Monday, August 29, 2016

The Mystique of Cobalt Blue

QUESTION: I’ve always loved objects made of cobalt blue glass. The shimmer of the deep blue glass as the sunlight filtered through it used to fascinate me as a kid. So it’s no accident that I began to collect various glass objects made of it. But even though I have a modest collection of glasses, pitchers, vases, and the like, I really don’t know much about cobalt glass. Can you please give me some background on it and perhaps tell me what’s really collectible and what isn’t?

ANSWER: Cobalt blue glass offers something for everyone. It’s color is distinctive and the variety of pieces available is great. People often associate cobalt glass with 19th and early 20th-century medicine bottles, as well as ink bottles. But the number of different objects made of it goes well beyond these two mundane things.

The addition of a small amount of cobalt to molten glass turns it a deep blue. Its use goes back thousands of years. It was the Egyptians who first developed a process to color glass using impurities found in raw materials. The Romans copied and perfected this method. In Mycenae, around 1400 B.C.E., the production of cobalt glass reached its peak. The large amount of jewelry and dishes made of cobalt blue glass found at archaeological sites show how popular it was. However, today’s collectors look to more recent times and the glass objects made during the Great Depression.

While not all cobalt glass is Depression Glass, a lot of it is. This is the most fertile area for beginning collectors because so much of it appears on the market. Besides being known as “cobalt blue,” Depression glassmakers also referred to it as Deep Blue, Dark Blue, and Ritz Blue.

Depression glass collectors particularly like to collect the Royal Lace Pattern, made by the Hazel Atlas Glass Company in the 1930s. They continued to produce this elegant pattern until 1941.

Many companies created Depression-Era cobalt glass. In the late 1920s, the Diamond Glassware Company offered cobalt blue pieces in the Victory pattern. Hazel Atlas Glass Company introduced cobalt blue glass pieces in its Aurora line, New Century, Florentine No. 1, Florentine No. 2, Hairpin, Ships and Sailboats, and Starlight. The Fenton Glass Company added cobalt blue glass to its Lincoln Inn pattern. The Moondrops and Radiance patterns by New Martinsville Glass Company provided cobalt blue pieces. Paden City Glass Company's offered cobalt blue glass pieces in their Orchid and the Peacock & Wild Rose patterns. Westmoreland Glass Company showcased cobalt blue glass in the English Hobnail line. Everyone, it seems, got in on the act.

Many companies also made beautiful cobalt blue glassware for more formal dining and entertaining. For example, Morgantown Glass Company created a line of elegant glassware in the Golf Ball pattern. The Cambridge Glass Company, on the other hand, created glassware with overlay designs.

Many companies have produced eye-catching decorative items made of cobalt blue glass. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Fenton Glass Company, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, began including cobalt blue glass pieces in its line of eggs and slippers as well as baskets. Another company that created distinctive looking slippers and other decorator pieces was the Degenhart Glass Company. Animals in every shape and size have remained popular with collectors. The Imperial Glass Co. was only one of many companies producing animals in cobalt blue.

Avon Products Inc. took advantage of the popularity of cobalt blue glass and offered a variety of items, including cruets, cologne bottles, and salt and pepper shakers, to its customers over the years, To reach those looking for more elegant items, Avon had the Fostoria Glass Company, long known for its quality glass, produce glassware in the George and Martha Washington pattern.

Lastly, some people collect cobalt blue glass kitchenware, including mixing bowls, rolling pins, refrigerator boxes, and measuring cups, produced by well-known glass manufacturers.

While some people collect cobalt glass for its value, many collect it for its beauty, especially when displayed in a window so the sunlight can shine through it, giving the room a mystical blue glow.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Many Faces of Victorian Whimsy

QUESTION: My great aunt left me a very unusual chair, probably because I admired it when I went to visit her. The chair has a grotesque face carved into its back. It’s legs are curved and there are groves carved into the ends of the arms. Can you tell me anything about my chair?

ANSWER: What you’ve been admiring and now own is a bit of Victorian whimsy. The Victorians loved decoration, the more fantastic the better. This love of whimsy can be traced to the English Romantic Age.

Bored with the classicism and artistic restrictions of the Age of Reason, Romantic artists found their inspiration in the Medieval Age, albeit an idealized one. Crumbling castles, enchanted realms, and magical beasts filled their art. The Victorians loved this and when English draftsman Augustus Charles Pugin published his Specimens of Gothic Architecture in 1821, the Gothic revival was born. Wealthy English families built Gothic-style houses and filled them with furnishings reminiscent of castles and medieval cathedrals. As time went on, carved plants, animals, and mythical creatures began to appear on the furniture they used to decorate their homes.

