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what-not / whatnot

A kind of stand or piece of household furniture, having shelves for books, ornaments, and the like; an étagère. — Webster, 1882

They decided then to make a whatnot. Mrs. Boast said everyone in Iowa was making one and she would show them how. – manuscript, By the Shores of Silver Lake

Were whatnots really “all the rage in Iowa” in 1879? An 1879 Harper’s Magazine included the following in describing a pleasant room of comfortable pieces of furniture: a what-not displaying a collection of minerals, fossils, shells, and various articles of virtue, among which were an owl’s claw, a humming-bird’s egg, a wild-turkey’s beard, a rattlesnake’s tail, and a hornet’s nest. And now pray what more could any reasonable person desire, either for comfort or show?

Whatnots were listed in furniture advertisements starting at least a decade earlier than Mrs. Boast was telling Charles Ingalls how to build one, as described in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 22, “Happy Winter Days”). After all, there was one in the James Wilder parlor in Farmer Boy, a whole decade earlier (see Chapter 18, “Keeping House”).

The whatnot wasn’t a utilitarian piece, like the packing-crate dish cupboard or a wooden bedstead Pa might build. It was a mainstay of the Victorian parlor, a place where one displayed objects that reflected the occupants’ good taste, refinement, and education. Not a place to store pots and pans or dishes, its progressively smaller and smaller shelves were filled with the Ingallses’ pretty things: the older girls’ little glass boxes, the family clock, Laura’s white china jewel box, and Carrie’s china dog. The bottom two shelves held Ma’s books.

The whatnot (or what-not, as Wilder sometimes wrote it) pictured above is in the replica shanty at Ingalls Homestead. Look for one also in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society’s Surveyors’ House in De Smet.

THE WHATNOT is a piece of furniture for general use, as the name implies, or, as if the question were asked, “For what not suitable.” It resembles the dinner-wagon being a series of shelves supported by uprights at the corners, or if the shelves be shaped, by a framed back or ornamental brackets and uprights in front. A whatnot is made in three or four tiers, and of any shape: square, oblong, quarter of a circle, as in the illustration, to fit into a corner. Sometimes when the whatnot is rectangular a drawer is added below the lowermost shelf. They are generally intended for the reception of music-books, china, &c. — Ward and Lock’s Home Book, A Domestic Encyclopedia (London: Ward, Lock and Co., 1882), 162-163.


what-not / whatnot (FB 18; SSL 22, 28-30; LTP 2, 4; THGY 19, 32), see also pasteboard / lambrequin