Monday, February 23, 2015

Spin, Spin, Spin

QUESTION: Several years ago, I purchased a small spinning wheel at a local antique show. The dealer said it had been made small for use by a child. While that seems like a good way to teach a little girl how to spin, I’ve never seen one so small. It stands less than two feet tall. Also the wheel doesn’t look like the usual kind and sits in a vertical position under the spinning mechanism. What can you tell me about my spinning wheel? Was it for a child’s use or maybe made as a sales sample?

ANSWER: Your spinning wheel was neither made for a child’s use or as a sales sample. It’s called a parlor spinning wheel and is one of four types of wheels made in the 18th and early 19th centuries for use by women in the home.

Spinning has been a vital part of everyday life all over the world for thousands of years. The Western spinning wheel has been around since about the 14th century, thus there are as many style of wheels as there are people who make them. But there are only two basic ways to spin, and all styles of wheels are variations on one of the two.

The first way to spin is called "quill" or"spindle" spinning. The mechanism is a simple system of pulleys attached to the wheel. The pulleys cause a long, sharp, metal spike, or "quill," to turn. Fibers are spun off the tip of the quill and then manually wound back onto it.

The second, more modern, way to spin is with a "spinning assembly" which consists of a "flyer" and "bobbin." The flyer is a U-shaped piece of wood with hooks running along both sides and a hole, called the orifice, at the bottom. The spinning assembly allows the spun fiber to wind onto the bobbin automatically.

There are four styles of spinning wheels. The first is the wood wheel, which has no treadle or foot pedal to turn the wheel. The user must work with it while standing, walking backward to twist the fibers and then forward again to wind the spun yarn onto the quill or spindle. For this reason, people call the wool wheel the walking wheel or the high wheel or great wheel because it stands 4 to 6 feet tall.

The second style of spinning wheel is the flax wheel, also called the Saxony wheel. This type is what most people think of when they picture a spinning wheel. It has a low slanted bench, a treadle to keep the wheel going, and a spinning`assembly. A Saxony  wheel also has some sort of distaff to hold the flax while the user spins it. The distaff could be a straight stick in a hole at the front of the bench, or it could be on its own frame so, you can swing it to the side. Very often the distaff has been lost over time, and the only clue that there was a distaff at one time is a hole in the bench.

The third type of spinning wheel is the castle wheel, which has all the same components of the Saxony—a small wheel, treadle and spinning assembly—but instead of being mounted on a slanted bench, the wheel and assembly sit in a vertical frame. Technically, this type can only be a castle wheel if the spinning assembly is mounted below the wheel, but most people now call any upright or vertical frame style a castle wheel. True castle wheels are relatively rare.

The last type of spinning wheel is the parlor wheel, an upright or vertical version of the Saxony. Though it may look like a castle wheel, only two vertical upright posts support the wheel instead of a rectangular frame. These wheels are also the smallest.

Besides the story that these dainty wheels were originally made for use by children, some antique dealers spin a yarn which says that immigrants brought this type over to America with them because they could only bring small items on the ships. And while both of these explanations for the parlor wheel's size seem plausible, neither is true.

The parlor wheel’s small size appealed to the Eastern and Central Europeans. There have been wheels dated well before immigration began which were just as compact as those made during and after the rush to America.

Truly antique versions of the parlor spinning wheel sell for nearly $500. But there are a lot of reproductions out there, and it’s often difficult to distinguish the authentic from the reproduction.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Carrying on the Tradition

QUESTION: I recently purchased a small wooden sculpture of a crane. It looks to be carved from an exotic wood, but I’m not sure what kind. It has a sleek, streamlined appearance, much like sculptures from the Art Deco Period of the 1920s and 1930s. Can you tell me anything about my sculpture—when and where it was made and perhaps who made it?

ANSWER: It looks to me as if you have a piece of Balinese wood carving. Your crane has the style and shows the fine workmanship of pieces from that part of Indonesia. Dating it is more of a challenge because much of the contemporary wood carving of Bali was heavily influenced by the style of Art Deco. And even more recent pieces have that look.

Wood carving, dating back 3,000 years, is the most popular medium for artistic expression in Indonesia, and the diversity of Indonesia's wood carvings is remarkable.

