Monday, June 30, 2014

A Pen in Hand

QUESTION: I was going through some drawers in an old desk and came across a couple of fountain pens. I wondered if they’re collectible. Also, what can you tell me about their origins. I’m young enough not to have ever used one.

ANSWER: Technolgy has changed our lives a lot in the past 75 years—that marked the date in 1939 when Lizlo Biro, a Hungarian proofreader, first patented the ballpoint pen. It was also the year the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered a vision of the future to thousands of people. Up to that time, the main writing implement that people used was the fountain pen. And it was 108 years before that when John Jacob Parker patented the self-filling fountain pen, paving the way for an easier way of writing.

But it was three inventions that occurred in the mid-19th century that helped the average person accept the fountain pen—the invention of hard rubber, which replaced steel for pen cases, iridium-tipped gold nibs for increased flexibility, and an improved ink formula which contained less sediment.

However, it wasn’t until Lewis Waterman created his Ideal Fountain Pen that the public embraced the fountain pen. After his Ideal Pen became a success, Waterman patented the coiner mechanism where a slot in the heel of the pen enabled a coin to deflate the internal pressure plate.

Probably the most well known of all the fountain pen companies was the Parker Pen Company. George Parker started the Parker Pen Company in Janesville, Wisconsin., and patented his “Lucky Curve” ink feed system in1894. His design allowed the ink to flow back into the reservoir when the pen was upright, reducing the possibility of leaks, creating a new industry standard. He patented an improved version in 1911. You could purchase one of his pens back then for $2.50 to $6. He even made one the size of a  penknife, suitable for a lady's purse.

The Parker Pen Company was an innovator and came out with several firsts, including a safety screw-on cap and the button-filler. An alternative to using an eye-dropper to fill the ink, the button-filler used an external button which connected to the internal pressure plate and deflated the reservoir when pressed.

In 1921, Parker introduced the Duofold pen line. These pens were available in Oversize, Litty, or Junior models, and came in red or black rubber—previously, all rubber pens came only in black. The company added other colors, such as lapis lazuli and jade green, later on in the decade. Originally priced from $5 and up, today these pens, especially the red ones, sell for around $1,000.

Parker continued to be innovative in the 1930s with the introduction of the vacuumatic filler, which worked with a plunger and allowed the entire barrel to act as a reservoir. Some pens also featured a transparent window so the user could see how much ink remained in the barrel. Prices ranged fro originally ranged from $5 to $10.

The next most well known of the fountain pen companies was the Sheaffer Pan Company, which began in 1912 in a small back room of a Fort Madison, Iowa, jewelry store with just seven employees. Its founder, Walter A. Sheaffer; was 45 years old when he risked his life savings to start the company, but his invention of a lever-filled fountain pen quickly proved to be the leader in the industry.

Shaeffer's mechanism used an external lever which depressed a flexible ink sac, but fitted flush with the barrel of the pen when not in use. For the next 40 years, the lever-filler was the most popular design in fountain pens.

In 1920, Sheaffer introduced its Lifetime pen which came with a serial number and a life-time guarantee. A white dot on the pen clip distinguished the pan. Selling for $8.25, they cost almost double what Sheaffer's other pen did. Nevertheless, people bought them. 

Sheaffer continued to influence the pen industry with its introduction of the Radite, the first plastic pen, in 1924---one of your pens. Originally available only in Jade Green in an Art Deco design, it eventually inspired a variety of additional colors.

Over the next 28 years, Sheaffer brought out several other significant products, including a fast-drying, non-clogging formula ink called Skrip, the Balance pen, a bullet-shaped pen designed to balance in the hand, the Crest, the first pen to use a plastic body with a fitted metal cap, the Touchdown, a pneumatic- filling pen, and the Snorkel, a longer edition of the Touchdown.

The introduction of the Pen for Men, an oversized version of the Snorkel, in 1959 put the company way ahead of its competition—indeed, way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the public didn’t buy it and production ceased within a few years. However, oversize pens came into vogue during the 1990s, so the company produced the Legacy, a pen based on the original Pen for Men.

Even though most people don’t used fountain pens for everyday writing, they offer a bit of nostalgia and a remembrance of days long past.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Woven Beauty

QUESTION: I recently purchased a wicker table at an antique show. It doesn’t have any markings and the dealer who sold it to me couldn’t tell me much about it. I love this piece and it now occupies a prominent place in my den. Can you tell me anything about it? And can you also tell me a bit about the origins of wicker in general.

