Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Leave it to the Romans

QUESTION: My father has been trying to find out information about an old wooden armchair that he has that bears a label that reads “Hartwig &Kemper, Baltimore.” He could use some assistance on what it exactly is and the manufacturer. Could you possibly give us some information about this chair?

ANSWER: Your chair is what’s known as a Roman chair and dates from around 1870 to 1880. It’s done in the Victorian Neoclassical Revival style, a substyle of Renaissance Revival. But the origins of this chair go far back in time.

It’s ancient ancestor was the curule chair or sella curulis, from the Latin currus, meaning chariot. In the Roman Empire, only the highest government dignitaries, from the Emperor on down, were entitled to sit on it. It began as a folding campstool with curved legs. Ordinarily made of ivory, with or without arms, it became a seat of judgment. Subsequently it became a sign of office of all higher “curule” magistrates, or officials. According to Livy the curule seat, like the Roman toga, originated in Etruria.

Although often of luxurious construction, the curule chair was meant to be uncomfortable to sit on for long periods, since the Roman public expected their officials to carry out their duties in an efficient and timely manner. Also, its uncomfortability showed that the office held by the magistrate was only temporary, so he shouldn’t get too comfortable.

During the 15th century, both the Italians and the Spanish made chairs with cross-framed legs, joined by wooden stretchers that rested on the floor. A wooden back made the chair more rigid. Dealers in antiquities in the 19th-century called them "Savonarola Chairs." 

By the 1860s, the original curule chair form changed once again. Although some chair makers continued to use the cross-legged design, others modified it so that the legs splayed outward from a rectangular seat while the back had upright spindles and low-relief carving.

Hartwig & Kemper was a well-known furniture manufacturing company in Baltimore, with an office and salesroom at 316-318 W. Pratt Street and a factory at 309-331 W. King Street. The company also had numerous warehouses in the city and stocked a wide variety of furniture, especially chairs and tables, most of which they made of golden oak. Their 1904-05 catalog featured over 300 different pieces of furniture, mostly chairs, settees, couches, and tables. But they were mostly known for their chairs, which they produced in every style and type imaginable.

Your chair, however, was an earlier model made of tiger oak, a variation of golden oak that was dark-stained to look like mahogany. It features the stylized heads of two lions, with their mouths wide open to facilitate lifting the chair, on the top of the back. Your chair is called an elbow chair, presumably because a person could rest their elbows on the arms.

Furniture manufacturers like Hartwig and Kemper interpreted the prevailing furniture styles following the Civil War in homely, machine-made versions as well as more luxurious models.

Victorian furniture offered a mix of styles, almost all revivals of former styles. The Renaissance Revival style, one of four major Victorian revival styles, included such substyles as neoclassic Roman and Greek Revival. The word Renaissance in this case covered just about everything. The result was a stylized mix of many ancient and classic styles.

The end of the Civil War saw an immense trade in relatively inexpensive furniture to meet the demand of the market. Steam-powered machines simplified the manufacture of inexpensive furniture for the mass market. Furniture produced had simple lines, relatively flat surfaces, and a minimum of detailed carving.

Although factories in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania produced the greatest amount of furniture of all types. All made stock-in-trade furniture for the mass market. Golden or “antique” oak was the wood of choice. Some furniture companies just made chairs—straight-back chairs, dining chairs, rocking chairs.

Equipment they used was efficient enough that one reviewer said they could almost throw whole trees into the hopper and grind out chairs ready for use. However, early machines didn’t do such a great job with the finishing work. Any chairs with even a little carving had to be hand finished, a job entrusted to craftsmen brought from Europe. Sometimes, factory owners would use women and children to cover chair seats for very low wages.

The buying public at the time seriously considered price as well as style and comfort. By the end of the 1860s, Hartwig and Kemper were turning out large quantities of furniture, especially chairs.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Deck the Halls Victorian Style

QUESTION: I see a lot of references to the nostalgia of an old-fashioned Victorian Christmas. Just how great were Christmas celebrations back then and what did they do?

ANSWER: While what you read and see on T.V. about how the Victorians celebrated Christmas is often exaggerated, many of the holiday traditions we still practice today began back then.
With luck,  there was snow. Twinkling, sparkling, clean, white, heart-warming old-fashioned snow. Nothing reminds us of an old-fashioned Christmas like snow. Just enough to coat the brick sidewalks, to dust the backs of the horses, to lightly stick to the long velvet gowns and the top hats, to put a glow around the Christmas tree lights. For this was the essence of a Victorian  Christmas. During most years, many northern locations had many more than a dusting.

During the Victorian era from 1837 to 1901, people celebrated  Christmas with special family gatherings, feasting, embellishing the home with decorations, and gift giving in increasing abundance. Victorians loved to decorate for the holidays. A giant fir tree, adorned with dried hydrangeas in shades of rose and pale green, lacy fans, white silk roses—a symbol of the Virgin Mary—German glass balls, and delicate handmade paper ornaments, held  together with lace garland, woven with ribbon and strung fresh cranberries, stood in the parlor. Many people believe that the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise tree, a fir hung with red apples and wafers, representing the host, which represented the Garden of Eden in a medieval miracle play about Adam and Eve performed on December 24.