In the times of Bali's old feudal kingdoms, woodcarving served as temple decoration. Wood was also utilized in such everyday household features as carved beams, columns, doors for houses, and implements like musical instruments, tool handles, and bottle-stoppers. Carvers painted these carvings in bright colors, lacquer, or gold leaf and seldom left the wood raw.

There are two main types of Balinese woodcarving. The first is traditional carving in bas-relief tableaux and plaques, used mainly for decorating temple doors, walls and columns, plus small statues of deities and mythical heroes, designed for use in public buildings. The second type is contemporary woodcarving, featuring highly stylized human or animal figures, often grotesque, almost psychotic—expressing the Balinese fear of the supernatural and a strong, sensual feeling for nature.

One of Bali’s most noted wood carvers was Ida Bagus Nyana, who worked in the village of Mas. His son, Ida Bagus Tilem, carries on the tradition today.

Ida Bagus Njana created abstract sculptures of human beings and surrealistic knotty "natural" sculptures out of gnarly tree trunks. He used small incisions on the surface to indicate contours while the wavy grain of the wood contributing to the motion of the figure. He was also the original creator of the fat statues of toads, elephants, and sleeping women now on sale all over Bali.

Nyana allowed his son, Tilem, to develop his skills, unhindered, while teaching the boy to be patient. Gradually, Tilem developed his talent, carving tiny birds, animals, and traditional figures, despite battered hands from his first few attempts with his father’s razor-sharp chisels. He was able to sell his carvings to tourists and pay for his schooling.

Tilem decided to leave school and set up a studio at his home in Mas in 1958, where he sold his own work to help his family. He furnished wood and tools to local boys who couldn't afford them. Eventually, he had over 100 apprentices and 100 carvers working with him. He was chosen to represent Indonesia at the New York Worlds Fair in 1964 and has had numerous overseas exhibitions.

During the 1930s and 1940s Balinese wood carving underwent a transformation when the main art center shifted to Ubud and its surrounding villages. The 1930s brought an influx of tourists, and a dramatic change in the perspective of Balinese wood sculptors. Shops, street corners, hotel lobbies, marketplaces, the airport, and harbors suddenly blossomed with objets d'art   produced to sell. In contrast to the traditional polychrome, mythological religious carvings, more realistic statues of peasants toiling, nude girls bathing and deer grazing appeared, themes that found a very ready market among the tourists. All in natural polished woods.

Most Balinese wood carvers favor teak wood, though it has become increasingly expensive. Teak is one of the best woods because it is easily carved and is less susceptible to warping, splitting, insects and rot. Carvers will occasionally use mahogany and ebony, both of which are also very expensive. Besides the more exotic woods, carvers use jackfruit, a cheap, common wood, though it tends to warp and split, as well as tamarind, hibiscus, frangipani, and kayu jepun, and sawo, a beautiful dark red wood.

The texture of the grain determines the nature of the piece to be carved. Dark ebony, particularly pieces with striped grain, are best suited for vertical shapes or faces. Rarer are pieces made of unpolished ebony (sanded and brushed only) where you can make out the grain in the wood. The blackest ebony might be used to depict a subject of great dignity. Satinwood, a light striped, beige-colored wood native to Bali, may inspire pieces of a softer theme. The grain often follows a skin pattern or veins in the arms of the statue.

The sounds of gentle hammering, sanding, and spontaneous chatter of the woodcarvers fill the lanes in villages like Mas. They sit cross-legged on the floor surrounded by piles of freshly carved wood chips and rough, uncut blocks as chickens peck their way around the tools. The sweet aroma of clove cigarettes and coffee hangs over the warm, humid air.

Carvers work with simple tools—a hand-held knife or a chisel struck with a hammer or mallet. The art of the wood carver depends on knowledge of specific woods, skill in fashioning the material, and talent in design.
Traditionally, they smoothed their pieces with pumice and gave them a high polish by rubbing them with bamboo. Traditionally, they treated and stained their carvings with oils to achieve a pleasing subtle gloss, but now Balinese artisans find that neutral or black shoe polish produces much the same result with half the effort.
In the main woodcarving centers, high-quality carvings sell for as much as US$3,500 apiece. Contemporary carvings in natural woods begin selling for around $25 and go as high as $500 online.