ANSWER: Wicker has been around for quite a while, but your table originated during the peak of its popularity. Back then, the ornateness of wicker brought an element of taste to middle-class American homes.

Back in the 17th century, the Dutch made wicker and brought it to England before sailing across the Atlantic to the New World. For the next several centuries objects made of wicker imported from Europe decorated American homes.

Until the 1850s, furnishings were inexpensive and serviceable, therefore easily disregarded. Then through a changing cultural, economic, and social conditions, wicker became a status symbol for America's rising middle class.

Although the mass production of wicker began in America, the main materials used in its manufacture—cane and reed—came from rattan palms, which grew wild in Asia. In the early 1840s, Cyrus Wakefield, a shrewd young Yankee grocer, noticed huge quantities of rattan being discarded around the Boston docks after serving as packing material to protect cargo on clipper ships returning from Asia. Discovering that chairs and tables could be made more cheaply from this strange material than importing finished pieces, he began making small pieces of furniture using this discarded rattan.

In 1873 he founded the Wakefield Rattan Company in Wakefield, Massachusetts. By the end of the decade, his firm accumulated sales of over $2 million. At its peak, his  company employed 1,000 workers in 30 buildings in Wakefield and another 800 in  Chicago.

Wakefield's successes encouraged Heywood and Brothers Company, wooden chair makers in Gardner, Massachusetts, to begin making wicker furniture in 1876. For the next 20 years, the two companies competed fiercely and dominated the industry.

Both companies responded to economic prosperity following the Civil War which enabled middle class families to leave America’s dirty, crowded cities for clean, airy suburbs, prompting a demand for wicker furnishings. These light, airy pieces were ideal for the new gabled and turreted Queen Anne-style homes and for the verandas of resort hotels catering to the new vacationing middle classes.

Because it was easy to keep clean, wicker attracted those concerned about sanitation, and its lightness, adaptability and design potential, Victorian tastemakers loved it. Wicker not only satisfied those with good taste but did it at an affordable price.

When the Aesthetic Movement swept America in the 1870s, stressing the uplifting moral and spiritual influence of artistic decors, tastemakers recommended the use of ornamental wicker in people’s homes. This emerging middle-class interest in aesthetically correct furniture encouraged Wakefield and other manufacturers to create increasingly ornate pieces that people associated with art and beauty. Fancy wicker enhanced the ostentatiously overdecorated Victorian parlors and expansive porches while proclaiming the taste of its owners.

Curling, shaping and twisting pliable lengths of wetted reed into whimsical scrolls, spirals, and whirlygigs, skilled craftsmen fed the Victorian fever for more exotic wicker objects. They incorporated a variety of astronomical and botanical forms, flags, Oriental fans, shells, and ships into their elaborate designs. Two of the most unique pieces was the tete-a-tete, in which two people could sit side by side or the serpentine "Conversation Chair,"  in which a courting couple could sit facing each other.

Elegant tables were important to the decor of Victorian homes. With its intricate grid of legs and embellishments, fancy skirt and caned top, a square table would have added grace and utility to its owner's room.

The growing demand for more elaborate forms reached its peak during the 1890s, when American wicker became more fanciful and ostentatious. A good example is the "Fancy Reception Chair,” featuring intricate tiny scrolls and frilly curlicues. Often designed as show pieces for elegant parlors rather than for actual use, these ornate chairs are fairly hard to find today and often sell for upwards of $1,000 in good condition.

By the turn of the 20th century, Victorian ornate design faded in favor of simplicity. Design reformers instead promoted the "Bar Harbor" style, simplified wicker furnishings with wide open, diagonal latticework that would fit plain, open interiors.

Just before World War I, the Arts and 'Crafts movement inspired American wicker   manufacturers to create boxy, unornamented shapes ideal for the minimalist interiors of bungalow homes. Arts and Crafts leader Gustav Stickley produced a line of square and severe willow furniture using geometric designs. However, by the  beginning of the Great Depression, wicker was all but dead in America.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fragile as Lace

QUESTION: My mother always liked decorative glass. She had an eclectic collection, some of which was Depression Glass. I now have her collection, but I know little about glass and almost nothing about Depression Glass.  I have four plates that I particularly like. Each has a pierced rim. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: Your plates are a pattern known as Old Colony, made by the Hocking Glass Company from 1935 to 1938. Back then your plate sold for only 10 cents at stores like F.W. Woolworth’s 5 and 10 Cent Stores.

