Monday, December 26, 2016

Some Kugels Are for Hanging

QUESTION: I’ve been collecting Christmas ornaments for quite a few years. I don’t collect any particular type, just ones I like. Recently, I discovered several older ones in a booth in an antique coop. They were mixed in with a bunch of newer ornaments and at first, I didn’t pay much attention. But when I picked one up, it felt heavier than the thin glass ornaments of today. One of them looked like a bunch of grapes and the others like ribbed Christmas balls. So I bought them. Can you tell me anything about them?

ANSWER: It sounds like you’ve discovered some kugels, a type of heavy glass Christmas ornament made in Germany from about 1840 until 1914. The word kugel means “ball” in German, but it also is the name of a type of German pastry. The first ones were smooth, heavy glass balls that were too heavy to hang on anything but a stout pine in the yard, so people hung them in their windows. Kugel makers created them in the shape of grapes, apples, pears, pine cones, berries, tear drops and balls with melon-style ribs.

Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the kugel to compete with the glassblowers of neighboring Bohemia who had perfected blowing glass beads lined with lead mirroring solution with produced a brilliant shine. And although he was able to duplicate the lead mirroring solution, he couldn’t hand blow his kugels thin enough. The result was heavy pieces of glass shaped as balls in a rainbow of colors in sizes ranging from an inch in diameter to over 30 inches.

Originally, the glassblowers hung their kugels with bits of wire. After blowing a glass bubble, they snipped it from the blowing tube which resulted in a small neck with a hole leading to the inside of the kugel. They ground the neck down leaving just a hole and attached a decorative brass cap, held in place with wire arms that spread apart inside the glass sphere. Finally, they attached hanging rings to the caps and hung them with wire hooks.

These early kugels became known as “witches balls.” People hung them in their windows and doors to ward off witches, who, legend says, were repulsed by round shapes.

Kugel makers began experimenting with silvering the interior of their balls. Some used lead, while others employed bismuth or tin. Eventually, most settled on silver nitrate to create a metallic finish. Larger versions of these early kugels, called “gazing orbs,” sat on pedestals in people’s gardens.

It wasn’t until 1867, when Greiner-Schlotfeger’s village built a gas works that he had a steady, hot, adjustable flame, enabling him to blow thin-walled glass balls. From that point, it was a simple step to blowing glass into cookie molds shaped like fruits and pine cones. The glassblowers called them Biedermeierkugeln—referring to the Beidermeier Period in which they made them. However, these kugels were thin enough to hang on a Christmas tree, giving birth to today’s Christmas ornaments. The exteriors of these early ornaments glowed in bright red, cobalt, blue, green, silver, gold, and amethyst. 

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became all the rage among the wealthy. American retailer, F.W. Woolworth, saw these ornaments on a trip to Germany, but was reluctant to order any for his stores—at least at first. To his amazement, his original order sold out in two days.

By the last decade of the 19th century, kugel manufacturing had moved to Nancy, France. The decorations that came out of this region were lighter than those made in Germany and offered new exterior colors, including tangerine. 

But as with many other collectibles, cheap knock-offs began appearing in the American market years ago in a national mail order catalog. New pieces, made in the old shapes, such as round 2-inch balls, grapes in 5 and 3-inch clusters, and a 2 1/8-inch melon-ribbed ball, arrived in retailer’s shops with a removable paper label marked "Made in India."

The major difference between new and old kugels is the glass around the hole in the top of the ornament. Makers of early kugels cut off the neck around the hole with a blowing iron, making it flush with the kugel’s surface. On new kugels, the neck, technically called a spear or pike, remains.

The tops of these new necks have a "cracked off" appearance while the surface around the hole on older kugels is smoother. New kugels arrive from the wholesaler with an “antiqued” brass caps and pre-rusted top wires and hanging loops.

The value of older kugels depends on their size, shape, and exterior color. Pink, purple, and orange pieces are the rarest while red kugels, though obtainable, are expensive. The most common colors are silver, gold, green, and cobalt, in that order. While new kugels sell for about $8, originals can sell for as high as $1,000 and more.

For more information on kugels, read my article on antique Christmas ornaments.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Mini Means of Transport

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve long been interested in Plasticville buildings and accessories. I’ve got a few vehicles, but unfortunately, I don’t know very much about them. There were about a dozen different colors of these cars made, some with a molded hood ornament and some without.  Which colors are the rarest? How rare are the black ones?  I have heard rumors that there are reproductions of these cars on the market.  How would I be able to tell a reproduction car from an original?  Are the cars still being produced in China?  Are there ant new colors of these cars being made? 