Arrangements of fresh greens and holly, a pagan custom adapted by Christians, decorated Victorian homes. The color green came to symbolize the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ. Legend says that Jesus' crown of thorns was plaited from holly. It's said that, before the crucifixion, the berries of the holly were white, but afterward, they turned crimson, like drops of blood.

Greens hung from chandeliers. Pine roping, wrapped with  pearls and pink moire taffeta bows, draped the grand staircase.  Perhaps a small wooden tree covered with prisms stood on a marble-top  table. Another, covered in intricate origami birds, might have stood on a hall table. The crowning touch was a large welcoming wreath that hung on the vestibule door flanked by alabaster urns filled with gold tinged twisted willow and red poinsettias. But the most important part of the Victorian celebration was the family's creche, which featured carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child set in a miniature village, complete with meadows, fences, windmills and ponds. flanked by poinsettias. Many believe St. Francis of Assisi created the first creche using live animals in 1223.

Gift giving played an important role in Victorian celebrations. The lady of the house would smile as she peeled back the tissue covering a heavily embossed sterling silver dresser set or opened a box in which a pair of gold and amethyst earrings nestled. On the more practical side, she might have received a steel chatelaine, a chain which clipped to the waist and held keys, a pencil, and a button hook. For a special evening out, she might have been given  a dress cape of black silk velvet trimmed with jet beads and ostrich feathers.

Children often received books, considered appropriate for their educational or moral value. Or perhaps a doll's china tea service and sewing equipment for the girls, and miniature tools for the boys to help prepare them for adulthood. An extra special gift for the whole family might have been a stereopticon viewer with slides of exotic places.

Men weren't left out. To go walking, a man might receive a gold-tipped cane, or a brass bicycle lamp, reflecting the favorite pastimes of Victorian gentlemen. Or he might receive a fine ivory meerschaum pipe or a bowler hat by Stetson.

All of the above was fine and dandy for wealthy Victorians, but for the majority of people who worked long hours for subsistence wages—not unlike Bob Cratchet in Charles Dickens’ beloved story “A Christmas Carol”—life was a daily drudgery and Christmas, for many, was just another day of the year, albeit one they had off.   

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Keepsakes, Not Throwaways

QUESTION: Sometime ago I purchased a box of colorful decorative holiday cutouts and imprints. Many of the designs feature St. Nicholas and have a definite British Victorian look to them. What were these called and what were they used for? 

ANSWER: Believe it or not, the cutouts you purchased are known as scraps. While the word “scraps” has now come to mean parts that are left over, such as scraps of wood, fabric, and paper, back in the 19th century it meant something quite different.

The Victorians loved decoration—the more the better. They also were very romantic and loved sentimentality and keepsakes. This led to a phenomenon popularly known as scraps.

Also called die cuts or chromos, scraps were small, colorful, embossed paper images that were sold in sheets by stationers and booksellers and used in various decorative, entertainment, and educational applications. Their diverse subject matter included flowers, trees, fruits, birds, animals, pets, ladies and gents, children, historical people and events, angels, transportation themes, and occupational motifs.

People pasted them into albums and used them to make greeting cards and decorated boxes. They also pasted them on folding screens and pieces of furniture. Scraps served as extra learning materials to teach young children the alphabet, counting, natural history, and geography, as well as teaching tools for learning prayers and Bible stories and in the enjoyment of nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

The first scraps originated in German bakers' shops as decoration for biscuits and cakes and for fastening on wrapped sweets. The earliest ones were printed in uncut sheets in black and white, then hand colored. Scraps appeared in Britain in the 1850s and soon became popular as decorative additions to Christmas cards. They were also used to illustrate historical as well as events of the time.

By the mid-1800's, chromolithography had been invented. This made a wide variety of  colored scraps available to an ever-increasing market. But chromolithography required a lengthy process. Each color had to be applied separately and needed to dry before the next color could be applied. However, the process made up to 20 printed colors possible. Printers made Victorian and Edwardian scraps in sheets that contained small chromolithographs designed to be cut out in the same manner as the first penny postage stamps. After printing and before embossing, they coated the sheets with a gelatin and gum layer that resulted in a glossy appearance and helped the paper stretch without cracking the print. Steel cutters, powered by foot treadles, punched out excess paper and left clean, sharp edges. Thin paper sheets, imprinted with manufacturers’ trademarks and called "ladders," held the cut sheets together.

The elaborate use of stamping can often be seen in uncut scrap sheets. Optimum use of space, required minimal cutting and lead to the intricate and ingenious design of the cutting die.

Early in the 20th century, young ladies and children of the middle and upper classes began keeping scrapbooks that contained collections of commercially produced scraps. They organized them thematically with a single subject for the entire book or with several themes arranged by section. Sometimes, they added lines of poetry, personal notations, inscriptions by family and friends, and drawings.

Stationery stores sold scrapbooks with tooled leather covers, elaborately embossed bindings, engraved clasps, and brass locks. Some scrapbooks contained printed decorations on their pages, as well as centered oval, circular or square sections into which people could paste items. Other albums held printed pages with theme-setting embossed decoration-like flowers or birds. Many scraps keepers made their own albums by pasting scraps over catalog and magazine pages.

