Monday, June 25, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Success

QUESTION: My grandmother has what she calls a “Larkin” desk. It doesn’t look like a normal desk but more like a tall oak bookshelf with a drop-down writing surface. She remembers her parents acquiring it around 1911.  Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: One of the most popular items from the Larkin Company was the drop-front combination bookcase/desk, also known as the Chautauqua desk. This desk became a common piece in homes at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1875, John D. Larkin opened a soap factory in Buffalo, New York, where he made two products— a yellow laundry soap he marketed as Sweet Home Soap and a toilet soap he called Crème Oatmeal. He sold both products using wholesalers and retailers. Larking originally sold his Sweet Home Soap to street vendors, who in turn sold it to customers along their routes. By 1878, he had expanded his product line to nine types of soap products.

His brother-in-law, Elbert Hubbard, the eventual founder of the Roycroft Arts and Crafts Community, came up with what he called "The Larkin Idea"—door-to-door sales to private residences. To establish brand identity, Hubbard, inserted a color picture with the company's logo into every box of soap as an incentive for customers to buy more soap. Housewives accumulated and traded these picture cards, and eventually the cards became more elaborate. This concept of offering a gift directly to customers was a new approach to marketing. And by the 1890's, Larkin’s premiums had become an overwhelming success and a vital part of the company’s   marketing plan.

The premiums Larkin offered included handkerchiefs with toilet soap, towels with soap powder, or one-cent coins. Eventually, Larkin inserted certificates into the packaged products which could be redeemed by mail at the company’s Buffalo headquarters. A $10 order of soap resulted in the awarding of a premium with a retail value of the same $10. By 1891 he placed his first wholesale order of items to be given as premiums, $40,000 worth of piano lamps. The next year he acquired 80,000 Morris chairs and 100,000 oak dining chairs—all to be given away with the purchase of soap.

Larkin and Hubbard knew the key to mass merchandising was to eliminate the sales force and sell directly to the consumer via direct-mail catalog. Larkin realized he would be better off if he made not only the products he sold, but also the premiums he distributed. His pitch was that since he manufactured the products he sold, unlike Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and sold them directly to the consumer, he was eliminating the "middleman" and giving the customer better value for the money. The Larkin Company motto became "Factory to Family." By the end of the 19th century, catalogs jammed people’s mailboxes.

The plan worked. Both his product line and his premium line expanded. By 1893, the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company was sending semiannual catalogs to 1.5 million customers.

His first venture was the furniture assembly plant in Buffalo that made furniture from parts cut and milled in Tennessee. Here for the first time was a major catalog distributor who actually made the furniture they shipped. Furniture was one of the company’s primary premiums. Since Larkin was appealing to the mass market, he made sure to offer furniture premiums that appealed to ordinary people and not the wealthy.

His most famous premium was his oak drop-front desk with open bottom storage, first appearing in the 1901 catalog, that the company gave as a premium for a $10 purchase of soap. Constructed of either cold or quarter sewn oak plank, assembled with nail and glue construction, with a golden finish, each desk featured applied ash or maple molding and trim and back panels of three-layer plywood. Better desks also had stamped-brass escutcheons and brass hinges on the drop panel. Cheaper ones had iron-butt hinges. A somewhat oval French beveled mirror finished off each piece. Variations included a glass front case with a drop-front desk attached to the side, two glass front cases with a desk in the middle, or simply a drop-front desk with a small open bookcase below the drop and candle stands above it, with a mirror in the high splashboard. This small desk reflected the taste and style of the Golden Oak period of American furniture in a form modest enough fit into any middle-class home.

This type of desk became "Everyman's" desk and was a common item in most homes of the period. It became a trendy decorating item and remained so for many years. People began to associate Larkin's name to the form, even though his wasn’t the only company to manufacture them, and so evolved what has become known as the "Larkin Desk." Today, Larkin desks sell on eBay for around $400 and sometimes higher.

John Larkin and Elbert Hubbard not only provided the means for a growing American population to stay clean at a reasonable cost, but they also helped them furnish their homes for free.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Stitch in Time

QUESTION: My great-grandmother used this piece of furniture as a sewing cabinet.  I’m interested in its age and use. The drawers have spaces for wooden slats—one side a round hole and the other side of the drawer has a slot. The side compartments are finished inside and may have been used to store fabric. What can you tell me about this piece?

