In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Mrs. Boast tells the Ingalls about whatnot shelves and how they are all the rage in Iowa. She teaches them how to make their own.
A “whatnot shelf” is a type of shelving unit that typically consists of several small shelves stacked on top of each other and supported by decorative spindles or columns. They were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a way to display decorative items such as figurines, vases, and books. Today, they are still used for decorative purposes, but can also be used for practical storage in small spaces.
Charles Ingalls made the shelves, and then Mrs. Boast showed the Ingalls how to decorate the shelves with pasteboard and heavy wrapping paper to make them fancy. After it is decorated, then Charles paints it before placing the whatnot – which is as tall as Caroline can reach – behind the seat where Mary sits.
Caroline’s china shepherdess, which has travelled carefully with the Ingalls all the way from the Big Woods, is placed in the place of honor on the top shelf. It is not known all the items the Ingalls placed on the whatnot, but it is mentioned multiple times and notes books are placed upon the bottom shelf.