Monday, February 20, 2012

Still Crazy After All These Years

QUESTION: I recently purchased a crazy quilt at a country antique show. I love the intricate designs, but, otherwise, don’t know much about it. Can you tell me more and perhaps tell me how I can take care of it? It’s in pretty good condition, but I can see that it’s somewhat delicate.

ANSWER: Your crazy quilt is the result a fad that began here in the United States over 100 years ago, roughly from 1875 to 1900. As with many country quilts, it became a way for women to use up their extra scraps of cloth or fabric from worn-out clothes, but crazy quilts also were a form of self expression, much like samplers were a 100 years before that.

Victorian women created crazy quilts like giant jigsaw puzzles, made of irregular pieces of silk, satin, velvet, or plush fabric sewn onto a solid backing of a lighter material, then decorated with embroidery stitches. Many became sentimental diaries stitched with names and legends while others took on the look of nostalgic stitched scrapbooks filled with memorabilia commemorating events, story book characters, garden flowers, even family pets. Women often made them as gifts to a bride or to someone recovering from a severe illness. Others made them in memory of a loved one who had recently passed.

Scraps for these elaborate quilts often came from ball gowns, opera capes, or the parlor curtains. But women could also buy packages of scraps from the Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalogs. The Singer Sewing Machine Company used crazy quilts as a symbol on their trade cards. Women's magazines of the day offered directions for making crazy quilts as table covers along with patterns for decorating them. Silk manufacturers promoted the use of their scrap waste in making crazy quilts. Magazine publishers also offered booklets on making crazy quilts as premiums in exchange for  subscriptions to their periodicals.

The word crazy in this case actually means irregular, odd, bizarre, strange, or unusual, and perfectly describes these quilts. Some look like a haphazard collection of odd bits of cloth and memorabilia while others are more like abstract works of silk art in shimmering colors reflecting light.

Since crazy quilts are more often tufted rather than quilted, they should be called "throws." Victorian housewives often threw them over parlor tables and pianos, as well as sofas or beds. They were the perfect complement to the ornately carved overstuffed furniture and bric-a-brac of every sort adorning  table tops, etageres, and mantels in the Victorian parlor.

Some historians believe the Victorian crazy quilt may have originated as a result of the popularity of Japanese prints or screens after the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. Others wonder if their fractured designs may have been taken from the pattern of an uneven pavement or cracked ice, a popular decorative border used from the late 1870s through the 1880s.

Likewise, women often copied the patterns painted and embroidered on crazy quilts from Japanese ones. Many crazy quilts display a cranes standing in pools of water, owls and peacocks perched on gnarled tree branches, kimono clad figures, butterflies and cherry blossoms, hanging lanterns and spider webs.

And since not every woman was artistically talented, makers of crazy quilts could purchase pre-stamped patches or would trace designs from magazines. The Ladies Home Journal offered as a premium to readers bringing in 16 new subscribers a “Crazy Patchwork Outfit,” consisting of 12 pre-stamped pieces of silk, one box of stamping powder, twelve skeins of embroidery silk, and a glittering array of two dozen spangles and two yards of tinsel cord.

Women's magazines also offered how-to instructions for the three basic embroidery stitches---the outline, Kensington, and plush. The outline stitch, also known as the stem stitch, formed a thread line as in a drawing. The Kensington stitch enabled crazy quilt makers to fill in their outlines using various colors. And the plush stitch produced areas of cut silk thread like a pile carpet.

Quilt makers used embroidery stitches not only along the edges of patches to decorate them and at the same time hold the edges under and in place but also to make designs. Those who lacked embroidery skills could purchase pre-embroidered appliques. Some crazy quilt makers further embellished their creations with painted designs on the fabric after they assembled their quilts. Sequins, beads, spangles, metallic braid, and ribbon were also popular forms of embellishment.

