Monday, September 24, 2012

Telecommunications Relics

QUESTION: I recently purchased a box of glass insulators, like the kind used on telephone and electric poles. A couple of little white specks in the glass. I bought them because of their beautiful colors, but do these things have any value as a collectible? And just how were they used?

ANSWER: There’s nothing like the beauty of colored glass, especially when placed in a window where the sun can shine through it. Many people collect these glass electrical insulators for just that reason. But some, especially retired linemen, collect them because they’re a part of the history of telecommunications.

Ezra Cornell invented the insulator in 1844 as a means of protecting electrical wires front the elements and reducing the loss of current from the wire to the ground. As technology developed, power and telephone companies needed more insulators.

The earliest insulators had unthreaded pin holes. Because linemen simply pressed them onto a wooden pin, extending upwards from the crossarm of an electric pole, they didn't stay on very well since the wires contracted and expanded in the heat and cold. When Louis A. Cauvet improved the insulator by patenting the threaded pin hole type in 1865, he sold his invention to Brookfield Glass Company of  Brooklyn, which remained a major producer of insulators until 1922.

Though threaded pin holes helped insulators stay put, moisture still presented a problem since wet glass served as a conductor. In 1893, the Hemingray Company, another major manufacturer, obtained a patent for insulator "drip points." These bumps, which line the outside bottom rim of the insulator skirt,  helped prevent shorts by causing moisture to drip off. The earliest points were sharp but these were easily broken, leading to the manufacture of more rounded ones. Hemingray must have discovered that these really didn't work, since they eliminated them from later models. However, other companies continued to make insulators with drip points.

Porcelain insulators began to replace glass examples in the early 20th century, particularly on high voltage lines since glass insulators only worked on lines handling up to 60,000 volts.. By the late 1940s, only a few producers of glass insulators remained, by 1969, Kerr Manufacturing was the only company still making them.

Manufacturers produced glass Insulators in a variety of colors and types of glass. They used remnants of window or bottle glass for earlier ones. Most companies made insulators only as a sideline,  pressing them out of whatever kind of glass happened to be available. Because of this, objects like nails, screws, coins, and bits of furnace brick would get mixed into the glass. Collectors call the little white furnace brick bits rocks. Some makers, like Hemingray, would cull out these blemished pieces, but others like Brookfield Company would just sell the blemished pieces along with the good ones.

The most common insulator colors are clear and light bluish-green or aqua. Other colors include sun-colored amethyst, green,  milk glass, royal blue, cobalt, amber and Carnival glass. The only color not made in glass is red, because red requires gold as a colorant. The most popular colors are royal blue and cobalt, with amethyst a close second. Insulator makers originally produced purple ones, ranging from  light lavender to deep amethyst, from clear glass. Manganese, used to clarify the glass, turned the glass purple after being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. After the start of World War I, manganese became scarce since it was needed for arms production. Manufacturers switched to selinium, which the sun turned to the color of wheat.

Common clear and aqua insulators sell for as little as a dollar each. But prices climb steadily for rare ones such as the Buzby or the Twin Pin. Aqua ones made by the Jeffrey Manufacturing Company can sell for as much as $125 each while a threadless Canadian insulator, also known as a snow cone, can sell for about $2,000.

For more information on glass insulators, go to

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Boy Toy

QUESTION: I was going through some old boxes of junk and discovered an old transistor radio among the items I had as a kid.  The words “Boy’s Radio” are embossed in the plastic on the back of the case. Can you tell me if this is collectible or should I just toss it out with the rest of the junk?

ANSWER: You might want to hold back from throwing out that old radio. Depending on its condition, it could be very collectible. The Boy’s Radio was a Japanese product running on two transistors instead of the usual six or eight found in American models.

The invention and development of the transistor radio in 1954 changed the way people looked at and used their radios. The Boy's Radio was a cheap  personal radio wanted by the average American boy, at a price his parents could afford. And although American radio makers considered them merely as toys designed for a small niche market, the Japanese exported over two million of them to the United States in 1959 and 1960.

Although cheaply built with a simple design, these two-transistor radios were powerful enough to pickup local radio stations and as well as power a small speaker. They were small enough to fit into the breast pocket and budget of a typical high school student and cost about $10-15. The radios even had Boy's Radio pressed into the plastic case, usually near the hidden battery compartment.

As stripped-down versions of the more expensive, multi-transistor coat pocket portable radios marketed at the time, the Boy’s Radios had a stylish and colorful design that appealed to the younger generation. They were simply the right product, at the right price, at the right time.

Since manufacturers designed Boy's Radios to be sold at a fraction of the price of larger transistor radios, they were concerned about manufacturing costs. To cut costs, makers decided to produce the Boy’s Radio in a limited variety of styles and cases. The standard cases had a vertical design, with the lower front reserved for a chrome or colored speaker grill, and the upper half designed to house the tuning and volume controls. While manufacturers glued their label onto the case, they pasted the model name and/or number onto the box the radio came in, making it hard for collectors to identify the over 100 different variations of Boy’s Radios once a boy unwrapped the unit.

