Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow...

QUESTION: I have the opportunity to purchase a collection of about 30 snow globes. Are these collectible, and if so, is this a wise investment?

ANSWER: While many people call these little snow wonders snow globes, others call them water domes, water balls, snow shakers, snow storms, snow scenes, blizzard domes, and snow domes. They have delighted children and adults for more than a century.

In the late 1930s, Hollywood drew attention to snow globes by featuring them prominently in a number of films. In the movie “Heidi, “ starring Shirley Temple movie, the curly-haired child peers into a snow globe of a miniature cabin. And in the film classic, “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane drops a snow globe with a replica of the sled known as Rosebud onto the floor as he dies.

Collectibles experts believe French glass paperweight makers first crafted them during the early 19th century. They were basically decorated glass paperweights filled with water and white powder. But they didn’t catch on until they appeared at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1878.

Snow globes containing a miniature model of the new Eiffel Tower became a much sought after souvenir at the International Exposition in Paris in 1889, thus becoming the first souvenir snow globe. These snow-filled domes also became popular in Victorian England. By the early 1920s, they made their way across the Atlantic to the U.S. where the Atlas Crystal Works produced many of them from that time period.

The U.S. Patent Office granted  Joseph Garaja of Pittsburgh a patent for new method of manufacturing snow globes. His process required assembling the globes under water, thus eliminating trapped air. His invention allowed the snow globe industry to go into mass production, dramatically lowering the prices of snow globes. His company, Modern Novelty of Pittsburgh, supplied plastic-based snow globes in every size and shape to retailers around the world for several decades.

In the 1950's, one manufacturer decided to add antifreeze to his globes, so they wouldn't freeze during shipping. However, public outcry against this procedure forced the company to abandon it.

Today, most of the world's snow globes, made mostly of plastic, come from China. But before World War II, the Germans and Austrians made them mostly of glass. The snow found inside has been produced from many materials, including bone chips, camphor and wax, ground rice, pottery flecks and porcelain.  In time the glass became thinner, so manufacturers began to use flecks of gold foil. Currently, makers use white plastic or metallic glitter for snow. In addition, each globe contains distilled water mixed with a little glycol to slow the movement of the flakes.

Today, you’ll find snow globes combined with a wide variety of souvenir-type items, including  drinking glasses, salt and pepper shakers, sugar containers, soap dishes, ashtrays, calendars, thermometers, banks and pencil sharpeners. They can feature landmarks, World's Fairs and other  historical events, as well as famous and even infamous characters from the past.

Snow globes are usually inexpensive, however, they have sold for as high as $1,000. Vintage souvenir snow domes sell for a modest $8 to $25. And while some collectors might mix old and new snow globes, most prefer vintage ones from the late 1930s through the 1970s. Souvenir snow globes from the 1960s and 1970s hold their value best, so if the ones in this collection date from that period, you should have a good investment, provided you don’t pay too much for it.

You also need to see the potential of adding to this collection. You can get a head start with it, but only you will be able to judge what direction you want to take it. Buy only vintage ones. Make sure the water is high and clear and that any decals that may be attached to the base of the snow globe are securely attached and in one piece.

Monday, December 19, 2011

No Room at the Inn

QUESTION: My grandfather left me a beautiful creche which he said his father brought over from Germany in the late 19th century. Can you tell me anything about this and if it is, in fact, German?

ANSWER: You, indeed, have a German creche. From its design, I’d say it dates from the 1890s, possibly a bit before. During the 17th century, Nativity scenes, promoted by the Capuchin, Jesuit and Franciscan orders, gained in popularity as a way for common people to express their joy during the Christmas season.

The most popular form is the crèche, a word meaning "manger" or "crib" in French. Originally carved from wood, today these beautiful figures can also be made of   ceramic, glass, straw, fabric, or even plastic, then and painted. A crèche usually depicts the entire Nativity scene—the manger, star, angels, shepherds, kings and the Holy Family. Most makers construct them on a miniature scale, although some church crèches can be almost life-sized. Crèches originated in Europe with the Italian presepio which used small carved figures in the 18th century. By then, three centers of creche culture had emerged—Naples, Italy; Provence, France; and Bavaria in southern Germany.

Historians generally credit St. Francis of Assisi with popularizing the Nativity scene.
Supposedly, a rich man, Giovanni Vellita, approached St. Francis in December, 1223, asking how he could serve God. St. Francis told him to build a simple, little stable just outside Assisi in the cave at Greccio. During the 13th century, people celebrated Christmas as a purely religious holiday, so many of the activities associated with it occurred in churches. Since common workers weren’t given much of a place in these celebrations, St. Francis came up with the idea to give them a chance to celebrate.

As the story goes, as midnight approached that Christmas Eve, a great procession wound its way out of Assisi and up the hill to Greccio. Everyone came carrying candles to this new manger they had built for the Holy Child. They celebrated mass that night, surrounded by an ox and a donkey and by the people of Assisi, all playing the parts of the shepherds and folk of Bethlehem. From Italy, the idea spread north across the Alps, and finally came to the U.S. with German settlers.

Today’s creche makers model their pieces after the elaborate Italian and German ones of the 17th  century. Creches or Nativity sets can be made from a variety of materials. The characters can be carved from wood, formed from wax, papier-mache, or clay, or hand painted on cardboard. They stand in or in front of buildings, ranging from Alpine stables and guest houses to romantic Roman ruins. Others have oriental style structures with minarets and domes.

But the best—elaborate and intricately carved figures of wood—came from Bavaria.
Their creators stained them with paint to make them lifelike. German creches , often called krippen, can also be made of cast metal, cast painted plaster, cardboard with painted or printed artwork, turned wood or clay. Each Christmas, in scenes made up of rocks, branches, evergreens and moss collected in the woods by the family’s children just before the holiday, the krippe is reborn. Christmas morning finds these scenes around the base of the family’s Christmas tree in what’s called a putz or tree yard.

Among collectible creches, those hardest to find today are those predating World War II.  Adolf Hitler had many of the German molds for creche figures destroyed. At the time, Germany was the premiere maker of creches. So what you have is a real treasure, not only for its value—a similar one sold for close to $1,000 at previous auction and just one animal is going for $95 currently on eBay—but also for its place in history.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Antiques or Not–An Age-old Question

QUESTION: How do I find out if items I have are really antiques?  Do dealers need pictures to come look at my pieces? How do I find honest reliable ones?

ANSWER: Many people ask themselves these same questions. Unless you’re an antique lover and collector, it’s often hard to figure out what’s an antique and what isn’t. First, let’s tackle what is an antique.

To anyone who browses antique shops these days the question "What is an antique?" seems to have many answers. Side by side with ancient-looking furniture and old- fashioned china, you may find souvenir spoons and colorful carnival glass. The problem bewilders not only buyers but dealers, too.

In 1930 the U.S. Government ruled that objects had to be at least a 100 old to be classified as antiques, so they could be admitted duty free into the U.S. But that was a legislative  tax decision. Since then antiques have often been defined as objects made before 1830.

Here in the U.S., dealers and collectors count among their antiques both items made by machine as well as those made by hand. Most of these are later than 1830. That date does, however, serve as a dividing line between the age of craftsmanship and the machine age. As the 21st century moves on, objects from the early 20th century are now reaching the 100-year mark, thus technically making them antiques. But if you talk to a high-end antique dealer, he or she will probably consider them just used goods.

A fine antique comes with a provenance or written pedigree. This isn’t just what your Aunt Milly says is an antique. It's proven to be one through a detailed history of its creation and ownership.

But while the personal associations of heirlooms add to their interest, they can’t be relied upon to place their date and source. Not every old piece has a pedigree or a maker’s mark or label, but every one has characteristics that identify it which make it valuable to someone else. The secret of where and when and by whom it was made is in its material, its design, and its workmanship. So an antique is what the collector knows or perceives it to be. Nothing more.

