Monday, April 27, 2015

The Bluebird of Happiness

QUESTION: Some time ago, I purchased six dinner plates, each with a large bluebird design on it, from a church sale. I love the bold design on these plates and have yet to see any others like them. On the back is the mark of the Buffalo Pottery. I thought they only made restaurant china. What can you tell me about my plates.

ANSWER: What you bought is commonly known as bluebird chinaware. The large, bold bluebird on your plates is one of over 50 different variations made by as many potteries. And while Buffalo Pottery did make a lot of restaurant china, they also made some for home use.

Bluebird china was everyday dinnerware. It was mostly made in America, beginning in the late 19th century. It featured  a decal of a bluebird, often with flowers or other designs incorporated into it.  Potteries made this china to be functional, and being so, it often broke from daily use. In many cases, started  out as a grocery store premium, perhaps a free gift received after collecting the required number of stamps. People could also buy complete sets from the Montgomery Ward Catalog and from Sears Roebuck & Co.

By the mid-1920s, bluebird china was available everywhere. But its popularity didn’t last long since by the end of the decade, manufacturers had begun phasing it out. By 1930, it had all but disappeared.

While many Ohio potteries, especially those in the vicinity of East Liverpool, made bluebird china, collectors prefer that made by the Homer Laughlin China Company. The pottery most often decorated its Empress dinnerware, which it introduced in 1914, with bluebirds. The company also decorated some of its other dinnerware shapes with bluebird decals, include Cable, Hudson, Kwaker, Newell, Republic, Riviera, and Tea Rose.

Homer Laughlin usually used a design showing two or three chubby bluebirds surrounded by differing shades of pink flowering apple blossom branches. Other potteries also produced china with the same motif which seemed strange. As it turns out, Ohio Valley potteries all bought their decals from the same company, Meyercord Decal, in Chicago.

Other potteries outside of Ohio also made their own versions of bluebird china. The most important of these was the Buffalo Pottery of New York. Many collectors seek out pieces by Homer Laughlin with decals showing bluebirds in flight that the company used on its wares. The bluebirds found on Buffalo Pottery wares appear to fly in flocks across the surface of each piece. Buffalo also sold bluebird dishes to restaurants.

The Larkin Soap Company first introduced a butter tub with a drainer and pitchers, both sporting bluebird designs, as a premium in its 1918-1919 catalog. Larkin’s catalogs from 1919 to 1922 featured a bluebird tea set consisting of tea plates, cups and saucers, sugar and creamer. Larkin also offered special pieces, like a baby dish, that could be specially ordered.

Another bluebird variation popular with collectors is the Flying Blue Bird pattern produced by Knowles, Taylor & Knowles of East Liverpool, Ohio. While the bluebird decals used by Homer Laughlin depict a small, pale blue, plump bird, KT&K's bluebird decals show large, bold birds in rich dark blues that seem to be circling around the china's outer edges. KT&K put their bluebird decal on pottery from their white Nina line, making the bluebirds stand out even more.

In order to compete with American bluebird china makers, European potteries began adhering bluebird decals to their dinnerware. This was odd since bluebirds aren't native to Europe.

There are many variations of the bluebird designs. D.E. McNicol Pottery, also of East Liverpool, made calendar plates with a finer, stylized bluebird floating between each month's calendar page on the plate's rim. The Edward J. Owen China Co. of Minerva, Ohio, often used a decal showing one or two bluebirds in flight among flowering rose branches.

As far as the value of bluebird china, shape doesn't seem to enter into it. Plates are common and sell for around $35 while rare large pitchers sell for lots more. Collectors especially seek the larger pitchers. A 6 3/4 inch water pitcher, made by the Buffalo Pottery, can sell for as high as $200.

And finding items in good condition is also a challenge since people used this dinnerware. Items like egg cups, salt and pepper shakers, and complete tea sets are particularly hard to find.

China decorated with bluebirds was especially popular because of what the birds represented. The 1920s was a time of optimism and the bluebird became synonymous with that. Bluebirds became a symbol of rebirth and renewal as well. Bluebirds and happiness seem to go together.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Penny a Light

QUESTION: I love quirky old machines. Recently, I purchased a penny vending machine that I think held matches from an online auction. The seller couldn’t tell me much about it, but it’s in pretty good condition. It looks like it stood on a counter or table and stands 13½ inches tall. The machine seems to be made of cast white metal, but the slot that the penny drops through is made of wood. Unfortunately, the machine came with no label on it, so I have no idea who made it. An unusual feature is a cigar tip cutter which sits at the front of the base. Can you tell me who made this vending machine and how old it is. 

