I don’t remember exactly when Jim and I first visited the Landis Valley Museum out in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but it was probably in the mid-1970’s. We were particularly fond of museums like that where various historic buildings – homes, churches, taverns, stores, etc. – were gathered together and furnished authentically. Both of us agreed that our favorite building at any of these museums was the general store.
Landis Valley had a cute little general store complete with well-stocked shelves, a pot-bellied stove, and a checker board set up on an old barrel. However, what piqued our interest the most were the two wax mannequin heads, one of a woman and one of a girl. I’m not totally sure, but I think back at that time they may have been set up for display in the front window of the store. Heat and light pouring in on them was probably not best for their preservation, and, thankfully, they have been moved further inside the store. (If you want to see what these mannequins look like, google “Landis Valley Museum general store.” The first site listed shows photos of the store, and there is a nice portrait of each of the wax heads.)
Jim and I were transfixed by these lovely mannequins because they were so lifelike. They had realistic glass eyes, what looked like real human hair, and real eyebrows. Without a doubt, their purpose in a store would be to display the latest in ladies’ hats or bonnets. (For a little history about these rare display pieces, go to http://www.slstoredisplays.com/blog/labels/wax%20sculpting.html.) There was something hauntingly beautiful about those mannequins, and I often thought about them. We probably even said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to own one of those wax heads?”
Here is a close up of her glass eye.
At the time, we were actively collecting typical general store items – tin and cardboard signs, tobacco tins, wooden boxes, dye cabinets, and spool cabinets. However, we never saw anything like those wax mannequins for sale.
Then, in 1981, we were returning from our first trip to Maine – the car already packed solid with our “finds” – when we stopped at the market in Brimfield, Massachusetts. (Yes, our curiosity had gotten the better of us. So many collectors and dealers had mentioned Brimfield over the years that we purposely planned our vacation to coincide with it.) As anyone who has ever done Brimfield knows, these multiple markets spread out all along the main highway are absolutely overwhelming in size and scope. However, Brimfield brings in dealers from far and wide, so the variety of merchandise and the chance of finding something you’ve never seen before increases exponentially.
It was there that we found our own beautiful wax mannequin head, and home she came with us. We bought a nice straw hat for her to wear and draped a crocheted collar around her neck, and she was good to go. She remains one of only a handful of wax mannequin heads that we’ve seen either for sale or in museums over the past thirty years. She has a wonderfully natural skin tone and beautiful glass eyes. Some may find her too realistic and disturbingly so. After all, she’s just a head and shoulders without a body. However, we love her.
We’ve had fun with her, too. When we first moved into our new house, we placed her inside an empty kitchen cabinet for safe-keeping while we arranged the furniture and collectibles. Our kids, who were in elementary school at the time, loved surprising guests by opening up the cabinet to show off the realistic lady’s head. One time, when we lived at our old house, I was out in the side yard talking to the neighbor. She glanced over at our family room window and asked if that was Jim looking out at us. When I looked, I realized that she was referring to the wax head, which sat up on top of a cabinet and was perfectly visible from outside. It did look rather real – although nothing at all like Jim!
If there’s a collecting lesson to be learned from the wax mannequin head, it’s this: When you see an antique or collectible object that strikes an emotional chord within you, there’s a good chance that someday you will stumble upon that object (or something similar) and be able to acquire it. It’s one of those strange phenomenons that I’ve noticed many times over the years, and when it happens, it’s downright spooky. Of course, I still have a fair-sized list of things that I’m waiting to find at an affordable price, but I haven’t given up hope yet. And when I see something I love and, for whatever reason, it’s unobtainable, I always say, “Someday I’m going to find one of those for my own,” or, as I did with the wax head, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of those someday?”