String has long been a household and office utility, but an easily tangled one. That's why generations of tinkerers devised cast-iron string holders and string reels in an attempt to keep string under control. The classic 19th-century string holder shape was a beehive (used, for example, by the U.S. Postal Service). Other cast-iron string holders, some nickeled, others painted black, were more like egg-shaped cages, with openings around their sides so a clerk behind the counter of the general store could see at a glance if he or she was about to run out of string. Often these string holders were mounted to the tops of racks designed to hold paper sacks. That way, goods could be bagged and wrapped tight for customers.
In the 20th century, string holders became more decorative, morphing into novelty items for the home. Animals were popular subjects for these lightweight, chalkware string holders, as were caricatures of African Americans, cartoony depictions of story-book heroes and heroines, and characters from the movies. Unlike cast-iron, which was built to last, chalkware broke easily, which is why most vintage chalkware string holders found today are chipped around their edges.