ANSWER:  That’s a lot of questions about such little items. But before answering them, a bit of background is in order.

Bachmann Brothers, in business in Philadelphia since 1833, selected the name "Plasticville, U.S.A." for its line of injection-molded plastic buildings and accessories which it began manufacturing in late 1946. Prior to that time, the company manufactured women’s hair combs from celluloid, the first synthetic plastic material developed in 1868, followed by celluloid optical frames known as "tortoise shell" and protective eye wear for military use until World War II.

At first, Bachman produced plastic white picket fences for use around “putzes,” or under-the-tree Christmas displays. With the success of these rather common items, the firm launched a group of accessories, including plastic trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence, for use in the displays, themselves. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the various accessories it had begun to produce. The key, executives knew, was to create an fictional town of plastic buildings, so they decided on the name "Plasticville U.S.A."

The new product name captured the optimism of the early postwar years and conjured up the modern as well as the traditional. The word "plastic" connoted a revolutionary new material with unlimited potential associated with convenient, inexpensive, and readily disposable items.

But the fictional folks of Plasticville had no way to get around until 1954, when Bachman brought out its first vehicle assortment, the V-10, which included a jet bomber and jet fighter (for the veterans of World War II and Korean war who had become fathers), a fire pumper truck and fire ladder truck (to protect the town’s buildings from fire), an ambulance (for emergencies), a bus (for mass transit), and four cars.

A smaller V-6 Assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, fire ladder truck, ambulance, bus, and two cars, followed two years later. The company only sold its vehicles in sets. Buyers had only the choice of these two assortments, or in special “Master” units, which contained a number of items on a theme such as the “Airport and Accessories Unit” with its two jet planes, ambulance, fire engine, and car.

Occasionally, individual building kits contained a specialized vehicle. So if a buyer wanted more cars, for example, he had to purchase another whole assortment to get them. Bachman packaged all of its Plasticville accessories this way.

But Bachman cut corners on its packaging. The boxes which contained these vehicle sets and those of other accessories were cheaply made. Each was of the thinnest cardboard and had a window covered in a thin sheet of cellophane to show off the product inside. Needless to say, they didn’t last long. Most owners of Plasticville items packed them up in their original boxes after Christmas. The constant unpacking and packing eventually took its toll, so few of these vehicle assortments exist today in their original boxes.

While the airplanes came in silver and the fire trucks in their usual red, the cars came in a variety of colors, including  red, orange, yellow, green, dark green, pastel blue, gray blue, turquoise, dark blue, aqua, black. The mix varied randomly from one assortment to another. So if a buyer wanted to purchase more cars of one color, he had to purchase more assortments. Of all the colors, dark blue is the hardest to find in any vehicle. Orange is also hard to find. As for the cars, black is the hardest to find. It’s for this reason that a set of a half dozen black cars, claiming to be rare by its eBay seller, couldn’t possibly be so.

The company produced two different styles of cars for its Plasticville assortments. One had a plain hood and the other had a hood ornament added. There’s not correlation between the hooded ornaments and those without and the colors of the cars.

Because the Plasticville cars, in particular, have become such hot items for collectors, there are lots of reproductions and fakes on the market. Each authentic Plasticville car bears the inscription “Plasticville U.S.A.” on the interior underside of the car’s roof.

One of the most mysterious of all the vehicles is the dark blue bus. Collectors believe that it originally came with the Lionel Highway Set No. 955 and the Lionel Vehicle Set No. 958 sold under license from Bachman in 1958. The first set’s 22 pieces included two buses in either grey or dark blue and a car, plus assorted street and road signs and telephone poles, all selling for $1.00.

The second set sold for 25 cents more and included all the vehicles in the V-10 Assortment except the jet plane, plus a fire alarm box, a traffic signal, assorted street signs, a mail box, and a fire hydrant.

Those seeking to tell whether a car is an authentic Plasticville should look for the “flash,” as well as the quality of the plastic. Today’s plastics are definitely stronger and more solid looking than those used in the 1950s.

In 1984, Kader Industries of Dongguan, China, took over Bachman’s entire Plasticville line. That year Plasticville pieces looked exactly like the originals, with the company’s trademark BB in a circle plus Plasticville USA molded into each piece. After that, the company re-etched the molds to say "Made in China.”

