Tuesday, November 27, 2012

‘Tis the Season for Cranberry

QUESTION: Every year at Thanksgiving, I bring out a set of eight sparkling pink glasses that used to be belong to my great-grandmother. They seem so festive and add a holiday note to our dining table. Can you tell me anything about these glasses?

ANSWER: Your glasses are made of cranberry glass, a very special type of glass favored by Victorian hostesses, especially around the holidays. Not only is this glass appropriate for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but it’s also a popular collectible. In fact, some pieces are worth too much to be used for fear of breakage.

Although glassblowers had been making colored glass since ancient Egypt, it was Johann Kunckel, a 17th-century German chemist from Potsdam, who came up with the red color by adding gold chloride to the clear crystal. During the 19th century, English and American glassblowers experimented with adding less gold choride, resulting in a pink glass which the Americans called “cranberry.”

And thanks to the virtuosity of these glassblowers there seems to be an endless variety of shapes and patterns of this glass on the market. In addition to tumblers and water pitchers, there are salt cellars, sugar shakers, cruets, jars, jugs, decanters, celery vases and finger bowls. Among the widely used patterns are "Swirl," "Coin Dot," and "Daisy & Fern." Some of the most rare and expensive items found from this time period are beautiful lamps and other lighting fixtures.
As with any collectible, cranberry glass can also be an investment. Pieces that sold for less than ten dollars a generation ago are now worth hundreds of dollars. Because of the natural fragility of glass, antique cranberry glass has become relatively scarce, though it does turn up in thrift and antique shops,  flea markets, and auctions.           

Although cranberry glass had peaked in popularity by the end of the 19th century, manufacturers produced it in quantity through the 1930s. The last two companies to make this unique glass—The Pilgrim Glass Corporation and Fenton Art Glass —went out of business early this century. Pilgrim Glass Company produced beautiful blown cranberry glass ranging from various vases and baskets to candle holders and sold them in department stores and gift shops around the country until 2001. At the time if the company's closing, cranberry was its most popular type of glass. Fenton Art Glass marketed new cranberry glass, featuring opalescent decoration with coin dots, daisy patterns and numerous other styles, through retailers around the country until it closed in 2011.

Cranberry glass has always been made in craft production rather than in large quantities, due to the high cost of the gold and the delicate mixing process required. Glassmakers dissolve the gold chloride in a solution of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, known as “aqua regia.” Gold in the batch reacts with intense heat to create the beautiful cranberry color. A glassworker called a “caser” attaches a “bud” of this glass mixture to a blowpipe. Then the glassblower stands on a platform with the mold below his feet and blows the molten glass into the mold to create the desired shape. Afterwards, another glassworker places the piece in a “lehr” or annealing oven where it slowly cools to room temperature. Most cranberry pieces are hand blown or molded and often contain small bubbles and striations.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's All in the Cards

QUESTION: I recently purchased a scrapbook full of brightly colored cards displaying advertisements for various products. Can you tell me about these types of cards and about how old they might be?

ANSWER: You seem to have stumbled on a scrapbook full of advertising trade cards. While
T.V.  commercials, as well as magazine and Internet ads  promote everything from cars and medicines to food products, during the latter part of the 19th century, trade cards did the selling.

In the 1890s, manufacturers focused their advertising efforts nationwide. Although the Industrial Revolution gave them the know-how to mass-produce consumer goods, they needed a way to show off their new products. At the time, magazines were just beginning to show ads. A new inexpensive method of color printing called chromolithography appeared in the 1870s and paved the way for trade cards. Reproduced by the millions, these colorful handouts flooded the country, becoming at once an effective business device, as well as folk art. Companies mailed them. Merchants gave them to their customers. Traveling salesmen distributed them door to door. And consumers saved them, often trading them with friends.

Although most were about the size of a playing card, others measured up to 3 x 5 inches. The typical card featured a colorful picture on one side and a sales pitch on the other. Frequently, the manufacturer left a blank space for a merchant to add his name and address.

The most common trade cards are flat pieces of colorful cardboard, however even more popular are die-cut cards—those cut in the shapes of the objects they advertise. Particular favorites include such varied subjects as pickles or teacups. Some are two-sided, with a different scene on either side, each of which promotes one of the company's products. Others fold or have movable parts.