A wave of whimsical furniture soon appeared in England and swept across the Atlantic where it flooded houses from Boston to San Francisco. By the end of the 19th century, parlors and bedrooms overflowed with fabulously carved furniture. Griffins supported sideboards, lions roared from the pedestals of dining room tables, and North Wind faces whispered from the backs of chairs.

The most curious item produced in America toward the end of the 19th century was the Roman-style,or cross-frame, "face chair." In design, the chair resembled the folding 14th-century Italian Savonarola chair. 

This odd little chair became a must-have item for American parlors. A backrest onto which grotesque faces or carved fruit had been carved, stood upon simply fashioned legs, gracefully curved arms, and a curved seat. The most common face was a stylized North Wind blowing wooden tendrils of” "wind" from its mouth.

Other faces included grinning ogres, laughing gremlins, and satyrs with wickedly out-thrust tongues. Neptune and the Green Man, or foliate head of Celtic mythology, were also popular subjects. It isn’t surprising that the stone ancestors of these faces stare down from the tops of medieval cathedrals and guildhalls across Europe.

The origin of the faces is fairly easy to trace. Woodcarvers arriving in America from Germany in the mid-18th century found work in Midwest furniture factories. They brought their traditions and mythologies with them. In a way, their carvings were like fairy tales and folk tales fashioned in wood to delight and entertain.

Heywood Wakefield of Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Chicago and Stomps Burkhardt of Canton, Ohio, were just two of the many furniture manufacturers to produce face chairs. Workman would roughly carve the faces using machines, then finish them off by hand. They fashioned the backrests from oak or mahogany while they used less expensive wood, stained to match the backrest, for the rest of the chair. While they lavishly carved the faces, they kept the rest of the chair’s design relatively simple. Sometimes, they carved grooves into the ends of the arms to suggest fingers, and sometimes they turned the chair’s stretcher bars.

By the early 20th century, face chairs had all but died. As time progressed, the design pendulum swept from sumptuous Victorian ornamentation through the more restrained carving of the Eastlake period to the even cleaner lines of Mission-style and Art Deco furniture. Unfortunately, even paint couldn’t modernize these chairs, so most of them ended up in attics and basements. Many people simple destroyed them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Surfs Up!

QUESTION: I recently found an old surfboard at an architectural salvage store. I’m not exactly sure what it was doing there, but I bought it anyway since the price was right. I used to surf as a kid at the beach. I never owned my own board but would rent one from the surf shop at the beach where my family went for its annual summer vacation. The board is light in weight and in fairly good condition. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: It sounds like your board is made of fiberglass, perhaps over a balsa wood core.  While boards like this are still made today, their heyday was during the 1960s and 1970s.

Long before Sandra Dee became the face that launched a thousand surfboards, the kings and queens of Hawaii rode the waves on carved slabs of wood. Balancing on solid planks up to 18 feet long, Hawaiian royalty dominated the seas in a display designed to reinforce their dominion over their subjects.

But Christian missionaries and the subsequent immigration of Europeans to the islands nearly wiped out surfing by the turn of the 20th century. Missionaries forced native Hawaiians to abandon their surfboards and devote themselves to their new religion. Fortunately for surfing enthusiasts, a young Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku almost single-handedly saved the sport from extinction.

Kahanamoku became a celebrity when he won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912. While swimming was his sport, surfing was his passion. His surfing exhibitions caused a sensation that fueled interest in the sport along the Southern California and Australian coasts. As the sport exploded in those places, his influence revived the tradition of surfing in Hawaii and by the 1920s several hundred boys regularly surfed the beaches there whenever the surf was up.

Even with this renewed interest, however, the surfing subculture mostly paddled quietly along until 1959, when the movie “Gidget” rolled into the public awareness like a 20-foot wave at Waimea Bay. By the mid-1960s, surfing was in full swing with the younger set.

Post-World War II boards shifted in composition from solid wood to balsa. Bob Simmons made the first balsa boards which are highly sought after by collectors. Today, hollow balsa wood boards by any maker in good condition command top dollar at auction. But a surfboard's composition isn't necessarily an indication of its age.

Boards from the 1960s are readily available and highly collectible. However, avoid "popouts," the mass-produced boards manufactured to meet the overwhelming demand for surfboards in the 1960s to early 1970s. These relatively inexpensive boards have little value as collectibles.

The most desirable boards are those hand shaped by a surfboard craftsman. A "shaper" refines the profile of a board that has been produced in surfing world because their expertise can make a board faster or easier to turn. Many shapers sign their surfboards on the "stringer"—usually a strip of wood that runs down the center of the board to add strength. Many of the best surfers shaped their own boards, and these are hot collectibles. Also highly collectible are name brand, commercially made boards, such as Hobie, Gordon and Smith, or Greg Noll.

