Monday, March 26, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere

QUESTION: I discovered this unique water bottle at a local antiques co-op. While most antique water decanters are solid cut or pressed glass, this one comes apart into two pieces. A metal ring, with a rubber gasket to make the seal tight, screws onto the base. The mark on the bottom edge of the top section reads: Perfection Bottle Co., Wilkes-Barre, PA Pat March 30-97. What can you tell me about this type of water bottle?

ANSWER: You, indeed, have found a unique water bottle. Though a revolutionary idea, this type of water bottle appeared in stores for only a few years.

From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, water bottles were standard items in many American Victorian households. They appeared on dinner tables either alone or with matching glasses and in bedrooms often with a glass that set upside down over the top of the bottle. They also could be found on the nightstands in hotel rooms and steamship cabins, and on tables in railroad lounge cars.

At first, manufacturers made them of elegant cut glass, but that was too expensive for the average person. Some turned to using pressed glass in a variety of patterns which lowered their cost.

However, cleaning these crystal beauties posed a serious problem with hygiene. The bottle’s narrow neck made it hard to get a brush down into it, making it almost impossible to clean the inside surface of the bottle’s bulbous interior. But that changed in 1896 when William B. Fenn came up with the idea of a separating water bottle—one with pieces that could unscrew for easy cleaning. On March 30 of the following year, he applied for and received a patent for it.

Fenn’s separating water bottle had an ingenious design. He made the neck and base two separate pieces, with the bottom edge of the neck fitting inside the top rim of the base. A rubber gasket formed a waterproof seal between the two parts and a metal ring screwed over the joint to lock the pieces in place.

Even though Fenn used glass for his original design, he stipulated in his patent that any material, including ceramics and porcelain, could be used for the bottle, itself, and any metal could be used for the joining ring as long it wouldn’t corrode.

It took nearly three years for Fenn's" bottle to be available to the public.,Priced at $4.50 each when they first came on the market in 1900, they were well beyond the means of the average person. Realizing he had to do something to increase sales, Fenn redesigned the pattern on the bottle so that it could be pressed instead of cut. Suddenly, the price per bottle dropped to 50 cents per bottle, or 34 cents each for a dozen, making the Fenn water bottle affordable for everyone.

Fenn’s invention was so successful that he decided to expand production. By October,1902, consumers could purchase a decanter and stopper in four sizes—half pint, and one, two and three-pint versions. And during 1903; He expanded the line further to include other glass containers, such as   syrup pitchers and cruets, as well as bitters, cologne, and barber bottles, each with a different pattern.

The separating water bottle came in three models—the Royal, with a delicate design imitating cut crystal, the Imperial, also sold in two and three-pint capacities but without a pattern, the Optic, with a succession of single, convex protruding, vertical panels with rounded tops and bottoms, and the Colonial, featuring nine rounded panels with flat bottoms around the base. Each came in two and three-pint sizes, except the Colonial which also came in a half-gallon size.

In 1903, the Perfection Water Bottle Co. and the Sterling Glass Co. combined to create the Perfection Glass.Co. of Washington, Pennsylvania, with William Fenn as one of the initial investors. But the new company was only to last until 1907 when it closed its doors for lack of sales.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Portable Portraits

QUESTION: I’ve noticed photographic portrait cards of Civil War soldiers at flea markets and antique shows. Are these good to collect or do people buy them just to add ambiance to their antique decorating?

ANSWER: The portrait cards you’ve been seeing at flea markets and antique shows, known as  carte de visites, are, indeed, highly collectible, especially if they’re photographs of someone special or famous.

Parisian photographer, André Adolphe Eugène Disderi, patented the first carte de visites, literally meaning “visiting cards,” in 1854. Each card, onto which the photographer pasted a small albumen print,  measured 2-1/2 x 4 inches. They became all the rage for several decades during and after the Civil War, both here and abroad. However,  Disderi's format didn’t become widely used until nearly five years after he patented it.

But once his format caught on, it became an international standard. For the first time, people could exchange portraits, which they could then place into matching slots in specially made carte de visite photo albums. It didn’t matter where the recipient lived since they could purchase these albums everywhere. Another advantage to carte de visites was that people could mail them to each other. Usually each print came with a special mailing envelope, making it easy for the sender to just address it and pop it into the mail. Earlier daguerreotype and ambrotype photographs, both done on glass plates, required the sender to package them in bulky boxes with sufficient packing to prevent breakage during shipment. And because of their small size, carte de visites were also somewhat inexpensive. 

Before the advent of carte de visites, people exchanged elaborate calling cards with their names engraved in decorative fonts. During the decade before the Civil War, it was the custom for a person to present his or her calling card whenever they visited someone. Life was very formal at the time, and no one received anyone they didn’t know without a calling card. Most people had a small basket or box in their parlor in which visitors could place their cards. A few photographers created and sold special photographic calling cards, but these weren’t standardized.

Using Disderi's method, a photographer could take eight negatives on a single 8 x 10-inch glass plate using a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses. That allowed him to make eight copies of the person’s portrait each time he printed the negative. This reduced production costs and allowed photographers to sell carte de visites at a reasonable price.