Metamorphic cards have flaps that fold out to reveal pictures different from those seen when closed. Some cards encourage the viewer to open the flap to discover what happens next. One titillating card pictures a woman sitting in a bathtub with her knees visible. When opened, the card reveals her serving drinks to two bald men.

Cards with movable parts are fragile and often in poor condition. Unfortunately, few of these cards with all their parts intact have survived decades of wear and tear. Hold-to-light or see-through cards are even more fragile. The picture changes or words come into view when the card is held up to the light, completing the advertisement.

At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, manufacturers put thousands of these bright little pasteboard salesmen into the hands of a product hungry public. Grocers handed them out for every imaginable product, from soup to soap! Manufacturers inserted some cards right into packaging. People saved the cards with a passion, pasting them into scrapbooks.

As their popularity grew, trade cards evolved into trading cards which manufacturers frequently packaged as serialized premiums in products such as cigarettes and coffee. Arbuckles' Coffee, for example, offered  a 50-card series of states and territories.

Some of the products most heavily advertised by trade cards, included those involving medicines, food, tobacco, clothing, household goods, sewing items, stoves, and farming tools. Two of the most popular categories were medicine and tobacco. In the late 19th century, claims made for patent medicines weren’t  regulated by law, and trade cards advertising these medicines often promised miraculous results.

Tobacco companies inserted trade cards into cigarette packs as stiffeners to protect the contents. Allen and Ginter in the U.S. in 1886, and British company W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1888, were the first tobacco companies to print advertisements. Several years later, colorful lithographic illustrations began to appear on these cards which featured a variety of topics ranging from sports to nature. By 1900, over 300 tobacco companies produced thousands of tobacco card sets. Children would often stand outside of stores to ask customers who bought cigarettes if they might give them the trade cards in their packs. By the 1950s, trading cards boy began to collect sports, military, and automobile cards contained in packs of bubble gum.

The popularity of trade cards peaked around 1890, and then almost completely faded by the early 1900s when other forms of advertising in color, such as magazines, became more cost effective.
The more common antique trade cards sell for about $1 to $15, depending on quality and condition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Word to the Wise

QUESTION: I collect teapots. Recently, I purchased a small one on which is hand-painted a saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” with a picture of a cottage on the other side. The mark on the bottom just says “Made in England.” Can you tell me anything about this teapot?

ANSWER: It seems you’ve stumbled on a piece of Torquay pottery, specifically Torquay Motto Ware.

Torquay is the generic name given to 20 potteries centered around the popular seaside resort of the same name in South Devon, England, that made red earthenware with slip decoration in the form of a picture. Many also sported brief sayings on them, thus the name Motto Ware. Of these potteries, Watcombe, Royal Torquay Pottery, Aller Vale, Longpark, Lemon & Crute, Torquay Terra-Cotta Company, and St. Marychurch are the most well-known.

The designs on the Motto Ware often depict cottages, flowers, animals, boats, and windmills. While the Torquay potteries produced these mainly as souvenirs, not all were souvenirs of Devon. 

In 1867, G.J. Allen discovered dark red clay around the town of Torquay. He had it chemically analyzed and found out that it exceptional for producing earthenware. He built a pottery which he named the Watcombe Terra Cotta Clay Company. Other potters soon followed suit and opened their own pottery works in the area. In 1897 the Aller Vale Company acquired the larger Watcombe Pottery, making Watcombe the largest of the pottery producers.

They began by making art pottery—classical vases and busts—popular with Victorians at the time. But as the demand for these pieces declined towards the end of the 19th century, they had to adjust and adapt or go out of business. Victorians loved to travel and bring back small items as souvenirs of their adventures, so the potteries began making stylized souvenirs for this new market.

Torquay pottery followed a number of themes, including the subject matter of cottages, place names,  florals, animals, and sometimes grotesque images. They also came in a variety of decorative styles—faience, barbotine, terracotta, and molded cottages. This allows collectors to assemble groupings by subject and/or style, and many of them seek out pots by specific decorators or potteries.

Motto Ware didn’t start in Torquay. It had been around for some time. In fact, the Romans often inscribed their pots with humorous sayings. There seems to be an endless number of mottos on Torquay pots, some are pearls of wisdom, others are humourous, and still others are classical quotations. Some potters even inscribed personal messages for their customers. Companies soon discovered that household items with mottoes on them sold best.

