Tuesday, October 29, 2013
19th Century Tupperware
QUESTION: I recently won a box lot at a local auction. Inside the box I found what looks like a cup with an attached saucer. It’s heavy and a bit crude. Can you tell me what it is?
ANSWER: What you have is a 19th-century grease lamp made of stoneware. Farmers used these lamps, fueled by animal fat, in their homes. They often threw away early, less refined versions, as better ones appeared on the market.
Stoneware is one of the hardy perennials of the American antiques trade. Each year, auction houses, antiques shops, and flea markets sell thousands of pieces at prices from $25 to several thousand dollars. The record price stands at $15,000 for a rare 1773 stoneware inkstand. Only a handful of pieces fetch prices in that stratospheric range.
Stoneware is a heavy, hard pottery that resists odors and tastes and won’t absorb water. The first American stoneware appeared in the last half of the 18th century, and for more than 100 years people used stoneware vessels to store and transport foods and liquids. It was essentially the 19th-century version of Tupperware. When glass and metal containers came into common use, people stopped using it.
Generally, it’s difficult to date stoneware unless a piece has the name and town of the maker or the name of the company that used the vessel to hold its product stamped on the bottom. For this reason, many collectors like to buy pieces made in their areas. But stoneware that can be identified as the work of an early potter may be worth several hundred dollars. For example, a double-handled crock inscribed "Commeraw" sold for $800 because it was made by Thomas Commeraw, a New York City potter active from 1795 to 1820. At a Massachusetts auction, a jug with the initials J. F. sold for $600—it’s attributed to a 1790's Boston potter named Jonathan Fenton. Sometimes the initials on a piece belong not to the maker but to the original owner, which makes the piece attractive to collectors interested in genealogy.
As with many other antiques, age isn’t the main reason in determining the price of an object—its decorative qualities are far more important. An attractive late-19th-century jug will fetch more at auction than a homely Revolutionary-era piece. Most stoneware forms, such as jugs, crocks, jars, churns, and pitchers, are very simple and vary only slightly in shape and design. Decoration, if any, tends to be sparse. When a potter decorated his pieces, he often used simple floral, bird, or scroll motifs painted on the stoneware in three basic colors—blue, brown, or black. The most common stoneware style has a gray-glazed background with blue decoration. Such run-of-the-mill pieces, which represent about 90 percent of the stoneware available today, are generally worth less than $50.
Because many stoneware items look alike, the most valuable pieces are those with unusual or imaginative decoration. A rare form, such as your stoneware grease lamp, or an odd-sized piece, an exceptionally large crock, for example, can be worth several hundred to several thousand dollars.