PRINT March 1980

The 1979 Dime Store Figurine

SIGNS AND GARLANDS FESTOON THE aisles. Fluorescent signs and flashing lights compete for attention. Disco music animates the search, reach, and purchase. Endless counters and shelves shape human movement into a contracted grid. Welcome to Woolworth’s.

Gazing over this testament to industrial abundance, I spy the object of my fancy, that low-brow form of object fetishism, familiar to every Midwestern mother’s son, the dime store figurine. Initially, my fascination was purely sentimental. Then I began to think of the vast numbers of these things decorating countless homes. As an artist whose intention is to communicate, I am jealous of the figurine’s success. Contemporary art, in comparison, seems unable, either from disinterest or fear, to address a diverse audience; I think it is suffering from its separatism. There is a pervasive coldness and pallor to the official scene. “Art about art” still persists. Artists make commodities devoid of worldly content, neatly self-contained, unoffensive, and clean. Some fine art distributors maintain an elitist posture to keep cash value high. They perpetuate the myth of “them vs. us.” (Have you noticed the one-way mirrors recently installed in some galleries?). In reality there is no “them”; only an “us.” Ironically, the dime store figurine is already a successful, public sign system. The nature of supply and demand economics has allowed the public to determine the imagery of these collectibles. My investigation is an attempt to discover the popular themes expressed by these objects, in the hope that this information will aid in some small way the necessary re-imaging of future art.

In general, figurines are unrelentingly positive and function primarily as fantasy. In a modest way they allow for escape from immediate realities and projection into preferred situations. They are often disappointing in their shallow depiction of life and total avoidance of full emotional chords; great care is taken that the thematic material should not alienate any interest group of the larger consumer audience. Nevertheless, they often penetrate beyond surface issues since they must stimulate public interest to exist.

My method of analysis was casual. By soliciting catalogues from manufacturers, over 2000 images were collected of inexpensive figurative ceramics currently on the market. I thumbed through the images many times, familiarizing myself and taking note of obvious similarities. The following essays are not intended as formal, statistical analyses. They are, instead, estimations by visual analysis of the cultural significance of a class of objects.

The 1979 figurine relies heavily on the history of figurines. The first porcelain figures in the Western world were produced in the 1730s by J. J. Kändler, a modeler for the Meissen factory near Dresden, and the very earliest were small copies of popular Chinese and Japanese figures. Kändler began to alter the oriental style by adding naturalistic flowers, rococo scroll work, and European architectural forms. His work caught the eye of the German king, Augustus the Strong. In the early 18th century all the courts of Europe patterned themselves after the French aristocracy, so Kändler made images for the German king that had roots in the prints of Watteau, engravings from the Cris de Paris and the commedia dell’arte. Figures of harlequins, lovers, animals, aristocrats, and actors came directly from the German court; also popular were images from folk tales, peasant life, mythology, and allegories of the Seasons, the Continents, and the Senses.

In years to follow, factories around Europe began to produce ceramic figures, notably Sèvres and Chantilly in France and Bow, Chelsea, and Royal Worcester in England. William Burton wrote in 1906:

. . . From almost every factory in Europe, there issued a crowd . . . of figures illustrating not only the social life of the times, but the characters of the stage and the conventional “pastoral comedy” as it was played at Versailles and other European courts. . . .

Much 18th-century work is thematically similar to the figurines of 1979, but the context has greatly changed. Originally the images were depictions of contemporary life; the 1979 versions are, instead, estimations of history. For example, the 18th-century aristocrat paying court to a lady was essentially portraiture; the same image reproduced in 1979 is a projection of fantasy, a retrograde object in a modern context. Because of aristocratic patronage, early figurines were of a very high quality: fine porcelain is characterized by the whiteness of the porcelain, itself; translucency; hardness of the body and the fineness of the glaze; and the models for these early figures were often made by famous sculptors of the period. The modern version, in comparison, is a poor imitation: economics of mass-production have reduced the quality of materials, simplified and depersonalized designs and lessened fine detail. However, early and late figurines still have two qualities in common: scale and smoothness. Figurines have always been hand-sized objects. Their slightness creates a physical intimacy appropriate to their fragile material nature and their sentimental, expressive qualities. Smallness also suits their role as fantasy; dwarfed by their surroundings, the figures shrink into their own imaginary context. The porcelains of past and present also share the quality of smoothness, an attribute of perfection and the additive nature of clay modeling gives figurines a roundness that is enhanced by translucent, reflective glazes.

The following discussions of the 1979 dime store figurine attempt to identify the major themes expressed in figurines and suggest the sources of their public appeal.