Kader Industries still produces a car assortment, consisting of a fire pumper truck, aerial ladder truck,  a yellow ambulance, a green bus and a car. It’s important to note that the bus and ambulance have never been offered in these colors before.

Today, individual Plasticville cars sell for anywhere from $1.25 to as much as $27. Most are sold in groups of three or more. As with most collectibles, condition and rarity affect price. There’s also a marked difference in the design of the cars from their beginnings in 1954 to the present day.

Original cars had a solid molded plastic body with turning white wheels.  Later versions had more detailing and black wheels with hub caps. But buyer beware since some online sellers offer groups of six “rare” cars of the same type. If a car is that rare, it would be hard to find six in mint condition.

Read more about collecting Plasticville U.S.A. in The Antiques Almanac.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Unraveling Antique American Samplers

QUESTION: I love to do cross-stitch needlework. I’ve been admiring antique samplers and would love to start collecting them. But I’ve heard there are a lot of fakes out there. How can I be sure I’m buying the real thing?

That’s a reasonable question in light of today’s antique market. Samplers in particular fetch high prices, especially at Americana shows. There’s a good chance that the unsuspecting buyer discovering a single one in an antique shop will be taken, through no fault of the dealer. Most antique dealers can’t tell real samplers from fake ones. It’s only those who specialize in such things that can truly tell the difference.

According to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the earliest known American sampler was made in Plymouth Colony around 1645. Over the next two centuries, women created samplers as a way to save different types of stitches or designs they might want to use sometime in the future.

An example of a 19th-century young girl's needlework could show the extent and quality of her education as well as her religious and moral convictions. Schoolgirls from wealthier families used more expensive threads and learned more complicated designs or stitches while those from poor families used samplers almost as resumes of their abilities in an effort to gain employment in doing sewing.

Today, collectors consider samplers works of art, as well as insights into the past.  Subject matter ranges from a simple alphabet to complex landscapes, Biblical scenes and passages, as well as birth/death/ marriage records offering valuable genealogical information. In the past, collectors overlooked samplers as ordinary exercises in needlework, but today, they’re highly collectible and can command extremely high prices. For example, a sampler, sewn by New Jersey schoolgirl Mary Antrim sold at Sotheby’s for a over $1 million in 2012, while another fetched over $611,000 in 2003. Some sampler makers used only thread and needlework to create them while others used watercolors and paper and added  embellishments like seed pearls or beads.

There are plenty of samplers being made today specifically intended to deceive unwary collectors in this lucrative tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars market. The safest way to buy a sampler, of course, is through a reputable dealer who has a well-established reputation in sampler authentication. On the other hand, the riskiest way to purchase one is through an online auction site or an unknown online seller. Without being able to closely examine the fabric used and other details, there's no way to know for sure if a sampler is real or a fake.

So what are some ways to tell a fake or reproduction sampler from the real thing? One of the first thing to check is fabric discoloration. Old fabrics can darken in spots or brown to some degree in general, but much of this depends on what type of fabric the woman used and where it has been stored over time.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to sampler age. However, there are a couple of basic things to look for to make sure the browning is authentic. Many times, fakers will add browning to fabric by staining or darkening the fabric with tea or coffee. If a sampler browns, it tends to do so naturally around the edges near the frame, but blotchy browning should raise a cautionary flag. Also, if the fabric is wrinkled as if it were twisted or bunched up and the brown spots seem to follow that pattern, there's a good chance the browning has been added deliberately.

There have been a few cases where the actual date sewn onto a sampler has been altered to make the piece appear older—a "9" changed to an "8" or a "6" changed to a "0."  If there's no evidence of stitches having been removed from the fabric and the piece is important enough, a genealogical search can be done to determine the dates of the needleworker's' life. If the sampler includes her age, would she have been of the correct age during the year sewn into the sampler.

Collectors interested in samplers from a particular region or school will find it easier to use style and thread type to authenticate them. By studying designs and types of thread used in a particular region or school throughout the years, when they came into use and  when they stopped being used, it’s easy to date just about any sampler. Certain designs or stitching styles may also be more prevalent in a particular region, a certain school, or during a specific time period. On the other hand, some designs or stitch styles may not have been used at all by a particular school.