After forming basic shapes on the potter's wheel or in molds and allowing the clay to harden, workers dipped each piece into slip, a creamy mixture of white clay and water. After the slip set, artists hand-decorated each piece, using a nail to scratch proverbs or folksy sayings through the slip to the red clay, a technique known as sgraffito. They then fired the pieces in kilns, allowed them to cool, then glazed and re-fired them. Artists, paid by the piece, worked feverishly, engraving mottoes on up to seven dozen pieces an hour.

The earliest Torquay Motto Wares have a rustic individuality, with mottoes scrawled in childlike handwriting.  Besides famous quotations, motos also were humorous, such as “ "A hair on the head Is worth two on the chin," seen on a shaving mug. Some were a play on words, like this one: "A car on the road is worth two in the ditch.” Even Shakespeare didn’t escape Motto Ware. "The night is long that never finds a day," is a quote from his play “Macbeth.” While early Motto Ware had inscriptions written in normal English, companies later used an exaggerated Devonshire dialect to appeal to the tourist trade.

Today, collectors seek sugar bowls and creamers, teapots, jugs, candlesticks, perfume bottles, cookie jars, tobacco jars, vases, plates, and children's dishes in prices ranging from $2 to $500, depending on the item’s condition. Advertising and commemorative wares, featuring the name of a hotel, city, or special occasion, are especially popular.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Drink of the Gods

QUESTION: I recently purchased what looks like a porcelain coffee pot. However, it has a decorative spout that has what seems like a bridge across its top. The floral design is delicately painted and on the bottom is stamped the name R.S. Prussia. Can you tell me anything about this piece?

ANSWER: What looks like a coffee pot is actually a chocolate pot, used by Victorians to serve hot chocolate on cold winter days.

By the mid-17th century, chocolate was well established and sought after by the well-to-do in Italy, France, Germany, and finally England. From the time Spanish explorers brought chocolate back to Europe, people served chocolate hot, making it more palatable by the addition of sugar, vanilla and jazmine. Since chocolate was expensive, only the wealthy could afford this exotic drink.

Mechanization during the Industrial Revolution made processing of cacao beans more efficient and brought down labor costs. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten patented a process that defatted and alkalinized the chocolate in 1828, making possible the mass production of cheap chocolate in powdered and solid forms. 

As chocolate's popularity spread throughout the Continent, people needed vessels to serve it. Chocolate pots began to appear in a variety of forms and materials, including earthenware, tin, pewter, tin-plated copper, porcelain, gold, and silver.

Potters created the first commercial chocolate pots of earthenware, but by the early 19th century, porcelain ones began to appear, coinciding with the decrease in the cost of chocolate and its availability to everyone, regardless of their economic status. At the same time the porcelain chocolate pot changed. Since the cocoa made from the cacao bean dissolved in hot water, whipping the chocolate was no longer necessary, so the hole for the molinet—the wooden stirrer—originally placed in the lid of the pot was no longer needed. By the mid- to late 19th century, most porcelain companies produced chocolate pots with solid lids.

Factories began producing a variety of affordable chocolate pots for the average household. Production peaked in the mid-to late 1800s, but continued until the mid- 1900s when people’s preference switched from hot chocolate to coffee.

Due to the widespread popularity of hot chocolate, chocolate pots are readily available to collectors, both online and at shows and auctions. For example, eBay has over 500 chocolate pots listed in active auctions. Prices vary widely and depend on material, with silver pots being more expensive than porcelain pots. Value also depends on the age and maker, as well as where the pot is being sold.

While the average porcelain chocolate pot sells for about $100, the higher quality ones from Meissen and R.S. Prussia range in price from $500 to $5,000. Chocolate sets—a pot with six tall cups and sometimes saucers—tend to sell for more than individual pots. Also, larger pots and those with floral or scenic designs are more expensive than smaller ones without decoration. Unmarked pots and those from lesser-known factories often sell for less than $100.

Before starting a chocolate pot collection, examine a variety of chocolate pots being offered by reputable dealers. Read books on specific manufacturers such as Limoges; R.S.Prussia. and Nippon, and visit repronews.com, e-limoges.com and rsprussia.com online. Lastly, if you’re not sure of a chocolate pot's authenticity, don't buy it.