Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Tiskit, a Tasket, a Strong Shaker Basket

QUESTION: My great grandmother passed down a rectangular basket that, according to family legend, she purchased up country from a Shaker woman. The basket is in good condition and has been in our family for years. How can I tell it’s a Shaker basket?

ANSWER: Shaker baskets were one of the first American "signature"baskets—from a known maker or  group of basketmakers—to come onto the antique market. A combination of style, materials, weaving technique, rims and handles alert collectors to authentic Shaker baskets. But it takes a trained eye to separate a $10,000 Shaker basket from similar styles of Native American and country baskets valued in the $300–500 range. What isn’t widely known is that the Shakers sometimes bought locally made baskets for utilitarian use which has led to the misidentification of many Shaker baskets.

The Shakers designed each of their baskets for a particular task. For those meant to be used indoors, they labeled them for their use or where they intended to store them. For example, rectangular baskets stored efficiently on shelves without wasted space, so the Shakers created them to use to store folded laundry. They often labeled the basket for the room and shelf on which they placed it. The material used to construct this type of basket would be of the same pounded ash wood but lighter in weight, again pointing to the efficiency of the Shaker design. They places wet laundry, however, in stronger round baskets made with heavier pounded ash to support the extra weight. The style they chose for this basket was fluted rather than cylindrical, making it easier to stack the empty baskets after they finished with the laundry.

Despite the variety of utility baskets, the Shakers were most famous for baskets that they made to be sold. They referred to these baskets, made mostly for aesthetic appeal, as "fancy" baskets, which they sold as souvenirs to wealthy travelers at railroad stops and in the gift shops of grand hotels throughout the United States and England during the late 19th century. The Shakers named these fancy baskets for their style rather than their intended use. For example, when a person turns over a "cat-head" basket, the bottom resembles the shape of a cat's head.

Since the Shakers produced many of their baskets at their more numerous communities  in New York and New England, they used local materials. They preferred pounded splint from black ash trees for the horizontal material because it had stronger fibers and was more pliable to work with, as well as for uprights supports. Shaker craftsmen bent and drawknifed local hardwoods for handles and rims. Weavers wove the baskets with a continuous pattern that required an odd number of uprights. But the Shaker's need for uniformity and precision in design of their fancy baskets made it impossible for them to consider using an odd number. So Shaker fancy baskets have an even number of uprights.

Once a particular type of basket had been properly designed, it would always remain the same. Although styles varied from community to community, there was always uniformity within any one community. To achieve this, the Shakers used identical molds, allowing for basket components to be made by different hands and still fit together precisely. One person never made an entire basket. Instead, they used an assembly line approach.

Fancy basket styles can be found in various conditions for $1,500 to more than $10,000 on the open market, and the working styles are sometimes seen, although rarely, for less than $3,000 if in fair condition. Collectors will pay well over $10,000 for a documented good-condition working basket. So it pays to have a potentially Shaker basket appraised by someone who is an expert in them.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The German Influence in American Furniture

QUESTION: My husband and I recently discovered an antique wardrobe at a house sale and fell in love with it. We purchased it but have no idea what style it is. The wardrobe is about six feet tall and has large raised diamond shapes on its doors. There’s an additional diamond panel across the top. Can you tell me what this might be?

ANSWER: It looks like you just bought yourself a fine example of American Biedermeier furniture.

The Biedermeier style, itself, was a neoclassic style that originated in Germany in 1815. Popular until about 1850, it was a potpourri of classic features taken from French Empire, Sheraton, Regency, and Directoire styles.

The style’s name derived from Ludwig Eichrodt and Adolf Kussmaul, who depicted the typical bourgeois of the period in the caricature of a well-to-do man without culture under the name “Gottfried Biedermeier.”—“Gott” meaning “God”;  fried” meaning “peace”; “Bieder” meaning “commonplace”:_meier” meaning “steward”—in their Fliegende Blatter  Pamphlets,  a Viennese journal of the day. Critics adopted this name to describe furniture that represented the unimaginative taste of the average person.

However, the style wasn’t called Biedermeier until 1886, when Georg Hirth wrote a book about 19th-century interior design, and used the word "Biedermeier" to describe domestic German furniture of the 1820s and 1830s.