Collectibles are items that usually have a less-than-100-year history, although not always. You could collect Limoge porcelain boxes from the 18th century and consider them collectibles. But for the most part, collectibles are objects from popular culture—old detergent boxes with the soap powder still in them, old bottles, old souvenirs.

So begin by determining, if you can, what it is that you have that’s an antique or just a collectible. Do Image searches on Google for your items and see if any photos come up that are like what you have or similar, then click on the photos to go to the Web sites where the photos have been posted to learn more about the item. Go to your public library and check out an antique encyclopedia or other books that have pictures of antiques. See if you can find objects like yours.

Once you have a good idea of whether an object is an antique or collectible, take some good digital photos of it. And, yes, dealers really appreciate seeing a photo or two of an item before they’ll make the trek to your place to see it. This applies even more to dealers you may find online. Take an overall shot, perhaps several from different angles, as well as a couple shots of details—carvings, signatures, hardware, etc. If you’re going to make the rounds of local dealers, you’ll want to get your photos printed. Small 4x6-inch photos will do nicely.

Asking where you can find honest reliable dealers indicates that you assume all antique dealers are scoundrels. They’re not. In fact, most are honest, hard-working business people. They’re in business to make money, so don’t expect that any of them will pay top dollar for your pieces. The most you can expect to get is half the value, on a good day.

One way to tell a dealer who may be less than honest is to see if the pieces in his or her shop are priced. An antique store is a retail business and all retailers price their items for sale. A dealer who doesn’t price their items may be planning on taking advantage of you—deciding what to charge for an item on how you’re dressed or how much you seem to know about antiques. Avoid shops that are piled high with goods in which the shopkeeper says, “Have a look around and let me know what you like, and I’ll give you my best price.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Ultimate All-in-One

QUESTION: My grandmother had a cabinet in her kitchen which she called a “Hoosier.” She told me her mother left it to her and now I have it in my kitchen. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: The modern kitchen with its microwave, glass-topped stove, side-by-side refrigerator, and granite countertops is a far cry from your great-grandma’s kitchen. The most modern thing in her kitchen was her Hoosier, an all-in-one preparation and storage unit that brought her convenience and practicality.

Named after the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of New Castle, Indiana, the Hoosier cabinet was to become one of the most popular pieces of furniture to hit the American market. Though there were other companies in Indiana that made them, Hoosier Manufacturing built over four million of these special cabinets between 1900 and 1940. Until 1920, the company made and finished their new all-in-one cabinet in natural oak, but as the third decade of the 20th century progressed, they began to offer Hooisers with white enamel-lined drawers. Because of the bright white of the enamel, people called them “White Beauties.”

When the Hoosier first appeared, American homes didn’t have built-in storage cabinets. Soon housewives demanded something in which they could store their baking supplies and equipment, as well as give them an additional work surface. The company quickly adapted the 19th-century baker’s cabinet, a piece of furniture they were already making, to fit the needs of the modern housewife. These existing cabinets featured a work surface to roll out and knead dough, a few cabinets above, and  “possum belly” drawers below to hold flour and sugar. Manufacturers of these baker’s cabinets made the drawers from tin to protect their contents from rodents. At first, they made the work surface of wood, then later employed zinc, aluminum, and porcelain enamel. They attached casters to the legs, both for ease of moving and to keep ants out of the cabinet.

By rearranging the parts of the baker’s cabinet, Hoosier Manufacturing came up with a well-organized, compact unit which answered the housewife’s needs for storage and working space. The company added to these cabinets many improvements, including flour sifters, bread drawers lined with enamel, cutting boards, and an assortment of storage containers, to help the homemaker.

The typical Hoosier cabinet had three sections—a bottom section, featuring one large compartment with a slide-out shelf and several drawers to one side, a top portion only half as deep with several smaller compartments with doors, with or without windows, and a large lower compartment with a roll-top door that could be closed to hide various tools and equipment. Hoosier joined the top and bottom of the cabinet using a pair of metal channels which served as the guide for a sliding work surface, which usually had a pair of shallow drawers attached to its underside. The cabinet, with its work surface retracted, was normally about two feet deep— double that when pulled out—while the cabinet stood nearly six feet high.

A distinctive feature of the Hoosier cabinet was its accessories. Most came equipped with a variety of racks and other hardware to hold and organize spices and various staples. Some came with a hand coffee grinder and a combination flour-bin/sifter, a tin hopper that a housewife could use without having to remove it from the cabinet. Some contained a similar bin for sugar.

To hold a variety of spices and other staples, Hoosiers came equipped with special glass jars, manufactured by the Sneath Glass Company, to fit the cabinet and its racks. Original sets of Hoosier glassware consisted of coffee and tea canisters, a salt box, and four to eight spice jars. Some manufacturers also included a cracker or cookie jar. Some Hoosiers had elastic straps attached on the inside of their doors behind which housewives could place cards with such information as measurement conversions, sample menus, and household tips.

Manufacturers marked their cabinets with an identifying label which was often engraved or stamped onto metal, then screwed onto the front of the cabinet. Some glued paper labels on the back of the cabinet. Both types often disappeared as a result of refinishing.

Though Hoosier cabinets remained popular into the 1930s, they began to fall into disuse as soon as home builders equipped new kitchens with built-in cabinets and other appliances. Today, Hoosiers, dating from 1900-1910, sell on eBay for $500-$2,300. Later models sell for as little as $200.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hess Toy Trucks Roll On

QUESTION: What is the best way to sell a 1966 Hess Voyager Tank Ship? And how do I figure the asking price?  The tanker is in the box which is slightly faded and has some damage to two of its corners, plus one of the stickers on the side of the tanker is torn.

ANSWER:  It’s Thanksgiving time once again and along with Black Friday comes an equally long-standing tradition—the sale of Hess toy trucks. But the poor economy has most everyone watching their pocketbooks, so even Hess Toy Truck sales, both of previous models and the newest one are suffering. T.V. ads touting the features of Hess’s new truck toy prompt many owners to perhaps dust off older models in preparation for selling them.

But selling Hess toy trucks isn’t easy. The group of true collectors of these toys is a small, very selective one. These are people who are searching for the premier pieces to fill out their collections. One of these prime models is the “B Model Mack Tanker,” which first appeared in 1964. At first the company produced these toys in limited quantities and limited each customer to two trucks. Back then the B Model Mack cost $1.29, but today it can sell for as much as $2,000, down $500 from two years ago.

Leon Hess knew a good thing when he saw it, and soon the company produced more trucks to meet the demand, including a series of minitrucks. For many years, people lined up at Hess Stations on Black Friday morning to get their hands on the coveted toy “truck” of that year, then last year, the company started selling their trucks a week ahead. This year, sales began on November 11, two full weeks ahead. But popularity killed their potential and resale prices fell.

Because Hess toy trucks didn’t gain mass popularity until the 1980s, those few collectors savvy enough to pack one away in its box without touching it are the only ones who can cash in on the higher values of Hess toy trucks from 1964, when they first came out, through the 1970s.

More than half the value of each truck depends on the condition of its box. If the truck, itself, is also in perfect condition, then it’s considered to be “MIB” or Mint-in-Box. Those who saw the collecting potential of these toy s bought two, giving one as a gift to their child and keeping the other in pristine condition for their collection.

Probably the best place to try to sell the tanker in question is on eBay. This saves a lot of searching for markets—let the collectors search for the models they want. However, most Hess trucks sell on eBay for about $20, around the price of a new truck since 2000 or so.
In one case, four of them, listed for a starting bid of $9.99 on one auction with $21 shipping—twice the cost of the trucks themselves—didn’t even sell. Unless a Hess truck is an early model and new in a pristine box, it has little value.

