Collectively Speaking: For Rita Buettner, It’s Flyswatters
An everyday object sparks designs from politically incorrect to museum worthy.
When you are a freshman in a college dorm that lacks window screens and complain to your mom about flies buzzing around in your room, what do your family members give you as inexpensive gag gifts? Why flyswatters, of course.
All it took was several flyswatters from Rita Buettner’s five siblings to begin decorating walls that cry out for adornment—preferably of the cheap and kitschy kind. Soon friends were augmenting her collection.
“I never paid any attention to flyswatters at all. It’s a collection that landed in my lap,” said Buettner, who is currently editor of Loyola University of Maryland’s Loyola magazine. After graduating from Franklin and Marshall College in 1998, she landed a job as a reporter for a community newspaper in Lebanon County, Pa.
Noticing a flyswatter under an editor’s desk, she got up he courage to ask if she could have it. “My reputation was never the same after that.”
Ever since, Buettner said colleagues and bosses from all of her jobs have added to her collection. Perhaps the most unusual parting gift from a boss was when she left a position as public information officer for the Judiciary in Annapolis, Md. The Chief Justice of the District Court gave her a yellow plastic flyswatter that is truly one-of-a-kind. He emblazoned it front and back with official gold seals of the District Court.
You can’t help but grin when you see several dozen flyswatters in all manner of shapes and styles hanging on hooks in a basement play room. Buettner lamented that the majority of her 300-plus flyswatters (yes, she has at least that many!) are packed in a large plastic storage container, which she had on view. When she was single and living in her first apartment, Buettner used many more on the walls. Selected ones adorn several spots in their compact Oella townhome.
“Maybe one day we will have a house where we can display more of the collection,” said Buettner. For the moment, she and her husband, John, who is assistant vice president for public relations at Stevenson University, are more concerned about decorating rooms of their two young sons, both adopted from China. Louis, now age 4, was adopted in 2009 and Michael, this past August at 21 months.
When the couple traveled to China for their first adoption, Buettner spotted a flyswatter in a Beijing convenience store in December. “I was so excited that I didn’t think to bargain. They probably quadrupled the price,” laughed Buettner. She isn’t even certain which flyswatter it is since so many are made in China. Buettner keeps the price tags on many she buys to show how little they cost.
This is not to say that her collection doesn’t have a worldly provenance, as well. Shortly after graduation from college she went to Italy with a couple of college friends and learned the Italian word for flyswatter so that she could bring home a souvenir. She saved the Italian receipt for the purchase.
A friend who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has brought her a “Skeeter Slapper” from Alaska that includes a measuring stick and a leather flyswatter from Australia (too handsome to actually use) that says: “Safe for the environment; deadly for flies.”
It is a bit of a wonder that this utilitarian object has taken so many forms: some politically incorrect (like the Secretary Swatter) to the totally impractical (one made entirely of glass beads) to a design worthy of a place in a museum.
That would be the French product and furniture designer, Philippe Starck, whose 1998 design for the Italian company, Alessi, was part of a 1999 exhibition at P.S.1, a space affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Its sculptural form is handsome enough to put on display. Buettner’s collection includes two—one orange, one purple. Said Buettner, “This is the kind of thing if you see in a store that you don’t recognize as a flyswatter because it doesn’t look like a flyswatter.”
Friends have discovered that eBay is a rich source for finding the unusual. Two in particular stand out: one made of flexible metal, stamped Convention of 1951, is mounted on a card with operating instructions; the other is made of rattan with a silk tassel, packaged in a box with early 20th century illustrations and ditty. There is no indication if it is really old or just made to look old.
You may be wondering when the flyswatter first appeared on the scene. A check of Wikipedia traces its origin to 1905, invented when Kansas was enduring a fly-filled summer.
Leave it to Tupperware to market a mid-century flyswatter, dubbed the “Bye-Fly”! Swatter. Unlike many in her collection, this one took its task quite seriously. In the less practical variety are those that were cross-stitched in yarn by a crafty sister and number many, such as one given to mark Y2K, a Natty Boh because it is John’s choice of brew, an artful Mondrian-like design, flower-bedecked and more.
By far the most meaningful is the one she made for John and Rita’s first wedding anniversary on Aug. 25, 2005. Traditionally, one gives gifts of paper. This flyswatter is wrapped in appropriate newsprint items related to their courtship since both make their living working in print media.