Monday, December 26, 2016

Some Kugels Are for Hanging

QUESTION: I’ve been collecting Christmas ornaments for quite a few years. I don’t collect any particular type, just ones I like. Recently, I discovered several older ones in a booth in an antique coop. They were mixed in with a bunch of newer ornaments and at first, I didn’t pay much attention. But when I picked one up, it felt heavier than the thin glass ornaments of today. One of them looked like a bunch of grapes and the others like ribbed Christmas balls. So I bought them. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: It sounds like you’ve discovered some kugels, a type of heavy glass Christmas ornament made in Germany from about 1840 until 1914. The word kugel means “ball” in German, but it also is the name of a type of German pastry. The first ones were smooth, heavy glass balls that were too heavy to hang on anything but a stout pine in the yard, so people hung them in their windows. Kugel makers created them in the shape of grapes, apples, pears, pine cones, berries, tear drops and balls with melon-style ribs.

Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the kugel to compete with the glassblowers of neighboring Bohemia who had perfected blowing glass beads lined with lead mirroring solution with produced a brilliant shine. And although he was able to duplicate the lead mirroring solution, he couldn’t hand blow his kugels thin enough. The result was heavy pieces of glass shaped as balls in a rainbow of colors in sizes ranging from an inch in diameter to over 30 inches.

Originally, the glassblowers hung their kugels with bits of wire. After blowing a glass bubble, they snipped it from the blowing tube which resulted in a small neck with a hole leading to the inside of the kugel. They ground the neck down leaving just a hole and attached a decorative brass cap, held in place with wire arms that spread apart inside the glass sphere. Finally, they attached hanging rings to the caps and hung them with wire hooks.

These early kugels became known as “witches balls.” People hung them in their windows and doors to ward off witches, who, legend says, were repulsed by round shapes.

Kugel makers began experimenting with silvering the interior of their balls. Some used lead, while others employed bismuth or tin. Eventually, most settled on silver nitrate to create a metallic finish. Larger versions of these early kugels, called “gazing orbs,” sat on pedestals in people’s gardens.

It wasn’t until 1867, when Greiner-Schlotfeger’s village built a gas works that he had a steady, hot, adjustable flame, enabling him to blow thin-walled glass balls. From that point, it was a simple step to blowing glass into cookie molds shaped like fruits and pine cones. The glassblowers called them Biedermeierkugeln—referring to the Beidermeier Period in which they made them. However, these kugels were thin enough to hang on a Christmas tree, giving birth to today’s Christmas ornaments. The exteriors of these early ornaments glowed in bright red, cobalt, blue, green, silver, gold, and amethyst. 

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became all the rage among the wealthy. American retailer, F.W. Woolworth, saw these ornaments on a trip to Germany, but was reluctant to order any for his stores—at least at first. To his amazement, his original order sold out in two days.

By the last decade of the 19th century, kugel manufacturing had moved to Nancy, France. The decorations that came out of this region were lighter than those made in Germany and offered new exterior colors, including tangerine. 

But as with many other collectibles, cheap knock-offs began appearing in the American market years ago in a national mail order catalog. New pieces, made in the old shapes, such as round 2-inch balls, grapes in 5 and 3-inch clusters, and a 2 1/8-inch melon-ribbed ball, arrived in retailer’s shops with a removable paper label marked "Made in India."

The major difference between new and old kugels is the glass around the hole in the top of the ornament. Makers of early kugels cut off the neck around the hole with a blowing iron, making it flush with the kugel’s surface. On new kugels, the neck, technically called a spear or pike, remains.

The tops of these new necks have a "cracked off" appearance while the surface around the hole on older kugels is smoother. New kugels arrive from the wholesaler with an “antiqued” brass caps and pre-rusted top wires and hanging loops.

The value of older kugels depends on their size, shape, and exterior color. Pink, purple, and orange pieces are the rarest while red kugels, though obtainable, are expensive. The most common colors are silver, gold, green, and cobalt, in that order. While new kugels sell for about $8, originals can sell for as high as $1,000 and more.

For more information on kugels, read my article on antique Christmas ornaments.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Mini Means of Transport

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve long been interested in Plasticville buildings and accessories. I’ve got a few vehicles, but unfortunately, I don’t know very much about them. There were about a dozen different colors of these cars made, some with a molded hood ornament and some without.  Which colors are the rarest? How rare are the black ones?  I have heard rumors that there are reproductions of these cars on the market.  How would I be able to tell a reproduction car from an original?  Are the cars still being produced in China?  Are there ant new colors of these cars being made? 

ANSWER:  That’s a lot of questions about such little items. But before answering them, a bit of background is in order.

Bachmann Brothers, in business in Philadelphia since 1833, selected the name "Plasticville, U.S.A." for its line of injection-molded plastic buildings and accessories which it began manufacturing in late 1946. Prior to that time, the company manufactured women’s hair combs from celluloid, the first synthetic plastic material developed in 1868, followed by celluloid optical frames known as "tortoise shell" and protective eye wear for military use until World War II.

