Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Biscuit Tins Never Get Stale

QUESTION: I’ve inherited my mother’s collection of English biscuit tins. She had been collecting them since she made a trip to England at the end of the 1960s. Her collection includes over four dozen tins, some are fancier than others. I love these old tins and want to continue collecting them. When my mother began collecting, she had to buy them during several trips to England. But today, I figure I can purchase them online. Can you tell me more about their history? Also, do you think I can add to her collection?

ANSWER: Biscuit tins are a fascinating part of British cultural history. They’re even tied to the monarchy. And while today manufacturers don’t make them as fancy as some of the ones from the early part of the 20th century, they’re still very popular with collectors. The peak of biscuit tin production ran from the late 1890s to the 1930s. Though originally meant to hold biscuits—the British term for “cookies”—they eventually became collectible works of art in themselves.

The history of the biscuit tin began with the passing of the Licensed Grocer’s Act of 1861 which allowed groceries to be individually packaged and sold. This coincided with the removal of the duty on paper for printed labels, so printing directly on to tinplate became common.

The bakery of Huntley & Palmers pioneered the use of metal tins. In 1832, Joseph Huntley’s son, who founded Huntley, Boorne & Stevens in an ironmongers opposite the bakery, began handcrafting large square seven- to ten-pound tins with glass inset tops for retailers. Grocery store clerks would measure out the amount of biscuits from these tins and place them in a paper bag for the customer. However, they didn’t stay fresh for very long once the customer returned home.

So Joseph Huntley began creating smaller tins without the glass insets so that customers could purchase their biscuits in a container to keep them fresh which they could take home. The tins were of such excellent quality that people began to reuse them to hold other things. The tins needed decoration but the only way to do that at the time was to paint them by hand.

In the early 1860s, all that changed with the invention of direct tin printing. This was a complicated and time-consuming technique. Then along came London printer Benjamin George George (That isn’t a typo.), who invented the lithographic transfer method.

In 1868, Huntley & Palmers commissioned the first lithographically decorated tin using George’s method from the London firm of De La Rue. Buckingham Palace granted the bakery permission to supply biscuits to the Royal Family. In order to create an appropriate design befitting the Royal Family, they hired Victorian designer Owen Jones to create a pattern which they could use on the biscuit tins using George’s new method. The result was a richly decorated oblong tin with the Royal Coat of Arms on the lid, now known to collectors as the “Ben George tin.” 

But George’s direct lithographic process, which involved laying an inked stone directly on to a sheet of tin, made it difficult to line up the colors. The breakthrough in decorative tin plate production was the invention of the offset lithographic process in 1877, which consists of bringing a sheet of rubber into contact with the decorated stone, and then setting-off the impression so obtained upon the metal surface. With this method, printers could use any number of colors, position them correctly, and apply the design to an uneven surface if necessary. Thus the elaborately embossed, colorful designs that became a hallmark of late Victorian biscuit tins became technically possible.

It became possible to make tins in almost any shape imaginable. Biscuit lovers bought baskets, windmills, cars, locomotives, globes, tables, and even mailboxes as much for their decorative qualities as their contents. Between 1868 and the outbreak of World War II, Huntley & Palmers issued around 400 tin designs with a lots of variations.

The most exotic designs appeared in the early years of the 20th century, just prior to the First World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, costs had risen substantially and the design of biscuit tins tended to be more conservative, with the exception of those targeted at the Christmas market and intended to appeal to children.

One of the most unique and most popular of biscuit tin designs resembled a stack of books held together with a belt. This 1901 Huntley & Palmers tin, known as “Literature,” was so realistically done that the covers and spines of the books appear to have been deeply tooled and inked and the page edges convincingly marbled and swirled in a rainbow of colors.

