irish silver spanning the history of sterling craftsmanship on the Emerald Isle. On temporary loan from a private collection in Dublin, the exhibit details the evolution of style in silver wares from the dawn of the craft in the early 17th Century, to the Baroque and Rococo schools of the early 18th Century, through the Georgian period of the 18th to early 19th Centuries, to the Classical and Neo-Classical movements of the Regency, and Revival Periods of the 19th Century. The collection documents the work of Ireland’s most important silversmiths, and illustrates the many uses of silver in their historic social and economic contexts.

Earliest known Cork silver teapot, by Thomas Lilly, 1723. Part of the silver collection on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland, in desperate need of a sponsor by the end of February.

Earliest known Cork silver teapot, by Thomas Lilly, 1723. Part of the silver collection on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland, in desperate need of a sponsor by the end of February.

With the benefit of this collection, the Museum of Decorative Arts at the Collins Barracks in Dublin curates the premier collection of Irish Silver in the world, surpassing even that of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. As it should. But unfortunately, not for much longer.

The loan of this seminal private collection expires at the end of February, at which point it will be broken up and sold. The dispersal of this magnificent assembly will be a terrible loss for the Republic of Ireland, for the preservation and recognition of Irish culture, and for antique silver scholars, curators and collectors. This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for a philanthropist (or consortium of generous Irish Americans) to step forward and purchase the collection intact, and donate it to the National Museum. The lot is valued at approximately $2.4m, and can be viewed on the website of the Dublin and London silver dealers L and W Duvallier at antiqueirishsilver.com. What an amazing act of benevolence… and what an amazing tax deduction!

Pair of Cork silver Rococo salvers by George Hodder, circa 1745.

Pair of Cork silver Rococo salvers by George Hodder, circa 1745.

Antique Irish silver is among the finest in history, at the pinnacle of the silversmith’s art. Irish decorative arts benefited tremendously from the prevailing state of an exceptionally wealthy landed aristocracy, occupying a land with a fortuitously talented (and often very well educated) but impoverished population, thus yielding demand and wherewithal on the one hand, and ability and low wages on the other. Irish craftsmanship in the 18th and 19th Centuries was superb and arguably unsurpassed, as we see in the carved Chippendale furniture and the brilliant glassware and crystal of the period. Silversmiths were fewer in Dublin than in England or America, so their output was much smaller, and consequently today is much rarer and more valuable. The Irish provincial work from Cork, Galway, Limerick or Kinsale is much rarer still, and consequently even more dear.

A Cork silver toasting cup by John Warner, circa 1775.

A Cork silver toasting cup by John Warner, circa 1775.

Identifiable Irish silver dates back to the royal charter of the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin in 1637. The earliest Irish silver was plain but well-fashioned, characterized by heavy gauge and relatively simple forms. Silver was originally used mostly in church wares (such as chalices, communion cups and plates, etc.), and did not appear in domestic household use until the end of the 17th Century when we begin to see candle sticks and two-handled cups. Huguenot silversmiths fleeing France after 1685 brought new ideas and refinement, preparing Irish silver to flourish in the approaching age of elegance.

Heavy pair of Dublin silver Candlesticks by Isaac Dolier, 1750.

Heavy pair of Dublin silver Candlesticks by Isaac Dolier, 1750.

Irish silversmiths embraced, even led, the exuberant aesthetic of the mid-18th Century Rococo style.  New lifestyles demanded new accoutrements, and domestic silver soon included tea and coffee pots, jugs, spoons and serving utensils, salvers, caddies, tureens, tankards and mugs. As the century passed and empires churned, they became masters of the refined Neo-Classical movement, before coming into their own with the socio-politically important Celtic Revival.

A Dublin silver baluster- shaped tankard by Joseph Jackson, 1775.

A Dublin silver baluster- shaped tankard by Joseph Jackson, 1775.

Irish silver developed outside of the close control of the English guilds, and so explored more freedom in their designs. Their spirit of independence seems to align them closer to American artists in style, than their British contemporaries. Their work is grander, ornate yet symmetrical, bold yet gracious. A connoisseur can, in fact, discern Irish from English silver from its style and design, before examining the hallmarks. Their work attained a quality and elegance which has never been surpassed. Their legacy remains a high point in the realm of antiques.

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All silver items illustrated are part of the collection on exhibit at The National Museum of Ireland, and can be viewed on the website of the Dublin and London silver dealers L and W Duvallier at antiqueirishsilver.com.

