Monday, January 28, 2013

Newlywed Furniture

QUESTION: My parents bought a bedroom set when they got married. They kept it all their married life. Now that they’ve both passed on, it’s come to me. It’s of a very unusual design with lines that look similar to Art Deco, with curves and veneer decoration. Can you tell me what this is?

ANSWER: The photos you sent identify your bedroom set as what was commonly referred to as “waterfall” furniture. Because it was relatively inexpensive, it became the style of choice for middle class newlyweds. In 1930, a set like this would have cost between $19.95 and $39.95. More luxurious sets sold for slightly more.

In the late 19th century, most American furniture makers produced pieces from solid wood. This continued until after World War I when the conservation movement, led by Teddy Roosevelt, gained prominence and the invention of lumber core plywood signaled the end of this practice. Plywood consisted of four layers of wood, two on each side, glued to a core of inexpensive lumber. Makers glued the layers at right angles to each other for added strength.

Before 1930, manufacturers prided themselves in producing pieces with sometimes up to 11 layers of wood, especially for curved door panels. Working with curved surfaces was up to this time a very painstaking and expensive process.

But then came the Great Depression. With so many people struggling just to get by, furniture makers had to adapt. Families continued to grow and there became a demand for furniture from the newlywed market. Most new couples couldn’t afford to guy their own house, so all they had was a room in usually the bride’s parents house. The "Bedroom Suite" was probably the only thing that they owned, resulting in inordinate sentimental attachment to the furniture and a reluctance to change even when finances improved.

Because of the furniture’s free-form and curvy lines, people called it “waterfall” furniture. There are all types of pieces, including chairs, desks, end tables, clothes chests. Waterfall furniture doesn’t have a  frame. It relies on the strength of the molded plywood to give it structure, enabling makers to also give it  curved or rounded horizontal edges. Manufacturers employed an unusual veneer design called bookmatching on the fronts of pieces and ran the grain of the veneer from front to back on the top surfaces. Drawers featured Bakelite handles.

The inspiration for waterfall furniture came from handmade furniture emanating from the modernist movements in France, Austria and Germany, known as Art Moderne. Makers copied the designs of the ultra-exclusive French firm of Sue et Mare. Early examples, designed to appeal to broad audiences. mix Victorian motifs with modernist themes,  .

The style is most frequently seen in Bedroom Suites, although manufacturers produced dining sets and even billiard tables. A basic bedroom set included a bed, vanity and bench, and chest of drawers. More deluxe, thus more expensive, sets included nightstands, a dresser, a cedar chest, and a armoire/chifferobe. A full dining room set included a table with removable leaves big enough to seat six people, five chairs, china cabinet, and buffet, all of which sold for $103.50.

Today, a complete basic bedroom suite sells for $800-$900 in reasonable condition. The hardest pieces to find are nightstands and vanity benches. Cedar chests go for $400 and up.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What’s Up with Watt?

QUESTION: I have some pieces of kind of folksy pottery sitting on a shelf in my kitchen. My mother, who had given them to me, said they belonged to my grandmother. It seems that during the 1950s she picked them up at the grocery store as premiums. She began with coffee mugs and then added a pasta bowl and covered casserole dish. They all have the word “Watt” embossed into the clay on the bottom. Can you tell me anything about these pieces?

ANSWER: Your pottery pieces came from the Watt Pottery of Crooksville, Ohio. They’re highly collectible and today bring relatively high prices.

The Watt family of Perry County, Ohio opened the Watt Pottery in July, 1922 on the site of the old Burley Pottery in Crooksville. Through the remainder of the 1920s and into the early 1930s they made stoneware butter churns, crocks, jugs, and preserve jars, which they marked with an acorn or an eagle  stamped in blue, plus how many gallons the vessel would hold marked in a circle on the bottom.

But the introduction of oven ware pottery, enabling cooks to take a container from their ice boxes and put it directly into their ovens, forced the Watt pottery to discontinue its stoneware line and pursue the more lucrative oven ware.

