Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Those Oldies But Goodies

QUESTION: My husband recently purchased an old jukebox for a game room we created in our basement.  It’s a Wurlitzer 1015, and considering it’s 68 years old, it still plays pretty well. He paid $3,500 for it. Can you tell me more about this machine and others like it? Did my husband get taken on this deal?

ANSWER: While the jukebox is more or less a thing of the past, a few still exist in arcades and roadhouses off the beaten path and in the private collections of people who yearn for a return to those happy days. The one your husband purchased is the most popular of the oldies but goodies and normally sells for twice that amount. 

A jukebox, for those of you who may not know, is a partially automated music-playing device, usually a coin-operated machine, that plays selections from self-contained media, at first records, then CDs. The classic jukebox has buttons with letters and numbers that patrons to restaurants, diners, and bars pushed  in combination to choose and play a specific selection at first for a dime, then later a quarter, fifty cents, and upwards.

Although jukeboxes, in one form or another, had been around since an Edison phonograph with a coin slot was exhibited in San Francisco in 1889, the early machines were staid affairs.

In 1928, Justus P. Seeburg, who manufactured player pianos, combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a coin-operated record player and gave the listener a choice of eight records. This Audiophone machine was wide and bulky and had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records. Later versions of the jukebox included Seeburg's Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By maneuvering the tone arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.

The term "jukebox" came into use in the United States around 1940, apparently derived from the familiar usage "juke joint", derived from the word "juke" meaning disorderly, rowdy, or wicked.

While jukeboxes had once been enclosed in wooden cabinets, the machines of the era beginning in 1937 were made of gaudy plastic, frosted glass, jeweled mirrors, and chrome ornaments. Many of those Art Deco creations were self-contained light shows with polarized revolving disks, bubble tubes, and flashing pilasters.

During those golden years, the Leonardo da Vinci of jukebox design was Wurlitzer's Paul Fuller, who was responsible for 13 full-size machines, five table models, and numerous speakers. The Golden Age of jukebox design ended when he suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died the next year. By then a new generation of larger jukeboxes had appeared, and the classic machines from the golden years—1937 to 1949—were, for the most part, relegated to the junk heap and forgotten.

Forgotten except for a small group of admirers of the design achievements of the 1937—49 period, who began busily picking up the pieces and reassembling the classic jukeboxes.

The popularity of jukeboxes extended from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, but they were particularly fashionable in the 1950s. By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes.

And even with all of today’s high-tech music devices, the sound from one of those old machines was fabulous. Nothing beats hearing an old 78 on a machine created just to play it. Those were the days.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Red Carpet Treatment

QUESTION: My great grandmother left me a beautiful Oriental carpet runner. My grandmother said it is quite old, but I’m not sure by how much.  What can you tell me about antique Oriental carpets? I have no idea about its origins, pattern, and such.

ANSWER: What most people classify as Oriental carpets are actually Persian (now Iranian) or Turkish carpets. Originally made to cover the sand in the tents of nomads and to kneel on when saying daily prayers, these beautiful floor coverings have a long history.

Oriental carpets have been highly prized in the West since their first appearance in Venice in the 13th century. By the 18th century they were common in wealthier households. But relative demand was fairly small, so the production of carpets declined. During the 19th century, trade routes improved, contact with the Orient increased, and the Western obsession with the exotic grew. So Persian weavers produced great quantities of carpets for export.

Carpet-weaving is an integral part of Iranian culture and art and dates back to ancient Persia. Weavers from other countries copied the designs of Persian carpets, but Persia produced 75 percent of the world's woven carpets.

Generally, Persian carpets can be divided into three groups—Farsh/Qa-li, any carpet greater than 6×4 feet, Qa-licheh, sized 6×4 feet and smaller), and nomadic carpets known as Gelim including Zilu, meaning "rough carpet," mostly for use in tents.

Wool is the most common material for carpets but cotton is frequently used for the foundation of city and workshop carpets. There are a wide variety in types of wool used for weaving Oriental carpets, including . Kork wool, Manchester wool, and in some cases even camel hair wool.

Persian rugs have both a layout and a design which in general include one or more motifs, so it’s not unusual to find more than one motif in a single rug. The original designs act as the main pattern and the derivatives as the sub patterns. Rug experts have identified 19 pattern groups---historic monuments and Islamic buildings, Shah Abbassi patterns, spiral patterns, all-over patterns, derivative patterns, interconnected patterns, paisley patterns, tree patterns, Turkoman patterns, hunting ground patterns, panel patterns, European flower patterns, vase patterns, intertwined fish patterns, Mehrab patterns, striped patterns, geometric patterns, tribal patterns, and composites. The most common motifs include Boteh, Gul, Herati, Mina-Khani, Rosette, Shah Abbasi, Azari Kharchang, and Islimi Floral.

