Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It's All in the Details

QUESTION:  I have what I was told is an antique Chippendale China Trade Corner chair which is unfortunately in very poor condition—the finish has been removed and it’s missing a side panel . It does have what appears to be an original leather seat cover. I’m curious to know if a piece of furniture in this condition is worth anything, and if it’s worth restoring? Also, I’m curious about the history told to me many years ago by a dealer. He seemed to think the chair was a Chippendale copy that was made in Asia (china) and sent to America by clipper ship. That seemed like a plausible story at the time. What do you think about that?  

ANSWER: From its construction and the lack of detailed carving, I can tell that your chair isn’t an 18th-century Chippendale but a Colonial Revival chair from the 1880s or 1890s. Whether or not it came from China, I’m not sure. The carving on the knees of the legs and on the rail at the top of the chair are shallow, more incised with a router than carved with a chisel.

The goal of Colonial Revival pieces was to make them in the style of the original, but usually the manufacturer was a bit lacking in correct details. And it’s the details that distinguish authentic, handcrafted reproductions, such as those commissioned by Winterthur Museum and Colonial Williamsburg, from poor examples made in factories.

The China Trade flourished from the end of the American Revolution into the 19th century. Wealthier Americans, not wanting anything British, sought items made in China which simulated those they had previously imported from England. High on the list were fine porcelains, especially the blue and white variety. And while the Chinese also made and exported some furniture imitating the designs of Thomas Chippendale, they didn’t create exact reproductions, but only approximations of his designs. In any event, what they did produce was elegant and first rate, not a cheap knock-off.

This corner chair, while possibly made in China, most likely appeared toward the end of the 19th century, perhaps in the 1890s. What differentiates it from authentic 18th-century examples is the lack of detail.

Before looking at this chair, however, it’s important to know the difference between an exact, authentic reproduction, like those commissioned by Winterthur Museum and Gardens or Colonial Williamsburg, and the stylized ones of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Skilled craftsmen often create the former to exact detail using handcrafting tools and original techniques while factory workers using machines produce the latter for the mass market.

Details on authentic reproductions reflect the originals. But those on stylized versions are either lacking or not rendered sharply. Carvings, usually done by routers, aren’t as sharp and three-dimensional as those on the original pieces.

For example, the chair rail on this corner chair ends in a smooth curved knob while the same ends on an authentic Chippendale corner chair are ergonomically carved to fit the middle two fingers of each hand, thus making it easier for a person to stand up from the chair. Also the added portion on top of the rail is smooth and elegant on the original and crude and carved lightly on this one.

This chair needs major restoration. However, the cost may be higher than the chair is worth. The leather seat isn’t worth saving. Its too damaged. However, you could have the chair upholstered again in leather. The only way to replace the missing back splat is to have a carpenter make an identical one, a job that isn’t cheap. If it were an authentic 18th-century piece, then it would be worth saving.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pack 'Em Up

QUESTION: As I was sorting through things in my attic, I came across a couple of old wooden crates. One of them has "National Beer" written on the side in fancy letters while the other seems to have been for packing pears. Are these just junk or should I consider using them in some way? Do they have any value at all?

ANSWER: Today, we have all sorts of plastic containers to hold foods and other goods. But back in the good ole days—as late as the 1930s—goods came packed in wooden crates. Everyone knows the colorful ones used by the fruit industry to pack fresh fruit, but, in fact, there were as many different crates as their were products sold in general stores.

Old wooden crates tend to evoke feelings of nostalgia—of the simple, good life. And thanks to interior decorators, they’ve become a versatile source of inspiration for creative furniture, decorative home accents, and inventive storage solutions.

Wooden crates go back to the time of the general store. Norman Rockwell reminded everyone of the nostalgia of those bygone days in his paintings, depicting men sitting by a warm, pot-bellied stove in the general store, smoking a pipe, reading a newspaper, with a dozing dog stretched out on the floor. In the 19th and early 20th century, especially in rural locations, the general store acted not only as a source of dry goods and food ingredients, but as a social center as well.