Scraps production continued through the 1920's, but changes in popular taste, the effects of World War I, and the economic limitations of the Great Depression all contributed to their decline. Over time, newspaper and magazine pictures supplanted scraps as the "cutouts" of choice.

Today, sheets of uncut Victorian scraps and single scraps of good design, color, and condition are prized by ephemera collectors. Die cuts by celebrated manufacturers like Raphael Tuck and Sons, which produced a series of scraps to commemorate Queen Victoria's 50th jubilee in 1887, are especially prized by collectors. Values vary from $5 for common scraps up to $50 for unusual and sought-after images.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Neither Royal nor Legal

QUESTION: I’m interested in buying a court cabinet which has lovely carvings and was bought as an antique, but the owner says it’s made of “pitch pine.” I've Googled this and have discovered it's a North American conifer. I've seen an almost identical cabinet advertised as being from the time of Henry II. It’s made from walnut and has slightly more detailed carvings, although the hardware looks identical. I wondered whether the pitch pine cabinet might be a later copy, perhaps still antique, but maybe a Victorian reproduction. The cabinets started out at the same price, but the pitch pine one has been discounted and is now about two-thirds the cost of the walnut one. Is the walnut one more valuable simply because of the quality of the timber?

ANSWER: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. So let’s take them one at a time. Before we start, it’s important to clarify just what a court cabinet is.

According to its antique definition, a court cabinet, more commonly referred to as a court cupboard, is an English sideboard that was fashionable from 1550 to 1675, that has three open tiers, the middle of which sometimes has a small closed cabinet with oblique sides. The word "court" is the French word for "short" and has nothing to do with the royal household.

People used these cupboards to display pewter and silver items. In Elizabethan and Jacobean households, the court cupboard was one of the three most important pieces of furniture—the others were the tester bed and the great chair. It usually sat on the dias, the highest area of the hall, which was the main room in a Tudor house. As with later sideboards, they also held cups and glasses, spoons (forks weren’t used back then), a sugar box, and containers for vinegar, oil, and mustard.

Besides holding items used in serving and eating meals, the court cupboard served as a display cabinet for the owner’s wealth. Back then there weren’t any banks or stock exchanges, so wealthy persons put their money into pewter, silver, and gold vessels. Not only did these plates and cups make their wealth usable and socially visible, they could be reconverted into coins should the need arise.

The two or three open shelves of the court cupboard were for the display of cups. Owners of these early cupboards often covered the shelves with a “cupboard cloth” to enhance the display of their valuable wares. The court cupboard showed off the prosperity and status of the owner of the house. It’s no wonder that they were such impressive and beautifully decorated pieces of furniture.

There were two forms of court cupboard—one in which the shelves were open, the other with one shelf, usually the upper, enclosed. Decorative arts professionals sometimes call the latter one a “standing livery cupboard,” believing that the owner used the enclosed portion to store and serve food and drink, also formerly known as "livery." The enclosed portion is usually set back a few inches from the front, and may be either straight-fronted or canted, in which case the central door is parallel to the front, and the two sides slant backwards. The early canted cupboards retain the carved supports in their front corners, later ones replace them with a turned drop-finial hanging from the top corners.

Cabinetmakers decorated the cupboard’s front and door with carved motifs and figures, but sometimes to make them extra luxurious, they inlaid them with light-colored holly wood and darker, almost black, bog oak in geometric, architectural or floral designs.

When the Pilgrims came to America in the first half of the 17th century, court cupboard were all the rage back home. After much struggling, they finally were able to sustain a colony on the shores of what’s today Cape Cod. But it wasn’t until a more robust colony came into being on the site of present-day Boston that people turned to local cabinetmakers for their furniture needs. This is where the pitch pine comes in.

Pitch pine can be found along the northeast coast of the United States from Maine to New Jersey, including all of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and inland across Pennsylvania to southern Ohio, and south through western Maryland, all of West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

New England cabinetmakers used better woods, such as walnut, for their more expensive pieces. Court cupboards appeared in both types of wood, often with exactly the same carvings. The difference was that they often painted the pine cupboards in red and black to make them look better than they were.

The two court cupboards in question, however, are not as old as you might think. Both are what’s known as Jacobean or Tudor Revival pieces, dating from the last quarter of the 19th century. They’re a prime example of the use of the same carving style and design that cabinetmakers employed in order to produce pieces at different prices. And while they look identical, the walnut one will appreciate in value more than the pine one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Nesting Mothers

QUESTION: My mother has a substantial collection of what I call “Nesting Mothers.” These are the little Russian nesting dolls that often appear at flea markets. One day, this collection will be mine, so I’d like to know more about them. When and where did they originate? Are they valuable? And are there different kinds?

ANSWER: Those are all good questions. First, the correct name for your mom’s Russian nesting dolls is Matryoshka dolls, also sometimes referred to as Matreshka dolls. And while they’re commonly associated with Russia, they didn’t originate there.