Another major difference between the expensive multi transistor radios and the cheaper Boy's Radio was the design of the radio circuit. The more expensive radios usually employed a variation of the radio design, called the Superhet, used in modern tube radios, while the cheaper two-transistor Boy's Radio used a much simpler reflex circuit.

Even more confusing to collectors is the host of imitations and look-alikes spawned by the successful marketing of these small radios. The strangest of these look-alikes were the radios designed to use miniature tubes in a transistor Boy's Radio case. Some of these radios, although meant to have two transistors, weren’t two-transistor radios at all. A good example is the Star-lite radio, which had "Boy's Radio" pressed into its case and has "2-TRANSISTOR" displayed on the radio's front, but had six transistors inside the case.

And while Boy's Radios got their popularity from being a shirt pocket radio, manufacturers also made them in coat pocket and even tabletop radio cases.

Today, Boy's Radios can sell from as little as $10-$20 to as much as $100. And if you’re wondering if there was a Girl's Radio—claimed to be pink—it seems that it’s only a rumor.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Those Sticks Were Made for More Than Walkin’

QUESTION: I just purchased an unusual antique cane that has a concealed metal rod that lifts up out of the handle. Can you tell me what this would have been used for?

ANSWER: The cane you bought is rather unusual. Believe it or not, it’s called a horse-measuring cane. Gentlemen who purchased horses at auction would use it to measure how many hands high the horse they were interested in was. Often sellers and auctioneers would exaggerate a horse’s measurements to improve its chances of being sold.

About the only place you’ll see canes these days are in pharmacies, hospitals, and retirement villages where people either buy them or use them as a necessity. But at one time fashionable gentlemen and women changed their canes as often as three times a day, perhaps choosing a rustic model for strolling, a silver-topped one for visiting, and gold-headed ebony one for an evening at the  opera. Now, however, the fancy cane is a collectible curiosity that fits nicely in an umbrella stand by the front door.

There are basically two kinds of cane collectors: those who buy canes for the beauty of their workmanship or their association with a famous person and those who seek gadget canes, designed for a dual purpose or to conceal a weapon. Your cane belongs in the latter category.

There are children's canes, canes with porcelain handles made at such famous potteries as Meissen, St. Cloud and Wedgwood, and you’ll find a dozen canes with carved ivory-grips. In fact, figured handles have created a whole category of collecting. These come in exquisitely carved examples in the forms of a wolfs', parrot’s, heron’s, rooster’s, fish’s, dog’s, cat’s, or elephant’s head.

Cane makers employed a wide range of materials. One cane might have its stick made of a portion of  transatlantic cable, another might be made of small animal vertebrae, and yet another might be made from a wooden propeller.

Gadget canes were so popular that makers crafted them with hidden compartments. For example, a bishop's cane might contain a compartment in the knob for the Host and three attachable compartments to hold items used in administering the sacraments while a tippling stick might contain a flask and a footed brandy glass. One cane might have a radio in its handle, another a camera. A 19th-century cane might have a candle and matches while a 20th-century one a flashlight. One cane could be a harmonica while another a music box.

There are also gadget canes made for specific trades. The one for a surgeon contains his cutting tools. The one for a geologist, a hammer. A tree surgeon’s a cutting saw. There is also a wine taster’s cane with a gimlet to test the cask, and a fisherman's cane that turns into a pole with a reel. One artist's cane might be fitted with watercolors, another might have an easel. An admiral's cane often contained a compass, thermometer, telescope, ruler, ink stand, pencil and protractor.

For the hard of hearing there were canes with an eat trumpet, for the short-sighted, one with opera glasses. The gambler's cane held dice and a number of other games and a patriotic parade-goer's cane might have concealed an American flag.

Smoker's canes make up an entire category by themselves. Some have compartments to hold cigars and a cigar cutter while others have cigarettes, lighters and holders. There are musical canes that become flutes and violins and even rare ebony Scottish canes that unscrewed to form bagpipes.

The most widely collected and most costly canes are the weapon canes. Gun canes have been made since the 16th century for the hunter and for the gentleman farmer. Since the 19th century they have been manufactured for defense with automatic firearms and everything from a revolver to a machine gun, all concealed. It required a great deal of ingenuity to conceal a weapon but cane makers devised ways of encasing every kind of bludgeon and flail, and patented various sword blades.

The development of cars, attache cases and less fashionable attire ended the days of walking sticks in general.

Canes sell for a wide range of prices. A captain’s going-ashore cane, made of hickory with a
handle carved in the form of a dour-faced ship's captain in a frock coat and top hat, brought a whopping $19,800. The cane was the symbol of authority wielded by a whaling captain, and the carving was considered a fine example of folk art.

Generally antique canes aren’t all that expensive. Scrimshaw canes have been sold at auction for up to  $4,090, most likely more for the scrimshaw decoration then for the cane, itself. But a nice gadget cane that conceals an American flag can be bought from a dealer for as little as $50 and a gold-headed cane for $75 to $150.

Revolver canes, however, are more expensive. A Remington gun cane with a dog’s-head handle was offered for sale at a gun show for $1,200. A similar cane concealing a gun but having a simple crook handle was on sale at that same show for $650. Among the scarcest are musical instrument canes.  A violin cane, for example, can sell for as much as $1,500.