To Meemaw, from Beepaw -- decades of family brainstorming
November 30, 2009 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Please help solve a riddle from a 1943 family postcard

During Thanksgiving dinner this year, guests were presented with a family mystery. Among a stack of family photos was a postcard that my great-grandfather sent to my great-grandmother while away on business. It is postmarked "Mobile ALA" 3/16/43 and addressed to their home in New Orleans.

It reads as follows.

Dearest:
I ran across and bought for you today something you have been wanting for quite a while. No, it wasn't a fur coat, fur I don't have the money fur such articles. In fact it was a pair, but not stockings. Actually it was two pair and they are a kind of silk but they are not cloth. Another peculiar thing is they are utterly useless except when turned upside down, but they are always left right side up. Will bring them over this weekend so you won't die of curiosity. Love to all and don't work too hard, Ralph.



We've been unable to determine what the gift was, and it's now driving us a bit crazy. Do any of you have any thoughts?

(Note: the "fur" instead of "for" is likely unrelated to the riddle. That's just him having fun.)
posted by cranberry_nut to Grab Bag (45 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder if "always left right side up" is a clue, based on the punning meanings of "left" and "right."
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:09 AM on November 30, 2009


A sexy bra?
posted by Aquaman at 9:13 AM on November 30, 2009


I would say "glasses" except the silk part doesn't add up. (it would also be a play on drinking glasses are useless except when upside down, and pair of eyeglasses).
posted by oneirodynia at 9:15 AM on November 30, 2009


Hmm, unless a "type of silk" is referring to nylon, which was introduced in the early 40's. They might have been eyeglasses with nylon frames.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:20 AM on November 30, 2009


I don't know what to make of the bit about "silk," but the rest puts me in mind of a set of salt and pepper shakers, as they are always left right side up but are only useful upside down.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:21 AM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


I want to say salt and pepper shakers, but I have to find out a way to make the "silk" fit. Salt and pepper shaker collecting apparently took off in the 1940s. Hmmm....
posted by The Bellman at 9:24 AM on November 30, 2009


And I should preview.
posted by The Bellman at 9:25 AM on November 30, 2009


Could it be something related to poker?
Two pairs=winning hand
Kind of silk but not cloth=possibly money is made with silk fibers?
Useless except when turned upside down=you don't show your hand
Always left right side up=when you win you do show your cards.
posted by Stewriffic at 9:27 AM on November 30, 2009


What if the salt and pepper shakers were shaped like ears of corn... e.g., corn silk?
posted by carmicha at 9:27 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can only think of two things made of silk that are not fabric. One is surgical sutures, which doesn't seem to apply here.

The other one, which does fit pretty well, is paintbrushes.

Did your grandmother paint?
posted by rokusan at 9:27 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


salt and pepper shakers was my choice from reading the thing.

I don't know how the "kind of silk" fits in.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:28 AM on November 30, 2009


Or a couple of pigs (sow's ear = silk purse)?
posted by carmicha at 9:29 AM on November 30, 2009


Also, given the punsterism, I would be guessing it was salt and pepper shakers shaped like pears. "It was a pair. It was two pair."
posted by The Bellman at 9:31 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


rokusan's suggestion of paintbrushes sounds right to me.
posted by phunniemee at 9:32 AM on November 30, 2009


TheBellman ftw. Pear-shaped salt n pepper shakers.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:35 AM on November 30, 2009


Maybe a set of salt and pepper shakers with a silk-screened design on them?
posted by cerebus19 at 9:36 AM on November 30, 2009


What about a paper product? I think there's a kind of silk paper. The paintbrush idea is good, although they aren't really a pair item.
posted by justkevin at 9:37 AM on November 30, 2009


Spider webs are sometimes said to be made out of "silk." Not sure how that relates to the riddle entirely, but they could be spider salt shakers or feature a cobweb-like decoration.

The pears also sound right, but I don't know how "silk" fits in. Perhaps they had a piece of fabric stretched over the glass? [/thinking out loud]

Also, I hate to be pedantic, but money is made from paper mixed with linen (and later also plastic, but not back in the 1940s), so I kind of doubt the poker analogy.
posted by mccarty.tim at 9:42 AM on November 30, 2009


This sounds so familiar to me, and I think I have to agree with the paintbrushes. I remember hearing a similar riddle somewhere else (wording very much the same as here, minus the fur coat bits) and the answer being paintbrushes. Yet, google fu fails.
posted by zizzle at 9:42 AM on November 30, 2009


I immediately thought it might be a parasol or umbrella.
posted by genefinder at 9:46 AM on November 30, 2009


Silk = silk road reference?
posted by stormpooper at 9:46 AM on November 30, 2009


A pair of kittens?
posted by widdershins at 9:49 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The other thing I can think of are hair combs:

A lot of vintage synthetics were at one time called "silk" especially in silk-scarce wartime days, so a type of plastic is a non-fabric "silk".