When the Great Depression began, glass makers began producing inexpensive, colored translucent glass ware, which they sold for 5 and 10 cents. Some food manufacturers and distributors, such as the Quaker Oats Company, put pieces of Depression glassware in boxes of food as an incentive to purchase. Movie theaters and businesses also handed out pieces to customers simply for coming in the door.

More than 20 glass makers, most located in the central U.S. where access to raw materials and power made manufacturing inexpensive, produced over 100 patterns, including  entire dinner sets in some patterns, and in a variety of colors—clear, pink, pale blue, green, and amber.

Collectors commonly call the Old Colony pattern “open lace” or “lace edge.” However, this can be misleading since other companies like Westmoreland, Duncan & Miller, and Imperial also made lace-edged Depression Glass.

Of all the patterns they produced, Hocking’s Old Colony is by far the most popular with collectors. It comes mostly in a deep pink and clear, also known as crystal. And all pieces have some sort of ribbing incorporated into their design. Other manufacturers also produced lace-edged glass but in a lighter pink. Color is an important element in determining various patterns of Depression Glass since no mark appears on glass as with china. Hocking (later Anchor Hocking) eventually did embed their logo into the bottom of their glass pieces, but not their Depression Glass.

While all Old Colony pieces are open lace, not all open lace pieces are Old Colony. A variety of companies made lace-edged pieces in shapes and colors that are different from Old Colony. The Lancaster and Standard Glass Companies, both of which came under Hocking's control in 1924, made some open lace pieces in the late 1920s and early 1930s which were similar in style and shape to Old Colony.

Some people collect only Old Colony pieces. Others, who like the open lace style, find other companies' pieces complement` their Old Colony collections, especially pieces that don’t come in the Old Colony pattern, such as sandwich plates.

To sort out the various patterns, colors, and manufacturers of Depression Glass, collectors usually consult guidebooks on the subject. However, the information from one guidebook to another can be incorrect or misleading. For instance, in some books, luncheon plates list as measuring 8¾ inches in diameter while the less common and more expensive salad plates measure 8¼ inches. But, in fact, the salad plate actually measures only 7¼ inches. And while there’s an 8¼-inch plate, it’s the luncheon plate. Plus, there are no Old Colony plates sized between the 8¼- inch luncheon plate and the 10½-inch dinner plate.

This confusion can be especially problematic on auction sites like eBay where dealers don’t always do thorough research of their wares. The Old Colony salad plate usually sells for around $22  on eBay while the luncheon plate sells for $13-15. And even though this isn’t a huge difference in price, collectors often pay the higher amount for a luncheon plate if they really want it. The true salad plates, measuring 7¼ inches, are much less common than the 8¼-inch luncheon plates.

Old Colony pieces can also be found in frosted glass. These sell for half of what unfrosted pieces do, so collectors can buy and collect frosted pieces for half the price, especially for the more expensive ones.  
An unfrosted console bowl in mint condition, for instance, lists for over $200. This howl, which measures 10½ inches across and sits on three legs, sells for $25 on eBay in its frosted edition.

But there’s a downside to collecting Old Colony. The lace edging chips and cracks easily on all lace edge pieces. Many of the more unique pieces have chips. Unfortunately, the supply of Old Colony, as with other unusual patterns of Depression Glass, is drying up as collectors have amassed collections which has taken a lot of it off the market.

Monday, June 9, 2014

And All That Chintz

QUESTION: My grandmother left me quite a few beautiful pieces of china, decorated with floral patterns. What seems like the pattern name appears with the mark on the bottom of the pieces. Names like Summertime, Royalty, Florida, and such are common among them. Can you tell me anything about this china? I really like its bright, happy decoration and would like to collect more of it.

ANSWER: The pieces that you have, which are actually pottery not china, are known as chintz. Made from earthenware, they’ve become one of today’s most popular collectibles.

Chintz dates back to the 18th century when English merchants imported exotic fabrics with elaborate floral patterns from India. By the early 19th century, Staffordshire potteries began to emulate these patterns on the decorations of their wares, using large flowers and exotic birds. By the 1820s many potteries in the Staffordshire area manufactured chintz for everyday use. Although they produced many Victorian patterns, today's collectors prefer the chintz made from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The four major companies making chintz back then—Grimwades Royal Winton, James Kent, Crown Ducal, and Lord Nelson—needed a product that was cheap to produce so that their chief market, the English middle class, could afford it. Since they made chintz from earthenware and decorated it with lithograph transfers, it filled the need nicely. All together, there are over 200 different patterns of chintz.