Like the modern supermarket, the general store sold the essentials for living. Storekeepers displayed their goods mostly in packing crates with the lids pried off, so customers could buy the contents straight from the crate. Everyone knew what was in each box because each crate showed its contents in bold stenciling on the sides or with a brightly colored paper label.

Lucky customers may have been able to wrangle a packing crate from the storekeeper and turn it into a handy kitchen cabinet, bookcase, or vegetable rack. People back then reused everything, and wooden crates were no exception.

More unusual, and highly sought after, are the pieces of folk art furniture built around these boxes`making them into extremely decorative storage units for collections of anything from fishing lures to rubber stamps and other paraphernalia.

In the early part of the 20th century these units were made by encasing wooden cheese boxes or Baker's' chocolate boxes, adding knobs and a coat of paint. Men made these utilitarian storage units to keep their woodworking or metalworking bits and pieces together in one place.

In the last quarter of the 20th century these engaging folk art pieces have become highly prized, usually expensive, decorator items for a country look in the home. They now take their place in sitting rooms, dining rooms and kitchens, no longer relegated to the work room or garage.

In 1847, a stamping process became available that produced tin cans cheaply. Canneries proved to be invaluable during the Civil War and just five years after the war, 34 million cans of food were on the market throughout the United States. By 1878 canning factories proliferated all over the country, and almost every type of food could be found in a can. Many of the early cans were decorative and made in fanciful shapes to induce sales as some people were suspicious of canned foods. Canneries shipped their products in nothing other than wooden stenciled crates.

By the 1880s there were almost four million farms and about half of the world's annual yield of precious metals being panned or mined in America. More and more factories  turned out packaged goods such as whiskey, soap, stoves, clocks, watches and cast-iron items like doorstops and banks, as well as pots and skillets, for the home. All these goods came packed in wooden crates.

By the end of that decade, refrigerated railroad cars were hauling fruits and vegetables from California and Florida to New York. Seafood traveled to Chicago and freighters  carried food goods around the world. For the first time, Easterners could buy Hawaiian pineapples and Maine residents could buy Florida fruit.  All shipped in wooden cases with brightly colored labels. Today, these are all very collectible.

Soon catalogs, known as “Farmer's Bibles" and "The Nation's Wishbook," appeared. Each new issue contained even more and better things. These books changed the way America shopped in the late 19th century. The railroad depot replaced the general store, as people awaited the delivery of their large goods by freight train. One thing that didn’t change was that goods still came in wooden crates.

Of all the old-time packaging methods, the one that has mostly been ignored by collectors is wooden crates. It's true that for many years, decorators have been taking apart early shipping crates and just using the stenciled sides or ends to create "atmosphere" both in homes and restaurants. However, it has only been in the last few years that collectors have recognized the historical significance, decorating possibilities, and value of these wooden boxes from a bygone age. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Victorian Hair Recycling

QUESTION: I bought an unusual item at a yard sale last weekend. It’s a small round container, which I believe is made of some sort of plastic, that has a lid with a one-inch hole in its center. Can you please tell me what this object would have been used for?

ANSWER: You bought a hair saver, an item that isn’t seen anymore. Hair savers, once found on the top of most dressers and vanities, were small containers with a finger-wide hole in the lid, through which women poked pieces of their hair. Made of a variety of materials, including glass, silver, bronze, and later celluloid, a form of early plastic, some of the nicest ones are of hand-painted porcelain.

After brushing her hair before bed each evening, a Victorian woman would remove the accumulated hair from her brush and comb and place it through the opening of the receiver for storage.

She could use the accumulated hair to stuff into small bags of sheer netting to make a ratt which looked like a tube of sausage. A woman would insert a ratt into her hairstyle to add volume and fullness, especially for popular styles like The Pompadour or The Gibson. Hair could also be used as stuffing for items like pin cushions or small pillows. Unfortunately, it was too knotted and broken to use to make jewelry, which was popular in the 19th century.

Since Victorian women didn’t wash their hair as often as they do today, they often used fragrant oils to add scent and shine to their hair. The residual oil made the hair an ideal stuffing for pincushions because it lubricated the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material. Also, because hair was softer and less prickly than pinfeathers, it was ideal to use for stuffing small pillows.

