Monday, December 17, 2012

Windmill Folk Art

QUESTION: My mom has had an unusual sculpture in her garden for some years now. It’s a cast-iron rooster that looks like it may have been painted at one time. The thing is darn heavy, so no one has moved it for a long time. It seems to be attached to a concrete block. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: It sounds like your mom has a windmill counterbalance weight in her garden. If it weren’t for their appeal as folk art, these delightful oddies probably wouldn’t be as highly collectible as they are today. The windmill weight is a key component of the vaneless windmill produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Counterbalance weights were part of a short-lived but stylish variation of tail technology in windmill production. The Halladay Standard windmill, manufactured by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Company  (USWE) of Batavia, Illinois, was the first manufacturer to employ a patented self-regulating wheel that would place itself in or out of sail depending on the strength of the wind. This “folding” mill was first developed in 1854 with a wooden vane that attached to a wooden tail.

In the 1880s, USWE introduced a vaneless version of the Halladay Standard. The Vaneless Standard utilized a star-shaped counterbalance weight instead of a tail. The company produced this mill until 1916 while other companies produced their own versions with different styles of weights into the 1930s. Generally, windmill manufacturers only used counterbalance weights on folding wheel windmills. When electricity came to the re-mote areas of the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, windmills became obsolete.

Windmill makers cast the iron weights in the form of horses, roosters, bulls, squirrels, or rabbits. These
weights measure from 9 to 18 inches high and from 6 to 12 inches wide. And they can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Lighter ones, meant to be filled with scrap metal, were hollow cast. The bigger the mill, the heavier the weight. It all depended on the diameter of the wheel.

Although many collectors seek them out as folk art, they’re not really because they weren’t made in limited quantities by untutored rural or small-town craftsmen. Instead, factory workers cast them by the thousands. The Duplex Open Wheel Mill Company of Superior, Wisconsin, and an Elgin, Illinois, firm that produced the Hummer Windmill led the nation in windmill production.

Once known as the Windmill Capital of the World, Batavia, Illinois, was home to six windmill manufacturers—Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia Wind Mill Co., Challenge Co., Danforth Co., Snow Manufacturing Co., and U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.

Weights not only served as a counterbalance but also as a marketing device, often identifying the mill’s manufacturer with an embossed name someplace on it. But basically, the windmill weight just kept the wheel directed into the wind and prevented tower from tipping over.

What distinguishes one weight from another is its shape. Most windmill manufacturers produced weights in their own foundries. Animal shapes were the most common, but weights also represented letters of the alphabet, horseshoes, celestial bodies and spear tips. The Elgin Windmill Company offered the biggest selection of animals, including roosters, chickens and squirrels. Other companies used the horse, bull, eagle or buffalo for weights. Several, like the Elgin squirrel, rooster and chicken, came in various sizes, tailored to the wheel’s size.

Most weights sat atop a base plate, part of a box or ball often made of tin, cast iron or galvanized metal. Others attached directly to an iron bar. The box, plate or ball then attached to a wood beam extending from the windmill engine. Most weights have lost their bases, mostly due to falls. A sudden fall from a 60-foot tower could break off pieces of the weight, such as a horse’s tail or a rooster’s comb.

Of all the windmill weights out there, the Dempster horse and the Elgin rooster are the most reproduced pieces. Since weights are rare and expensive, it’s often difficult to tell an authentic weight from a reproduction.

In recent years prices for windmill weights have increased from $200 to over $1000 for especially unique ones in good condition. Weights should show traces of rust and pitting after having been exposed to weather over the years. Repainting them drastically reduces their value. However, the value of a windmill weight increases if its paint is 50 to 75 years old and shows wear from the weather.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What's All the Fuss About Fans?

QUESTION: I was digging around in my mother’s attic the other day and discovered a flat box containing two very beautiful fans. I imagine these must have belonged to her mother or grandmother. What can you tell me about them? Do they have any value?

ANSWER: Fans have been around for a very long time. As a piece of functional art, they go back as far as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians saw them as sacred instruments used in religious ceremonies. They also became a symbol of royal power. But it was the Chinese who evolved the fan into a complex, decorated instrument. The Japanese took the fan one step further and produced a folding version, supposedly based on the folding wings of a bat. When Marco Polo returned to Venice, he brought with him fans made of vellum, paper, swan skin with blades of gold, silver, and inlaid mother-of-pearl.

The original purpose of hand fans was to create a breeze, but they had many other uses. They could be used as protection against rain, as a tray for offering or receiving refreshments, and to hide bad teeth. European women would use fans to hide their faces during mass.

By the 18th century, the folding fan had come into its own in Paris. Delicately hand-painted floral motifs, on a structure of decorative sticks, came into common use. In fact, any wealthy lady worth her salt had to have fans as accessories to her wardrobe.

These wealthy women developed a whole language of salutations and signals around their fans. For instance, carrying a fan in the left hand signified "desirous of acquaintance" while allowing it to rest on the right cheek meant "yes" and on the left "no." Drawing a fan across the forehead meant "We are watched" and drawing a fan across the eyes meant "I am sorry." Opening a fan wide meant "wait for me." Dropping a fan meant "We could be friends." If a lady fluttered her fan, it meant “I am married.” But if she placed the handle of her fan to her lips, it meant "kiss me."  An open fan held in the right hand in front of the face—the ultimate form of seduction—meant "follow me"

The blades of these delicate instruments could be of carved ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious inlaid metals and elaborate jewels. Less expensive fan sticks were usually of sandalwood or fruitwood. These rococo fans were the finest ever made, and many fo the designs took the form of stylized art.

By the latter part of the 18th century, fans had gained popularity as a fashion accessory in the upper circles of American society. While fan makers imported finer sticks, they made their own wooden ones.

The earliest fans made in any large quantity in the United States were paper souvenir fans depicting historical scenes. as well as current events. Lithographers portrayed views of New York's Crystal Palace, 1853, the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, printed in black on a cream background, and the World's Columbia Exposition in 1893.

By the late 19th century, fans displayed images of nearly every product. Every department store and every manufacturer advertised on fans, including such products as coffee, milk, bread, carpet sweepers, restaurants, cafes, theaters, sewing machines, etc.

Before the advent of air-conditioning, funeral parlors gave out fans t mourners. These were as much to keep mourners cooler in warm weather as they were to wave the stink of the corpse away. These mourning fans became a social necessity. Manufacturers often fashioned them in black materials to coincide with the black clothing worn during recognized periods of mourning. Of course, it didn't hurt to print the name and address of the mortician on the guards of a cheap wood fan.

Fans are still relatively inexpensive—except the jewel-encrusted ones—so they’re ideal to collect, especially for the novice collector. Many sell for $5-$20 online. Some of the most sought after fans came from the E.S. Hunt Company, later called the Allen Fan Company. In 1868, Hunt patented the process by which he assembled the fan sticks and the fan leaf in one step. This included folding or creasing and gluing the leaf to the fan sticks at the same time under pressure. This was America's first fan to appear and unfortunately folded, like its fans, in1910. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Longing for the Past

QUESTION: I’m looking for information about a chair that belongs to my sister. What can you tell me about it and who might be the maker?

