Friday, December 29, 2017

The New Kid on the Block

QUESTION:  This lamp has been in the family for reportedly over 100 years. It does not have a signature of any kind. The lighting fixture itself had been missing and my father installed a new one some years back. Is there any way to date and identify the maker of this piece?

ANSWER: Looking at your hanging lamp, it doesn’t look to be over 100 years old. Most likely it dates from the 1920s, maybe slightly earlier, based on the configuration of the socket frame.

Although Thomas Alva Edison is often given the credit for inventing the electric light bulb in 1879, the actual creation can be credited to several people, each of whom improved upon the basic concept.

In 1875, Henry Woodward received a patent for an electric light bulb. And four years later, Edison and Joseph Wilson Swan received a patent for a carbon-thread incandescent lamp. Edison initially worked with J. P. Morgan and a few privileged customers in New York City in the 1880s to light their homes, pairing his new incandescent bulbs with small generators.

In 1878, Thomas Edison began serious research into developing a practical incandescent lamp and on October 14, 1878, Edison filed his first patent application for "Improvement In Electric Lights." So it could be said that Thomas Edition created the first “commercially practical” incandescent light.

The first electric lamps, however, were nothing more than electrified gas lamps. Often the manufacturer didn’t know which sockets to use, so they put in a variety in the same lamp, and the wiring left a lot to be desired. Safety wasn’t even thought of much back then. Even the light bulbs were different. There was no standardization like we’ve known through the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st. The electric lighting industry took a while to take off.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, electricity was just beginning to find its way into the homes of average Americans. Before that, it was mostly a new toy of the wealthy.

A number of improvements occurred as the 20th century dawned. Peter Cooper Hewitt created the first commercial mercury-vapor lamp in 1901. Alexander Just and Franjo Hanaman invented the tungsten filament for incandescent light bulbs. In 1904.

By 1913, Irving Langmuir had discovered that inert gas could double the luminous efficacy of incandescent light bulbs. Burnie Lee Benbow patented the coiled coil filament in 1917. But the most far-reaching improvement was the production by Junichi Miura of the first incandescent light bulb to use a coiled coil filament in 1921. Finally, in 1925, Marvin Pipkin invented the first internal frosted light bulb.

All these improvements had lamp makers reeling. Once the electric light bulb had finally been stabilized, they saw the opportunity to use this constant source of even light to their advantage.

As household electricity became increasingly common and the light bulb more stable and long lasting, so lamp manufacturers started paying attention to the art of lighting indoor spaces. Shades gave lamp makers an opportunity to shine a light on their sense of aesthetics, whether it was to create a romantic background glow or an eye-catching centerpiece.

Lamp makers of the early 20th century looked to the Art Nouveau style, with it plant and animal motifs, to inspire their designs. Manufacturers were soon creating shades in a spectrum of colored glass, either hand-cut into complex patterns or blown into natural forms like flowers.

Louis Comfort Tiffany designed and made some of the most recognizable Art Nouveau lamps, including shades made from iridescent Favrile glass or intricate stained glass mosaics. Originally conceived by designer Clara Driscoll, Tiffany’s Dragonfly lamp shade is possibly the Studio’s most famous, featuring minuscule glass pieces in each detailed dragonfly wing. Such shades were created using a leaded-glass technique the company perfected for stained-glass windows. Capitalizing on the Tiffany trend, companies like Duffner & Kimberly, Gorham, and Seuss also created ornate stained-glass shades in the early 20th century.

Because electricity for mass use was in its infancy in the first decade of the 20th century, no two lamp manufacturers used the same electrical components. Although   the sockets in your lamp have been replaced, the lamp, itself, is more sophisticated than those produced say from 1900 to 1910. A lot of manufacturers produced lamps like this. The thickness of the glass and the soldering of the lead came indicated that this lamp was made in a small factory, most likely by hand. But without a signature of any sort, it’s hard to tell exactly which company produced it.

 To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It’s Snowing—Babies!

QUESTION: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been fascinated by the little white porcelain figurines called “snow babies.” My mother had a number of them and would place them on the mantel above the fireplace nestled in a bed of fresh pine and holly. I can still remember handing them to her since I was too short to reach the mantel. What can you tell me about snow babies? How long have they been around? Are they collectible? If so, I’d like to start my own collection.

ANSWER: Believe it or not, snow babies have been around since the early 1890s. And, yes, they are very collectible. However, over the decades a number of different ones have been produced, not all of which are authentic. So unfortunately, it’s buyer beware.

Snow babies are small figurines, usually of a child, depicting a Christmas or winter sports activity. Like Hummel figurines, they emphasize the nostalgia of childhood and days gone by. But unlike Hummels, their manufacture wasn’t tightly controlled.

Since their introduction in the last decade of the 19th century, snow babies have enchanted collectors all over the world, especially during the holidays. They’re made of unglazed porcelain, also known as bisque, and show a children dressed in one-piece, hooded snowsuits covered in small pieces of hand-whipped crushed porcelain bisque, giving the appearance of fallen snowflakes.

