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Old-Fashioned Whittling Continues to Carve a Niche

March 22, 1997|From Associated Press

It used to be that no self-respecting man or boy would be without his jackknife, to pare a rosy apple, to cut a piece of twine or rope or to whittle small curiosities: balls inside cages, sturdy pliers that opened and closed or chains that seemed as strong as those of iron.

Each carved from a single block of wood, these objects--known nowadays as whimsies--had a wondrous sleight-of-hand quality that dazzled the whittler's friends and family--and, according to Country Home magazine, continues to fascinate today's collectors.

The basic whittling exercises that produced whimsies were handed down from father to son, traded between neighbors, learned from hobos or itinerant workers, or swapped--like stories--as men sat by the wood stove at the local general store.

This type of carving was a tradition for a farm boy growing up in the 19th century, says Simmon Bronner, author of "Chain Carvers--Old Men Crafting Meaning."

Once the farm boys were grown, whittling became a social means of whiling away the time.

In the early 20th century, Americans who left the farms to join the urban factory workers brought their pocketknives and their affinity for wood with them.

Whether on the farm or in the city, whittlers responded to their circumstances, carving a range of whimsy forms that reflected their world. A pair of yoked oxen may have been the work of a farmhand who retired to the bunkhouse to whittle at the end of a hard day.

Jamie and Sandy Ciardelli, antiques dealers and avid whimsy collectors from Phillipsburg, N.J., say collector interest is now in the $45-to-$250 range, with spectacular examples going for thousands.

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