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    Auction Finds

    Vintage sprinklers to unwrinkle your clothes

    Did you see the sprinklers, my auction buddy Janet asked as I was looking at some item I was not likely going to buy at auction. When she said it, the image that came to my mind were lawn sprinklers, and I wondered why in the world would she think that I’d be interested.

    Seeing the confused look on my face, she explained. The little bottles in the shape of Chinese. Then I knew what she was talking about. I had seen them on the auction-house website, lots of them, but I had no idea what they were. I had overlooked them during my wandering around the auction house.

    People used them for ironing wrinkles out of clothes, she added.

    Dutch boy clothes sprinkler

    Up-close view of the Dutch boy clothes sprinkler.

    The painted sprinklers were no more than six inches tall with perforated screw-on caps. At one point, they were common in many households, either in this figurative form or some other makeshift form. Some women just screwed a top on a Coke or other type of soda bottle, and kept it at the end of their ironing board.

    Interestingly, I had found a pretty little plastic top among some sewing items I bought at auction some years ago. It had a yellow moon-shaped head and a short red hollow neck that ended in a bottom wrapped in cork. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, but later learned that it was a Gothamware clothes sprinkler top that you slid into a bottle of water to dampen clothes for ironing.

    At a more recent auction, I came across another of those sprinklers, in the image of a Dutch boy.

    Clothes sprinklers have been around for more than a century. The Smithsonian has a metal sprinkler in its American history collection that was used by Chinese immigrants during the late 19th to early 20th century in their laundries. The containers held water and starch, but unfortunately the website did not have a photo of it.

    Dutch boy clothes sprinkler

    Full view of the Dutch boy clothes sprinkler.

    Chinese immigrants have long been associated with laundries because that’s the occupation they were forced to choose when many arrived in this country during the 1850s. They came to supply cheap labor but were turned away from many jobs. As their laundries prospered, they were harassed with prejudicial laws designed to bankrupt them.

    The sprinkler at the auctions were the stereotypical image of the Chinese laundry man that became prevalent in this country. On the web, I found these sprinklers manufactured by California Cleminsons, a company that apparently made all sorts of pottery items from the 1940s to 1960s, and Sprinkle Plenty.

    The bottles, most of which were ceramic, were also made as elephant, clothespin, Dutch girl, poodle, rooster, an iron, Siamese cat, Black Americana woman (accompanied by a clothespin holder), among others. Take a look at this variety of sprinklers.

    These sprinklers were being produced at least until the mid-20th century (I found several from the 1950s and 1960s).

    clothes sprinkler top

    A clothes sprinkler top that fits into a bottle of water.

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