ANSWER: You, indeed, have a sewing cabinet, a Martha Washington sewing cabinet to be exact. And while it takes Martha’s name, it isn’t much like the one Martha, herself, used. Her original sewing cabinet was a small work table with an open shelf space in the middle with no drawers set between two storage compartments. A fabric skirt, draping to the floor, shielded the shelves. Your cabinet is a Depression era reproduction of a table made in 1815. However, Martha Washington died in 1802.

Today, Martha Washington sewing cabinets generally have two or more drawers in the center flanked by half round compartments on each side of the cabinet that are covered by a shaped lid attached by concealed hinges. These side compartments, called project pockets, held fabric, needlepoint or knitting projects in progress, plus they were long enough to hold knitting needles.

These handsome little cabinets came in many similar designs. Some had nicely turned legs while others had plain ones. Matching wooden or glass knobs adorned the drawers, which, themselves, often varied in size and depth. Often the top drawer contained a removable thread holder. Makers produced them from the early to the mid-19th century in walnut or mahogany. Some came with drawer inserts and other didn’t.  Made to fulfill a practical purpose, they became popular with women who liked their small size and maximum storage ability.

The versions of this cabinet that mostly appear on the market today have three drawers and two flat top lids, which incorporated the "Soss" type invisible hinge, patented in November 1911, over the material compartments. The drawers can be either three different descending sizes, the smallest on top, or three of the same size. While thread holders appear in some, they’re not in all. Generally, they measure 27 inches wide, 14 deep, and 29 inches tall. In 1915, the Cowan Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio, advertised their mahogany version for $12.50.

In the mid-1920s, furniture manufactures began making small, relatively inexpensive pieces such as magazine racks, tea carts, and smoking stands that people could afford to buy during the Great Depression. Known as the "novelty" furniture movement, it helped keep production going when customers could no longer afford to purchase dining room or bedroom sets.

The quality of the 20th-century Martha Washington sewing cabinets ranges from those made of solid mahogany to cheaper models made of fruit wood (apple or pear), finished to look like mahogany. The better ones in good condition sell for around $150-$165 and finer examples can sell for as much as $500.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Raise a Jug

QUESTION: I recently found a large character jug at a local flea market. The dealer said it was old, most likely from the late 19th century. How can I tell if it is indeed old or maybe just a reproduction?

ANSWER: There’s lots of confusion about character, or as they’re more commonly known, Toby jugs, inspired by the original Toby Jug, with its brown salt glaze, developed and popularized by Staffordshire potters in the 1760s. They got the idea from similar Delft ware jugs produced in the Netherlands.

The first Toby jugs, made in the form of a jovial, stout, man wearing a long coat and tri-corn hat of the late-18th-century, puffing on a pipe, and holding a jug of ale, became common pouring vessels at local taverns. The pitcher had a rear handle and a removable lid, and the tricorn hat formed a pouring spout. Most antique historians attribute the first one to attributed to either John Astbury or Thomas Wheildon.

There are two theories as to origin of the jugs’ name. Some believe the jovial, intoxicated character of Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, inspired it while others believe  a notorious 18th century Yorkshire drinker, Henry Elwes, also known as "Toby Fillpot" was the inspiration. Either way, the name stuck.

Well-known potters, such as Ralph Wood I and II, Enoch Wood, Thomas Hollins and William Pratt, followed Astbury and Wheildon lead and began making Toby jugs in Staffordshire and Leeds, England.

Most collectors equate Doulton Pottery with Toby jugs since John Doulton established his riverside pottery at Lambeth, south of London, in 1815. His company manufactured miles of sewer pipe and became the leader in the sanitation revolution of the time. Today, Doulton, now known as Royal Doulton, is famous for its plates, vases, and jugs, decorated with popular imagery from English history and literature.

While Royal Doulton made Toby jugs for the remainder of the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1901 that it introduced figures, series ware, and rack or case plates. Over time, these became highly collectible. In 1934, Charles Noke of Royal Doulton introduced the first modern character jug, John Barleycorn, a symbol of the brewers, followed by Old-Charley, Night Watchman, Sairey Gamp, the midwife and sick-nurse from Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, Parson Brown, the sporting cleric, and Dick Turpin, the highwayman. The character jug series features lifelike caricatures of the heads of famous historical personalities and legendary characters from folklore, literature, and popular culture. The difference between a Toby jug and a character jug is that the former features a full figure while the latter just the head and shoulders of the person.

On jugs made before 1960, a dark glaze bleeds over the rim and into the white glazed interior. But the best way to tell the age of a character jug is by its mark. Many of the older jugs have a capital "A" to the left of the "Lion and Crown — Royal Doulton - Made in England" stamp printed on jugs made from the 1930s to the 1950s. After the 1950s, Royal Doulton printed the mark in darker green and without the A.

