Monday, August 26, 2013

Let the Sun Shine In

QUESTION: I recently purchased a very thin summer quilt with a sunburst pattern. It really brightens up my day to see the sun spread out on my bed. How did women come up with patterns like this? Do you have any idea of how old it might be?

ANSWER: Patterned quilts have been around for a long time. While some appeared in Colonial times, the peak time for pattern quilts was the latter half of the 19th century. Amish women still meticulously hand-sew them, both for home use and for sale to tourists. Most quilts take hundreds of hours of work, so they’re priced rather high. Although some individuals did make the older ones, the most intricate ones were the result of a group of women sewing together in what became known as a “quilting bee.” This not only produced a quilt but provided a time for socializing and exchanging news and gossip. Yours looks to have been made by an individual, perhaps in the early 20th century.

During the years between the American Revolution and the beginning of the westward migration, bedcovers blossomed with cotton cutouts salvaged from leftover bits of expensive European chintz. Women carefully snipped around the bird and floral motifs of the imported chintzes and appliqu├ęd them on fields of plain domestic cloth to make the most of the patterned fabric available to them. Known as patchwork quilts, these served a practical purpose—to keep people warm in bed at night.

But it was during the years of the westward journey, from 1840 to 1870, that women stitched the majority of patchwork quilts. As families moved west, fabric became scarce, so women creatively used what they had. While their Colonial forebearers used bits of leftover fabric, pioneer women also used pieces of old clothing and household linens. They stitched these scraps together in designated patterns with some pretty folksy names—the Hole in the Barn Door, Rocky Mountain Puzzle, Log Cabin, Galaxy of Stars, and hundreds of others that reflected the joys and sorrows of pioneer women’s lives. Only rarely did quilters use new pieces of cloth.

Another type of quilt popular at the time was the crazy quilt, a seemingly wild pattern made more coherent by a series of straight seams. Because of a lack of space and quilting supplies, individual pioneer women often assembled lap-sized quilts suitable for throwing over the legs when riding in a wagon or carriage in cold weather.

The dust on the westward movement slowly settled as howling locomotives took the place of the swaying Conestoga. Hastily thrown up shanties made way for gingerbread mansions filled to the rafters with sumptuous furnishings and awash with a rainbow of brilliant colors. The quilts of the late 1800s illustrate the extravagance of the Victorian age. In fact, the quilts that most typify those years when Victoria last reigned in England aren’t really quilts at all, but thin parlor throws meant to thrill the eye—not warm the body. At home on the tabletops, sofa arms, and piano backs of overstuffed parlors, these throws had neither quilting nor batting. Yet, in their own splashy way, they are as much masterworks of American stitchery as their pioneer predecessors.

Pieced from the best silks, satins, and velvets—materials newly available to the growing middle class—the patchwork throws of this era are rich mosaics of color and texture, emphasizing proficiency in embroidery and the mastering of different types of stitches. Women's magazines of the day printed detailed embroidery instructions for anyone to follow.

In an unprecedented outpouring of sentimentality, Victorian quilters filled their work with bits and pieces of their personal past: Father's vest pocket, lace from a wedding veil, ribbons commemorating political events or visits to faraway lands.

Monday, August 19, 2013


QUESTION: We’ve been using an old R.C. Allen cash register in our clock and watch repair shop for at least three generations. It still works fine, but I’d like to find out more about it. What can you tell me about my machine?

Yours isn’t the only R.C. Allen cash register to be found in shops across the country. These work horses have tallied many a sales for shop owners
since the company came into existence in 1932. It became one of the leading manufacturers of business machines. And although your model isn’t technically an antique—yours dates from the 1960s—it, nevertheless, stands out as one of the best the company made.

But the story of the cash register didn’t begin with R.C. Allen. It was saloon owner James Ritty who actually invented the cash register in the years following the Civil War as a way of preventing his employees from dipping into his profits. He invented the Ritty Model I in 1879 after seeing a tool that counted the revolutions of the propeller on a steamship. With the help of John Ritty, his brother, he patented it in 1883.

His first cash register was a mechanical device that produced no receipts. Employees had to ring up every transaction on the register. When they pushed the total key, the drawer opened and a bell rang with the familiar “ka-ching” sound that told the manager that a sale had been made. Those early cash registers were nothing more than simple adding machines.

In most cases, a cash register’s drawer, or till, can only be opened only after a sale, or when an owner or manager uses special keys. This reduces the risk of employees stealing from the shop owner by pocketing the money without recording a sale, when a customer doesn’t need a receipt but has to be given change.

Since shop and restaurant workers earned very little, employee theft was a major problem. Some believe that odd pricing came about because by charging odd amounts like 49 or 99 cents, the cashier had to open the till for the penny change and thus announce the sale.

