Monday, April 30, 2012

Postcards From the Attic

QUESTION: My grandfather collected postcards for years. Now I have his collection. While it’s great to look at, I have no idea of where to start finding out about the hundreds of cards he collected. Can you please help me?

ANSWER: To begin, deltiology—postcard collecting—is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. Most people collect postcards for four reasons: (1) Nostagia. Many older collectors seek out pictures of “the good ole days” or "the way it used to be.” Younger ones seek out the places or characters from their childhood. (2) Cost. Many items have soared in price, but postcards can still be obtained for from 10-cents to $10 each. (3) Investment. Postcards that sold for 10 cents less than 10 years ago now bring $1 to $5 and more. (4) Art and printing. The art on a postcard often determined the printing process and vice versa, from the lithochromes of the 1890's to the photochromes (photo cards) of today.

There are still many millions of postcards packed away in attics. Many, neatly tucked away in albums for the last 90-100 years, are in pristine condition. When postcards sold for 1 cent to 10 cents each, not very many people thought it worthwhile to search a dusty attic for them. Today, that’s all changed.

You’ll find postcards for sale at garage sales, flea markets, antique shops, and stamp shows. The most popular ones are the “hometown views.” Many show main streets with gas lights, trolleys, horse-drawn vehicles, store signs, sidewalk sales, bustles, hoopskirts, knickers, hightop shoes, and Model-T Fords. Those who collect for nostalgic reasons love these.

Then there are those from family vacations and foreign tours. Those who travel frequently often bring back views of the places they’ve been on postcards to put into albums either in place of their own photographs or in addition to them. They could pick up free cards from motels, hotels, resorts, and restaurants and, of course, purchase many scenic view cards of popular vacation spots. In fact, the act of sending picture postcards to the folks back home began as an American pastime.

And you shouldn’t ignore the greeting postcards, sent by Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century to express holiday and birthday greetings.

Postcard collecting was a huge craze in the early 20th century, with peak years running from about 1907 to 1913. People used these cards to keep in touch with friends and family, much as people use Facebook today. Couples courted using postcards and strangers met other strangers in foreign countries. By the end of the peak period in 1913, people had sent over 968,000,000 postcards. If even a fraction of all those cards have made it into the hands of dealers, the supply would be overwhelming. In fact, because so many have come into the market, the price for most postcards remains relatively reasonable.

Most collectors seem to collected cards for their pictorial value and not as much for their condition. During the peak years, many seemed willing to pay a few cents for old cards, focusing on topics like bridges and courthouses which are of little interest today. And with over 120 different topics to choose from, it’s no wonder that the hobby has grown so much.

Many collectors refused to consider any card made after 1920. They especially liked photographic postcards for their historical significance. Mid-20th-century roadside and local views have now increased in popularity and price. And it’s become difficult to find city views from the 1940s and 1950s.

Dating used postcards is simple—just check the postmark on back. However, it can be harder to figure the date of unused ones. Early cards from before 1900 to 1918 have good detail and no border.

Those with a white border date from 1919 to 1932. Most of the cards were view cards which were often pale with low contrast. Paper stock at the time had a coated surface, resulting in a dull, flat  appearance. 

Linen texture-cards dominated the market from 1933 until the early 1950's. The majority of view cards from this era are boring and unattractive, especially those featuring scenery because the linen texture actually took away from the picture. Real photos of tourist areas were also fairly common. Photographic cards from this time are generally glossier and more contrasty than earlier ones and have titles in white letters close to the bottom of the picture.

As with postage stamps, the condition of a postcard falls into one of six categories—mint, near mint, excellent, very good, good, and fair. Cards in the last condition aren’t considered collectible unless they’re very rare.

To find out more about your cards and to maintain and grow your collection, you might want to join one of over 70 postcard clubs in the U.S. Most of these clubs issue bulletins that have valuable postcard information, stories, and pictures. Even if a club isn’t close enough to make it convenient for you to attend meetings, it’s worth joining, if only for the bulletins and membership rosters, so that you can begin trading with other members.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Sleeping Chayre

QUESTION: Recently I purchased an old wingback chair at a local antique shop. It seems very old to me since it has ball and claw feet, plus it’s upholstery looks good but older in style, leading me to believe it had been done long ago. But I’m puzzled about the springs supporting the upper pillow. Perhaps they were also added at a later time. Can you tell me more about this type of chair and how old this one might be?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, your wing chair isn’t as old as you think. It dates from the Great Depression of the 1930s and would be considered a Colonial Revival piece. What led you to believe the chair was older were its ball and claw feet, made popular by Thomas Chippendale in the mid-18th century in England.