A professional artist and folk crafts painter named Sergei Malyutin, who worked on the Abramtsevo estate of Savva I. Mamontov, made the first sketches of a nesting doll based on one his wife brought home from a visit to Honshu, Japan, in the latter part of the 19th century. However, the Japanese say that it was a Russian monk who first brought the idea of making nesting dolls to Japan. Whatever the case, Russian craftsmen liked the idea, and Matryoshka dolls came into being.

The first dolls looked a bit different than the ones made today. Malyutin intended his doll to depict a round-faced peasant girl with beaming eyes. He dressed her in a sarafan—a floor-length traditional Russian peasant jumper dress held up by two straps—and gave her carefully styled slicked-down hair largely hidden under a colorful babushka or bandanna. He placed other figures, either male or female, each smaller then the one before, inside the largest doll, dressing them in kosovorotkas, or Russian blouses fastened on one side, shirts, poddyovkas, or men’s long-waisted coats, and aprons. He planned to have the smallest, innermost doll, traditionally a baby, turned from a single piece of wood. But it was Vasily Zvyozdochkin who made the first doll set in Moscow towards the end of 1890 and made the Matryoshka doll a reality.

Mamontov's wife presented the dolls at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, where they won a bronze medal. Soon after, craftsmen in several other Russian towns began making them and shipping them around the world.

So where did the name for these dolls come from? At the end of 19th century, Matrena was one of the popular female names in Russia. Derived from the Latin root matrena, it means, "mother," “respected lady," or "mother of the family." Placing one figure inside another was also a fitting symbol of fertility and perpetuation. People also refer to these dolls as "babushka dolls", "babushka" meaning "grandmother" or "elderly woman" and also the name of the bandana worn by peasant women at the time.

Matryoshka dolls aren’t easy to make. It requires a lot of skill. Many a craftsman has given up after trying to create one. In the beginning, those who did know how to fashion these dolls kept the process a secret. 

First it’s important to choose the proper type of wood. Because of its softness, lime wood is generally chosen, less often alder or birch. It’s important to cut the wood at the right time, when it’s neither too dry nor too dump. Only an expert can determine when it's just right. Each piece of wood goes through as many as 15 separate operations. The craftsman creates the smallest doll in the series—the one that cannot be taken apart—first.

Once the smallest doll has been made, the craftsman starts on the next figure into which that first doll will fit. He cuts a piece of wood to the necessary height and then cuts it in half to form a top and bottom section. He works on the bottom section of the doll first, removing the wood from the inside of both sections of the second doll so that the smaller doll will fit snugly inside. A skilled craftsman, by the way, doesn’t bother to make measurements but relies solely on experience. Afterwards, he repeats the process, making a slightly larger doll into which the previous two will fit.

When the craftsman finishes each doll, he covers it with starchy glue that fills in any hollow areas in its surface. Then he polishes the dolls to a smooth finish to enable the painter to spread the paint evenly. After fashioning and finishing the wooden dolls, the craftsman hands it on to a painter who then gives the dolls their inimitable style.

The number of dolls held one inside the other varies from 2 to 60. There’s no limit to the size of these dolls. Some made today are quite large and hold many others within.

Much of the artistry is in the painting of each doll, which can be very elaborate. The dolls often follow a theme which may vary, from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders. Originally, doll makers used themes drawn from tradition or fairy tale characters, in keeping with the craft tradition, but since the 20th century, they have embraced a larger range, including flowers, churches, icons, folk tales, family themes, religious subjects, and even Soviet and American political leaders.

The craft of making Matryoshka dolls gradually spread from Moscow to other cities and towns, including Semenov, Polkhovskiy Maidan, Vyatka, and Tver'. Each locality developed its own style and form of decoration.

As with other crafts, the Russian Government under Communism strictly controlled doll making and selling. But political changes at the end of the 1980s gave artisans new possibilities and freedoms. They could now make their dolls without fear.

A painter named Sikorsky was one of the first whose dolls became popular with the public. His dolls bring the highest prices, with individual sets costing as much as $3,000. His access stimulated other artists, and since then, Matryoshka doll making has been on the rise. 

For more information on Matryroshka dolls, go to Nesting Dolls.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Stretched for Beauty

QUESTION: I recently purchased a beautiful plate at an antique show. The dealer said it’s stretched glass, but I don’t see how that’s possible since it’s a round plate. Can you tell me why my plate is called ‘stretched” glass?

ANSWER: Ever since it’s inception, the term stretch(not stretched) has confused people. It appears mistakenly on price tags in antique shops and in online descriptions. Because of the word “stretch,” People imagine a piece from the 1950s or 1960s that has been stretched to make it taller or wider, but stretch glass is entirely different.

Some people believe stretch glass is swung back and forth on a rod to make it stretch outward. Or, they think it looks like a strange type of Carnival or art glass, so it must be that. Neither is correct. Most of the time, people's first reaction is how beautiful the glass is, but they don't know anything about it.

On eBay there are over 28,000 listing for stretch glass and most are far from it. To collectors, stretch glass is iridescent stretch glass. It differentiates the glass from the common mistake of being considered swung glass. Forty to 50 percent of people think swung vases are stretch glass.

