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.