Placing value on surfboards can be difficult because so many things, such as name recognition, condition, age, composition, general design, and eye appeal, affect a board’s value.

Unfortunately, surfboards are prone to dings, holes, loss of the fin, and water damage. This means it's hard to find a vintage surfboard in all original condition. The more damage, the greater the negative impact on value. It’s important to see boards closeup, so serious collectors don't even consider buying them online.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

QUESTION: I was recently cleaning out drawers in my mother’s house after her death and came across a bunch of coins with the slogan “Millions for Defense, But Not One Cent for Tribute” impressed on one side. On the other side is the Liberty Head and the words ONE CENT. At first glance these look like pennies but are larger. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: What you have aren’t coins but tokens. Like the famous wooden nickels, merchants used tokens as a way to promote their businesses and some commemorated events. By 1900, tokens had become a common type of coinage by which merchants not only advertised, but created good will and repeat business. The token was in effect a pledge redeemable in goods but not necessarily for currency.

Tokens are coin-like objects used instead of coins and either have a denomination shown or implied by size, color or shape. The use of tokens dates back to Roman times. Back then, the Romans used coin-like objects called spintria to gain entrance to brothels and gaming establishments.

Medieval English monasteries issued tokens to pay for services from outsiders. Residents of nearby villages called these tokens "Abbot's money."

Though token manufacturers usually made them of cheaper metals, such as  copper, pewter, aluminum, brass, and tin, they also used fiber, bakelite, leather, porcelain, and wood.

Sometimes called merchant tokens or “good fors,” American trade tokens originated during the late 18th century, when early circuses produced them for admission to their performances. In the 1820s, manufacturers began commercially producing tokens and this led to a greater demand.

In July, 1836 Congress enacted President Andrew Jackson's "specie circular" law, requiring specie—that is, gold or silver—to be used to pay for government land. This caused people to believe that paper currency, at the time issued by state banks, was unsound. As more and more people began using specie, regular coins disappeared from circulation.

To make it easier for individuals to trade for goods, business men and various organizations began issuing tokens that could be used instead of coins. These tokens became a substitute for one-cent pieces, since they had the same metallic content and size. The token designs could be divided into four categories: those that mentioned the bank and the banking crisis; those that were satirical and sarcastic, the political cartoons of the day; those that were made in imitation of real money; and those issued by enterprising merchants carrying advertising.

The Hard Times tokens of the 1830s and 1840s continued to make merchant tokens popular. During the Civil War, tokens again came into wide use because of the coin shortages caused by it. After the war, merchants once again issued tokens and people continued to use these “good fors” to trade for goods.

Among the many tokens made in imitation of the coins driven from circulation were a number using the phrase, "Millions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Tribute." These tokens bore the familiar Liberty Head and on the reverse the wording was strategically placed to have an enlarged ONE CENT appear as it would on government issued coins. The phrase, "Millions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Tribute," was a rallying cry for America on two occasions in history.

Besides Civil War tokens, there were also wooden tokens, transportation tokens for bridges, toll roads, ferries, and the like, gaming tokens, political tokens, as well as those used by magicians for admission to their acts, churches for permission to receive communion, tokens for telephones, and to pay sales tax. Elongated coins—often pennies pressed flat and made smooth on one side to take etchings of the Lord’s Prayer, Scouts’ oath, and club insignias also were popular.

All kinds of merchants issued tokens for use in their own businesses, including general stores, grocers, department stores, dairies, meat markets, drug stores, saloons, bars, taverns, barbers, coal mines, lumber mills and many other businesses. The era of 1870 through 1920 marked the highest use of "trade tokens" in the country, spurred by the growth of small stores in rural areas.

Railways and public transportation agencies used fare tokens for years, to sell rides in advance at a discount, or to allow patrons to use turnstiles that only to took them. The use of transit tokens in America began in 1831, when John Gibbs issued them for use on his U.S.M. stage in New Jersey. The 1830s saw tokens used on horsecars and horse-drawn omnibuses. By 1897, the U.S. had its first subway in Boston, and in 1904 the New York subway system opened. Ferry, bus, and streetcar companies also produced tokens often out of cheap white metal, aluminum, or more costly bronze. Most of them featured cutouts in the shapes of letters to differentiate them from other coins.

Some churches used to give tokens to members passing a religious test prior to the day of communion, then required the token for entry. Most of these were pewter, often cast by the minister using the church’s own molds.

