Automatic for the People 

"Eclectic Electric" showcases antique gadget design at the Anderson Gallery.

click to enlarge Vintage electric fans are only some of the cool old plugged-in gadgets found in a new Anderson Gallery display devoted to summertime in the mid-20th century.
  • Vintage electric fans are only some of the cool old plugged-in gadgets found in a new Anderson Gallery display devoted to summertime in the mid-20th century.

Summertime and the living is easy. But how does that apply to art? In the case of Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery, it means milkshake makers and cool, indoor breezes, whimsically exemplified in "Summer Mixer: From the Collection of Eclectic Electric."

If you've never heard of the private Eclectic Electric Gallery on Broad Street, it's because it's so rarely open to the public. But the collection of close to 10,000 electric household items from the early- to mid-20th century is nothing short of astonishing.

Thomas Osdene and his son spent years collecting toasters and fans before moving on to practically anything that plugged in for the home: vacuum cleaners, washing machines, electric teapots, irons. The result was their gallery.

From these thousands of items, curators Traci Garland and Michael Lease have chosen an array of objects and ephemera that speak to happy housewives and glamorous summer parties of a long-gone era, the 1920s through the 1970s.

"Our starting point was wondering what kind of appliances you might have seen at a midcentury pool party," Anderson Gallery Coordinator Garland says. "When we got into the collection and dug around, yes, there were fans, but other things were less expected. My favorite is the marshmallow toaster, which toasts one marshmallow at a time. It's mind-bogglingly amazing. The box for it shows people in cocktail dresses toasting marshmallows."

And that's actually a big part of the charm of this exhibit of what is as much cultural history as art. The curators purposely included packaging and other ephemera to better contextualize these sleek and very modern-for-the-time appliances.

"The milkshake makers we used are remnants of the postwar era," says Lease. "They all look like they're about to take off into space. They look like the Enola Gay."

Equally amusing are some of the names of the appliances. Kistler's Radar Sandwiches, a contraption that took in an automat-purchased refrigerated sandwich and warmed it up before dropping it out the bottom, sounds like something the Jetsons might have used.

In addition to their streamlined design, appliances were built to last. "Most of the things here probably work," Lease says of the nearly 40 items in the exhibit.

Because of the show's summer theme, some objects such as Cool Spot Fans and Havana Shakers were natural inclusions. But Lease found his muse in the cultural history of popcorn poppers. Sugar rationing during World War II led to the popularity of popcorn, he learned while doing research for the show. "It became a cash crop during the Depression." It's those gleanings from days gone by that make "Summer Mixer" such a fascinating look at the past.

"Since this is an art gallery, we wanted to showcase iconic midcentury American design," Garland says. "We wanted practical items that were summer-related, but for this show, you couldn't not talk about the cultural history. Art and design never emerge from a vacuum."

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The curators see the small appliances as a jumping-off point for practically everyone, even if it only leads to memories of grandma's house.

"Everyone has a relationship to these items. Our plumber came in and spotted the milkshake machine," Lease says. "He said his first job was making milkshakes on a machine like that at a place at Hamilton and Broad [streets] when he was 13. He recognized it immediately."

For the 21st-century visitor, it's a lighthearted way to revisit the era's unique design aesthetic and American fascination with electrical appliances of all kinds.

As Garland puts it, "Think about what it was like for people then to have something that looked like the future. Try to imagine what it was like to suddenly have a fan on a hot, summer day in Richmond." S

"Summer Mixer: from the Collection of Eclectic Electric" runs through July 29 at the Anderson Gallery at 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. For information call 828-1522 or go to arts.vcu.edu/andersongallery.

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