But regardless of how commercial the subject matter, all carvings share certain characteristics and techniques uniquely Balinese. Even the copyists work strictly within the self-imposed rules of an established style.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Electric Lamps for Everyone

QUESTION: Several years ago, I bought an early electric glass lamp at a flea market. Although it was filthy and needed lots of TLC, I decided that I just couldn’t live without it. After giving it a thorough cleaning and having it rewired, I noticed how much it looked like the Tiffany lamps of the early 1900s. Upon further inspection, I noticed E M & Co. impressed into the base. So far, I’ve been unable to discover who E M & Co. is? Can you tell me who made my lamp and a little about it.

ANSWER: You’re the proud owner of a beautiful silhouette lamp—called that because of the silhouettes created by the shade when the lamp is on—made by the Edward Miller & Company of Meriden, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, when people think of metal and glass lamps of the early 20th century, they usually associate all lamps with Louis Comfort Tiffany. Then their eyes light up with dollar signs. But most of the lamps from this period were not made by Tiffany.

When Tiffany first began making his lamps, they were expensive to make and expensive to buy. Prices for them ran into the hundreds of dollars. Slag glass panel lamps, as they're known  today, had a few large pieces of glass fitted into a cast metal frame that simulated the effects of the more expensive leaded glass lamps. That made them affordable for the average person. A 1925 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog offers metal table lamps fitted with "art glass" priced from $6.90 to $19.

Many companies made this type of lamp. Often the lamps weren’t signed, but if the makers did mark them, they usually cast their mark into the metal on the bottom of the base. Sometimes they placed a mark on the metal edge of a shade or elsewhere on the base. Some lamps had paper labels, but most of them are long gone. Edward Miller & Company was one of many lamp makers.

The Miller Company began in 1844 in Meriden, Connecticut, as Joel Miller and Son. Originally, the company produced metal candle-holders, then moved on to kerosene lamps, gas lighting, and electric lighting. The name of the company changed, also, becoming Edward Miller & Company, then The Miller Company, both under the mark E M & CO on their lamp bases.

Although Miller produced expensive leaded glass lamps, the company took advantage of the opportunity to sell lighting to the middle classes as more homes became wired for electricity. The company sold lamps in bulk to utility companies in large cities who retailed them to their customers. A 1920 Philadelphia Electric Company catalog shows lamps with prices from $12.50 to $60, depending on size.

Miller took advantage of the latest discovery in lighting—electricity. Up to the last decade of the 19th century, everyone owned and used either gas or kerosene lamps. But the light they gave off was dim. The discovery of electricity led to lamps that glowed brighter in a downward direction, thus offering improved lighting for reading and sewing.

Though electrical lamps offered lots of advantages, there were problems with the carbon filaments in early incandescent light bulbs that didn't last long. The bulbs turned dark inside from carbon, and they used a lot of electricity per watt of light. The invention of the tungsten filament bulb and improvements to it made between 1906 and 1910 established electric lamps as a practical and reliable alternative to gas and kerosene.

These early electric lamps offered a variety of base and shade overlay designs, influenced by several style movements including Art Nouveau with its intricate curvy lines and botanical themes, Arts and Crafts with its simpler forms and straighter lines, and Orientalism with its Middle Eastern flavor. And with the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 , people’s interest in everything Egyptian grew.

Lamp creators took their inspiration from all of these influences, giving consumers a choice of floral designs, geometric patterns, or scenes with camels, palm trees and pyramids. Other designs reflected Neo-Classical Revival architectural and furniture styles, employing fluted columns, garlands, and urns as design elements.

Manufacturers produced slag glass lamps with amber glass, as well as other colors. Amber was the dominant color because it proved to be the most restful for reading. These lamps often have more than one color of glass. Makers sometimes used various colors of slag glass to simulate sunsets or water behind their metal frames.

Today, these same slag lamps sell for $500 to $1.500, depending on style, size, and especially condition. Smaller varieties, known as boudoir lamps, sell for less while larger ones sell for more.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the market for more expensive dramatic, heavy lamps with glass shades faded and manufacturers responded with cheaper, lightweight lamps with paper or fabric shades.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cottage Charm

QUESTION: I have a cabinet that seems to be handmade. One of its drawers has three compartments side by side and one in the back for silverware. The other drawer doesn’t have compartments but does have slots cut into it as if there were slats at one time. There are three shelves in the base of the cabinet. What I am curious about is the fact that the top slants to the back. At first I thought it was the way it was sitting, but after moving it several times I noticed that it’s made that way. The top narrows slightly at the sides from front to back. I have never come across anything like this and was wondering if there was a reason behind the slanting or if someone just had poor craftsmanship! I appreciate any information you can offer.