Created by several American glass factories from 1916 to the early 1930s, iridescent stretch glass is a pressed or blown molded glass. It’s shaped and formed—pressed or blown into molds—reheated and then sprayed with a metallic salt or dope, a procedure called  doping, while the piece is still hot. The glass blower then reheats the piece and this is when the stretch marks occur. The glass expands faster where the dope blower applied the dope, which causes a crackled, web-like appearance on the glass. Further shaping emphasizes these stretch marks. Some blowers often shape or "work" the glass a lot which emphasizes the stretch marks in the iridescence while others don’t work their pieces as much, resulting in finer stretch marks and are only satiny.

Collectors consider true carnival, stretch, and art glass with a shiny iridescence doped ware. The difference between them is when the glass blower applies the metallic salts to the glass. While glass blowers shape and form Carnival glass first and then dope it  to create a shimmering to slightly satin iridescent surface, they spray stretch glass  while the glass is molten hot, then reheat and reshape it to make the stretch marks. Another difference is that Carnival glass has a distinctive pattern in the glass mold, such as grapes, butterflies, or geometrical patterns on the inside, outside or on both sides of the glass. Stretch glass has little or no pattern and is very plain.

Confusion seems to set in when people are searching for stretch glass, especially since art glass also has both iridescence and stretch effects. Although art glass is from the same period as stretch glass, the chemicals in the glass make the difference. Additional stretch effects may be from doping the pieces and further shaping. Art glass is also much thinner and more delicate than stretch glass.

People also confuse freeform art glass, produced from the 1950s to the present and commonly posted on eBay, with stretch glass.

Companies that produced stretch glass included Central Glass Works of Wheeling, West Virginia, Diamond Glass-Ware Company of Indiana, Pennsylvania, Jeanette Glass Company of Jeanette, Pennsylvania, Vineland Flint of Vineland, New Jersy, and United States Glass Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The true difference between the stretch glass that different manufacturers produced was the unique colors. Tangerine is a popular color among collectors, along with red and ruby, which each cost more because of their popularity. Wisteria, a purple-colored glass is also popular. Opaque colors of stretch iridescent glass are rare and can be pricey.

The most common stretch glass color that can be found is celeste blue, as well as the topaz and pink. Blue was the  dominant color though, along with topaz, both of which were good selling items when they first appeared. Topaz was a good seller in the 1910s and 1920s because not everyone had electricity. This color catches the light and reflects it very well. There’s also a lot of Florentine green stretch glass out there as well and crystal stretch glass, which has a frosty white iridescence. With so many stretch colors out there including aquamarine, blue smoke, coral, custard, pink and white luster, beginning collectors are sure to find a favorite of their own.

Iridescent stretch glass not only comes in a variety of colors, but also a range of prices. Pieces that once sold for 25 cents to $1 can now be picked for $25 to $50, and even $10 to $15 for more common pieces.

High-end pieces, such as a Fenton No. 604 punch on a red stand, can sell into the thousands. One sold on eBay for $4,200. While the price may seem high, anyone can acquire a decent collection of stretch glass if they buy pieces in the $25 to $100 range.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Better to See You With My Dear

QUESTION: While recently going through some boxes in my attic, I discovered a pair of old spectacles that seem to be in rather good condition. Are these collectible?

ANSWER: While most people might just give these away or sell them at a yard sale, you should definitely hang on to these, as they’re very collectible.

Lots of people wear eyeglasses. With the advent of contact lenses, some don’t even show it. But these devices, first invented to magnify text, have become as ubiquitous as cell phones in today’s society.

Church sales and thrift shops often get plastic bags filled with old eye glasses, as people either get new ones or contact lenses. Today, eye glasses are not only a seeing aid but also a fashion accessory. And, what about the spectacles you found in an old family trunk and sold at your last yard sale? Believe it or not, just like other out-of-fashion accessories, those glasses are collectible.

Spectacles have been around since the late Middle Ages when wealthy people in Italy and China wore them. Another early form of sunglasses were goggles, first created by the Eskimos to protect their eyes from snow glare.

The use of eyeglasses grew by the 18th century as their technology improved. They became fashionable when famous Americans began wearing them. Everybody is familiar with the paintings of Benjamin Franklin wearing the bifocals that he invented. Franklin created the first bifocals in the 1760's while living in London.

Thomas Jefferson created the first oblong lenses for his reading glasses to increase his field of vision. Before that glass lenses were round or oval. Later, President Theodore Roosevelt started a fashion trend when he first wore pince-nez glasses—those held on a person’s face by a spring on the nose.

While women didn't wear glasses in public in 18th century America, one woman advertised in 1753, that she “grinds all sorts of Optic Glasses to the greatest perfection." Known in her ad only as "the widow Balthasar Sommer on Pot Baker's Hill,'' she became the earliest recorded American eye glasses maker. But it wasn’t until after the American Revolution that people recorded eye glasses as made in America.

By the early 19th century, glasses adjusted over the ears to fit the entire family. A device called a “Temple" slid back and forth. As with earlier versions, their sole purpose was to magnify.