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The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

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The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Every once in an increasingly great while you chance upon a circumstance which puts a smile on your face and warms your very cockles. My day was certainly brightened when this story broke in 2010 about a forgotten pre-war apartment discovered untouched in Paris.

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

Imagine an affluent lady, an actress and demimondaine, living in a Grand Boulevard apartment near the old Opera House in Paris during the early years of the last century. A child of La belle Epoch, her home is a treasure trove, busy with fine furniture, artwork and

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

decorative furnishings. Her many admirers have been generous. She has an eye for quality and the wherewithal to indulge her taste. She lives with exquisite antiques spanning ages of French history, as well as select works informed by the latest artistic movements. Her apartment reflects the full and hectic life of an actress and a socialite during a golden age.

Abruptly, her life was interrupted as France, Europe, the whole world was torn by the madness of World War II. As the Nazi occupation engulfed Paris, Madame de Florian fled to the relative safety of the South of France. She left her apartment as it was, en dishabille, with even a collection of love letters neatly bundled with a blue ribbon. She simply turned the key in her apartment door and escaped to the distant countryside. But unlike all of her peers, when the war ended and the menace was gone, she did not return. Perhaps her sensitive artistic soul could not bear to revisit the scene of earlier horrors. Perhaps she dreaded the ruin and change wrought in her beloved Paris. Whatever her reason, she remained in the South and never returned to her apartment. But she continued to pay the rent for the rest of her life, and so none else ever returned to her apartment either… for over 70 years!

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898.

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898; previously unknown, found in the apartment and subsequently solds for $3.4 million.

When she passed away at the age of 91, her heirs discovered that she owned this lease in Paris.  Can you imagine setting foot in a home where no one has trod for a lifetime? Think of the thrill to experience what has been untouched and undisturbed for generations? The first person to enter after all those years described a ‘smell of old dust’… and then started to notice the treasures. They said they felt as if they had slipped into the private chambers of Sleeping Beauty. Madame de Florian’s home, with the exception of one painting, remains undusted and untouched to this day.

An amazing situation, but not unique. Many people have enjoyed, or at least know of family summer homes that have changed little over the years. I was lucky as a child to spend time in the summers at an Adirondack period cottage on a lake in Maine, still pristine with hand-pumped water from the well, outdoor privy in the woodshed, and minimal electricity just encroaching on the oil lamps. The craftsman’s architectural style was beautiful and comforting, with clean wainscoting, built-in corner cabinets, semi-open staircase, and exposed beams. My grandfather’s room had a pine wash stand with pitcher of water and basin, and the chamber pot in the cubby below. I still love all those kitchen gadgets and ware: the wire baskets, racks and skewers for cooking on wood fires, stoneware, and lovingly dinged enameled tinware. The built-in cabinets held a mystery of toys and games from a much earlier time. We ate, worked and relaxed on the wide screened porch with wicker and rockers, plank tables and benches.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

I have been very lucky on Nantucket to have been welcomed over the years into many homes that were truly time capsules, barely touched by the passing of time. I am still moved by an historic home in the center of town, where the clock stopped at the turn of the century. The furniture remains in their exact spots, the art original, the knickknacks and personal mementos are those of the former owner, the very books on the bedside shelf are those chosen and placed there nearly a hundred years ago! The house is a home, yet also a shrine. In a different house, with different people and a different history, this could verge on the creepy. In this case however, it is more akin to a brilliant installation, a tableau vivant.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

There is another house, a Main Street dowager, where the furnishings have remained intact through generations of the same family for over 200 years. One sits in the same chair, at the same table on the same hand knotted carpet as did the Captain when he returned from whaling voyages before America won its independence. One looks about at the paintings and porcelains chosen and cherished by the first generation. The closets and attic hold all the family correspondence, hand written copies of letters sent, bills and invoices, complete and intact dating back from the first settlers. A nod to modern change and progress: the cabled bells to summon a particular servant from their attic quarters.

The beauty and thrill of these ‘time capsules’ is not just the great collections of period antiques. It is not just a matter of being amazed at the rare circumstance. It is more the breathless wonder of stepping physically into the past. You are not a spectator viewing antiques in a museum. You are a privileged guest, alive and well in the distant past, able this once to see and feel how life was lived. This rare trick of fate brings you into the reality of the past, rather than just imagining history as one tries through books, films and museums. It is the beauty and magic of antiques.

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The photographs of the de Forian apartment have been published widely on the web: sources include Drouot Auctions, Urban Archeology, Home and Garden, Inspirationsdeco, and the Huffington Post.

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Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto!

Christmas in Ireland: The Christmas Panto.