The lightweight clay body, made of a percentage of feldspar and whiteners which prevented the clay from discoloring after firing in the pottery kilns, also made it resilient enough to withstand the extremes in temperature. The whiteners also gave the Watt’s pottery its brightness, especially when over painted with brightly colored motifs featuring apples, cherries, roosters, and flowers..

In 1949, the Watt Pottery began hand decorating its wares using simple patterns in bright colors on an ochre-colored clay base. To minimize the cost of producing these wares, teams of three decorators used  as few brush strokes as possible. The housewives of the 1950s loved the country charm of these wares. And because they were so inexpensive to produce, Watt wares began appearing as premiums in grocery and department stores.

Altogether, Watt Pottery produced wares decorated in 16 patterns, including four variations of the Apple Pattern, one in the Cherry Pattern, two of the Tulip Pattern, six in various flower patterns, plus Autumn Foliage and Eagle Patterns. The pottery remained in business until a fire in 1965 destroyed the manufacturing plant and halted production.

Most pieces of Watt Pottery ovenware feature large marks, often covering the entire bottom of each piece. These markings usually consist of one or more concentric rings deeply impressed into the bottom of the pottery. Although the company didn’t mark all of its wares, the bottom mark associated with 1940s Watt ware is an impressed: "MADE IN U.S.A."  Pieces may also be marked: "Oven Ware" or simply have the bowl size impressed, usually in a circle.

The pasta bowl your grandmother purchased back in 1952 is now worth nearly $100, and the covered casserole dish comes in at $150. But the big surprise are the coffee cups, now worth a whopping $200 each!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Romancing the Road

QUESTION: My mother saved every map she and my dad collected on their many road trips. Some of these go back as far as just after World War II.  Do these have any value today?

ANSWER: Road maps, especially the ones produced by oil companies for their service stations, are highly collectible. While older ones can be worth higher amounts, depending on their condition, newer ones aren’t as pricey. They’re also easy to store, so a collection won’t take up a lot of room—always a good thing for those living in apartments.

The systematic mapping of roads and the installation of route signs by the government didn’t occur until the auto arrived. Prior to the mid-1890s, bicyclists were the ones who demanded road maps. But as the new century dawned, the number of automobiles on the roads began to increase. The Chicago Times-Herald printed the first automobile road map in the country for a race they sponsored from Chicago to Waukegan.

In 1918, Wisconsin’s state legislature initiated a numbered highway system., which the federal government adopted in 1926. The new highway system gave us the names for legendary roads like Route 66 or California’s scenic Highway 1. Rand McNally became the first major publisher to adopt the system, which it also helped promote by installing numbered signs along these national roadways.

Before World War II, service stations gave out road maps free. These featured elaborate artwork. Oil producers such as Esso, Chevron, Shell, Gulf, Standard, Texaco, and Socony-Vacuum (later known as Mobil) all distributed maps.

Raod maps belong to the growing category of collectibles called “petroliana,” or anything to do with gas stations and the petroleum industry. For the most part, they’re reasonably priced, and some estimate that during their peak service stations distributed over 8 billion. Oil companies provided them as a service. They were made to be disposable, marked up by the gas station attendant as he gave directions and sent his customer on their way. But people often saved maps as souvenirs of the trips they made.

As automobiles proliferated, the marking of routes changed. Before numbered roads, stripes of paint on telephone poles, fence posts or trees delineated the various routes. In 1925, states began numbering their roads. At first it was an adventure to drive, but by the 1930s it had turned into a method of tourism. Tourist cabins sprang up along the way, as motorists made their way across country. Historians consider this time the road map’s golden age.

The Sinclair Oil Company hired noted artists like Peter Helck, who also produced advertising illustrations for car companies. Maps featured images of a carefree and playful life on the road, with service stations welcoming children and dogs, many of which were Scottish terriers, like the ones popular in movies like “The Thin Man.”

Maps produced during World War II reminded motorists to slow down to save tires. After the War, maps featured dynamic scenes, vibrant colors, and great graphics.

