Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

QUESTION: I’ve always liked cast-iron banks. I see them displayed on the counter at my bank—I’m sure these are reproductions. So when I discovered one that wasn’t too pricey in a local antique shop, I scooped it right up. The bank has its name, “Jonah and the Whale,” displayed in a panel underneath the figures of Jonah and the whale. How can I tell if the bank is authentic? And what can you tell me about this bank?

ANSWER: Cast-iron mechanical banks have always been a favorite of American collectors. Perhaps it’s because they recall our country’s heritage, but more likely because they’re cute in a clunky sort of way.

Collectors have sought after old mechanical banks for over 50 years because of their  nostalgic look at America’s past.
Mechanical banks began to appear shortly after the end of the American Civil War and the American public was eager to purchase them. At the time, a severe coin shortage occurred because people saved them. In fact, the situation got so bad that shopkeepers had to resort to using postage stamps to make change. Both the Union and Confederate governments began issuing paper notes to supplement their coinage and help relieve this problem. But people didn’t like paper money because it could become worthless quickly. Coins, on the other hand, would always retain the value of their metallic content.

So mechanical banks became a product of the times and their popularity remained strong well into the 20th century. Not only were they fun toys, but parents could effectively use them to teach their children the practical aspects of being thrifty.

The Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York, was probably the premier maker of cast-iron mechanical banks. Walter J. and Charles G. Shepard founded their company to produce various pieces of hardware, but in 1882, they began a sideline business making cast-iron mechanical banks. Charles was an inventor.

Shepard entered into the mechanical bank field in about 1882 and available information indicates they sold out their line of toy banks in 1892. The impact Shepard had on the mechanical bank market was astounding when you consider the fact they were able to design, patent, produce, and effectively distribute 15 high quality banks within a time span of only about 10 years.

Their banks sold for $1 each, but dealers could purchase them wholesale for $8.50 a dozen, or about 70 cents each.

All Shepard banks had these common features. First, their artistic paint jobs were unsurpassed for attention to minute detail. Unfortunately, the company didn’t use any primer coating to prepare the metal for painting, so the paint eventually flaked off their banks.

Second, each Shepard bank has its name embossed on one of the casting pieces. The name is generally in large bold letters located on the front panel of the bank. Other cast-iron bank manufacturers didn’t put the names of their banks on them. This resulted in many banks becoming known by names other than the ones originally given to them by their makers.

Third, each Shepard cast-iron bank is very heavy for its size. It’s almost as if cast iron was free and had no bearing on the production cost of the items.

In all, Shepard produced 15 different banks. They have become known for two in particular—the Uncle Sam bank (discussed in my blog from July 8, 2015) and the Jonah and the Whale bank. Charles Shepard received a patent for the latter bank on July 15, 1890.  The overall length of the bank was 10-1/4 inches.

Shepard decorators painted the side and end plates of the base with yellow corners, and the letters of the name in gold. They striped the edges of the bottom plate and top part of the bank in yellow and black and painted the water and waves realistically in light bluish-green with white highlighting. The whale is a dark green-black color with a red mouth and white teeth. The boat is an off shade of yellow with stripes of gold, white, blue and red. The robes on the two figures are red and blue, and they have white beards, flesh color faces and hands.

To operate the bank, a person would place a coin on the back of the figure of Jonah. Then the user would press a lever, recessed in the end plate under the rear of the boat. As the whale opened his mouth wide, the figure holding Jonah moved forward in the boat towards the whale. The figure of Jonah tilted downward as though entering the whale's mouth, but instead the coin flew off his back into the whale. Releasing the lever returned the figures in the boat to their original position. The whale’s mouth closed and re-opened as though swallowing the coin. The whale’s lower jaw continued to move up and down for several seconds after the action takes place. To remove the coins, the user would use a key to unlock a trap in the underside of the base.

In 1892, Charles and Walter Shepard sold their cast-iron savings bank business to J. & E. Stevens of Cromwell of Connecticut.

Today, original Jonah and the Whale banks bring very high prices—if they’re in mint condition. Unfortunately, most are not.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Mother Nature’s Gift to Glass

QUESTION: My mother loved decorative glassware. She died recently and left me her collection. While some pieces are older, most date from the 1950s and 1960s. I particularly like several vases that look like flowers. Do you know what they are called and tell me a little about their history?

ANSWER: Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many women collected decorative glassware. Most of the pieces came from Fenton Glassware, but several other manufacturers also made a wide assortment of vases, candy and butter dishes, ashtrays, and the like. Many of these feature hobnail decoration. The vases you’re asking about are known as Jack-in-the-Pulpit vases.

To glass lovers the name "Jack-in-the-Pulpit" has become synonymous with glass vases styled to imitate a wild flower. This flower is native to some parts of the United States, but this style of glassware originated in England, where no jack-in-the-pulpit flowers don’t grow. Most likely, this design came from the adaptation of a similar wildflower found in England known as Lords and Ladies.