A simpler version of the French Empire and Directoire styles, Biedermeier furniture was comfortable, unpretentious, and spare and was especially suited to the rising European middle class.

By  the 1840s Biedermeier gradually gave way to the curves and flourishes of the neo-Rococo revival in Vienna. Early pieces were generally rectilinear, undecorated, and simple. Towards the middle of period, craftsmen employed curves more in chair backs, legs, etc. Scroll forms became popular after 1840 on bases and legs often with upper terminal animal heads which were sometimes gilded.

When German immigrants came to America in the mid-19th century, many headed for the middle of the country around Missouri.

In the Missouri settlements, the German cabinetmakers modified the sophisticated Biedermeier motifs to fit the simple tastes of their customers. The style's characteristic decorative veneers, curved legs and chair backs, and geometric shapes on flat surfaces were maintained, but the features were simplified. Countrified versions of Biedermeier chairs typically had outsweeping saber front legs and backs made of two horizontal rails.

Simple examples have wooden seats while more elaborate ones are upholstered. Biedermeier influences in wardrobes include raised-panel doors enhanced by diamond motifs and deep cornices. They would have called these chifferobes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Keeping Track of Days

QUESTION: I recently came across an old Coca Cola wall calendar from 1913. It’s in reasonably good shape. Can you tell me anything about how wall calendars got their start?

ANSWER: You may have a prize collectible. Coca Cola memorabilia always sells for good prices if the items are in good condition. In 1913, the Coca Cola Company printed a million of these calendars. Unfortunately, most people threw them away since they had only one picture on them.

During the latter part of the 19th-century, trade cards, the forerunners of business cards, often included a small printed calendar. In 1869, the detachable calendar pad appeared. The pad made it possible to use a calendar picture for more than one year. To most residents of farmhouses, country cottages, and log cabins, these beautifully printed calendars were the only art they knew.

Insurance companies were the biggest producers of early calendars, giving them away to every premium holder. Some of the big insurance firms made use of their company logo for their calendar's artwork, but most chose pictures of dogs, children, or elegant ladies.

Other businesses soon capitalized on the booming demand for wall-art calendars. The Coca-Cola Company, which began distributing calendars in 1891, had printed one million by 1913 and more than two million by 1924. In the 1890s, the Grand Union Tea Company, the Singer Company, and Armour Meat Company had their calendars hanging in shops and markets from coast to coast.

Soon, small business owners began to have their names and addresses printed on stock calendars. Printers of stock calendars offered voluminous catalogs of artwork from which the customer could choose, and the demand for calendar artwork kept many an illustrator from finding another line of business. So many feed mills, lumberyards, grocery stores, and other small businesses distributed calendars in the early 20th century that it is possible to assemble a fairly complete inventory of retailers from that era by listing the sponsors of old calendars.

New techniques in the printing industry called for intricate embossing and die-cutting, and the calendar became a lavish palette of complex colors and textures.

Printers employed many famous illustrators, including Palmer Cox, Edward Penfield, and Louis Rhead, to produce artwork for their calendars. Cox, a noted magazine illustrator of the time, created a community of impish cartoon elves he called the Brownies in 1883. His mischievous little Brownies were a favorite subject for calendars prior to the turn of the century.

The Minnesota-based firm of Brown and Bigelow, the world's biggest manufacturer of calendars, commissioned Maxfield Parrish and later Norman Rockwell. From 1925 through 1975the Boys Scouts of America authorized Brown and Bigelow to reproduce Rockwell illustrations for the official Boy Scout calendar.

By the 1930s, calendar advertising had become less effective than radio and mass circulation magazine ads. But the tradition lived on with calendars from automobile service stations and garages—important new features of family life. However, the calendars they commissioned were often less elaborate. In the 1940s and 1950s, neighborhood drug stores and heating oil companies continued to print wall-art calendars that featured detachable monthly date pads and simple illustrations.

Although calendars from well-known firms cost up to $100, you can purchase ones from the less famous names for $35-$65. You can often find calendars printed after 1920 for less than $30.

Today, calendars appear everywhere. You may still get a calendar annually from your insurance agent, but many people now use their cell phones to keep track of what day it is. If you still want to hang a calendar on the wall, you can get some nifty ones at dollar stores across the country.