ANSWER: Your sister’s chair belongs to the Colonial Revival furniture style, the longest-lasting continuous style movement in American history. Ushered in by the Centennial Exposition in 1876 which spawned an awakening of interest in what American furniture had looked like 100 years before. The publicity and preparations for the Exposition, as well as the financial difficulties of 1873, prompted Americans to look fondly back to the early history and events of the nation and long for the perceived security and comfort of those earlier times.

Ironically, there were no antiques or reproductions on display at the Centennial Exposition other than one small exhibit featuring a Colonial kitchen and few personal items belonging to George Washington including his favorite elm chair which was a reproduction.

Those who could afford it wanted to surround themselves with articles from America’s Colonial Period while at the same time attaching an enhanced importance to its history, integrity, and value. But there were many more Victorians wanting Colonial antiques than there were real ones on the market. In 1877, Clarence Cook, an interior designer of the time, published a book entitled, The House Beautiful, in which he stated that if people couldn’t obtain real antiques for their homes, fine reproductions would do just as well.

This revival of interest in Colonial American furniture coincided with the advent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a return to basic craftsmanship and honesty in construction techniques espoused by William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Elbert Hubbard.

Colonial Revival depends not so much on the actual style reproduced as on the interpretation of the style and the combination of stylistic elements. The original cabinetmakers and furniture companies that made Colonial Revival pieces catered mostly to the carriage trade, the upper crust, many of whom had real antiques in their homes. Most historians believe that furniture makers began copying Colonial pieces soon after the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. But, in fact, some began long before that as the Colonial Period came to a close with the deaths of the last surviving founding fathers.        

Smith Ely, a New York cabinetmaker working from 1827 to 1832, made what’s believed to be the first Colonial Revival piece—a cane-backed chair. As the 19th century progressed, a number of companies such as Sypher & Company of New York and Potthast Brothers of Baltimore produced authentic reproductions of 18th-century items, often handmade rather than made on an assembly line.

Then along came Hollis Baker, son of Siebe Baker, the Dutch immigrant who founded the firm of Cook and Baker in 1893 in Holland, near Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1925, Hollis Baker was the president of the company, now called Baker & Company. With a keen interest in handcrafted 18th-century furniture, Baker realized that whoever could solve the problem of combining the quality of handcrafted furniture with the practicalities of mass production would be successful.

Recognizing an opportunity, Baker & Company introduced a line of American reproduction furniture in 1922, a Duncan Phyfe suite in 1923, and furniture based on Pilgrim styling in 1926. In 1927, the company again changed its name to Baker Furniture Factories, specializing in high-quality, faithfully executed reproductions. A line of Georgian mahogany furniture called the “Old World Collection” appeared in 1931, and the following year the company opened the Manor House in New York City to produce top-of-the-line, handmade reproductions, faithful down to the dovetailing, hardware, and finishing.

Later in the 19th century, Ernest Hagen specialized in Duncan Phyfe federal furniture. He and a partner opened a shop in New York to make copies of pieces for clients who wanted the look but not the expense of real antiques.  Museum curators in the decorative arts credit him with reviving Phyfe’s reputation in the 19th century.

Nathan Margolis established a cabinetmaker’s shop in Hartford, Connecticut that lasted for 91 years.  A Lithuanian immigrant, he started his business in 1893 and became well known for his faithful copies of furniture originally made by Eliphalet Chapin, an 18th-century Connecticut cabinetmaker. His son Harold took eventually took over the business, continuing it until 1984.

Margolis not only reproduced old pieces but also adapted them to modern uses. In the 1950s, he produced the double dresser, a style known in Colonial days as the chest on chest, by doubling the width and lowering the height of the traditional Connecticut chest of drawers.

Wallace Nutting, a great proponent of preserving America’s Colonial past, had Windsor chairs made in the Colonial Revival style. During the 1920s and 1930s, he hired cabinetmakers to turn out reproductions which he marketed through catalogs. These chairs contained elements borrowed from a variety of styles. Nutting’s cabinetmakers also used woods that would have never been used for the originals, plus their shellac finish was historically inaccurate. Consumers loved them and soon other furniture manufacturers started making them.

The Dodge Furniture Company of Manchester and J. Sanger Atwill of Lynn, both in Massachusetts, Edwin Simons of Hartford, Connecticut., and Jesse W. Bair of Hamover, Pennsylvania. were some of the other makers of Colonial Revival pieces.

Then of course came the factory induced mutations designed by engineers of the 1920s through the 1950s that have given the term "Colonial Revival" such a bad name. These cheap knock-offs, called “period” pieces, began appearing in thousands of American homes. Bedroom and dining room sets became the most popular ensembles purchased by many a post-war bride and groom.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

‘Tis the Season for Cranberry

QUESTION: Every year at Thanksgiving, I bring out a set of eight sparkling pink glasses that used to be belong to my great-grandmother. They seem so festive and add a holiday note to our dining table. Can you tell me anything about these glasses?

ANSWER: Your glasses are made of cranberry glass, a very special type of glass favored by Victorian hostesses, especially around the holidays. Not only is this glass appropriate for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but it’s also a popular collectible. In fact, some pieces are worth too much to be used for fear of breakage.

Although glassblowers had been making colored glass since ancient Egypt, it was Johann Kunckel, a 17th-century German chemist from Potsdam, who came up with the red color by adding gold chloride to the clear crystal. During the 19th century, English and American glassblowers experimented with adding less gold choride, resulting in a pink glass which the Americans called “cranberry.”

And thanks to the virtuosity of these glassblowers there seems to be an endless variety of shapes and patterns of this glass on the market. In addition to tumblers and water pitchers, there are salt cellars, sugar shakers, cruets, jars, jugs, decanters, celery vases and finger bowls. Among the widely used patterns are "Swirl," "Coin Dot," and "Daisy & Fern." Some of the most rare and expensive items found from this time period are beautiful lamps and other lighting fixtures.
As with any collectible, cranberry glass can also be an investment. Pieces that sold for less than ten dollars a generation ago are now worth hundreds of dollars. Because of the natural fragility of glass, antique cranberry glass has become relatively scarce, though it does turn up in thrift and antique shops,  flea markets, and auctions.           

Although cranberry glass had peaked in popularity by the end of the 19th century, manufacturers produced it in quantity through the 1930s. The last two companies to make this unique glass—The Pilgrim Glass Corporation and Fenton Art Glass —went out of business early this century. Pilgrim Glass Company produced beautiful blown cranberry glass ranging from various vases and baskets to candle holders and sold them in department stores and gift shops around the country until 2001. At the time if the company's closing, cranberry was its most popular type of glass. Fenton Art Glass marketed new cranberry glass, featuring opalescent decoration with coin dots, daisy patterns and numerous other styles, through retailers around the country until it closed in 2011.

Cranberry glass has always been made in craft production rather than in large quantities, due to the high cost of the gold and the delicate mixing process required. Glassmakers dissolve the gold chloride in a solution of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, known as “aqua regia.” Gold in the batch reacts with intense heat to create the beautiful cranberry color. A glassworker called a “caser” attaches a “bud” of this glass mixture to a blowpipe. Then the glassblower stands on a platform with the mold below his feet and blows the molten glass into the mold to create the desired shape. Afterwards, another glassworker places the piece in a “lehr” or annealing oven where it slowly cools to room temperature. Most cranberry pieces are hand blown or molded and often contain small bubbles and striations.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's All in the Cards

QUESTION: I recently purchased a scrapbook full of brightly colored cards displaying advertisements for various products. Can you tell me about these types of cards and about how old they might be?

