Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Pitcher Full of Beauty

QUESTION: I’m trying to learn more about a pitcher that I have. Through Internet research, I h/ave learned the story of Paul & Virginia, the decorative relief on the pitcher, but I’m trying to identify when and where my piece was made. The only marking on the bottom is a hand inscribed “BS.” Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: You have what’s known as a Parian ware pitcher, most likely made after 1850 in the United States. While pottery factories produced thousands of Parian pieces, most of them were sculptures. However, here in the U.S., pitchers like this gained popular use as water pitchers.

English potters developed the formula for Parian ware porcelain in the 1840s, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of steam power, it became possible to produce molds with which to make duplicate copies of ceramic products. Named after the Parian marble quarried in Greece that its originators intended to replicate using the same ingredients as porcelain—white china clay, feldspar, kaolin, and flint, Parian became popular with middle and upper middle class Victorian women who desired to own the marble statuary and china of the upper classes but couldn’t afford them. That’s where Parian came in. It filled this need at an affordable price.

Because Parian had a higher proportion of feldspar than porcelain, makers fired it at a lower temperature. The increased amount of feldspar caused the finished body to be more highly vitrified, thus possessing an ivory color and having a marble-like texture that’s smoother than that of biscuit, or unglazed, porcelain. Potters either made relief ornamentation by hand or in a mold. They left most Parian in its natural, creamy white state, but applied background colors, usually shades of blue, to contrast with the relief motifs.

Since the matte surface of Parian ware attracted dirt, which was difficult to remove, makers protected  much of the Parian made here and abroad with a smear glaze, which they achieved by adding chemicals to the kiln in much the same way that they would add salt to a kiln of stoneware. The matt or satin sheen of the smear glaze also preserved the Parian’s crisply molded details, which would have blurred under a glossy glaze finish. However, potters fully glazed the interiors of vases and pitchers intended to hold liquids.

In its Victorian heyday, potteries produced hundreds of thousands of pieces of Parian ware annually. Though it soon went out of popularity in England, American firms, notably one run by Christopher Fenton, which produced Parian from 1847 to 1849 as Fenton Works of Bennington, Vermont, and then from 1849 to 1858 as the United States Pottery Company, began making all sorts of items, but especially water pitchers. These potteries produced Parian ware using British manufacturing techniques brought over to America by English potters. Fenton’s companies made  at least 16 different pitchers.

Christopher Webber Fenton and his brother-in-law Julius Norton first made Parian in America at their pottery in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington had been a center for the production of utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware since the early part of the century. After Norton left the company in 1849, Fenton used the mark "Fenton's Works; Bennington, Vermont." When he acquired a new partner, a local businessman named Alanson Potter Lyman, also in 1849, Fenton changed the factory's name to the United States Pottery Company.

Daniel Greatbach, a Staffordshire potter who arrived in Bennington after beginning his American career in Jersey City, New Jersey, did much of the firm’s designing. Consistent with English counterparts of the mid-1840s through the 1850s, relief molding on Bennington pitchers usually consisted of the naturalistically rendered plant forms of the Rococo-revival style. Unfortunately, the factory closed in the Spring of 1858 due to the high cost of labor, the high losses by breakage, and the rough competition posed by cheaper imported articles. 

While the English potters marked their pieces, the Bennington firm for the most part did not, leaving nearly 80 percent unmarked which makes identifying Bennington pieces difficult without expert assistance. There’s a misconception that any unmarked Parian pieces from New England had to have been made by the United States Potter Company of Bennington. This myth seems to have originated in the 1920s with Dr. Charles Green, a New York physician and ceramics enthusiast, who amassed a large collection of Parian trinket boxes and vases during his antiquing forays throughout New England. Without knowledge of imported English ceramics into New England, he reasoned that anything found there must have been manufactured there. Since the Bennington pottery was known to have made some Parian, Green reasoned that all his unmarked Parian must have been made there as well. 

"Fenton's Works/Bennington,/Vermont," the mark used by Fenton’s Bennington firm,  clearly identifies the pitchers made prior to 1853, the year in which the pottery changed its name to the United States Pottery Company. The earlier of the two is a raised or applied mark impressed "UNITED STATES/ POTTERY CO./ BENNINGTON, VT.," which appears on four of their pitcher patterns–Cascade, Climbing Ivy, Tulip and Sunflower, and Paul and Virginia. A raised ribbon mark with the initials "U.S.P." was the last mark used on Parian by this firm. The ribbon also features two numbers denoting the pattern number and the capacity of the pitcher.

Victorians liked pitchers and vases of various sizes and shapes, including those shaped like hands holding receptacles for flowers or ears of corn or shells. Some had white relief decoration of grapes and vines, oak leaves, or climbing roses against a blue stippled background while others had relief illustrations from a novel called Paul & Virginia.