Blue, White and Gold: Leisure, Wealth and Love

Most of the first Chinese porcelains to reach 17th and 18th-century Europe were blue and white; the Imperial colors of 18th-century France were, of course, blue, white and gold; and the fashion of France was the fashion of Europe, so the manufacturers in England and Germany at first produced a large quantity of blue and white porcelain. As they started adding their own details, gold crept in.

These early European blue, white and gold works were extremely luxurious objects. Elaborate, costly, decorative motifs of scrolls, shells and flowers were applied liberally; these objects were so expensive that they were only produced at royal factories. The 1979 version is, of course, an anachronism. In this lies the specialness of the dime store rococo figure; it is an affordable link with the romantic past. Even though it lacks fineness, the image of aristocratic leisure, wealth and courtly love still perpetuates a fantasy of the genteel existence in modern America.

The Rendezvous epitomizes the 1979 blue, white and gold figurine. Wealth is evident in the elaborate dress of the man and woman and the swirling embellishments on the pavilion; the rococo idea that “more is more” still seems a potent sign of wealth. Consistent with the notion of aristocratic leisure, the couple is doing nothing. Their clothes are perfectly suited for doing nothing—white gets dirty very quickly and lace rips so easily. The woman sits isolated, framed by her pavilion; her delicacy requires the security of interiors. Her suitor twists a little at the waist, looking in her direction, seeking her attention. The faces of the man and woman are practically identical. Both are young (there is no room for the blemish of old age in this fantasy), their faces are full, small featured with pale complexions and blushing cheeks. There is not a trace of masculine coarseness. He holds the edge of his waistcoat, a gesture familiar to tycoons and politicians; she holds a fan, an object of pleasure and an image of female frailty. None of the blue, white and gold figurines hold anything that smacks of labor: the objects that surround them are unique to leisure, i.e., musical instruments, books and parasols. Pathetic in their saccharine simple-mindedness, their unrealistic nostalgia obscures realities that probably should be faced objectively. However, fantasy can uplift; it provides needed relief from oppressive realities. One feels sympathetic towards this Cinderella-rising-from-the-ashes-to-stardom quality. Imitation blue, white and gold figurines contain the wishes of the have-nots and deal with them compassionately.

Racing Form

A humorous image of a man bathing outdoors in half a barrel, reading the racing form, smoking a cigar, attended by a dog. Many aristocratic attributes are here: leisure time, reclining, smoking, reading, being attended too. But, they are transformed into the common—the man is a hillbilly; thin, bearded and wearing a straw hat inappropriate for a gentleman’s bath. The grass and rock on which the barrel/bath tub sits show that this scene is out-of-doors instead of in a private bathroom. He is reclining, but his feet do not fit in the tub. Instead of “good” reading, the man is perusing the racing form, gambling being an appropriate association for both the lowest and the highest of classes. The cigar is an inelegant stub, and the attendant a mutt instead of a lover. The significance of this image lies in its class consciousness: equating poor man’s pleasure with rich man’s pleasure gives the image sympathy and warmth. Humor comes from debasement of the aristocratic and a sense of the protagonist having stolen his pleasures.


A romantic vision of rustic life is a primary theme in figurine iconography. The earliest source of these figures is Dresden and their genesis was far from romantic. W.B. Honey writes: “The origin of the Dresden figures of peasants is in fact to be found in a type of fancy dress performance . . . in which the prince, his consort, and his entourage took the parts of the landlord or the farmer with his wife, servants, and craftsmen of various trades.” These performances were farcical, the characters bumpkins; idealization of the peasant and the “simple life” seems to have developed much later.

Rustic fantasy persists in the modern age, an age of soil analysis, million dollar combines, and hydroponics. Most of us have no direct relationship to food production; our sustenance comes from supermarkets. But there are no figures inspired by International Harvester or Grand Union. Instead, rustic images that endure describe a primary relationship between man and nature, an image of integrated wholeness between plant, animal and human, that suggests an essentially animistic spiritual belief.

The basic components of the rustic image are expressed in the “Farmers” whose components are an outdoor context, labor, earthly abundance, and material poverty. “Farmers” stand outdoors amidst rocks, grass and plants. But the outdoor context is not unique to rustic figures: most all figurines, even the fussy French provincial figures, are depicted in the open air, and the overwhelming popularity of the outdoor setting suggests a consumer desire to have a token of the outdoors indoors.