The idea for snow babies evolved from early 19th-century German candy cake toppers, called tannenbaumkanfekt, used to decorate the tops of Christmas cakes and to decorate Christmas trees. Confectioners molded flour, sugar and gum for firmness into little figures, then painted them with vegetable dye. The best loved became known as zuckerpuppes or sugar dolls, which people used, along with igloos and polar bears, to create snow scenes under their Christmas trees. Later, confectioners began making them of marzipan, a mixture of crushed almonds, egg whites and sugar. They were especially popular with confectioners in Lubeck, Germany. One of them, Johann Moll, commissioned Hertwig and Company to re-create these adorable almond paste babies in porcelain bisque. The oldest ones were typically either all white with a painted face or painted in pastel colors.

Hertwig and Company began operation in 1864 in Katzhutte, Thuringia, Germany, making porcelain doll heads and bisque figures. However, the Hertwig snow babies didn’t thrill German children, who naturally preferred the candy version. But their  mothers loved them and used them to adorn their trees and homes during the Christmas season. Then they could pack them up and save them safely for another year.

The first snow babies produced by Hertwig were one to two inches tall, but the company also made some five to seven-inch ones. As production increased, Hertwig began creating snow babies in a variety of winter activities, such as sledding, skiing, and tumbling. Eventually, the company’s artists made the figures’ hands and feet more clearly defined, and even gave their little figures shoes. Although babies predominated, Hertwig produced some older children as well.

Because of Hertwig’s success, many other German companies began to produce snow babies, including Wagner and Appel, Galluba and Hoffman, Bahr and Proeschild, Christian Frederick Klurg, and the Huebach Brothers.

In 1893, Josephine Perry, wife of the famous arctic explorer Robert, shocked the world by accompanying her husband to Greenland on his famous expedition to the North Pole, even though she was expecting a child. On September 8, 1893, Marie Ahnighito Perry, the first non-indigenous baby to be born that far north. The native Intuit came for miles to see the white-skinned baby they called her Ah-pooh-nick-ananny, Inuit for snow baby.

In 1901 Mrs. Perry wrote a book showing a photograph of her daughter wearing a white snow suit and called her a “snow baby.” Suddenly, the German-made figures were in high demand. For many years the Nuremburg firm of Craemer and Co. exclusively exported the figures from Germany. In the U.S., Scholl and Company and Westphalia Imports, both of New York, sold them, as well as confectionery and baking suppliers in the German communities of New York, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. They reached their peak of export to the U.S. between 1906 and 1910 as women’s magazines featured them as Christmas decorations.

In 1910, the R. Shackman Company of New York, an importer of fancy goods, toys and novelties, advertised and distributed them at 20 cents each. In 1914, Sears and Roebuck and Marshall Field, who called them “Alaska Tots,” sold them through their catalogs.

Prior to World War I, snow babies had highly detailed faces, with the paint fired onto the porcelain so that the color would be longer lasting. Some figurines had different pastel colors of ground bisque decoration while others were left all white except for painted faces. But then the Great War began and the export of snow babies came to a sudden halt.

When production resumed after the war, snow babies were smaller, usually ranging from one to three inches tall. Although the paint used came in vibrant primary colors, snow babies now had less facial detail than previous models. The paint was also less durable and prone to flaking. Models in more varied poses appeared, including children singing Christmas carols, riding polar bears, and building snowmen. 

In the 1920s, Japanese manufacturers began to produce snow baby replicas, though they were generally of a lesser quality than those made in Germany.

The early Depression years brought a final group of snow babies from Germany. People once again used them to create Christmas scenes, as well as for package tie-ons and table decorations. There were babies riding airplanes, playing musical instruments, and riding polar bears. However, these later pieces lacked the detail of early snow babies and were less lovable, so their popularity declined during the 1930s and by the outbreak of World War II, snow baby imports stopped. Here in America, interest in snow babies declined from 1950 to the 1980s. In 1987, an American company, Department 56, began producing replicas of the original snow baby designs and had them made in Taiwan. This helped generate a new interest in them as well as in the early pieces.

Obviously, the most collectible snow babies are those produced before World War I. These generally sell for the highest prices. Any of the German ones are also collectible, but as a beginning collector, you need to be aware of cheaper versions made in Asia.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

A 1950s World in Miniature

QUESTION:  My Grandmother had a village of Plasticville that we continue to put up each and every year.  I would like to add to it, but I don't know how to judge the scale of what I have compared to what is available to buy.  Can you tell me more about it and can you give me any guidance?

ANSWER: Except for the flag and Mom’s apple pie, there’s probably nothing more all-American than Plasticville, USA—America of the 1950s anyway. Baby boomers recall their delight as they watched a toy train chug around under the Christmas tree. And in the middle of the track were plastic buildings that helped create the illusion of a little town. It sound like you’re continuing that tradition.