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre wrote the story of Paul and Virginia and first published it in 1788. The novel of naive love became an instant world-wide best seller, captivating audiences with the tale of two youngsters who grow up on a paradise island according to nature's law. In adolescence, the pair fall in love, but a shipwreck leads to their untimely deaths.

It’s a known fact that English immigrant potters brought with them a supply of English plaster casts and design molds to use in America. A pitcher can resemble an English one so closely as to suggest that it was cast in a mold made from the original piece. Therefore, it can be extremely hard for a beginning collector to tell the difference between unmarked English and American Parian ware.

Though Bennington Parian is considered the best Parian produced in America, other factories in Cincinnati, New York City, and Baltimore had begun production by the 1870s. So this pitcher could have been produced by one of those potteries.  Similar pitchers are selling for as much as $365 online.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ugly Ducklings

QUESTION:  I inherited a couch with a matching chair from my grandparents. I have tried to do research online, but the multitude of antique items is overwhelming. This set appears to resemble the Chippendale style, but not exactly from what I have seen. My grandmother said the set was already over 100 years old when she purchased it in the 1960's to 1970's. I’m trying to gain knowledge about these pieces. Can you help me?

ANSWER: Sorry to say, but someone gave your grandmother misinformation about her living room set. It’s not uncommon for dealers in used furniture to do this because they really don’t know how old the pieces they’re selling are and just want to sell them.

This couch and chair date from the 1920s or 1930s. They’re a great example of pseudo styles that manufacturers created to fill the need in the early to mid-20th century middle and working class markets. At that time, most people were looking forward and didn’t want “old” furniture in their homes. To buy all new furniture was a big deal, especially during the Great Depression. It was a way people impressed their friends and neighbors. If you could afford to buy new furniture, you were definitely going places. So manufacturers produced some truly ugly, ostentatious pieces to fill this need.

There were truly only four officially recognized furniture styles during the early 20th century.  The first was Art Nouveau, a style based on a movement that began in Paris in the late 19th century and lasted into the 1920s. Designers of the time developed this furniture as a revolt to the styles of Victorian times. Heavily influenced by natural forms, it featured stylized images of grasses, irises, snakes, dragonflies, and a myriad of other animal and plant forms.

Another style, Arts and Crafts, or Mission as it became known in America, was a style, originally developed in England, that defied the overly decorative and mass produced pieces of the latter part of the 19th century. Designers went back to the simpler times before the advent of the steam engine when cabinetmakers made furniture by hand. The Mission style became a direct result of the American Arts and Crafts Movement led by such designers as Gustav Stickley.

In 1925, an exposition in Paris showcased modern designs in furniture, jewelry, and architecture. An offshoot of this exposition was the birth of the Art Deco style in which furniture makers employed stainless steel, aluminum, and inlaid woods to fashion sleek, ultra modern pieces with bold geometric patterns and abstract forms.

The roots of the fourth style, Modernism or Arte Moderne, grew out of pre-World War II industrialism. As an outgrowth of Art Deco, this furniture style used little or no ornamentation and a function over form concept. Influenced by Scandinavian, Japanese, and Italian designs, it featured industrial materials such as steel and plastic.

What all of the above styles had in common was that they were mostly produced for those that could afford them. Newly wealthy industrialists, bankers, and merchants wanted furniture that was in fashion and were willing to pay great sums for it. However, the common person couldn’t afford such luxuries and ended up with mass-produced pieces that didn’t cater to any taste in design.

What ordinary people wanted was their own form of luxury—comfortable couches and chairs that they could fall asleep in after a hard days work but that would also impress guests. They wanted just enough decoration to make the pieces seem elegant but not so much as to make them hard to care for. These needs resulted in overstuffed chairs and sofas with springs in their cushions to give added comfort, extremely stylized shallow carving that was easy to clean, and generally little decorative woodwork since using more added to the cost of the piece. Manufacturers could use cheap woods to build the frames which they then covered with upholstery.

Unfortunately, while a few pieces of furniture from this period have some charm, most do not and no amount of restoration or reupholstery will transform these ugly ducklings into beautiful swans.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Ultimate in Elegance

QUESTION: What can you tell me about this plate? Is it collectible or ready for the dumpster.

ANSWER: If I were dumpster diving, I certainly would take a tumble for your plate. What you have is an authentic, hand-painted plate made in Limoges, France.

French Limoges is the name of delicate porcelain ware made in the Limousin region of France since the 18th century. It includes dinnerware, centerpieces, and the distinctive porcelain snuff and pill boxes that have become valuable collectors' items. The town of Limoges contains numerous factories that produced these wares, and, in fact, still do. The kaolin found in the rich soil in this French region is the vital element in the mix that makes up Limoges porcelain paste and gives it its delicate character.

Your particular type of plate, depending on its size, could be a case plate or a charger. Victorians loved to collect things and during the late 19th century, decorative display cases placed in the dining room, later to be commonly known as “china closets,” held various porcelain wares. Small hand-painted plates, usually from 7-8 inches in diameter, became a popular item to display in these cases. Housewives also displayed their best china in these cases.