ANSWER: You seem to have stumbled on a scrapbook full of advertising trade cards. While
T.V.  commercials, as well as magazine and Internet ads  promote everything from cars and medicines to food products, during the latter part of the 19th century, trade cards did the selling.

In the 1890s, manufacturers focused their advertising efforts nationwide. Although the Industrial Revolution gave them the know-how to mass-produce consumer goods, they needed a way to show off their new products. At the time, magazines were just beginning to show ads. A new inexpensive method of color printing called chromolithography appeared in the 1870s and paved the way for trade cards. Reproduced by the millions, these colorful handouts flooded the country, becoming at once an effective business device, as well as folk art. Companies mailed them. Merchants gave them to their customers. Traveling salesmen distributed them door to door. And consumers saved them, often trading them with friends.

Although most were about the size of a playing card, others measured up to 3 x 5 inches. The typical card featured a colorful picture on one side and a sales pitch on the other. Frequently, the manufacturer left a blank space for a merchant to add his name and address.

The most common trade cards are flat pieces of colorful cardboard, however even more popular are die-cut cards—those cut in the shapes of the objects they advertise. Particular favorites include such varied subjects as pickles or teacups. Some are two-sided, with a different scene on either side, each of which promotes one of the company's products. Others fold or have movable parts.

Metamorphic cards have flaps that fold out to reveal pictures different from those seen when closed. Some cards encourage the viewer to open the flap to discover what happens next. One titillating card pictures a woman sitting in a bathtub with her knees visible. When opened, the card reveals her serving drinks to two bald men.

Cards with movable parts are fragile and often in poor condition. Unfortunately, few of these cards with all their parts intact have survived decades of wear and tear. Hold-to-light or see-through cards are even more fragile. The picture changes or words come into view when the card is held up to the light, completing the advertisement.

At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, manufacturers put thousands of these bright little pasteboard salesmen into the hands of a product hungry public. Grocers handed them out for every imaginable product, from soup to soap! Manufacturers inserted some cards right into packaging. People saved the cards with a passion, pasting them into scrapbooks.

As their popularity grew, trade cards evolved into trading cards which manufacturers frequently packaged as serialized premiums in products such as cigarettes and coffee. Arbuckles' Coffee, for example, offered  a 50-card series of states and territories.

Some of the products most heavily advertised by trade cards, included those involving medicines, food, tobacco, clothing, household goods, sewing items, stoves, and farming tools. Two of the most popular categories were medicine and tobacco. In the late 19th century, claims made for patent medicines weren’t  regulated by law, and trade cards advertising these medicines often promised miraculous results.

Tobacco companies inserted trade cards into cigarette packs as stiffeners to protect the contents. Allen and Ginter in the U.S. in 1886, and British company W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1888, were the first tobacco companies to print advertisements. Several years later, colorful lithographic illustrations began to appear on these cards which featured a variety of topics ranging from sports to nature. By 1900, over 300 tobacco companies produced thousands of tobacco card sets. Children would often stand outside of stores to ask customers who bought cigarettes if they might give them the trade cards in their packs. By the 1950s, trading cards boy began to collect sports, military, and automobile cards contained in packs of bubble gum.

The popularity of trade cards peaked around 1890, and then almost completely faded by the early 1900s when other forms of advertising in color, such as magazines, became more cost effective.
The more common antique trade cards sell for about $1 to $15, depending on quality and condition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Word to the Wise

QUESTION: I collect teapots. Recently, I purchased a small one on which is hand-painted a saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” with a picture of a cottage on the other side. The mark on the bottom just says “Made in England.” Can you tell me anything about this teapot?

ANSWER: It seems you’ve stumbled on a piece of Torquay pottery, specifically Torquay Motto Ware.

Torquay is the generic name given to 20 potteries centered around the popular seaside resort of the same name in South Devon, England, that made red earthenware with slip decoration in the form of a picture. Many also sported brief sayings on them, thus the name Motto Ware. Of these potteries, Watcombe, Royal Torquay Pottery, Aller Vale, Longpark, Lemon & Crute, Torquay Terra-Cotta Company, and St. Marychurch are the most well-known.

The designs on the Motto Ware often depict cottages, flowers, animals, boats, and windmills. While the Torquay potteries produced these mainly as souvenirs, not all were souvenirs of Devon. 

In 1867, G.J. Allen discovered dark red clay around the town of Torquay. He had it chemically analyzed and found out that it exceptional for producing earthenware. He built a pottery which he named the Watcombe Terra Cotta Clay Company. Other potters soon followed suit and opened their own pottery works in the area. In 1897 the Aller Vale Company acquired the larger Watcombe Pottery, making Watcombe the largest of the pottery producers.

They began by making art pottery—classical vases and busts—popular with Victorians at the time. But as the demand for these pieces declined towards the end of the 19th century, they had to adjust and adapt or go out of business. Victorians loved to travel and bring back small items as souvenirs of their adventures, so the potteries began making stylized souvenirs for this new market.

Torquay pottery followed a number of themes, including the subject matter of cottages, place names,  florals, animals, and sometimes grotesque images. They also came in a variety of decorative styles—faience, barbotine, terracotta, and molded cottages. This allows collectors to assemble groupings by subject and/or style, and many of them seek out pots by specific decorators or potteries.

Motto Ware didn’t start in Torquay. It had been around for some time. In fact, the Romans often inscribed their pots with humorous sayings. There seems to be an endless number of mottos on Torquay pots, some are pearls of wisdom, others are humourous, and still others are classical quotations. Some potters even inscribed personal messages for their customers. Companies soon discovered that household items with mottoes on them sold best.

After forming basic shapes on the potter's wheel or in molds and allowing the clay to harden, workers dipped each piece into slip, a creamy mixture of white clay and water. After the slip set, artists hand-decorated each piece, using a nail to scratch proverbs or folksy sayings through the slip to the red clay, a technique known as sgraffito. They then fired the pieces in kilns, allowed them to cool, then glazed and re-fired them. Artists, paid by the piece, worked feverishly, engraving mottoes on up to seven dozen pieces an hour.

The earliest Torquay Motto Wares have a rustic individuality, with mottoes scrawled in childlike handwriting.  Besides famous quotations, motos also were humorous, such as “ "A hair on the head Is worth two on the chin," seen on a shaving mug. Some were a play on words, like this one: "A car on the road is worth two in the ditch.” Even Shakespeare didn’t escape Motto Ware. "The night is long that never finds a day," is a quote from his play “Macbeth.” While early Motto Ware had inscriptions written in normal English, companies later used an exaggerated Devonshire dialect to appeal to the tourist trade.

Today, collectors seek sugar bowls and creamers, teapots, jugs, candlesticks, perfume bottles, cookie jars, tobacco jars, vases, plates, and children's dishes in prices ranging from $2 to $500, depending on the item’s condition. Advertising and commemorative wares, featuring the name of a hotel, city, or special occasion, are especially popular.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Drink of the Gods

QUESTION: I recently purchased what looks like a porcelain coffee pot. However, it has a decorative spout that has what seems like a bridge across its top. The floral design is delicately painted and on the bottom is stamped the name R.S. Prussia. Can you tell me anything about this piece?