Plasticville is a brand of plastic toy train building sold in the United States, made by formerly Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based Bachmann Industries since 1947.At that time, the company began making small plastic fences for people to use to surround the displays under their Christmas trees. 

By 1950, Bachman added a variety of small accessories—trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis—to its plastic fences, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the components. The key, executives knew, was a name, so they decided on  “Plasticville U.S.A.”

At that time, many Americans looked upon plastic as a symbol of progress. They also yearned for a simpler, rural past, when change was slower. Marketers at Bachmann, sensitive to this wave of nostalgia, added "ville" to the name of their new line in order to tap into the lingering sentimentality.

With the success of its first items, Bachman added a Cape Cod house, yard pump, and birdbath. They stamped each piece with the word “Plasticville” or the letters “BB” on a banner within a circle. Also available was a barn with a silo, roof ventilators and a weathervane. Bachmann then released two versions of a country church. All were easy to build, came apart, and only cost at most a dollar. Bachman loosely based its Plasticville buildings on "S" guage with "O" guage doors and windows so that they could be used with either scale trains.

By Christmas 1950, Bachmann offered a white and red grocery store, plus a gas station molded in similar colors. Especially striking were the window inserts depicting details that enhanced the look of both items. A new fire house completed the current line.

Over the next several years, the firm added all sorts of buildings to its Plasticville lineup. A new trolley-style dinner appeared in 1952, as well as other types of businesses----a supermarket, hardware store, drug store, and a 5 and 10—in 1953. The following year, Bachman added a fast food establishment called the Frosty Bar. All of these buildings reflected the rapid growth of suburbs in the Northeast.

The first church in Plasticville was a small white one with a gray roof, introduced in 1953, which came with paper inserts that simulated stained glass windows. As the suburbs grew, so did the Plasticville line. In 1954, Bachman added a New England ranch and a two-story colonial, both common in new post-war housing developments. Both of these came in a variety of color combinations to encourage buyers to purchase more than one.

Community buildings, also added in1953, included a hospital, complete with appropriate furnishings, a post office, an airport, and an airplane hangar.

Right from the beginning, the toy railroads under the Christmas tree demanded specialty structures. First came a station platform molded in light gray or brown plastic and featuring a brown or green roof and a small sign identifying the locale as Plasticville. A manually operated crossing gate with a white arm and a black or red base came next. The most impressive newcomer was a suburban station, with a brown platform and roof and trim in light gray, brown, or green.

By 1954, the toy trains graduated to model railroad layouts and Bachman expanded its railroad buildings to include a switch tower, plus a black signal bridge. To this, the company added a black trestle bridge, a larger Union Station, a water tank and loading platform.

Specialty buildings like a tan factory with gray or brown roof, a smokestack, and water tower, plus a red and white TV station came in 1957. All together, Bachman produced 104 different items in its Plasticville, U.S.A. line. And while the company had expanded its line of plastic buildings to cover just about every type of structure to be found in a small town, it would take another 20 years before anyone began collecting them.

Variations in common buildings can drive up the value. The common Plasticville one-story ranch house sells for about $5 while a variation using dark blue plastic sells for as much as $200. Larger buildings like the hospital and airport can go for much more.

To learn about Plasticville’s full story, read “Collecting Plasticville, U.S.A.” in #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Let the Star Wars Force be With You

QUESTION: My son was a big Star Wars fan when he was younger. He had just about every Star Wars action figure that came out—at least of the smaller ones. But now he’s grown and has his own family, and I seem to be left as the caretaker of his collection. I’d really like to know if these figures are worth keeping. Can you tell me something about them and if they’re collectible now or were they just a fad like Beany Babies?

ANSWER: Even though the first Star Wars movie premiered 40 years ago, the action figures that came out as a result of it and other Star Wars films are still highly collectible. Whether or not they’re still in their original packages will tell how much they may be worth.  If they’re still in unopened packages, then you have something. If not, maybe not.

In May 1977 "Star Wars: A New Hope" exploded across the big screen in a symphony of sound and light unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Fans went crazy over the film, some seeing it hundreds of times, and sci-fi films haven’t been the same since. Star Wars was the first movie franchise which created a voracious demand for film-related products. Fans clamored for tangible souvenirs of the new universe they were coming to know and love. Director George Lucas and film industry leaders were all taken by surprise.

While the variety and forms of Star Wars items are almost as numerous as the stars themselves, the most popular objects of Star Wars collectors’ desires are the toys. Furthermore, among the toys, the  most sought after are the 3 3/4-inch action figures.

Kenner Products is responsible for the most of the Star Wars toys that are on the collectibles market today. The firm obtained the original license to manufacture toys, games, puzzles and a few books prior the release of the first film in 1977. In time, the resultant outpouring of products from the Kenner factories far outstripped Lucas’ expectations. In fact, all he expected from his merchandising rights were a few posters and T-shirts with which to lure more children to his film. At a base price of just $2 or less, not only kids but adults quickly bought up the stock of figures. And over the years came back for more in a variety of re-incarnations.