Shortly after receiving his patent, Ritty became overwhelmed with the responsibilities of running two businesses, so he sold all of his interests in the cash register business to Jacob H. Eckert of Cincinnati, a china and glassware salesman, who formed the National Manufacturing Company. In 1884 Eckert sold the company to John H. Patterson, who renamed the company the National Cash Register Company and improved the cash register by adding a paper roll to record sales transactions, thus creating a receipt which the business owner could read to ensure that cashiers charged customers the correct amount for each transaction.

In 1906, inventor Charles F. Kettering, who worked at the National Cash Register Company, designed a cash register with an electric motor. Cash registers also got increasingly heavy, often weighing over 100 pounds, making it difficult for thieves to take the whole machine. The R.C. Allen cash register with its drawer weighs in at about 60 pounds.

Today’s cash registers include a key labeled "NS", which stands for "No Sale," and opens the drawer, printing a receipt stating "No Sale" and recording it in the register log that the register drawer had been  opened.

Many of today’s machines also include a barcode scanner that can retrieve the price from a database, calculate deductions for items on sale, calculate the sales tax, calculate differential rates for preferred customers, actualize inventory, time and date stamp the transaction, record the transaction in detail including each item purchased, record the method of payment, keep totals for each product or type of product sold as well as total sales for specified periods, and do other tasks as well. Known as Point of Sale (POS) terminals, they also identify the cashier on the receipt, and carry additional information or sales offers.

The sophisticated machine found in shops, restaurants, supermarkets, department stores, etc. are a far cry from Ritty’s original invention and even more complex than the relatively simple R.C. Allen cash register you asked about.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Victorian Necessity

QUESTION: I have several old cast-iron doorstops that I’ve picked up here and there over the years. I wouldn’t go so far as say that I have a collection, but I have maybe a half dozen. Can you tell me anything about these doorstops?

ANSWER: Your doorstops are most likely from the late 19th century or the early 20th. The British made what they called “door porters,” after door attendants, around 1770, after the invention of the butt-hinged door, which closed automatically. To prevent the door from closing by itself, people began to prop heavy items in front of it, thus the name “doorstop.”

Makers of early doorstops made them not of cast iron but of molded earthenware and fitted with an upright rod, or handle, about 18 inches long, which eliminated the need for bending down to move the stop from place to place. In succeeding years, doorstops might be fashioned from earthenware, wood, marble, or glass—several New England glass companies created glass doorstops shaped like turtles  during the 19th century. All were heavy enough or sufficiently weighted to work well.

However, makers created doorstops mainly from bronze, brass, and iron. Brass ones—usually with a weighted base—often resembled a solid bell sliced in half and fitted with a long handle. Around 1810, handles generally disappeared from doorstops. Newer, knobbier shapes—some with built-in handles that permitted easy grasping came into vogue. Yet the Victorian brass doorstops with rod-like handles can still be found today.

The early 1800s heralded brass doorstops in a broad variety of classical and traditional designs. A bit later—in response to improved techniques in the casting of iron—a long and fanciful parade of cast-iron doorstops began their prolonged march from English iron factories. Some were full figured while others were flat backed and similar to the popular Staffordshire-pottery images of cottages and animals that captivated English hearts during the 1800s. Figures of Punch and Judy, Shakespearean characters, and such historical persons as Benjamin Disraeli and the Duke of Wellington emerged.

Though iron became an building material, cast-iron doorstops didn’t appear until after the Civil War. These doorstops varied greatly in size. A frog-shaped doorstop might measure little more than three inches high while a cat might be as tall as 19 inches. Others ranged from 6 to10 inches high. Those issued from the 1850s until about 1900 were heavier than later ones, as they appeared when brass and iron were less costly and more freely used.

The majority of metal doorstops found nowadays at antiques shows and shops originated during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and their design is often the key to determining their vintage. A figure of a Scottie dog, for instance, points to the 1920s and 1930s, when this breed of dog was popular and appeared on everything from jewelry to playing cards. Similarly, a painted, stylized vase of bright-blooming flowers corresponds to the 1920s–30s Art Deco period.

Thayer & Chandler of Chicago, maker of artists' supplies, and Hubley, a toy-maker, both issued doorstops. In the early 1900s, Thayer & Chandler helped popularize the baskets or vases of flowers that collectors now favor.

During the past 10 years, prices of doorstops have risen markedly. It's not uncommon to find an unusual or rare figural—two kittens in colorful painted attire or an American Indian—selling for hundreds of dollars. However, an aware buyer can find antique doorstops for under $100—some for even as little as $50. Most sell in the $75-90 range. Rare ones can go for as high as $300. It’s important to look for old doorstops that still have a amount of their original paint since repainting decreases the value of an old piece.