Eye glass makers used gold and silver for early frames, mostly because they were the most common workable metals available. So a pair of glasses wasn’t cheap. If you think you have old ones, check the hallmark to learn date, country and maker.

Don't pass up examples in brass or steel. They could be 18th or 19th century. In this plastic age, look for authentic tortoise shell frames. Don't limit yourself to 19th and early  20th-century glasses. Remember, they’ve always been made in the fashion of their day.

The 1970's were a great time for unique styles. An example would be the tinted sunglasses designed by artist Peter Max, along with his Pop Art design cases. And don’t forget the outsize sunglasses in the Jackie Kennedy Onassis style. Celebrity styles with funky frame, like the ones worn by Elton John and John Lennon’s small,   round, black-rimmed ones, also debuted in the 1970's. Never mind that the frames are plastic. Like other 1970's objects, they’re also collectible.

If you wish to collect eye wear and related objects, you can build a collection of not only pairs of eyeglasses showing a variety of frames and clear and tinted lenses, but also  opticians' trade signs, related documents, and paintings of people wearing glasses. In most cases, you’ll find many eye glasses for sale for a song at flea markets, church and garage sales.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tear and Paste

QUESTION: I just purchased a beautiful antique papier-mâché tray at a large antique show. I’ve never seen anything like it before. In fact, I never knew that furnishings and accessories were made of papier-mâché. I still remember making things out of papier-mâché as a kid in school. Is this the same process? If so, it must have taken a long time to make this tray. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: Yes, for nearly 100 years papier-mâché furnishings and accessories were all the rage. And, no, the process is a bit different from the sculptures you made in art class when you were a kid.

People don’t often think of papier-mâché when they think of furniture and accessories. But, in fact, it was very popular, especially at the beginning of the 19th century. Papier-mâché is quintessentially Victorian.

Its origins date back to 17th-century England when craftsmen first used a compound of plaster mixed with organic matter such as straw, bark, or nettles to create molded architectural ornaments. The idea was for the frugal decorator to use these prefabricated cornices and rosettes instead of hiring a plaster craftsman.

By the early 18th century, cabinetmakers began using papier-mâché to decorate the frames of looking glasses, chairs, tables. But its main application remained architectural.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century, manufacturers began turning out a range of accessories. Trays were popular through the early decades of the 19th century,  Makers produced tea trays, in particular, in great numbers, in response to the spread of tea drinking among the English middle class.

From the beginning, makers japanned papier-mâché housewares by covering them with a hard varnish imitation of Asian lacquer. At first, they kept the decoration simple, with a black or red ground embellished with a guilt border. But in the 1790's they covered the entire surface. Not surprisingly, Chinese scenes were popular. A typical example of this fanciful Oriental taste are the gilt and black trays featuring a painting of a Chinese couple standing by a pagoda. Trays like this have sold for over $6000.

Collectors highly value Regency papier-mâché. One of the finest pieces to come on the market in recent years was a Chinoiserie tray that sold at auction for $24,000. However, this tray didn’t have the black faux-lacquer ground, but instead it had a brightly painted landscape—a rocky topography shaded by willow trees, pagoda-like structures, and men wearing pointy hats. In this case, the artist went overboard with cliches of Oriental life. This decoration form is attributed to Henry Clay, who was the most prominent papier-mâché manufacturer at the time.

Clay promoted papier-mâché as a new material on which to paint. Another tray bearing Clay’s stamp had an overall floral design on a black ground. The lush realism of this tray showed the high level of skill of the industry’s painters. It sold for nearly $3500.
Clay was also a pioneer in manufacturing papier-mâché furniture.  He undertook a series of experiments in durability that resulted in a much stronger material. His experiments enabled papier-mache to be sewn and dovetailed, just like wood.

The firm of Jennens and Bettridge, which took over Clays business in 1816, continued to find new uses for papier-mâché. They expanded the traditional repertoire of salvers and snuff boxes to include the whole suites of chairs, and even piano casings.  Even though papier-mâché was sturdy, manufacturers still thought it prudent to build the seating furniture around a wooden frame.

Jennens and Bettridge developed the use of mother-of-pearl in the decoration of papier-mâché.  Since they patented their technique in 1825, the date makes a useful dividing line in trying to date.

It can be a challenge to find papier-mâché pieces in good condition. But they’re easy to recognize, with their japanned surface and painted floral motifs, highlighted by mother-of-pearl inlay. Though a piece may appear in a high-end antique shop from time to time, collectors find most at middle to high-end antique shows.

Monday, September 21, 2015

An Apple a Day

QUESTION: I was cleaning out my father’s attic and discovered an old Apple computer, an Apple II to be exact.  It’s hard to imagine that this little device was at the forefront of computers of its day. How collectible are early computers and how collectible is this Apple II?

ANSWER: The answer to both your questions is simple—very. The Apple II was the granddaddy of home computers. It looked more like a closed typewriter with its built-in keyboard, but it packed a lot of punch for its day.

Steve Wozniak, who designed the Apple I with limited funds, was able to make some definitive and much improved changes in the Apple II. Appearing for the first time at the  first West Coast Computer Faire on April 16 and 17, 1977, it was an instant sensation.