ANSWER: From what you described, I’d say you have a Sellem match vending machine, most likely produced around 1912 by the Northwestern Corporation of Chicago, which also produced a varied line of gumball machines.

Northwestern released 70 different machines under the Sellem name, starting in 1911. In addition to the Sellem match vending machine, the company also produced stamp vending machines and another type called Penny Matches.

The Sellem line was the deluxe model of the Northwestern match vendor line. The top, front and base are all made in the beautiful Art Nouveau style from cast iron, not white metal as you supposed. Two dolphins decorate the front of this machine. The Sellem was the firm’s  only model to have a cigar cutter and matchbox holder, both of which enticed customers to the machine and reminded them to buy a box of matches.

The Sellem came in two models. The A model had frames attached to the machine's sides and top that contained advertising panels and the more common B model, which seems to be what you have. The company also made a third version for a private match company, called The Scup. The Sellem dispensed small cardboard boxes of matches. The front of the machine had a holder that would hold the last box dispensed. These machines originally came in white, green or antique silver, and sometimes had brass-colored accents. 

Back in 1912, you would have most likely found your machine sitting on a table in the smoking lounge of a fine hotel. It was the custom of gentlemen at the time to smoke cigars after dinner. When a gentleman inserted a penny, it would drop through the wooden piece and allow the push bar to go back and forth. The machine also had a removable match loading compartment which often is missing on ones appearing for sale today. The cigar tip cutter was an added feature that enabled smokers to prepare their cigar before lighting.

Sellem vending machines sell for between $300 and $400. However, a fine one sold at auction for $960, but that’s rare.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Bent Into Shape

QUESTION: I recently purchased two bentwood chairs at an antique shop in a nearby town. Both have woven cane seats and the number “14" pressed into the wood under the rim of the seat. I bought them to use in my kitchen. The cane is in good condition and the chairs are stained a dark brown. Can you tell me anything about these chairs—who made them and how old are they?

ANSWER: You made a great purchase. Your chairs are commonly known as “bistro” chairs, and while most people think they date from the early 20th century, they actually date back to the mid 19th century.

Michael Thonet (pronounced “toe-net”), a clever and creative cabinetmaker from Boppard am Rhein, Germany, invented the process for bending wood and as a result created the first pieces of bentwood furniture. He originally made your chairs in 1859, however, his company, which is still in existence, made over 50 million by 1930. So yours could date from the early 20th century.

Thonet, the son of master tanner Franz Anton Thonet, started out as a carpenter's apprentice in 1811. Eight years later, he opened his own shop. In the beginning, he carved his pieces from European beechwood.

In the 1830s, Thonet began trying to make furniture out of glued and bent wooden slats. His first success was the Bopparder Schichtholzstuhl, or Boppard layerwood chair, in 1836. The following year, he purchased the Michelsmühle, the glue factory that made the glue that he used. However, he failed to obtain the patent for his new process in Germany and England in 1940, so he tried again in France and Russia the next year, but again failed.

The steam engine appeared on the scene around the time that Thonet's was experimenting with his bending process. He discovered that he could bend light, strong wood into curved, graceful shapes by forming the wood in hot steam. This enabled him to design elegant, lightweight, durable and comfortable furniture, which appealed strongly to style trend at the time. His pieces were a complete departure from the heavy, carved designs of the past.

At the Koblenz trade fair of 1841, Thonet met Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, who was enthusiastic about Thonet's furniture and invited him to his Vienna court. During 1842, Thonet presented his furniture—particularly his chairs—to the Imperial Family. On July 16 1842: Metternich granted Thonet the right "to bend any type of wood, even the most brittle: into the desired forms and curves by chemical and mechanical means." The Prince granted him a second, nonrenewable 13-year patent on July 10, 1856 "for manufacturing chairs and table legs of bent wood, the curvature of which is effected through the agency of steam or boiling liquids.”

When his first factory in Boppard establishment got into financial trouble, he sold it and moved his family to Vienna, where in 1849, he opened a new factory called the Gebrüder Thonet. In 1850, he produced his Number 1 chair, which he intended to sell to café owners. 

He received a bronze medal for his Vienna bentwood chairs at the London World's Fair in 1851, at which he received international recognition. At the next World's Fair in Paris in 1855, he received the silver medal for his new and improved bentwood chair design.   In 1856, he opened a new factory in Korycany, Moravia because of the country’s ample supply of beechwood.

By 1859, he developed his most famous chair—the Number 14, known as Konsumstuhl No. 14 or coffeehouse chair No.14—for which he finally received a gold medal at the 1867 Paris World's Fair.

