Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Keeps on Beaming

QUESTION: I was digging around in my attic the other day and found a box with some old toys belonging to my son who now has his own family. In the box were two Star Trek action figures—one of Captain Kirk and the other of Spock. Both are about a foot tall and in good condition. I realize these are collectible, especially with the release of the new Star Trek movie, but I have no idea what they’re worth. Can you tell me more about them and perhaps tell me their value?

ANSWER: It sounds like you have two of the original action figures produced by the Mego Corporation. Before discussing their value, let’s see how they came into being.

More than 30 years after it was canceled due to poor ratings, Star Trek has become a cultural phenomenon. The television show that only completed three years of its five-year mission has spawned 10 full-length films, four spin-off television series, five on-going book lines, a Las Vegas casino attraction, and a seemingly infinite series of collectibles.

Star Trek's remarkable transformation from ratings loser to one of  the world's most marketable properties began with its creator, Gene Roddenberry, a Hollywood writer and producer who had the foresight to go where no man had gone before in T.V. sci-fi dramas.

He drafted a premise for Star Trek and after being turned down by CBS, which was working on show, “Lost in Space,” Roddenberry sold the concept to NBC in 1964 as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” Star Trek featured a regular cast of characters aboard an interplanetary vessel, exploring the far reaches of space for the United Federation of Planets in the 23rd century. The original television pilot, "The Cage," bears little resemblance to the series. The Captain was Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, not William Shatner's familiar Captain Kirk. His first officer was a woman, a concept way ahead of its time, and Doctor McCoy, Engineer Scotty, Lieutenants Sulu and Uhura or Ensign Chekov were nowhere to be seen. In fact, the only regular cast member to appear was Leonard Nimoy as the alien science officer, Mr. Spock.

But after producing the pilot, NBC rejected it, saying that it was too intellectual and lacked sufficient action to keep viewers satisfied. NBC executives also felt that it bore little resemblance to the promised “Wagon Train to the stars” concept. That pilot cost $636,000 to produce.

Network executives also showed concerns about the Star Trek’s characters. Test screenings of the pilot indicated that both men and women disliked having a female first officer on the Enterprise. The network was also worried about Spock’s satanic appearance and wanted him removed from the show.

Cutting the budget in half, NBC gave Roddenberry the go ahead to produce the first episode of the series, essentially a second pilot entitled, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in early 1966. After approving of this pilot, they gave Roddenberry the green light for the series, and he added the other regular characters.

Star Trek was T.V.’s first interracial show, where people of diverse backgrounds played non-stereotypical characters.

From a collecting standpoint, the production of Star Trek's ostensibly infinite "galaxy" of merchandise can be divided into the pre and post 1991 periods. This year is significant because it was the 25th anniversary of the original series and the year that Gene Roddenberry died. Roddenbery kept a tight reign on product licensing. After his death, however, Paramount granted licenses more liberally.

The Mego Corporation originally had the exclusive rights to produce Star Trek action figures. Given the beautiful sculpting on the crew action figures and the accuracy of their costuming, it’s no wonder they became an instant hit with Star Trek fans. 

While other companies released many other Star Trek products during the mid-1970s, including official blueprints, a set of Topps Trading Cards, a Hasbro board game, glasses and toys –it was the unexpected success of George Lucas' Star Wars that led Paramount to reconsider its on again off again plans for Star Trek, so it decided to produce the first full-length Star Trek motion picture.

Star Trek the Motion Picture was the most expensive movie ever made until that time. A commercial success earning more than $175 million, it brought forth a bounty of licensed products. Mego released both 12-inch and 3 3/4-inch action figures based on the movie. Neither was as successful as Star Wars figures, and the 12-inch figures' head vinyl tends to turn gray with time, producing a zombie effect.

Hollywood success, of course, breeds sequels and Star Trek has seen its share of them. Star Trek, the television show that NBC canceled due to poor ratings, has become a franchise property for Paramount, and the characters have become American television icons. Star Trek's concept of a hopeful future is still compelling in the 21st century, and its movies and spin-off series have produced a universe of collectibles, boldly going where no collectible has gone before.

Today, the original action figures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock from 1974 sell for $130 sealed in their original packaging while other character figures go for $20 or so. A playset from the first series sells for $120 to $150. Those produced to coincide with Star Trek the Motion Picture sell for about $100 in their original packaging. As with most toy collectibles, these need to be in their original boxes. Just ask the guys from CBS’s hit show “Big Bang Theory.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Whatever Happened to Elsie the Cow?

QUESTION: When I was a kid, I remember seeing Elsie the Cow all over the place. She appeared on all Borden dairy products, billboards, and magazine ads. I even had some Elsie toys. Whatever happened to Elsie the Cow?

ANSWER: Elsie the Cow was the hottest advertising personality in the country in the 1940s and 1950s. Borden Company produced thousands of items bearing her likeness to promote its products.

In 1852, Gail Borden, Jr. received a patent for his condensed milk process, and in 1857 he founded the Gail Borden Jr. and Company. He reorganized his company in 1858 as the New York Condensed Milk Company, which ultimately became the Borden Co.

During the early 1860s, Borden sold his condensed, sugar sweetened milk from push carts on the streets of New York. His product was always pure and safe, and in 1864 when Louis Pasteur showed the world a real live germ, Gail Borden finally learned exactly why his heat process was so successful. The demand for Borden’s condensed milk grew during the Civil War and his business boomed. Though Borden died in 1874 at the age of 72, he lives on as the "father of the modern dairy industry."
During the 1920s and 1930s the commercial dairy business was growing. Borden's bought hundreds of area dairies, out marketing, underselling, and forcing them to sell their milk direct to the large processors at smaller profits. The public sided with the struggling farmers.