At first, Bachman produced plastic white picket fences for use around “putzes,” or under-the-tree Christmas displays. With the success of these rather common items, the firm launched a group of accessories, including plastic trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence, for use in the displays, themselves. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the various accessories it had begun to produce. The key, executives knew, was to create an fictional town of plastic buildings, so they decided on the name "Plasticville U.S.A."

The new product name captured the optimism of the early postwar years and conjured up the modern as well as the traditional. The word "plastic" connoted a revolutionary new material with unlimited potential associated with convenient, inexpensive, and readily disposable items.

But the fictional folks of Plasticville had no way to get around until 1954, when Bachman brought out its first vehicle assortment, the V-10, which included a jet bomber and jet fighter (for the veterans of World War II and Korean war who had become fathers), a fire pumper truck and fire ladder truck (to protect the town’s buildings from fire), an ambulance (for emergencies), a bus (for mass transit), and four cars.

A smaller V-6 Assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, fire ladder truck, ambulance, bus, and two cars, followed two years later. The company only sold its vehicles in sets. Buyers had only the choice of these two assortments, or in special “Master” units, which contained a number of items on a theme such as the “Airport and Accessories Unit” with its two jet planes, ambulance, fire engine, and car.

Occasionally, individual building kits contained a specialized vehicle. So if a buyer wanted more cars, for example, he had to purchase another whole assortment to get them. Bachman packaged all of its Plasticville accessories this way.

But Bachman cut corners on its packaging. The boxes which contained these vehicle sets and those of other accessories were cheaply made. Each was of the thinnest cardboard and had a window covered in a thin sheet of cellophane to show off the product inside. Needless to say, they didn’t last long. Most owners of Plasticville items packed them up in their original boxes after Christmas. The constant unpacking and packing eventually took its toll, so few of these vehicle assortments exist today in their original boxes.

While the airplanes came in silver and the fire trucks in their usual red, the cars came in a variety of colors, including  red, orange, yellow, green, dark green, pastel blue, gray blue, turquoise, dark blue, aqua, black. The mix varied randomly from one assortment to another. So if a buyer wanted to purchase more cars of one color, he had to purchase more assortments. Of all the colors, dark blue is the hardest to find in any vehicle. Orange is also hard to find. As for the cars, black is the hardest to find. It’s for this reason that a set of a half dozen black cars, claiming to be rare by its eBay seller, couldn’t possibly be so.

The company produced two different styles of cars for its Plasticville assortments. One had a plain hood and the other had a hood ornament added. There’s not correlation between the hooded ornaments and those without and the colors of the cars.

Because the Plasticville cars, in particular, have become such hot items for collectors, there are lots of reproductions and fakes on the market. Each authentic Plasticville car bears the inscription “Plasticville U.S.A.” on the interior underside of the car’s roof.

One of the most mysterious of all the vehicles is the dark blue bus. Collectors believe that it originally came with the Lionel Highway Set No. 955 and the Lionel Vehicle Set No. 958 sold under license from Bachman in 1958. The first set’s 22 pieces included two buses in either grey or dark blue and a car, plus assorted street and road signs and telephone poles, all selling for $1.00.

The second set sold for 25 cents more and included all the vehicles in the V-10 Assortment except the jet plane, plus a fire alarm box, a traffic signal, assorted street signs, a mail box, and a fire hydrant.

Those seeking to tell whether a car is an authentic Plasticville should look for the “flash,” as well as the quality of the plastic. Today’s plastics are definitely stronger and more solid looking than those used in the 1950s.

In 1984, Kader Industries of Dongguan, China, took over Bachman’s entire Plasticville line. That year Plasticville pieces looked exactly like the originals, with the company’s trademark BB in a circle plus Plasticville USA molded into each piece. After that, the company re-etched the molds to say "Made in China.”

Kader Industries still produces a car assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, aerial ladder truck,  a yellow ambulance, a green bus and a car. It’s important to note that the bus and ambulance have never been offered in these colors before.

Today, individual Plasticville cars sell for anywhere from $1.25 to as much as $27. Most are sold in groups of three or more. As with most collectibles, condition and rarity affect price. There’s also a marked difference in the design of the cars from their beginnings in 1954 to the present day.

Original cars had a solid molded plastic body with turning white wheels.  Later versions had more detailing and black wheels with hub caps. But buyer beware since some online sellers offer groups of six “rare” cars of the same type. If a car is that rare, it would be hard to find six in mint condition.

Read more about collecting Plasticville U.S.A. in The Antiques Almanac.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Unraveling Antique American Samplers

QUESTION: I love to do cross-stitch needlework. I’ve been admiring antique samplers and would love to start collecting them. But I’ve heard there are a lot of fakes out there. How can I be sure I’m buying the real thing?