Hess trucks were one of the first toy trucks to have working lights and sound operated by batteries. The first one came in three different versions. The rarest of these was a Bills 18-wheel tanker with a white top and the Hess logo with a yellow border placed over the Bills logo. The side decals on this model display only the word "Gasoline", its battery card has printing on both sides, and the bottom of its box is black. The most common version features a green cab with yellow fenders. A similar version of this tanker truck appeared in the late 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, but the tank is green, with a white strip, displaying the Hess name, down the center. The tanker then returned in 1990 with a white tank, with the Green "HESS" name on the side. Hess introduced another version of this white tanker truck in 1998 as the first in the Hess mini series.

Leon Hess, founder of Amerada-Hess Oil, originally had these toy trucks made as thank-you gifts to his customers. Some, produced as gifts for stockholders and staff, never went on sale. These are the most highly prized by collectors since only a few of these special trucks were made.

Throughout the years, Hess has offered non-truck vehicles as part of its toy truck collection, including a tanker ship, based on the Hess Voyager, in 1966, a patrol car in 1993, a helicopter in 2001, an SUV in 2004, and a race car in 1988, 1997, 2009, and this year, 2011. In recent years, boxes have contained one larger vehicle transporting smaller friction-motor vehicles, such as motorcycles, race cars, or cruisers.

For the first time in the collection's 47-year history, the two vehicles in the current set offer sounds and 34 lights in both on and flashing modes, activated by a button on the truck cab, a chassis switch, and the ramp. The newest truck also features four-wheel spring suspension and a pullout ramp that automatically activates a hydraulic sound. The truck's flatbed trailer carries a race car modeled after an American stock car that sports a pull-back racing motor and Hess Express logo. A push of the race car's gas cap activates flashing lights and the sound of the car's engine. The lucky kid who gets this as a gift on Christmas morning will also be able to play with it immediately since the package contains two Energizer 'C' batteries. But the hottest feature of this year’s truck is an app with which a child can virtually race the car online.

The Hess Toy Truck is one of the longest-running toy brands on the market. As in past years, the truck will be sold exclusively at Hess retail stores in 16 East Coast states from Massachusetts to Florida, while supplies last. However, the price has gone up considerably from that first truck selling for $1.29 in 1964 to $26.99 for this year’s truck and race car.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Onions Grow More Than in Patches

QUESTION: I have several plates by Meissen with what I believe is called the Blue Onion pattern. Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: The Blue Onion pattern is the Meissen company’s most popular and has been for over 250 years.  Because Meissen never copyrighted it, more companies have copied it than any other ceramic pattern. But the pieces made by Meissen, itself, stand above the others because of the way its workers meticulously hand painted the design on each piece.

After Marco Polo introduced Chinese blue and white porcelains to Europe, the demand rose until by the beginning of the 18th century, Europeans clammered for more and more of the finely painted pieces. To satisfy this demand, the East India Company established trade with China and brought to Europe as much of the blue and white porcelain as it could.

But try as it might, the East India Company couldn’t keep up with the demand, so in 1710 Augustus the Strong formed a new porcelain company to produce blue underglaze decorations like those of the Chinese. Johann Gregor Höroldt, a talented porcelain painter who had worked for the Du Paquier Porcelain Company, a competitor of Meissen’s, perfected the blue underglaze paint, which the Meissen Company used to decorate its wares with the Blue Onion pattern, in 1739.

The model for this unique pattern most likely came from a flax bowl from the Chinese K'ang Hsi period, dating from 1662-1722. Originally, Meissen called it the “bulb” pattern. However, since Europeans were unfamiliar with the fruits and flowers shown on the original Chinese pieces, the Meissen artists created hybrids that were more familiar to the company’s customers. The so-called "onions" really aren’t onions at all, but stylized peaches and pomegranates modeled after the original Chinese pattern. They made the flower in the design a cross between a chrysanthemum and a peony and wove the stems of both the fruits and the flower around a stalk of bamboo.

As production continued, Meissen changed the pattern slightly. Originally, the fruits on the border pointed inward with the stem on the edge. But they altered this design by pointing the fruits alternatively inward and outward.

Not only did the Blue Onion pattern become Meissen’s most popular, but it also was its least expensive to produce. The company made money by using lower-paid “blue painters” as well as apprentices to do the decorating. In addition, the pieces decorated with the pattern didn’t need a third firing which was necessary to fix the enamel decoration on Meissen’s other wares, plus the company chose not to add gilding to the standard pattern.

The Blue Onion pattern achieved popularity again during Victorian times when home furnishings became darker and heavier. It complemented the more elaborate Victorian furniture styles preferred by the new wealthier middle class. Immediately after the Civil War, the pattern took off. Everything from napkins to tablecloths, utensil handles to enameled cooking pots featured it. By the 1870s, the Meissen Company had adapted it to fit nearly every shape of porcelain ware it produced. To distinguish its Blue Onion pattern from those of its competitors, the company put its now famous emblem of Blue Crossed Swords at the foot of the design’s bamboo trunk in 1888.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ring, Ring—Bell Telephone Calling

QUESTION: I have one of those large black rotary telephones. Are those collectible now that we have such advanced technology?

ANSWER: You might want to consider holding on to your black phone for a while as they and many 20th-century models are coming into their own as collectibles.

When Alexander Graham Bell spoke those now famous words to his colleague during the first telephone call on March 10, 1876, he had no idea where that would lead us. Today, many people have smart phones that do just about everything except make a cup of fresh coffee, although I suspect they’ll soon offer an “app” for that.

But what about all the phones that came before the smart ones. The long-time standard Western Electric 302 black rotary phone, introduced in 1937, is probably the most well known. Some people have game rooms in their homes in which they install a working pay phone. These workhorses, once owned by AT&T, were meant to last a long time.

When people think of old telephones, however, they usually imagine the Western Electric 102 candlestick-type phone, which went into use in 1927. Today, you can purchase an original for a modest $469 at the TelephonyMusuem online.

In the 1930s, Western Electric produced 202 model with an oval base, and later a sleeker handset, now selling for $289. Both the 102 and 202 models required a ringer, which customers had to buy separately. The large rotary 302 phone was the first to house the ringer in the phone. It was made from metal until World War II and sells for $199, then from plastic, selling for $169, until the late 1950s. Western Electric stamped the date of production on the base of its phones, so it’s easy to tell the age of the unit.

One of the big problems in collecting old phones is that many of the more unique ones have been reproduced, in working order, of course. While the originals sell for as much as $500, the repros sell for half that. Vintage phones from the 1920s can sell for as much as $2,000. So it’s important to watch for reproductions being sold as originals, especially on auction sites like eBay.

And don’t forget the sleek and colorful Princess phone, introduced in 1959, and the Trimline phone with dial in the handset, dating from 1965. Both replaced the stodgy desk phones of the past. Rotary dials continued to be offered even after touch-tone came out because phone companies charged an extra fee for touch-tone service and many customers didn't want to pay for it. The hotter the color of a Princess phone, the higher its price. The more common colors—pink, red, peach, and black—in touch or rotary sell for about $200 each while green, beige, white, aqua and yellow command prices of $150 and up.. The most common Princess phone in ivory sells for no more than $119. Most of the Princess phones require a $30 transformer to light the dial.

Collecting old phones isn’t difficult, but like clocks, you can have just so many in your house.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Difference Between Real Collectibles and Created Ones

QUESTION: I have a 1939 New York World's fair desk calendar that has little knobs that change the date, month and a 1934 Chicago world's fair dish which could be silver plate with the federal building, electrical group, hall of science and travel and transport buildings embossed on the bottom.  Do these items have any value other than as keepsakes?

ANSWER: What you have are real collectibles. And while they may not be worth a fortune, they still have value in the collectible market. Unlike created collectibles, like decorated plates and such, objects like these, as well as those from 19th to mid-20th-century advertising, etc, can grow in value as the supply of them dwindles through breakage and deterioration. This is the cause of your uncertainty.