ANSWER: What looks like a coffee pot is actually a chocolate pot, used by Victorians to serve hot chocolate on cold winter days.

By the mid-17th century, chocolate was well established and sought after by the well-to-do in Italy, France, Germany, and finally England. From the time Spanish explorers brought chocolate back to Europe, people served chocolate hot, making it more palatable by the addition of sugar, vanilla and jazmine. Since chocolate was expensive, only the wealthy could afford this exotic drink.

Mechanization during the Industrial Revolution made processing of cacao beans more efficient and brought down labor costs. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten patented a process that defatted and alkalinized the chocolate in 1828, making possible the mass production of cheap chocolate in powdered and solid forms. 

As chocolate's popularity spread throughout the Continent, people needed vessels to serve it. Chocolate pots began to appear in a variety of forms and materials, including earthenware, tin, pewter, tin-plated copper, porcelain, gold, and silver.

Potters created the first commercial chocolate pots of earthenware, but by the early 19th century, porcelain ones began to appear, coinciding with the decrease in the cost of chocolate and its availability to everyone, regardless of their economic status. At the same time the porcelain chocolate pot changed. Since the cocoa made from the cacao bean dissolved in hot water, whipping the chocolate was no longer necessary, so the hole for the molinet—the wooden stirrer—originally placed in the lid of the pot was no longer needed. By the mid- to late 19th century, most porcelain companies produced chocolate pots with solid lids.

Factories began producing a variety of affordable chocolate pots for the average household. Production peaked in the mid-to late 1800s, but continued until the mid- 1900s when people’s preference switched from hot chocolate to coffee.

Due to the widespread popularity of hot chocolate, chocolate pots are readily available to collectors, both online and at shows and auctions. For example, eBay has over 500 chocolate pots listed in active auctions. Prices vary widely and depend on material, with silver pots being more expensive than porcelain pots. Value also depends on the age and maker, as well as where the pot is being sold.

While the average porcelain chocolate pot sells for about $100, the higher quality ones from Meissen and R.S. Prussia range in price from $500 to $5,000. Chocolate sets—a pot with six tall cups and sometimes saucers—tend to sell for more than individual pots. Also, larger pots and those with floral or scenic designs are more expensive than smaller ones without decoration. Unmarked pots and those from lesser-known factories often sell for less than $100.

Before starting a chocolate pot collection, examine a variety of chocolate pots being offered by reputable dealers. Read books on specific manufacturers such as Limoges; R.S.Prussia. and Nippon, and visit, and online. Lastly, if you’re not sure of a chocolate pot's authenticity, don't buy it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Enduring Beauty of Lace

QUESTION: Recently, I was going through an old trunk in my grandmother’s attic and discovered several beautiful old lace tablecloths. One of them had a label which read “Quaker Lace Co.” Can you tell me anything about this company and whether these old tablecloths are worth anything?

ANSWER: In the past decade or so, vintage linens have gained in popularity. Fine old lace ones are in rather high demand, as people seek to bring back the nostalgic beauty of bygone eras.

Finely patterned handmade lace has been available for centuries. However, lace tablecloths have only been used since the latter part of the 19th century, after the invention of mechanical lace-making looms. Traditionally, making lace by hand was a labor intensive process, but with the mechanical looms, it became possible to produce lace wide enough for tablecloths.

Taking care of fine lace tablecloths required extra help, so when domestic servants began to disappear from middle-class homes, so, too, did high- maintenance lace linens. But a new generation of housekeepers have discovered the beauty and elegance of lace. They tend to use fine lace tablecloths to dress up their dinner tables for special occasions.

While many of these fine old pieces were handmade and can cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, others were mechanically produced by companies such as the Quaker Lace Company of Philadelphia. Those produced by the company from 1880 to about 1913 are highly desired by collectors. To collectors, it doesn’t matter whether a lace tablecloth is handmade or machine-made or simple or ornate. Vintage Quaker Lace pieces sell for $10 to $200, with the average price being around $60-100 for a large tablecloth big enough to fit a table for 12.

Originally founded in 1889 as the Bromley Manufacturing Company by the three sons of John Bromley, an English carpet maker who came to the United Sates in the 1840s and became successful in textiles. The Bromley brothers used the profits from their carpet manufacturing business to purchase looms from Nottingham, England to produce machine-made lace. In 1894, the Bromley brothers purchased a factory on 4th Street and Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, and renamed their company Lehigh Manufacturing. A bit later, they opened a second factory on 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. In 1911 they renamed their operation once again the Quaker Lace Company.

Quaker Lace became the leader in machine-made lace. Their lace was durable, resisted stretching and pulling, and could withstand washing without losing its shape or transparency. In 1987 they closed their  4th Street factory, but continued to produce tablecloths at plants in Lionville, Pennsylvania, and Winthrop, Maine. The company continually researched and invented new ways of chemically treating their lace so that it would maintain its shape. The Bromleys sold their tablecloths mainly in department stores, but when many of them began to close, the company’s profits declined. The company had to  declare bankruptcy in 1992. Lorraine Linens purchased the patterns and Quaker Lace name and  continued to manufacture lace tablecloths until 2007 when it, too, filed for bankruptcy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Monopoly Way Back When

QUESTION: I recently purchased a box lot at a country auction. In it I discovered a piece of oil cloth on which seems to be drawn a game board much like the one used for Monopoly. However, the names of the streets aren’t the same. Can you tell me anything about this?

ANSWER: What you’ve uncovered is an old game board from the early days of Monopoly.  Before Charles Darrow of Philadelphia commercialized the game and sold the rights to Parker Brothers, people made up their own game boards and used odds and ends for playing pieces.

It all began when Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie Phillips created a game called “The Landlord’s Game” in 1904. As a proponent of the economic ideas of Henry George, she designed her game to teach the single-tax theory as an antidote to the evils inherent in monopolistic land ownership. It caught on with college students who played it in their dormitory rooms. But since they were often low on cash, they made their own boards.

The Landlord’s Game came in two parts: The first was like Monopoly, a game in which there’s only one winner. But in the second part the game employs the same capitalistic principles but mixes them with a healthy dose of tax reform, to prevent the evils of monopolistic ownership, and then transforms all the players into enlightened winners.

While the game board resembles the one for Monopoly, the names, drawings, colors and the like used on it are different. It’s painted with blocks for rental properties such as "Poverty Place" (rent $50), "Easy Street" (rent $100) and "Lord Blueblood's Estate " (no trespassing - go to jail). There are banks, a poorhouse, and railroads and utilities such as the "Soakum Lighting System" ($50 for landing it) and the "PDQ Railroad" (fare $100). And, of course, there’s the famous "Jail" block. Players could only rent properties on Phillips's board, not acquire them. Otherwise, there’s little difference between The Landlord’s Game and the Monopoly of today.

After Phillips published her game in 1923, it became popular as a grass roots movement. One of the people who became addicted to the game was Ruth Hoskins, a young Quaker woman from Indiana who went to teach at the Atlantic City Friends School in the Fall of 1929. Earlier that year, she learned to play a version of the Landlord's Game, called Auction Monopoly, from her brother, who learned it at college. Early in 1930, Hoskins taught it to her fellow teacher Cyril Harvey and his wife, Ruth, and the Harveys played it with their friends Jesse and Dorothea Raiford. It was Ruth Harvey who drew the first Atlantic City Monopoly board with Atlantic City street names.