I admit it: I look forward to the annual Christmas Pantomime every year. I had heard about them in old Christmas books, but of course had never been to one. We just don’t have these in the States. When I first came over to Ireland for Christmas , I was thrilled to hear that there were not one, but two different pantomimes held in Cork during December and January. Brilliant! At last!  I was psyched to go, but then was told “No way! The Pantos are for children. An adult can’t go… everyone would think you were a nutter!”  I was crushed.

"Alice in Wonderland" at the Cork Opera House last year.

“Alice in Wonderland” at the Cork Opera House last year.

Determined to see this Christmas tradition, it didn’t take me long to figure out I could invite my young niece and nephew. I could get to see my panto by using little Jack and Orla as camouflage! Twenty years later I still go to the panto every year. We pretend we’re taking the young ones, our Christmas present to our nieces and nephew (now four of them), but we all know they’re really chaperoning me.

The annual Christmas Pantomime is a hugely popular, eagerly attended part of the Christmas season throughout Ireland and the UK.  The Panto is a deliberately campy, over-the-top  stageshow that incorporates ham acting, singing and dancing, corny humor, men in drag, audience participation, topical references, and double entendres…  all aimed for children… but not-so-secretely loved by adults.  Picture a children’s theatre, crossed with a vaudeville music hall, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, MTV, and a touch of Jim Henson. A slice of old fashioned entertainment!

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

Traditional Harlequin and Columbine.

What are pantos? How did they begin? The Pantomime (which today  luckily has Nothing to do with Mime) is descended from the Harlequin and Columbina plays of the Commedia dell’arte dating back as far as the 16th Century. Simple sketch plays featuring stock characters depicting typical types of people, with bawdy humor, improvisation, and props: kind of a Punch & Judy Show with live actors.

London theatres in the 18th Century carried on this tradition, first as silent performances with only dancing and gestures (thus “pantomime”). Following nicely in the footsteps laid by the Medieval Mummer’s Plays associated especially with Twelfth Night, the Pantomimes quickly became a popular entertainment during the Christmas season. By the mid 19th Century the shows became more elaborate, with witty and topical dialogue, slapstick, and often spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects. The plots evolved from simple skits to a small repertoire based on nursery rhymes and folk tales. We’re talking twisted fairy tales here, with little resemblance and very little regard for the original tales.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

Antique poster for a Christmas Pantomime.

There is usually little or no reference to Christmas; the basic subject is adopted from a children’s story such as from Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Bean Stalk, Snow White or other such chestnut, and freely borrows characters and features from other tales, or invents wholly new bits you’ve never heard of nor dreamt. It is assumed that the audience is so familiar with the original story that there is little effort to develop the plot which is instead adapted for comic or satirical effect.*

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

Hurry! The curtain rises in five minutes! Cork opera House 2013.

The curtain rises. Enter the hero: “Hello boys and girls! I said HELLO BOYS AND GIRLS!!!”  and repeated yet again until the audience responds loud enough.

The mad performance follows a stereotyped routine with a love triangle that includes the hero and heroine, a comic lead played by a man in drag (the Panto Dame), an evil menace, a friendly godmother sort, and a lowly servant or other character who befriends the audience, is menaced by the villain and is besotted with the heroine. Every production includes a scary scene of dark menace, and a slapstick grand chase. And then there’s the famous banter with the audience. The Dame “recognizes” people in the audience:

“Is that Mary? Mary dear, you’re looking wonderful! In this light ye can’t tell you had Botox at all!”

And the audience does indeed participate, with the enthusiasm you would expect of children at Christmas. Not just booing and hissing the villain, or sympathizing “Ahhhhh” with the lowly friend. The cast will prompt the audience, but It’s just a formality… everyone knows the score.  The packed theatre will warn the hero (“Look behind you!”), and argue with the villain (“Oh no they don’t!” “Oh yes they do!” Oh no they don’t!”) You get the idea.

The brilliant cast of this year's panto at the Cork Opera House.

The brilliant cast of this year’s panto at the Cork Opera House.

I suspect most of the audience is there for the song and dance (including the dreaded audience participation bit at the end). The best of the panto for me is the topical humor. Beyond the winks and nods at pop culture, hit songs and celebrities, there are plenty of razor barbs aimed at politics and current events, and naughty double entendres galore. Clever and witty, these bits are played for the adults in the house, but still enjoyed by the children on their own level.

