News & Events
Discover Mid-America September 2010
A home of glass, dogs and family
Finding the right words to describe the Topeka, KS home of Tom and Mary Norskov takes a little time. From the outside, the house is one of those typical middle class, in a cul-de-sac residential structure, maybe a little upscale, neat and inviting. It’s with a step inside that the eyes widen.
The word “showcase” doesn’t quite explain it all. Calling it a “museum” doesn’t work — this house has the feel of being lived in. And there’s nothing “retail” about it. It’s an interior that’s tidy, appealing and very bright — a soft bright light that’s captured but not produced by the flick of a switch.
Tom and Mary are collectors, and glass and the cabinets that hold them — Fenton, Cambridge, Heisey, Imperial, Fostoria, Westmoreland, Duncan Miller and other glass manufacturers — dominate the main living area of their 4-level home. Sixty or sixty-one cabinets — different sizes and styles holding thousands of pieces — the Norskovs say, not quite sure of the exact number. They collect other things but it’s the glass and Tom’s complete set of Danish-made Bing Grondahl porcelain collector plates that line the space above the cabinets that stirs a visitor’s curiosity.
Tom’s collecting got started with a Bing Grondahll plate given to him by his mother.
“I’ve got four sisters and as the kids got married, my mom started giving us Christmas plates every year, like anniversary presents,” says Tom.
Bing Grondahl was the first commercially produced collector plate, says Tom. The Copenhagen-based company was founded in 1895 and sold their plates for 50 cents each then. In 1995, the 100th year anniversary of the company, Tom says Antique Week had an article claiming that only 12 of the original 400 plates made by the company in 1895 still existed.
“I don’t believe that,” he says. “I had two at one time and I think I know of 12 (that existed) at least.” A complete set of Bing Grondahl plates, from 1895 to 2010, are in the Norskov home.
Of all the glass makers in their home, Fenton seems the favorite. “That’s probably our biggest focus,” Tom says, noting that they have around 2,500 Fenton pieces. “Mary really likes it the most.”
Tom favors Duncan Miller glass. For Mary, she likes the colors and craftsmanship of Fenton. “It’s just so varied — the artistry in it. I like the hand-painted stuff,” she says.
Like many glass collectors, the couple started with Depression glass. “My mom started giving us the stuff and I didn’t know a thing about it, and then it evolved to this,” says Tom, swinging his arm around the room.
Tom’s mom also gave him his first cabinet, a beat up Mission-style cabinet that had been sitting in his mom’s basement since Tom’s father had died.
“Dad had started fixing it but it was (still) in sad shape; had one strap holding it together,” says Tom.
As Tom examined the cabinet, he found a shipping label attached to it. “It had been shipped to my grandfather (from Denmark) and was well over 100 years old.”
When Tom met Mary in the early 1990s, the collecting habit didn’t need to be explained. Both were budding collectors. Mary’s ongoing focus was on her dog collection — everything dog: figurines, wall plaques, you-name-it, some of West Highland terriers, same as the couple’s Westie, Anya.
“When I went to her house, I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a lot of dogs,’” remembers Tom. At the time, Mary had 300-some dogs.
“Eight-thousand, six-hundred and sixty-nine,” now says Mary in stating her current number of collectible dogs. A lower floor in the Norskov home is crammed full of dogs, from a rare three-headed dog figurine, to dog clocks, dog mirrors, a dog pool cue, to a bulldog Mack truck hood ornament to the hubcap from a Whippet automobile. (Whippet is a dog breed, also.) Fittingly, the first dog came from Mary’s mom.
Mary keeps track of her dogs by noting each in a tablet. Not that she really has to.
“I know when I have a duplicate,” she says. “I don’t know why, my memory isn’t that good but I can tell you if I have that dog. If someone brings me a dog, automatically I say I got it or I don’t.”
Lately, people don’t bring Mary dogs like they use to; even Tom has backed off. “The dogs are pretty much tapped out,” says Mary.
Glass remains a pursuit despite admitting they’re “out of room” and don’t like keeping their collection in storage. “I don’t believe in storage,” says Mary. “If you can’t display it, don’t buy it.”
The quest remains, one that follows mainly a garage sale road. Surprisingly, most of the couple’s collecting rewards come from those road visits. They are devoted early bird garage sale pursuers, keeping to the Topeka area and surrounding towns. It can be competitive, especially with eBay sellers and the fact that people know them as serious collectors.
The result hasn’t only been a vast collection of glass. Mary has one room upstairs devoted to dolls. The list doesn’t end there. Downstairs she has one old trunk full of doilies, all handmade. Tom estimates Mary has ten to twelve thousand of them. Naturally, Mary collects them because of the family connection. “I remember growing up and my grandma had them,” she says.
Family pieces dot the Norskov household, mostly furniture and unique decor items crafted by Tom and Mary’s parents, grandparents or other relatives.
In addition to the family connections and the glass, dolls, doilies and dogs, there’s pottery, perfume bottles, Hummel figurines, toothpick holders, crystal, candle bowls, Barbies, head vases and more. One walkthrough of their home doesn’t catch all that they have.
“Most people just can’t believe it, the multitude,” says Tom. “Mary gets a lot of compliments in how it’s displayed, by colors, etc. It’s not just a hodgepodge of things.”
That it’s not.
Tom likes to say that collecting “keeps you sane.” But it’s more than that, if at all. It’s the memories attached to what they collect; the when-they-got-it or who they got it from. As for the money, Tom and Mary are shrewd shoppers yet don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over money.
“Collectively, it might scare you if you start adding it up,” says Tom. “But some people can go to a NASCAR race and blow a few hundred bucks and what have you got?
“You got some memories. But here (in their home) I can walk by something and say, ‘I remember who I got that from or that’s a family piece.”
It’s an attitude of knowing what you have and money never really having anything to do with it.
Both Tom and Mary usually know when they’re buying a family heirloom or part of another family’s history. It discourages them that some people don’t seem to care if they sell an item tied to an previous generation from the same family.
“I didn’t know them” is something they hear often.
Still, they push for the story, if any, behind the item and once the story is known, sometimes try and convince the seller to keep it.
If that doesn’t work, Tom will say, “I’m buying it, but if you ever want it back, you know where it’s at.”
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at email@example.com.