Most popular, however, were the tins shaped like vehicles. It was no coincidence that car, train, airplane, and boat tins bore a striking resemblance to similar toys sold at British department and toy stores since toy companies often crafted them from the same molds they used for their products. An example is Carr & Co's double-decker bus tin, made especially for them by Chad Valley and virtually identical to Chad Valley's toy bus except for the internal clockwork mechanism and different advertising.

But Huntley and Palmers were by no means the only company that made unusual biscuit tins. Some of the other famous biscuit tin sellers were Carr & Company., William Crawford & Sons, MacFarlane, Land & Company., and Peek, Frean, and Company. 

During the Second World War, all production on biscuit tins stopped so that factories and materials could be used for the war effort. When the war ended in 1945, production resumed but the tins weren’t as popular as before the war.

Peek, Frean, and Company, McVitie’s, and Jacob’s all became household names but for collectors Huntley & Palmers stands out. Collectors are particularly attracted to the decorative novelty tins. Condition is of prime importance, perhaps even more so with biscuit tins since they rust easily. Many also become worn or dented, giving the novice collector an opportunity to acquire interesting examples relatively cheaply.

Today, biscuit tins range in price from $10 to $200 online. However, the prices of those in British antiques shops are climbing into the stratosphere. This is due mostly to the antiques tourist trade. The most expensive tin sold at auction for over $20,000.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

We've Come a Long Way Baby

QUESTION: I discovered an unusual bottle in a box lot I bought at a local house sale.  The bottle is about six or seven inches long, pale green, and oval but doesn’t have a flat bottom, so it must lay on its front or back. Do you have any idea what this little bottle would have contained or been used for?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, your little bottle once held baby’s milk.
The development of baby bottles took centuries to transform into the sterile plastic throwaways in use today. As knowledge of germs and hygiene developed, so did the infant feeder. While parents of earlier times sensed that babies who were breast fed had a better chance at surviving, it wasn't until the early 20th century that mothers and bottle makers realized that clean, sterile feeders were necessary to protect a baby's health.

Before then, bottle makers created a variety of feeders—from tiny coffeepot-shaped ones of tin to china submarine-shaped flasks decorated in Flow Blue and transferware patterns. Glass bottles didn’t come on the scene until the mid-19th century.

Nipples, made of wood, ivory, bone, sterling, pewter, leather„ rags, sponge, rubber, and yes, a pickled cow's teat, were nothing like those in use today.

Much like today, bottles were necessary because some mothers couldn’t breast feed, and, unlike today, it wasn’t always fashionable to nurse. When a friend asked Queen Victoria if she intended to breast feed, she reportedly said she had no intention of making  a cow of herself.

One manufacturer immortalized Victoria’s image on a stoneware bottle that’s now prized by collectors. But the queen hated that her likeness appeared on a nursing bottle.

Besides a dislike, of nursing, there were other reasons for women to use baby bottles. Many women thought that nursing would destroy their figures. It also inhibited them socially since they couldn’t travel and leave the baby at home.

Fathers weren’t too keen on breast feeding, either, because doctors and midwives often advised mothers to refrain from sex during nursing.

Wealthier families employed wet nurses, usually young women who had a child and could nurse another. Since parents believed that a milk giver’s personality traits could be transferred to an infant through their milk, choosing the right one was important.

The ideal wet nurse was a plump rosy-cheeked young woman. Many people believed that red-headed girls gave bitter milk and produced ill-tempered babies. They even suspected animal milk, believing that infants took on the attributes of the cow or goat. French nobles gave the title of “contessa” to a wet nurse so that their infants could be nursed by milk of noble origin. Those who couldn’t afford to hire a wet nurse, turned to a variety of infant feeders, many of them unsafe by modern standards.

Though a china submarine-shaped bottle with blue transferware is beautiful, being completely opaque it was hard to clean. Fermenting milk curds could be lodged in the corners and mothers would never see them.

Charles M. Windship of Roxbury, Massachusetts, developed the first glass baby bottle, a small turtle shell-shaped: feeder, in 1841. Women thought the shape would fool their infants into thinking it was a real breast.

