Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Over the Topp

QUESTION: When my son was just a young boy back in the 1960s, he seemed to be constantly buying bubble gum. I told him it wasn’t good for him, but he bought pack after pack. It wasn’t until later that I realized he wasn’t buying the packages for the gum but for the cards that came along with it. He’s got his own family now and his kids are grown and off on their own. Recently, I was going through some old shoe boxes and discovered over 100 of these bubble gum cards. To my surprise, they didn’t picture sports heroes, like baseball players, but instead showed everything from animals to stars of T.V. shows. What can you tell me about these cards and are they worth anything?

ANSWER: Believe it or not, your son’s cards are highly collectible. While they may not have a high monetary value, their value is in their collectibility. These cards, often called “bubble gum” cards are commonly known as “non-sports” cards because they depict subjects that aren’t sports related. They’re also referred to as “entertainment” cards because their subject matter, at least in the past 20-30 years, has portrayed subjects such as comic book heroes, T.V. shows, movie stills, cartoon characters, as well as pop culture, science fiction, trains, dinosaurs, music, history, and the military.

The original makers, including bubble gum makers like Topps, the leading producer of sports and non-sports trading cards, designed them to be collected into sets. But to do so required young collectors to buy lots and lots of packages of bubble gum in order to find the cards they needed to complete a set.

Cigarette makers over a century ago provided the earliest popularly collected versions of most trading cards—issuing one per pack. At that time, most of the cigarette cards featured images of sports figures, but eventually, cigarette manufacturers began including images of various subjects from outside the world of sports. These included scenes of famous places, exotic animals, and people from the world of entertainment.

As the cigarette makers stopped issuing cards with their products, bubble gum, cereal, and candy makers began to include a non-sport or sports card as a bonus in their packages. By the 1950s both sports and non-sport cards had achieved a popularity that made the cards, themselves, the point of sale. While bubble gum makers continued to include a piece of gum in most packs of non-sport cards up until about 1990, after that, they stopped including the cards in their packs. Very few card issues since 1990  have included bubble gum in the packs, making the once common term "bubble gum cards" a misnomer today.

While non-sports cards initially featured real world subjects such as entertainers, animals, and famous places, their success expanded with the introduction of new concepts created specifically for the cards. These included the popular Wacky Packages product label parody sticker cards from the Topps Company, issued originally from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. Cards depicting historical events have also been popular with collectors.

Over the past 50 years, cards based on television series and movies have really gained a foothold. In fact, media-based cards account for a large portion of the cards produced. Some of the most popular media-based non-sport cards have been based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman in both T.V. and movies, Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are also sets from the Munsters, the Addams Family, and the Three Stooges.

Cards based on movies and TV shows such as Star Wars often relate the story of the movie or series in both picture and editorial form. The front of the cards have a picture of an event or person from the show or movie, while the back describes the event pictured on the front. Often these sets will include character cards as well as behind the scenes or quote cards.

Other popular modern day non-sport cards feature characters from comic books, including Batman and Spiderman and others from Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and comic books from independent publishers.

While most card sets include a title card and a checklist card—the first and last cards respectively—most non-sport card sets now include different levels of insert cards in the packs. Topps and other companies started this by including a sticker in each pack of cards. Now inserts can include autograph cards, sketch cards (featuring the original sketch for a card), cards that complete a nine-card puzzle (usually by combining the backs of the cards), memorabilia, along with parallel sets which mimic the standard cards in the set with some slight difference like the color of the border or the finish on the card. For instance, the background might be plain or holographic as in a set from Star Trek Voyager.

The goal for collectors is to assemble complete sets, either of different subjects or variations of one subject. For instance, take Batman from DC Comics. The character has been the subject of dozens of trading card sets. A collector interested in assembling a complete collection of Batman trading cards today needs to search eBay for unopened boxes of up to 60 cards—six packs of ten cards each. Out of these boxes, a collector should be able to compile a complete set, as well as several duplicate cards for trading or resale.

The greatest potential for investment-quality cards lies in the vintage sets published before 1980. These sets, in premium condition, can be difficult to complete but are highly collectible. Collectors may also choose to assemble complete sets of the same cards printed specifically for the Canadian or UK markets. Because of the popularity of these sets, it’s common to find reprints on the market that look similar to the originals. Beginning collectors should remember that it’s unlikely that a 1966 Batman Black set in mint condition will appear on eBay for $20.

Virtually every major pop culture phenomenon of the past 50 years has at some point been immortalized in non-sport trading cards. However, the places where collectors can find these cards have become limited. Non-sport card shows, held in every major city around the country, feature dealers selling every type of non-sport card. And while retailers like Walmart do carry sets devoted to hit movie blockbusters, they do so for only a  short time. Comic book stores used to be a great source for purchasing and trading these cards but even they sell fewer of them. Besides the card shows, the best place to find cards to start or fill out a collection is online.

