Monday, July 30, 2012

A Taste for Eastlake

QUESTION: I recently discovered two chairs and a settee at my grandmother’s house. Unfortunately, there are no markings of any kind as she apparently planned to refinish them and sanded everything off! What can you tell me about them? After hours and hours of searching on Google, the best I could come up with is that they're possibly Victorian.

ANSWER: You’re half way there as far as your chairs and settee are concerned. Yes, they are Victorian—Eastlake Victorian, as a matter of fact. This style was popular from 1870 to 1885 and is one of seven different furniture styles popular during the Victorian Age.

Charles Locke Eastlake, an English critic of taste, did more to affect a change in American taste in the late 19th Century than anyone before or since. More than any other individual, he was responsible for introducing the principles of the English design reform movement to the American public.

Eastlake considered simplicity the key to beauty. He thought the objects in people's homes should be attractive and well made by workers who took pride in their work. He published a book, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, a runaway bestseller from 1870 and 1890. The book became the decorating bible for upper middle class American housewives.

Though Eastlake included some of his own sketches among the illustrations of well-designed furniture chosen for his book, he was primarily a critic of taste, not a furniture designer. The furniture illustrated in Hints had ornamental features including shallow carving, marquetry, incised or pierced geometric designs, rows of turned spindles, chamfered edges, brass strap hinges, bail handles, and keyhole hardware inspired by Gothic forms. Every decorative device, according to Eastlake, also had to fulfill a useful function.

To relieve the simplicity of rectilinear forms, Eastlake advised using turned legs or spindle supports. When a homeowner desired an "effect of richness,” he suggested restrained, conventionalized carving, inlay, and sometimes even veneer. Ornament, he felt, should be stylized rather than naturalistic, for it’s "this difference between artistic abstraction and pseudo-realism which separates good and noble design from that which is commonplace and bad." A functionalist, Eastlake cautioned that carved decoration should always be shallow and never "inconveniently" located, as were the "knotted lumps" of grapes or roses decorating rococo-revival chairs that often stabbed the sitter between his or her shoulder blades. His book further suggested that furniture be made of such solid, strongly grained woods as oak, walnut, or mahogany. He preferred oil-rubbed finishes to "French-polished" ones, and varnish was taboo.

By 1876, homeowners of the nation's most elegant homes decorated them in subdued "artistic" tones, set off by rectilinear furniture of rich bird's eye maple or elegantly ebonized cherry wood. Critics broadly categorized the new designs as "art furniture," but also called them "modern Gothic," "Queen Anne Revival," or "Eastlake" in honor of the man who brought a sense of taste to America.

To the modern eye, such furniture with its intricately stylized marquetry, gilded incised designs, spindled galleries, inset tiles, richly grained woods, and decorative turned elements hardly seems "simple." But in contrast to the heavily carved furniture of preceding decades, embellished with naturalistic roses and bunches of grapes imposed on the elaborate rococo shapes that we now regard as the embodiment of Victorian design, Eastlake-inspired furniture was remarkably functional and clean-lined.

The Eastlake style was quickly taken up by the manufacturers of cheaper furniture, who until then had given very little attention to artistic form. The furniture produced in these factories ranged from excellent to shoddy, depending on the grade of lumber used, how well it was seasoned in the drying kilns appended to the larger factories, and upon the skill of each machine operator throughout the manufacturing process. At its worst, factory furniture was poorly designed and rickety. However, there was a middle range of
moderately priced but well-constructed factory furniture produced in the Midwest for wholesale shipment to Eastern retail outlets. These chairs and settee fit into this group.

Eastlake-style furniture often featured tables and chests with marble tops, some the traditional white, others in rich Italian pinks and browns. Tables and chairs had aprons and legs incised with horizontal or vertical lines called reeding and chamfered corners. Round legs on chairs also featured ring-like annulets. Quatrefoils were another popular addition, since flat cutouts often graced the more elegant pieces. Lastly, acanthus-leaf designs could be found incised into even the cheapest versions.