Like the flower, a glass Jack-in-the-Pulpit vase consists of three parts, a base, a stem and the trumpet. The trumpet is the large flared top which gives the piece its style, much like the trumpet forms the flower on the plant. The stem connects that trumpet to the base, much like the stem connects the flower to its root. Trumpets vary in style, from flared, rounded trumpets, to those with pinched and twisted points in the front and the back. Some trumpets, particularly those by Fenton, have a raised back and dip downward in the front.

Some collectors believe Louis C. Tiffany created the first Jack-in-the-Pulpit vase around 1900. But that isn’t the case. The first known Jack-in-the-Pulpit vase appeared in 1854, a good 40 years before Tiffany’s vases. The style of the early English Jack-in-the-Pulpit vase even more closely resembles the flower. However, English glassmakers at the turn of the century didn’t name their pieces, unlike their American counterparts. Instead, they just gave them a pattern number.

English Jack-in-the-Pulpit vases came from a number of makers, including Thomas Webb & Sons, Richardson's, Webb-Corbett and Stuart, plus many small companies. Some smaller firms subcontracted work out to finishers, so it's possible that one firm decorated the blanks of another. British glassmakers did, however, blow most of their Jack-in-the-Pulpits.

Prices for British Jack-in the-Pulpit vases range from $75 for a piece which can’t be attributed to any particular manufacturer to several thousand dollars for a rare Webb or Stevens & Williams piece. Rare pieces can command $2,000 to $3,000. On average, British pieces go for about $175.

While decoration doesn't seem to have a effect on the price of unattributed British pieces, it does effect the prices of the higher-end ones. Size and the decorations, such as applied glass chainwork, vary. Companies produced vases in opalescent patterns such as spiral optic and   cranberry, and some come in the various colors like Beaded Melon.

Fenton’s Burmese vases are particularly popular with collectors. The company also made decorated Jack-in-the-Pulpits in other types of glass. Fenton decorated white and off-white, called cameo satin, blanks with scenes sell for around $75.

Other noteworthy American producers include Northwood/Dugan, Imperial, Westmoreland, Mount Washington and L.G. Wright. Northwood made jacks in various colors in Carnival glass, a short marigold version being the most common. But Northwood and Dugan also made them in opalescent glass. These generally sell for under $100 apiece.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Tile It

QUESTION: In the last few years, I’ve begun to buy decorative tiles from the early 20th century. I buy what I like and not because a particular company made them. One I purchased recently supposedly came from the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Since I live in the Midwest, I haven’t had an opportunity to visit the Tile Works. What can you tell me about this tile?

ANSWER:  Go to any Arts and Crafts auction and you're sure to find art tiles, ranging from $20 to several thousand dollars. But what makes one tile worth more than another? And what makes these late 19th/early 20th century tiles any different from the ones we see today at our local home renovation store?

Combine the rise of the Aesthetic Movement, the desire to get back to basics, and a variety of unique techniques, and tiles can represent some of the most interesting objects made during the heyday of the Arts & Crafts Movement." It’s these "art" tiles that are of real interest to collectors, and these are the tiles that command the highest prices. Commercial production tiles, while they're old, even when made by a well-collected maker, are usually only valued in the $20-$30 range.

Although a large number of American potteries made tiles, six are most popular with collectors and/or the most historically significant---American Encaustic, J.G.Low, Grueby, Rookwood, Batchelder, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

Henry Chapman Mercer, an archeologist and antiquities collector, founded the Moravian Tile Works in 1898. His intent was to bring back the medieval craft of tile making and established the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works on his family's estate in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mercer chose the name Moravian to represent the German immigrants who brought tile making to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

Although Mercer designed all the tiles, using patterns derived from European an Middle Eastern ones, as well as photographs of ones from Mexico, he trained a crew of men to produce them by pressing wet local clay into handcarved molds. Workers slow fired these molds in a wood burning kiln, painted the bisque ware with glaze, and fired them again.

Mercer gained a reputation as a serious proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Many of America's top tile makers, including Grueby and  Batchelder, copied his tile designs. Mercer also produced several lines of four-inch molded tiles representing tall ships, zodiac signs, and farming. He also used them to build items like inkwells and bookends. For more elaborate installations, Mercer produced cookie-cutter-shaped paving tiles referred to as “brocades.”

Mercer remained active with the company until his death in 1930. The company remained in business until 1964, and in 1969, it opened as a museum.

The reproduction tiles made today come from Mercer's original molds, locally dug clay, and have properties similar to those of Mercer's slips and glazes that follow his final formulations, although some have been modified to reduce the lead and heavy metal content to less toxic levels. The manufacturer of reproduction tiles began in 1974, but there’s no danger of deceit. When the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Department of Parks and Recreation took over the Tile Works as a working museum, they insisted that all the tiles made at the museum bear the mark of a stylized "MOR," the words "Bucks County," and the year of manufacture.

Today, collectors can expect to pay from $30-100 for common tiles, $35-250 for brocades, $300-3,000 for “built items” made from tiles, and $1,000-5,000 for the more unique medieval-style tiles.

You can find some of the largest collections of Mercer tiles at John D. Rockefeller's New York estate, Grauman's Chinese Theater, and the Casino at Monte Carlo. Your tile represents "Virgo," a sign of the zodiac.