That’s a reasonable question in light of today’s antique market. Samplers in particular fetch high prices, especially at Americana shows. There’s a good chance that the unsuspecting buyer discovering a single one in an antique shop will be taken, through no fault of the dealer. Most antique dealers can’t tell real samplers from fake ones. It’s only those who specialize in such things that can truly tell the difference.

According to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the earliest known American sampler was made in Plymouth Colony around 1645. Over the next two centuries, women created samplers as a way to save different types of stitches or designs they might want to use sometime in the future.

An example of a 19th-century young girl's needlework could show the extent and quality of her education as well as her religious and moral convictions. Schoolgirls from wealthier families used more expensive threads and learned more complicated designs or stitches while those from poor families used samplers almost as resumes of their abilities in an effort to gain employment in doing sewing.

Today, collectors consider samplers works of art, as well as insights into the past.  Subject matter ranges from a simple alphabet to complex landscapes, Biblical scenes and passages, as well as birth/death/ marriage records offering valuable genealogical information. In the past, collectors overlooked samplers as ordinary exercises in needlework, but today, they’re highly collectible and can command extremely high prices. For example, a sampler, sewn by New Jersey schoolgirl Mary Antrim sold at Sotheby’s for a over $1 million in 2012, while another fetched over $611,000 in 2003. Some sampler makers used only thread and needlework to create them while others used watercolors and paper and added  embellishments like seed pearls or beads.

There are plenty of samplers being made today specifically intended to deceive unwary collectors in this lucrative tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars market. The safest way to buy a sampler, of course, is through a reputable dealer who has a well-established reputation in sampler authentication. On the other hand, the riskiest way to purchase one is through an online auction site or an unknown online seller. Without being able to closely examine the fabric used and other details, there's no way to know for sure if a sampler is real or a fake.

So what are some ways to tell a fake or reproduction sampler from the real thing? One of the first thing to check is fabric discoloration. Old fabrics can darken in spots or brown to some degree in general, but much of this depends on what type of fabric the woman used and where it has been stored over time.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to sampler age. However, there are a couple of basic things to look for to make sure the browning is authentic. Many times, fakers will add browning to fabric by staining or darkening the fabric with tea or coffee. If a sampler browns, it tends to do so naturally around the edges near the frame, but blotchy browning should raise a cautionary flag. Also, if the fabric is wrinkled as if it were twisted or bunched up and the brown spots seem to follow that pattern, there's a good chance the browning has been added deliberately.

There have been a few cases where the actual date sewn onto a sampler has been altered to make the piece appear older—a "9" changed to an "8" or a "6" changed to a "0."  If there's no evidence of stitches having been removed from the fabric and the piece is important enough, a genealogical search can be done to determine the dates of the needleworker's' life. If the sampler includes her age, would she have been of the correct age during the year sewn into the sampler.

Collectors interested in samplers from a particular region or school will find it easier to use style and thread type to authenticate them. By studying designs and types of thread used in a particular region or school throughout the years, when they came into use and  when they stopped being used, it’s easy to date just about any sampler. Certain designs or stitching styles may also be more prevalent in a particular region, a certain school, or during a specific time period. On the other hand, some designs or stitch styles may not have been used at all by a particular school.

As with any antiques or collectibles in today’s market, it’s buyer beware. Being educated about samplers is the best defense to being taken.

Monday, December 5, 2016

How About a Cuppa?

QUESTION: My mother collected cups and saucers from dinnerware sets for years. She was also a great tea drinker. Recently, she died and now I have her collection. I don’t collect much of anything but I do like the variety she amassed in her collection. Why did she get so much pleasure from collecting all these different cups and saucers and what did that have to do with her liking tea?

ANSWER: Cups and saucers have a deep and historic connection to drinking tea. For collectors, they’re one of the easiest items to collect in all price ranges. Some people collect them from different makers, others collect different designs, and still others collect historically significant ones. Whatever the reason, cups and saucers are one of the most popular collectibles.

To understand how they are connected to tea drinking, we have to go back to 1800 when Joseph Spode invented the formula for bone china, a delicate but durable white porcelain to which he added finely ground animal bone. Spode decorated his first bone china teabowls (handleless cups) and saucers in brightly colored enamels and often gilded them. He copied many floral, figural, and landscape designs from the Chinese.

The earliest tea sets were copies of Chinese ones. Since the Chinese drank only lukewarm tea, the user could grip the cup, thus no handle was necessary. Cups from early tea sets had no handle. At the beginning of the 19th century, people began “saucering” their tea, or pouring some into the saucer to cool, then sipping it from the saucer. But eventually, this method went out of style. After that all cups had handles.