Amidst nature, the “Farmers” reap the fruits of their labor. One of the men brings home wood for a fire and the women have collected eggs, milk and vegetables to eat. These products become emblematic of the virtue of hardwork. Work, itself, is a satisfying image; it conveys a sense of productiveness. The tools of labor are very simple—a shovel, an ax, a wooden bucket and a woven basket. It is interesting that modern metal and plastic tools are avoided; wood is preferred. “Farmers” depict a simple cause and effect relationship between labor and sustenance mediated by human hands and primitive tools. Vegetables, milk, eggs, poultry, firewood and flowers surround the “Farmers,” suggesting that they are well-rewarded for their work. Flowers are a particularly important image of abundance in rustic figures and in figurines in general. By far the most common decoration, flowers represent the fullness, fragrance and sensuality inherent in the earth. They bring an image of reproductive power and boundless regeneration. Flowers are one of the most pleasant and reassuring of all images.

Although the “Farmers” enjoy an earthly bounty, they are dressed poorly. Patches, which are literally a substitute for lack of material, signify poverty. Poverty, however, does not seem to effect the happiness evident in their smiling faces. Instead, it tends to enhance the spiritual nature of the rustic scene. The virtue of impoverishment, of course, has many famous precedents in Christianity—gross materiality is a sin, and, conversely, lack of wealth suggests spiritual purity. This ancient moral code provides dignity for the deprived. However, it seems to be selective according to topography; there is no dignity in inner city poverty. The myth of spiritual worthiness is applied only to the impoverished who live in the country and work the earth. The appeal of depiction of nonscientific, primary relationships between man and nature is from vestiges of an animistic spirituality—in primitive figures no distinction is made between man and nature; earth, plants, animals and man are freely combined into one continuous form. Even though the elements of rustic figurines are not fused into one, they are compositionally intertwined and interrelated by an unmediated, subsistence interdependence. The rustic figure is an emblem of a simple spiritual notion of the primacy of nature; a romantic vision of the low technology society still exists.

Integrating the Abhorrent: Old Age, Reptiles and Rodents

Looking through the catalogues, I noticed a surprising number of frogs, turtles, and mice: 33 frogs, 16 turtles and 22 mice to be exact. Since real reptiles and rodents are objectionable to most people, it is unusual that their image is so popular. But all these images are anthropomorphized—a frog smiles and places a hand on his hip, turtles wink and wear pink bows and mice in 19th-century costume read and sew. Facial expression, costume and decoration make that which has been abhorrent cute. The appeal lies in these figures’ ability to neutralize common phobias.

Perhaps this can also partially explain the abundance of figures of old people: there are almost as many images of the elderly as there are of children. Perhaps the popularity of the old lies in their reputation for wisdom, or in a reverence for their patriarchal/matriarchal position. But more than either of these reasons, I believe it comes from a desire to make growing old more acceptable—modern society tends to cherish youth and discard the elderly, a fact that causes considerable anxiety.

Like the reptiles and rodents, the elderly are caricatured in a very positive way. Most of them smile. The objects that surround them are images of abundance, and many of the images of the aged describe companionship: couples sit together and share a drink or read aloud to one another; two old men sitting in a park sing together. These images of satisfied old couples obviously seem to dispel fears of social isolation that are the frightening reality. Such a function of figurines is close to magic. Like primitive effigies that cast out evil spirits, figurines assuage major fears, helping to lessen the phobias of the individual.


As one might expect from a popular based group of figurative images, love is a favorite theme, from childish flirtation to pornographic caricature. But the most common representations of affection show three distinct groups: children, young adults and the elderly.

Child couples display affection most overtly, kissing, hugging, playing and grooming one another—youthful innocence permits free, affectionate play. Young adults touch much more tentatively—it seems that a display of physical affection is appropriate only to pre-adolescence. The most chaste and permissible kiss of all is, of course, that between two child angels.

Children are also vehicles for domestic affection: scenes of sharing food, caring for sick mates and shining each other’s shoes. Children, of course, can not entirely take care of themselves, so domestic scenes between children must be construed as a game of “playing house.” Adults in similar domestic scenes would lack this playful quality—they come too close to the reality of the consumer and, consequently, any fantasies the consumer may foster about domestic bliss would be subject to real life interference.

There is no discernible difference between male and female behavior among the images of childhood affection. Boys and girls express similar aggression and passivity; as many girls kiss boys as boys kiss girls. Most often the kiss seems to be a mutual arrangement. Sexual equality gives way to stylized sexual posturing in the images of affection between young adults. All the young adult images are rococo (the effeminate sweetness of which kills any strong expressive qualities), and the images are bound to the affected gentility associated with this period. Most always, females look away from their mates in gestures of modesty and keep their extremities close and centered. Males, on the other hand, are more demonstrative—his attention is on the girl, he gestures to her and lavishes admiring looks on her. In general, the man is active and the woman is the recipient of the man’s energies. On the surface, rococo style suggests the sweetness and romance of young love, but, more insidiously, the style safely turns affection into deportment, killing any resonant emotional expression.