The decoration of chintz required an amazing amount of handwork and skill since women transferred the designs by hand from lithographs on to the individual pieces. The process, which was similar to applying a  decal, required meticulous cutting and matching to ensure that the junctures of each piece were practically invisible. Other workers gilded each piece by hand before firing.

During the 1930s, the companies producing chintz, in ever-increasing competition, introduced fresh new patterns and shapes at the British Industries Fair. In order to come up with these new patterns, some  reversed the foreground and background colors. One of the leading manufacturers, Grimwades Royal Winton, changed their Welbeck with yellow background into Hazel with black ground and their Spring background into white. Companies often often named their patterns for the flowers in them and incorporated them into the backstamp or mark.

When World War II broke out, the British Government forbade all unnecessary manufacturing, so chintz production halted. After the war, people became starved for color and the chintz produced in the 1950s had a different look, with flowers larger and farther apart. Makers also changed background colors to  black, burgundy and navy.

But in the late 1950s tastes changed, and housewives’ preferences turned to modern Scandinavian design in furniture and accessories. The fussy chintz patterns clashed with the new decorating tastes, and most chintz production came to an end. It wasn't until the 1990s that interest in cozy, comfortable chintz returned.

Of all the chintz manufacturers, collectors deem Grimwades the “Cadillac of Chintz.” It produced over 60 different patterns from 1929 through the early 1960s.

In 1885 Leonard Grimwades founded the pottery with his brother at Winton Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent. They started production in a simple shed and expanded rapidly, taking over the Stoke Pottery in 1900. They introduced the first modern chintz pattern, called Marguerite, in 1928. In 1932, they came out with their Summertime pattern which immediately became immensely popular. Grimwades applied this pattern to many different articles, including clocks, invalid feeders, and jardinieres, and shipped large quantities of it to the U.S. The company awarded Wright, Tyndale and Van Roden Inc., a luxury store in Philadelphia, exclusive rights to Floral Feast, Somerset and Summertime. However, many of these pieces bear only the store’s stamp. The cup and saucer in your photo bears this pattern. Throughout its history, Grimwades produced nine chintz patterns, more than any other company.

In 1915, Albert Goodwin Richardson bought the Gordon Pottery in Tunistall, England and renamed it the A.G. Richardson Ltd. He wanted to produce good quality earthenware under the name Crown Ducal. In 1919 he sold his interest to Harry Taylor who owned a lithograph company. Crown Ducal wares also appealed to Americans during the late1920s through the 1950s.

Richardson developed a deep ivory glaze base color in 1931, and a number of chintz patterns employed it, including Pansy, Peony, Primrose, and Priscilla. In 1980, the Wedgewood Group purchased the  company and renamed it Unicorn Pottery.

James Kent took over the Old Foley Pottery at Longton. in 1897 and renamed it James Kent Ltd. to produce earthenware for the English middle class. He first produced the chintz pattern DuBarry in 1934, and it remained in production until 1980. The most popular Kent pattern is Hydrangea with a white background. The quality of James Kent wares is inferior to Grimwades, and prices are somewhat lower.  M.R. Hadida Fine Bone China Ltd. Bought the company in the 1980s.

Another factory turning out great quantities of chintz was Elijah Cotton's Lord Nelson ware. The firm Elijah Cotton Ltd. operated at the Nelson Pottery in Hanley from 1889, making mostly kitchen and hospital ware. Their chintz earthenware is chunky in shape and poorly decorated. To avoid having to hire skilled decorators, they purposely didn’t decorate the spouts and handles of their teapots and jugs. Black Beauty and Green Tulip are their most popular patterns.

Today’s collectors include tea and coffee pots, whole tea sets, bud vases, and serving pieces in their collections. Some focus their collections on a single pattern while others mix and match designs. Still others collect only tea cups in as many patterns as possible.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Are All Cast-Iron Toys Alike?

QUESTION: I’ve recently become interested in collecting cast-iron toys. But there seem to be so many new ones out there, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the new and the old. Can you give me some pointers on what to look for? I believe it would be easy to get ripped off when buying toys for my new collection.