The English are great tea drinkers and created the daily ritual of “afternoon tea.”  An important part of this ritual is the cup and saucer, the more beautiful and delicate the better.  The need for these vessels encourage the production of numerous cups and saucers by English potteries. Many of them produced bone china dinnerware and exported  their products to the United States and Canada. During the 19th century, It became fashionable for young brides to collect sample cups and saucers from different sets.

Royal  Crown Derby richly gilded its "Imari" pattern and decorated it in the reds and blues of Japanese Imari ware. Minton produced beautiful hand-painted ring handles and butterfly handled bone china teacups highly prized by collectors. Doulton's Burslem factory made fine bone china cups decorated in gold with elaborate designs. Other companies, such as Aynsley, Foley, Crown Staffordshire and Royal Albert, produced bone china dinnerware with colorful transfer decorations.

Highly treasured by advanced collectors are the exquisite cabinet cups and saucers made by the leading porcelain factories in Europe in the 18th and 19th century. Women considered these lovely cups and saucers to be works of art and proudly displayed them in their cabinets.

Sevres produced magnificent cabinet cups and saucers with hand-painted portrait panels and richly gilt border designs, many in the "blue roi" color. Vienna Company developed a similar color in the 18th century, and today this cobalt blue shade is still a favorite with collectors. Both Vienna and KPM decorated their cabinet cups and saucers with magnificent reproductions of paintings by famous artists, such as Kauffman, as well as with beautiful florals and much gilding.

Cups and saucers from the elegant dinnerware services of the 19th and early 20th centuries are lovely to collect and offer good value. "Top-of-the-line" are cups and saucers from Meissen dessert sets, many with reticulated borders and multicolored hand-painted flowers. The best known and most copied porcelain decoration created by Meissen is the Blue Onion pattern, first designed in the early 18th century. Meissen based it on a Chinese pattern from the Ming Dynasty, and it got its name from a stylized peach that resembled an onion. More than 60 European and Oriental companies used this decoration, and many cup and saucer collectors hunt for examples of the different "onion" styles.

The most popular dinnerware in the mid to late 19th century was Limoges porcelain. Limoges was the center of hard paste porcelain production in France, and many companies exported dinnerware to America. Collectors actively seek cups and saucers from these sets because they offer a tremendous variety of shapes and decoration and are usually very affordable. Collectors look for the hand-painted examples. Floral decor, especially the rose, is the most frequent decoration followed by fruit themes, game birds and fish. Some cups and saucers have deep, vivid colors, while others, especially by Theodore Haviland, have delicate pastel coloring. Collectors prize many of them  because of their rich gold embellishments.

You can easily add to your mother’s collection. But before you do so, you should take an inventory by studying the marks on the bottoms of the cups and saucers. Try to see if she collected cups and saucers from certain companies or whether she collected them by design. Then decide how you would like to collect them. Don’t be afraid of selling or giving away pieces that my be slightly damaged or not in styles that you like. And while your mother may have left you her collection, it’s your collection now.

Monday, November 28, 2016

It All BeganWith an Elephant

QUESTION: I recently found a darling little felt elephant pincushion in a local antique shop. The dealer said it was a Steiff, but I thought Steiff only made teddybears. Did the company make other things? What can you tell me about my little elephant?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, you bought one of the items that Steiff made. The company has made fine quality of teddybears since they produced their first bear in 1903, but it didn’t start there. Over two decades before, Margarete Steiff designed a small felt elephant that she made as both a pincushion and a child’s toy.

Margarete Steiff faced a lot of challenges before coming a successful businesswoman. Even before she could walk, she lost the use of her legs from polio. Confined to a wheelchair as she grew up, she became a skilled seamstress and ran a successful dress making enterprise from her home in Germany. She gave her little elephants to friends and neighbors.

In 1880 she sold eight of the elephants, thus marking the beginning of the Margarete Steiff Toy Company. Her brother Fritz thought her elephants appealing and in 1883 he took a some of the elephants to a market in Heidenheim where he received a large number of orders. The company's price list of that year described "felt toys for children – robust and safe. Elephant with colored blanket." Steiff made her elephants in several sizes and stuffed them with leftover pieces of felt. She added metals wheels to some of them and left others without them. Building up this initial success, she showed the elephants at an export showroom in Stuttgart and soon she began creating additional animals for her line.

Business continued to grow, and in 1889 the company moved into a building that provided a corner shop with display windows. By 1893 the company had four employees and ten home workers, with a traveling sales representative added to the payroll the following year. Margarete's brother Fritz was a major help in designing wood and metal frames for the larger toys, and in obtaining equipment to allow increased production. Margarete concentrated on creating felt toys, using the best materials available, thus setting the benchmark for Steiff's reputation for quality that continues today.

To distinguish her work, Margarete filed patents and used a trademark of an elephant printed on a paper label. In 1904, she had the elephant trademark embossed on a metal button which she attached to each animal.