Persian rugs are typically laid out using one of four patterns—all-over, central medallion, compartment and one-sided. So a rug’s design can be described in terms of the manner in which it organizes the field of the rug. One basic design may serve the entire field, or the surface may be covered by a pattern of repeating figures. In areas using long-established local designs. the weaver often works from memory, with the patterns passed on within the family.

Weavers often tailored the dimensions of their carpets to suit Western needs. They produced a disproportionate number of runners—long narrow rugs originally designed to cover the sides of rooms or tents since these had special appeal to Westerners. Even so, the standards remained the same. The major carpet-weaving centers—Persia, Turkey and the Caucasus—continued to use traditional motifs and techniques, maintaining the carpets’ regional integrity and originality.

While carpets made before 1800 are extremely expensive, the antique carpet market offers some excellent buys for the beginning collector. High quality runners generally cost between $1,500 and $15,000, depending on overall design, pliability, date, and type and number of knots.

Edgar Allan Poe once said, “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of carpets must be a genius.” And as hard as they are to judge, they’re certainly easy to enjoy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Shaker Chair Chic

QUESTION: Some time ago, I bought a simple chair at a country estate auction. I love that chair but know very little about it. Someone told me that my chair was Shaker. Since I didn’t know much about the Shakers, I couldn’t tell. It just looked like a simple country chair. What can you tell me about my chair?

ANSWER: Your chair certainly looks like a Shaker chair. But you need to know a bit about the Shakers to know for sure.

Mother Ann Lee, who led the Shakers to America in 1774, had enough to do to get her sect organized. She began with a community in Albany, New York, and sent out missionaries to establish Shaker communities elsewhere in New England. But it wasn’t until Mother Lee had died and another generation of leadership took over the Shakers that the idea of producing items for sale as a way of supporting the communities came to be.

The Shakers attracted skilled cabinetmakers and craftsmen to their ranks, so it was a natural to use their skills to produce furniture for the communities. By this time, the Shakers were totally self-sustaining. In the early 19th century, the sect began to attract large numbers of people, mostly those who were discontent with society in general or were out of work. The communities offered security and food and lodging to people who might otherwise not have had it.

To support all these people became a major problem. So the elders of each community came up with ways to produce items for sale. Some made chairs, others produced seeds, clothing, especially wool capes, or took in mending and such. Many members were very creative and invented unique items such  as the electric washing machine. They were extremely organized as well, so mass-producing items like chairs wasn’t a problem. 

The Shaker communities' peak growth came in the second quarter of the 19th century. In1840, an estimated 4,000-6,000 members lived in 18 self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky and west to Indiana. During that time, they produced the icons of Shaker design—the spare, functional chairs that inspire today’s collectors. The best display uncompromising craftsmanship combined with absolute simplicity—ladderback chairs whose turned posts have been pared to the narrowest possible dimensions. At first they produced these chairs for use within the community. But later they chose the best design and reproduced it for sale to the outside world. Customers loved their simplicity and sturdiness and the Shaker chair business took off.

But not every piece of furniture made by Shaker hands is a design masterpiece: Some pieces were poorly crafted. Some were beautifully crafted but poorly proportioned. And some exhibit such bare-bones functionalism that they’re awkward and ugly. Often they’re barely distinguishable from country furniture of the same time and place. Indeed, unscrupulous dealers and auctioneers often promote plain country pieces as Shaker and sell for several times more than they would otherwise bring.

The chairs that the Shakers designed to be sold to the public were lean and severe and produced in huge quantities that ended up on back porches and summer cottages across America. Their popularity led other manufacturers to copy their look, and these pseudo "Shaker" chairs appear in quantity at country auctions and small antiques shows. Each of the endless variety of styles has its own Shaker-designated model number. Most were originally stained dark brown, and slat-backs predominate.

Each community made their chairs a bit different from those of other communities, changing or adding little details. And while they all began with the same design template, each community’s craftsmen added their own touches for their community. For instance, many people believe that all Shaker chairs have tiny acorn finials and arms that terminate in mushroom-shaped turnings. Not so. It’s possible to tell which community made which chair by the shape of the finial alone. The back slats were also often slightly different. The Number 7 rockers, for example, have mushroom arms, four slats, and a shawl rail connecting the backposts that replaces the more common finials. The Shakers often attached a decal identifying the piece as Shaker to the back of a slat or leg. But pieces meant solely for use within the Shaker communities didn’t have decals.

Although for years Shaker chairs never sold for more than $500, now even the most common three-slat rockers bring $600-$800 or more. Some even go as high as $1,700-to-$2,200.

Pieces from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana—often less austere, less "Shaker-looking" than their eastern counterparts—often have a Victorian feel and sometimes resemble local country furniture even more closely than classic eastern designs. .

The earliest collectors of Shaker chairs—active from 1920 to 1960—tended to be serious academic types. They studied Shaker life and doctrine, became friendly with living Shakers, and often acquired pieces directly from them as the sect's numbers dwindled. Then Shaker chairs became attractive to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals whose bank balances boosted prices to new levels.