Monday, January 30, 2012

Fiesta Fun

QUESTION: My aunt had a large collection of Fiesta dinnerware which she left to me. I added a few pieces that I found at flea markets over the last few years, but now I want to sell it. Is this pottery worth much and where would be the best place to sell it?

ANSWER: Depending on what pieces you have, your collection of Fiesta dinnerware could be worth a small fortune. But before you get dollar signs in your eyes, there are a few things you should know about it.

The style and bright colors of Fiesta dinnerware look very 1950s. But actually it appeared during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. Englishman, Frederick Hurten Rhead, designed the simple Art Deco shapes while chief engineer Victor Albert Bleininger fabricated the colorful signature glazes. Both worked for the Homer Laughlin China Company of Newell, West Virginia.

Originally, the company offered 37 different affordable pieces, ranging from candle holders and ashtrays to large serving dishes, each in five bright colors: red-orange, yellow, green, cobalt blue, and ivory. It added turquoise in 1939 for a total of six basic colors..

Homer Laughlin pioneered a whole new concept in dinnerware with Fiesta. When it first introduced the dinnerware at the annual Pottery and Glass Exhibit held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in January 1936, its line was the first widely mass-marketed, solid-color dinnerware in the country. It was also the first dinnerware that consumers could purchase by the piece instead of in complete sets, as was the custom at the time. This allowed customers to mix and match, perhaps choosing a different color for each place setting, or have all their dinner plates one color, their cups and saucers another, and so on. This concept became instantly popular with the public, and soon Fiesta dinnerware became a runaway hit.

At its introduction, Fiesta dinnerware consisted of the usual place settings of dinner plates, salad plates, soup bowls, and cups and saucers, plus occasional pieces such as candle holders in two designs, a bud vase, and an ash tray. A set of seven nested mixing bowls ranged in size from five to twelve inches in diameter. The company also sold basic place settings for four, six and eight persons. But the idea from the start was to create a line of open-stock items from which the consumer could pick and choose based on their personal preference.

The Homer Laughlin Company quickly added several additional items to their line and eliminated several unusual items—a divided 12-inch plate, a turquoise covered onion soup bowl, and the covers for its set of mixing bowls. The Fiesta line eventually consisted of 64 different items, including flower vases in three sizes, water tumblers, carafes, teapots in two sizes, five-part relish trays, and large plates in 13- and 15-inch diameters.

But with the onset of World War II, the company was forced to reduce the number of items in the Fiesta line as public demand declined and companies cut back non-war related production. By the end of the war, Homer Laughlin had reduced the items in its Fiesta line by one third.

The design of the original dinnerware pieces remained unchanged from 1936 to 1969. However, the company did change its colored glazes to keep up with home decorating color trends. It introduced four new colors—rose, gray, dark green, and chartreuse, replacing the original blue, green, and ivory. Yellow and turquoise continued in production.

By the end of the 1950s, sales again dropped, so the company reduced its offering of items and changed the glaze colors once again. This time, it introduced a medium green, to distinguish it from other green glazes which the company had produced. This shade of green is in high demand by collectors, and certain pieces in this color command extremely high prices.

Homer Laughlin removed the original red-orange color, the most expensive glaze to produce, before 1944 because it contained uranium oxide which the government needed to construct the atom bombs. Therefore, red pieces also usually command a premium price in today’s collectible market.

By 1969, the company restyled the finials on covers, handles on cups, bowl contours and shapes to give them a more contemporary style.

Fiesta dinnerware became popular once again as baby boomers began establishing their own homes. Not long after Homer Laughlin discontinued the brightly colored dinnerware line in January 1973,  collectors began buying up what remained at garage sales and second-hand shops. Prices for it hit the roof and by the mid-1980s, prices of Fiesta items reached $100 for scarcer pieces.

Generally, serving pieces such as casserole dishes, carafes, teapots, and water pitchers almost always have higher values than normal place setting pieces. As mentioned earlier, certain colors are also priced higher, no matter what the piece.

It’s also important to look on the back of each piece for the familiar “Fiesta” backstamp,
followed by 'HLC USA', 'MADE IN USA' or 'H.L. CO. USA.' You may also discover some pieces with the word 'GENUINE' stamped near the Fiesta signature.

As far as selling your collection, you might do better selling off the pieces individually. If the pieces are from the 1930s and 1940s, you might want to consider sending them to a good auction house where you'll most likely get a better return on them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Key for Every Character

QUESTION: My grandfather had an old Corona portable typewriter which he left to me. It’s a small machine with the No. 3 on the rim below the space bar. I believe the serial number is 125512. I’ve looked for some information on it but haven’t found much. Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: Your typewriter dates from the second half of 1917 and is part of a long line of machines created to make writing easier. It began in 1714 when Queen Anne of England granted a patent to Henry Mill for a writing device that enabled the blind to write. Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri created his own version of a typewriter in 1808, along with carbon paper to provide the ink for his machine.