Collecting is one of the oldest hobbies. King Tut of Egypt collected walking sticks. Heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post collected Faberge originals. Franklin D. Roosevelt and King George VI of England collected stamps. There are also coin, doll, cup, and spoon collectors. All of them had one thing in common—the love of collecting unique and beautiful objects.

Why do so many people collect these objects? There’s a basic human need to possess items that have stood the test of time—items that have become a part of history.

Many people have the desire to own beautiful things but for mostly economic reasons, this isn’t possible. Up to the latter part of the 20th century, collecting valuable items has mostly been the hobby of the wealthy. To make it possible for the growing post-war  middle class to feel the same thrill of collecting as the rich, gift collectible manufacturers began to create items with implied value which the average person could afford and which, in time, were supposed to increase in value.

Collectibles manufacturers like the Franklin Mint began by minting special coins and producing figurines and plates. Eventually, people collecting these items grew into the largest group of collectibles collectors.

Part of the incentive of collecting is the inherent value of the object. While speculation was the motivation for collectible purchases in the late 1970's, most collectors today buy for the appeal of the item.

To keep the collecting public buying, manufacturers produced objects in series. This gave some people the incentive to purchase every piece in the series. The sad thing is that while the manufacturer guaranteed the value of the object with a certificate of authenticity, and that the value would definitely increase, they really had no control over the market they had created for their wares.

Another ploy of these manufacturers was the term “limited edition.” What this meant was that they'd produce only a certain number of each item, thus creating a built-in appreciation value. However, the number was often vague. For example, they guaranteed to produce ceramic items for a certain number of firing days, but no one knows just how many pieces they produced each day. Some of the more sought after items, such as Hummel figurines, had editions of 2,000 to 10,000.

In order to make their “collectibles” attractive to this new group of collectors, manufacturers made sure each piece evoked a nostalgic response in both men and women. The former liked the manly aura of collectible coins, military figurines, and model cars—the sportier and more luxurious the better. The latter like the beautiful images that adorned porcelain plates and delicate figurines, reminiscent of Meissen ware.

One of the most popular of the collectible figurine series was "Stormy Weather," picturing a little boy and girl huddled under an umbrella. The Goebel company introduced at least five new pieces a year, which kept collectors satisfied and the company in the black.

Collectible plates, which took up where magazine illustration left off, became the second most popular collectible. Some depicted characters from fantasy and fiction as well as adventurers, T.V. and film stars, and scenes of the past. Many were reminiscent of the old Saturday Evening Post covers. To create a cache for their collectibles, companies took on names such as the Bradford Exchange, giving collectors the impression that what they bought was an investment.

The plates created by Royal Copenhagen became some of the most popular. These familiar blue and white plates featured scenes from Danish life. Along with Hallmark and others, the company also produced collectible Christmas ornaments.

Ironically, these collectibles weren’t cheap. For all money they spent on them, collectors could have been buying real collectibles. These are objects tied to a certain event or period in history, such as 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair collectibles. Hundreds of companies produced over 25,000 different souvenirs in larger and smaller quantities for the Fair. Even early Coca-Cola advertisements and paraphernalia have value. Later manufactured Coca-Cola items, on the other hand, do not.

For more information on the created collectibles market, be sure to read this article, "9 Completely Worthless Collectibles."

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Truth About Sadirons

QUESTION: Recently, I purchased an old iron at a local flea market. On the top of the heavy iron base is molded the word “sadiron.” Was this the brand name or a name people called this type of iron?

ANSWER: A flatiron pointed at both ends and having a removable handle is commonly referred to as a sad iron. First used in 1738, it became a regular household item by the mid-18th century and continued in use until the last decade of the 19th.

From research, historians know that the Chinese started pressing cloth using hot metal before anyone else. At the same time, Viking women used simple round linen smoothers made of dark glass along with smoothing boards to iron cloth. Others used hand-size stones which they rubbed over woven cloth to smooth it, polish it, or press it into pleats. And while some may have dampened linen first, it’s unlikely that these women heated their “smoothers.” Later glass smoothers, called slickers, slickstones, or slickenstones, had handles. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that blacksmiths began forging smoothing irons, heated by a fire or on a stove, for home use.

People began to call these flat smoothing irons “sad” irons, based on the Old English word “sad” meaning heavy, dense, or solid. Although most of these irons were small, they were very heavy, thus women looked forward to ironing day with some distain, knowing the drudgery it entailed.

On Mondays, women washed both clothes and bedding. They reserved Tuesdays for ironing, a chore that took all day and tired them as much as washing.

At home, ironing traditional fabrics without the benefit of electricity was a hot, arduous job. Women had to keep their sadirons immaculately clean, sand-papered, and polished. They also had to keep them away from fireplaces to avoid getting soot on them and had to regularly grease them lightly to avoid having them rust. Beeswax, applied to the underside of an iron, prevented it from sticking to starched cloth.

Women needed to own at least two irons—one for ironing and one for re-heating—to make the sadiron system work well. Large Victorian households with servants often had a special ironing-stove on which to heat the irons, fitted with slots for several irons and a place to set a water jug on top.

With no way to control temperature, women had to constantly test to see if their iron was hot enough by spitting on its heated underside. They learned the right temperature by experience—hot enough to smooth the cloth but not so hot as to scorch it. So they wouldn’t burn their hands, they had to grip the handles of their irons with a thick rag.

On April 4,1871, an enterprising women named Mary Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa (Yes, that’s right, the place where the fictional character, Radar O-Rielly, hailed from on the hit T.V. series, “M.A.S.H.”), received a U.S. patent for a lighter sadiron with a detachable wooden handle, which remained cool while ironing. Women could purchase several iron bases which could all be heating on the stove while she ironed. Women loved the idea.

She received another patent for an iron with a hollow body which could be filled with a material that didn’t conduct heat, such as plaster of Paris, clay or cement. In her patent, Mrs. Potts claimed that these materials held the heat longer so that women could iron more garments without reheating their as often.

Mrs. Potts exhibited her new sadiron in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. She prominently featured her picture in advertising for her new iron.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Joined Together Forever

QUESTION: How can I tell the difference between handcart dovetailing and machine cut dovetail? What other distinguishing characteristics can you tell me about that will help identify the age and authenticity of a piece of furniture?

ANSWER: Dovetailing is an excellent way to estimate the age of a piece of antique furniture.
The name “dovetail” comes from the appearance of the joints, used to assemble drawers and structural pieces on case or storage furniture, such as chests and bureaus, which look like the triangle shape of a dove’s tail. The earliest examples appeared on furniture placed with mummies in Egyptian tombs thousands of years ago. Similar ones appeared on pieces in the burial tombs of   ancient Chinese emperors.

Each joint has two parts—the pin and the tail. The pins protrude from the fronts of drawers while the tails are negative holes in the sides of drawers into which they fit. Early cabinetmakers cut these joints by hand, using small, precision saws and wood chisels,  producing different sized pins and tails, with the tails being larger than the pins. These early joints often had only three or four dovetails per joint. First, they made tiny angled saw cuts, then carefully cut out the pins on both sides to avoid splintering using a sharpened chisel. They cut the pins from one board and, the tails from another so they matched perfectly, thus giving them both strength and durability.

Not only did cabinetmakers use hand cut dovetails to hold the sides of drawers together, they also used them to join the structural members of case or storage pieces, such as dressers and bureaus. Back then, handmade screws and nails cost a lot and could rust and expand, sometimes cracking the wood they secured. Glues of the time weren’t much better and often dried out and weakened.
Simpler country furniture often had larger dovetails, or even a single pin and tail.

Towards the latter part of the 19th century, cabinetmakers began to use machines to construct dovetail joints, resulting in equally sized pins and tails running from the top to bottom of the joint. Today, cabinetmakers add a touch of glue to the joint to assure it will last for a long time.

Hand made dovetails remained the standard of good furniture craftsmanship until 1867, when Charles Butler Knapp invented a machine to cut  “scallop and dowel,”  or round-style dovetails, often used on late Victorian and Eastlake furniture. While Knapp’s machine revolutionized dovetail joint making, routers, producing the familiar keystone shaped pin and tail dovetail, came into widespread use and became the standard of better American furniture manufacturers today.

