Monday, January 25, 2010

Let's Go to the Fair


QUESTION: My uncle's dad founded Greyhound Bus, and he had this keepsake from the 1939 World's Fair.He claimed they made a ton of metal buses to give away, but never really put this tram into production. Have you seen one like this?

ANSWER: I get almost as many questions about souvenir items from the 1939 New York World’s Fair as there were items sold or given away at the Fair. Well, not really, but pretty many.

The item this person mentions–a small cast-iron Greyhound Bus tram–was one of over 25,000 different mementos made for the Fair. Fifty stands sold souvenirs–everything from postcards to guidebooks to view folders and books, as well as a myriad of novelties that gave "knick-knacks" a whole new meaning. Vendors also sold a myriad of pins. Orange and blue World’s Fair emblems graced the surfaces of every one of them.

The Fair opened on April 30 , 1939–the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City. At 10:00 A.M. Mayor LaGuardia cut the ribbon at a dedication ceremony in the Temple of Religion. Trumpets heralded the procession of thousands of police officers and military men and public officials. And at 2:00 P.M. President Roosevelt dedicated the fair. Altogether, 60 nations and international organizations took part. Thirty-three states of the United States also had exhibits–and every one of them had giveaways and more deluxe souvenirs for sale.


Why is it then that the New York World’s Fair’s souvenirs seem to stand out from the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that same year and the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago six years earlier? For one thing, the shear numbers of items–millions of them–flooded the U.S. and the world with mementos of the Fair. Every visitor, no matter their economic status, brought home something, from small toys like the Greyhound tram to three-legged folding cane/seats so visitors could take a rest while walking the Fair. There were also wallets, bracelets, woman’s compacts, snow globes, and thousands of pins. And for stamp collectors, the Fair offered first day covers, postmarked daily at special U.S. postal stations at the Fair.

Another reason the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered so much variety was that unlike previous world’s fairs of the 20th Century, it was truly a commercial phenomenon. There, housewives first got their first look at automatic washers, cooking mixes, and small appliances of all kinds. So the corporations who sponsored the Fair went all out to promote their new products–products of science and imagination.

So to answer the question above–have I seen such an item–probably not, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and can be worth some good money in the very specialized World’s Fairs’ collectible market.

For more information about 1939 New York World’s Fair memorabilia, click here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Case of Mistaken Identity



QUESTION: I saw a Queen Anne dining set in a shop, and it appears to be old, however the chairs are upholstered in a ‘vinyl’ material which also appears old, but is this an antique?

ANSWER: I get questions like this a lot. Most of the time, the persons asking them think that because a piece of furniture is in a particular style that it’s an antique. But they fail to realize that certain popular styles of furniture have been reproduced over and over throughout the last several centuries.

From the photo, I could tell that the dining table and chairs had been made in the Queen Anne style, but I could also tell right away that it wasn’t an antique. The giveaway was the extra leaves in the table. From the looks of it, I'd say the set might be as old as the 1930s, but I'm leaning more to the 1960s. Let’s see why.


At the time Queen Anne was popular in the 18th century, dining tables like this one with added leaves didn't come into use until the 19th century. During the 1750s, joyners–the person’s who made furniture–made Queen Anne dining tables as drop-leaf tables with large leaves or wings that could be folded up and stood against a wall until ready for use. In many cases, the owners stood them in their front hallways to allow for more space. A wealthy 18th-century family would have only used a larger table like this when dining with guests. They often ate at a smaller table by the fire, especially in winter, or had “tea”–what we call supper–in their bedrooms by the fire. When not in use as a dining table, they may have used it for other things and stood the chairs against the wall around the room.

At the end of the 19th century, a style called Colonial Revival came into popularity because of the colonial exhibits at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Furniture makers began to make what they thought looked like colonial furniture although it was often stylized and lacked the fine details of the original.

That said, this table and chairs did seem to be well constructed of solid woods and, therefore might sell for somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000. But don’t mistake the identity of this dining set for the real thing. It isn’t.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Curator or Caretaker–Which are You?

QUESTION: I own a necklace of pure scrimshaw about 40 years old that was passed to my mother, and she gave it to me when she died. Can you tell me its value? 

ANSWER: Here’s a good example of an object that has been passed down from mother to daughter over several generations. But the person makes no mention of obtaining any more pieces of scrimshaw. Unfortunately, this often happens when people inherit an object or a collection from their relatives.

It seems that this person has taken over the job of acting caretaker for this piece of scrimshaw. While there’s nothing wrong in that, she’s missing out on the joy of collecting–the search for other pieces and buying the ones that she likes. But she shouldn’t feel bad. This is more often the case than not.

A caretaker, as the name suggests, cares for an object or a collection. This care usually consists of maintaining the condition of the object, and, of course, finding out how much the object is worth.

A curator, on the other hand, is someone who catalogs and maintains historic or artistic collections. This usually entails the maintenance of the objects and their general protection from damage. The curator also finds out as much as possible about the objects in the collection and, using a number of reliable resources, determines their value. In addition, the curator adds to the collection, refining it by selling off inferior pieces and arranging for the purchase of better ones. In essence, the curator becomes a collector.

So which are you–curator or caretaker? If you’ve been acting as a caretaker, why not change roles and actively get involved in learning all you can about and growing your inherited collection. You don’t know how much fun you’re missing.