Monday, December 17, 2012

Windmill Folk Art

QUESTION: My mom has had an unusual sculpture in her garden for some years now. It’s a cast-iron rooster that looks like it may have been painted at one time. The thing is darn heavy, so no one has moved it for a long time. It seems to be attached to a concrete block. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: It sounds like your mom has a windmill counterbalance weight in her garden. If it weren’t for their appeal as folk art, these delightful oddies probably wouldn’t be as highly collectible as they are today. The windmill weight is a key component of the vaneless windmill produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Counterbalance weights were part of a short-lived but stylish variation of tail technology in windmill production. The Halladay Standard windmill, manufactured by the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Company  (USWE) of Batavia, Illinois, was the first manufacturer to employ a patented self-regulating wheel that would place itself in or out of sail depending on the strength of the wind. This “folding” mill was first developed in 1854 with a wooden vane that attached to a wooden tail.

In the 1880s, USWE introduced a vaneless version of the Halladay Standard. The Vaneless Standard utilized a star-shaped counterbalance weight instead of a tail. The company produced this mill until 1916 while other companies produced their own versions with different styles of weights into the 1930s. Generally, windmill manufacturers only used counterbalance weights on folding wheel windmills. When electricity came to the re-mote areas of the Dakotas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, windmills became obsolete.

Windmill makers cast the iron weights in the form of horses, roosters, bulls, squirrels, or rabbits. These
weights measure from 9 to 18 inches high and from 6 to 12 inches wide. And they can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Lighter ones, meant to be filled with scrap metal, were hollow cast. The bigger the mill, the heavier the weight. It all depended on the diameter of the wheel.

Although many collectors seek them out as folk art, they’re not really because they weren’t made in limited quantities by untutored rural or small-town craftsmen. Instead, factory workers cast them by the thousands. The Duplex Open Wheel Mill Company of Superior, Wisconsin, and an Elgin, Illinois, firm that produced the Hummer Windmill led the nation in windmill production.

Once known as the Windmill Capital of the World, Batavia, Illinois, was home to six windmill manufacturers—Appleton Mfg. Co., Batavia Wind Mill Co., Challenge Co., Danforth Co., Snow Manufacturing Co., and U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.

Weights not only served as a counterbalance but also as a marketing device, often identifying the mill’s manufacturer with an embossed name someplace on it. But basically, the windmill weight just kept the wheel directed into the wind and prevented tower from tipping over.

What distinguishes one weight from another is its shape. Most windmill manufacturers produced weights in their own foundries. Animal shapes were the most common, but weights also represented letters of the alphabet, horseshoes, celestial bodies and spear tips. The Elgin Windmill Company offered the biggest selection of animals, including roosters, chickens and squirrels. Other companies used the horse, bull, eagle or buffalo for weights. Several, like the Elgin squirrel, rooster and chicken, came in various sizes, tailored to the wheel’s size.

Most weights sat atop a base plate, part of a box or ball often made of tin, cast iron or galvanized metal. Others attached directly to an iron bar. The box, plate or ball then attached to a wood beam extending from the windmill engine. Most weights have lost their bases, mostly due to falls. A sudden fall from a 60-foot tower could break off pieces of the weight, such as a horse’s tail or a rooster’s comb.

Of all the windmill weights out there, the Dempster horse and the Elgin rooster are the most reproduced pieces. Since weights are rare and expensive, it’s often difficult to tell an authentic weight from a reproduction.

In recent years prices for windmill weights have increased from $200 to over $1000 for especially unique ones in good condition. Weights should show traces of rust and pitting after having been exposed to weather over the years. Repainting them drastically reduces their value. However, the value of a windmill weight increases if its paint is 50 to 75 years old and shows wear from the weather.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What's All the Fuss About Fans?

QUESTION: I was digging around in my mother’s attic the other day and discovered a flat box containing two very beautiful fans. I imagine these must have belonged to her mother or grandmother. What can you tell me about them? Do they have any value?