Following Kenner, other toy manufacturers joined in on Stars Wars’ success. Chief among was Galoob, a company determined to "out-small" Kenner with its Star Wars Micro Machines. Play sets and spaceships were this company's main products. Action figures by Galoob were about the size of the smaller accessories that accompanied Kenner's figures. Galoob sold these tiny action men and women as part of  play sets. No other company ever came close to the Star Wars toy output of these two firms.

By definition, action figures are molded of plastic and designed for play. While they’ve varied in size over the years, the original ones were only a little over three inches high.  Kenner made these figures to have five points of articulation—at the neck, shoulders, and hips. They also had their clothing molded as part of the body, while some of the larger figures have removable clothing.

Toy companies package action figures of different sizes differently. The 12-inch and 8-inch figures generally are packaged and sold in boxes. The 3 3/4-inch-tall figures most often appear on store shelves sealed against a decorated cardboard backing within a plastic bubble commonly referred to as a blister. The package for the 3 3/4 inch figure is thus referred to as a blister pack.

Kenner designed its 3 3/4-inch high Star Wars figures for use with play sets, spaceships, and other accessories. But their 12-inch figures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and such were too large to be equipped with play sets. But one thing that action figures have in common is that the come with a array of small accessories that tend to disappear quickly once a child removes the figure from its packaging.

Then Kenner’s line seemed to die out for a while. In 1995, the firm re-introduced its Star Wars figures with a new design and/or a repainting that appealed to both kids and adults. But one thing to be aware of is that the newer figures tend to come and go. From time to time, Kenner would play with the mix of figures on the market at any one time. It would remove some of the older models and replace them with newer ones.

Kenner first released its line of 12-inch figures in the late 1970s, sticking mostly to the film’s main characters. But these 12-inch figures didn’t compete well with Kenner’s 3 3/4-inch ones and the company stopped making them. But its smaller figures live on. 

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Hold That Door

QUESTION: My mother collected doorstops. She had a collection of about 50 which she left to me when she died. I know very little about them, but I’d like to continue collecting them. What can you tell me about them—how did they originate and when, and how collectable are they today?

ANSWER: It’s great that you plan on continuing your mother’s collection. Most people seem to want to get rid of whatever items they inherit while others just warehouse them. But curating and growing a collection is different. Now it’s up to you to figure out just what doorstops you have, selling those that aren’t very good and adding those that will enhance your collection. But first, you need to learn a bit about their history.

Doorstops date back to the last quarter of the 18th century, around the time of the American Revolution, but in England. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes and held open large doors. The British called them “door porters” and liked the cast in iron or bronze.

By the early 1800s, doorstops began appearing in a variety of materials, including wood, glass, and earthenware. The cast-iron doorstops had flat backs from the hollow molds used to make them, allowing them to stand flat against the surface of the doors.

By the middle of the 19th century and especially following the Civil War, doorstops had evolved into full three-dimensional figures and were becoming increasingly popular in the United States.

American manufacturers followed the basic English tradition of making cast-iron doorstops in the familiar shape of baskets and flowers. They also began to develop a variety of attractive shapes, including houses, ships, stagecoaches, and all kinds of wild and domestic animals. American makers hand painted them in bright colors until all sorts of colorful doorstops were readily available.

By the 1880s, it wasn’t unusual to find iron birds, story book characters, and even a few human-type figures propping doors where ventilation was seasonally so important in so much of the country.

Some believe the Amish developed the use of the human figure as a doorstop to its fullest form starting in the 1880s and continuing into the 1930s. They cast figures of men, women and children, painted them with pleasing facial features, and dressed them in time-honored Amish clothing. These seven to nine inch high doorstops today sell for a minimum of several hundred dollars each.

Casting techniques had improved enough prior to the turn of the 20th century to enable foundries in the U.S. to manufacture nearly every design of doorstop a home owner could want. In fact, some of the firms invited customers to send detailed sketches of doorstops, so that they could create them. But all this variety of design resulted in variations in both the size and weight of doorstops. Heights ranged from four or five inches to two feet.

One of the most popular forms of doorstops was the dog. Manufacturers produced doorstops in the shapes of just about every breed of dog, from Alaskan Malamutes to Russian Wolfhounds to a variety of terriers. Many of these animals were full figure, cast in two parts, screwed together, and painted.

The Albany Foundry Company of Albany, New York, and A.M. Greenblatt Studios of Boston, Massachusetts, were among the major manufacturers of doorstops in the early 20th century. Both did a booming business in the late 1920s, selling cast-iron doorstops  for about a dollar each.

Additional firms included Hubley Manufacturing Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which made toys, Littco Products, National Foundry, and Eastern Specialty Manufacturing Company.

