Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Victory Music

QUESTION: I was helping my mother clean out my grandmother’s house after she died when I found several old records that said V-Disc on the label stuffed in a trunk in the attic. I’ve never heard of a company with a V-Disc label and neither had my mother. One of them seems to have two songs sung by Frank Sinatra—“What Makes the Sunset?” and “I Begged Her.” It also says the record was produced in cooperation with the War Department, Special Services Division. Can you tell me anything about these records? Do they have any value or are they just old records and should be tossed?

ANSWER: It seems you found some little treasures during your cleaning. V-Discs were a special type of record made for servicemen serving abroad in World War II. Most soldiers and sailors joined up thinking that the war would be over in a short time. Little did they realize that it would drag on for several years. Weary and often disheartened, they needed a moral boost, and the V-Disc was it.

The records were 12-inch, 78 rpm messages of music, hope and comfort from America's top musicians. Starting in 1943, and for seven years afterward, the United States Armed Forces sent packages of V-Disc records to ships and bases to all war locations.

It was Army Lt. George Robert Vincent who first got the idea for V-Discs. He worked in Thomas Edison's phonograph laboratories before the war. In 1943, Vincent asked his supervisor if he could put together a special recording project to provide current music to the troops. He eventually received a $1 million startup budget from the U.S. Army and undertook his new military career as head of the V-Disc  program.

At the same time, the American music industry was in turmoil. When Japan attacked French Indochina, the record companies lost their source of imported shellac. And even if they could manufacture records with recycled shellac, the musicians, themselves, had gone on strike against the major record companies.

Vincent's V-Disc staff first had to find a substitute for shellac. Eventually they discovered that vinylite, a Union Carbide polymer, not only could be pressed into records with minimal surface noise, but also the finished product resisted breakage, cracks and fractures. Once they resolved the record material problem, they convinced the American Federation of Musicians and their leader, James Caesar Petrillo, to perform for V-Discs as volunteers, offering their services gratis to the military wanted to hear new songs and recording artists and that all V-Discs would be destroyed after the War.

V-Discs enabled servicemen to hear new and special releases from the top bands of the day. The program provided a variety of music, including big band hits, swing music, classical performances from the best symphonies, a little jazz thrown in for good measure. There were even selections of stirring music from military bands.

Every month, The RCA Victor record factory in Camden, New Jersey, sent a V-Disc kit of 30 records to ports of call and bases around the European and Pacific bases of operations. Each kit, included not only the V-Discs, but an assortment of. steel phonograph needles, a set of lyric sheets, and a questionnaire for soldiers to fill out and return, asking what they liked best, what they liked least, and what they wanted to hear in the future.

During the first week of the V-Disc project, RCA shipped 1,780 boxes of V-Discs to the troops. Within a year, production of the V-Discs had tripled, to supply members of each branch of the military. Even the Office of War Information and Office of Inter-American Affairs wanted V-Discs to use as propaganda materials broadcast to Latin American and European countries, a counterbalance to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose.

But V-Discs had a very special feature—spoken-word introductions by the artists. Before beginning a song, artists would take a few moments to identify themselves, acknowledge the soldiers, give them a few kind words or inspirational thoughts, kind wish them a safe and speedy return home. "Hiya, men," said Frank Sinatra as he introduced his version of ‘That Old Black Magic.’” "I hope you like these tunes that I've chosen to do for you on these very wonderful V-Discs. And I hope you get as much of a kick out of hearing them as I do out of singing them for you." Other artists added their own special touches to their V-Discs.

Other sources of material for V-Discs came from radio networks, who sent their live feeds to V-Disc headquarters in New York—the AFM strike didn’t affect live performances. Artists gathered at several V-Disc recording sessions in theaters around New York and Los Angeles, including CBS Playhouse No. 3, now the Ed Sullivan Theater, NBC Studio 8H, the home of Saturday Night Live, and CBS Playhouse No. 4, reborn in the 1970s as the infamous Studio 54 disco.

One of the conditions under which AFM musicians would record V-Discs was that the records couldn’t be reproduced or resold, and that the discs had to be destroyed after the V-Disc program ended. After the program ended in 1949, the armed forces honored their request by destroying original masters and record stampers and by discarding V-Discs left behind at bases and on ships. The FBI and the Provost Marshal's Office also confiscated and destroyed V-Discs that servicemen had smuggled home. An employee at a Los Angeles record company spent time in prison for his illegal possession of more than 2,500 V-Discs. 