The Chippendale style of furniture remained popular until the end of the 18th century when interest in it disappeared until the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The fair inspired furniture makers to re-create the styles of the American Colonial Period until all such furniture became known as Colonial Revival or just “period” furniture. Chippendale created chair designs for comfort, unlike the still, but stylish designs of Federal ones. His wingback chair offered the ultimate in comfort.

But where did the idea for a chair with wings originate? As early as the 17th century, people living in cold weather areas gathered by their fireplaces on crude wooden benches to keep warm. As the century progressed cabinetmakers added high backs with small wings to these benches. While they were functional, they were far from comfortable.

Furniture historians believe they originally intended the wings to prevent drafts from reaching the upper body of those who sat in these chairs. The chairs also prevented the immense heat a roaring fireplace fire from affecting the makeup of ladies who might be sitting too close to it. Makeup then was clay-based and tended to run when heated.

Unlike other chairs, wingbacks offered a greater level of comfort and beauty. With the onset of the 18-century, chairmakers began incorporating upholstery into their wingbacks. Chippendale molded the wingback design by adding elegant frames such as oversized wings and scrolling arms to offset the upholstery. However, most of his designs did not have a pillow seat. Instead, the upholstery was stretched over the springs and small amount of padding. The “knees” of the chair were also chunkier and lower to the ground than those of Sheraton and Hepplewhite.

Also called fireside chairs, wingbacks allowed a person sitting by the fireside to catch the heat while eliminating cold drafts from creeping around their back or sides, so chairmakers developed a new kind of chair known as the “Sleeping Chayre.” Not only did this chair have wings, enabling the sitter to stay warm, it’s back could also rachet to different angles for sleeping.

This led to an unusual use in the 18th century. Respiratory diseases were rampant back then, and people commonly believed that it was better for the sick person to sit up to prevent fluid from accumulating in their lungs. So wingback chairs eventually found a home by the fireplace in American Colonial bedrooms.

It was often common to find two of these chairs—one for the master and one for the mistress of the house—facing a small round table by the fireplace in the master bedroom of the house. Colonial couples often took their supper, known back then as “high tea,” in the warmth and comfort of their bedroom rather than in the drafty dining room downstairs.

Towards the 19-century, chairmakers generously stuffed wingbacks with horsehair for an added dose of padding. Covered in velvet or needlework to imitate contemporary French styles, they sported bright patterns and ornate fabric embellishments.

Monday, April 16, 2012

On the Wings of Memories

QUESTION: My father traveled a lot by plane for his business. He got in the habit of keeping a souvenir from each flight. I now have his collection of decks of playing cards, postcards, timetables, flight wings, dishes, silverware, and flight bags. Do people collect these items?

ANSWER: When commercial airline flights became more available to the general public in the late 1940s and 1950s, it was still a big deal to fly. Passengers dressed in their Sunday best for even the shortest flights. Because it was a treat, airlines served meals on china plates, often with silver flatware in First Class, handed out playing cards to keep their passengers busy in the days before movies aloft, and gave little mementos and games to children.

This practice continued well into the 1980s when airlines began phasing out some items, started using stainless steel instead of silver for flatware and plastic instead of china for plates. But for at least four decades, and even before that, they promoted themselves by placing their logos on ashtrays, dishes, flatware, napkins, baggage tags, flight bags, blankets, eye shades, games, toys, menus, pins, and posters—to name just a few items.

There are lots of collectors of airline memorabilia. Propelled by personal memories of a first flight or perhaps a first transAtlantic flight, passengers began taking home all sorts of airline items. Add to that, the up-in-the-air status of particular airlines from time to time and the demise of so many of the original carriers has caused much speculation in the airline collectibles market.

Searching for the term "airlines" on eBay results in over 71,000 ongoing auctions. This general
also includes offerings such as current flight vouchers, tickets, and luggage.

Some of the hottest items sought by collectors are dishes and silverware featuring an airline’s name or logo. It became fashionable for airlines to have these types of items used in First Class produced  by top-name designers and manufacturers such as Lenox and Royal Doulton. That was in the day when chic stewardesses placed linen tablecloths over First Class seat-back trays and served wine in fine crystal goblets. Nothing was too good for their passengers, especially wealthy ones who were used to the best.

Also, the older the memento, the more valuable. Likewise, the more owned, or conversely, the more limited the airline's history, the more significant the interest. If an airline was short-lived, it’s items are particularly popular.

