Saturday, March 13, 2010

The String Dispensers of Darlington

Long before the advent of rubber bands, Scotch Tape (TM), or twist-ties, people secured packages, bags, and bundles with string and twine.  And just as there are numerous dispensers today for tape, previous generations had myriad dispensers for string and twine.  At Darlington House we have built a tidy collection of antique string and twine dispensers, which is the subject of today’s essay.

While we do not entirely ignore modern conveniences at Darlington, we do attempt to be selective in those we use, preferring instead to rely on time-tested and usually “greener” alternatives when reasonably possible.  We use as little plastic as we can on our property, preferring natural alternatives.  Once you set your mind to it, it is quite remarkable how easy it is to reduce one’s use of plastics and petroleum-based products, without going to lunatic extremes.

That extends to using string and twine made from natural fibers.  I prefer string rather than tape when wrapping packages, and I use twine to tie bundles of paper for recycling.  In the kitchen we use string to truss poultry for roasting and to re-seal food packages.  It’s more pleasant to open a parchment-wrapped sandwich tied with string than to open a resealable plastic bag containing said sandwich, despite the slight convenience of the latter.

We do, of course, keep a stock of plastic bags on hand, but we try not to use them when a greener alternative will do, time permitting.  Beyond the kitchen we use twine in our flower-arranging room to secure bunches of flowers, and we keep a stock of it in our garden house for many uses outdoors.

One of the pleasures of using string or twine is pulling it out of handy dispensers.  Technically, our string dispensers belong to Boy, as it is his collection, but I get to use them just the same.  Unlike today’s tape dispensers, where the unifying feature is utilitarian ugliness, the forms of antique string and twine dispensers are wonderfully, and in many cases whimsically, clever.

Most of ours are made of cast iron, but we have wood ones as well.  Many are shaped like beehives--the most common form--but we’ve found them in other shapes too, including one that is molded as a ball of string.

Aside from being attractive, string dispensers are ideal for keeping balls of string and twine in order, instead of jumbled and unwinding in a drawer.  Also, having string ready on the counter promotes its use.

We find string dispensers in group shops and at antiques shows, but, given how ubiquitous they once were, we are surprised how infrequently we come across them.  They also show up on eBay, but we refrain from buying there because reproductions are being made today; it’s best to buy them in person so you can examine them closely to be sure they are old.  Prices for cast-iron examples range from as little as fifty dollars (a genuine score) up to several hundred dollars.  Hand-carved wood ones are usually more expensive, since they weren’t mass-produced and are rarer survivors.

So if you haven’t got a string dispenser, I suggest you consider getting one.  But be forewarned: It’s hard to stop at only one . . .

All photos by Boy Fenwick


  1. These are amazing. I had never seen anything like this. I wish they made them big enough for garden hoses.

    1. That is SUCH a good idea ! Fell off chair laughing !

  2. Rats! I thought I had found the perfect birthday gift for you on Etsy. I'm going to keep it and find something else.


  3. Beautiful--green living before all the plastic --is now more appropriate then ever. The dispensers are beautiful, especially the green one. Strings are different textures as well. Well--sorry for bad pun--as usual you are not "stringing us along".

  4. Brown paper packages tied up with strings... These are a few of my favourite things! David.x

  5. ...well, you got me thinking of my grandmother - farmor (in danish) - as she NEVER used tape, every gift tied with string! And then my other grandmother...somtimes we couldn't get past the tape, to get to the Gift......
    Hmmm, perhaps I will look for a twine dispenser next time I'm out and about!

    Northern Light.

    PS. Thank you for stopping by NL the other day, much appriciated.

  6. What an inspiration - heading to Hell's Kitchen Flea Market & Chelsea Garage this weekend to start my treasure hunt! Love the idea of wrapping sandwiches with paper and twine!

  7. Oh, the wooden ones are especially lovely! Funny, I was talking with a friend today who told me that once at an auction, she bought an entire bolt of twine! Ever clever, she used it for extra seating on the porch until she'd used up all the twine in the garden. Green, indeed!

  8. Reggie, oh my Granma had one, where or who has it? much like the black one on left with embossing or gold (her's was green tole) Love string and am always winding bits up to stash away. I will have a stringy mathingy and an old one too.

  9. Once at a thrift shop I bought a funny looking black, cast iron, round "cage" looking thing, about the size of a large apple, that opened up at the circumference on a hinge. I could not figure out what it was, but I liked it and had to have it. I found out months later that it was a string holder. I've never seen ones like yours--they are wonderful! Thanks for the "show and tell".

  10. T&CM: I too have found myself the surprised owner of auction treasures, such as your friend; one really can't have too much twine...

    LA: I have never seen one made out of tole, it must be marvelous...want!

    Andrea: Finding one at a thrift store qualifies as a score, indeed. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  11. Wonderful photographs! I gave one to my mother two Christmases ago...a little cast-iron bird-cage looking one that hangs by the stove. Perfect for string to tie up roasts or dress poultry.

  12. My very first sewing project was a string dispenser. It was a little hessian house with a felt roof, windows and doors and the string curled out from the chimney like smoke. I don't know what happened to it. Now I only have a Shaker drum dispenser. It's alright but not as good as the one I made.

  13. I love the idea of using something that makes sense in the same way as it did a hundred years ago.The dispensers are good looking and fun way to finally bind the newspapers you recycle, wrap a present in Victorian style and enjoy the object itself. This should set off a hunt for similar objects that save us from so much plastic and add pleasure.
    A design for past and present. I am sure you have found creative uses for other old things, n'est-ce pas?

  14. Fantastic essay! I found you essay because I am presently looking for a good twine/string dispenser hopefully with a built in cutter (I know, I ask a lot in this day and age.) I am only looking for an antique one because the very few current ones I have found are dismal. Where have all the good tools gone?!? I so often find myself looking for antiques not to simply collect as so many do, but because I cannot find what I need being produced today. I love your philosophy of using green alternatives "without going to lunatic extremes" LOL! Me too.

  15. You have a very nice collection of an unusual item. I have seen ceramic sting holders, but never the older ones. The wooden holders are beautiful.


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