Monday, July 25, 2011

Solving the Ivory Mystery

QUESTION: I have a piece of scrimshaw which has been in my family for years.  I’d like to know how I can determine if it’s authentic or not. On the tooth are two American flags with 23 stars.

ANSWER: Trying to figure out whether a piece of scrimshaw is real or not isn’t that hard. Telling the difference between ivory, bone and plastic requires some close inspection. The high value of scrimshaw due to its rarity and artistic craftsmanship foster fakes.

Ivory, bone, and plastic each have unique characteristics which differentiate them from each other. Using a magnifying glass, look to see if the surface of the piece is smooth or lined. Plastic fakes are usually smooth. True ivory, on the other hand, has either crosshatched or parallel lines, depending on the type. Ivory pieces may also have delicate wavy lines.

How the ivory was originally cut is another indication of its authenticity. In the early 19th century, scrimshanders (those who carved scrimshaw) cross-cut their pieces. Newer ones cut theirs parallel.

The most popular and well-known form of scrimshaw came from whale ivory. Whalemen incised designs into the teeth of whales and often carved other pieces and whalebone into useful objects for their wives and girlfriends. Genuine whale ivory appears whiter and smoother than most other types, though whalemen polished even whale’s teeth since ivory isn’t usually smooth in its natural form.

As the whale trade reached across the Pacific, scrimshanders gained access to elephant ivory, which, unlike whale ivory, has a distinct parallel grain. However, if the lines are perfectly parallel, chances are that its fake ivory, made from ground up bone. Another type they used was walrus ivory which has dark spots on its surface.

Other indications of a piece of scrimshaw’s authenticity are the little mistakes and corrections made by the scrimshander as he handcarved it. Some modern fakers use computers and tattoo needles to create their designs, based on those on old scrimshaw pieces.

Those pieces that appear pitted are usually bone. And while not as valuable as scrimshaw on ivory, the craftsmanship is the same, giving scrimshaw on bone a value of its own.

The oldest test for ivory is to try inserting a pin, heated to red-hot, into someplace on the piece that is out of sight. If the hot pin dents the surface, the piece is plastic. If it smokes, the piece is bone.

Another way to test a piece is to look carefully for a single seam that goes all around the piece, indicating where the two molds containing the plastic piece come together. The surface will also appear much lighter in both weight and color which is consistent all over. Ivory tends to vary in color from both piece to piece and on the same piece. Some people claim that by holding a piece of scrimshaw to a person’s cheek, it will feel cool if ivory and warm if plastic.

To date a piece of scrimshaw look for identifying characteristics, in this case two American flags, each with 23 stars. The 23-star flag was only in use from 1820-1822, thus giving a clue to the date of the piece’s creation.

Read more about collecting scrimshaw.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

QUESTION: I have  a collection of old medicine bottles, all unopened, from a local pharmacy. Most contain narcotics and have the original corks intact in them.  How should I dispose of the contents, mostly liquid, some pills, how to remove the corks to save them, as well as how to clean the bottles without ruining the labels?

ANSWER: Like witches brew, old medicine bottles can contain some nasty substances. Many are extremely volatile and shouldn’t be mixed with any other substance. But before I get to disposing of the contents, it’s important to know what the laws are governing such them.

Collectors of old medicine bottles do so for the bottles, themselves, if made before 1920. They’re especially interested in the bottle shapes. Those who collect bottles made after 1920 collect them for their contents and their labels. Generally, while collectibles, like cereal boxes, are worth more with their contents unopened, this isn’t so with old medicine bottles.
Laws governing the sale of containers with flammable, corrosive or poisonous contents have been on the books since 1908.  Cough syrups and other medicines often contain alcohol, classified as a flammable liquid by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The penalties are severe for selling bottles containing dangerous substances, especially in today’s terrorist-prone world.

Nationally, it’s the responsibilities of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to regulate toxic substances and investigate violations. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which became the legal foundation of the government's fight against the abuse of drugs and other substances.

The law is a bit lax when it comes to poisons, such as strychnine and a deadly product called mercury bi-chloride, formerly used as an anti-syphilitic and to clean wounds. So how do you dispose of nasty substances like this?

While most drugs can be thrown in the household trash, you need to take certain precautions before tossing them out, according to the FDA. The agency used to recommend that people flush some drugs down the toilet, but they no longer do since some of these dangerous substances have been found in the soil and water table. One possibility is to pour kitty litter into a plastic bucket and then pour the bottle contents—cough syrups and other liquids—into it. Let it sit for a while, then scoop up the kitty litter into a double plastic bag and toss it into your trash. Make sure you use enough kitty litter to soak up the contents. Do this outside preferably on the day before your trash will be collected.

