Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beat It!

QUESTION:  My sister-in-law purchased this item at a Goodwill Store in Maine.  It measures 14 1/2 inches from end to end, and the wire part is probably 3-4 inches across. Can you tell me what it is?

ANSWER: Though what you have looks like a rug beater, it’s size says it’s a feather pillow fluffer. These are similar to carpet beaters but smaller.

From colonial times until the latter 19th century, houses has wood-plank floors and area rugs that allowed housewives and servants to easily clean them. While the floors could be swept and washed, the rugs had to betaken outdoors and beaten, thus the invention of the carpet beater, a   tool of cleanliness and torture which played a major role in housekeeping right up to the 1980s.

Most carpet beaters consisted of a handle to which the makers attached a wire or wicker pleated or knot-like loop which they often coiled or intertwined. Some had wooden handles, others did not. Early beaters had clunky designs which made it awkward for the user to beat a carpet without going into contortions. Later, makers developed more ergonomically raised handles which allowed the user to stand at an angle to beat the carpet. Shapes of carpet beaters ranged from simple arcs, triangles, rectangles, and circles to more elaborate flowers and fanciful designs like rabbits, hearts, houses, geese, and teddy bears.

Nineteenth-century country stores and later mail-order catalogs displayed a variety of carpet beaters, selling for as little as 10 cents each. Typically made of wood, rattan, cane, wicker, spring steel, or three millimeter coiled wire, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered premium versions for 45 cents each as late as their 1903 catalog. Thrift-minded rural dwellers often twisted their own beaters, attaching their creations to odd pieces of wood or pieces of old broom handles. Manufacturers such as  Woods, Sherwood and Company and the Johnson Novelty Company sold millions of them from the Civil War period to well after World War II.

Most housewives and servants beat their carpets in the backyard, limiting cleaning to good weather. Where they lived in apartments or tenements, they hung their carpets out of windows or over fire escape railings to beat them. Passers-by often had to change their route to avoid walking through a cloud of dust and dirt.

Later, companies began making less expensive beaters from rattan. These conjured up exotic locales for housewives who donned their headscarves and aprons to beat their carpets into cleanliness and their children into submission.

Housewives beat everything from carpets, rugs, clothes, cushions, and bedding, as well as their children, the former to clean them, the latter to punish them. Mothers in the Netherlands and northern Belgium used carpet beaters to discipline their children by making them bend over and spanking them on their behinds, leaving a distinctive pattern on their child's bare backside. And since they beat their rugs in their  backyards, they tended to do the same when punishing their children, thus drastically increasing the embarrassment quotient for them. This disciplinary use caused the carpet beater to become not only a symbol for good housecleaning, but also for conservative family values and child rearing, as well as a symbol of the dominant position of the mother in Dutch families.

Another side effect of the carpet beater was its ability to produce intense satisfaction in the user, especially if the person suffered from repressed rage. Wielding these wand-like devices enabled housewives to vent their frustrations on their carpets and bedding rather than their families. Perhaps that’s why there’s more family violence today with the proliferation of electric vacuum cleaners.

The modern vacuum first appeared back in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that several different companies claimed they had invented the modern electrical vacuum cleaner. And while the electric vacuum cleaner took a long while to catch on, the arrival of hand carpet sweepers signaled the demise of the carpet beater, and by 1908 carpet beaters had all but disappeared from the sales catalogs. But with the onslaught of the Great Depression, carpet beaters once again gained popularity.

A variation of the carpet beater was the smaller "pillow fluffer" used to fluff feather pillows.

Carpet beaters have become a popular collectible. Before eBay, carpet beaters sold for $20-40 in antique shops and in shows. But now on eBay even the rarest ones go for just a few bucks.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lighting Up the Night

QUESTION: The other day I was going through some old things that belonged to my father and came across what looks to be an almost brand-new Coleman lantern still in its box. Since I’m not much of a camper myself, I wondered if people collect these lanterns and if they have any value.

ANSWER: According to your photo, your lantern looks to be one made in the late 1940s. Soldiers who had fought in World War II and had used special field stoves designed and made by the Coleman Company were familiar with their products. So as they settled down to have families, they saw the need for vacations. Car camping became very popular, as these new families loaded up their station wagons and headed out to explore America.

Anyone who has gone camping knows the glow emitted from campgrounds as campers sit around their tables having dinner by the light of a Coleman lantern. Promoted as the "sunshine of the night," these lanterns have long since become essential gear to car campers.

The incandescent electric light, invented in 1879, was a long way from reaching rural America in 1900, when William C. Coleman, an itinerant salesman, first sold indoor pressurized gasoline units, which he called Efficient Lamps. Coleman had poor eyesight, and the standard lamp of that time burned kerosene and produced a smoky, flickering, yellowish light. The steady white light produced by his new lamp enabled him to read even the smallest print. Two years later he bought the manufacturing rights for the lamp, and by 1905 he had begun producing them in his Wichita, Kansas, factory.

By1909, Coleman had improved his 300-candlepower, portable table so that it provided light in every direction for 100 yards and could light the far corners of a barn. Single-handedly, he changed the way farmers worked and thus increased their productivity. His lamp became a staple in rural America, eventually transforming the local company into a national one on which people depended.

Coleman’s initial lamp featured decorative brass or nickel-plated elements that arched up around the lantern´s glass shade, providing an upper loop for hanging or grasping the lantern for barn use. Later, he designed ones with bulbous bases that could sit on tables. And like other lamps at the time, some had colorful glass shades with elaborate designs around the edges.