After all these years I’d hate to think of celebrating Christmas without this tradition. The first niece we took, Orla, is now an adult close to setting off for college; nephew Jack… well he’s as tall as the beanstalk, and little Amy and Rachel are growing as fast as they can. They all grow up too fast, and soon I fear will probably be too old for this tradition. On the other hand, so far even Orla still loves going to the Panto with us, and we’ve just gained a new nephew less than a year old… I think my Christmas celebrations are safe for years to come!

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A Festival of Christmas Trees.

A Festival of Christmas Trees.

Christmas! That most wonderful time of year! The holidays start early here on Nantucket Island, with our annual Christmas stroll celebrated on the first weekend of December. To get us all in the mood, and start the season off with the right festive bang, we have the Nantucket Historical Association’s magical Festival of Trees. Now in its 20th year, the Festival presents over 90 Christmas trees designed and decorated by a wide variety of people and organizations from our community, nestled and overflowing throughout our historic Whaling Museum. Holiday magic indeed!

The Antiques Depot's "Magic of Christmas", NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

The Antiques Depot’s “Magic of Christmas”, NHA Festival of Trees 2009.

I am completely crazy about Christmas Trees (it’s a German thing), so of course I am a huge fan of this festival … in fact my wife and I Chaired the event for the last two years and remain on the committee. The Antiques Depot has been putting up a tree in the museum for about ten years now, each one telling a specific tale. Of course Christmas trees weren’t always this expansive… not even in my family where we used to put up seven different trees… and more decorated outside!

Christmas trees began rather simply, as far as we can tell, long before Christmas itself. No one appreciates nature and greenery like the pagans: the ancient Romans used evergreen boughs to decorate their temples during the feast of Saturnalia; the druids worshiped under oak trees and favored mistletoe; and the Germanic tribes and Scandinavians brought pine and fir branches and trees into their homes for a little life during the winter solstice.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

The Antiques Depot at Christmas Time.

During the Middle Ages clergymen, and later traveling bands of minstrels, performed Mystery or Miracle Plays to illustrate simple tales from the Bible: those telling about Adam and Eve, their fall from grace, and the promise of a coming savior became associated with Advent. In Germany and France these plays often employed a Paradise Tree decorated with apples, and perhaps holy wafers. In fact the first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was around 1510 in the far northern Germanic territory around Riga or Tallinn. This was most likely a Paradise Tree rather than a proper Christmas Tree, and after a ceremony it was burnt (like a forerunner of a Yule Log). By the end of the century Germans were parading a festive tree through the streets, often followed by a man on horseback dressed a bishop… good old St. Nicholas we presume.

Steel engraving of Martin Luther's Christmas Tree, from Sartain's Magazine, circa 1860

Steel engraving of Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree, from Sartain’s Magazine, circa 1860

The first proper Christmas Tree, where a fir was brought inside a house and lit with candles, we attribute to Martin Luther in the mid 16th Century, who was said to have likened the tree to the heavenly sky from whence the Christ Child came down to earth on Christmas Eve. Germans love a party, and Luther’s simple tree soon came to be decorated with gold covered apples, sugared plums, cherries and pears, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, gingerbread figures and dough fashioned into the likeness of various animals. Atop the early trees were at first a Christ Child, and in time the angel which brought forth good tidings, or the star which led the Wise men. And once the glass makers got involved, we were well and truly off and running!

Woodblock Engraving of "The Christmas Tree" by Winslow Homer, from Harper's Weekly, 1858

Woodblock Engraving of “The Christmas Tree” by Winslow Homer, from Harper’s Weekly, 1858.

Christmas trees (even Christmas in general) had a rough time taking route in America. The Protestant establishment throughout the colonies had a grim view of Christmas, and the Puritans banned the holiday outright in New England. Hessian soldiers are believed to have celebrated with Christmas trees during the American Revolutionary War, and certainly German immigrants brought the custom with them to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and wherever else they settled. But the custom spread slowly. Even by the mid 19th Century America still wasn’t in the Christmas spirit: schools stayed open on Christmas Day, and ministers wouldn’t allow any such “pagan” trappings within their churches.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree.

The Christmas Tree didn’t become popular in Great Britain until Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert decorated a Christmas Tree in Windsor Castle.A drawing of the event published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850 (with the Queen’s crown and the Prince’s mustache removed to appear more “American”) went a long way in popularizing Christmas Trees in both the UK and the US. When a generous dash of Dickens was added to the punch… well, Christmas was here to stay.

Christmas Trees are now every-where, even in households that don’t celebrate Christmas.  Artificial trees have come to rival natural trees in popularity and over the last century their ornamentation has continued to evolve, reflecting the times in which they live. And there is perhaps no better place to see this in all its wonder and glory, than in the Festival of Trees on Nantucket.

