Wednesday, May 20, 2015
QUESTION: I love old mechanical things. Recently while rooting through a box of old junk at a monthly flea market, I came across an unusual item. It looks like a round can from which protrudes a cylinder. On the end of the cylinder is an odd-shaped ring and in the side of the can is a hole with a place to insert a key. Can you tell me what this is and something about it, if that’s possible?
ANSWER: It looks like you’ve found an antique spitjack. However, some of its parts are missing.
Today, you can go to any supermarket and purchase a fully roasted rotisserie chicken or turkey breast. But back in the 18th century, that wasn’t possible. All meats had to be slow roasted on a long pole called a spit over the fire in a huge, walk-in kitchen fireplace. And to do that evenly, it took man or woman power. Wives, children, servants, or slaves had to stand by the fire and slowly turn the meat until it was done. This had to be one of the most boring jobs in the 18th and early 19th centuries, so no one enjoyed doing it.
Roasting meat on a spit dates as far back as the first century B.C.E. During Tudor times, someone even came up with an ingenious way to have a dog provide the power to turn the spit—the dog ran in a treadmill linked to the spit by belts and pulleys. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that things got a little easier for cooks. It was then that the weight or clock jack came into being.
Descending stone, iron, or lead weights powered most of the spit-turning mechanisms, or more commonly spitjacks, used by Colonials and their British counterparts. In England, cooks referred to them as weight jacks, but in America, they came to be known as clock jacks because they used a clockwork mechanism to wind a spring used to turn the spit.
Earlier jacks of this type had a train of two arbors or spindles. Later ones had a more efficient train with three arbors. Those made and used in England had a governor or flywheel set above the engine as opposed to being located within the frame and to one side—to the right for a two train works and to the left for one with three trains. These weight jacks also contained a flywheel within the frame, usually at the
in a bell-like arch at the highest part of the frame.
In 1792, John Bailey II, an American clockmaker, patented the first steam-driven jack. However, the Turks used a mechanism similar to Bailey’s jack back in the mid-16th century.
Another type of roasting jack, the smoke jack, appeared in the early 17th century. This jack moved by the flow of the smoke from the fire over the sails of a horizontal wheel which lay sideways. By placing the wheel in the narrowest part of the chimney where the motion of the smoke was the fastest and where the greatest amount would strike the sails, the mechanism would slowly turn the spit, thus roasting the meat. But this type of jack had its downside since the speed of the jack depended on the draught of the chimney and the quantity and strength of the fire in the fireplace.
The type of jack you purchased is called a bottle jack because of its bottle-shaped hydraulic lifting device. A brass shell contains the clockwork motor. Introduced in the late 18th century, it replaced the earlier and simpler dangle spit. When the cook set the weights, the spit turned, eliminating the need for manual labor for approximately 30 minutes, after which the cook would have had to readjust the weights. Bottle jacks continued to be made and used until the early 20th century.
If your jack had all of its parts and was in better condition, it would sell for around $400.
Monday, May 11, 2015
QUESTION: We recently purchased a Vassar Display Cabinet. It’s in perfect condition with all original glass, shelving, doors, etc. The top was to contain blocks of ice, and there’s a small door at the very bottom where the ice would drain when melting. Is there anything you can tell me about it? I've found very little on the Internet.
ANSWER: You’re the proud owner of a commercial refrigerated chocolate cabinet that would have been used in candy and chocolate shops. At the turn of the 20th century, Vassar Chocolates was one of the top brands of gift-boxed chocolates, similar to Whitman’s today.
But to fully understand your cabinet and the contents it held, we have to look at the background of two companies–the company that made the cabinet and the company that made the chocolates.
The O.D. Royer Manufacturing Company began making refrigerated display cabinets in 1901—a patent date of March 26, 1901 appears on the brass handles on the box doors. They were unique because of their see-through sides. These enabled store and shop owners to display a variety of perishable goods, including chocolates and cheeses. The company moved from Downing, Wisconsin, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, before 1900. However, your cabinet has “Vassar Chocolates” painted on the front. And since Vassar Chocolates weren’t made until 1912, this dates your cabinet to that time.
The iceboxes that Royer Manufacturing made had double panes of glass about one inch apart, something that’s quite common today in double-pane insulated windows. Royer used flax straw to insulate the top ice compartment. It included a beveled mirror on the side opposite the doors. As in today’s pastry and deli display cabinets, the door side probably faced the store clerk for easy access from the back of the cabinet, while the mirror side faced the customer, making it seem as if there were more goods on display than were in the cabinet. As with other iceboxes of the time, the framework and exterior paneling are of oak.
Vassar Chocolates, a type of fudge bon-bon, sold loosely and also packaged in gift tins, were a hot item when they appeared in 1912. The Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company of Kansas City made them along with a variety of other candies and crackers.