Since the dovetail joint has evolved over the last 144 years, the type of dovetailed joint, especially in drawers, can be used to date antique furniture. To approximate the date of a piece of antique furniture, remove a drawer and look closely at the dovetail joints. If it’s been cut by hand, the drawer will only have a few dovetails which will not be even. If the joints are closely spaced and precisely cut, then they’re machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate that a cabinetmaker produced a piece before 1860.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taking the Mystery Out of Identifying Antiques

QUESTION: I have what I believe to be an English ceramic plate with a mark that looks like a diamond with a bunch of letters and numbers in it. Can you tell me what that means?

ANSWER: The stamp on the back of your plate is known as a mark. Manufacturers of English pottery used this particular design between 1842 and 1883. The letters and numbers indicate the dates of the plate’s design registration with the British patent office. You can easily decipher this alpha-numeric code by checking the chart found on the Phoenix Masonry Web site or in Kovels' New Dictionary of Marks--Pottery & Porcelain: 1850 to the Present by Ralph and Terry Kovel (Crown Publishers, New York).

Pottery makers replaced this diamond-shaped registry mark with a sequential numbering system prefaced by the abbreviation Rd. No.  in 1884. Over the years, they modified the arrangement of the numbers several times, so it can be confusing. If you need specific information, you can contact the British Designs Registry Patent Office for dates registered in and after 1909 and the British Public Record Office for dates registered prior to 1909.

Sometimes, pottery and porcelain makers used word indications that spelled out the date. If the mark shows the country of origin, this means the piece dates after 1891, according to the U.S.  McKinley Tariff Law.

Often manufacturers worldwide employed words to describe their wares. These usually had start and end dates, making it easy to figure out the approximate date of a piece. For instance, the term "Nippon,” the Japanese name for Japan, indicates that piece of Japanese porcelain dates from 1891 to 1921while "Made in Occupied Japan" shows that the piece dates from  1945 to 1952. "Semi-vitreous" means the piece appeared on the market after 1901 while "bone china" indicates that the piece dates generally from the 20th century.  The phrase "oven-proof' appeared on pottery and china after 1933, but "dishwasher proof ” didn’t appear until after 1955. Sometimes a location, such as "East Germany" can indicate a time period, which in this case extends from 1949 to1990.

If a piece of pottery or porcelain has a mark showing a design and/or maker’s name, this information may also help to date it. You’ll find loads of resources, both in print and online, to help you identify early English, European, and Asian pottery and porcelain marks.

In the United States, makers stamped patent numbers on the backs and bottoms of their pottery pieces. A patent number represents the very earliest an article could have been produced. For example, a patent number of 16,388 indicates the piece appeared after Jan. 1, 1857 but prior to Jan. 1, 1858. Therefore, it dates from 1857, the year of its patent registration. Should you discover several sequential patent number sets on one piece, you should look up the final set on a patent date chart to date the piece.

Marks on furniture, glass, and silver are another story. When a maker uses his name or logo, you may have enough information to track the date of manufacture. Often during the course of the run of a piece, the maker will use different names. This is true of Tiffany glass. On some pieces, Tiffany signed, that is incised, his name “Louis C. Tiffany.” On later pieces, “Tiffany Studios” appears on the piece, and yet others show no mark at all.

Early furniture makers often scratched their name on the bottom of a piece, such as under the seat of a chair. But by the early 20th century, almost all manufacturers used labels affixed to the backs or bottoms of their pieces. If a piece of furniture has a label, it surely indicates that the piece is modern. Gustav Stickley employed a red decal featuring his logo, a joiner's compass, from 1902 to 1903 as compared to the revised decals Stickley used between 1903 and 1912.


Monday, October 3, 2011

Eating Above the Clouds

QUESTION: My father used to fly a lot on business, and each time he flew somewhere, he’d keep a souvenir of that flight. Sometimes it was just a timetable or a ticket jacket, but at other times, he’d bring home a cup or a silver spoon or a menu with the logo of the airline on it. Are these items worth collecting?

ANSWER: People who traveled by plane, especially internationally, during the 1930s to the 1970s often kept a souvenir of their flights, including decks of playing cards, flight wings, timetables, postcards, flight bags, silverware and dishes. During that era, flights served full meals to all passengers, not just those in First Class. To fly anywhere was a special experience. People dressed up in their Sunday best and expected to dine on fine china using silver flatware on most flights.

There are lots of collectors of airline memorabilia out there. Propelled by personal memories and an eternal fascination with flying, these collectors seek the well-crafted and designed implements used on those mid-20th-century flights. And when some airlines like Eastern and Pan Am came upon hard times in the late 1980s, the market for airline dinner and silverware became speculative. Some, like Pan Am, were in operation from the early days of commercial aviation in 1927 to its shut down in 1991.

Airline collectibles consist of a wide variety of items, including timetables, crew wings, safety cards, barf bags, trays, liquor miniatures, plasticware, swizzle sticks, playing cards, safety cards, seat occupied cards, inflight magazines, overnight kits, flight bags, soap, hat badges, patches, buttons, service pins, hats, uniforms, ticket jackets, boarding passes, annual reports, posters,  brochures, ashtrays, pins, badges, toy and model planes, advertisements, games, watches and coloring books. Collectors particularly covet china, glassware, silverplate, flatware, salt and pepper shakers, and menus bearing the airline’s name or logo. Also, the older the item, the more valuable. Likewise, the more renowned or limited the airline's history, the more collectors are interested in them.

Some airlines first began serving meals on board aircraft about 1930. But the earliest marked china which they used dates from the mid 1930's. Generally, any china pieces from before WWII are rare and highly sought after by collectors. Prices likewise reflect the rarity and some pieces from that era are nearly $1,000. Not only are these pieces valuable because of their age, but also due to their scarcity. Today's airlines have fleets of several hundred planes each carrying a hundred or more passengers, but in the 1930's even the majors had only maybe a couple dozen planes each holding a few dozen passengers.

American and PanAm had some of the earliest examples of nicely marked china. PanAm flew its famous Flying Clippers across the Pacific, so the china used on them is quite rare. Most of the early china was very lightweight so as to not overload the planes, but there are several exceptions with both American and PanAm.

While the postwar era found most of the larger airlines, both domestic and foreign, having china, some of the smaller carriers didn’t start using it until the jet era. Both Delta and Continental, for example, used plastic dishes in the prop era.

The early jet era was undoubtedly the Golden Age of fine airline china. Each carrier competed with the others for speed and service. The service often included luxury dishes like steak or lobster.  Many of the small foreign carriers got their first china on their first jets.

Airline dinnerware is probably the most commonly found collectible at the airline memorabilia shows, and the variety is often astounding.

Much of the china seen at the shows comes from legitimate sources. When airlines change their logo or their china design, they sell off the older material or give it to their employees. Depending on the quality, quantity and condition of these items, they may have value perhaps in the hundreds or the thousands. Those airlines who also fly internationally use different china on those flights. China used by foreign airlines is often made by the best manufacturers—Wedgewood, Spode, Royal Doulton, and Noritake. Generally any pre-World War II china pieces are rare and highly sought after. Prices likewise reflect that rarity and some pieces sell for nearly $1,000.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Art of Human Hair

QUESTION: My grandmother left me several items, one of which is a little round porcelain bowl that’s about four inches wide with a lid that has a 1½-inch hole in the top. Can you tell me what this might be?

ANSWER: The covered bowl you have is known as a hair receiver. Back in Victorian times, women used to save the hair from their brushes—most had long hair that needed to be brushed at least once a day to keep it clean—and also from trimmings.