ANSWER: What you have is a Victorian sideboard. This style is known as Cottage Victorian. Sideboards had been around since the 16th century. They were made to serve food and hold table linens, serving pieces, and flatware. In smaller Victorian cottages, there wasn’t a lot of room. Many didn’t have a formal dining room, but just a dining area in the parlor. So that’s why your sideboard is smaller than normal. Usually, the makers of these pieces painted them in bright colors, often adding  colorful floral decorations. While your sideboard could have been homemade, I doubt it. It may have been altered, however, to stand straight on a slightly slanted floor, thus the slanted top. Unfortunately, the hardware on your sideboard isn’t original. Most of the time, Cottage Victorian furniture had simple wooden knobs and handles.

Cottage furniture became popular in the United States, particularly along the East Coast, after the Civil War. Pieces began appearing in workshops and then homes of the wealthy in places like Martha's Vineyard, Cape May, and the Berkshires. But the popularity of these items didn’t  remain exclusively with the upper class. As the middle class grew, equally elegant, but relatively reasonably priced versions began to appear in the homes of the nation’s growing work force, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England.

Homeowners purchased Victorian Cottage furniture in mostly bedroom "suites", sold as  coordinating groupings consisting of a double bed, a washstand, a dresser or vanity with an attached mirror, a small table, a straight chair and a rocker, and often a wardrobe. Cabinetmakers used pine or other inexpensive wood, then painted the entire piece with  several layers of paint. The finished sets were colorful and whimsical.

Cottage Victorian beds have high and lavishly decorated headboards. Finials and medallions constituted what little carving there was on most pieces. Most of the decoration took the form of painted flowers, fruit, and other plants, featuring a large painted bouquet-like medallion in a central panel on the headboard and a smaller, matching one on the foot-board. Local cabinetmakers, most of whom didn’t have any formal training, built these pieces from designs in pattern books. And since they had no formal art training, the decorative elements they applied to their pieces had a primitive, folk art feel to them. A few featured highly detailed and beautifully executed scenes of sailing ships or local wildlife. They painted all the pieces of a furniture suite with the same motif. The most popular base colors were tan, blues, greens, and pinks. A few rare ones use the varnished natural wood as the background onto which the cabinetmaker applied the decorative designs.

An artisan then painted it with a base of soft yellow, and highlighted this coat with green bordering, and rows of flowers, and spandrel fan designs in the corners, giving it vigor. Although such a piece was commonplace once, it’s rare and valuable today. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding antiques is that 19th-century homeowners loved the appearance of natural woods in their furnishings. That preference didn’t appear until the early 20th century. As a result, most painted furniture has been stripped and finished to the often not so beautiful bare wood by well-meaning dealers and collectors. Although cabinetmakers refrained from painting their costly mahogany and walnut pieces, those in small towns and villages paint-decorated nearly all their birch, maple, oak, pine, and poplar furnishings to brighten their customers’ dark, oil-lamp lit homes.

Cabinetmakers fitted drawers and cabinet doors with wooden knobs instead of metal hardware. Even the boldly colored paint, didn’t have the look of value to it. Those pieces of Victorian Cottage furniture that have survived intact usually have a crackled surface from age-shrinkage, with flakes in spots due from dryness. Also, look for signs of wear on edges, tops, and near the knobs.

To the untrained eye, Victorian Cottage furniture looks as if it should be sold as junk or stripped to the bare wood. Whatever you do, don't strip your sideboard. If possible, get an opinion from someone who knows painted furniture.

When purchasing painted Cottage Victorian furniture, look for a bone dry surface, subtle wear, and age crazing that has shrunk geometrically. Fortunately, those who fake antiques haven't figured out a way to create spider-web-like lines with chemicals. Good painted furniture has charm and an integrity that makes it one of today's best antique investments since painted pieces haven’t been reproduced. .