The elderly are the third group of affectionate pairs and these couples show extreme good will; smiling, cuddling, supporting each other, reading to one another, drinking and eating together. Like childhood images, it is appropriate for the aged to display physical affection; “age,” I assume, safely defuses physical restrictions. Again, like the child figures, there seems to be little difference between male and female behavior. Both partners seem equally involved in the exchange of affections. The old people are all plainly dressed, some of the clothes are old and patched. The poorness of their dress suggests a life of material hardship, but poverty frames the scene in melodrama, and accentuates the positive quality of their affections. The images sustain a comforting fantasy of growing old gracefully, finding comfort from hardship in long-lasting affection. On the whole love is dealt with superficially; the limited range of emotional expression testifies to the essential puritanical morality of dime store figurines.

The Photographer and His Model

This is a surprisingly modern image. The majority of figurines ignore contemporary industrial society; photography, however, is so popular that it has been incorporated into this basically conservative group of images. It is an image of making an image that is essentially voyeuristic—a girl is loosely dressed with arms, legs and neck exposed, the drapery over her shoulder suggests the convention of partially draped women in traditional painting. Her posture is exaggerated, one arm lifted, one leg extended, and her midsection is thrust out. Her facial features are large and curvy, her cheeks are pink and dimpled. The general attitude is one of abandonment, openness and vulnerability. In contrast, the boy model is closed and secretive, completely covered with loose clothes. His face is partially obscured by the camera through which he spies the girl, his gesture one of concealment. The exhibitionism of the female and covetousness of the male is made less overt by the fact that they are children. Childhood lends these figures the blessing of innocence, and our enjoyment of this scene lies in a primitive innocence that overrides inhibited adult morality.


Since earliest civilization society has revered the predator. He provides meat and protection, he acquires goods through seizure rather than through laborious production with raw material. The predator achieves status precisely because he does not labor and also gains stature by being a successful protector. If the group is not well-protected, even subsistence activities like food production cannot proceed. Thus, the predator is essential to the well-being of a group and, consequently, is revered.

The modern predator is more than an individual skilled in the hunting of game. “Predator” has expanded beyond its original meaning to include any violent physical activity that is essentially competitive. Thus, the modern predators depicted in figurines are sportsmen (hunters, fishermen, football and hockey players, dirt-bike riders, cowboys, and soldiers).The predatory image is very popular in the world of dime store figurines. Forty figures (all men) carry guns. The violence of this image is always softened—humor, elaborate costume, and passive gesture disguise the inherent fierceness.

The old hunter with his rifle and trusty dog is a familiar image in figurine catalogues. Even the earliest collection of figurines designed by Kändler at Meissen in the early 18th century included a hunter. The early hunter image, however, was an aristocrat; the figure was intended to illustrate the sport of German princes. But recent dime store hunting images seem to be as much about food gathering as about “sport.”

The old man and the dog are the brunt of a visual joke: the man looks to the right for prey, craning his neck to see more clearly; the dog parallels his gesture, sniffing the air in the same direction. However, the prey—a rabbit—is on the left, somehow having evaded the hunter and dog. The rabbit’s face expresses glibness and satisfaction. The composition is humorous—the hunter has been fooled and the rabbit is spared, this time. The joke tempers the grimness of chase and kill.

Unlike hunting and fishing, the aggression manifest in contact sports has no primary subsistence intention. Nevertheless, competitive willfulness in sports has parallels in the psychology of the hunt. The athlete who overcomes his opponent is rewarded for his efforts, not unlike the hunter who brings home the meat. Once again, however, figurines deny the essential aggressiveness of the sports figure by portraying him as a sweet-faced, pudgy child who could not possibly fulfill the machismo demands of certain sports.

To some degree manhunters, cowboys and soldiers are the most martial of the “Predators” represented but their combative nature is also disguised—by romance of costumes and passive gestures. The cavalier and cowboy cut very dashing figures for the contemporary industrial citizen. The brightly colored, well-decorated uniforms of 18th-century European soldiers and the flaring chaps and ten gallon hats of Old West cowboys are the stuff of modern movie fantasy. The costumes place these figures a century or more into the past, and this time distance blurs the realities of gunplay and the military life, allowing glories of costume and romance of the rugged individual to dominate the image. A more contemporary martial image of a Viet Nam veteran would be incompatible with figurine decorum; the grimness of the Viet Nam vet’s experience hasn’t been transformed by time into romantic fantasy.