Victorian women’s dressing tables often had a hair receiver as part of a dresser set consisting of receiver, powder jar, hatpin holder, brush, comb, nail buffer and tray. Many carried on the tradition into the early 20th century. They would comb the hair from their brushes and push it through the hole in the receiver. Later, they would stuff it into pillows or pincushions. Since women—and men--- didn’t wash their hair but once a week, they would apply oils to add scent and shine to their hair. This oil helped to lubricate straight pins and needles, making them easier to insert into fabric.

These women also used the hair they saved to make “ratts”—a small ball of hair that they inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. They made this by stuffing a sheer hairnet with the hair from the receiver until it was about the size of a potato, then sewing it shut. Women most likely used tangled hair from their hairbrushes to make these. A Victorian woman considered her hairstyle the epitome of style and took great pains to make it stand out.

But the most well-known uses for hair was to make remembrances of deceased loved ones. And though many people believe this practice originated in the mid 19th century, it actually began in the mid 17th. Even at that time, people wanted to have personal keepsakes of their loved ones, but since photography hadn’t been invented yet, they turned to jewelry made of human hair.

In the 1600s, people created medallions in the form of initials in gold laid on a background of woven hair set under crystal. Women wore these as memorial jewelry, usually in the form of brooches.

After this type of jewelry went out of style in the 18th century because women thought it grotesque, it once again appeared in the mid 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. Instead of the gold initials of the deceased, women used seed pearls and watercolors along with enamels to create a more elaborate picture under the glass. Often, they spread the hair out to look like a weeping willow tree.

To make keepsakes for a deceased loved one, women cut the hair from the deceased's head.
Prior to the 1850s, they stored the hair in cloth bags until they had enough to make a piece. Unlike the tangled hair used for making ratts, women preferred using cut hair to make their keepsake pieces. In the last half of the century, porcelain and ceramic manufacturers began to produce storage containers specifically designed to hold hair.

While most of the jewelry made of hair was for mourning purposes, some women made pieces to give to their living loved ones. Some made watch chains woven from their hair to give to their husbands and boyfriends to take into battle during the Civil War.

The popularity of hair jewelry peaked in the 1850s but after the Civil War another trend took hold. Instead of creating keepsake jewelry, women began producing works of art from human hair. They employed different colors of hair to create pictures and mosaics under glass domes or frames. Sometimes these mimicked famous paintings. At other times, they created stilllifes of flowers. They also gave the popular family tree new meaning by making one using the hair from each family member, plus pictures of the family, ribbons, dried flowers, butterflies, and even little stuffed birds.

Primarily made in porcelain and ceramic, manufacturers also made hair receivers of glass, silver, silver plate, wood and celluloid. The glass types often had brass or silver tops. While the round ones seemed to be the most popular, there were oval ones as well. And though some rested on little legs or pedestals, most had flat bottoms. Skilled workers painted many of the porcelain ones with floral or Oriental designs on both the receiver and top. Others had simple gilt borders around the edge of the top. Companies such as Limoges, Noritake, O.& Prussia, R.S. Prussia and Wistoria all made hair receivers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Charles Eastlake—America’s Harbinger of Taste

QUESTION: I have a three-piece set of furniture that belonged to my grandparents and perhaps to their parents, and I'm trying to identify what it is. Can you tell me if you think it might be Eastlake and if so, what can you tell me about this furniture style?

ANSWER: What you have is an Eastlake parlor set, dating from around 1880. But it wasn’t designed by Charles Locke Eastlake. Instead, he only suggested designs in his book Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details. More than any other person, he was responsible for introducing the principles of the English design reform movement to America.

Eastlake considered simplicity the key to beauty. He thought the objects in people's homes should be attractive and well made by workers who took pride in their hand work or machine work. His influence led to a broad demand for relatively simple, clean-lined "art furniture" between 1870 and 1890.

Written to instruct the average housewife in the principles of tasteful home decoration, Eastlake’s book achieved immediate popularity. Though Eastlake included some of his own sketches among the illustrations of well-designed furniture chosen for his book, he was primarily a critic of taste, not a furniture designer. The furniture illustrated in it had ornamental features including shallow carving, marquetry, incised or pierced geometric designs, rows of turned spindles, chamfered edges, brass strap hinges, bail handles, and keyhole hardware inspired by Gothic forms. Every decorative device, according to Eastlake, also had to fulfill a useful function.

He especially disdained the "shaped" forms of Rococo Revival. He considered the curved forms of this Victorian style rickety and constructively weak. To relieve the simplicity of rectilinear forms, Eastlake advised using turned legs or spindle supports.

For those who wished more richness in their furniture, he suggested restrained, conventionalized carving, inlay, and sometimes even veneer. Eastlake believed ornament should be stylized rather than naturalistic.

His book further suggested that furniture be made of solid, strongly grained woods such as mahogany, walnut, or oak. Most Eastlake-style furniture found today is usually made of the latter.He preferred oil-rubbed finishes to "French-polished" ones, and disliked the shiny look of varnish.

To the modern eye, Eastlake-style furniture, with its intricate marquetry, gilded incised designs, spindled galleries, inset tiles, richly grained woods, and decorative turned elements, hardly seems “simple.” But in contrast to the heavily carved furniture of earlier Victorian decades, embellished with naturalistic roses and bunches of grapes imposed on the elaborate Rococo shapes now regarded as the embodiment of Victorian design, Eastlake-inspired furniture was remarkably functional and clean-lined.

Eastlake-style furniture often featured tables and chests with marble tops, some the traditional white, others in rich Italian pinks and browns. Tables and chairs had aprons and legs incised with horizontal or vertical lines called reeding and camfered corners. Round legs on chairs also featured ring-like annulets. And acanthus leaf designs could be found incised into even the least expensive pieces.

Unfortunately, while Eastlake-style furniture may have looked refined, most chairs and sofas weren’t very comfortable and were meant to be used in formal parlors for guests only.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Accounting for Taste

QUESTION: From what period does this chair originate? The legs look quite modern. Is it a modern interpretation of an antique design?

ANSWER: This chair is a fine example of French Art Deco. As one of six of a set of dining chairs, it would have been placed under an equally simple, but elegant dining table.

Art Deco emerged in Paris just before World War I as a luxurious design style. But it wasn’t until after the war in the 1920s that Modernism appeared throughout Europe. Until the art world coined the name Art Deco later on in the 1960s, designers referred to the style as Arte Moderne which is French for Modern Art.

Art Nouveau furniture became a commercial failure. The intricate inlays and carvings made it too expensive for all except the very rich.  Concerned by competitive advances in design and manufacturing made in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century, French designers realized they could rejuvenate a their French furniture industry by producing luxurious pieces that a greater number of people could afford.

The founding in 1900 of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (the Society of Artist-Decorators), a professional designers' association, marked the appearance of new standards for French design and production. Each year the association held exhibitions in which their members exhibited their work. In 1912, the French Government decided to sponsor an international exhibition of decorative arts to promote French design. However, they had to postpone the exhibition, originally scheduled for 1915, until after World War I.

Set at the Trocadero in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower, La Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held finally in 1925, was a massive trade fair that dazzled more than 16 million visitors during its seven-month run. On exhibit was everything from architecture and interior design to jewelry and perfumes, all intended to promote French luxury items. With such a long name, visitors began referring to the exhibition, and subsequently the design movement, as Art Deco. On display were a wide range of decorative arts, created between the two world wars.

The French Government invited over 20 countries to participate. All works on display had to be modern, no copying of historical styles of the past would be permitted. The stylistic unity of exhibits at the fair indicated that Art Deco had already become an international style by 1925.The great commercial success of Art Deco ensured that designers and manufacturers throughout Europe would continue to produce furniture in this style until well into the 1930s.

In France, Art Deco combined the traditional quality and luxury of French furniture with the good taste of Classicism and the exoticism of far-off lands. Many designers used sumptuous, expensive materials like exotic hardwoods, ivory, and lacquer combined with geometric forms and luxurious fabrics to provide plush comfort. Motifs like Chinese fretwork, African textile patterns, and Central American ziggurats provided designers with the exotic designs to play with to create a fresh, modern look. They depicted natural motifs as graceful and highly stylized. The use of animal skins, horn, and ivory accents from French colonies in Africa gave pieces exotic appeal.