ANSWER: Fans have been around for a very long time. As a piece of functional art, they go back as far as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians saw them as sacred instruments used in religious ceremonies. They also became a symbol of royal power. But it was the Chinese who evolved the fan into a complex, decorated instrument. The Japanese took the fan one step further and produced a folding version, supposedly based on the folding wings of a bat. When Marco Polo returned to Venice, he brought with him fans made of vellum, paper, swan skin with blades of gold, silver, and inlaid mother-of-pearl.

The original purpose of hand fans was to create a breeze, but they had many other uses. They could be used as protection against rain, as a tray for offering or receiving refreshments, and to hide bad teeth. European women would use fans to hide their faces during mass.

By the 18th century, the folding fan had come into its own in Paris. Delicately hand-painted floral motifs, on a structure of decorative sticks, came into common use. In fact, any wealthy lady worth her salt had to have fans as accessories to her wardrobe.

These wealthy women developed a whole language of salutations and signals around their fans. For instance, carrying a fan in the left hand signified "desirous of acquaintance" while allowing it to rest on the right cheek meant "yes" and on the left "no." Drawing a fan across the forehead meant "We are watched" and drawing a fan across the eyes meant "I am sorry." Opening a fan wide meant "wait for me." Dropping a fan meant "We could be friends." If a lady fluttered her fan, it meant “I am married.” But if she placed the handle of her fan to her lips, it meant "kiss me."  An open fan held in the right hand in front of the face—the ultimate form of seduction—meant "follow me"

The blades of these delicate instruments could be of carved ivory or tortoise shell inlaid with precious inlaid metals and elaborate jewels. Less expensive fan sticks were usually of sandalwood or fruitwood. These rococo fans were the finest ever made, and many fo the designs took the form of stylized art.

By the latter part of the 18th century, fans had gained popularity as a fashion accessory in the upper circles of American society. While fan makers imported finer sticks, they made their own wooden ones.

The earliest fans made in any large quantity in the United States were paper souvenir fans depicting historical scenes. as well as current events. Lithographers portrayed views of New York's Crystal Palace, 1853, the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, printed in black on a cream background, and the World's Columbia Exposition in 1893.

By the late 19th century, fans displayed images of nearly every product. Every department store and every manufacturer advertised on fans, including such products as coffee, milk, bread, carpet sweepers, restaurants, cafes, theaters, sewing machines, etc.

Before the advent of air-conditioning, funeral parlors gave out fans t mourners. These were as much to keep mourners cooler in warm weather as they were to wave the stink of the corpse away. These mourning fans became a social necessity. Manufacturers often fashioned them in black materials to coincide with the black clothing worn during recognized periods of mourning. Of course, it didn't hurt to print the name and address of the mortician on the guards of a cheap wood fan.

Fans are still relatively inexpensive—except the jewel-encrusted ones—so they’re ideal to collect, especially for the novice collector. Many sell for $5-$20 online. Some of the most sought after fans came from the E.S. Hunt Company, later called the Allen Fan Company. In 1868, Hunt patented the process by which he assembled the fan sticks and the fan leaf in one step. This included folding or creasing and gluing the leaf to the fan sticks at the same time under pressure. This was America's first fan to appear and unfortunately folded, like its fans, in1910. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Longing for the Past

QUESTION: I’m looking for information about a chair that belongs to my sister. What can you tell me about it and who might be the maker?

ANSWER: Your sister’s chair belongs to the Colonial Revival furniture style, the longest-lasting continuous style movement in American history. Ushered in by the Centennial Exposition in 1876 which spawned an awakening of interest in what American furniture had looked like 100 years before. The publicity and preparations for the Exposition, as well as the financial difficulties of 1873, prompted Americans to look fondly back to the early history and events of the nation and long for the perceived security and comfort of those earlier times.

Ironically, there were no antiques or reproductions on display at the Centennial Exposition other than one small exhibit featuring a Colonial kitchen and few personal items belonging to George Washington including his favorite elm chair which was a reproduction.