Gesture also softens the gunslinger’s image—one cowboy, blowing the smoke from a freshly fired pistol, stands a little pigeon-toed, his slight awkwardness endearing in connection with power. In another figurine three gun slingers from the “Days End” series are depicted in the quiet moments after a day of aggressive activity: one cleans his gun, another drinks at a bar, and the third smokes, preparing to bed down. Like all the other predators, the virulence of the killer is well disguised.

The only images which are allowed to show the true ferocity of the “Predator” are animals. Among the variety of animal figures are eagles, fighting cocks, owls, leopards, lions, tigers and even a shark. These beasts are familiar heraldic signs, representing the power and nobility of men. Only animals are granted the integrity of their natural violence; the modern human image is always pacifistic.

As a group, “Predators” demonstrate a major failing of dime store figurines—human behavior is not allowed its full resonance. The basic realities of our existence, such as food collection and protection, are represented, but they are sweetened by a variety of diversions. The tone of the dime store figurine is consistently one of superficial light-heartedness that ignores more moving realities.

Big-Eyed Children

If eyes are the windows of the soul, then do enlarged eyes show more soul? Wide open eyes connote astonishment, wonderment, openness, and naiveté. Corollaries to these characteristics are vulnerability, irresponsibility and ignorance, and the appeal of this image lies in its total avoidance of knowledge. Enlarged eyes express mental vacancy. The irresponsibility inherent in the image is made acceptable by associating it with childhood. Demonstrations of such vacuity would be morally unacceptable in adult form. Nevertheless, the adult appeal of this image lies in a fantasy of total superficiality and unabashed incomprehension. Paradoxically, oversized eyes are an expression of blindness.

The Stereotype of the Artist

The man represented is physically unimposing. His heavy-lidded dark eyes, long nose, thick mustache and dark hair suggest a Mediterranean heritage. The beret, palette and brush are obvious signs of the artist. Less obviously, his clothes suggest a casual/sloppy, soft/sensitive nature. The large, heavy folds of tan and brown fabric suggest the softness of corduroy or flannel. Instead of a Windsor knot, his tie is loosely folded over a loose shirt. His sensitive nature is again expressed in his languid contraposto, which is much more relaxed and curved than other male roles represented in figurines. His painting arm is limp at his side, and he stares downward with a sad expression. He looks immobilized by some decision he must make in the act of painting.

I think that modern art, because of its specialized, elitist nature, no longer has popular significance. As a system of signs it has lost its ability to communicate to a broad audience. Over the course of the last two centuries art has become increasingly self-referential. “Art for art’s sake” has lead to a hermetic, refined art that is on the verge of depletion. The idea of newness may be leading us to shortsighted wastefulness, material insatiability and a false sense of development.

The dime store figurine, by virtue of its role as a popular art form, suggests one alternative to this dilemma. Because of the supply and demand structure of mass-production, the figurine is shaped by the public. Thus, the development of figurine imagery avoids specialization, individuation and elitism and, instead, successfully represents issues of public interest to a large audience. The emblematic nature of the figurine is contrary to the self-reflexive character of contemporary art. The dime store figurine is essentially retrograde; the historical character of the medium and subject matter is a large part of its public appeal. The not-new quality of the figurine establishes it both as a means of integrating past and present, and as a symbol demonstrating, through opposition, the destructive bias culture has for newness.

Because of restrictions placed on it by mass-production, the figurine is above all discreet. It must appeal to a large and diverse audience, so it avoids manifest problems that could alienate mass interests. The figurine must maintain public appeal, so issues of social interest are expressed, but in disguised form. Some of the less decorative aspects of society, like sex and violence, are expressed by these objects, but alienating overtness is avoided first by excessive sweetness and exaggerated manners, and secondly by humor, costume and languid gesture.

The public appeal of figurines lies in their role as fantasy. Figurine fantasy in a small way allows for escape from immediate realities and projection into preferred situations. The cheap figurine supplies fantasies of great wealth and leisure, bountiful nature and human affection, all of which are satisfying to the average urban consumer. Fantasy reaches extremes in the images of big-eyed children, whose essence is total obliviousness. Figurines in general are unrelentingly positive, encouraging optimism and a sense of personal control. However, the positive nature of figurines derives from their extreme discreetness, a result of suppressed negative themes. Figurines are disappointing in their shallow depiction of life and total avoidance of full emotional chords. Nevertheless, from an analytical point of view, they are an interesting example of cultural sublimation and mass fantasy projection.

Mike Glier is an artist.