By the baby booming 1950s, the images tended to show nuclear families—a mom, dad, son and daughter, all enjoying life on the road. During the 1960s, maps displayed the dotted lines of planned Interstates and aerial views of highway cloverleafs.

Three companies—Rand McNally, H. M. Gousha, and General Drafting—produced most of the service station maps. These became a vehicle through which oil companies could promote the service at their stations, for it was service that differentiated them.

General Drafting produced maps for Esso, whose attendants handed out some 34.5 million maps in 1965.
After 1965, the quality of service station maps declined until their virtual disappearance in the 1980s.

Today, of course, free maps are long gone. They faded away, along with so many other aspects of the highway culture, with the 1973 energy crisis.

Early road maps from the first decade of the 1900s can be worth $75-100 today in good condition. Those from the 1920s and 1930s range in price from $20-40.  Groups of maps from the 1950s sell for $10-20.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chugging Along

QUESTION: Every Christmas since I can remember, our family has got out an old tine train set that belonged to my grandfather and set it up under the Christmas tree. It still runs and is in good condition. All we know is that the set was made by a German company named Märklin. What can you tell us about this company?

ANSWER: From the looks of your train, I’d say it dates from the 1920s or 1930s. At the time, these trains were more toys than authentic models. Their design reflects the boxy look of European trains rather than the sleeker, simpler lines of American ones.

As the 1930s dawned, the Great Depressiion forced millions of people out of work. Owning an electric toy train was the ultimate. Kids even loved observing the trains displayed in department store windows. What could be more rewarding to a young boy than to receive a model train for Christmas? But these little trains were expensive so were out of reach of many families. 

Manufacturers lovingly handcrafted the earliest toy trains, made prior to 1850, of shining brass to run on the bare floor. But by the late 1830's, a number of prosperous toy companies began producing toy trains.  Around 1856, George W. Brown, a Connecticut firm, produced the first self-propelled train made of iron and  coated with tin to prevent rust. A wind up clockwork motor drove the engine and carriages on plush Victorian carpets on straight or curved tracks.

In 1859, tin smith Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Märklin began producing doll house accessories made of lacquered tinplate. Although the Märklin Toy Company of Germany originally specialised in doll house accessories, It became known for its toy trains.

By the 1870's, the most popular trains were powered by steam. Utilizing alcohol or sometimes coal to propel. they duplicated the might and energy of their big, big brothers.

The tin toy makers in both Europe and the U.S. realized that profits could be made by selling toy trains to the masses and jumped on the toy model bandwagon. Early on, they set their sights on wealthier people by promoting their products’ snob appeal.

In 1891, Märklin began producing wind-up toy trains that ran on expandable sectional tracks and the following year created a sensation by making the first figure eight track layout. It also established a track gauge settings numbered from 0 to 4, which it presented that year at the Leipzig Toy Fair. These track gauges soon became international standards. Märklin began producing 0 gauge trains as early as 1895 and H0 scale in 1935. In 1972, the company rolled out diminutive Z scale trains, the smallest in the world in competition to  Arnold Rapido's introduction of N gauge.

Märklin’s owners noted that toy trains, like doll houses, offered the potential for future profits when, after the initial purchase, owners would expand by purchasing accessories for years to come. So, the company offered additional rolling stock and track with which to expand its boxed sets.

Electric trains became commercially successful by 1897 when the Cincinnati, Ohio, firm of Carlisle and Finch manufactured and sold a two-gauge unit for only three dollars, It also was the first to issue a model railway builder's instruction manual.

Many consider the years prior to World War I to be the "Golden Age" of quality model trains. As the war approached, manufacturers converted their factories to produce war monitions, rifles and replacement parts. The Depression that followed the war precluded many of these operators from coming back and many disappeared.

But Märklin continued producing toy trains until May 11, 2006 when Kingsbridge, a London venture capital company, took it over. The company filed for bankruptcy on February 4, 2009, but on February 5, 2010, after purchasing the rival LGB Company, announced it had returned to profitable state. Many consider Märklin's older trains highly collectible today.