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.