Pieces of furniture in this style had low relief carvings, moldings, incised lines, geometric ornaments, and flat surfaces that were easy to keep clean. Also called Cottage Furniture, the mass-produced pieces were much more affordable than the fancy revival pieces. Unfortunately, while Eastlake-style furniture may have looked refined, most chairs and sofas weren’t very comfortable and were meant to be used in formal parlors for guests only.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Vintage Trap

QUESTION: I recently purchased a vintage formal living room set for a steal of a price and am looking to learn more about it. What can you tell me?

ANSWER: Depending on how much you paid, the question is who got taken, the dealer or you. I suspect it was you. While this is a very well-built living room set, it’s really not very old—most likely from the 1940s or 1950s, but could be as old as the 1920s.

Furniture of this sort falls into the category of what used to be known as “period” furniture. Many people in their 60s grew up with such furniture. Their mothers warned them about not putting their feet on the couch or sleeping in the chairs. Generally, manufacturers overstuffed these pieces so they would be more comfortable. They provided thick blocked cushions so that anyone sitting in them would sink into them. Your set happens to be styled after French “Louis” pieces of the Rococo period. But that’s where the similarity ends.

People like yourself often fall into the “vintage” trap. The word vintage originally applied to wine making
and the process of picking grapes and creating the finished wine. A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year. In certain wines, it can denote quality.

The people who sell on eBay and other auction sites saw that word “quality” and figured why not use the word “vintage” to describe their pieces and make them more attractive to bidders. In this case, vintage means referring to something from the past of high quality. Let’s face it folks, anything from yesterday—the day before today—is from the past and if it’s of good quality, then it technically can be labeled vintage. When the buyers on the auction sites saw the word quality, they perceived vintage to mean something old that has lots of value. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always apply.

Online sellers throw the word vintage around like it’s a catchall word that will instantly add credibility and perceived value to the items they’re selling. You’ll see vintage jewelry instead of estate jewelry, vintage furniture instead of used furniture, and vintage kitchenware instead of used kitchen utensils. It’s all in the wording.

Unfortunately, middle and lower-market antique and flea market dealers have picked up on the use of vintage to describe goods for which they don’t know the age. Since using the word online has become rather successful—you can full a lot of people a lot of the time, to paraphrase an old saying—they figured they might as well try it.

Don’t fall into the vintage trap. Find out about a piece before you buy it. In the end, you’ll make an informed decision and just might get something of real value for a steal.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Lighting the Way to Safety

QUESTION: I got this old lantern about 25 years ago. Supposedly it was in the railroad terminal in Atlanta when the Yankees came through and wrecked it in 1865 and was taken home by a young boy who put it in the family barn. It stayed there until I got it from a guy who owed me some money. He says it belonged to his great grandfather, the young boy who originally found it. I have no idea of its value or even its age and have been looking at it for 25 years. Is there any way you can tell me about how old this lantern is and even if it is possible that the story he told me is true?

ANSWER: Your lantern would have been used by railroad workers to indicate to railroad engineers whether a switch was open (green) or closed (red). However, Adlake, the manufacturer of your lantern, didn’t start making switching lanterns until the late 19th century, so it seems unlikely that the Civil War tale is true. Your lantern looks like Adlake Model #1204 which the company produced at the turn of the 20th century.

In order to safely operate a train yard, railroad workers had to have a way of communicating with each other and train engineers. During the days of steam locomotives, the noise and distance involved with train operations ruled out speaking or yelling, especially since common radio devices weren't yet available. Any device they used would also have had to be portable, since those working on the line were constantly on the move. While flags and semaphores worked during the day, they weren’t effective at night. In order to communicate after dark, railroad workers depended on kerosene lanterns.

During the Civil War, improvements to the rail transportation system made it practical to ship lanterns from state to state. It was also during the war that makers began using metal stamping machines to draw and press metal, making the lantern manufacturing process more efficient..