Those who could afford it wanted to surround themselves with articles from America’s Colonial Period while at the same time attaching an enhanced importance to its history, integrity, and value. But there were many more Victorians wanting Colonial antiques than there were real ones on the market. In 1877, Clarence Cook, an interior designer of the time, published a book entitled, The House Beautiful, in which he stated that if people couldn’t obtain real antiques for their homes, fine reproductions would do just as well.

This revival of interest in Colonial American furniture coincided with the advent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a return to basic craftsmanship and honesty in construction techniques espoused by William Morris, Charles Eastlake and Elbert Hubbard.

Colonial Revival depends not so much on the actual style reproduced as on the interpretation of the style and the combination of stylistic elements. The original cabinetmakers and furniture companies that made Colonial Revival pieces catered mostly to the carriage trade, the upper crust, many of whom had real antiques in their homes. Most historians believe that furniture makers began copying Colonial pieces soon after the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876. But, in fact, some began long before that as the Colonial Period came to a close with the deaths of the last surviving founding fathers.        

Smith Ely, a New York cabinetmaker working from 1827 to 1832, made what’s believed to be the first Colonial Revival piece—a cane-backed chair. As the 19th century progressed, a number of companies such as Sypher & Company of New York and Potthast Brothers of Baltimore produced authentic reproductions of 18th-century items, often handmade rather than made on an assembly line.

Then along came Hollis Baker, son of Siebe Baker, the Dutch immigrant who founded the firm of Cook and Baker in 1893 in Holland, near Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1925, Hollis Baker was the president of the company, now called Baker & Company. With a keen interest in handcrafted 18th-century furniture, Baker realized that whoever could solve the problem of combining the quality of handcrafted furniture with the practicalities of mass production would be successful.

Recognizing an opportunity, Baker & Company introduced a line of American reproduction furniture in 1922, a Duncan Phyfe suite in 1923, and furniture based on Pilgrim styling in 1926. In 1927, the company again changed its name to Baker Furniture Factories, specializing in high-quality, faithfully executed reproductions. A line of Georgian mahogany furniture called the “Old World Collection” appeared in 1931, and the following year the company opened the Manor House in New York City to produce top-of-the-line, handmade reproductions, faithful down to the dovetailing, hardware, and finishing.

Later in the 19th century, Ernest Hagen specialized in Duncan Phyfe federal furniture. He and a partner opened a shop in New York to make copies of pieces for clients who wanted the look but not the expense of real antiques.  Museum curators in the decorative arts credit him with reviving Phyfe’s reputation in the 19th century.

Nathan Margolis established a cabinetmaker’s shop in Hartford, Connecticut that lasted for 91 years.  A Lithuanian immigrant, he started his business in 1893 and became well known for his faithful copies of furniture originally made by Eliphalet Chapin, an 18th-century Connecticut cabinetmaker. His son Harold took eventually took over the business, continuing it until 1984.

Margolis not only reproduced old pieces but also adapted them to modern uses. In the 1950s, he produced the double dresser, a style known in Colonial days as the chest on chest, by doubling the width and lowering the height of the traditional Connecticut chest of drawers.

Wallace Nutting, a great proponent of preserving America’s Colonial past, had Windsor chairs made in the Colonial Revival style. During the 1920s and 1930s, he hired cabinetmakers to turn out reproductions which he marketed through catalogs. These chairs contained elements borrowed from a variety of styles. Nutting’s cabinetmakers also used woods that would have never been used for the originals, plus their shellac finish was historically inaccurate. Consumers loved them and soon other furniture manufacturers started making them.

The Dodge Furniture Company of Manchester and J. Sanger Atwill of Lynn, both in Massachusetts, Edwin Simons of Hartford, Connecticut., and Jesse W. Bair of Hamover, Pennsylvania. were some of the other makers of Colonial Revival pieces.

Then of course came the factory induced mutations designed by engineers of the 1920s through the 1950s that have given the term "Colonial Revival" such a bad name. These cheap knock-offs, called “period” pieces, began appearing in thousands of American homes. Bedroom and dining room sets became the most popular ensembles purchased by many a post-war bride and groom.