Another item that isn’t around much anymore are flight bags. In the early days of jet travel in the 1960s, every participant of a group tour that flew to their destination received a flight bag with the airline or tour operator’s logo on it. One from Pan Am from the 1960s is now up for auction on eBay for a starting bid of $69. One used by a Pan Am flight attendant is going for $80.

For many people, a flight on the Concorde was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A rare lady’s compact with the Concorde logo is going for nearly $100 on eBay. And a pair of British Airways Concorde salt and pepper shakers, made by Royal Doulton, has a starting bid of $35.

First Class menus are also popular airline collectibles. A United Airlines menu from 1964-65, featuring the tag line “Official airline of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair,” is going for $20 on ebay. And four B.O.A.C. menus from the 1960s are going for $100.

The great thing about collecting most of these items is that they’re relatively inexpensive. While rarer airline items can sell for double and triple figures, most sell for prices in the single or low double-digit range.

For more information, read Up, Up and Away at

Monday, April 9, 2012

Do NOT Delete

QUESTION: I was rooting around in my attic recently and came across an old Commodore 64 computer that belonged to my late husband. Does this have any value or should I just recycle it?

ANSWER: Before you give that old computer the heave-ho, you might want to read on. It’s been 30 years since the Commodore 64 first appeared on the market. In that relatively short time, personal computers—better known as “PCs”—have turned the world upside down and inside out. In fact, most people do very little without computers today, and businesses, especially, couldn’t operate without them.

As technology progresses, people, especially nerds who grew up with computers, seek out their first computers. Like most parents, they always fondly remember their first. And in the retro movement, twenty- and thirty-somethings are also trying to discover the computers from before they were born. In fact, someone out there collects just about any pre-1990 computer, but it’s the ones from the 1970s that are hot.

With 17 million units sold during its long lifetime, there are probably more Commodore 64 computers stashed away in closets and attics than any other model. Some say the Commodore 64 was the best-selling single computer model of all time. Collectors can usually find one or two available on eBay for anywhere from $10 to $300, with some in their original box.

Of all the early computers, the Apple models are the overall favorite among collectors. The most sought after one is the Apple I. Of the 200 assembled in a wooden cases in 1976, only 35 still exist. When they first appeared, they sold for $666.66 and even at that price, Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak struggled to drum up interest in their new creation. Originally, they had planned to sell the Apple 1 as a bare circuit board that electronics hobbyists could turn into a working computer by soldering in the chips themselves. But it was only a modest success. In today’s Apple IPad world, it’s become the most famous collectible computer, bringing in $15,000 and $25,000 when one goes up for sale.

With over 5-6 million sold, the Apple II isn’t that rare. Originally selling for $1,298, today about the most a collector will pay for one is $250. Some call this model one of the greatest PCs of all time. Of all the ones that appeared on the market in 1977, it was definitely the most advanced. The hottest one today is the plain-vanilla II model.

Garage sale and dumpster divers have no trouble finding discarded computers. But the more valuable ones, like the Apple Lisa, are harder to come because of their age and collectability. By 1983, Jobs and Wozniak had refined their computers with a graphical interface—that is users were able to display fonts, illustrations, and photos on the monitor. This put the Lisa way ahead of its time with a hefty price tag of $10,000 to match. It even came with a mouse, a feature that wasn’t to appear regularly until the MacIntosh. Unfortunately, this computer was also temperamental and thus failed in the market. Its historical significance makes it one of the most valuable computer collectibles, valued at $10,000,  the same amount it sold for 29 years ago. To add to its mystique, Jobs and Wozniak ordered 2,700 unsold Lisas buried in a Utah landfill in 1987.

In February 2005, Christie’s held an “Origins of Cyberspace” auction which offered old documents detailing the foundations of computing. The auction drew a lot of attention to vintage technology and placed value on items once used only by geeks. Unfortunately, that attention caused vintage computer prices to skyrocket, thus pricing a lot of collectors out of the market. 

Cover-featured in a famous issue of Popular Electronics magazine as a do-it-yourself project, the Intel 8080-based Altair wasn't the first microcomputer, but it was the first one that truly caught on, spawning an entire industry of clones, add-ons, and software suppliers. Bill Gates, through his company Micro-Soft, developed the first operating system for that computer, launching a company that operates to the present day. And because the Altair was such a big seller, it isn’t as valuable as some of the other early computers, however, models in good condition do sell today for over $2,000.