The main difference internally was a completely redesigned TV interface, which held the display in memory and could display it on a TV via an NTSC cable. Not only useful for simple text display, the Apple II included graphics, and, eventually, color. Steve Jobs, Wozniak’s friend and partner, meanwhile wanted an improved case and keyboard, with the idea that the machine should be complete and ready to run out of the box.

But building the Apple II was financially challenging. Jobs began looking for funds. However, banks were reluctant to lend him money—the idea of a computer for ordinary people seemed absurd at the time. He eventually found Mark Markkula, who co-signed a loan of $250,000. Jobs, Wozniak, and Markkula formed Apple Computer on April 1, 1976. They chose the Apple name because they wanted to beat Atari, and Apple came before Atari in the alphabet and this in the phone book.

With its new case and graphics, the Apple II became one of the 1977 Trinity of computers—along with the Tandy Corporation’s (Radio Shack) TRS-80 and the Commodore PET—credited with establishing the home computer market. Apple Computer sold 5-6 million Apple II’s by 1993.

In terms of ease of use, features, and expandability, the Apple II was a major technological advancement over its predecessor, the Apple I, a bare-bones motherboard computer for hobbyists. First sold on June 10, 1977, the Apple II became one of the longest running mass-produced home computer series, with models in production for just under 17 years. Among the first successful personal computers, it put Apple Computers on the map.

Jobs and Wozniak aggressively marketed the Apple II through volume discounts and manufacturing arrangements to educational institutions which made it the first computer to be used in American secondary schools, displacing the early leader, the Commodore PET. The effort to develop educational and business software for the Apple II made the computer especially popular with business users and families.

To load and save programs and data, the Apple II used audio cassette tapes. In 1978, Wozniak implemented a Disk Operating System or DOS, which he commissioned from the Shepardson Company. The final and most popular version of this software was Apple DOS 3.3. Some commercial Apple II software booted directly and didn’t use standard DOS formats. This discouraged copying or modifying of the software on the disks and improved loading speed.

By 1992, the Apple II series of computers had 16-bit processing capabilities, a mouse-driven Graphical User Interface (GUI for short), and graphics and sound capabilities far beyond the original created in 1977.

Wozniak designed the Apple II to look more like a home appliance than a piece of electronic equipment. The lid lifted off the beige plastic case without the use of tools, allowing access to the computer's internal workings, including the motherboard with eight expansion slots, and an array of random access memory (RAM) sockets that could hold up to 48 kilobytes worth of memory chips.

The Apple II eventually had color and high-resolution graphics modes, sound capabilities and one of two built-in BASIC programming languages, plus a microprocessor running at 1 MHz, 4 KB of RAM—today’s computers run at 800+ Ghz with RAM at 8 gigabytes or higher. Jobs and Wozniak targeted the computer for  consumers rather than just hobbyists and engineers. Unlike other home microcomputers at the time, Apple sold it as a finished consumer appliance rather than as a kit.

To reflect the computer's color graphics capability, the Apple logo on the case sported rainbow stripes which remained a part of Apple's corporate logo until early 1998.

Wozniak eventually added an external 5¼-inch floppy disk drive, the Disk II, attached via a controller card that plugged into one of the Apple II's expansion slots, to replace cassettes for data storage and retrieval. Apple's Disk II became the first affordable floppy drive for personal computers.

Wozniak's open design and the Apple II's multiple expansion slots permitted a wide variety of third-party devices, including Apple II peripheral cards such as serial controllers, display controllers, memory boards, hard disks, networking components, and realtime clocks—all common on today’s computers.

The original retail price of the Apple II with 4 kilobytes of RAM was $1,298 and $2,638 with the maximum 48 kilobytes. Today, Apple II’s can be found on eBay selling for $300-400 in working condition.

While there’s a collector for just about any pre-1990 computer, any from the 1970s and earlier are hot. Though there’s a lot of computer related equipment and peripherals to  to collect from this era,  nothing beats the early Apple computers. Apple has staying power. They’re the last of the home-brewed companies that emerged out of the 1970s that are still in business.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Captured in Silhouette

QUESTION: I found this delightful little silhouette at a recent antique show. I’ve seen them in books but know nothing about them. What are the origins of silhouettes and how did people make them?

ANSWER:  Silhouettes were popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries before the invention of photography. Named after Etienne de Silhouette, Louis XV's controller-general of finances, known for his hobby of cutting profiles from black paper, they eventually turned into an art form.

But silhouettes actually date from classical Greece where they graced Greek and Etruscan pottery and ancient Egyptian frescoes. Their fame came much later when they re-emerged during the 17th century as the "poor man's portrait."

There was a real need for accurate and affordable likenesses of loved ones that didn’t require lengthy sittings and could be produced in duplicate. The solution was the silhouette. Neo-Classicism caught hold in the early 19th century, further cementing the popularity of the silhouette and giving it artistic prestige.

The process of making silhouette portraits was simple. Using the light of a candle, the maker threw the sitter's profile as a shadow against a sheet of paper and traced it with a pencil. He or she then transferred the outlined profile to a piece of black paper, then cut it out or transferred it to a white card, filled in with black ink and then applied it to a white board. Though simple to make, silhouettes weren’t limited to amateurs.