Chargers, on the other hand, are larger decorative plates that a hostess would put at each place setting. Servants would take these away and replace them with plates of food. In French dining service, there should always be a plate in front of the person dining, whether full or not. So between each course, the serve would set the charger in front of the guest or family member.

Your plate has all the marks of authentic Limoges china. The McKinley Tariff Law went into effect in 1891, so all imported goods after that time had to be marked with the name of the country of origin. All Limoges items lacking the word "France" were made before 1891.

First, it has the maker's mark (partially obscured) in green on the bottom of the piece. This identifies the specific factory in Limoges that cast and fired your plate. This mark was impressed into the porcelain under the glaze at the point when the porcelain was still blank or "whiteware." Sometimes the mark just says "Limoges France," but in this case it seems to bear the name of Magnac-Bourg Limoges. Some marks incorporate a symbol such as a bird or a butterfly, but in this case it’s star with the word “Limoges” set into it.

The decorator's mark appears on the front of the plate. It seems to read “F. Faure.” While one of the presidents of France was named Felix Faure, there isn’t any evidence that he was a lowly plate decorator before winning that high office. The signature in this case is handwritten. Many Limoges pieces say "Peint Main," which stood for hand painted, on the back.

The mark on the back of your plate that is the clearest is that of the importer. In this case LS &S stands for Lazarus Strauss & Sons of New York, founded in 1869. The company imported chinaware from various countries in Europe, including Britain, France, and Germany and Czechoslovakia. In 1874, his son Nathan, got RH Macy to permitted them to have a glass and chinaware department in their store, making LS & S wares the first china and glassware to be sold by Macy’s. And while LS & S imported china, they also operated factories in the leading china making centers in the above countries.

Today, case plates and chargers made in Limoges, France, sell for $25 and up, depending on their age. Sets of 6 sell for much more.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The All-American Music Box

QUESTION: I have a Gem Roller Organ that has been in my family for some time.  It spent the last few years in a closet high up on a shelf.  The bellows are in working order and the keys respond to the pins but it has stopped playing.  What can you tell me about it? Also, can it be repaired?

ANSWER: You’ve got one of the original Gem Roller Organs produced by the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York.  Since it’s intact and in relatively good condition, it most likely needs cleaning, which you should have done by a professional who works on music boxes and gramophones.

In the late 1880's, the Autophone Company began making hand-cranked roller reed organs which operated by forcing air out through the reeds under pressure with exposed bellows. They named their most common and least expensive one “The Gem Roller Organ,” producing tens of thousands in a single year. Some time later, the company began producing a a more efficient vacuum-operated model, calling it simply the "Gem Roller Organ."

Earlier models, like the one pictured above, were pressure operated which forced air out through the reeds. This was changed early on in production to the more efficient vacuum system which became the standard for the majority of American made organette's.

Because of its relative simplicity, the company was able to keep the cost of its roller organ affordable. Sears & Roebuck, in their 1902 Catalog, offered the Gem Roller Organ for as low as $3.25, including three rollers. Contracting with Autophone to produce large quantities of these devices enabled Sears to sell in volume and keep its price low.

The Gem Roller Organ, available in either a painted black or walnut-like finish with gold stenciled applied designs, used teeth or pins embedded into a 20-note wooden roller, similar to the cylinders used in Swiss music boxes. Pins operated on valve keys while a gear turned the roller. The mass-produced 20-note rollers, priced as low as 18 cents each—and according to the Sears Catalog, less than the price of a traditional sheet of music—played a wide range of tunes, from classical to sacred to ethnic and popular tunes. The 1902 Sears Catalog listed 220 different rollers of the over 1,200 different titles then available.

The tone of a roller organ was similar to a cabinet parlor organ of the time. At 16 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, the Gem Roller Organ was small and light enough to place on a parlor table.
The Autophone Co. used native woods for their construction, and the wood finishes on their early machines may be quite beautiful.

Since Autofphone usually printed the manufacturing date on the bottom of the case, it’s relatively easy to date the device, itself. All rollers show a copyright date of July 14, 1885, even though the Autophone sold them from the late 1880's through the late 1920's—an amazing lifespan for a single basic design. Their success may be attributed to the full, rich sound and pleasing music arrangements offered on the rollers.

Unfortunately, roller organs quickly fell out of favor after the introduction of the phonograph around the turn of the 20th century even though they cost much less than disk or cylinder music boxes manufactured during the same period. Considered the common-mans form of entertainment since music boxes and other instruments were much more expensive, roller organs could be found in many middle class homes..Most eventually ended up in the attic, in the barn, or simply thrown away, but thanks to their nostalgic music, collectors are once again interested in them.

Today, roller organs sell for anywhere from $120 to over $800, depending on the condition and the number of rollers included.