Established in 1902 by Joseph Loose, his brother Jacob, and John. H. Wiles, the company became the second largest manufacturer of crackers in the country by 1912. It had factories in Kansas City, Missouri, Boston, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, Omaha, Nebraska, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, employing nearly 2,000 workers and competed successfully with the National Biscuit Company until the 1930s.
Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company produced not only Sunshine Biscuits, but Vassar Chocolates and a general line of crackers, cakes and fine confectionery, and sold them within a 15-state area surrounding Kansas City. By 1912, it had become the largest combination cracker and candy factory in America, and its facilities for handling business, and also looking out for the welfare of its employees were second to none.
Joseph Loose envisioned a factory which would be filled with sunlight, and Loose-Wiles adopted the name Sunshine for their products. Soon they began expanding and opened new plants in Boston and then New York. In 1912 Loose-Wiles opened their "Thousand Window" bakery on Long Island, which remained the largest bakery building in the world until 1955. When sales began to slump in the 1940s, Loose petitioned the company’s board of directors to change the name to the Sunshine Biscuit Company in 1946, and in 1996, Keebler purchased it. In 2000, Kellogg purchased Keebler. The product it’s best known for is Cheeze-It Crackers.
So how did the chocolates get the name Vassar? It’s no small coincidence that the Vassar Girls, as the students of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, were commonly known, began making chocolate fudge in the late 1880s.
“Nearly every night at college,” said the Vassar girl in a newspaper ad, “some girl may be found somewhere who is making ‘fudges’ or giving a fudge party.” These fudges became known in fashionable circles as Vassar chocolates. Though mystery shrouds their origin, students at Vassar handed down the recipe from year to year. It’s most likely that the recipe, which would have become well known by the turn of the 20th century, would have been easy for Joseph Loose to procure. He added the Vassar name to his chocolate fudge bon-bons to give them class. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Monday, May 4, 2015
This is the 200th post of this blog. And being so, I thought I’d break away from my usual question and answer format and discuss a topic for which I receive lots of questions—value. I routinely tell everyone that I don’t do valuations. I do that because value is one of the hardest things to determine without lots of expert information. That’s why certified appraisers are in such high demand. But they’re expensive, so most people seek free value advice.
Value of any kind is subjective. It depends on several things—age, rarity, authenticity, trendiness, and historical association. Just because an item is old doesn’t make it valuable. Take glass from ancient Rome. At over two 2,000 years old, you’d think it would be worth a fortune. But the truth is there’s so much of it around that it isn’t worth as much as you’d think.
Throughout history, people had as much junk as we have today. But they didn’t value things in quite the same way as we do today. For ordinary people, old furniture was just old furniture. Old dishes were often mismatched. Let’s face it, they didn’t have “Antiques Roadshow” to make them think that just about everything was valuable.
To determine an item’s value, you first have to determine its age. The type of wood used in furniture, particularly the secondary woods used for the inside of drawers, is an important clue of age. If you see a circular saw pattern in the wood on a piece of furniture, you know it was made after 1840.
Not everything rare is valuable either. An old book by an unknown author might be extremely rare. But to be valuable, someone must want to buy it. Nevertheless, rarity is a key determinant of value. Start by considering how rare an item was when it first appeared on the market.
Think in terms of different levels of production. At the bottom are mass-produced items made of ordinary and usually cheaper materials. At the top are unique items made of the finest materials. Generally, if an item was rare and valuable when it was made, it'll be even more rare and valuable today. Previously expensive objects will still be expensive today.
When an antique or collectible is in demand by collectors, it’s price can skyrocket. And when prices climb, fakes and forgeries abound. Some forgers use as much skill producing fakes as if they were making an original. Fraudulent antiques lie in wait for the uninformed. A good example is the myriad of fake Chippendale furniture coming out of Indonesia.
Perfectly round wood in a piece of furniture, for example, is a tell-tale sign of a forgery, because wood becomes distorted with age. Look carefully at ceramics to see if someone painted the decoration on top of the glaze after the firing.
When it comes to collecting antiques, condition is prime. Did you know that the patina on fine furniture----produced before 1830—is one of its most important features, and too much cleaning and restoration can ruin it? Did you know, for example, that the value of a rare book can drop by more than 100 percent if it doesn't have its dust jacket?
Another thing that influences value is how typical an item is. Collectors are always looking for representative examples of a given period, craft or style. When an item sparks a collecting trend, prices always go up.
Finally, an object’s association with someone famous automatically increases its value. That’s because more collectors want to own it. And that’s the bottom line with value. The more people who want to own an object, the more its worth. And an item is only worth what the last person paid for it.
I hope you find this post as useful as the previous 199. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and plan to continue bringing you insightful information about antiques and collectibles. For more in-depth articles, please visit The Antique Almanac, my new monthly E-zine on antiques and collectibles. You’ll never know what you’ll learn next.