Thonet produced his No. 14 chair using six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws, and two nuts. He made the wooden parts by heating beechwood slats to 212 °F, pressing them into curved cast-iron molds, then drying them at 158 °F for 20 hours. The chairs could be mass-produced by unskilled workers and disassembled to save space during transportation—an idea used today by the Swedish company IKEA to flat-pack its furniture.

The firm’s later chairs used eight pieces of wood and also had two diagonal braces between the seat and back to strengthen that particular joint.

Today, a pair of these icon chairs with a table is selling on eBay for nearly $1,000.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An Antique That Lasts a Lifetime

QUESTION: I love to cook. And I love to cook in my cast-iron skillet. I’ve had this skillet for nearly 50 years and it never fails me. I bought it at a second-hand store to use for camping, but I liked it so much, I began using to cook with in my kitchen. The name stamped into the bottom is Griswold. I’ve seen others like it at flea markets and would like to know more about it. What can you tell me about the company?

ANSWER: While other antiques may last as long or longer as a cast-iron skillet, few can be used regularly and still retain their value. Your skillet is a real classic. And if you take care of it and use it regularly, it should last another 50 years.

Cast-iron skillets have been around since 1642. The first one made, a small, three-legged covered pot that held one quart came from a foundry in Saugus, Massachusetts. The thing weighed 2 1/4 pounds, so the lady of the house probably developed some pretty heft biceps. From then until the early 19th century, cast-iron cookware had great value, so people took care of it and guarded it as a prized possession. 

However, cookware made of it was brittle, prone to rust, grainy, unfinished and difficult, if not impossible, to repair if cracked. It was also "reactive." Acidic foods, such as vinegar, tomatoes, and citrus, re-acted with the iron and changed the flavor and color of whatever the cook was preparing. The solution seemed to be to season the it. A non-stick surface wasn’t natural to cast iron. It had to be created by seasoning or curing the piece. A cook would repeatedly coat a pot’s inside surface with animal fat and place the utensil in a 250- to 300-degree oven for two to three hours. After wiping away any excess fat, he or she would lightly rinse it with hot water, using no soap, then thoroughly dry and store it in a dry place. Many people never ever put a used piece under water. Today, cast-iron cookware comes pre-seasoned.

By the 1840s, open hearth cooking had been replaced by the cast-iron stove which enclosed the fire in iron and shielded the cook from an open flame. Cooks placed their pots directly on solid iron plates—not open grates—that formed the top of the stove. In later models, foundries  cut deep holes into the top and made the iron plates removable. With this innovation, a pot could be placed into the hole for a snug fit and was as close as possible to the flame. Stove manufacturers found it to their advantage to add a line of cast-iron cookware that perfectly fit the removable iron plates or “eyes” of their stoves.

By the mid-19th-century, foundries that made cast-iron stoves also made cast-iron cookware— also called hollowware. The Selden brothers, John and Samuel, operated a foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania, where they manufactured butt hinges and other household hardware. In 1863, they added cast-iron cookware to their expanding product line. Because of the areas widely known foundries, they marked their earliest skillets, muffin pans, and Dutch ovens with one word, “Erie.”

In 1868, Matthew Griswold joined the Selden brothers. Unlike his partners, Griswold believed in patenting the products developed in the foundry. He patented just about everything. The name "Selden and Griswold" appeared on many cookware items shortly after 1868. At Samuel's death in 1882, Griswold bought out the remaining family members and changed the name of the company to his own. He cleverly kept "Erie” on some of Selden's most popular pieces, but added “Griswold” above it.

The Griswold Manufacturing. Company and its predecessors produced superior cookware in an industry dominated by inferior, low-quality goods. In the late 19th century, cast iron was often made by prisoners. The top of the Griswold line was "extra finish ware"—cooking utensils with a polished exterior, a milled interior, and top edges so tight that the connection between the pan and the lid was a waterproof joint that even the thinnest knife couldn’t penetrate.

Women noticed the difference. Unlike the products made by its competitors, pieces made by Griswold were thin and lightweight. After centuries of super heavy pots and pans, Griswold overcame cast iron's weight problem.

Women also noticed the company's distinctive trademark. Griswold featured a cross, a sign of quality, on most of its products. Over the firm’s long history from 1850 to 1957, Griswold Manufacturing Company produced over 180 cast-iron items. Included in the "non-cookware category" were cast-iron ashtrays, burglar alarms, fire. sets, gas heaters, sadirons, mailboxes, pokers, display racks, shovels, spittoons, sun dials and tobacco cutters. They introduced gas stoves in 1891, kerosene heaters in 1895, and parlor stoves in 1900.

Today, the cast-iron skillet dominates most Griswold collections and is nearly always the first piece a new collector buys. Good luck with your skillet and keep cooking.