Doorstops were still quite effective and desirable well into the 1930s. Generally, production ceased abruptly at the onset of World War II, since factories converted to production of war materiel.

Today, antique doorstops sell for $50 or so in good condition, but can go as high as $200 for some special ones.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

A Platter Fit for a Turkey

QUESTION: For my family, Thanksgiving was the biggest gathering of the year. I remember my mother planning the event as early as October. Back in the 1950s, we'd pile into the car and drive to the local turkey farm to order a very large bird. My mother would have never considered buying a frozen turkey at the local market. I heard her speaking on the phone to my grandmother about how many were corning, what kinds of pies should be baked, or whether we would add some new recipe for cranberry sauce. At the center of it all lay the traditional turkey platter, which had been handed down for generations. Can you tell me how these platters came to be, who made them, and why they became so popular?

ANSWER: Many families still use a large turkey platter. Though large but not very sophisticated, it often features a 22-inch pattern with yellow roses manufactured by Homer Laughlin. It’s got high sides and can hold a very large turkey, and by now it’s even got a few rim chips, but it’s part of the family, so it means a lot.

The turkey was the last dish to be brought to the table and the senior member of the family would always carve the bird. Everyone would say grace and eat more than any thought humanly possible. While sitting around the table, family members would tell stories—Grandpa always seemed to tell the same ones to the embarassment of his wife. In many cases, this holiday feast was just as Norman Rockwell painted it.

The first turkey platters appeared in the early 1870s, when East Liverpool, Ohio, was the setting for the founding of several important American potteries due to the existence of raw materials such as clay, coal and natural gas. One of the largest and most successful, was the Homer Laughlin China Company, founded by brothers Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin in 1897. It went on to become one of the world's major producers of institutional china, including Fiesta ware. They based their holiday platters on several of their most popular dinnerware lines and decorated them with colorful printed transfers.

Thus, the same image often appeared on many of their turkey platters—a bird with its tail feathers fanned out fully, set against a rural farmyard background. The platters featured wide rims in Harlequin yellow and turquoise blue.

In the mid-1950s, a similar design appeared on Thanksgiving platters made by Taylor, Smith & Taylor, which the company sold to retailers to use as an advertising premium.

In its "Historical America" series, Laughlin also produced an elaborate scene from 1621 called "The First Thanksgiving," transfer printed in rose pink and sold exclusively through F.W. Woolworth. The company also produced a similar "Bountiful Harvest" platter showing Pilgrims and Indians gathering and sharing food.

A somewhat scrawnier bird appears on platters and plates made by Southern Potteries Inc., a Tennessee firm formerly known as Clinchfield Potteries. It began in 1917 by producing commercial, semi-vitreous china tableware decorated with stock transfers.

Its better-known trademark, Blue Ridge, debuted in 1932. By the late 1930s, it had switched from transfers to underglazed hand-painted decoration. Within 15 years, it had become the largest American producer of hand-painted china, with an annual production of 24 million pieces. Some of the firm’s top artists signed a limited number of special designs, and these are among the most coveted pieces for collectors.

For example, there’s a wild turkey platter painted and signed by artist Mildred L. Broyles, depicting a standing, long-necked bird eyeing a bug, valued at over $2,000. Another, signed by Louise Gwinn called “Turkey Gobbler,” shows a bird in a woods and sells for over $1,750.

While Homer Laughlin and Southern Potteries dominated the market, there were several other companies, from California and elsewhere that staked their own claims. Among these are platters produced by the Nelson McCoy Pottery Comapny of Roseville, Ohio, featuring a solid brown embossed relief of Tom Turkey, the Delano Studios of Long Island, featuring a soaring bird in flight, and the Hadley of Louisville platter, with its whimsical, schematic turkey in blue on vitrified stoneware.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

How Low Can You Go

QUESTION: I just purchased an antique coffee table and would like to know more about it. What can you tell me about my table? Is it a valuable antique?

ANSWER: I hate to burst your bubble, but your table isn’t an antique. In fact, coffee tables are a modern invention. No one knows exactly where they came from or who designed the first one.

The current definition a coffee table is a low, wide table placed in front of a couch or sofa to receive drinks, TV remotes, magazines, ashtrays, and miscellaneous other items, including feet. Yes, some people do prop their tired feet up once in a while. But a quick look back in time doesn't show many similar tables in our Western history. Old photos of late Victorian room settings show taller tables, often placed behind a sofa to receive cups and glasses when not in use. The only other table offering close to the service of a coffee table was the parlor table, often placed in the middle of the room with a gas lamp on it. Here, the lady of the house could serve coffee or tea to guests.

During the latter half of the 19th century, wealthy people became interested in the exotic furniture of Turkey. They would set up a special corner or an entire room using pillowed benches and ornately carved, low, round tables from which they drank strong Turkish coffee and tea.

Americans became especially fond of Japanese design after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. They particularly liked the idea of sitting on pillows on the floor and eating at low tables like the Japanese do. When the Aesthetic Movement took hold in the 1880s, furniture designers blended Eastlake and Renaissance Revival styles with Turkish and Asian ones.