Coleman’s first lamps for indoor use differed from oil lamps. Each had a pressure tank that acted as its base, replacing the oil lamp's fount or reservoir. In place of the oil lamp's chimney and wick, Coleman’s lamp used a generator, which vaporized air-forced white gas. The burning vapors ignited a mantle of loosely woven fabric. Both of these features helped Coleman lamps produce 20 times more light than oil wick lamps.

By 1914, the first self-contained, portable Coleman lanterns for outdoor use—the ones so familiar to campers today—appeared on the market. He enlarged the fount so that it stored two quarts of white gas, enclosed the generator and mantles in a wind- and bug-proof glass globe, and added a bail for easy carrying and hanging.

Coleman designers continued to improve their lanterns and by the 1930s, many came with housings in   different colors. The tops of some of the lamps of this period had a green finish which eventually became the signature look of Coleman products. The company also supplied lanterns to the National Forest Service, some of which bore the familiar “NFS” insignia.

From the 1940s on, Coleman lanterns featured a forest green finish combined with shiny nickel-plated brass elements. The upper and lower parts of one of the company’s most popular and long-running lanterns, the Model 200A, produced from 1952 through 1983, are bright red.

Most people use Coleman lanterns for camping. They’re as prized now as they were decades ago for chasing darkness from a campsite. When night falls, a few strokes on the pump primes it for action. And at the touch of a match the lantern throws its magic circle of light in a 360-degree arc.

Starting in 1901, Coleman has produced close to 50 million gas lanterns. The long history and the range of styles and models makes the Coleman lantern a popular collectible that’s affordable for most collectors. A Coleman lantern can sell today for $20 to $400, depending on its age, condition, and rarity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Superman Returns Again...and Again...and Again

QUESTION: When I was a kid, I had a Superman lunchbox. Over the years, I forgot all about it, but recently, as I was going through some boxes in my attic, I discovered it again. If I remember correctly, it’s from 1954. Can you tell me anything about it and does it have any value or should I just put it out with the trash?

ANSWER: You had better take a closer look at that old lunchbox before you toss it out. This particular metal lunchbox, which includes a thermos bottle, depicts Superman doing battle with a robot and inclusive of the original thermos. One like it is presently for sale on eBay for $2,150. The lunchbox, considered rarer than most, joins other Superman collectibles, many of which have gone up in value in recent years. This is particularly the situation when it comes to rare Superman comic books. Depending on their condition and scarcity, the classic ones often fetch big bucks. The 64-page first edition from 1939, containing The Complete Story of the Daring Exploits of the One and Only Superman, including the four Superman stories from Action Comics No. 1-4, sold at auction for $26,000.01 a few years ago. And just the Action Comics #1 sold for $1 million in February 2010.

American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian-born American artist Joe Shuster created Superman in 1932 while both were living in Cleveland, Ohio. Detective Comics, Inc., later D.C. Comics, bought the rights to the Superman story and debuted him in June of 1938 in Action Comics #1. At the time, America needed some type of hero, even a make-believe one. The Great Depression, a devastating Great Plains drought, and a swelling uneasiness about Nazism had wrenched people's spirits. The arrival of the "Man of Steel" offered a welcome fantasy for kids disheartened by the country’s dismal state of affairs. Over the decades, he subsequently appeared in various radio serials, television programs, films, newspaper strips, and video games.

Widely considered to be an American cultural icon, Superman helped to create the superhero genre and establish its primacy within the American comic book. The character's distinctive blue, red and yellow costume, is said to have been influenced by such comic book characters as Flash Gordon and that of circus strongmen.

Rocketed to Earth as an infant by his scientist father moments before his home planet’s destruction, he was discovered and adopted by a Kansas farmer and his wife, then raised as Clark Kent who later became Superman’s alter ego.

Siegel and Shuster envisioned their character as one who would right wrongs, fighting for social justice and against tyranny. In the original stories, Siegel and Shuster made Superman rough and aggressive. The character attacked and terrorized wife beaters, profiteers, gangsters. Later writers have softened the character and instilled a sense of idealism and moral code of conduct. Although not as cold-blooded as the early Batman, the Superman featured in the comics of the 1930s is unconcerned about the harm his strength may cause, tossing villainous characters in such a manner that fatalities would presumably occur, although these were seldom shown explicitly on the page. By late 1940, editor Whitney Ellsworth instituted a code of conduct that banned Superman from ever killing again.

Today, Superman is commonly seen as a brave and kind-hearted hero with a strong sense of justice, morality and righteousness. After all, he’s the hero of a younger age group. Young people got hooked on Superman's exploits right away. Tales of his origin, superhuman powers and good-over-evil conquest' adventures were just part of the enticement. His, alter-ego as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent with love interest Lois Lane added human interest to the stories as well.

With the release of the next Superman film, there will be another deluge of Superman collectibles. Currently, there are nearly 131,000 Superman items up for auction, in both vintage and newer examples. There’s a huge array of Superman collectibles available to collectors, ranging from toys, games, dolls, lunchboxes; jewelry, clothing and watches to electronics, wall art, statues, records and DVDs.

The earliest paraphernalia, a button proclaiming membership in the Supermen of America club, appeared in 1939. By 1940 the amount of merchandise available increased dramatically, with jigsaw puzzles, paper dolls, bubble gum and trading cards available, as well as wooden or metal figures. By 1942, the character of Superman had been licensed to appear in other media, and the popularity of such merchandise increased. A surge of popularity seems to occur after the opening of each Superman film. The most popular Superman items on eBay seem to be from 1954, 1967, 1978, 1984, and 1998. 

Lunchboxes appeared from 1954 onward. A number of companies, including Adco, Hallmark, Thermos, King-Seeley, and Aladdin made them in either metal or plastic. While most are rectangular, there are some working-man dome-style ones.