Monday, June 21, 2010


QUESTION: My great aunt gave me a funny little pitcher shaped like a cow. It has no markings on it. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: What this person has is a cow creamer. Originally made in England, then in Scotland and America, these unique creamers were the pride and joy of many late 18th and early 19th-century English housewives. They kept these spotted bovines sitting on top of their dining room dressers, ready to use on special occasions.

These pottery cow creamers are usually about six inches long and four to five inches high. Housewives would pour fresh cream through a hole in the cow’s back, then seal up the whole with a cover. Unfortunately, many a cow creamer today is missing its cover. The cow’s curved tail served as the handle while its mouth served as the spout.

The first cow creamer came from the Whieldon Pottery, which imitated the silver cow jugs made in 1755 by John Schuppe. The most well-known of these had a mottled brown tortoise shell-type glaze. Others had brown and yellow spots, black with a criscrossed yellow pattern, and even light blue with yellow circles.

It seems every potter added his touch of whimsy. In fact, there are almost as many different decorations as there are creamers.

Staffordshire potters also crafted these unique little jugs, essentially copying from the earlier Whieldon design. None of these have markings on the bottom. The Welsh potters added their own creative touches to their cow creamers. Many decorated them freehand or applied transfer designs of rustic farm scenes. After 1850, the Scots developed a love affair with the cow creamer. Scottish potters experimented with sponged decoration and brightly colored glazes.

After the American Revolution and into the early 19th century, imported English pottery became too expensive, so the United States Pottery in Bennington, Vermont, began making its own version of the cow creamer. Each cow had crescent-shaped nostrils, open eyes, folds in the neck, and visible ribs. I guess the American cows weren’t as well fed as their English, Scottish, and Welsh cousins. After Bennington closed in 1858, its potters sought work at potteries in Ohio, Maryland, and New Jersey, taking their skill at making cow creamers with them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Old, New, or Repro

QUESTION: How can you tell how old a piece of furniture is?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, that’s a relatively simple question, but one that seems to baffle many people. Too often they either buy or inherit a piece of furniture and believe it’s an antique when it’s not. This happens all too often when someone inherits a fine table, sideboard, sofa, or whatever and assumes it’s an antique because it belonged to their grandmother and she said it was old when she bought it. In another instance, a piece may have become surrounded by family legend which tells how one of their ancestors brought this thing over on the Mayflower. There was barely room for the passengers on the Mayflower–and their were several–let alone lots of furniture. Sure, there was the odd chair or small table, but not many pieces larger than that.

So how can you tell if you have an antique? A piece’s construction will give you clues to its age. Construction techniques improved as technology improved. Cabinetmakers discovered easier ways to make their furniture. Begin by looking over the piece to see how the maker joined the various parts. Cabinetmakers were also known as joiners. Did the maker use wooden pegs, square nails, or perhaps even screws. If a nail has a square head, it’s possible the piece dates prior to 1820. You probably won’t find many screws in old furniture, but if you do, look to see if the slot is off center, a sure sign the screw was handmade, dating to now later than 1815.

Look on the underside and backs of pieces for circular saw marks, only used after 1850. Before that cabinetmakers cut their wood using a hand saw. During the second half of the 19th century, furniture makers often constructed their pieces of quartersawn wood, giving it a distinctive wavy pattern.

Check the rungs on side chairs. If the chair is old, you’ll see wear marks on the rungs where people rested their feet. Look at the top of the back of the chair. Are there marks caused by being knocked against the wall?

Is the edge of a table worn? Are the bottoms of the legs worn from being dragged? Check to see if the legs are joined using wooden pegs. Also, a long dropleaf on a table usually indicates that it dates from the mid-18th to early 19th century.

Wood shrinks over time. If the piece has severe cracks, especially in paneled doors, then it’s probably at least 100 years old. The tops of round tables made of softer woods like pine eventually become slightly oval. Measure its diameter. If the diameter of the table varies, this shows that the tabletop has shrunk, a sure sign of age. Also, look for rings on the top which might indicate moisture damage. While this in itself isn’t a sign of age, deeper discoloration due to spills may be.

Another sign of the time are the dovetails used to join the front to the sides of drawers. Those from 18th-century chests were usually uneven since the cabinetmaker had to cut them by hand. As technology progressed, he had power tools to help with this, so by the first quarter of the 19th century, makers produced several smaller dovetails. Ones from the 20th century are exactly the same size in a sort of keystone shape.

Finally, look for wear caused by fingernails around knobs and handles, even if the hardware appears newer.

It’s especially important to check for age on Colonial Revival-type reproductions. A piece of furniture may have Chippendale style details, such as ball-and-claw feet, but may be no older than the 1950s. And if you see a paper label on the bottom of a chair or the back of a chest, you know right away that it’s no older than the first or second decade of the 20th century.