French Art Deco furniture featured elegant lines and often had ornamentation applied to its surface. It could be utilitarian or purely ornamental, conceived only for its decorative value. It was the look that was important to many French designers, not the use or comfort of the piece. Even today, some pieces look as if their designers intended them to remain on display in a store window and not be used at all. At times it seemed as though the designers and their patrons were trying to escape the dismal reality of daily life at that time.

In 1937, the French government sponsored another trade fair, La Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (The International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life). Less ambitious than the 1925 exhibition, this fair focused more on France's place in the modern world rather than on its production of luxury goods, thus marking the end of the French Art Deco Era.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Going Retro

QUESTION: I recently purchased a one arm chair that has a metal stamp that says The B.L. Marble Chair Co. ,Bedford Ohio. It is a cool mid-century design and is walnut and leather. Do you know anything about this chair like what its purpose was?

ANSWER:  Barzilla L. Marble founded the B.L. Marble Chair Co. in 1894, after working at several other chair companies. His grandfather operated a chair factory in Marbletown, New York, and others in his family likewise made chairs, so it was natural for Marble to do so. He formed a brief partnership with A.L. Shattuck in 1885, but struck out on his own nine years later.

His company produced fine wooden chairs made for comfort and elegance that were made to last. Up until 1910, it produced chairs for the home, but during World War I, Marble added a division to make wooden aircraft propellers for the military.

By 1921. Marble’s company had outgrown its small wooden buildings and construction began on new brick buildings which had more than four acres of floor space. After Marble died in 1932,  A. D. Pettibone became president of the company and part owner. In 1953 Pettibone sold his interest in the Marble Chair Company to a group of local investors. Eventually, another man, also named Pettibone but not related to the first, bought the company, and it became extremely successful.

The company produced one-arm “modern” chairs most likely in the mid-60s under the second Pettibone owner. Furniture makers intended one-arm chairs, both originally in the 1870s and then in the 1960s as chairs to be placed in a corner. Today, most people would refer to these 1960's chairs as “retro” in style.

But exactly what does retro mean? According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary, retro means "imitative of a style from the recent past." Retro is a culturally outdated or aged style, trend, mode, or fashion, most likely from the 1940s through the 1960s. Currently, eBay offers over 468,000 different retro items at auction.

People born between the 1940 and 1950 became teenagers during the 1950s and 1960s. And because those two periods provide memories for many of them, anything retro is in, whether it’s furniture, accessories, clothing, and collectibles, especially those related to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Life in the 1950s was conservative, but changes were about to take place. Such innovations as Velcro, Tang, frozen foods, transistor radios, Frisbees and the hula-hoop began to appear. Bill Haley and the Comets rocked around the clock while jukeboxes filled every burger joint and ice cream parlor with the new sounds.

Furniture and accessories, especially the ubiquitous pole lamp, featured streamlined styling in avocado and gold. By 1957 there were 47 million T.V. sets in America’s homes, four times the number of just seven years before. Families began to watch T.V. shows like “I Love Lucy” incessantly. They even ate in front of the T.V., thus necessitating the invention of the T.V. tray and comfortable casual furniture without frills.

Later on in the 1960s, the space race captured everyone’s attention as astronauts walked on the Moon and teens danced the twist to the music of Chubby Checker and sang along to Beatles’ tunes. More innovations such as lava lamps and electric knives caught on eventually providing the retro movement with lots of collectibles.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Investing in Old Stock Certificates

QUESTION: I’ve been unpacking some old boxes of things left to me by my father. In one of them I discovered some old stock certificates. Are they worthless or do they have investment value?

ANSWER: Old stock certificates, especially those from defunct companies, are only worth the paper that they’re printed on. But some, especially those with signatures from famous people, famous companies, or those involved in major scandals, can be worth quite a bit.

What exactly is a stock certificate? A stock certificate is the physical piece of paper representing ownership in a company and includes the number of shares owned, the date, an identification number, usually a corporate seal, and signatures. They’re larger than a standard letter-size piece of paper and many also have elaborate engraved designs to discourage counterfeiting.

Stocks represent partial ownership in a company. Today, most companies keep records of ownership electronically but some allow their shareholders to request a paper version. Each certificate starts out as a standard design to which the company adds the date of issue, identification number, and other information, including the printed signature of the chief executive. Executives on older certificates signed them in ink.

According to financial historians, partnership agreements dividing ownership into shares began to be used in northern Italy during the Middle Ages. However, these early shares were only intended to be in effect for a short time and only included a small group of people. Eventually the idea of shareholding spread to Belgium, and it’s believed the concept caught on in the trading town of Bruges. It was here that the idea of the stock exchange originated.

Eventually, shareholding took its next big step in Amsterdam in the early 17th century when the Dutch East India Company, formed to encourage trade in spices from Indonesia, issued shares that were tradable. The company compensated its shareholders well for their investments. In 1621, the market saw the issuance of shares for the Dutch West India Company, and much financial innovation ensued. Stock exchanges in the New World didn’t appear until 1790 in Philadelphia and then two years later in New York.

Collectors love canceled stock certificates because of their beautiful and elaborate graphics, as well as their connection to the historically significant companies they represent.

Old certificate values vary depending on their rarity, beauty, collector interest, historical importance, and  autographs, and industries for which they’re issued. Like all collectibles, supply and demand determine value.  Interesting pieces create a lot of demand while supplies vary.

What affects the market for stock certificates? Above all, general economic conditions tend to influence the prices of old stock certificates because many collectors of them are also involved in the real stock market. The law of supply and demand, as with other collectibles, governs this market as well. And Internet auctions have increased not only the availability of old stock certificates but their ease of purchase.

What determines the pricing of old stock certificates? Two important price boosters are signatures of important people and newly formed companies. For example, a Standard Oil Company certificate that John D. Rockefeller signed is worth nearly $8,000 today. Prices have leveled off in the last few years and finding rare certificates at reasonable prices has become a real challenge.

As with postage stamps, pricing can be affected by the rarity of a certificate—the rarer it is, the higher the price. An autograph of someone famous of the stock company with which he was involved also raises the price. Whether a stock certificate has ever been issued also influences it value, as does its age and decoration. The location and history of the company don’t affect the price of a certificate as much as, say, its condition and whether its canceled or not.

However, no one point is always in control of a certificate’s value. For example, a Cody-Dyer Arizona Mining & Milling stock certificate, from a failed gold mine, signed by Buffalo Bill Cody currently is currently valued at approximately$4,000, while a rare unsigned Buffalo Bill's Wild West Co. stock certificate sold for $20,000 at auction in 2008.

As with any collectible, you should always collect stock certificates that are in excellent condition, have been issued, and are uncanceled. You should also collect certificates from industries that you’re familiar with or in which you’re interested. Early companies issued their stocks in small quantities, thus limiting the number of their certificates in today’s market. But there are lots out there for sale at low to reasonable prices.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unlocking the Mystery Behind the Padlock

QUESTION: I’ve found a Victorian padlock that I’d like to buy. Does it go back to the mid- 1800's during Queen Victoria's reign? It’s quite large, measuring 6 inches high x 4 inches wide x 1.5 inches deep. Was that a common size? The seller told me it’s called an "Iron Smoke House Lock," What does that mean?

ANSWER: The lock you’re thinking of purchasing isn’t all that rare. During the Industrial Revolution in England, Midland lock makers produced them by the thousands.

As England moved slowly from an agrarian culture to an industrial one towards the end of the 18th century, locksmiths began designing locks that cost less and had more strength. But burglars kept one step ahead of them. Up to that time, only wealthy merchants could afford strong locks. The average person had to make do with poorly made penny padlocks to protect his coal storage bin from thieves, and homeowners wanted locks for their doors and windows. With an increase in thievery, people demanded locks for everything from Bibles to carriages to schools and warehouses.

