Irma and Jack Maser – Part 2
In the Winter/Spring Newsletter (2018), we described how we came across our first herd of bison in Custer State Park and how that led one of us (Jack) to publish the first English language description of the bison brain in 1976. Here we describe how the collection started, its growth to an astounding 4,000+ items, our thoughts on the collection, and its donation to the National Buffalo Museum (NBM).
After Irma bought the bison key chain, I saw a bison in the window of an antique shop and bought it. Forty-two years later, I cannot remember what that second item was, but from that point on we purchased every bison object that we could afford. There was no rhyme or reason to our purchases, only cost, and that has led to a most eclectic collection.
At some point we began to catalogue the items, providing a picture and description, documenting place of purchase, and the cost. This listing became valuable to us when we began donating the collection to NBM, as it provided a brief history of each item. Occasionally, we would add more detail, e.g., on patches from the 92nd Infantry Division or the background of the buffalo nickel.
Irma and I quickly began to differ in our bison purchases. She focused on quality of the item, while I purchased anything from figurines to milk bottle caps. Slowly, I was brought into line and began to focus more on quality. However, we did not always adhere to the “quality” principle. For example, while visiting a flea market in Saline, Michigan, we spotted a wood inlay picture of a buffalo. It had a run-down, faded appearance and border pieces were missing. The dimensions were about 29 inches by 23 inches. In spite of its poor condition, we saw potential and returned with it to Maryland. There we knew a man who restored old pianos and brought the piece to him. His knowledge of wood and his exceptional skills of restoration brought our inlayed wooden picture back to life. Today it looks like this:
In contrast, the bronze sculpture of a bison leaping off a slab of granite required no restoration. It was in perfect condition, and although created in 1967, its style conveys a feeling of the “art deco” period. One can just make out the artist’s symbol and the date ’67.
The Estate Sales agent told us this interesting story of the piece: “An original bronze buffalo by contemporary naturalist sculptor, Robert Miller. This is the single original casting, since no copy was ever permitted. The original owner purchased this piece directly from the artist in 1967. The origin of the work is as follows: For the dedication of the New York world headquarters of Lever Brothers Corporation, dozens of artists were invited to submit a single entry for an international competition. Of the 50 selected pieces for the Lever Brother’s show, ‘Ka-tan-ya’, a solid bronze buffalo leaping from a granite cliff base was honored by a “First place” award.” We have tried to authenticate the seller’s story, but after many efforts, including contacting “Joan of Art” at the Smithsonian Institution and Lever Brothers Corporate Office, we have been unable to find any other record.
A favorite area of interest for us was collecting Native American pieces. The bison has played an important role in the lives of the different tribes. Among the pieces in the collection are fetishes and some artful statues and pottery created by the Pueblo Indians. Here are pictures of just three of the images of Native American art work.
Besides creating art and religious objects depicting the bison, artists have used their skills to produce objets d’art for use in home or office. Almost any appliance or knickknack is a candidate for the image of a bison. As examples, the following are pictures of some objects in our collection showing items of daily living in former years. A seal, as shown in the picture, is a device for making an impression in wax, clay, paper, or some other medium, including an embossment on paper to authenticate a document. When pressed on paper, the bison seal clearly reveals the name of the authenticator, in this case E.A. Farrington, a distinguished physician of homoeopathic medicine in Philadelphia. July 25, 1871 is imprinted on its base.
We found this bison pulling a Victorian cigarette case on Romanesque wheels at a 1979 flea market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. Thinking that this piece needed silver restoration we brought it to a silversmith who advised us only to polish it. As we were about to leave we saw a bison on a marble stand. The silversmith told us that someone left it in his shop 10 years ago and never returned to claim it. Noticing our enthusiasm for the object, he kindly donated it to the collection. There was a glue mark from a plaque that once was attached to the marble, and years later we learned that this item -with appropriate plaque – was an award given by the Mayor of Buffalo.
Perhaps one of the most curious items in our collection is this charm size bison found in 1987: It is made of white metal. In the forehead is a looking glass and a hole behind the tail to admit light. If you look through the forehead you see a woman dressed like a dancehall girl in old cowboy movies.
Where did men put their pocket watches when they undressed for bed? On a pocket watch holder, of course.
When ball-point pens had not yet been invented, ink pens (and penmanship) were prized. Here was one way to store the ink and rest the pen.
Various states and cities have bison as a symbol of their state, e.g., North Dakota and Kansas quarters display a bison. Montana’s quarter shows a bison skull, as if recognizing the near extinction of the species. Popular among collectors of bison memorabilia are items produced to commemorate the 1901 Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, the logo of which was the bison. We and many others collect souvenirs from that Exposition. As one example, this picture is of a man’s handkerchief.
The bison has international standing as an icon beyond America. Russian and Dutch military patches display bison, as do police (including Royal Canadian Mounted Police), and Boy Scout patches. Bison are thought to have once ranged throughout Europe to Asia. Many species have gone extinct, e.g., the Steppe bison in Russia (Bison priscus), the Higgs bison, Bison antiquus, Bison latifrons, and Bison occidentalis. Canada has the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae), Europe, primarily Poland, has the Wisent (Bison bonasus), and the United States has the Plains bison (Bison bison bison). Thus, there are three extant subspecies of bison, two in North America. We have items displaying all remaining subspecies but have focused here on the Plains Bison found primarily in the United States. Therefore, we owe a brief apology to our Canadian and European readers.
Beyond modern international recognition, the bison has archeological significance. As shown here, cave drawings in France and Spain have been reproduced in modern pottery:
What can be learned from all this collecting? Foremost is the degree to which the image of the bison has permeated every aspect of American society: money, home decor, state centennial events, clothing – from underwear to T-shirts to shoes, and the names of businesses.
Its image suggests strength and aggression when aroused. The logo of the Bison Federal Credit Union suggests it will fight for your financial success!
Perhaps more than the Bald Eagle, the bison is a symbol of America. Benjamin Franklin may never have seen a bison. If he had he would have put forth the mighty bison as the symbol of the new nation, instead of suggesting the turkey. No bank or a military brigade would name itself after a turkey! In a general sense one can learn much of the history of early America by following the history of the bison.
We should not forget the Buffalo Soldiers of the American Army prior to racial integration. The left patch is handsewn from the First World War and the one on the right is machine sewn from the Second World War.
We have also met many fine people during the process of collecting. Cecil Mishkin and Darlene Wright exemplify the best of people that we met when attending the Winter Conference in Denver of the National Bison Association. But there are so many others – ranchers, scientists, hobbyists, students, and artists who consider the future of this magnificent species important. At the Denver Conference we met Ilana Xinos, Executive Director of the National Buffalo Museum, who suggested that the collection would fit nicely in the Jamestown Museum. The National Bison Association, however, can always call upon the collection for temporary use in their exhibits.
As our bison memorabilia slowly finds its way to Jamestown we experience a vague sense of empty nest syndrome. Someday, maybe next year, we hope to travel to North Dakota and visit the Museum.