While some sources note the production of low tables in various Revival styles during the last decade of the 1800s, no one has ever seen any.

The coffee table appeared in the 20th century, most likely in the 1920s and 1930s. As Americans began to purchase parlor sets, consisting of perhaps a couch, two chairs, and several small tables, the coffee table idea became more popular.

In 1903, F. Stuart Foote founded the Imperial Furniture Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had learned the furniture business from his father, E. H. Foote, who had founded the Grand Rapids Chair Company in 1872. Foote claimed to have invented the coffee table himself while helping his wife prepare for a party. He simply lowered the legs on an existing table, and a new type of furniture came into being. Unfortunately, so far this hasn’t been proven.

Prohibition may have also played a role in the development of the coffee table. From 1920 to 1933, America was legally "dry." That led to a shortage of well blended, smooth tasting liquor. “Bathtub gin" and "white lightning" to the place of traditional spirits but both had quite a kick.  To soften that kick, people began mixing fruit juices and other beverages with the hootch which eventually led to the invention of the "cocktail."

During Prohibition, people often used this low table to serve coffee to their guests. But with the repeal of the law, they could once again legally serve cocktails, so it became known as a “cocktail table.” Sales for these low tables soared even during the Depression.

To make them seem older than they were and thus more elegant, many furniture manufacturers began producing their coffee/cocktail tables using stylized designs of the past. This was a direct result of the appearance of the Colonial Revival style of the early 20th century which encouraged furniture makers to create pieces in supposedly “colonial” styles. All of a sudden coffee tables appeared in the Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal, and even Jacobean styles. Thus, many people today are fooled into thinking that their coffee tables are really antiques.

The only way to have a truly antique coffee table is to cut down an existing antique table as F. Stuart Foote did in 1903. And while your coffee table will be a true antique, it won’t be worth very much.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Fire in a Box

QUESTION: My father recently passed away and left me a number of things, including his collection of matchboxes. No, not the toy cars but the real thing—boxes that hold matches. I believe there are several hundred in the collection. Frankly, I’d like to continue collecting them, but I have no idea where to start. Can you help me? And can you tell me a bit about the history of matchboxes?

ANSWER: When a person, such as yourself, inherits someone else’s collection, they need to decide whether to merely curate the collection, that is take care of it and preserve it, or to make it there own. It sounds like you’d like to make your father’s matchbox collection your own. The first thing you need to do is learn about the history of these unique containers, then you need to find out which types are the most collectible, not necessarily the most valuable.

Matchboxes consist of a sliding-drawer within a sleeve, and since their appearance, they have made possible a variety of graphic designs and artistry.

Before 1844, when Gustraf Eric Pasch invented the safety match, finding a source to light a fire in an emergency was a challenge. He devised a system of impregnating little sticks of pinewood with sulpher and storing them ready for use. At the slightest touch of fire they burst into flame. Formerly called a "light-bringing slave", it later became known as a “fire inch-stick.”

But it was Edvard Lundström who developed Pasch's idea of a safety match and applied for its patent with a phosphor-free tip. Johan's younger brother, Carl Frans Lundström was an entrepreneur and industrialist who helped him set up a safety match factory in Jönköping, Sweden, between 1844 and 1845. They began making matches  in 1853 and won a silver medal for their invention at the World Expo in Paris 1855.
Although expensive to produce, their matches became known throughout the world as Swedish Matches.

Once the manufacturing of safety matches had begun, the Lundström brothers came up with a practical form of packaging that’s still used today—the matchstick box with an inner box and an outer sleeve. They coated the sides of the outer sleeve with a striking surface containing red phosphorus. And they made each box by hand. The designs on Swedish matchboxes dominated the market and soon most of the matchbox labels in the world imitated these designs.

In 1892, Alexander Lagerman invented a machine that revolutionized safety match manufacturing. The
machine dipped matchsticks in sulphur, paraffin and the match head substance. It split them, dried them, then packed them into matchboxes. Everything was automated. When the brothers built their safety match factory in Jönköping, production reached 4,000 boxes a year. By 1896, the firm produced over seven million boxes a year.

In that same year, a brewing company ordered more than 50,000 matchbooks to advertise a new product, thus the practice of matchbook advertising was born. Once they became common, advertisers were eager to use these popular items to get their messages to the public.

Advertisers display a wide variety of both consumer and industrial goods and services using matchbox ads. However, restaurants clearly dominate all other categories of trade. Next in line are probably hotels and motels, yacht and country clubs and other types of membership organizations; industrial firms, retailers and financial institutions. Represented to a lesser extent are food products, liquor, tobacco, tourist attractions, transportation, mostly airlines, real estate, insurance, automobile dealers, sports, public utilities, and governmental agencies.