Crazy quilts are as durable as regular quilts. They won’t survive daily folding and shouldn’t be used as throws where they’ll be handled a lot. But they can be mounted on a frame or encased in plexiglass and hung on a wall. Both dry cleaning and wet cleaning damages them, so the only safe way of cleaning them is to use a low power vacuum held well away from the fabric which has been covered with some sort of mesh screening—an old window screen will do—to prevent the fabric from being sucked up and damaged.

Unlike regular quilts, women who made crazy quilts usually signed them. Many have been passed down through generations in a family.

Prices for crazy quilts range from $50 for an average small one to as much as $1000 for a large exceptionally stitched one. Because their prices are relatively low in comparison with fine 19th-century quilts, many most likely remain hidden away in attic trunks waiting to be discovered.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Samples or Toys?—That is the Question

QUESTION:  Can you tell me anything about these two small pieces of Chippendale furniture?
Could they have been for little girls to play with?

ANSWER: Your pieces of furniture seem too detailed and too small for say a 6-8-year-old girl to play with. But it’s quite possible that they were samples that a salesmen carried with them to show shopkeepers or rural customers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A salesman would leave items like these in a shop to use as display pieces. General stores needed to carry a lot of items and didn’t have room for full-sized furniture. This finely made armchair and birdcage table, made in the Chippendale style, would have given customers a good idea of their detailing and construction.

Itinerant sales representatives would loan miniatures of their company’s products with country store owners to promote their wares. A shop owner might receive a sample for display if they had enough sales of particular items to warrant it. Most of these samples were 1/4- to 1/3-scale models and were very expensive to make. Therefore, companies only made a small quantity of each.

A salesman sample was in essence a complete, and often working, scale model. Companies used them especially to show off large heavy items like ice boxes, washing machines, furniture, and the like. Each featured the same materials and hardware as the original, only in scaled-down size.

A customer could study the sample, and if he or she wanted to purchase it, they’d give the store owner a deposit, and the owner would order the item from the manufacturer by mail or telegram. The customer would pay the balance of the price when they picked up the item. People who lived in the vast Midwest often had to travel long distances to towns to do their special shopping. Usually, they shopped for many of their needs from catalogs. And sometimes salesmen would stop by to show them samples of their wares. This was especially true if they sold farm machinery, cooking stoves, or washers.

Samples of mechanical items like cooking stoves, for example, featured authentic nickle plating and functional fireboxes, plus a manufacturer’s nameplate. These usually distinguish salesman samples from toys. Toys of the same mechanical items, often made in Germany, were as finely detailed as the samples but had nameplates or other markings from the toy manufacturer. Or none at all which makes distinguishing them from salesman samples more difficult.

Some collectors argue that a salesman sample has to have a case or box that the salesman would have carried it in on his rounds. However, most salesman samples didn’t have cases.

There are two types of salesman's samples on the market today—ones that worked and ones that didn’t. Obviously, as technology progressed through the 1880s and 90s, and through the turn of the century, machines became more prevalent and large ones required salesman samples. Cooking stoves could weigh in at 500+ pounds and took up too much room in shops to be practical. In fact, many homeowners bought them directly from the manufacturer. But no matter if they worked or not, the goal of all salesman's samples was to sell a product. Those salesman's samples that actually worked were more common before 1920. Using a scaled-down sample of their weighty product was a very cost-effective way for the machinery companies to do business.

However, the differences between salesman samples and toys aren't always so obvious. Children’s toy furniture, for example, was smaller than salesman samples and usually not nearly as well made. The samples were the real thing in a reduced size, so they used all the same woods and hardware. Fine pieces like this armchair and table would have possibly been commissioned by a wealthy family and would have been signed by the maker. Salesman samples, on the other hand, had to look as good or better than the actual piece of furniture because people didn't change furniture as often as they do today, so they bought quality pieces that would last.