ANSWER: You have to be very careful when buying cast-iron toys. Even knowledgeable dealers often can’t tell the difference between new ones and old ones. And if you’re buying them at auction sites online, you need to know a few things to prevent yourself from getting ripped off.

Cast iron was the 19th-century equivalent of today's plastics—it was cheap, could be made in almost any shape, and identical pieces could be mass-produced in molds. Unfortunately, those reasons are why so many toys get reproduced in cast iron. Although manufacturers produce new cast iron toys in the same way as originals, there are certain differences between originals and reproductions.

Foundries make most cast-iron toys using a method called sand casting which begins with a full-sized, three-dimensional model or master pattern which the foundry worker pushes into the sand to make an impression. Some foundry workers place the master pattern in a wooden box, or casting frame, then pack fine sand, called casting sand, around the pattern. Each mold requires two frames—one frame for the top half of the mold and another for the bottom. Most makers use brass or bronze masters for toy molds for better detail and longer life.
The worker locks the casting frame halves together, then pours molten iron into the mold. The iron runs into the hollow impression and forms a copy of the master pattern. After cooling, he separates the frames and removes the cast piece for finishing. Most foundries use sand molds only once since the impression deteriorates when the worker pours iron into it. However, some can be used several times. The number of times a mold can be used depends on the skill of the worker, the complexity of the master pattern, and the level of quality acceptable in the finished casting.
Two other basic sand-casting terms—runner and gate—can help determine when the casting occurred by the marks they leave. A runner is a channel running through the mold which feeds molten metal into the individual castings. The gate is the point where the runner castings branch off into the casting.

The casting sand also allows for several important differences between new and old cast iron toys. Casting sand used in original molds was generally finer than the casting sand used today. This means that old cast iron almost always has a smoother surface than new castings made with coarser sand. The surface of old cast iron both looks smooth and feels smooth to the touch—something that’s impossible to tell when purchasing cast-iron toys online. New cast iron usually has small prickly bumps that rise above the surface and holes or pits that go below the surface. The rough texture is the most obvious on unpainted surfaces, such as the inside or underside of toys.

A second major difference caused by the casting sand is the amount of detail in new and old toys. The finer the sand, the tighter it could be packed around the master pattern, which transferred more and smaller details to the mold. Old castings almost always have sharper lines and more detail while newer ones are less sharp, blurred, and lack the fine details found in old pieces cast with finer sand.

Makers of reproductions, on the other hand, use actual antique toys as master patterns or copies of original toys or copies of copies. Cast iron shrinks 3/32  to 1/8 of an inch per foot between mold and casting. This means each time a maker copies a piece a certain amount of distortion occurs which results in loss of detail. Even if the foundry worker takes apart an older piece and uses it as a pattern, the reproduction will be smaller than the original due to normal shrinkage.

Another difference between old and new cast iron toys is the amount of hand finishing. Almost all old pieces had at least some hand finishing, while most reproductions have none. Evidence of this occurs in matching halves of original cast iron toys which makers fitted together by hand filing or at least had the edges tumbled smooth in a machine: This extra attention to fit produced a tight seam in original cast iron toys.

On the other hand, the seams in new cast iron are often loose, with 1/8-inch gaps or more. Worker’s perform what little finishing they do on reproductions with modern high-speed production tools, which leave obvious grinding marks. Whenever these marks appear, especially if they’re bright and shiny with no patina, it pretty much guarantees the piece is a reproduction.

The way decorators painted old and new toys is another indication of age. They used fairly heavy oil-based enamel paint on older ones and much thinner paint, usually a water-based acrylic, on newer ones. Also, they usually dipped the older cast-iron toys, rather than used a brush to apply the paint. Today, decorators use air-powered spray guns to speed production.

The use of thicker paint and the heavier coatings of paint produced by dipping produces a distinctive wear pattern in original painted cast iron toys. Dipping also leaves paint on surfaces that are hard to reach with a spray gun, such as inside surfaces, hidden angles, and along the edges where seams meet. Toy banks, for example, usually show paint on both inner and outer edges of the coin slot. Likewise, old paint around a coin slot should show the typical ragged paint chips which would occur with normal wear.

New, thin paint on reproductions doesn’t chip even if deliberately gouged.  Most chips in old paint also show different layers of rusty brown or black which appear in the order the decorator applied them.

Even unpainted, old cast iron appears a different color than new cast iron. Old iron usually looks dark brown or even black, while new cast iron is typically gray or a dirty silver color.