People were slow to purchase these new photo cards. However, legend says that after Disdéri published Emperor Napoleon III's photos in this format, the cartes gained widespread popularity.

Historians believe C. D. Fredericks introduced the carte de visite to the U.S. in New York late in the summer of 1859.  After carte de visites of Abraham Lincoln went on sale, they caught on like wildfire as soldiers and their families posed for them before war or death separated them. Carte de visites of famous people, like Ulysses S. Grant, became an instant hit, as people began collecting celebrity portraits of the time.

Civil War photographs are extremely collectible and have crossover appeal to collectors of both military and early photographs. From 1861 to 1865, the most method of portraiture was the tin-type and the carte de visite.

John L. Gihon of Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, was a portrait photographer who captured images of soldiers and prisoners at Fort Delaware off the shore of Delaware City, Delaware. His carte de visites eventually led to the production of early baseball cards for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1870s. He died of an illness at only 39. Gihon charged his customers $2.50 for a sitting and six cards.

These little portraits were very important to Civil War soldiers. Since those, especially the Confederate prisoners, at Fort Delaware had to make do with what they had, they, usually officers, often borrowed pieces of uniforms, especially hats, and props, including swords, belts, sashes, from others confined with them so that they would appear as finely dressed as possible.

Prices of collectible carte de visites vary on condition, pose and subject. A carte de visite of surgeon Robert Hubbard, 17th Connecticut Infantry Volunteers, sold at auction for $374. Hubbard enlisted as surgeon of the regiment in August 1862 and became the acting medical director during the Battle of Gettysburg. He resigned in Dec. 1863.

A carte-de-visite of Dr. Mary Walker, taken by noted London photographer Elliott & Fry sold at auction for $1,380. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and was an author and early feminist who gained distinction during the Civil War as a humanitarian, surgeon, and spy. Congress awarded her  the Congressional Medal of Honor in January 1866 on the personal recommendation of General Sherman. She refused to part with it when Congress revoked it for “unusual circumstance” in 1917. Dr. Walker died in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1977 when President Carter officially reinstated the award.

Collectors can find a variety of carte de visites both at flea markets and antique shows and in some antique shops and online. Prices vary from a few dollars to several thousand. They’re great items to collect, especially if a collector can find the special albums to hold them, often sold with their carte de visites removed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What's Cookin'?

QUESTION: My great-grandmother died recently and my husband and I now have the task of disposing of her monstrous, cast-iron kitchen stove, which we understand belonged to her mother. Is it worth moving the stove to our place or should we just call a junk dealer to remove it?

ANSWER: Depending on the ultimate condition of your great-grandmother’s stove, you may find that it’s worth far more than you imagine. You have two options: Clean it up, restore it, and use it in some way in your house or sell it. Either way, there are a few things you need to know about old kitchen stoves before you decide.

Colonial life centered around giant smoking, inefficient fireplaces. The walk-in Colonial hearth dominated the most important room in the house—the kitchen. Housewives or their servants continually added fuel to the cooking fires throughout the day. After supper, cooks kept the fading embers alive until the following morning, when they began the daily routine of stoking, feeding, and cooking once again.

During the 1790s, a Massachusetts-born physicist named Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford) discovered how inefficient these fireplaces were and set out to invent a better solution. The Rumford stove had shallower fireplaces and a more streamlined chimney that forced out smoke but not heat. It featured one fire source that could heat several cooking pots and enabled the cook to regulate the heat individually for each pot. It was more of a fireplace insert than a stove and required modification of the huge hearths. These became  status symbol among the wealthy. Even Thomas Jefferson had several installed at Monticello.The downside about the Rumford stove was that it was meant for large kitchens.

Foundries began producing small wood-burning kitchen stoves, complete with ovens, in the early 19th century. Forty years later, makers produced full-sized kitchen stoves by the thousands. The size of kitchen stoves increased the manufacturers offered such options as warming ovens, extra surface burners, shelves, water reservoirs, and decorative panels of enamel or porcelain.

Historians refer to this style of six-and ten-plate wood-burning, box stove as a laundry stove because housewives or servants could place wash kettles on the flat, top surface. Some laundry stoves, such as the one invented by J.T. Davy, featured hooks for six flat irons around the belly of the stove. These, plus a putting one on the loading plate, enabled the laundress to heat seven irons at once.

British inventor, James Sharp patented the first successful gas stove in 1826. During the 1910s, gas stoves appeared with enamel coatings that made the stoves easier to clean. Most households had gas stoves with enclosed ovens by the 1920s. However, the slow installation of gas lines to most households delayed the progress of gas stoves. By World War I, the new gas stoves permanently replaced fireplaces for cooking.

If you’re planning on selling your great-grandmother’s stove, check the porcelain areas carefully. While you can easily clean it with a strong kitchen degreaser, you cannot replace any part that is badly cracked or missing. The only thing you can do in that case is to paint the damaged area with white or colored porcelain repair paint. But this only works on small areas.

Monumental monstrosities like your great-grandmother’s kitchen stove, are some of the most sought-after antiques. They helped raise and bake bread and simmered soup for hours on cold winter days. Today, the old time kitchen stove has come to symbolize the concept of "home."