The Leonidas Pipe

Collectible vintage glass smoking pipe figurine

This is an inexpensive glass knick-knack, a curio from about 100 years ago.

It is shaped like a smoking pipe in a general way. The bowl is hollow, but the stem is not. Perhaps it could be used to hold toothpicks, but otherwise it's decorative. If you were to get the hand painted design wet, the paint would wash off.

These pipes are for sale on eBay any day of the week in the $5 to $15 range. But of course, there's more to the story.

Leonidas is a small town in the southern tier of Michigan counties, a wide spot in the road. I'm sure the city fathers had higher aspirations when they named their town, because its namesake was Leonidas, heroic king of Sparta. He led a band of 300 Greek warriors at Thermopylae. They held off a massive Persian army, for a time. Their reward was death to the last man, but the battle is remembered even today.

Leonidas is no vacation spot like Niagara Falls. Yet why would the owner of small town general store order a novelty like this to sell to his customers?

My answer, for the same reason you could sell almost anything online, as recently as a few years ago. It's the curiosity factor.

In the early 1900s, the Industrial Revolution was still building up steam. More people could afford to have manufactured goods, like a glass pipe to sit on a shelf and collect dust. The goods were nicer and cheaper than most of what they already owned.

It was something to talk about. Maybe the price figured in, but it was the story that sold it.

Of course, this tale has another chapter.

My grandfather was probably the original owner of the Leonidas pipe, but it could have been another relative. His father and family lived on a farm outside Leonidas, about 100 years ago, from about 1900 until his father passed in 1919.

That's how this pipe went from cheap souvenir to precious family heirloom.

The pipe came into my grandfather's household, he married my grandmother, and in 1927 he moved his family from Michigan to Oregon. A small item like this would have been easy to pack and take along.

Sentimental value doesn't take up a lot of room.

For this same reason, it was easy to bring the pipe back to Michigan in 1929, after my grandfather died tragically. His widow returned with four children, and a little bit of history.

My father had the pipe for many years. After he passed, my mother gave it to me. I wanted it because I'd done the family research to rediscover that Leonidas had been a hometown in our family's history.

The Leonidas pipe may be small. But it is also a memento of a quietly heroic story, about a man who moved his family across the country in search of a better life, though he died before he could achieve it.

The lesson is to enjoy those precious things. Their intrinsic value is often small. Their stories and their meaning: priceless.

Trinkets don't have to be 100 years old to be treasures.

A friend of mine cherished a dark red plastic tsotchke, a large figurine ship with people on it. This piece was made to look like carved stone, but it was really resin. I called it a dragon boat, because the ship was dragon shaped and it was from China. I'm sure there is some legend, myth or significance to the piece, but otherwise it is made to sit on a shelf.

You can buy stuff like this for $10 or $20 lots of places. But again, this piece had a story. It had been a parting gift to her father from his Chinese graduate students in the 1980s. It meant far more to her than its street value.

The boat had been packed away for many years, but eventually it came to sit prominently in her bedroom. She got to enjoy it for the last 18 months of her life. Two weeks ago, she passed.

The lesson comes back around. If you have special items that have a touching story behind them, let them have a place of honor in your home, where you can see and enjoy them. Get them out and use them.

Perhaps it is a cereal bowl in the same pattern that you had when you went to grandma's house. Or a teacup in your mother's best china pattern.

Whatever the small precious things may be at your house, I encourage you to enjoy them. They will remind you of special people and special times. Their stories can go on, and warm your heart, regardless of what may happen next.

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