Doulton jugs made in the 1930s show the name of the character in quotation marks. On those made in the 1950s, the letter “D’ precedes the name of the character without quotes, with the  copyright date lying underneath.

Those jugs marked with an “A” are actually less valuable because Royal Doulton, over time, flooded the market with them. However, character jugs introduced in the 1950s and discontinued in the 1960s, such as Johnny Appleseed, Simple Simon, Dick Whittington, Admiral Nelson, the Hatless Drake and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh, are more valuable than those marked with an “A.” Also, the company made its character jugs in five sizes, from small to large.

The smaller ones, marked Doulton Made in England in a circle with the name of the character in the center, cost $2 new and now sell for $100 to $300 each.  A complete set can sell for $1,500 to $2,000.  The larger ones sell for $100 to $500 each. And as with any collectible, there are exceptions.

By the late 20th century, over 200 different makers, including Royal Doulton, Shorter and Son, Lancaster-Sandland, Royal Worcester, and Wedgwood & Co. were producing Toby character jugs. However, as the 21st century dawned, their popularity waned and many stopped making them. Today, only three companies still produce Toby character jugs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I Scream, You Scream...We All Scream for Ice Cream

QUESTION: I have an old pewter or white metal cylinder form which stands about 8 inches tall and has three parts: a decorative molded top in the shape of a bunch of fruit, a long tube center that’s ribbed on the inside, and a screw-on base that supposedly belonged to my great-grandmother. Can you tell me what it is?

ANSWER: What you have is what’s known as a banquet ice cream mold, topped by a sculpted bunch of fruit with leaves. This type of mold, made of pewter, dates from the early 1900's and would have been used for parties or holiday gatherings.

Ice cream is a frozen dessert usually made from dairy products, such as milk and cream, often combined with fruits or other flavors. It’s origins can be traced back to at least the 4th century B.C.E. when people living in the Persia (in today’s Iraq and Iran) would place snow in a bowl and pour grape juice concentrate over it, inventing what has come to be known as the snow cone.

During the first century A.D. , Roman Emperor Nero had ice brought from the mountains and topped it with fruit. But it wasn’t until the reign of China's King Tang in the 7th century that the idea of icy milk concoctions became popular, a idea that would ultimately become fashionable in European royal courts.

Arabs were perhaps the first to use milk as a major ingredient in the production of ice cream. They sweetened it with sugar rather than fruit juices, and came up with ways to produce it commercially. By the 10th century, ice cream had spread to Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus. Makers used milk or cream, plus some yogurt, and flavored it with dried fruits and nuts.

Charles I of England so loved his "frozen snow" that he offered his ice cream maker a lifetime pension in return for keeping the formula secret. But it was the Quaker colonists who first introduced ice cream to America in 1772. During colonial times, confectioners sold ice cream at their shops in New York and other cities and some of the founding fathers, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson regularly ate and served ice cream. First Lady Dolley Madison served it at her husband's Inaugural Ball in 1813.

In 1843, the U.S. Government granted Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia a patent for a small-scale hand-cranked ice cream freezer. Eventually, the creation of the ice cream soda by Robert Green in 1874 added ice cream's popularity.

Decorative molds, enhancing ice cream's presentation at the table, appeared at fancy parties in the late 19th century, a tradition borrowed from British molded puddings. The most notable of the American mold firms were Eppelsheimer & Co., Krauss Co. and Schall & Co. However, the first ones came from European makers. Makers used pewter, white metal or tin to create a variety of forms ranging from animal, human and bird figures to floral, architectural, and holiday-oriented themes that came in various sizes.
Joseph Micelli, Sr., one of the country’s premier mold makers, sculpted them with remarkable details of animals, people, flowers, fruit and even vegetables for the Eppelsheimer & Co. of New York. Their molds have E & Co NY and the mold’s catalog number stamped on the bottom.
The molds produced by Krauss Company, also of New York, are distinguishable by their integrated mold hinges rather than soldered hinges. 

Ice cream molds are now highly collectible. The barrel banquet mold in question above sells for around $250, but smaller ones in the shape of individual bananas, pears, peaches, and other fruit and flowers sell for $30 to $70. From the outside, these molds often look plain, but inside they include minute details. While the barrel mold was meant to be unscrewed and lifted off, most ice cream molds, as with their chocolate counterparts, have hinges that allow them to be broken open to release the creamy confection.