In 1897 Fritz' son Richard joined the firm. He’s the one who created the first teddy bear, which became the chief product of the company. Two of Richard's brothers, Paul and Franz, joined the firm in 1898. Franz developed the trademark "button-in-ear" concept for which Steiff has become known. A fourth brother, Otto, joined the company in 1902, and brother Hugo followed in 1906.

Eventually, Steiff’s little felt elephant grew into an entire menagerie of rabbits, deer, polar bears, frogs, fox terriers, and a big collection of monkeys. One of the most popular animals was a chimpanzee that wore a chauffeur’s cap.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Hess Toy Trucks Still Rolling Along After Over 50 Years

NOTE: This week marks the seventh anniversary of this blog. It also marks a milestone in readership with over 125,000 views. To commemorate both events, I'm presenting an update of my very first post on Hess Toy Trucks.

QUESTION: I want to buy a Hess toy truck for my son for Christmas. I saw an ad for the newest one on T.V. which said I could buy them online. Aren’t they being sold at local Hess gas stations anymore? I remember my first Hess truck. I played with it until it literally fell apart.

ANSWER: A lot has happened since you first received your first Hess truck for Christmas. In fact, a lot has happened to the company in the last three years. The Hess Oil Company has undergone some major changes, the biggest being the selling off of all of their gas stations to Marathon Petroleum. These are set to become Speedway stations by the end of 2017. So naturally, Hess trucks won’t be sold there anymore. Instead, Hess Oil has set up a special Web site to sell its latest truck.

Hess sold its toy trucks online for the first time in 2012, hoping to reach out-of-town customers who didn’t reside near one of Hess’s East Coast gas stations. Last year, it sold them online and at select malls. This year marks the first time that Hess will sell the trucks exclusively online.

Starting in 1964, the Hess Oil Company wanted to thank their loyal customers by making small replicas of their trucks as a token of appreciation for their business throughout the year. The company was the first one to manufacture toy trucks that had working lights and sound.

The Hess toy trucks, helicopters, police cars, airplanes, space shuttles and rescue vehicles have been popular Christmas gift traditions for over 50 years. In fact, it’s one of the longest running toy brands on the market.

Because the company produced these trucks in limited quantities, they limited each customer to two of them. That first truck sold for $1.29, and today can sell for over $2,500. Over the last 20 years, the value of some of the older Hess trucks has doubled.

Hess periodically has a rare truck such as the 1995 chrome truck with helicopter and the 2002 chrome Mini, which the company gave away at a stockholder meeting. In  2006, it gave a special truck to New York Stock Exchange employees to commemorate its name change from Amerada Hess Corporation to Hess Corporation.

However, more than half the value of each truck depends on the condition of its box. If the truck, itself, is also in perfect condition, then it’s considered to be “MIB” or “Mint-in-Box.”  Most people have trucks they bought to give to their kids for Christmas. Unfortunately, their children played with the trucks and now they’re worth a fraction of the mint ones.

Plus values of these toys tend to fluctuate, depending on who’s buying them. While dealers pay the lowest amount and then double it to sell them, some collectors will pay just about anything to get the truck they want. In fact, one collector drove four miles to meet a woman in a rest area on an Interstate highway just to look at a truck she had for sale. But true value of a truck is whatever anyone is willing to pay for it.

While the first trucks were tankers, succeeding ones ran the gamut from transports to fire trucks and car carriers.  In 1966, Hess deviated from its line of trucks by producing an ocean-going tanker, based on the Hess Voyager, a patrol car in 1993, a helicopter in 2001, an SUV in 2004, and a race car in 1988, 1997, 2009, 2011, and this year, 2016. but it wasn’t until 1993 that the company offered a police car and in other years sold a helicopter carrier and monster truck. In recent years, boxes have contained one larger vehicle transporting smaller friction-motor vehicles, such as motorcycles, race cars, or cruisers.

The 2016 Hess Toy Truck and Dragster is a powerful, race-ready duo with sleek styling, drag-racing inspired sounds, over 50 brilliant lights, and an innovative design for wheelie-popping action. The truck is a mighty motorsport flatbed designed to transport the dragster to any racing event. Styled with a solid green lower body and green-accented white upper body, it’s loaded with chrome detailing including a front grill, sunshield, side panels, and exhaust pipes. The cab houses four top-mounted buttons that activate three realistic sounds—horn, ignition, and a race launch countdown, as well as the headlights, tail and running lights. A hidden ramp with slide-activated hydraulic sound ensures this duo can quickly get to the next dragstrip.

The oversized dragster is the largest accompanying race car in the fleet’s history. Its innovative pull-back motor and tilt-activated weight transfer design allows the speedster to launch in either a flat or wheelie position. The racer features super bright LED headlights, a stylish spoiler, and chrome detailed hood-mounted air intake, side exhaust pipes and rear parachute box.