In 1829, William Austin Burt patented a machine called the "Typographer" on which he produced a letter to Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. But even in the hands of its inventor, this machine was slower than handwriting, preventing Burt and his promoter John D. Sheldon from ever finding a buyer for their patent. The typographer used a dial, rather than keys, to select each character and resembled the squeeze-style label makers of the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1843 that Charles Thurber invented a machine that operated in way similar to modern typewriters.

Rev. Rasmus Malling Hansen of Denmark invented the Hansen Writing Ball in 1865. It went into commercial production in 1870 and became the first commercially sold typewriter. He made a porcelain model of the keyboard and experimented with different placements of the letters, attaching the letters to short pistons that went through the ball and down to the paper to achieve the fastest writing speed. By placing the letters so the fastest writing fingers struck the most frequently used letters, Hansen made his Writing Ball the first typewriter to produce text faster than a person could write by hand.

In 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first practical typewriter. Commercially known as "The Type-Writer," it had a moveable carriage, a lever for turning paper from line to line, and a keyboard similar to that of a piano with two rows of black walnut keys with letters printed in white—capital letters only along with numbers 2-9, a comma and a period. Sholes also created the QWERTY keyboard layout to prevent frequent jamming of frequently used letters.

Philo Remington of the Remington Arms Co. manufactured the first marketable Sholes machine in 1874. He sold only eight the first year at $125 each. And after four years he had only sold 5,000. Three businessmen bought and reinvigorated the company under the name of the Remington Typewriter Co. in 1878.

The history of the Corona typewriter is similar to these other early models. The four Smith brothers—Lyman Cornelius, Wilbert, Monroe, and Hurlburt—opened the Smith Premier Typewriter Company in 1886. They produced the first typewriter to use both uppercase and lowercase letters using a  double keyboard. The advertisements for their new machine proclaimed that it had "a key for every character."

During 1906, the Rose Typewriter Company of New York City marketed the first successful portable typewriter. The Smith brothers bought the company in 1909, renamed it the Standard Typewriter Company, and moved its headquarters to Groton, New York. And with the success of their Corona model No. 3 in 1914, the firm became the Corona Typewriter Company.

By that time, the design of the mechanical typewriter had become standardized. While there were minor variations from one manufacturer to another, most typewriters had keys attached to a typebar that had the corresponding letter molded, in reverse, into its striking head. When the operator struck a key briskly and firmly, the typebar hit an inked ribbon, making a printed mark on the paper wrapped around a cylindrical platen mounted on a carriage that moved left or right, automatically advancing the typing position horizontally after the operator typed each character. The carriage return lever advanced the paper vertically for each line of text as it rolled around the platen.

Until recently, antique dealers considered old typewriters worthless, but prices of them on eBay have begun to climb. Of course, higher prices only appear for the most unique models in excellent condition. A Corona No. 3 model from 1917 ranges in price on eBay from about $50 to $190 without its case and $400 for one with its case.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Predicting the Value of Farmer’s Almanacs

QUESTION:  I happen to come into about 20 old and different Farmer’s Almanacs ranging in issue dates from 1867 to 1930.  I haven't been able to find any information on them. Is there a link you can refer me to so I can get an idea of their value?

ANSWER: Before looking at how to determine the value of your almanacs, it’s important to note that over the last two centuries there have been several almanacs with the name “Farmer’s” in them. Benjamin Franklin first published his now famous Poor Richard’s Almanac back in the 1732 and continued doing so until 1758. At its peak, Franklin printed over 10,000 copies for each edition.

By the late 18th century, many almanacs included the term “Farmer’s” in their titles because the young nation was mostly one of farmers who wanted to know what the weather would be like for the coming year, so they would know when to plant and harvest their crops. Accurate weather prediction meant the difference between survival and starvation.

Of the two publications known today as farmer’s almanacs, the Old Farmer's Almanac, originally published in 1792 and still published every September, is the most widely known. Begun by Robert Thomas, it’s first editor, the Old Farmer's Almanac grew from a circulation of 3,000 copies to over 9,000 in just three years. The cost was only nine cents. Thomas added the word "Old" to the title of his almanac in 1832, then removed it three years later.

Since Thomas’ almanac format wasn't unique, perhaps his weather predictions were more accurate. Based on his observations, Thomas devised a complex series of natural cycles to create a secret weather forecasting formula, resulting in unusually accurate forecasts.

John H. Jenks bought the publication after Thomas died, then put the word “Old” back in the title in 1848. Three years later, Jenks hired Henry Nichols to create the Almanac’s trademark four-seasons cover that has remained with the periodical ever since.

In 1861, Charles L. Flint became editor and focused the Almanac’s content on farming to provide his growing readership with information they could use. By 1900, the Old Farmer’s Almanac had yet another editor, Horace Ware, who aimed the publication beyond farmers to a more general readership by using features on nature and modern life instead of farming..

After surviving the World War I and the Depression, the Old Farmer’s Almanac entered a new era under the leadership of Roger Scaife who became editor in 1936. Its circulation had fallen from a high of 225,000 in 1863 to just 88,000. He mistakenly eliminated the weather forecasts, thinking that his readers didn’t need them, and almost killed the publication.

