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.