The Harveys lent their games to Quakers staying at Atlantic City hotels and also taught their relatives, Ruth and Eugene Raiford, who, in turn taught their friend, Charles Todd, a manager of one of the hotels. Todd then taught the game to his hotel guests Esther and Charles Darrow.

Darrow liked the game so much, he enhanced the design and made 5,000 sets by hand in his basement. He sold these to Wanamaker’s, a highly regarded Philadelphia department store, as well as F.A.O. Schwartz, New York’s famous toy store. A friend of Sally Barton, the wife of the president of Parker Brothers, told her about this new game and the rest, as they say, is history.

The royalties from sales of Monopoly soon made Darrow a millionaire and newspapers touted Darrow as the inventor of Monopoly. And while he made lots of money from it, all he did was organize the game and sell it. Since Phillips had actually created a different game, albeit similar, she had no rights to the game of Monopoly, which had been developed by many people over time, much like the Linux operating system for computers.

For more information, read Pass Go and Collect on Early Monopoly Games.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Close Cover Before Striking

QUESTION: My grandfather left me his collection of match safes. All I know about them is that they held matches to keep them dry. Some of his are extremely ornate. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: Yes,  match safes did help keep matches dry, but they also served another purpose—they helped keep the bearer safe. Early matches were prone to igniting from rubbing against one another or spontaneously, so most people carried a match safe to house their matches. Between 1890 and 1920, most people carried strike-anywhere matches, so they could light stoves, lanterns and other devices. By then the pocket match book, invented by Joshua Pusey, had become popular.

John Walker, an English druggist in Stockton-on-Tees, England, made the first friction match in 1826. He  called his invention "friction light." The first containers Walker used to hold the matches he made and sold in his chemist’s shop were round canister-shaped tin boxes that cost two pence each and held 100 matches. Since there was no roughened surface on the boxes to ignite the matches, he inserted a piece of sandpaper for that purpose. Unfortunately, Walker never patented his invention.

Three years later, Samuel Jones sold a similar product with the catchier name  "Lucifers.” Soon after, Charles Sauna invented a phosphorus match in France and by 1836 phosphorus matches patented by Alonzo Dwight Phillips of Massachusetts became available in the United States. By 1840, friction matches were in common use.

There are numerous varieties of pocket match safes—figural, advertising, combination boxes, and trick or puzzle boxes. Manufacturers also produced wall match safes, designed to hold loose matches or a box of matches, as well as table top match safes, match box holders, and match grips, usually mounted on a standing ashtray, which were three-sided and gripped the match box. Early pocket match safes were merely functional and plain in their styling, but later on they became ornate accessories, much like jewelry.

While there’s an endless variety of figural pocket match safes out there, that is those featuring a person or animal or some sort of object, there are many more featuring advertising. Just as today's matchbooks usually contain ads on their front and back covers, pocket match safes often featured advertising, but in the form of a particular shape or perhaps a slogan, such as those given away as souvenirs of restaurants and hotels. Manufacturers of all sorts of items gave away match safes much the way companies today give away pens or business card holders. Mythological figures and salon art were popular subjects.

Some advertising match safes started out as product sample boxes. These contained samples of gramophone needles, pens, tea, cocoa, razor blade, and tobacco samples. After a person used up the  samples, they could use the box in which it came as a match safe. This also ensured a greater longevity for the ads.

In the United States, one of the most prolific manufacturers of match safes was the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island. Others included William B. Kerr, Unger Brothers, Battin, Blackington, Whiting, George Scheibler and Shreve & Co.

Match safes come in all sorts of shapes and patterns, from plain and decorated square, oblong and round cases, to a myriad of novelty shape made of silver, gold, brass, tin, gunmetal, nickel silver, ivory,  white metal, and even wood and porcelain. However, most were made of inexpensive materials. Those made of precious metals usually had a gold wash interior to prevent corrosion by the chemically active match heads.

Most later match safes came with a ribbed surface on the bottom for lighting the matches. Some match safes incorporated a cigar cutter or a small knife blade as well. While most people carried them in their pockets, gentlemen often suspended them from a fob chain.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Telecommunications Relics

QUESTION: I recently purchased a box of glass insulators, like the kind used on telephone and electric poles. A couple of little white specks in the glass. I bought them because of their beautiful colors, but do these things have any value as a collectible? And just how were they used?

ANSWER: There’s nothing like the beauty of colored glass, especially when placed in a window where the sun can shine through it. Many people collect these glass electrical insulators for just that reason. But some, especially retired linemen, collect them because they’re a part of the history of telecommunications.

Ezra Cornell invented the insulator in 1844 as a means of protecting electrical wires front the elements and reducing the loss of current from the wire to the ground. As technology developed, power and telephone companies needed more insulators.

The earliest insulators had unthreaded pin holes. Because linemen simply pressed them onto a wooden pin, extending upwards from the crossarm of an electric pole, they didn't stay on very well since the wires contracted and expanded in the heat and cold. When Louis A. Cauvet improved the insulator by patenting the threaded pin hole type in 1865, he sold his invention to Brookfield Glass Company of  Brooklyn, which remained a major producer of insulators until 1922.

Though threaded pin holes helped insulators stay put, moisture still presented a problem since wet glass served as a conductor. In 1893, the Hemingray Company, another major manufacturer, obtained a patent for insulator "drip points." These bumps, which line the outside bottom rim of the insulator skirt,  helped prevent shorts by causing moisture to drip off. The earliest points were sharp but these were easily broken, leading to the manufacture of more rounded ones. Hemingray must have discovered that these really didn't work, since they eliminated them from later models. However, other companies continued to make insulators with drip points.

Porcelain insulators began to replace glass examples in the early 20th century, particularly on high voltage lines since glass insulators only worked on lines handling up to 60,000 volts.. By the late 1940s, only a few producers of glass insulators remained, by 1969, Kerr Manufacturing was the only company still making them.

Manufacturers produced glass Insulators in a variety of colors and types of glass. They used remnants of window or bottle glass for earlier ones. Most companies made insulators only as a sideline,  pressing them out of whatever kind of glass happened to be available. Because of this, objects like nails, screws, coins, and bits of furnace brick would get mixed into the glass. Collectors call the little white furnace brick bits rocks. Some makers, like Hemingray, would cull out these blemished pieces, but others like Brookfield Company would just sell the blemished pieces along with the good ones.

The most common insulator colors are clear and light bluish-green or aqua. Other colors include sun-colored amethyst, green,  milk glass, royal blue, cobalt, amber and Carnival glass. The only color not made in glass is red, because red requires gold as a colorant. The most popular colors are royal blue and cobalt, with amethyst a close second. Insulator makers originally produced purple ones, ranging from  light lavender to deep amethyst, from clear glass. Manganese, used to clarify the glass, turned the glass purple after being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. After the start of World War I, manganese became scarce since it was needed for arms production. Manufacturers switched to selinium, which the sun turned to the color of wheat.