To use the Windship bottle, a woman wore it on a harness on her breast. It was probably difficult to use because girls with tender, post-childbirth breasts wouldn’t want to place any weight on their on top of them. Because of its shape, the Windship bottle became known as a mammary bottle. Today, they’re highly prized by collectors and sell for nearly $500 each.

But the Windship bottle wasn’t safe for the baby. The Windship and some subsequent bottles came with a long rubber tube, topped off with a rubber nipple. The tube allowed for hands-free feeding for mothers. These devices also had their problems. Dried formula would clog the tube which was too small to be cleaned, so bacteria blossomed. This feeder became known by the onerous name of the “murder bottle.” New York State banned them in 1906, and other states rapidly followed suit.

The turtle-shaped bottles, begun with the Windship model, remained in use from around 1860 to 1910. The bottles had vents, sometimes on both ends, so that air bubbles wouldn’t enter the milk. A nipple went on one end and a tiny cork on the other.

Most bottles became cylindrical by the beginning of the 20th century. Sterilization also became routine. And by the 1930s, bottle makers began embossing their glass bottles with puppies and kittens. These continued to be used until the invention of the disposable plastic bottle.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Valentines from Across the Seas

QUESTION: While vacationing in Nantucket last summer, I came across some beautiful souvenirs made of shells. The shop owner said they’re called “Sailor’s Valentines.” While the one I purchased is newly made, I saw others in the Nantucket Whaling Museum a few blocks away. What is the history behind these things of beauty? Who made them and where did they come from?

ANSWER: Most sailor’s valentines date from the early 19th century. Beginning in 1830, whaling ships set sail from Nantucket and later New Bedford, Massachusetts in search of mighty whales, from which they extracted whale oil used to grease the machines of the Industrial Revolution.

While Nantucket was the center of whaling in New England–at its height nearly 400 ships called the island port home—these weren’t the only types of ships that sailed the oceans of the world. Sailing ships, later known as clippers because of their fast speed, sailed to all the major ports of the world. From the early to the latter part of the 19th century when steam-powered ships took over the seas, the sailors aboard them spent years aboard in search of whales and moving cargo from one port of call to the next, often gone from home for several years. When they stopped to exchange cargo or gather provisions, they went ashore, discovering unique souvenirs to take home to their wives and girlfriends. Besides objects decorated with scrimshaw, which they, themselves, made, they found some unusual octagonal wooden boxes filled with seashells in shops on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean.

Between about 1830 and 1880, residents of Barbados made and sold what came to be known as Sailor’s Valentines to the lonely English and American sailors.

From the 1630s to the end of the 19th century, Barbados was an important port of call for sugar, rum, lumber, and fish. Because of this, a number of shops catered to the souvenir trade. The Victorian love for collecting and displaying exotic objects from afar possibly fueled the industry and contributed to the popularity of the valentines.

Historians believe that most of the sailors' valentines came from the New Curiosity Shop on McGregor Street in Bridgetown, Barbados, owned by two English brothers, B.H. and George Belgrave, who hired locals to make the valentines.

The local valentine makers constructed the special octagonal, hinged boxes, ranging in size from 8 to 15
inches across, using mahogany veneer for the sides and native cedar wood called cedrella, for the bottoms. Then they lined the insides of the boxes with colored paper, most often pink, onto which they placed cotton batting. Next they glued hundreds of colorful tiny seashells in intricate symmetrical mosaic designs incorporating hearts and flowers, which often featured a compass rose centerpiece. After gluing down all the shells, the maker placed a piece of glass over the design to protect them. They called these double valentines.

Sometimes the makers incorporated a special sentimental message that a sailor would request into the design, thus the name Sailors’ Valentines. Sentiments typically appeared only on the smaller 9½-inch double valentines, which often displayed a heart motif on the opposite half. Some of the more popular ones were “To My Sweetheart,” “To My Love,” “Home Again,” and “From a Friend.” The larger 13½- to 14-inch valentines rarely had sayings, but instead had more intricate shell-work designs on both sides.