As with any antiques or collectibles in today’s market, it’s buyer beware. Being educated about samplers is the best defense to being taken.

Monday, December 5, 2016

How About a Cuppa?

QUESTION: My mother collected cups and saucers from dinnerware sets for years. She was also a great tea drinker. Recently, she died and now I have her collection. I don’t collect much of anything but I do like the variety she amassed in her collection. Why did she get so much pleasure from collecting all these different cups and saucers and what did that have to do with her liking tea?

ANSWER: Cups and saucers have a deep and historic connection to drinking tea. For collectors, they’re one of the easiest items to collect in all price ranges. Some people collect them from different makers, others collect different designs, and still others collect historically significant ones. Whatever the reason, cups and saucers are one of the most popular collectibles.

To understand how they are connected to tea drinking, we have to go back to 1800 when Joseph Spode invented the formula for bone china, a delicate but durable white porcelain to which he added finely ground animal bone. Spode decorated his first bone china teabowls (handleless cups) and saucers in brightly colored enamels and often gilded them. He copied many floral, figural, and landscape designs from the Chinese.

The earliest tea sets were copies of Chinese ones. Since the Chinese drank only lukewarm tea, the user could grip the cup, thus no handle was necessary. Cups from early tea sets had no handle. At the beginning of the 19th century, people began “saucering” their tea, or pouring some into the saucer to cool, then sipping it from the saucer. But eventually, this method went out of style. After that all cups had handles.

The English are great tea drinkers and created the daily ritual of “afternoon tea.”  An important part of this ritual is the cup and saucer, the more beautiful and delicate the better.  The need for these vessels encourage the production of numerous cups and saucers by English potteries. Many of them produced bone china dinnerware and exported  their products to the United States and Canada. During the 19th century, It became fashionable for young brides to collect sample cups and saucers from different sets.

Royal  Crown Derby richly gilded its "Imari" pattern and decorated it in the reds and blues of Japanese Imari ware. Minton produced beautiful hand-painted ring handles and butterfly handled bone china teacups highly prized by collectors. Doulton's Burslem factory made fine bone china cups decorated in gold with elaborate designs. Other companies, such as Aynsley, Foley, Crown Staffordshire and Royal Albert, produced bone china dinnerware with colorful transfer decorations.

Highly treasured by advanced collectors are the exquisite cabinet cups and saucers made by the leading porcelain factories in Europe in the 18th and 19th century. Women considered these lovely cups and saucers to be works of art and proudly displayed them in their cabinets.

Sevres produced magnificent cabinet cups and saucers with hand-painted portrait panels and richly gilt border designs, many in the "blue roi" color. Vienna Company developed a similar color in the 18th century, and today this cobalt blue shade is still a favorite with collectors. Both Vienna and KPM decorated their cabinet cups and saucers with magnificent reproductions of paintings by famous artists, such as Kauffman, as well as with beautiful florals and much gilding.

Cups and saucers from the elegant dinnerware services of the 19th and early 20th centuries are lovely to collect and offer good value. "Top-of-the-line" are cups and saucers from Meissen dessert sets, many with reticulated borders and multicolored hand-painted flowers. The best known and most copied porcelain decoration created by Meissen is the Blue Onion pattern, first designed in the early 18th century. Meissen based it on a Chinese pattern from the Ming Dynasty, and it got its name from a stylized peach that resembled an onion. More than 60 European and Oriental companies used this decoration, and many cup and saucer collectors hunt for examples of the different "onion" styles.

The most popular dinnerware in the mid to late 19th century was Limoges porcelain. Limoges was the center of hard paste porcelain production in France, and many companies exported dinnerware to America. Collectors actively seek cups and saucers from these sets because they offer a tremendous variety of shapes and decoration and are usually very affordable. Collectors look for the hand-painted examples. Floral decor, especially the rose, is the most frequent decoration followed by fruit themes, game birds and fish. Some cups and saucers have deep, vivid colors, while others, especially by Theodore Haviland, have delicate pastel coloring. Collectors prize many of them  because of their rich gold embellishments.

You can easily add to your mother’s collection. But before you do so, you should take an inventory by studying the marks on the bottoms of the cups and saucers. Try to see if she collected cups and saucers from certain companies or whether she collected them by design. Then decide how you would like to collect them. Don’t be afraid of selling or giving away pieces that my be slightly damaged or not in styles that you like. And while your mother may have left you her collection, it’s your collection now.