Common clear and aqua insulators sell for as little as a dollar each. But prices climb steadily for rare ones such as the Buzby or the Twin Pin. Aqua ones made by the Jeffrey Manufacturing Company can sell for as much as $125 each while a threadless Canadian insulator, also known as a snow cone, can sell for about $2,000.

For more information on glass insulators, go to

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Boy Toy

QUESTION: I was going through some old boxes of junk and discovered an old transistor radio among the items I had as a kid.  The words “Boy’s Radio” are embossed in the plastic on the back of the case. Can you tell me if this is collectible or should I just toss it out with the rest of the junk?

ANSWER: You might want to hold back from throwing out that old radio. Depending on its condition, it could be very collectible. The Boy’s Radio was a Japanese product running on two transistors instead of the usual six or eight found in American models.

The invention and development of the transistor radio in 1954 changed the way people looked at and used their radios. The Boy's Radio was a cheap  personal radio wanted by the average American boy, at a price his parents could afford. And although American radio makers considered them merely as toys designed for a small niche market, the Japanese exported over two million of them to the United States in 1959 and 1960.

Although cheaply built with a simple design, these two-transistor radios were powerful enough to pickup local radio stations and as well as power a small speaker. They were small enough to fit into the breast pocket and budget of a typical high school student and cost about $10-15. The radios even had Boy's Radio pressed into the plastic case, usually near the hidden battery compartment.

As stripped-down versions of the more expensive, multi-transistor coat pocket portable radios marketed at the time, the Boy’s Radios had a stylish and colorful design that appealed to the younger generation. They were simply the right product, at the right price, at the right time.

Since manufacturers designed Boy's Radios to be sold at a fraction of the price of larger transistor radios, they were concerned about manufacturing costs. To cut costs, makers decided to produce the Boy’s Radio in a limited variety of styles and cases. The standard cases had a vertical design, with the lower front reserved for a chrome or colored speaker grill, and the upper half designed to house the tuning and volume controls. While manufacturers glued their label onto the case, they pasted the model name and/or number onto the box the radio came in, making it hard for collectors to identify the over 100 different variations of Boy’s Radios once a boy unwrapped the unit.

Another major difference between the expensive multi transistor radios and the cheaper Boy's Radio was the design of the radio circuit. The more expensive radios usually employed a variation of the radio design, called the Superhet, used in modern tube radios, while the cheaper two-transistor Boy's Radio used a much simpler reflex circuit.

Even more confusing to collectors is the host of imitations and look-alikes spawned by the successful marketing of these small radios. The strangest of these look-alikes were the radios designed to use miniature tubes in a transistor Boy's Radio case. Some of these radios, although meant to have two transistors, weren’t two-transistor radios at all. A good example is the Star-lite radio, which had "Boy's Radio" pressed into its case and has "2-TRANSISTOR" displayed on the radio's front, but had six transistors inside the case.

And while Boy's Radios got their popularity from being a shirt pocket radio, manufacturers also made them in coat pocket and even tabletop radio cases.

Today, Boy's Radios can sell from as little as $10-$20 to as much as $100. And if you’re wondering if there was a Girl's Radio—claimed to be pink—it seems that it’s only a rumor.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Those Sticks Were Made for More Than Walkin’

QUESTION: I just purchased an unusual antique cane that has a concealed metal rod that lifts up out of the handle. Can you tell me what this would have been used for?

ANSWER: The cane you bought is rather unusual. Believe it or not, it’s called a horse-measuring cane. Gentlemen who purchased horses at auction would use it to measure how many hands high the horse they were interested in was. Often sellers and auctioneers would exaggerate a horse’s measurements to improve its chances of being sold.

About the only place you’ll see canes these days are in pharmacies, hospitals, and retirement villages where people either buy them or use them as a necessity. But at one time fashionable gentlemen and women changed their canes as often as three times a day, perhaps choosing a rustic model for strolling, a silver-topped one for visiting, and gold-headed ebony one for an evening at the  opera. Now, however, the fancy cane is a collectible curiosity that fits nicely in an umbrella stand by the front door.

There are basically two kinds of cane collectors: those who buy canes for the beauty of their workmanship or their association with a famous person and those who seek gadget canes, designed for a dual purpose or to conceal a weapon. Your cane belongs in the latter category.

There are children's canes, canes with porcelain handles made at such famous potteries as Meissen, St. Cloud and Wedgwood, and you’ll find a dozen canes with carved ivory-grips. In fact, figured handles have created a whole category of collecting. These come in exquisitely carved examples in the forms of a wolfs', parrot’s, heron’s, rooster’s, fish’s, dog’s, cat’s, or elephant’s head.

Cane makers employed a wide range of materials. One cane might have its stick made of a portion of  transatlantic cable, another might be made of small animal vertebrae, and yet another might be made from a wooden propeller.

Gadget canes were so popular that makers crafted them with hidden compartments. For example, a bishop's cane might contain a compartment in the knob for the Host and three attachable compartments to hold items used in administering the sacraments while a tippling stick might contain a flask and a footed brandy glass. One cane might have a radio in its handle, another a camera. A 19th-century cane might have a candle and matches while a 20th-century one a flashlight. One cane could be a harmonica while another a music box.

There are also gadget canes made for specific trades. The one for a surgeon contains his cutting tools. The one for a geologist, a hammer. A tree surgeon’s a cutting saw. There is also a wine taster’s cane with a gimlet to test the cask, and a fisherman's cane that turns into a pole with a reel. One artist's cane might be fitted with watercolors, another might have an easel. An admiral's cane often contained a compass, thermometer, telescope, ruler, ink stand, pencil and protractor.

For the hard of hearing there were canes with an eat trumpet, for the short-sighted, one with opera glasses. The gambler's cane held dice and a number of other games and a patriotic parade-goer's cane might have concealed an American flag.

Smoker's canes make up an entire category by themselves. Some have compartments to hold cigars and a cigar cutter while others have cigarettes, lighters and holders. There are musical canes that become flutes and violins and even rare ebony Scottish canes that unscrewed to form bagpipes.

The most widely collected and most costly canes are the weapon canes. Gun canes have been made since the 16th century for the hunter and for the gentleman farmer. Since the 19th century they have been manufactured for defense with automatic firearms and everything from a revolver to a machine gun, all concealed. It required a great deal of ingenuity to conceal a weapon but cane makers devised ways of encasing every kind of bludgeon and flail, and patented various sword blades.

The development of cars, attache cases and less fashionable attire ended the days of walking sticks in general.

Canes sell for a wide range of prices. A captain’s going-ashore cane, made of hickory with a
handle carved in the form of a dour-faced ship's captain in a frock coat and top hat, brought a whopping $19,800. The cane was the symbol of authority wielded by a whaling captain, and the carving was considered a fine example of folk art.

Generally antique canes aren’t all that expensive. Scrimshaw canes have been sold at auction for up to  $4,090, most likely more for the scrimshaw decoration then for the cane, itself. But a nice gadget cane that conceals an American flag can be bought from a dealer for as little as $50 and a gold-headed cane for $75 to $150.

