Story: Paulette Pearson | Styling: Mandy Keener |
Charles Duval, who works at Little Rock’s Fabulous Finds Antiques, was looking for something small to collect, when his friends found a cat-shaped tape measure at an antique store. Charles had never seen anything like it before, “as whimsical or unique,” he says, so he bought it. The next week, he bought another one. And he is still collecting them nearly 40 years later. “I’m known for it,” he says with a smile.
Charles owns more than 1,250 antique tape measures. There are cats, dogs, birds, boats, people, hats, cars—“almost any shape you could imagine,” he explains. They’re made from brass, tortoise shell, ivory, sterling silver, celluloid, wood, metal, rubber, and, in the case of one miniature charm variation, even gold. Some also have moveable parts, such as a windmill, clock or the brass, spinning carousel that Charles discovered at an antique show in Kansas City. “It’s my favorite,” he says, noting its rarity. Meant to be used and not simply displayed, interactive varieties in good working order are very unusual today.
What makes the tape measures especially intriguing, though, is that each says something about the time and place in which it was made. Because sewing was commonplace, they were an effective means of advertising. One is called “Bundles for Britain,” for example, promoting the shipping of relief supplies to post-war Britain, while others were fashioned in support of political campaigns. Likewise, a clever figural of silent film star Charlie Chaplin, whose mustache is pulled to reveal the tape, also speaks to its bygone era.
Still others served as a means of self-expression and merriment for the women who used them while sewing. These little “whimsies,” as Charles refers to them, introduced humor into the everyday lives of primarily upper-class women, beginning in the Victorian era, whose main occupations included sewing, reading and receiving guests. The delicate nature of the ladies of the time might partially explain the reason that many tape measures have survived. “I often wonder where the tape measures came from, who owned them, where they’ve been,” says Charles.
Charles has found most of his treasures in the urban areas of Illinois and Wisconsin, or on his travels to England. And while they were produced around the globe, including the United States, he explains that a distinguishing feature of European variations—including Germany, England, France and Austria—is the level of detail, from intricate filigree to the artistry of the painting. “You can also determine its country of origin,” Charles says, “by whether it features a metric measure.” Otherwise, many remain unmarked and undated. A figural pig made in the United States in 1889 is one of Charles’ oldest, though many appear to have been made earlier than that.
No matter how expansive his collection, Charles doesn’t have plans of slowing down any time soon. He’s always on the lookout for more. “I used to have a couple of friends who collected them, but they sold their collections,” he says, “to me.”