Many collectors acquire doorstops to those with a specific motif, such as those with a nautical flavor—lighthouses, clipper ships, mariners---or others with a Western theme---Indians, cowboys, stagecoaches. There are also collectors who seek monkeys, ducks, clowns, gnomes, and so on.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Blowin' in the Wind

QUESTION: We just purchased an old farm house and barn. The barn has an old weather vane mounted on top of a cupola on the roof. My husband and I aren’t sure if we should restore it or leave it as is. What can you tell me about weather vanes in general and whether we should have it restored?

ANSWER: It doesn’t really matter how old your weather vane is, as long as it’s not new. Old weather vanes atop old barns are an American tradition and today are worth some bucks, even if they’re weathered.

Weather vanes have been blowing into the wind for as long as farmers and sailors needed to know the direction of the breeze, but they have traditionally performed another function as well. Silhouetted against the sky for all to see, a weather vane was often an emblem that declared to the world the profession of the person who mounted it: a quill for a lawyer, a dory for a fisherman, a prize Holstein for a dairy farmer.

The earliest known weather vane, dating to 48 B.C., was an image of Triton—a Greek god with the head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish—mounted on The Tower of the Winds in Athens.

Weather vanes didn’t gain popularity until nobles in medieval England flew banners from their castle walls emblazoned with their coats of arms. After the Normans conquered England, these "fanes,” as the banners came to be known, were made of iron with designs cut into them. Since what wouldn't bend might break, makers soon rigged them to turn with the breeze. By the English Renaissance, the fane had become a vane, a simpler and more functional device affixed atop a merchant's shop as often as on a knight's battlement.

The colonists who settled America brought their traditions with them, including the weather vane. While it's likely that the first colonial vanes were crudely cut from wood, by the late 1600s several Puritan meeting houses were topped by iron vanes. Boston's Old State House, erected in 1713, sported a swallow-tailed banner with an arrow, and by 1740, America's first craftsman of weather vanes, Shem Drowne, had begun fashioning copper vanes for Boston's public buildings.

Prior to the 1850s, blacksmiths created most vanes. And though they devoted considerable skill and imagination to them, forging iron vanes or beating them out of copper was largely a sideline, something a blacksmith did on request.

Blacksmiths in coastal New England towns, where watching the wind has always been vital, made vanes in the shape of ships for sea captains, cod and flounder vanes for fishermen, and leviathans for the whale hunters on Nantucket and at New Bedford. In-land, farmers sawed crude wooden vanes in the shapes of plows and farm animals, or found a blacksmith who could fashion more sophisticated vanes for their barns.

After the 1850s, metalworkers like Alvin Jewell, of Waltham, Massachusetts, began manufacturing copper vanes using templates and molds, a process that was faster than the ancient repousse method, in which they pounded copper into the desired shape. Speedier manufacturing processes meant lower costs, and Jewell found that his patterns sold quite well through mail-order catalogs.

L.W. Cushing, perhaps the best-known weather vane manufacturer of the 19th century. He added them to a collection of over 100 silhouette and full-bodied vanes in his catalog. Other weather vane companies soon opened for business, including J.W. Fiske and E.G. Washburneboth of New York City, and Harris &Co. of Boston.

It was during the height of the Victorian Era when weather vanes were one of the most sought after items. They began appearing on everything from stables to gazebos. Prices ranged from $15 to $400 for the  vane, its brass turning rod, a copper ball, and a set of brass cardinals indicating the points of the compass.

The boom in weather vanes didn't last long, only 50 years or so, but during that period hundreds of designs were sold throughout America: banners, locomotives, fire engines, Statues of Liberty, clipper ships, river steamers, cannons, even sea monsters and dragons. Still, the traditional designs—roosters, horses, and other animals—remained the most popular.

By the early 20th century, changing tastes and simpler home design—particularly the decline of the cupola—caused a decline in vane popularity.
People began to be collect weather vanes as folk art about 40 years ago. Many sought vanes made by factories that originally sold them through catelogues, so handmade vanes weren’t even an issue. The highest amount ever paid for a weather vane was for a factory-made, copper Indian chief vane from 1900 that sold for $5.8 million at Sotheby’s in October 2006. Others have sold for prices from four figures on up.

Scarce and unusual weathervane forms, such as mermaids, cars, trains, and firemen, are very popular with collectors. The most common ones, however, are horses, roosters, and cows which tend to fetch lower prices.

The majority of collectors like old copper vanes that have a green or verdigris patina which helps to date it.  But the biggest problem are the vanes made now from original molds from defunct factories.
Though manufacturers generally don’t conceal the replicas’ origins, subsequent sellers often do.

The weathervanes that command the highest prices have not been restored. They have a patina—often noticeably different on one side thanks in part to prevailing winds and decades of exposure to sun, sleet, rain, snow and birds.