Revolver canes, however, are more expensive. A Remington gun cane with a dog’s-head handle was offered for sale at a gun show for $1,200. A similar cane concealing a gun but having a simple crook handle was on sale at that same show for $650. Among the scarcest are musical instrument canes.  A violin cane, for example, can sell for as much as $1,500.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Pitcher Full of Beauty

QUESTION: I’m trying to learn more about a pitcher that I have. Through Internet research, I h/ave learned the story of Paul & Virginia, the decorative relief on the pitcher, but I’m trying to identify when and where my piece was made. The only marking on the bottom is a hand inscribed “BS.” Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: You have what’s known as a Parian ware pitcher, most likely made after 1850 in the United States. While pottery factories produced thousands of Parian pieces, most of them were sculptures. However, here in the U.S., pitchers like this gained popular use as water pitchers.

English potters developed the formula for Parian ware porcelain in the 1840s, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of steam power, it became possible to produce molds with which to make duplicate copies of ceramic products. Named after the Parian marble quarried in Greece that its originators intended to replicate using the same ingredients as porcelain—white china clay, feldspar, kaolin, and flint, Parian became popular with middle and upper middle class Victorian women who desired to own the marble statuary and china of the upper classes but couldn’t afford them. That’s where Parian came in. It filled this need at an affordable price.

Because Parian had a higher proportion of feldspar than porcelain, makers fired it at a lower temperature. The increased amount of feldspar caused the finished body to be more highly vitrified, thus possessing an ivory color and having a marble-like texture that’s smoother than that of biscuit, or unglazed, porcelain. Potters either made relief ornamentation by hand or in a mold. They left most Parian in its natural, creamy white state, but applied background colors, usually shades of blue, to contrast with the relief motifs.

Since the matte surface of Parian ware attracted dirt, which was difficult to remove, makers protected  much of the Parian made here and abroad with a smear glaze, which they achieved by adding chemicals to the kiln in much the same way that they would add salt to a kiln of stoneware. The matt or satin sheen of the smear glaze also preserved the Parian’s crisply molded details, which would have blurred under a glossy glaze finish. However, potters fully glazed the interiors of vases and pitchers intended to hold liquids.

In its Victorian heyday, potteries produced hundreds of thousands of pieces of Parian ware annually. Though it soon went out of popularity in England, American firms, notably one run by Christopher Fenton, which produced Parian from 1847 to 1849 as Fenton Works of Bennington, Vermont, and then from 1849 to 1858 as the United States Pottery Company, began making all sorts of items, but especially water pitchers. These potteries produced Parian ware using British manufacturing techniques brought over to America by English potters. Fenton’s companies made  at least 16 different pitchers.

Christopher Webber Fenton and his brother-in-law Julius Norton first made Parian in America at their pottery in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington had been a center for the production of utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware since the early part of the century. After Norton left the company in 1849, Fenton used the mark "Fenton's Works; Bennington, Vermont." When he acquired a new partner, a local businessman named Alanson Potter Lyman, also in 1849, Fenton changed the factory's name to the United States Pottery Company.

Daniel Greatbach, a Staffordshire potter who arrived in Bennington after beginning his American career in Jersey City, New Jersey, did much of the firm’s designing. Consistent with English counterparts of the mid-1840s through the 1850s, relief molding on Bennington pitchers usually consisted of the naturalistically rendered plant forms of the Rococo-revival style. Unfortunately, the factory closed in the Spring of 1858 due to the high cost of labor, the high losses by breakage, and the rough competition posed by cheaper imported articles. 

While the English potters marked their pieces, the Bennington firm for the most part did not, leaving nearly 80 percent unmarked which makes identifying Bennington pieces difficult without expert assistance. There’s a misconception that any unmarked Parian pieces from New England had to have been made by the United States Potter Company of Bennington. This myth seems to have originated in the 1920s with Dr. Charles Green, a New York physician and ceramics enthusiast, who amassed a large collection of Parian trinket boxes and vases during his antiquing forays throughout New England. Without knowledge of imported English ceramics into New England, he reasoned that anything found there must have been manufactured there. Since the Bennington pottery was known to have made some Parian, Green reasoned that all his unmarked Parian must have been made there as well. 

"Fenton's Works/Bennington,/Vermont," the mark used by Fenton’s Bennington firm,  clearly identifies the pitchers made prior to 1853, the year in which the pottery changed its name to the United States Pottery Company. The earlier of the two is a raised or applied mark impressed "UNITED STATES/ POTTERY CO./ BENNINGTON, VT.," which appears on four of their pitcher patterns–Cascade, Climbing Ivy, Tulip and Sunflower, and Paul and Virginia. A raised ribbon mark with the initials "U.S.P." was the last mark used on Parian by this firm. The ribbon also features two numbers denoting the pattern number and the capacity of the pitcher.

Victorians liked pitchers and vases of various sizes and shapes, including those shaped like hands holding receptacles for flowers or ears of corn or shells. Some had white relief decoration of grapes and vines, oak leaves, or climbing roses against a blue stippled background while others had relief illustrations from a novel called Paul & Virginia.

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre wrote the story of Paul and Virginia and first published it in 1788. The novel of naive love became an instant world-wide best seller, captivating audiences with the tale of two youngsters who grow up on a paradise island according to nature's law. In adolescence, the pair fall in love, but a shipwreck leads to their untimely deaths.

It’s a known fact that English immigrant potters brought with them a supply of English plaster casts and design molds to use in America. A pitcher can resemble an English one so closely as to suggest that it was cast in a mold made from the original piece. Therefore, it can be extremely hard for a beginning collector to tell the difference between unmarked English and American Parian ware.

Though Bennington Parian is considered the best Parian produced in America, other factories in Cincinnati, New York City, and Baltimore had begun production by the 1870s. So this pitcher could have been produced by one of those potteries.  Similar pitchers are selling for as much as $365 online.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ugly Ducklings

QUESTION:  I inherited a couch with a matching chair from my grandparents. I have tried to do research online, but the multitude of antique items is overwhelming. This set appears to resemble the Chippendale style, but not exactly from what I have seen. My grandmother said the set was already over 100 years old when she purchased it in the 1960's to 1970's. I’m trying to gain knowledge about these pieces. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Sorry to say, but someone gave your grandmother misinformation about her living room set. It’s not uncommon for dealers in used furniture to do this because they really don’t know how old the pieces they’re selling are and just want to sell them.

This couch and chair date from the 1920s or 1930s. They’re a great example of pseudo styles that manufacturers created to fill the need in the early to mid-20th century middle and working class markets. At that time, most people were looking forward and didn’t want “old” furniture in their homes. To buy all new furniture was a big deal, especially during the Great Depression. It was a way people impressed their friends and neighbors. If you could afford to buy new furniture, you were definitely going places. So manufacturers produced some truly ugly, ostentatious pieces to fill this need.

There were truly only four officially recognized furniture styles during the early 20th century.  The first was Art Nouveau, a style based on a movement that began in Paris in the late 19th century and lasted into the 1920s. Designers of the time developed this furniture as a revolt to the styles of Victorian times. Heavily influenced by natural forms, it featured stylized images of grasses, irises, snakes, dragonflies, and a myriad of other animal and plant forms.

Another style, Arts and Crafts, or Mission as it became known in America, was a style, originally developed in England, that defied the overly decorative and mass produced pieces of the latter part of the 19th century. Designers went back to the simpler times before the advent of the steam engine when cabinetmakers made furniture by hand. The Mission style became a direct result of the American Arts and Crafts Movement led by such designers as Gustav Stickley.