Because Hess toy trucks didn’t gain mass popularity until the 1980s, those few collectors savvy enough to pack one away in its box without touching it are the only ones who can cash in on the higher values of Hess toy trucks from 1964, when they first came out, through the 1970s.

The Hess Toy Truck is one of the longest-running toy brands on the market. However, the price has gone up considerably from that first truck selling for $1.29 in 1964 to $31.99 for this year’s truck and dragster.

Remember, unless a Hess truck is an early model and still new in a pristine box, it has little value. Unfortunately, the market for Hess trucks has been flat for several years, so selling all but the oldest trucks will be a challenge.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Save That Button

QUESTION: My father left me his collection of political buttons. While most are from the last few decades, he managed to find some from the early 20th century. What can you tell me about the history of political buttons and are they worth keeping?

ANSWER: With the recent presidential election less than a week old and much of the country in shock over the outcome, it’s no wonder you’re asking about your collection of political buttons. In the past, these
have been a major part of presidential campaigns. But unless people were working for the candidates, were delegates to either party’s conventions, or were party committee members, political memorabilia seemed to be conspicuously absent from this election.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone wearing a political button or see a car sporting a bumper sticker for a candidate. With the prominence of television and social media, people didn’t seem to be outwardly showing their support for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—and that’s what tripped up the pollsters. So how important is the campaign button?

The early 20th century saw a greater array of presidential campaign memorabilia than ever before in American history. Presidential hopefuls handed out plates, bandannas, posters, paperweights—and, yes, buttons. Candidates didn’t have the funds available  for radio and television ads back then.

Even today the lure of presidential campaign memorabilia remains for most any pocketbook. Tin tabs for Lyndon Johnson or Nelson Rockefeller go for a dollar or two. Jugate buttons feature images of both the presidential and vice presidential candidates on the same button. A Franklin Roosevelt/James Cox jugate button has sold for as much as $50,000.

One of the treasures of the 1904 campaign effort of Alton Parker and Henry Davis was a jugate paperweight with both a shield and flags in color. That same year the United States Glass Company produced a glass tray with the frosted image of Teddy Roosevelt. The oval-shaped bread plate also bore his campaign slogan, "A Square Deal."

Republicans William Taft and James Sherman offered a unique milk glass bank in 1908. After the election, the red, white and blue containers could be used as banks.

Watch fobs were all the rage in the early 1900s, and most presidential candidates handed them out. In 1908, William Jennings Bryan offered one of the most attractive, with the message, "White House Lock Holds the Key."

Like Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt made use of numerous campaign items during his election efforts. His postcards of 1912 first endorsed William Taft but later his western-style cotton bandanna pledged, "My hat is in the ring." The National Kerchief Company printed thousands of these bandannas for TR's Bull Moose Party convention in 1912. The New York Times carried this account of their impact: A woman stood up and waved a bandanna in the most frantic fashion. The woman was beaming...The woman was Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt!"

Many of the campaign treasures changed as the nation moved into the Roaring Twenties. Lithographed tin trays, paperweights, ribbon badges, and watch fobs were  popular until 1920. After that license plates, tin tabs, pennants, and items of jewelry joined the wide array of election mementos already available.

The campaign of 1920 produced one of the most sought after political items of the century. After years of harmony with Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats had become badly divided by 1920 and didn’t spend much on campaigning. So campaign buttons for James Cox and running mate Franklin Roosevelt, for example, were relatively few. One particular Cox-Roosevelt button brought $5,000 in 1976, $33,000 in 1981, and $50,000 in 1990.

Head gear also grew more colorful in the 1920s. It ranged from a red, white, and blue beanie for Warren Harding in 1920 to a brown derby in behalf of Al Smith whose trademark was such a hat in 1928.

America's increasing preoccupation with the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s gave a natural spin to car-related memorabilia, including bumper stickers.

The market for presidential campaign memorabilia is booming. The most desired campaign buttons sell for lots of money. But those with smaller budgets have plenty of opportunities to buy pieces of electoral history at reasonable prices. Original campaign buttons, including those bearing the likenesses of some of the most popular candidates, sell online for less than $30 dollars each.

And as with all collectibles, it’s better to collect items, in this case buttons, that aren’t mass produced but are from smaller batches and special events. Do you have a button for Hillary Clinton? If so, you had better hold on to it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Black as Jet

QUESTION: I recently purchased a beautiful shiny black brooch that’s made of a very hard material, almost like stone. I’ve never seen anything like it. Can you tell me what it’s made of and something about it?

ANSWER: It looks like you’ve discovered a piece of Victorian mourning jewelry. One of the primary materials used to make pieces like your brooch was jet, a hard type of coal found along the Yorkshire coast of England.