Glass hair receivers often had brass or silver tops. Though manufacturers produced hair receivers in a variety of shapes and sizes, most are round or oval. They consist of the receiver bottom and a removable top with a round hole in the middle through which to put the hair. Some were made with graceful legs or pedestals to rest upon, but most have flat bottoms. The more unique ones are in the shape of animals and other figures.

Artisans working for companies such as Limoges, Noritake, O.S. Prussia, R.S. Prussia and Wistoria hand-painted porcelain pieces with floral or Oriental designs on both the receiver and top. Simpler ones featured merely a gilt border around the edge of the top.

Because articles made of hair were most popular prior to the 1891 McKinley Act, many older hair receivers show no mark of maker or country of origin. Pieces made after this date bear Japanese and European markings.

Prices for hair receivers, based upon condition, intricacy of design, whether it’s hand-painted or not, manufacturer, and age, vary widely. Celluloid and plastic bring the lowest prices, usually $15 to $30, while hand-painted porcelain pieces from a major manufacturer in excellent condition can bring $65 to $100. Many beautiful single pieces average $50 to $75, while sets containing other dresser items usually start around $100.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saving With Uncle Sam

QUESTION: When I was a child, my father gave me an cast iron Uncle Sam bank for Christmas. I recently purchased a similar one at an antique show. It stands 10 ½ inches tall and weighs about 7 pounds.  I’m not sure if it’s authentic. How can I tell if it is and what can you tell me about the history of my bank?

ANSWER: In all likelihood, the bank you bought at that antique show is a reproduction which probably dates from the early 20th century.

Peter Adams Jr. and Charles G. Shepard created the first Uncle Sam bank. But it was the Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York that produced the first one in 1886. This particular cast-iron mechanical bank features an umbrella-carrying Uncle Sam standing on a decorated base holding a suitcase. By placing a coin in his hand and pressing the knob on the box, Uncle Sam lowers his arm and puts the money into the U.S Treasury bag. The beard on his lower jaw moves as if he’s talking.

At the time it appeared on the market, the bank showed Uncle Sam, who represented the U.S. Government, taking citizens' money.

So who was Uncle Sam? The first use of the moniker “Uncle Sam” supposedly appeared during the War of 1812 in reference to Samuel Wilson, who was a meat packer who inspected meat  destined for the troops. People called him Uncle Sam, and he just so happened to have the same initials as the new country.

Toy banks became popular in the United States during the 18th century after hard currency went into circulation. But it wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that the first chartered savings bank in New York City opened its doors. Being thrifty soon became a popular trend, and people began using toy banks as a way to follow the encouraging words of Benjamin Franklin—“A penny saved is a penny earned.”

Your bank was possibly cast from an historic mold made by Shepard. If Uncle Sam’s beard moves as the coin in his spring-loaded hand drops into the U.S. Treasury bag at his feet, then your bank is authentic.

Many reproductions have been made since the first Uncle Sam bank. Those produced in the 1920s may still hold considerable value, but never as much as the original. The most recent large scale production of these banks occurred during the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976. But manufacturers cut corners and didn’t make these banks from real cast iron, choosing to use a lighter, cheaper metal instead. These cheap knockoffs also had more details than the originals. While some look similar to the originals, most can be spotted by the addition of embellishments and added details.

If your bank is heavy, it’s probably an early reproduction. Also, if the paint is really bright, it most likely is a later reproduction. Some people have repainted originals, but this is a mistake and ruins their value. Some reproductions also have incorrect colors. The correct colors should be a blue full dress coat with red and white striped pants. On the bottom of the base should be the words, "PAT. JUNE 8, 1886". Most reproductions show the mark, “Made in Korea” or “Made in China.” But some reproductions only have an eagle and banners on one side. On the original they appear on both sides. The beard moves on the originals but doesn’t move on many reproductions. A modern reproduction, made in Taiwan, sells for only about $15 to $25.

The value of these banks is always dependent on their condition, but many of the originals have little paint left on them. In good working condition and with all of its original paint, an 1886 bank could be worth between $1,000 and as much $18,000.