In 1936, Borden's, to create a more wholesome public image, placed a new kind of advertising in some medical journals to attract the attention of pediatricians. These ads featured several cartoon cows, one of which was named Elsie. The ads promoted Borden's high standards of quality.

In 1938 a radio copywriter intrigued by the magazine ads wrote a sample Elsie commercial and gave it to a network news commentator whose show Borden  sponsored. He read it over the air and his listeners loved it. Fan mail began arriving addressed to Elsie the Borden Cow.

Borden prepared national magazine ads and local dairies put Elsie's picture on their bottle caps.

Borden reacted quickly by choosing the most attractive of the 150 cows---a Jersey from Massachusetts whose name the company changed from You'll Do Lobelia to Elsie.

The public's response to Elsie was unprecedented. A survey done in the late 1940s showed that Elsie was a more known and recognized figure than the president of the United States.

After being a featured attraction at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940, and starring in a movie. Elsie became a highly recognizable personality. Borden began to show her wearing the popular ruffled shoulder apron and in 1941 she stood up and became an American housewife.
All through the 1940s Elsie collectible advertising items and toys were hot. At one point, Borden's had over 100 licensed vendors producing everything from puzzles and games to handkerchiefs and lamps. Everyone loved Elsie.

The 1950s also brought the creation of the "Good Food Line" train which featured Elsie’s entire family, her husband, Elmer, and her two children, Beulah and Baby Beauregard, promoting Borden’s milk, ice cream, and cheese. In 1958 Borden's commissioned Ringling Brothers to build a parade model of the famous train. It had a special car for the live Elsie to ride on and was used in thousands of parades until the early 1990s. After that, Elsie had faded into history. She spent her last days on a farm in Texas.

Monday, July 11, 2016

English Folk Art at its Best

QUESTION: I’ve long admired 19th-century Staffordshire figures, but don’t know much about them. Recently, I saw one that I can afford in a local antique shop. But before I get hooked on collecting these folk art pieces, I’d like to know more about them. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Staffordshire figures have always been very popular with collectors. You can find some pieces, such as cow creamers and pen holders modeled in the shape of a bird's nests, as well as greyhounds, foxes, and hares, selling for less than $100. Sometimes, you can find an early 19th-century figure for sale at a reasonable price. But beware of fakes.

A handful of pottery families made Staffordshire figures. With their simple modeling and vivid coloring, they depict the changing social history of the 19th century, both pre-Victorian and later. Today, portrait figures of famous historical persons grace both Queen Elizabeth’s collection at Buckingham Palace as well as the reception rooms of the Prime Minister's residence at Number 10 Downing Street.

A good example is a late-18th-century Wood type creamware figure of St. George and the dragon. The Wood family of Staffordshire potters worked between 1754 and 1846. They typically modeled and painted this figure with colored glazes of brown, ochre, and green.

Another excellent example is a Pearlware figure of St. Paul modeled seated and holding the Gospel. Pearlware is a white, harder, more durable form of pottery, believed to contain a higher proportion of pipeclay and flint. The glaze on this piece is  blue with a touch of cobalt. Potters painted it in blue overglaze enamels, with lesser areas in puce and green. Made between 1820 and 1830, it bears the impression of the word "Paul."

The popularity of Staffordshire figures received a boost in the UK after the last war. Rising prosperity meant that wealthier members of the population could afford to buy a country cottage as a weekend retreat. People were looking for suitable rustic ornaments for their newly acquired country cottages and Staffordshire pieces filled the need nicely.

Cow creamers in typical primitive Staffordshire modeling, can be expensive. A typical one on a rectangular mound base can sell for nearly $200. However, an unique item such as a Pearlware candlestick modeled as a Cupid, standing wearing loose drapes and holding a bow and quiver can sell for nearly $400.

But the cream of the crop are the identifiable historical figures such as a figure of John Liston as "Paul Pry" the comedian, modeled standing and wearing a top hat, stock, striped waistcoat, breeches, and Hessian boots which can sell for nearly $800.

With the coming of the Victorian period there was a definite change in the modeling of Staffordshire figures. Pottery manufacturers realized that what people wanted were portrait figures, as well as figures commemorating special events. They often modeled these figures standing or leaning on a marbled plinth.

Up until about 1860, deep cobalt blue was the favorite color used on figures, particularly for uniform coats. Around 1880, pottery makers began using a new liquid gilding or "bright gold" in the firing process.

They increasingly used child labor to paint the pieces in order to meet the demand and keep costs down. These later figures tend to lack to the precision of the earlier ones. Also, potteries molded the later 19th century figures with "flat backs" with the shaping concentrated at the front and sides to make them easy to place on fireplace mantels.

Popular Victorian heroes depicted in brightly colored Staffordshire pottery were so well known in their day to those who bought them that the potters didn’t always bother to add names to them. Because of this, you may find you’ll have to do a little research in order to identify some pieces.

You should be careful if you plan to begin collecting Staffordshire figures because many of the ones for sale today have been made from 19th-century molds. Many of these came from William Kent Porcelains Limited, up until 1962. These reproductions of Victorian figures, usually referred to as "Kent copies," are usually lighter in weight than the originals made from the same molds.