On December 14, 1861, Queen  Victoria woke to find that her beloved husband, Albert, had died in his sleep of typhoid. Deeply distressed, Victoria went into full mourning and the England, out of respect and love for her, followed her example. An atmosphere of grief permeated English society. It was customary during this time for a widow to remain in full mourning for two years, and then half mourning for six months, but Queen Victoria never stopped grieving.

During the last half of the 19th century in the United States, especially after the Civil War, death was rampant and grief overshadowed both the North and South. More than a million lives were lost. When the war officially ended on April 9, 1865, a crippled nation already reeling  from the devastation of war became shrouded with grief.

Symbolic images of sorrow, love and devotion were the custom at the time. Men and women wore carved and molded pieces of mourning jewelry, an acceptable behavior during the  bereavement period. But by the 1890s, fashion and attitude had lightened, and people tucked the mementos of grief away for posterity.

In the early 1860s, the material of choice for black jewelry was jet, a hard type of lignite coal.  The best jet, found along the rocky Yorkshire shoreline, had a compact mineral structure making it strong enough to withstand carving and turning on a lathe. Jet also retained a high polish and resisted fading. As a result, an industry grew up around the mining and fabrication of jet during the mid-19th century in the small coastal village of Whitby.

At one time, the natural supply of jet was so plentiful that people could find substantial chunks of the shiny black substance washed up along the shore. Eventually however, the supply of true jet dwindled, so a replacement had to be found. Jet miners discovered coal in lower York which they mined from estuary beds where the tide washed into fresh water channels. However, this alternative jet was inferior to the original. It was soft and didn’t respond to carving and polishing as well as the Whitby variety.

The jet industry then turned to other sources for their supplies, importing jet from Spain and Cannel bituminous coal from Scotland to Whitby for use in making mourning jewelry. While these types of coal lacked hardness and luster, both were still better than the coal from southern Yorkshire. Artisans soon began carving jewelry components from these alternatives, and then combined them with decorative components fashioned from true Whitby jet.

When supplies of alternative jet became difficult to come by, fabricators sought other black materials, including black onyx and French jet; also called Vauxhall. Both became equally popular. In reality, French jet and Vauxhall are black glass, and it became an excellent substitute for true jet because it remained shiny and wouldn’t fade. It’s often difficult to tell the difference between authentic and faux jet by sight alone. Handling the materials immediately tells the difference. Black glass is heavy and cold to the touch because it doesn’t conduct heat, whereas true jet is light and room temperature. The details on carved jet items are often clean and sharp, while molded black glass may not be as defined and can also show signs of chipping or flaking.

Jet wasn't the only black colored`natural material that jewelry makers used to carve into mourning items. Bog Oak, a brownish black fossilized peat found deep in the bogs of Ireland,  is dark, lightweight and room temperature. It may appear to have a slight wood grain visible through its matte surface. Jewelry makers also used ebony, the heavy, tight-grained dark wood from the ebonaceae tree, to carve into jewelry items.

But for the Victorians, jet symbolized the deep emotional tie to a loved one through death.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Romantic Tale

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the look of Blue Willow china. My mother had a set that she brought out for special occasions. I used to love to clean my plate so I could see the delicate Chinese blue decoration on the white plate. Recently, I bought an older pink plate made by Homer Laughlin here in the U.S. This is the first time I’ve seen this pattern in another color. What can you tell me about the origin of the plate’s design and about other colors of glaze used to produce it?

ANSWER: The Blue Willow pattern has been in existence since the late 18th century. For over 200 years, it has been one of the most popular china patterns ever made. These mostly blue and white dishes could be found in many households, from the mansions of the wealthy to the more modest homes of the middle class. Today, the pattern can even be purchased in supermarkets.

Many people have looked at the three figures going over the bridge, the pagoda, the boat, and the two birds hovering above the willows and wondered what story inspired  the scene.

The pattern featuring this scene became popular when English ceramic artists combined and adapted motifs inspired the hand-painted blue and white ware then imported from China. In developing the Blue Willow pattern, English potters were finally able to produce a dinnerware to compete with the Chinese imports. At the same time, a new decoration technique using engraved tissue paper transfers allowed potteries to cut costs and mass produce china to sell at a reasonable price.

English potteries produced many different Chinese-inspired landscape patterns using this process, both on bone china and porcelain wares, and on white earthenware. The Blue Willow pattern became the most popular and has remained in production ever since. The majority of pieces have a white background with blue images, but some potteries have used other colors in various pastel tints.

No one knows exactly when the pattern first appeared, but during the 1780s various engravers including Thomas Lucas and Thomas Minton began producing Chinoiserie landscape scenes based on Chinese ceramic originals.  These included scenes with willows, boats, pavilions and birds which artists later incorporated into the Blue Willow pattern. In 1793, Thomas Minton set up his own studio in Stoke-on-Trent, from which he produced willow patterns for Spode and other potteries. Most historians agree that Minton probably produced the Blue Willow pattern known today for Spode around 1790.