Today, Sailors’ Valentines command high prices at auctions and antique shows. Some of the best, however, are part of the collections of the New Bedford and Nantucket Whaling Museums, and the Peabody Essex Museum, all in Massachusetts. Collectors value antique sailors' valentines for their beauty and unusual qualities. But their high prices make it difficult for most beginning collectors to acquire the originals. A small double valentine that twenty years ago sold for $350 to $600, now sells for $500 to $1,500, and the price for a large double valentine has jumped from $1,000 to between $2,500 and $10,000—that is if either can be found.

Plus, a thriving business making new sailors’ valentines has emerged on Nantucket Many of these have frames that have been faux finished to imitate the original woods and their designs copied to imitate the originals. Beyond the souvenir shops, collectors must be vigilant because many of these imitations have been sold as antiques.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Box for Gentlemen

QUESTION: I recently attended an upscale antiques show in my area. While there, I came across a beautiful wooden box filled with little jars with silver lids and other containers. The dealer called it a “Gentleman’s Box.” I had never heard the term before. In fact, the box looked like a deluxe traveling toiletry box. Can you tell me where the term Gentleman’s Box originated? Is it the same as an early men’s toiletry box?

ANSWER: Some antiques dealers lump all sorts of men’s traveling boxes into one category—the Gentleman’s Box. However, like the word “vintage” that’s so often misused on eBay and in many middle-market antique shops, it doesn’t apply to every box used by gentlemen in the 18th and 19th century.

A true Gentleman’s Box refers to a wealthy man’s dressing case, which carried toiletries and other small personal items a gentleman might need when traveling. Sometimes, the term can also be applied to fancy wooden boxes containing small bottles of liquor or wine. 

Towards the end of the 18th century, upper class gentlemen carried dressing cases with them when they traveled. These cases were originally utilitarian but they’re fine design and craftsmanship showed off their owners’ wealth and place in society, as at that time, only the very wealthy could afford to travel.

Gentleman’s dressing cases contained bottles and jars for colognes, aftershaves, and creams as well as essential shaving and manicure tools. As these boxes became more popular, makers came up with other items to include in them. By the early Victorian era, when ladies began to travel, the exteriors, veneered with exotic woods, such as  calamander, rosewood, burl walnut, satinwood and mahogany, and often was inlaid with contrasting wood or mother-of-pearl, or abalone. 
The Gentleman’s Box had an expensive fitted interior, often set in tiers with pull-out drawers and many compartments. The top, removable tier often contained cut-glass toilet jars and bottles with engraved silver mounts and covers. There were also separate holders and layers to hold the toilet accessories, such as scissors, steel nail-files, buttonhooks and penknives.

The inside of the cover sometimes had a framed mirror, and the base had a secret drawer released by a spring catch or button on the top of the box inside. Few people  could have been deceived by this,  however, since it was really meant to prevent the drawer from opening while the box, itself, was closed. An alternative to the brass button or catch was the use of a chained brass pin which slid into a retaining hole for the secret drawer.

Most of these boxes were around 12 inches wide and 10 inches deep. The height varied, as some had multiple drawers that made them look like miniature chests. The more luxurious ones incorporated a writing box and a sometimes a compartment to hold basic tea-making equipment.

Weight and size were unimportant, for not only did gentlemen travel with their servants on coaches and trains, but there were plenty of porters waiting to help at railway stations.

A mother-of-pearl or brass plaque in the center of the lid was usually engraved with the initials of the owner. Wealthy gentlemen often purchased these boxes as status symbols of their wealth rather than as actual traveling pieces.

Gentlemen’s Boxes are usually pricey, selling for upper four figures. Most have been kept in very good condition or have been professionally restored.