You can do the same with pills and capsules, but instead of kitty litter, use coffee grounds. Pour the capsules in a Zip-Loc plastic storage bag containing the coffee grounds and mix the pills into them. Seal and place in your trash.

If you’re not sure how dangerous your bottle’s contents might be, you can look up the medicine in an older edition of the Physician’s Desk Reference or the Merck Manual. However, some of these substances, such as mercury bi-chloride, may no longer be used and, therefore, won’t be listed in any of the reference books. If in doubt, check with a local pharmacist.

The easiest way to clean old medicine bottles after you have disposed of the contents is to rinse them with a solution of warm soapy water. Don’t make the water too warm or the label will come loose. If the bottle has any residue or stains in it, especially those with narrow necks and small openings, you can buy a set of inexpensive fish cleaning brushes from your local pet store. If you can’t find these, check the baby aisle in your local drug store for soft bristle baby bottle brushes.
If the stain persists, pour a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water and let it set for a few hours, then try brushing the inside of the bottle again.

Unfortunately, the corks on old medicine bottles will have absorbed some of the solution and are just as dangerous as the bottle’s original contents, so throw them out. You can reuse those on bottles containing pills.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Figural Cookie Jars Hold Delicious Delights

QUESTION: I have a Goldilocks cookie was my mother-in-law’s mother’s, bought a long long time ago. On the bottom it has “Patent Pending” and the number 405.  Can you give me any information on this cookie jar?

ANSWER: The Regal Pottery Company, later known as Regal China, produced your beloved Goldilocks cookie jar in the 1940s. The jar stands a foot tall and is nine inches wide, and, yes, has “Goldilocks Pat Pend #405" stamped into the clay on its base.

Established in 1938, the company, located in Antioch, Illinois, remained in business for more then 50 years and became known for its high quality non-porous china and for the rich colored glazes that they used, especially on the fine cookie jars they made. Even earlier pieces of Regal china seldom have any crazing in the glaze. Besides the Goldilocks jar and lots of others, Regal also made the Quaker Oats cookie jar. Rumor had it that they made the original jar as a premium for the employees of the Quaker Oats Company. On the back of this cookie jar is the famous Quaker Oats Oatmeal Cookie Recipe. Unfortunately, the decline of the decanter business–Regal China also produced liquor decanters—forced the company to close in June of 1992.

Cookie jars don't have to be old to have substantial value since collectors determine a jar’s value  by design, rarity and condition more than its age. Though the British used covered jars of cut glass and silver made especially to hold shortbread biscuits during the 19th Century, thus the name “biscuit jar,” it was the American pottery jar that first caught the eye of collectors.

The first American cookie jars, either glass or pottery, gained popularity at the start of the Great Depression in 1929. Shaped like covered glass cylinders or pots with screw-on lids, these early cookie containers were more utilitarian than decorative although they were often painted with floral or leaf decorations.
The Brush Pottery Company of Zanesville, Ohio, produced the first ceramic cookie jar, in green and with "Cookies" painted on the front. The company marked their jars with “Brush USA.”
By the mid-1930s, stoneware became the predominant material for American cookie jars.

As the end of the 1930s decade dawned, most manufacturers followed the move to molded pottery, and designers became more innovative as they began to produce cookie jars in figural shapes resembling fruits, vegetables, animals, and other whimsical characters such as Goldilocks.

The golden age of American cookie jars got underway in 1940 and lasted until 1970, with several manufacturers rising to prominence, including the Red Wing, McCoy, Brush,. Hull, Regal China, Metlox, Shawnee, and Robinson-Ransbottom companies. Many of these companies located in the clay-rich Ohio River Valley. By the mid-1940s, cartoons and comics inspired many makers to reproduce the popular characters of the day–Superman, Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Mickey Mouse, and Woody Woodpecker, to name a few.

Collectors love McCoy cookie jars. The company, based in Roseville, Ohio, produced cookie jars from about 1939 until 1987. Their first jar–the “Mammy” cookie jar–is today one of the most valuable.

American Bisque of Williamstown, West Virginia is recognized as another top U. S. manufacturer, beginning in the mid-1930s. They’re particularly well known for the cartoon characters which they translated into cookie jars, and they marked them “U.S.A.” on the bottom.

Other well respected U.S. manufacturers are known for particular cookie jars or series, such as Metlox of California, maker of the highly sought after Little Red Riding Hood jar, and the Abingdon Pottery of Illinois, maker of the Mother Goose jar series.

Today, with the advent of Zip-Loc packaging and plastic, air-tight containers, the cookie jar, for the most part, has gone the way of the horse and buggy and the Ford Edzel. But the nostalgia lives in on the cookie jar collections of hundreds of admirers who long for those good old days and the delicious homemade cookies found inside these jars.