Normally, the pattern fills a circular or oval area on a piece of china, surrounded by a decorative border. The waterside landscape represents a garden in the lower right side, in which a large two-story pavilion stands. Approached by steps, the lower story has three large pillars with arched windows or openings between. The roof and gable, shown in three-quarter perspective, is surmounted by a smaller room with a similar roof, and there are curling finials at the gables and eaves. Bushes and trees with varied fruit and foliage, including a large tree rising behind with clusters of oranges, surround the pavilion. The roof of another pavilion appears among the trees to the right and a smaller pavilion stands to the left projecting from the waterside bank. A path through the garden leads to the front of the scene and a fence of diapered panels set in a zigzag fashion crosses the foreground.

On its left side the garden forms an irregular and indented bank into the water. In the  foreground of which a large branching willow tree with four clusters of three leafy fronds leans out. From this point a bridge, usually of three arches, crosses left to an island or bank with a house having a tall arched doorway, and a small tree behind. There are usually three figures on the bridge going away from the garden. Above and beyond this the water forms an open expanse, with a boat at the center left containing two little house-like cabins, propelled by a figure with a punt-pole. In the upper left quarter is a distant island or promontory with pavilions and trees, including a fir. Above the scene in the center is a pair of flying doves, one turning and one descending, their heads and beaks turned closely towards one another in amorous conjunction.

Though there are variations, the Blue Willow pattern always includes the bridge, the garden fence, the central pair of birds, and the particular details of the pavilions and surrounding trees

To promote sales of Minton's Willow pattern, Spode created stories based on the elements in the design.  The most popular is a romantic tale of a wealthy Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter Koong-se. She fell in love with Change, her father's servant. This made her father angry because he wasn’t of the same social class as Koong-se. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin planned for his daughter to marry a rich merchant, who arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.

On the eve of the daughter's wedding to the merchant, Chang slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm sounded. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. Eventually they escaped on the merchant's ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they would have lived happily ever after. But one day, the merchant learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves. However, early plates lack the doves, suggesting that Spode added this detail to the story later on.

Some people, including author Allan Drummond would have readers believe that the pattern was the result of this story, but in fact, it was the other way around. The romantic story was a marketing tool that Spode used to sell its wares—nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Life in Miniature

QUESTION: My sisters and I loved to play with dolls. My mother bought us each several sets of large doll furniture made by the Hall’s Lifetime Toy Company. We took very good care of this furniture and still have it today. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: Hall’s Lifetime Toys of Chattanooga, Tennessee, made some of the best doll furniture on the market in the 1950s to 1980s. They became known for their quality pieces which came in every size, shape, and style to match various types of dolls available at the time.

Charles Hall built his company up from a single canopy bed which he took to the New York Toy Show in 1942 where it won several prizes and was even featured in the New York Times. He took home orders for 2,000 beds but didn’t have a place or a staff of workers to make them. So he rented a store, hired some workers from a local furniture plant to make the beds.

Eventually, he produced his canopy bed in five sizes. It became the basis of his new toy business.

The furniture Hall made in the 1950s was for 8-inch dolls like Ginny, Muffy, Ginger, Madame Alexander, and others. Later, he began producing pieces large enough for  Barbie dolls. To add some variety to his canopy beds, he created three styles of headboards.

Halls became the largest manufacturer of wooden doll furniture in the country. The company sold its wares to a number of high-end toy and department stores, including FAO Schwartz and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Marshall Fields in Chicago, and I. Magnin in San Francisco.

When Hall died in 1959, his wife Marie took over. She added doll houses, made by Arcade Lithographing, to the company’s product line, selling them for $25 in 1964.

The firm’s promoted the quality of their products and packed a guarantee pamphlet in every box. Also included was a black and white fold-out pamphlet with numbers assigned to each doll furniture item.

The peak years for Hall’s Lifetime Toys were from the 1960s to the 1980s. Over the years, they made furniture for 8 to12-inch dolls, 3/4" scale miniature furniture, and 1/12 scale furniture and dollhouses.

Today, you can find Hall’s pieces on eBay and Etsy and other online collectible auction sites. The value of these varies but has remained quite high. A four-poster Barbie-size bed sells for around $64 while a wooden make-up table and stool for Barbie sells for $59. A single bed plus make-up vanity and bench sells for $110 on eBay. Some pieces, such as a pink vanity table with mirror and bench for a Ginny Doll, can sell for as much as $110. A patio chaise lounge and side  table alone goes for $30.  A three-piece living room set—sofa, armchair, and coffee table—goes for around $100. All prices include shipping.

Hall’s made a wide variety of doll furniture, from period pieces to sleek modern renditions. The company even produced bathroom sets, complete with tub, sink, and toilet. All of its furniture was handcrafted out of wood and painted in a variety of colors. Beds came with mattresses, pillows, and blankets, and living sets had real upholstery.