A matchbox has two trays instead of one. Most feature colorful holographic or 3-D illustrations and other decorative motifs, such as seashells or holiday symbols on their covers. Manufacturers made some matchboxes in sets, commemorating historical events or popular cultural icons, to enhance their retention value. Subjects vary widely, from zoo animals, British royalty, museum pieces, jokes, old ads, classic autos, and scenic points of interest. Holiday Inn issued one of the largest numbers of different collectible matchboxes.

Some matchboxes can be personalized with a loyal customer's name imprinted to reward patronage in restaurants and other businesses. These often have a few blank lines printed on the back so that the user can note names, addresses, phone numbers and notes.

Generally, matchbox sizes range all the way from "micro" at 1 5/8 x 7/8 x 1/4 inches on up to 4 1/2 x 2 1/4 x 1 3/16-inches and some are even larger. The bigger sizes house kitchen, fireplace, pipe and cigar matches. In addition to rectangular, boxes can be square, hexagonal, round, or in odd shapes like miniature barrels.

While manufacturers used plain cardboard for the majority of matchboxes, there are some made of glossy coated cardboard, foil, plastic, and wood.

Besides the United States, collectible matchboxes can also be found in other countries, such as England, Canada, Japan, Australia, Korea, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Wales, and France.

Matchboxes are an affordable collectible with many examples selling for mere pennies. There’s also a great deal of variety with over 250 different matchbox categories such as military or hotels. While the U.S. matchbox collectors is facing a diminishing supply because people are quitting smoking or using lighters, the foreign hobby is still going strong. Diligent U.S. collectors can also still find giveaway matchboxes, however.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Rarity of Napoli

QUESTION: Recently, I discovered a glass biscuit jar at a regional antiques show. I collect art glass but have never seen anything like it before. What’s so unusual about this piece is that it seems to be painted on both the inside and outside. Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: The only type of art glass that’s painted on both the inside and outside is Napoli glass, produced by the Mount Washington/Pairpoint Glass Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Albert Steffin, the head of the Mount Washington decorating department, patented Napoli glass on May 22, 1894. He had found a way to decorate clear glassware on both the inside and outside. In a way he used another method of glass decoration called “reverse painting,” which originated in Antioch around 200 A.D., as his inspiration. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, American and European mirror and clock makers used this type of decoration to ornament the tops of mirrors and the glass doors of wall clocks.

Steffin’s method began by first outlining the basic form on the outside of the glass in silver or gold metallic paint. This outline then served as a guide for producing the design on the inside using colored enamels. This decoration process produced a novel and almost three-dimensional effect unlike the decoration on any other type of glass.

But Steffin didn’t invent this type of decoration solely as a way to produce a unique type of glass. He actually was more concerned about the savings it would give him because with two different types of paint, each on a different side of the glass, he would only have to fire his pieces once, thus offering him a big savings on fuel. If he applied the two different types of paint on the outside, he’d have to apply and fire one, then do the same for other and firing again. Firing both types of paint separately also resulted in a brighter finish and correct coloration.

Workers at the Mount Washington factory produced the majority of Napoli glass pieces using the same forms as the firm’s other art glass lines—Verona, Royal Flemish, and Crown Milano.  But the Napoli pieces have an interconnected network of lines that looks like a spider web which makes them stand out from other kinds of art glass.

One unusual decoration on Mt. Washington glass depicts Brownie figures, created by author/illustrator Palmer Cox. Brownies were extremely popular within a few years after Cox published his first children’s book in 1887.

Of all the art glass on the market, Napoli is the hardest to find. At first glance, it doesn’t look like it would be particularly valuable, but its rarity drives the prices of pieces upward. Many pieces have gilt lines painted on the outside which makes them especially appealing to collectors.

Each piece bears a mark on the bottom in gold enamel. with the word “Napoli,” followed by the shape number.  If the mark is in silver, then the piece may also bear another mark of “MW” for Mount Washington. Common shapes include vases, punch cups, marmalade and cracker jars. Salt and pepper shakers are the rarest.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Gotta Light?

QUESTION: I used to be a smoker, so I’ve owned my share of cigarette lighters. Most of the recent ones were of the disposable variety, but I had some earlier ones that were sort of unique. My favorite was one shaped like a little pistol.  Recently, I started seeing some of the earlier lighters for sale on eBay. I think I’d like to start a collection, but I’m not sure where to begin. Can you help me?

ANSWER: As with any collectible, the more you know about it before you start collecting, the better.

First invented in 1823 and improved in the 1880s, pocket cigarette lighters were as common as wallets by the beginning of the 20th century. Basic vintage lighters were mechanical, in which a spark from a flint striking a wheel ignited a wick or created a flame above a gas valve. Semi-automatic ones had a wheel which also opened the fuel-source cover while automatic ones had a push-button that did everything.

The first manual lighters, called strike lighters, worked like matches. Users would scratch a flint using a wand with a hard metal tip and an attached wick. The flint would create sparks to ignite a wick, soaked with flammable fluid. Lighters had become functional as well as artistic with the invention of the semiautomatic lighter in the 1920s, in which the user flipped open the lid and a flint wheel simultaneously spun and ignited the wick.

