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.