The first company to make kerosene lanterns was the R. E. Dietz Company. In 1856, kerosene began to be distilled in quantity from coal, giving Robert Dietz the opportunity to apply for and receive a patent for a kerosene burner.

During the 1860s, Civil War contracts, Dietz’s hard work, the growth of railroads, and westward expansion made his lamp business a huge success.

On October 21, 1874, John Adams, a salesman from New York, and William Westlake, a tinsmith who invented the removable globe lantern, joined their two companies to create the Adams and Westlake Company, commonly known as Adlake, located in Chicago, Illinois. The new company became the most successful railroad lantern company ever. Even though it made standard railroad lanterns as early as 1857, it didn’t begin to manufacture switching lanterns until the 1890s. Adlake Manufacturing moved from Chicago to Elkhart, Indiana, in 1927. It was the last of many companies to manufacture kerosene railroad lanterns and ended up absorbing its competition in the 1960s as lantern sales plummeted . Today, it makes lanterns for display and train show use.

Generally, the oldest version of Adlake lanterns on the antiques market today are those known as "The Adams." The company produced them from the 1890s through around 1913 when its replacement, the "Reliable" model, came on the market. All of Adlakes lanterns were extremely heavy duty and well made. Today, Adlake switching lanterns in excellent condition sell for $100-300 on eBay.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Those Happy Days

QUESTION: My mother had a cabinet full of Melmac dishes in a variety of pastel colors. We used them for every meal. Now I have them and while most have seem better days, they bring back fond memories of my childhood. What can you tell me about them? Are they collectible?

ANSWER: Your Melmac dishes are certainly collectible, as hundreds of collectors of the plastic ware can attest. The most collectible pieces are from the 1950s when items such as this signaled the dawn of future of ease for American housewives.

Everyone knows of “Happy Days,” the 1950s-era T.V. sit com, featuring a typical middle class family. The mother on that show, much like scores of other American housewives of the period, must have thought she had died and gone to housewares heaven with the advent of Melmac dinnerware. That was just one of the items that made her days truly happy because its durability made it ideal to use in homes with children.

Initially discovered by William F. Talbot in the 1940s, Melmac, the name given for the hard plastic melamine resin by its chief maker American Cyanimid Corporation, was first used in the military.
Dishes made of early plastics and Bakelite did not hold up well or withstand regular washings or heat, but American Cyanimid showed that its new "improved plastic" could indeed hold up well. While the company produced the resin, itself, it sold it to other manufacturers which molded it into dinnerware lines for both home and restaurant use.

The Plastics Manufacturing Company of Dallas, Texas, produced Texas Ware, Dallas Ware, Oblique, SRO and Elan. The Boonton Molding Company of Boonton, New Jersey, offered Boontonware, Patrician and Somerset. International Molded Products in Cleveland, Ohio, produced Brookpark/Arrowhead Modern Design and Desert Flower lines designed by Joan Luntz. And the Prophylactic Brush Company of Florence, Massachusetts, made Prolon. Its Florence and Beverly lines were the most popular for home use.

During the late 1950s and 1960s Melmac dinnerware found its way into just about every American home. However, the tendency of melamine cups and plates to stain and scratch led sales to decline in the late 1960s, and eventually it became largely limited to the camping and nursery markets.

Melmac is used for just about any type of dinnerware, including plates, cups and saucers, serving pieces, and glasses. Manufacturers could add any type of color pigment to the resin during the molding process. As a result, they created it in a variety of colors and patterns. Muted colors, such as pea green and seafoam appeared in the late 1950’s, and during the late 1960s, makers experimented with interesting color combinations to complement the psychedelic look of the time.

Today, you’ll find vintage Melmac in thrift stores, at estate sales, online auction sites, and garage sales. It's fun to collect it and due to it's long production, it’s easy to make a whole set. Some Melmac pieces are worth more in value than others. Full sets in pinks or blues are generally priced higher. Though you may have a problem finding full sets, you can start collecting it inexpensively by piecing sets together.