Robb Sagendorph, owner of Yankee Magazine, bought the Old Farmer's Almanac in 1939 and moved it to Dublin, New Hampshire. He reinstated Thomas’ original format and style the readership of the publication began to grow once again.

The other publication, known simply as the Farmers' Almanac, has been in continuous publication since 1818. David Young and Jacob Mann founded their little publication in Morristown, New Jersey two years after what has come to be known as “the year without a summer.” During that year, farmers crops suffered severely from the unusual weather, so Young and Mann decided to create a publication which would offer them accurate weather forecasts to prevent a disaster like that from happening again.

Astronomer Samuel Hart Wright succeeded Young in 1851to become the second of only seven editors of the publication. Eventually, the publication’s offices moved from Morristown to nearby Newark, New Jersey.

Ray Geiger served as the Farmers’ Almanac's longest-running editor, from 1934 until shortly before his death in 1994. In 1955, he moved production of the Farmers' Almanac from Newark to its current headquarters in Lewiston, Maine. Today, his son, Peter Geiger continues to publish the Almanac.

Published by the Almanac Publishing Company, of Lewiston, Maine, the Farmer’s Almanac has become noted for its long-range weather predictions. Its readers claim the Almanac is 80-85 percent accurate in its predictions. But studies comparing the actual weather with the Almanac’s predictions have shown that the predictions aren’t any more accurate than pure chance.

Although the editors of the Farmer’s Almanac make predictions as far as two years in advance, they’re . re highly secretive about how they go about making them, only saying that they rely on astronomical data like the positions of the planets, sunspot activity, and tidal action. To put an identity to the forecasts, the editors created a fictitious forecaster Caleb Weatherbee.

Writing to down-home farmer folk, the almanac has also included its own special blend of advice on farming, gardening, fishing, and cooking over the years, as well as human-interest articles. Its editors have continually focused on the themes of simplicity, sustainable living, and conservation.

Old copies of both the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the Farmer’s Almanac abound. Since each was the farmer’s best companion and popular with even regular people for its weather predictions, there are a lot of old copies hidden in people’s attics and basements. Unfortunately, these aren’t always in the best condition. And as with any other collectible, especially paper ones, condition is of prime importance when determining value. The earlier issues from the 19th century, printed on paper high in rag content, are usually in much better condition, but dampness can play a big role in paper deterioration. But even in the best condition, the sheer number of copies out there prevent the value from becoming too high.

The average selling price on eBay for a late 19th-century copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac from say the 1870s is only about $12-15. Editions from the 1920s sell for only about $4., an online used bookseller, has an 1890 edition in fair condition priced at just $9.

And while these prices are a far cry from the publication’s original price, these little gems are probably more fun to read than to consider as an investment.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Chew, Chew...Spit

QUESTION: I found what looks like a small, shallow, porcelain vase at a fleamarket near my home. It’s almost too short to hold anything but flowers with very short stems and has a delicate floral design on the outside. Do you have any idea what this might be?

ANSWER: What you have is a ladies spit cup or spittoon. Chewing is one of the oldest ways of consuming tobacco. Native Americans chewed its leaves, often mixing it with lime. It became a popular pastime in the last decade of the 18th century and continued to be so until 1920. Today, the most visible evidence of tobacco chewing appears in baseball, but even that’s dying out as users succumb to throat cancer.

Though mostly men indulged in the habit of chewing tobacco, women, especially those in Victorian times, used it as well. In 1865, a traveler down South noted that seven-tenths of all people, both male and female,  over the age of 12 used tobacco in some form. Even children of 8 or 9 smoked. The habit increased in popularity after the Civil War as soldiers, who chewed tobacco to ease frazzled nerves on the battlefield, continued to do so after they came home.

Victorian women could chew and spit as well as men. These ladies usually abused tobacco and alcohol behind closed doors. And while they snuck outside and drank and smoked in the outhouse to avoid being caught by their husbands, they often chewed tobacco quietly around the house while doing their chores and needed something in which to deposit their spit.

After the Civil War, spittoons became a fixture in many places, including hotels, saloons, stores, and any other place where men chewing tobacco might congregate. These were large vessels made of brass or pottery with a broad rim into which the chewer tried to aim his spit, often with little success.

Woman, on the other hand, used a dainty spit cup—also called a lady’s cuspidor, toilette cup, or boudoir dish—to gracefully discard their sputum. Some looked like regular coffee or tea cups while others had fanciful shapes with fluted rims. Since ladies didn’t need to spit across the room, these cups often had decorative gold rims and base, and delicate, lady-like designs. Some came in the shape of little baskets or drawstring purses. English and French manufacturers, especially Limoges, made these lovely spit receptacles out of fine porcelain, and for plainer, everyday use, ironstone with flowered transferware patterns on both the inside and outside.

As chewing tobacco's popularity declined throughout the years, the spittoon became a relic. However, women found other uses for these cups. Pregnant women, who tended to salivate more, especially when they had nausea or heartburn, also used these cups. Even today, it’s common for Haitian women to carry around a spit cup while pregnant.