It’s important for collectors of salesman samples to be wary of imitations. Prices for them can reach astronomical amounts mostly because sellers overprice toys which they sell as salesman samples. And as with all antiques, it’s buyer beware.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Waffling Around

QUESTION: I recently purchased an old electric waffle iron at a garage sale. Are these things collectible and can I still use it?

ANSWER: Mmmmmmm. Just the mention of waffles reminds me of the smell of them baking on a cold Sunday morning, then smothered in butter and warm maple syrup, and perhaps topped with strawberries and whipped cream. But I digress...

Depending on the age of your electric waffle iron, it has the potential to be collectible. Small appliances like this are just coming into their own as collectibles. However, if you plan to use it, you had better have the appliance checked out and the wire replaced with a higher-voltage cord by a certified appliance repair dealer. Once that’s done and the waffle iron cleaned up, you should be able to enjoy delicious old-time waffles whenever you like.

Before the waffle iron became electrified, the making of waffles had an interesting history. Traditional waffle irons consisted of two hinged metal plates, molded to create the honeycomb pattern, which the maker held over a wood fire to bake the batter poured between them, one side at a time. Knowing when to turn the iron took skill learned by trial and error since these early waffle irons had no temperature controls.

Some historians believe the waffle dates back to ancient Greece, when Athenians baked obelios—flat cakes held between two metal plates—over hot coals. The word waffle evolved from wafer, one of the only foods early Catholics could eat during fasting periods because they contained no milk, eggs, or animal fats. Monks were the only ones making these wafers until the late 12th century, when lay bakeries began making a tastier version which they called waffles.

Eventually, waffle iron makers molded the plates with religious symbols and the familiar honeycomb pattern, which was supposed to represent interlocking crosses. In 1270, an special guild to train the street vendors who sold waffles came into existence.

Peasants soon began making their own flour and water waffles, although some started adding eggs and honey to make them lighter and sweeter. Even Geoffrey Chaucer mentions waffles in his Canterbury Tales: "He sent her sweetened wine and well-spiced ale/ And waffles piping hot out of the fire."

Waffles became a staple of the Dutch diet by the 1620s and early immigrants brought them to New Amsterdam, eventually to become New York..

But the waffle wouldn’t achieve nationwide appeal until Thomas Jefferson brought a waffle iron back from France in the 1790s as a souvenir. He had his cook make and serve them at the White House, which helped popularize "waffle parties."

It wasn’t until 1869 that Cornelius Swarthout patented the first waffle iron in the U.S.. What made his waffle iron unique was that he joined the cast iron plates by a hinge that swiveled in a cast-iron collar.

Soon after the invention of electricity came the electric waffle iron. Lucas D. Sneeringer eventually designed the first electric heating elements that used a built-in thermostat to prevent overheating, a common problem with early versions. With his revolutionary design and General Electric funding, the first electric waffle iron rolled off the assembly line on July 26, 1911.

While the first electric waffle iron did the job—the process of making waffles this way is a relatively simple one—it didn’t look very pretty. So designers set about making the exterior of the waffle iron more attractive. Other innovations, like an iron that could cook two waffles at the same time, soon followed.  Charles M. Cole invented the first twin waffle iron in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1939 when Karl Ratliff designed the "Twin-O-Matic" for the New York World's fair that it really caught on with the public.

By the time the New York World’s Fair rolled around, Art Deco design had influenced everything from dishes to utensils and small appliances. Some waffle irons, like the Hotpoint waffle iron by Edison General Electric, became works of art in themselves. Some resembled flying saucers, having lost their legs and taking on a lower, sleeker look. One of these was General Electric’s Diana, designed by August Propernick. Toastmaster and Sunbeam soon got in on the act and began producing their own electric waffle irons.

It’s said that in the Midwest, the waffle iron holds a special place in marriages. It seems that the nuptials aren’t complete until a  relative gives a waffle iron to the happy couple. As long as the waffle iron remains intact and in use at least once a year, the marriage will prosper. If the couple neglects the waffle iron or lets it fall into disrepair, then so will same happen to their marriage.