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Kyle Chayka

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Collecting Is About More Than Just Stuff

My grandmother always gave me the strange, chalky figurines that came with her tea. Now I collect them

Throughout my childhood and continuing well beyond the age that I expected it, my grandparents gave me little trinkets whenever I went to visit them where they lived in upstate New York or they came to see my family in Connecticut. They passed me packages containing golfball-sized porcelain figurines in a range of dull pastel colors, chalky to the touch, barely recognizable as representations of animals, circus performers, or holiday mascots — the epitome of mass-manufactured 20th-century kitsch.


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The mementoes were Red Rose Tea’s Wade Figurines. Founded in 1894, Red Rose is a Canadian company famous for its orange pekoe, which my grandparents stocked by the drawerful. My mother can’t remember any other brand ever being in the house. In 1967, Red Rose started packaging ceramic trinkets made by the U.K. company Wade Potteries in bulk boxes of tea, the way prizes are nestled at the bottom of cereal boxes. The figurines are still included in packages of 100 or more teabags, but they’re also conveniently for sale on Red Rose’s website.

Nursery Rhymes series, Old King Cole. Photo: Red Rose

As a kid, I couldn’t comprehend them. The figurines weren’t interactive, like all my LEGOs were. They didn’t seem designed to be played with at all. Instead, their polished surfaces and variable shapes, sorted into twee thematic series like "Nursery Rhyme" and "North American Endangered Animals" (timber wolf was a favorite), struck me as delicate and rare, meant to be revered rather than thrown around in pretend games. So I started a collection, accruing dozens upon dozens that I still have stored away in the sectioned clear plastic boxes crafters use to sort out beads or buttons. There’s something addictive about them, not unlike the Pokémon cards I was also hoarding at the time.

Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I really came to understand the utility of the Red Rose figurines. The company’s gnomic slogan runs, "Enjoyed for Generations," which is apt. Not because of the tea itself — I can’t make out any difference between the dark, bitter brew it produces and that of any other brand — but for the way the figurines have connected me and my grandparents. They were thrilled whenever they came upon a figurine I didn’t already have, and I logged each new acquisition as a way to track the passing years. Over time, each chunk of porcelain has become a small bomb of nostalgia, like so many Proustian madeleines.

Unlike the patron cookie of spasmodic memory, however, the figurines are more or less permanent. I can paw through them whenever I want and have flashbacks to unwrapping the miniature timber wolf in my childhood bedroom, or looking up at my grandmother’s soft hands as she handed me a new package. The experience might not be artful, but it’s still enjoyable. Kitsch "offers instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance, without sublimation," Walter Benjamin famously declaimed. I would add that emotional gratification without intellectual effort is sometimes a necessary and comforting thing.

American Heritage series, Liberty Bell. Photo: Red Rose

I’m not alone in my appreciation. A Red Rose collector community now thrives online, with prices for individual figurines rising up to $30 for the coveted Gingerbread Man, a jaunty, gnarled little monster primed to terrify any kid it’s handed to. I imagine each figurine represents a similarly resonant episode or relationship in someone else’s life as it does my own, and thus we gather them like junkies.

Collecting the trinkets is a way to reclaim in advance a piece of time that will inevitably be lost. They are physical relics of affection in an era when the way we sustain connection is too often by exchanging digital Instagram likes or Facebook birthday posts. I started giving figurines out of my own collection away to my brother, relatives, and friends. They may have thought less of my aesthetic tastes at first, but I don’t think they’ll forget the gesture. The emotional resonance of the Red Rose figurines grows over time. With the unique series released over decades, the expanding collection becomes its own symbolic feedback loop the same way any relationship grows closer as it accrues new experiences.

It’s this accretion that makes the figurines so potent, particularly in my own experience. Lately, my grandmother’s encroaching dementia means that at times she can’t recall large swaths of her life — her husband, her daughter, her hometown, like a field mowed flat. Yet she still remembers to save the figurines whenever they buy more tea. The objects are indelibly linked to me in her mind.

Nautical Wonderland series, Diver's Helmet. Photo: Red Rose

My mother recently visited my grandparents and later delivered the latest Red Rose prize to me inside its small plastic bubble pouch. I threw it in the bottom of a bag and promptly forgot about it, perhaps out of self-defense, since when I saw the tiny sculpture I felt a sudden ache. The awareness of its significance as an anchor in the collapsing avalanche of my grandmother’s lost memory was too much to process in the moment. The trigger of nostalgia worked a little too well.

But like all the best gifts, the figurine came to hand when it was least expected and most needed. Cleaning my bedroom one evening, I came across the pouch still partially inflated with air. Inside was a miniature green porcelain mermaid holding a conch shell to her ear and running a hand through the locks of her long hair. Turning it over in my hands, tears welled in my eyes. The mermaid’s arms are cylindrical, her back is cartoonishly flat, and there’s a smudgy but discernible smile on her face. All that imperfection is perfect.

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