Hair combs are sold in pairs, and were a very typical purchase for one's sweetheart.

Hair combs are put on backwards and upside down, and then flipped forward to keep the hair in place; if you try to stick them on your head right side up, they are useless.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:52 AM on November 30, 2009


Would there have been a difference between stockings and nylons. The first being actually made of silk or a cloth and the second being the new fancy thing. I can sort of think how you put on nylons by turning them inside out but I can't say that it makes perfect sense.
posted by amanda at 9:52 AM on November 30, 2009


I'll second the "corn silk" reference as it seems to fit the whole "not cloth" part, though the idea about there being two pairs of them seems odd. But mainly because my grandparents did indeed have an entire bowl and shaker set designed to look like partially shucked ears of corn. They're about the right period too, so I guess these things were popular around then.

(Still have one of the shakers and the four regular bowls, though the serving bowl and the other shaker have passed on to that great crockery cabinet in the sky.)
posted by Naberius at 9:54 AM on November 30, 2009


I thought of kittens. I also really like the hair comb idea. I also love the "Don't work too hard" note to all of us trying to solve the riddle.
posted by amethysts at 10:00 AM on November 30, 2009


I would say 2 packs of playing cards, but it seems very rare that they're ever made from silk (I can see one expensive shop online - Thomas Lyte - selling what they describe as "silk playing cards").

But they'd fit with this "utterly useless except when turned upside down, but they are always left right side up" as the cards all look the same until you turn them over, but you leave the pack face down.

And "two pair" relating to poker.
posted by selton at 10:02 AM on November 30, 2009


3/16/43 is WWII and rationing times. What about typewriter ribbon?

"Although nylon typewriter ribbons were not as good as silk, the war dictated the use of nylon exclusively until after the war on September 2, 1945."
http://www.debarth.info/RibbonPages/ribbonsExpalined.htm

I'm just not sure about the upside down bit.
posted by jwells at 10:06 AM on November 30, 2009


Kinda makes me wanna believe in the afterlife and somebody else's grandpa Ralph is getting a good chuckle out of all of us.

Egg timers? Falsies? Garters?
posted by mareli at 10:09 AM on November 30, 2009


Pair of socks. Pair of shoes. Pair of pants. Pair of stockings. Pair of nylons. Pair of dice. Pair of glasses. Pair of earrings. Pair of shakers. Pair of nunchucks. Pair of gloves. Pair of eyes. Pair of tongs. Pair of scissors. Pair of legs. Pair of aces. Pair of wings. Pair of hands.

I can't imagine why he would buy two pair of shakers. I'd think one pair would be enough though it certainly works with the second half of the riddle.
posted by amanda at 10:09 AM on November 30, 2009


A couple of manufacturers have a "silk flower" pattern for china, which would extend to shakers. Here's an example.
posted by mikepop at 10:28 AM on November 30, 2009


Wow -- great ideas, everybody! I don't think she painted but I believe she did decoupage, which could use brushes. My money's on either that or the pear shakers (we're a very punny family).

I have calls in to my dad and my uncle for their thoughts. I'll report back when I hear anything!
posted by cranberry_nut at 10:47 AM on November 30, 2009


Just a wild guess, but could it have been a couple of parasols? If they were made from silk paper, then they would be 'a kind of silk,' but 'not cloth'. Stored in a stand, they could be considered 'right side up', especially if they had ornamental handles, and 'upside down' when opened for use. Maybe they were a matched set, or something.
posted by trip and a half at 11:25 AM on November 30, 2009


I also immediately thought Salt and Pepper shakers... and "pair" another pun, either for "pear" or perhaps a brand name.

About the silk... I'm wondering if it might be that they were made from something like celluloid. Cellulose was also used for a replacement for silk, so it could kind of connect. (See here)

Here is a celluloid pear salt and pepper shaker set, for example. (And here's a bit larger pic uploaded to imageshack, in case the page goes missing.)
posted by taz at 12:09 PM on November 30, 2009


My uncle, who actually has some memory of these people, thinks oneirodynia might be onto something with the hair combs. He says that's "the most plausible guess so far".
posted by cranberry_nut at 1:33 PM on November 30, 2009


Parasols seems the most elegant so far. Corn s&p shakers or similar assumes it's a pretty bad riddle.