But probably the most well-known token is the wooden nickel. Merchants and banks gave them to their customers to redeem for a specific item, usually a drink. On December 5, 1931, during the Great Depression, the Citizen’s Bank of Tenino, Washington, failed and issued emergency currency printed on thin shingles of wood. Local merchants couldn’t get change without traveling 30 miles over mountainous roads which took four hours one way.  So the bank, at the insistence of the Chamber of Commerce, decided to issue it’s own money, some of which was in five-cent denominations.

The Chicago World's Fair in 1933 issued wooden nickels as souvenirs, and the tradition of wooden nickels as tokens and souvenirs was born. The phrase, "Don't take any wooden nickels," reminds people to be cautious in their business dealings since some unscrupulous characters tried to use them in their dealings with people.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Little Keepsakes That Tell a Story

QUESTION: I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and attended some of the events at the Olympic Games held here in 1996. During the games, I acquired about 100 Olympic pins through purchase and trading. I’m particularly proud of the groups of pins I was able to collect, such as one in which all the pins are in the shapes of guitars. My favorite are the blimp pins commemorating the Good Year blimp that helped in media coverage of the games. Can you tell me how the tradition of collecting pins began and what the market is like for Olympic pins today?

ANSWER: You certainly seemed to have amassed quite a number of pins during the Atlanta Games. Today, pins come in all shapes, colors, and sizes and represent a myriad of people, activities, and events at the Games. With the start of the Summer Olympics in Rio this week, it seems appropriate to take a look back and see how pin collecting began.

Pin collecting has become a sport unto itself. But it wasn’t always like that. The Olympic pin tradition began with small cardboard badges worn by athletes and officials at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Athletes from competing teams traded them as a gesture of goodwill. At the 1908 Games in Paris, designs of pins grew as specific groups like judges, coaches, and reporters got involved.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued the first pins to be sold to spectators at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Today, the pins created for the 1940 games,  cancelled because of World War II, are highly sought after by collectors.

In 1968, the Mexico City games featured the first butterfly-clutch pin fastener, which  became the standard for Olympic pins. But it wasn’t until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, California, that trading pins became a tradition. Sponsoring companies, such as Coca-Cola, set up official trading stations to market their own pins. Because the pins were small and affordable, fans quickly seized the opportunity to bring home keepsakes for themselves. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, some 17 million pins circulated among fans, participants, media representatives, and officials.

Pins began as a pre-social media form of communication that gave fans a reason to start a conversation with each other. The individual country Olympic committees, sponsors, bid cities, media outlets, and many others issue these colorful enameled pins today. Hundreds of thousands appear at each of the Games.

Pins are generally manufactured in limited numbered editions, and collectors seek out those produced in the smallest quantities or from the earliest Games. These also include pins issued by the various cities competing for a chance to host the Olympics.

Some of the most popular ones to collect are those from the smaller countries, such as Jamaica, the Seychelles, and Afghanistan. At the games, fans pin those they’ve collected onto a hat or the strap holding their Olympic credentials. As one fan walks by another, they look at each others’ pins and often one will ask where the other got a particular pin. From there, it’s onto trading and acquiring more pins. As the Games continue, fans try to either gather as many pins as possible or become selective as to the type of pins they want to collect.

The unwritten rule is to trade like pins for like pins. Of course, rules are meant to be broken and that’s the fun of it all. At the last Olympic Summer Games, fans were on the lookout for pins from Rio de Janeiro, the city to host the next Summer Games. At this Olympics, they’ll be on the lookout for pins from the next host city.

Somewhere in the host city, pin collectors representing pin collecting clubs from all over the world congregate to trade pins and stories. It won’t be any different in Rio. Also, hundreds of vendors set up tables to sell pins of every design and origin. Most of these cost about $5 each, so amassing a lot of them can cost a small fortune. The majority of people, however, acquire their pins by trading ones they have for ones they want.

Some collectors have over 30,000 pins in their collections. They’re always on the lookout for pins from the 1936 Berlin Games, a hot commodity in the pin collecting realm.

While it may seem that the only people trading pins are fans and athletes, everyone involved with the Olympics, from the members of the IOC to newspaper reporters, volunteers, judges, and coaches, all get involved.

It used to be that all you needed to do to begin collecting pins was to show up at the Olympics, find some pins and start trading. But today, beginning collectors can find thousands of pins online and while the fun of trading may not be there, the ability to collect just about any pin, even the important ones, is there—for a price.

Pin collecting is affordable and the little darlings don’t take up much room, so they’re ideal for anyone just starting out in collectibles. Searching the Internet for  “Olympic collectibles” will undoubtedly result in links for collecting pins.

An Israeli Olympic pin in the shape of a guitar from the Atlanta Games is today selling for $18 online. And while that same pin sells for a variety of prices, that’s not a bad return on investment. So let the pin games begin!