Today, music-lovers and World War II memorabilia collectors covet V-Discs. Near-mint copies of  V-Discs are hard to find, and most copies would be graded "good" to "fair" condition due to surface scuffs and 60 years of storage. Common titles sell for $5-10, while name artists such as Frank Sinatra or Arturo Toscanini can command $25-40`for their V-Discs, depending on condition and rarity of title. A V-Disc containing the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" comedy routine, backed with a version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame as played by baseball organist- Gladys Gooding, is worth up to $75 in near-mint condition: Unopened packages of V-Disc needles sell for $5-10, and a spring-wound V-Disc phonograph can run from $250-340 in working condition.

So you see, it seems your grandfather smuggled the V-Discs you found and kept them all these years as a remembrance of his time in the War. They worth far more in sentimental value—real treasures of times past.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Tool for Every Purpose

QUESTION: I’ve always liked old tools and would like to start collecting them. Can you offer any advice on how to get started?

ANSWER: For any collector, liking something is the most important thing. You should collect what you like. Doing so will build and keep your interest in your collection for a long time. That’s the difference between collecting and assembling a group of like objects. In the former, you have vested interest while in the latter you’re just adding them to a shelf or cabinet.

Old tools not only have value, they also have historical interest. You should always be asking how old they are, what condition they’re in, and how rare they are?

When it comes to tools, age is a major element. This doesn’t necessarily mean a tool’s actual age. What’s most important is age related to the particular type of tool. Planes are a good example. Many years before companies began manufacturing planes out of metal, they made them of wood. It’s very easy to find a wooden plane that’s well over 150 years old that, in good condition, may be worth only $25 dollars. The more modern version, which isn’t as old but is made of metal, can be worth many times that amount particularly if it’s one of the early models. So just because you have an old tool that you can date to the early 1800s, doesn’t necessarily mean you have a very valuable tool

The most important point to consider with tools is condition. This is the area among collectors where more confusion exists than any other. Look at how what you have  relates to what was originally made. This can be looked at in two ways. First, is what you have totally complete? Are all the parts, cutters and anything else that came along with the original tool still there? One of the best examples of a tool that’s commonly for sale without all the parts is the Stanley 45 multiplane. The basic Stanley 45 came with 18 to 23 cutters, two lengths of arms, depth stops and in some cases a cam rest. Very seldom do you find a complete Stanley 45 for sale, yet in many cases, the asking price is that of a complete one.

After you’ve determined a tool’s completeness, the next thing to look at is its actual physical condition. Cracked or chipped handles or even handles that have been glued back together reduce the value. In some cases, people will substitute a handle or a part from another tool that looks about right. While this might make the tool useable, it detracts from the value for the true collector. Finish is also important. Having the original label still in place and the original metal and wood finish makes a tool more valuable. What detracts most from the value is when you can see signs of wire brushing  or that the tool has been painted black or covered with some kind of other coating.

The "rareness" of a tool, as with other antiques, is also very important when determining its value. This typically comes down to how many have survived and are available for sale. In some cases there may be a limited relationship to how many were actually made. A good example of this is the foot-powered tools that were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War II scrap metal drives, people donated many of these to be melted down for the war effort. Partially as a result of this, these foot-powered. tools are sometimes hard to find. In other cases, a particular style or type of tool may have only been manufactured for a limited period. This may be a result of a company going out of business, the tool not selling well or some external events such as a war that caused manufacturing priorities to be redirected. In most cases, it can usually be concluded that the more rare a tool is, the more it’s worth.

Tools, obviously, come in all shapes, sizes, and sorts. Each tool has been designed for a different job and so the variety is endless. In fact, even longtime experienced tool collectors will often run into something they haven't seen before. To make sense of all this variety, tool collectors have established categories of tools to help them focus their collections. In the broadest categorization, they divide tools into groups by the material they work—woodworking tools, metalworking tools, basket making tools, leather working tools, etc. They also further defined tools within each of these categories. For instance, in the woodworking tool category, there are edge tools, boring tools, measuring tools, woodworking machines, and so on. Within the machinist tool category, there are calipers, gauges, indicators, etc.

Tools can also be categorized in ways outside their intended purpose, such as by tool makers, patented tools, aesthetic tools, tools from a particular era or generation, tools made in a particular geographical area, tools made from a certain material, and miniatures.