The first clone of the Altair was the IMSAI 8080 which sold for $600 in 1975 and has a value nearly that now. It’s main selling point was its compatibility with the Altair 8800. It’s probably most famous today as the computer that Matthew Broderick used in the 1983 movie “War Games.”

Two of the most popular computers to catch the eye of consumers and now collectors are Radio Shack’s Tandy TRS-80 Model 1, which hit the stores in 1977 for $599, and the TRS-80 Model 100, which appeared in 1983 for $799. The TRS-80 became the first computer sold in shopping malls while the second became the first popular notebook computer, with nearly 6 million sold, making Radio Shack the world's leading computer retailer for a while. Both sell today on eBay for $25 to $250.

Last but not least is the IBM PC, first coming on the computer scene in 1981 at a staggering price of $1,565 and now worth between $50 and $500. More formally known as the IBM 5150, it foretold the end of the early days of the Computer Age. The PC revolutionized computing for the average consumer, becoming the first to use hardware and software made by third-party companies. After it’s introduction, no computer company, except Apple, had a monopoly on their wares. And in its January 1983 issue, Time Magazine named it the “Machine of the Year.” And today, in all of its many forms, that machine still is.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Is It Real or Repro?

QUESTION: My grandmother had a pretty little light yellow and pink glass cruet which I now have. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: Your grandmother’s cruet is made of what’s called Burmese glass. Frederick Shirley of the Mount Washington Glass Company patented the mixture for this type of glass in 1885 and produced it until about the mid-1890s. Over in England, Thomas Webb also had a license to make Burmese glass and did so until about 1900.

Authentic Burmese is a heat-sensitive glass, made so by adding a small amount of gold—roughly 1/20th of an ounce—to the glass mixture. In its molten state, Burmese is a soft yellow color, made possible by the addition of uranium oxide. However, reheating the piece creates pink highlights, especially on the rims. Varying the amount of gold in relation to other ingredients affects the range of intensity of the pink highlights.

During the 1970s through the early 1990s, reproductions of Burmese glass pieces appeared in Italy.. Now, some 20 to 35 years later, many people unknowingly confuse the Italian reproductions with the 19th century originals. This is especially a problem with these items when sold in online auctions, where misrepresentation is often a problem.

One of the most widely reproduced items of Italian Burmese was a cruet, which is now commonly mistaken or deliberately misrepresented as being original Burmese. The only authentic cruet form made by Mount Washington in the late 19th century has a relatively short-ribbed body with a matching Burmese ribbed mushroom-shaped stopper. The easiest way to tell an original is by the solid, smooth-surfaced applied handle, firmly attached to the cruet’s body. Reproduction cruets have thinner handles that aren’t attached to the body very well and are narrowly ridged or reeded. Original handles are sturdy, perfectly round in cross section, and smooth with no reeding.

Another way to distinguish originals Burmese cruets from Italian reproductions is their spouts. Original Mount Washington cruet spouts feature a standard straight-ahead shape. But the majority of reproduction spouts are trefoil or three-lobed. New stoppers also vary considerably, but none feature the ribbed mushroom shape of the original. Also, the bases on original cruets have a well-defined standing rim while most reproductions have a perfectly smooth base.

To trick unknowing buyers into purchasing reproductions as originals, some dealers and online auctioneers tout them as being Webb Burmese from England, but even though Webb had a license to make Burmese, no one has ever seen a piece on display.

Remember, first and foremost, Mount Washington glassmakers blew their 19th century Burmese pieces and smoothly ground the pontils—the point where the blowing rod joins the piece. Italian reproductions often are of pressed glass, thus have no pontils. 

When held to a strong light, reproduction Burmese cruets shows colored swirls and streaks not found on originals. The Mount Washington glassmakers created original Burmese from one homogeneous mass. The color change in original Burmese comes from reheating this solid mass. But the Italian glassmakers who created reproduction pieces of Burmese did so by mixing molten yellow and pink glass together. This causes a line of what appears to be clear frosted glass along the edge of the rim of a reproduction Burmese cruet.

Originally, glassmakers gave the surface of their Burmese glass a soft look by dipping their pieces in acid. Italian reproduction makers gave theirs a soft finish by sand blasting.

Reproduction glass is the hardest to distinguish from the original. The pieces often exhibit no marks or signatures and most glass shows little signs of age. The difference is in both the original mixture and the process to make and finish the pieces.

What you have is an excellent example of an authentic Mount Washington Burmese glass cruet. Today, you’ll see these listed for anywhere from $200 to over $5,000 online, depending on the condition and pattern.