Notions, novelties, curios

Today’s morning names: notions in the sense ‘cheap, useful articles (especially for the household)’ (and then later specializations to sewing materials); which suggested novelties in the sense ‘small, inexpensive, ornamental items’; and curios ‘rare, unusual, or intriguing objects’.  All three concrete plural nouns arise from abstract nouns: notion ‘impulse or disposition to act’; novelty ‘newness, originality’; and curiosity ‘desire to know or learn things’.

I’ll consider the three concrete plurals in succession. I’m hoping that there’s some literature on the historical development of notions, but, given my very limited search abilities I haven’t been able to discover any of it.

notions. From OED3 (Dec. 2003) on the noun notion:

— II. An impulse or disposition, and related senses. … 11. In plural.  a. Chiefly North American. Small wares, esp. cheap, useful articles. Now chiefly: spec. haberdashery; buttons, hooks, ribbon, thread, etc. [1st cite: 1796 Aurora (Philadelphia): A nest of Boston boxes, commonly called notions. Later instance: 1902 G. H. Lorimer Lett. Self-made Merchant to Son: I was traveling out of Chicago for [H]ammer & Hawkins, wholesale dry-goods, gent’s furnishings and notions. Then specialized in: 1964 McCall’s Sewing in Colour: While making a list of the fabrics and trims needed, check the ‘Notions’ section to see what notions are needed.]

Apparently we get from ‘an impulse or disposition to act’ to something like ‘things acquired because you take a fancy to them, are impelled to acquire’ because they are small, inexpensive, and useful in a household. Like those Boston boxes. And small useful things associated with clothing, like buttons.

From the New York Times, “Consumer Saturday: Where to Find Notions” by Angela Taylor on 3/31/1984;

Even the person whose needlework is limited to sewing on a button or raising an occasional hem needs some of the small things known as notions. Losing a button might seem to be a trifling annoyance until it happens to you. Now that department stores have either cut down on the merchandise in notions departments or done away with the section entirely, where does one find the right thread to do even a minor job?

Fortunately, there are still stores tucked around town that sell zippers, seam binding and thousands of other aids for the person who sews. Most of them are family-owned and have been around for the better part of the century. A good many of their customers are professional dressmakers or theatrical costumers, but the store owners say that home sewing has been on the increase since ready-to-wear has gotten more expensive.

Some stores specialize and are chock-full of ribbons only – or buttons or beads. Others include home-furnishing notions such as upholstery cord, braid and fringe. Bridal veils and hat trimmings can be found in the area around the Avenue of the Americas and the side streets to the east from 36th to 38th Streets. The variety-store chains such as Lamston’s and Woolworth’s are excellent sources for simple necessities and are good places to start. The following stores have larger or more specialized selections.

Greenberg & Hammer, 24 West 57th Street. This store was founded in 1919 by the father and uncle of David Hammer, its present owner, and concentrates on notions for women’s clothing. Large theatrical costumers shop here and so do custom dressmakers and home sewers. Its selection of thread is excellent, both in colors and types: silk thread from Switzerland (expensive at $2.50 for a 100-yard spool) and difficult-to-find mercerized cotton thread as well as domestic and imported polyester thread. Zippers, in dozens of colors, range from 4 to 36 inches long. It carries shoulder pads, interfacings, Velcro by the yard and dressmaking tools. Prices range from 10 cents for a button to $40.25 for large shears. …

Greenberg & Hammer closed in 2010 after 91 years in business. It was apparently quite something of a place. And no, I have no idea of its possible connection to the Hammer & Hawkins firm mentioned in the 1902 OED cite above.

novelties. From NOAD:

noun novelty: 1 [a] the quality of being new, original, or unusual: the novelty of being a married woman wore off. [b] a new or unfamiliar thing or experience: in 1914 air travel was still a novelty. [c] [as modifier] denoting something intended to be amusing as a result of its new or unusual quality: a novelty teapot. 2 a small and inexpensive toy or ornament: he bought chocolate novelties to decorate the Christmas tree.

The route is from the abstract noun in 1a; through the modifier usage in 1c, referring to things that are amusing because of their novelty; to small amusing things in general in 2.

curios. Here I’ve told the story that gets from the abstract noun curiosity to rare, unusual, or intriguing objects. In my 10/12/22 posting “The proverbial dead cat”, about this Rhymes With Orange cartoon:

[caption:] If you see that the proverb [Curiosity killed the cat] is the key to understanding the cartoon, you’ll be able to appreciate the pun on curiosity — with one sense given explicitly in the cartoon (in curiosity shop), the other available only implicitly, through the proverb and the reference to killing in the cartoon

The two senses, from NOAD:

noun curiosity: 1 a strong desire to know or learn something: filled with curiosity, she peered through the window | curiosity got the better of me, so I called him. 2 a strange or unusual object or fact: he showed them some of the curiosities of the house.

Sense 2 gives us curiosity shop, a store (like the one in the cartoon) that offers curiosities for sale; and cabinet of curiosities, a collection of curiosities for display. And from sense 2 we get the noun curio for the sorts of thing (visible in the cartoon) on sale at a curiosity shop:

noun curio: a rare, unusual, or intriguing objectthey had such fun over the wonderful box of curios that Jack had sent from India. ORIGIN mid 19th century: abbreviation of curiosity. (NOAD)


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