In 1925, an exposition in Paris showcased modern designs in furniture, jewelry, and architecture. An offshoot of this exposition was the birth of the Art Deco style in which furniture makers employed stainless steel, aluminum, and inlaid woods to fashion sleek, ultra modern pieces with bold geometric patterns and abstract forms.

The roots of the fourth style, Modernism or Arte Moderne, grew out of pre-World War II industrialism. As an outgrowth of Art Deco, this furniture style used little or no ornamentation and a function over form concept. Influenced by Scandinavian, Japanese, and Italian designs, it featured industrial materials such as steel and plastic.

What all of the above styles had in common was that they were mostly produced for those that could afford them. Newly wealthy industrialists, bankers, and merchants wanted furniture that was in fashion and were willing to pay great sums for it. However, the common person couldn’t afford such luxuries and ended up with mass-produced pieces that didn’t cater to any taste in design.

What ordinary people wanted was their own form of luxury—comfortable couches and chairs that they could fall asleep in after a hard days work but that would also impress guests. They wanted just enough decoration to make the pieces seem elegant but not so much as to make them hard to care for. These needs resulted in overstuffed chairs and sofas with springs in their cushions to give added comfort, extremely stylized shallow carving that was easy to clean, and generally little decorative woodwork since using more added to the cost of the piece. Manufacturers could use cheap woods to build the frames which they then covered with upholstery.

Unfortunately, while a few pieces of furniture from this period have some charm, most do not and no amount of restoration or reupholstery will transform these ugly ducklings into beautiful swans.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Ultimate in Elegance

QUESTION: What can you tell me about this plate? Is it collectible or ready for the dumpster.

ANSWER: If I were dumpster diving, I certainly would take a tumble for your plate. What you have is an authentic, hand-painted plate made in Limoges, France.

French Limoges is the name of delicate porcelain ware made in the Limousin region of France since the 18th century. It includes dinnerware, centerpieces, and the distinctive porcelain snuff and pill boxes that have become valuable collectors' items. The town of Limoges contains numerous factories that produced these wares, and, in fact, still do. The kaolin found in the rich soil in this French region is the vital element in the mix that makes up Limoges porcelain paste and gives it its delicate character.

Your particular type of plate, depending on its size, could be a case plate or a charger. Victorians loved to collect things and during the late 19th century, decorative display cases placed in the dining room, later to be commonly known as “china closets,” held various porcelain wares. Small hand-painted plates, usually from 7-8 inches in diameter, became a popular item to display in these cases. Housewives also displayed their best china in these cases.

Chargers, on the other hand, are larger decorative plates that a hostess would put at each place setting. Servants would take these away and replace them with plates of food. In French dining service, there should always be a plate in front of the person dining, whether full or not. So between each course, the serve would set the charger in front of the guest or family member.

Your plate has all the marks of authentic Limoges china. The McKinley Tariff Law went into effect in 1891, so all imported goods after that time had to be marked with the name of the country of origin. All Limoges items lacking the word "France" were made before 1891.

First, it has the maker's mark (partially obscured) in green on the bottom of the piece. This identifies the specific factory in Limoges that cast and fired your plate. This mark was impressed into the porcelain under the glaze at the point when the porcelain was still blank or "whiteware." Sometimes the mark just says "Limoges France," but in this case it seems to bear the name of Magnac-Bourg Limoges. Some marks incorporate a symbol such as a bird or a butterfly, but in this case it’s star with the word “Limoges” set into it.

The decorator's mark appears on the front of the plate. It seems to read “F. Faure.” While one of the presidents of France was named Felix Faure, there isn’t any evidence that he was a lowly plate decorator before winning that high office. The signature in this case is handwritten. Many Limoges pieces say "Peint Main," which stood for hand painted, on the back.

The mark on the back of your plate that is the clearest is that of the importer. In this case LS &S stands for Lazarus Strauss & Sons of New York, founded in 1869. The company imported chinaware from various countries in Europe, including Britain, France, and Germany and Czechoslovakia. In 1874, his son Nathan, got RH Macy to permitted them to have a glass and chinaware department in their store, making LS & S wares the first china and glassware to be sold by Macy’s. And while LS & S imported china, they also operated factories in the leading china making centers in the above countries.

Today, case plates and chargers made in Limoges, France, sell for $25 and up, depending on their age. Sets of 6 sell for much more.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The All-American Music Box

QUESTION: I have a Gem Roller Organ that has been in my family for some time.  It spent the last few years in a closet high up on a shelf.  The bellows are in working order and the keys respond to the pins but it has stopped playing.  What can you tell me about it? Also, can it be repaired?

ANSWER: You’ve got one of the original Gem Roller Organs produced by the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York.  Since it’s intact and in relatively good condition, it most likely needs cleaning, which you should have done by a professional who works on music boxes and gramophones.

In the late 1880's, the Autophone Company began making hand-cranked roller reed organs which operated by forcing air out through the reeds under pressure with exposed bellows. They named their most common and least expensive one “The Gem Roller Organ,” producing tens of thousands in a single year. Some time later, the company began producing a a more efficient vacuum-operated model, calling it simply the "Gem Roller Organ."

Earlier models, like the one pictured above, were pressure operated which forced air out through the reeds. This was changed early on in production to the more efficient vacuum system which became the standard for the majority of American made organette's.

Because of its relative simplicity, the company was able to keep the cost of its roller organ affordable. Sears & Roebuck, in their 1902 Catalog, offered the Gem Roller Organ for as low as $3.25, including three rollers. Contracting with Autophone to produce large quantities of these devices enabled Sears to sell in volume and keep its price low.

The Gem Roller Organ, available in either a painted black or walnut-like finish with gold stenciled applied designs, used teeth or pins embedded into a 20-note wooden roller, similar to the cylinders used in Swiss music boxes. Pins operated on valve keys while a gear turned the roller. The mass-produced 20-note rollers, priced as low as 18 cents each—and according to the Sears Catalog, less than the price of a traditional sheet of music—played a wide range of tunes, from classical to sacred to ethnic and popular tunes. The 1902 Sears Catalog listed 220 different rollers of the over 1,200 different titles then available.

The tone of a roller organ was similar to a cabinet parlor organ of the time. At 16 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, the Gem Roller Organ was small and light enough to place on a parlor table.
The Autophone Co. used native woods for their construction, and the wood finishes on their early machines may be quite beautiful.

Since Autofphone usually printed the manufacturing date on the bottom of the case, it’s relatively easy to date the device, itself. All rollers show a copyright date of July 14, 1885, even though the Autophone sold them from the late 1880's through the late 1920's—an amazing lifespan for a single basic design. Their success may be attributed to the full, rich sound and pleasing music arrangements offered on the rollers.

Unfortunately, roller organs quickly fell out of favor after the introduction of the phonograph around the turn of the 20th century even though they cost much less than disk or cylinder music boxes manufactured during the same period. Considered the common-mans form of entertainment since music boxes and other instruments were much more expensive, roller organs could be found in many middle class homes..Most eventually ended up in the attic, in the barn, or simply thrown away, but thanks to their nostalgic music, collectors are once again interested in them.

Today, roller organs sell for anywhere from $120 to over $800, depending on the condition and the number of rollers included.