Was he, like, known for riddles? Is there any reason to think this isn't just punny evasiveness about something too specific to be satisfyingly answerable?
posted by cmoj at 1:39 PM on November 30, 2009


Not to be all decadist and sexist, but would a woman in the 1940s want to have 2 parasols, and would a man buy her 2 parasols (knowing full well that he might have to use one of them)?
posted by 23skidoo at 2:49 PM on November 30, 2009


Clearly they were German spies and this was a coded message about Allied convoy movements.
posted by smcniven at 3:41 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's not 2 parasols; it's one pair of sols.
posted by carmicha at 3:55 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


While I'm a bit taken with both the combs and the shakers, I just can't imagine that one would ever describe them as similar but different to silk. I mean, without a very distinct knowledge of the material property, it's not a very "fun" riddle. We know that nylons were sought after and novel. He may have been trying to be overly clever with the fact he bought two - a pair of pairs!

Nonetheless, it is a very cute postcard for the sweet sentiments alone - what a great keepsake!
posted by amanda at 3:57 PM on November 30, 2009


Now *that's* a riddle, carmicha. I like it.
posted by amanda at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2009


Ooh, I like carmicha's idea about a pair of sols/parasols. (Though it would be two parasols, from the note.)
posted by desuetude at 7:05 PM on November 30, 2009


While I'm a bit taken with both the combs and the shakers, I just can't imagine that one would ever describe them as similar but different to silk.

It's not exactly a description- it's supposed to be a brain teaser:

Actually it was two pair and they are a kind of silk but they are not cloth.

Synthetics often were introduced to the public as a new type of "silk":

Nylon- originally a silk replacement, also used for solid items such as combs, toothbrushes, eyeglass frames. As a very modern material at that time, people would certainly recognize the connection, as it had been heavily marketed as a new version of silk.

Cellulosic acetate (also known as zylonite)- synthesized from tree fiber, used for fabric, film, eyeglass frames, hairbrushes, toiletry items, cigarette holders, &c. Acetate and other cellulosic polymer fabrics were sometimes called "art silk". This pre-dates nylon.

So, that's just one interpretation of the riddle that also seems particularly relevant to the era. Hair combs were thought to be a romantic gift like jewelry, and not too hard for a sweetheart to mess up since size isn't an issue ;-) . They were also very popular in the 40's, and it's entirely likely that a woman would have several pairs.

We know that nylons were sought after and novel. He may have been trying to be overly clever with the fact he bought two - a pair of pairs!

It says on the postcard that they are not stockings, which anyway would have been extremely hard to come by in 1943. All nylon fiber was being rationed by that point, and nylons had been collected for the war effort. Even a nylon hair comb would have to be stock from the year before.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:19 PM on November 30, 2009


I can't buy hair combs or umbrellas/parasols.... even if you stretch hard to make them "silk", neither of those are "are always left right side up."

Heck, an umbrella is the opposite. (The useful way is right-side up, the storage way is upside-down.) And hair combs having a useful and useless direction? Even though it's possible to argue that (a little), it's hard to think husband would think of them as directional.
posted by rokusan at 2:34 AM on December 2, 2009


I thought the same thing about the hair combs, but then saw how it could work: to employ the comb, you have to turn it upside down and comb it up through the hair, then flip it right side up and push down to "fasten." For the most part, it's useless without the upside-down step; and then as long as it is in the hair doing its job, it's (left) right side up. Plus, some hair combs were made of solid nylon, and nylon was pretty new and generally thought of as a silk replacement.

I doubted that hair combs would be something she would have been "wanting for quite a while," because it seems she should be able to acquire them easily, even if not made of nylon (since nylon was scarce at this point due to the war)... there are, and were hair combs made of all sorts of materials, and ordinary combs (without jewels or precious metals) should be easily affordable. But maybe with nylon being new and trendy, perhaps she did feel that they were better/easier/more fashionable than wood, bone, metal, celluloid or whatever.

I actually thought about this waaaay too much, and ultimately couldn't find anything that would rule out combs. They are certainly more romantic than salt and pepper shakers! :)
posted by taz at 7:20 AM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


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