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

The Night After Christmas (Festival of Trees 2010)

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You’ve got to love getting a “Get Out of Stalag Luft Free” Card! Oh the games that spies do play…

The study of history often seems to be a continuous review of one long war after another. Indeed the story of national endeavor and expansion is enwrapped in struggle and conflict. It is no wonder that the relics of these conflicts carry drama and intrigue like little else in the world of antiques. The articles have value far beyond their age and rarity, intimately tied to patriotism, sense of self, and often the gravitas of personal or family sacrifice.

Military artifacts and memorabilia comprise a varied and fascinating part of the antiques marketplace. Interest ranges from the uniforms and gear found in Army-Navy Surplus stores (and what little boy doesn’t flip over That Aladdin’s Cave?), to the munitions, insignia, medals, and rarities that feature in specialist auctions. Prisoner-of-war hand crafted folk art is particularly fascinating and poignant.

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

And then there’s vintage spy paraphernalia! Yes, James Bond’s Q Division existed… or rather the more prosaic Office of Research and Development of the OSS. They, and all their counterparts around the world, produced a wealth of sometimes clever sometimes crazy inventions in the name of intelligence. The majority of these comprise various surveillance devices such as miniature or hidden cameras, or electronic bugs. But actual historic spy gear (or tradecraft in CIA lingo) includes disguised encoding and decoding instruments, esoteric weapons (such as a lipstick gun and a pipe pistol), covert exploding devices, camouflaged poison capsules, hidden compartments (yes Maxwell, even in shoes), and even spy drones (including a robotic dragonfly and a remote controlled fish)! And you thought your tax dollars were being wasted.

"On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film" from the Harvard Film Archive.

“On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film” from the Harvard Film Archive.

A great collection of these devices and documents, focusing especially on the cold war period, can be found in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. An even better collection no doubt is held in the CIA Museum; unfortunately the latter is not open to the public, but believe it or not Langley has actually launched a You Tube channel and a website featuring a Flickr stream showing some of its museum artifacts. For those who prefer a more personal, hands-on experience, spy gear actually comes up for auction. In fact while I was in London this winter, Bonhams Auction offered a collection of vintage spy technology.

My favorite relic of espionage, the coolest undercover device ever, has got to be the World War II Monopoly game. Yes, that Monopoly game.

As the war progressed more and more allied airmen were being held prisoner in the Stalag camps throughout Europe (German prisoner-of-war camps run by the Luftwaffe air force). In spite of never- ending escape attempts, the soldiers were usually recaptured wandering lost around the countryside before local resistance fighters could come to their aid. The war office saw that maps were desperately needed to aid escape. But how to get them into the hands of the prisoners? And how could they make them durable enough to not tear from repeated folding? Or fall apart when wet? And not compromise the escapees with loud paper rustling noise as they consulted their maps? Someone thought “Why not silk?”

As luck would have it, the English firm of John Waddington Ltd. had just perfected the process of quality printing on silk. The firm was happy to aid the war effort and began printing silk maps detailing escape routes through every part of Germany and Italy where prisoners were held. The maps could be scrunched into a very tiny parcel, and were intended to be hidden in the heels of aviator’s boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

But Waddington also held the UK licensee from Parker Brothers to manufacture Monopoly. Clever minds went to work and soon there was a highly top secret program making Monopoly sets with an escape map hidden inside one of the playing tokens! Other tokens held a miniature magnetic compass and a two piece metal cutting file. The stacks of fake money actually held quantities of large denomination German, Italian and French currency money. The games were distributed under the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war by fictitious aid organizations. Sounds like an escape plan to me. It is estimated that approximately 35 thousand allied soldiers successfully escaped from Luftwaffe prison camps during the war, and it has been suggested that up to a third of them were aided by their Monopoly games. Proceed Directly to Go indeed.

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

The security was amazing. A small number of Waddington craftsmen assembled these sets in a clandestine chamber, sworn to a secrecy they kept forever… or until the gambit was declassified in 2007. The soldiers themselves knew to look for an innocent red dot in the Free Parking space on the gameboard which signified a special set, and then to destroy the game after removing the secreted bits in order to prevent the Germans from discovering the ploy. At the end of the war all of the remaining sets were also destroyed, and all involved were sworn to remain mumm to safeguard the Monopoly trick so it could be used again in future conflicts.

While there’s little or no chance of finding one of the actual spy games today, it would still be a fascinating reminder of the intrigue by playing the iconic game on a period World War II Monopoly set. You will never look at a Monopoly set the same way again.

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