Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mormon Plastic Grapes: Inspired by Mary Tyler Moore

Our Family Inheritance - The Turquoise Grapes
Yes, I just solved another Mormon Culture mystery. For anyone who was in an active LDS home in 1960s, you would have seen the plastic resin grapes prominently displayed. My mom had deep purple ones in the Seattle suburbs. I don't know where those ended up. Fortunately, my wife and I were able to appropriate her mother's oddly-colored turquoise (?) grapes. My mother-in-law lived in Albuquerque which might help explain the color, but my wife recently explained that her grandmother in Salt Lake made every daughter and daughter-in-law a set of grapes to match the decor of their respective homes. So, my mother-in-law got turquoise. Most fun of all, I hear that my wife's grandmother's were pink. (My wife thinks her Aunt Virginia has them!)


These grapes have been the subject of a lot of jokes and even tests for cultural orthodoxy. Many find them quite mysterious. And while clearly a mid-twentieth century evidence of suburban kitsch, I'm not quite sure it was all just the Mormons as this nice, apparently non-denominational, craft lady seems to demonstrate.

It was when my wife and I were watching some old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix that we had a start. It was Season One from 1961, Episode 3 "Jealousy" and there, right on the 2nd shelf in Laura's divider in the kitchen, is a cluster of big, presumably plastic grapes. Check it out at 1:12 right behind neighbor Jerry, and at 14:25 behind Laura going off on Rob about her "jealousy."


I was just a little kid in 1961. But I do remember how popular that show was at least in my house. I bet there were a lot of suburban women who wanted to be like Laura Petrie. in fact, Wikipedia reports that she pioneered the acceptance of women wearing slacks! That was revolutionary considering that June Cleaver had been vacuuming in heels and pearls (always in a dress). I don't think it is too hard to imagine that some progressively suburban Relief Society sister somewhere latched on to those grapes and it spread like wildfire. Maybe it wasn't just Laura's kitchen style. But if they were used on that Hollywood set, they were no doubt popular in Southern California and we know how quickly (well, at least with a year or two lag) the Wasatch Front follows West Coast fashion.

Maybe we're not so peculiar after all.

8 comments:

  1. (Anon/M) I do remember those funky grape bunches and, at the time, wanted to make some. It never happened. Too lazy, I guess. Or was it the stuff that accumulated in the ironing basket that weighed heavier on my conscience? Story of my life.

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  2. We had those grapes in our house, as did all of my friends. Much to the consternation of our mothers, we would pilfer an occasional grape and go to school with a mighty weapon in our arsenal of shooters for our marble tournaments.

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  3. Some bunches of those grapes were featured in an exhibit on Utah folk art back in 1976. In the sense that they were adopted by a community (Mormon women) to the point that women learned to make them in RS, makes them a type of folk art, regardless of if they were seen elsewhere, as in Laura Petrie's kitchen. There were jokes about a non-Mormon asking someone if grapes had some theological meaning in Mormonism back then. More recently, I've had someone ask me if those big metal stars seen on the fronts of houses have some theological meaning. There's something about the Mormon community that spreads things like wildfire within the community--in technical terms, a folklorist would say that Mormons are a high context folk group, i.e., they have a high level of shared knowledge, thus they are more likely to have a lot of folklore. Um, sorry about the Folklore 101 lecture.

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  4. Thanks, Elaine, and others for the comments. I do appreciate and recognize the odd Mormon folklore and cultural aspect of this. I just thought it interesting, and slightly provocative, to try and link it outside our sometimes insular culture a little. I mean it was really weird that the same grapes turned up in my home in Seattle and my wife's in Albuquerque.

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  5. I saw these in countless LDS homes when I was growing up in the 1960s (in Oregon, FWIW). My mother and grandmother were not fans, however.

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  6. (Anon/M) The making of resin grapes wasn't taught in RS in our Missouri ward. But anything that went viral on the Wasatch Front was immediately spread by Utah relatives by way of copying and mailing instructions. Oddly, it was a bishop's counselor who made a whole bunch of those for his friends, but in the form of chandeliers. I wasn't on his list. Don't know what I would do with them now. Doesn't go much
    with Asian/Art Deco.

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  7. I would have loved to see those chandeliers.

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  8. We had those bunches in Virginia too ... though - like SLK - my Mom was never a fan so we didn't have them that I recall.

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