By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Let’s say you’ve got a few million toothpicks lying around the house. They cover the floors, make sitting on the couch uncomfortable, and generally are a nuisance.
You’re in luck.
The three-inch tall solutions to your problem can be found at the Toledo Hilton, where the National Toothpick Holder Collectors Society concludes its national convention today.
And if you’re like anyone else who has seen the signs promoting their gathering, you’re asking yourself one question:
“There’s a lot of sentimental value in these toothpicks,” said Judy Knauer, who founded the society 24 years ago. (In the dialect of the toothpick holder collector, one need only say “toothpick” to refer to their holders. People know what you’re talking about.)
The thousands of holders assembled in Toledo this week aren’t being used to hold wooden toothpicks. Ms. Knauer, who owns about 1,400 holders, said she only uses them seasonally – the manger-scene toothpick holder at Christmas, the patriotic holders on July 4th, and so on.
Ms. Knauer got stuck on them when, as a girl, she received a holder from her Great Aunt Bertha. While it was only a “souvenir class” holder, she was hooked.
Toothpick holders are big business. Many sell for hundreds of dollars, and particularly rare items – like the turn-of-the-century Holly Amber with pedestal, of which only three are known to exist – run well past $1,000.
So for many society members, collecting is more than an obsession – it’s an investment. “If I sold my collection, we could pay off the house tomorrow,” said Lorraine Holt, the convention’s chairman and a resident of Adrian. She owns about 350 holders.
About 170 collectors are at this weekend’s convention, and Ms. Knauer estimates more than 3,000 people nationwide collect toothpick holders. “But most do it in their own little world until they stumble upon our society,” she said. “Then they see that other people do it too.”
But behind all the fun, collectors often face despair. You see, sometimes they find that one of their prized toothpick holders might not, in fact, be a true toothpick holder. It might even be – gasp! – a matchstick holder or a shot glass, the two great enemies of toothpick holder collectors.
“Every member’s had that happen to them,” Ms. Knauer said.
It takes years of intense study to be able to determine whether an object was intended to hold matchsticks, toothpicks, or whiskey. (Hint: look for a place to strike matches or slightly inclined sides. An authentic toothpick holder has neither.)
Scholars continue to work tirelessly to discover more about genuine toothpick holders every day. And 10 times a year, society members get a copy of Toothpick Bulletin in their mailbox. Its goal: keeping readers up to date on the latest cutting-edge research in the fast-paced world of toothpick holder collecting. Since she founded the society, Ms. Knauer has been the Bulletin’s editor.
“I get so many love letters,” she said. “People saying, ‘I wish I could get a Bulletin every week!'”
“I can tell you that the minute the Bulletin arrives in a member’s house, it’s read,” said Fred Phelps, the society’s president and mayor of Colesburg, Ia., population 361. “Before the bills, before the correspondence from the local mortuary, it’s read. It’s the nerve center.”
While collectors are steadfast in their devotion to holders, they can appreciate other collectibles. Some collect the toothpick holder’s natural companion piece, the spoon holder. A few even collect shot glasses. Ms. Holt’s husband is a big collector of “ceramic German figural giveaway bottles.”
But, in the end, the avid collector always returns to toothpicks, not least because of the bonds between society members. There are about 100 “hard-core” members who make the convention year in and year out, including some who no longer buy toothpick holders.
They just come for the fun.
“It’s just a different type of person who does this,” Mr. Phelps said. The convention concludes today with an exhibit of toothpick holders open to the public, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hilton, 3100 Glendale Ave.