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Steeped in teapots

Newton woman's hobby is one for the record books

Lucille Ball, Aunt Jemima, and Ebenezer Scrooge are up in Ethel Frattaroli's attic.

But even Sherlock Holmes -- yes, he's up there, too -- would have a tough time finding them among this collection of nearly 5,000 teapots in Newton.

"I'm so proud of them," said Frattaroli, who will turn 88 next month. "Sometimes, if I get down in the dumps, I come up and look at them and I'm happy again."

Frattaroli converted her attic into a teapot shrine 20 years ago. Three shelves hug the walls of the entire room. Not an inch is spared among the teapots, coffee pots, and chocolate pots -- the latter was all the rage in 17th-century Spain, well before Swiss Miss entered the hot-beverage picture.

The collection ranges from traditional English teapots to novelty pieces: Lucille Ball bursting from a TV-shaped teapot, ballroom dancers whose outstretched arms create a spout, Scrooge lending his arm to serve as a handle.

"They're her pride and joy," said Frattaroli's youngest daughter, Judy Bortolotti, 43, of Framingham. "Nobody else sees them but her."

The attic display is the encore to a show that begins the moment you enter the house through the kitchen, where a wall clock features teapots for numbers.

Despite a bit of osteoporosis, the 4-foot-11 -inch strawberry blonde scurries about to show off her collection.

Teapots fill the dining-room shelves and sprawl across the table. Frattaroli received 30 for Christmas, each of which she recorded in a special book. She said she is just 19 short of 5,000.

In the small foyer is a cabinet with five shelves, all filled with teapots. It was built by Frattaroli's sister, a carpenter who constructed cabinets and shelves throughout the house to accommodate the collection.

More teapots line two long shelves that stretch down the first-floor hallway.

"You can't be fat if you want to fit through here!" Frattaroli joked.

The truth is, she's right.

Shelves of teapots cover three walls of the living room and two walls of a small TV room. Upstairs, it's floor-to-ceiling pots in the second-floor hallway and in a converted bedroom.

Nestled between the pots are what Frattaroli calls "filler," small objects that she's picked up along the way, including plastic superheroes and china gnomes, "anything that grabs my fancy."

The collection is probably one for the books. A woman in Kent, England, owned 3,950 teapots when last counted in September 2004, according to Kim Lacey, records manager of Guinness World Records in London.

"We'd love to hear from her," Lacey said of Frattaroli.

A few years ago, Frattaroli said, her daughter, Judy, looked into entering the collection, but the thought of organizing all the tea, coffee, and chocolate pots proved too daunting.

Gary Sohmers, a Framingham resident who has appeared for more than a decade as a collectibles appraiser on PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," said he would welcome hearing from Frattaroli. "It could be the largest collection known," Sohmers said.

It all started by accident 40 years ago when Frattaroli spotted a teapot top that matched a 100-year-old pot her mother had given her. Then she received one as a gift. Then another.

In years past, she would go to yard and church sales, mapping out her weekend routes as meticulously as a general mounting an offensive, hitting as many as 14 in a single day and driving as many as 30 miles from Marlborough to Waltham. Now, Frattaroli primarily sticks to Newton.

"I usually do well at the churches, so I mark those to do first," she said.

Her obsession took her to England about a decade ago, where she bought 17 teapots, including the one in the form of Sherlock Holmes.

She has expanded her collection to include 100 pairs of salt and pepper shakers; 50 thimbles; 100 egg cups; and 100 butter pats, small porcelain dishes for holding butter that can be found at yard sales for 50 cents but have been known to fetch $1,500 from collectors.

Bortolotti said her mother's hobby helped her endure some pretty tough times.

"Maybe it was kind of like how some people, when they can't cope, they smoke or drink. I think her outlet was buying a teapot. How harmless can that be to get your fix?"

Frattaroli grew up in East Boston and moved to Winthrop after she married. Nine years later, her husband became so worried that a plane would crash into their house that he moved the family to Newton. One week later, a plane crashed on Bayswater Street in East Boston, a few miles from where they had lived.

But that's not all that crashed. After seven children, the marriage ended.

"My mom is very humble," Bortolotti said. "My parents separated when I was a few months old and she supported seven kids and the house by herself."

Frattaroli worked four jobs -- making sandwiches, doing housework, working as a waitress, and managing a small cafeteria on Totten Pond Road in Waltham.

"She always worked to keep food on the table and so we could keep the house," Bortolotti said. "She sacrificed her personal life for all seven of us."

Frattaroli finally retired at 79 and that was only because the Little, Brown and Co. book redemption center in Waltham where she worked was moved out of state.

Although she's been collecting the pots for nearly half her life, Frattaroli didn't start drinking tea until she obtained her 3,000th. She favors Salada teabags because she likes the sayings written on their cardboard tabs -- which she collects, of course. She has about a hundred or so in a sugar bowl.

Two of her favorites: "A friend in need is a friend to feed " and "Time spent in getting even would be better spent in getting ahead."

And how does she heat her tea?

"I put a mug in the microwave. I won't let anyone use my teapots because I'm afraid they'll break."

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