Louis Aronson, the founder of Ronson lighters, invented the automatic lighter in 1926.  It requires only the push of a button to create the flame, which stays lit as long as the user holds down the button. Early electric lighters, which were simple to use, worked like the lighters in classic cars: The lighter had a metal coil at its tip and plugged into a larger housing, which would heat the bottom enough to ignite a cigarette.

Through World War II, most lighters ran on Naptha, a petroleum mixture—after the war, compressed butane replaced it.

Vintage lighters vary from expensive, elegant objects made from precious metals to cheap novelty items, such as lighters that look like lipstick cases or little T.V. sets.

Cigarette lighters come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, from tiny pocket-sized to huge table lighters. Most of the unusual-shaped lighters are Japanese models. They made some interesting shapes, mostly from 1950 through the 1970s. Lighters took the shapes of revolvers, pistols, derringers, and even machine guns.

Lighters came in lots of other shapes, such as animals and forms of transportation. Sports cars, train locomotives, motorcycles, yachts, submarines, helicopters, and airplanes are just some of the few.  But they also took the shapes of shoes, fire extinguishers, lighthousses, cameras, and even grenades.

Name an object and somebody probably designed a lighter that looks like it. One took the form of a working slot machine—by pulling the handle, it would light. Ronson even made a Kewpie doll lighter in 1916. And then there’s one shaped like a pool table with an attached pool cue. There was also a jukebox that played a tune while the user lit up.

The craze for vintage lighters has heated up in recent years. With the invention of disposable lighters and the drop in the market for more ornate models, plus fewer people smoking, vintage cigarette lighters have become an art form that will probably never be duplicated. As a beginning collector, you can spend as little or as much as you want. But more important is the story behind the lighter and the history that goes with it.

Collecting vintage lighters is affordable and they don’t take up much room, so they’re perfect for those living in smaller spaces.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Thanks for the Memories

QUESTION: When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to Atlantic City every summer. As I get older, my memories of those summer vacations are but vague recollections. Recently, I was browsing a local antique cooperative and came across a small, red and white cream pitcher with “From Atlantic City 1897" scratched into what looks like a red coating. Immediately, memories from those vacations from my early childhood came flooding back, so I bought it. What can you tell me about my little pitcher?

ANSWER: Obviously, your little cream pitcher dates from before your birth, but like other souvenirs of summer destinations, it’s no less important. In fact, with the coming of the railroads in the early part of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, middle-class Victorians took to the road, rail, and sea in great numbers. Most of them wanted to take home a souvenir of their trip, and your little cream pitcher is one of them.

One of the most popular of these were ruby-stained glass toothpick holders, tumblers, goblets, creamers and pitchers inscribed with their name or the name of the destination and the date.

Glass souvenirs did not first appear at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, as many believe, but much earlier. Little keepsakes had always been made in blown glass. After less expensive pressed glass appeared in 1825, owners of fairs and expositions sought out these more profitable items. Manufacturers pressed plates and tumblers with pictures of an event. But it was the smaller items, such as match and toothpick holders and little creamers and mugs that became popular. Makers often stained these pieces red or amber and engraved them with an inscription. Glass makers created thousands of these small articles for the large expositions, such as the Chicago Fair in 1893, as well as the popular county fairs.

Staining a piece of glass involved painting an already-pressed piece of clear pattern glass with a ruby-colored stain and reheating it to 1000 degrees in a kiln which turned the coating bright red. Sometimes, makers used an amber stain to decorate their pressed pieces. Pieces stained in this fashion could then be engraved with flower or leaf bands or souvenir inscriptions.

Produced in the United States from 1880 to 1920, there were eventually thousands of patterns of pressed glass that flooded the market. Makers produced many of the more popular patterns in a variety of forms. They combined different colors of glass and different decorating techniques to produce hundreds of thousands of pieces of glass. People would purchase a piece of blank stained glass at an event or travel destination and could then have it personalized with their name and date.

One of the more popular ruby stained patterns, Button Arches, introduced originally around 1898, continued in production until the 1960s and 1970s. The design consisted of slightly overlapping pointed arches around the bottom edges and covers of pieces, each arch containing tightly packed "buttons."  Made in clear, clear with ruby staining and gold-stained bands, collectors can find this pattern highlighted with souvenir inscriptions.

In the late 1890s, the U.S. Glass Co., a consortium of smaller companies, came up with the idea of marketing a series of glass patterns named after the various states. Though a few of these patterns were new to the series, some were reissues of earlier lines reintroduced as part of this line. The state series continued through the turn-of-the-century. Most of the state patterns featured geometric or imitation cut-glass designs, but a few had a plant and flower motif that added to their appeal.  Obviously, state patterned glass was popular as a souvenir from the state for which the pattern was named.
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