The answer to everyone’s needs was the padlock, a portable, if not somewhat cumbersome, device to protect against forced entry.

Robert Barron invented the double–acting tumbler lock in 1778. The tumbler or lever falls into a slot in the bolt which will yield only if the tumbler is lifted out of the slot to exactly the right height. Barron’s lock had two such levers, each of which had to be lifted to a different height before the bolt could be withdrawn.

Jeremiah Chubb improved on Barron's lock n 1818 . He incorporated a spring into the lock which would catch and hold any lever that had been raised too high by a lock picker. Not only did design add an extra level of security, it showed when someone had tampered with the lock.

Early padlocks offered  convenience since people could carry them and use them where necessary. Historians believe the Romans were the first to use padlocks. There’s also evidence that merchants traveling the ancient trade routes to Asia and China also used them to protect their goods.

Padlocks became known as “smokehouse locks” because people commonly used them to lock their meat in their smokehouses to prevent poachers from stealing it. Lockmakers, employing the traditional English design, made those first used in the U.S. from sheets of wrought iron and simple lever mechanisms.

Each lock consisted of a body, shackle, and a locking mechanism. The typical shackle is a “U” shaped loop of metal that encircles whatever is being secured by the padlock. Most padlock shackles either swung away or slid out of the padlock body when in the unlocked position. Improved manufacturing methods allowed the manufacture of better padlocks that put an end to the Smokehouse around 1910.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Preserving Antique Furniture

Some pieces of furniture, especially those constructed of harder woods, such as walnut, mahogany, maple, oak, or cherry, may only need to have their surface finish preserved. In the case of furniture made of these woods, there may be enough of the original finish left to restore the piece rather than refinish it.

Before doing anything, study your piece. Is the finish pretty much intact? Does the piece have a nice patina? Is the piece more than 100 years old? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, then you should do your best to preserve the finish of your piece.

The first step to preservation is cleaning. Furniture gets dirty, even grimy over time. Before you can apply a new finish, you need to get rid of all the accumulated dirt and grease that often make it difficult to tell what kind of wood the piece of furniture is made of. Grime can also hide the fine lines of inlay and marquetry. Believe it or not, using lemon oil, a popular furniture polish, can do more harm than good. Since its made of a light petroleum oil and some paraffin wax, the wood doesn’t absorb it. Instead, it acts as a surface dust catcher.

One of the best products for cleaning wood, especially furniture, is Murphy’s Oil Soap. Today, it’s also in a spray bottle, but in case you can’t find it that way, you can make your own cleaning solution by mixing a capful of Murphy’s in a spray bottle of water. For this, you can use any empty spray cleaner bottle, as long as you wash it out thoroughly first. Since water will loosen any glued joint, and also tends to raise the grain of the wood, you don’t’ want to use very much. An old washcloth will do quite well for cleaning.

Spray the Murphy’s on a damp washcloth and then rub it on the surface of the furniture. Rinse the cloth when it gets to dirty. Have a second wet, but wrung out, washcloth ready to wipe off the Murphy’s Oil solution, wringing the cloth nearly dry after every few wipes. You can also use a green scruby cloth, sold in Dollar Stores, if there’s hard to remove grime. A stiff-bristle brush will allow you to get the dirt out of carved and turned areas. The secret is to clean only a small area at a time–one leg of a chair, one part of a chest, and so on. After you clean an area, wipe it dry with an old face towel. Be sure to wash out all your cloths or use others as you progress, especially on a large piece of furniture. After you have finished cleaning your piece of furniture, give it a final wipe with a clean cotton rag and set it aside to dry for 24 hours.

Now you’re ready to apply a new finish. You can either use plain tung oil (see last week’s blog) or a product like Minwax® Water-Based WoodSheen® which is a water-soluble mixture of furniture finish and stain that comes in six colors. For a piece that’s got lots of scratches or marks, it’s best to choose a stain color that complements the wood’s original finish.

The final step is polishing the entire piece using a prepared wax like Minwax, which comes in light and dark varieties. Obviously, use the light for woods like oak or cherry and the dark for woods like walnut or mahogany. Apply the wax with a piece of soft cotton cloth like an old athletic sock and after 30 minutes, polish the surface with an old face towel. One coat should do it, but for tabletops, apply two coats of wax.

Rub off the first coat with 0000 steel wool, then apply the second and polish with the towel. The more coats of wax you apply, the more water resistant the top will become. A light polishing once or twice a year will keep your piece in great condition.

There are no short cuts or time savers to this entire process. The work can be slow and at times tedious, but the results are worth it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Basic Refinishing 101

QUESTION: I have a 1930's silky oak drop-door desk that has been in our shed for about 20 years. It has seen a few cyclones and had a lot of weathering and the doors are off and knobs missing. This desk holds special memories for me as a young child watching my dad working at it. I’d like to refinish it but have no idea where to begin. How hard would it be for a beginner like me to refinish it?

ANSWER: Your desk sounds like the ideal piece of furniture on which to learn about refinishing furniture. For many beginners, refinishing seems easy, but it’s far from it. First you need to decide if the piece needs to be completely refinished or the original finish preserved. Your desk seems like it may fall somewhere in between.

It’s only been within the last 20 years or so that refinishing products have appeared that make the job less intimidating. However, most people think you have to strip off all the old finish before applying a new one. That all depends on the condition of the piece.

Your piece appears to have been through some tough times. Before you do anything, you need to evaluate it. Has the finish been mostly removed by weathering or is it spotty? If it’s the former, then you’ll need to sand it following the grain of the wood with fine to medium grade sandpaper. If it’s the latter, you may be able to just clean it up and apply a new coat of varnish. With refinishing, a little effort goes a long way. The nearer you can keep your desk to its original condition, the better.

Let’s assume the worst. If the finish has mostly been removed by weathering, you’ll need to remove what remains with a good varnish remover. Be sure to buy one that’s water soluble. Even though this takes longer to achieve the results you want, the fumes are mild and cleanup is easy. When using a remover, always brush it on with the grain of the wood. Do a little section at a time, turning the piece on end if necessary to make it easier to apply the remover. Scrap it off with a putty knife, and be sure to have a roll of paper towels handy to wipe up the excess and stripped varnish or paint.

After you’ve completely stripped your desk of its finish, lightly sand it with fine sandpaper. Wrap the sandpaper around a wooden block for support and sand with the wood grain. Be careful not to over sand---just enough to smooth the surface. After you’re finished sanding, wipe the desk with a damp cloth to remove all the dust. Do not get the wood wet.

Once you have prepared your desk for its new finish, let it rest for a day to make sure the surface is thoroughly dry. Dust it off with a dry cloth to make sure it’s clean, then begin to rub on a new furniture finish of tung or Chinese oil using a piece of white tube sock or other soft cotton material going with the grain of the wood. Several manufacturers make this, including Formbys, and you should be able to buy it at your local hardware or home center. The first coat will soak into the newly stripped wood. Let it dry 24 hours, then sand lightly with fine sandpaper. Dust it with a damp cloth again and let dry. Apply a second coat of the tung oil and repeat the process, except this time rub it with 0000 steel wool after it dries. Dust off again and apply a third and final coat of tung oil, but don’t rub with the steel wool this time.

The advantage to using tung oil is its rapid drying capability. Though it will feel dry to the touch in an hour or so, be sure to let it thoroughly dry for 24 hours. And don’t apply it on a humid or rainy day. And here's a tip: Wrap your application cloth in plastic wrap or put it into a Zip-Loc sandwich bag and place it in your freezer. Take it out 30 minutes before you're ready to apply another coat, and it will be ready for you.

Be sure to tune in next week to learn about preserving the finish of a piece of furniture that isn’t in such bad shape.