Collecting tools can be daunting—and expensive—if you don’t focus on a particular type early on. But whatever type you choose to collect, always buy the best you can afford.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Elephant Mugs and More

QUESTION: I recently bought a small mug in the shape of an elephant at a monthly flea market. It has GOP 1968 embossed under the top edge. On the bottom it says "Frankhoma" What can you tell me about this cute little mug?.

The mug you found was a souvenir of the Republican Party Women, created by John Frank.

After graduating from the Chicago Art Institute, John Frank moved to Norman, Oklahoma., in 1927 to establish the first Ceramic Art Department at the University of Oklahoma. In 1933 he started his own pottery company to create a line of fine art ware and sculpture that ordinary people could afford to buy. A year later, Frank's wife, Grace Lee, suggested the company name should incorporate both their family name and the last letters of their state, thus the company officially became Frankoma Pottery.

The Franks and their new business moved about 20 miles south of Tulsa to Sapulpa in 1938, but soon hardship followed. Their first building, constructed partially by Grace's father, burned down shortly after their arrival. Despite the economic hardships caused by the fire and the Great Depression, the Franks followed their vision and rebuilt.

Instead of reissuing early sculptures, such as figurines, ashtrays and vases, the Franks decided to make bookends, candleholders, wall vases, face masks and plaques following the fire. Frankoma also became the pioneer in colored tableware with bold designs in vibrant Southwestern colors such as Prairrie Green and Desert Gold. From 1942 until 1988 Frankoma created a line of wagon- wheel dinnerware that became its signature product. The Pottery also produced dinnerware in other patterns, including Mayan-Aztec, Plainsman, Lazybones, and Westwind.

In 1968 John Frank designed an elephant mug as a fundraiser for the National Republican Party. The following year it became a collectible series. The Frank’s daughter, Joniece, designed the first Democrat donkey mug in 1975. The company produced other collectibles,  including 14 Teenagers-of-the-Bible plates issued from 1972 until 1982 and Christmas plates,  first issued in 1965. From 1955 until 1967, Frankoma also manufactured earrings, pins, and tie clasps and the bolo tie designed by John Frank, who had received an award for jewelry design in 1927.

The type of clay and trademarks help collectors identify old and new Frankoma pieces. John Frank experimented with many types of clay from different areas of Oklahoma. From 1933 until 1954 he used tan clay found near Ada, Oklahoma. Collectors now call pieces made with this clay Ada Clay.        

In 1954 he switched to a brick red firing clay located a few miles from the factory in an area known as Sugar Loaf Hill. Collectors call this Sapulpa Clay Pre-1980. In the 1980s, additives affected the red brick color of the clay, and it became either a light pink or a light orange. Collectors refer to this as Sapulpa Clay Post-1980. The changes in the clay also affected the color of the glazes. Today, Ada clay pieces are generally worth the most.

Collectors today regard the pieces with Frank's initials "JNF" or '"JF” as the most desirable. During 1933 and 1934, Frank marked his firm’s wares with one of three marks—“FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLAHOMA,” “FRANK POTTERIES NORMAN OKLA” or “FRANK POTTERIES.” It wasn’t until he incorporated Frankoma Potteries in February 1934 that he used a rubber stamp with the of the word “Frankoma.” He didn’t use it for long, so it’s quite rare. From late 1934 until 1954 the company used an impressed mark.

Frank also used what collectors call the cat mark from 1934 until it was destroyed in the 1938 fire. Known as the “Pot and Puma” logo, it was the company's first trademark and featured a large ceramic vase with a Taylor pacing cat in the foreground. It can be found on larger pieces. After he rebuilt the company after the fire, Frank again used an impressed Frankoma mark but this time the “O” was oblong, and not round. This Frankoma mark continued to be hand impressed until the early 1950s when the trademark was often inducted in the mold along with the mold number. However, some of the pieces made at this time had no marks since Frank never modified their molds. He often personalized pieces he gave as gifts to friends, family and special customers. His etched message and signature is definitely the most valuable mark.

After Frank’s death in 1973, his daughter Joneice took over, but in September 1983, fire once again claimed the Frankoma Pottery. The following year, after reopening, she had to declare bankruptcy. Two more owners took over the molds and tried to keep the pottery going, but in 2011, the company finally went on the auction block.