Professional silhouette-cutters, known as profilers, thrived, particularly in Europe where a distinctive and subtler style of silhouette portraiture evolved. Basic black British and American silhouettes had little adornment. Profilers from the Continent, particularly France, used colored and metallic inks to add highlights to the portraits and give them an illusion of being three-dimensional.

The golden age of the profiler occurred during the early 19th century when they achieved the same notoriety as painters.

By the 1830s, professional silhouette artists had abandoned free-hand techniques and started to employ devices such as specially designed "sitting" chairs, scaling tools, and the camera obscura in attempts to achieve accurate likenesses of their subjects. These mechanical aids enabled the operator to achieve almost photographic likenesses, but at the expense of artistry. Although most profilers signed their free-hand silhouettes, few of the later works produced using these mechanical techniques bear their maker's signature.

Pre-Victorian silhouettes concentrated on providing only a head and shoulders portrait. They have provided an accurate record of fashionable couture—hairstyles, wigs, ribbons, jewelry and laces. The style of silhouettes changed in the 1840s to include half and full-length portraits, making them even more useful for indicating what was in vogue for the Victorians. Silhouette portraits became so plentiful that they were exchanged much as a calling card would be used later in the 19th century.

By the mid-19th century the popularity of the silhouette had begun to decline. In an attempt to revive it, artists developed a variety of techniques to make them richer and more attractive, including the introduction of color, gilding and fancy backgrounds. But the silhouette's strength was in its simplicity. This fad, combined with the popularization of photography, helped to bring on the demise of the silhouette. The art form became nothing more than a fairground novelty where it has remained ever since.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mystery Solved

QUESTION: I bought this piece of furniture recently, and I'm not sure what it's called. It has drawers on each side and a closet in the middle. The piece is extremely heavy and stands about six feet tall. Can you help me, please?

  Your piece of furniture is commonly called a chifforobe, a combination of the French word “chiffonier” and the English word “wardrobe.” These pieces have been somewhat of a mystery because different groups of people have given them different names over the years.

These closet-like pieces of furniture originated in 1908 and became especially popular during the Art Deco Period in the United States from 1925-1935 or so. Your piece is a good example of high-style Art Deco, similar to French Art Deco. The drawer pulls on the bottom and the front feet are in the waterfall pattern. These pieces held a lot of clothes at a time when houses had very small bedroom closets.

A chifforobe combines a long space for hanging clothes with a chest of drawers. Typically the wardrobe section runs down one side of the piece, while the drawers occupy the other side.  It may have two enclosing doors or have the drawer fronts exposed and a separate door for the hanging space.

The 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue first advertised chifforobes as a "a modern invention, having been in use only a short time." Southerners seem to use the term more than anyone else. However, others use this piece of furniture but may call it an armoire or a wardrobe.

A wardrobe is a standing closet used for storing clothes. Many people argue that wardrobes are different in use and style of closets, but the French created to use as a closet. While the earliest wardrobe was a chest, it wasn’t until the homes of wealthy nobles became more luxurious that a separate room held their clothing. Builders filled this room with closets and lockers since drawers didn’t exist at the time. From these cupboards and lockers the modern wardrobe, with its hanging spaces, sliding shelves and drawers, eventually evolved.
Throughout the evolutionary changes in the form of the enclosure, it more or less retained its function as a place to store a noble’s apparel. Over time, the word “wardrobe” came to mean an independent storage place for preserving precious items belonging to the home’s wealthy owner. The modern wardrobe differs  from the historical one in its triple partitioning, with two linear compartments on either side with shelves as well as a middle space made up of hanging pegs and drawers, which came later. A clothes press, placed at the height of a person’s chest, enabled servants to lay clothing that they had just ironed on a pull-out tray.

In the beginning, cabinetmakers used oak to construct wardrobes, but later oak went out of use in favor of the more elegant walnut. They based the size on a wardrobe on the eight small men method.  A good sized double wardrobe would thus be able to hold eight small men.

In the 19th century the wardrobe began to develop into its modern form, with a hanging cupboard at each side, a press in the upper part of the central portion and drawers below. More often than not, cabinetmakers used mahogany for its construction. However, fine-grained, foreign woods became easier to obtain in quantity, and cabinetmakers used them to create elaborately and magnificently inlaid wardrobes.

While furniture designers in the 18th century often created luxurious wardrobes of highly-polished woods, the ultimate refinement occurred with the introduction of central doors, which had previously enclosed merely the upper part, were carried to the floor, covering the drawers as well as the sliding shelves, and were often fitted with mirrors.

As mass production of furniture became more common in the late 19th century, furniture manufacturers abandoned the refinements of early wardrobes in favor of simpler, if not downright plain decoration. By the 1920s, wardrobes appeared in cheaper woods so that they could be sold to the growing middle class of consumers. The term “chifforobe” became an everyday household word, especially to more blue-color people who could purchase one as part of a bedroom set when they got married. However, some manufacturers still made beautiful examples in the American Art Deco or Waterfall style.