There are plenty of vintage sets and cards worth hundreds of dollars and many more worth tens of dollars, but newer cards aren’t really worth the paper they’re printed on. The availability of non-sports cards allows collectors a quick and relatively inexpensive way to begin or add to their collections. With non-sport trading cards, it’s all about the love of collecting. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Purity of Milk Glass

QUESTION: I just purchased a service for eight of milk glass dishes made by Westermoreland Glass of Pennsylvania at an estate sale. The set seems complete and came with serving dishes, a meat platter, and beautiful hand-painted dessert plates. It’s a stunning set, but I know nothing about it. What can you tell me about my set?

ANSWER: Your set of dishes only dates from the late 1940s or early 1950s, so it isn’t that old. By this time, the Westmoreland Glass Company specialized in making opaque white milk glass and was the leading manufacturer of it in the country.

In 1889, a group of men purchased  the Specialty Glass Company of East Liverpool, Ohio. They relocated the firm to Grapeville, Pennsylvania, to take advantage of the area’s abundant supply of natural gas. By the following year, two brothers, George and Charles West, had begun to oversee the production of tumblers, goblets, pitchers, and glass novelty items.

George and Charles West eventually became majority stockholders in the company.  They decided to buy out the Ohio founders and enlisted the help of Ira Brainard, a financial backer from nearby Pittsburgh, and changed the firm’s name to the Westmoreland Specialty Company.

Brainard’s son, James J. Brainard, became an officer in the company in 1924. At that time, Westmoreland mainly produced glass tableware, mustard jars, and candy containers.

Operation of the factory ran smoothly for nearly 30 years. During this period, Westmoreland produced virtually every type of glassware, from inexpensive pressed glass to pricier cut glass. Disagreements between the two brothers eventually resulted in George leaving the company, which Charles ran on his own. Around the same time, Charles changed the name of the company to Westmoreland Glass Company to eliminate the confusion among consumers about what a “specialty” company might actually produce—adding the word “glass” made the company’s mission clear.

Throughout World War I, the Westmoreland Glass Company manufactured and distributed intricately molded, candy-filled glass jars in the shapes of automobiles, trains, and even revolvers to newsstands and dime stores across the U.S. The jars were made of high-quality milk glass, or opal, a signature material that distinguished Westmoreland glass from its competitors.

In the 1920s, Charles added a large decorating department, which allowed for the distribution of impressive crystal and decorated ware. But it was milk glass that kept the company in the black. Indeed, over 90 percent of all Westmoreland glass produced between the 1920s and 1950s was milk glass.

In 1937, Charles West retired and sold his interest to the Brainard family, which controlled the company until 1980. In the 1940s, the Brainards phased out the high-quality hand-decorated glass and began to produce primarily milk glass. James J. Brainard’s son, James H. Brainard, took over the firm upon the death of his father.

Thanks to their high level of craftsmanship, many considered Westmoreland milk glass pieces to be the finest in the country. Many of the patterns produced in the 1950s  capitalized on the material’s earlier popularity. Among the most successful patterns were Paneled Grape, Old Quilt, Quilted, English Hobnail, Beaded Edge, and American Hobnail.

The Beaded Edge pattern was Westmoreland’s own creation. It can be found in both plain and decorated milk glass.  Beaded Fruit was the most popular hand-painted decoration for these wares. There are eight different fruits represented—apples, pears, plums, strawberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes, and peaches. Items bearing these fruit decorations are usually harder to find.

Hand-painted birds are another decoration that Westmoreland used on its Beaded Edge wares.  The dessert plates in this set would have been a special order, so they’re scarce today. Some Beaded Edge wares also featured floral decorations.

As the 1950s drew to a close, though, the popularity of milk glass waned. Westmoreland struggled through the 1970s, and by the time the 1980s rolled around, the company needed a new owner to stay afloat. The enthusiastic David Grossman purchased Westmoreland in 1981, but despite a valiant effort to revive the business, interest in milk glass just wasn’t there. On January 8, 1984, almost 100 years after its founding, the factory shut down.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

As the Apple Turns

QUESTION: A few months ago, my family set about cleaning out an old barn that belonged to my grandfather. Boy, did we find some interesting stuff. We can’t identify one of the items and wondered if you can help us. It’s a machine type device with a crank and what seems like crab-like claws hanging from some sort of gear system. Can you tell us what this is and a bit about it if possible?

ANSWER: I believe you’ve found what would have been a treasure to the farm family that previously owned the barn. Today, we don’t see machines like this anymore, but back in the second half of the 19th century, they were commonplace. What you’ve found is a commercially made apple paring machine, dating around 1880.

To paraphrase the opening line of one of America’s longest-running soap operas, “As the apple turns, so do the days of our lives.” And so it was for many people, especially farmers and their families, who relied on the ordinary apple to quench their thirst in the form of cider and to fill snacking and baking needs throughout the year. But before they could do anything with their apples, they had to remove the skin. And that’s where the lowly parer comes in.

When the apple parer first appeared in England during the 1840s, it caused much amusement. But it had been a staple of American life since the late 17th century. Apples played a vital role in the diet of the American Colonists. Fearful of drinking the local water, lest they become ill, the Colonists took to making apple cider. Plus they dried apples for use during the cold winters.

William Blaxton, a clergyman from Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts, planted the first apple orchard in 1635. Later he propagated a sweet yellow apple which he dubbed Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting.

Colonists picked apples in the fall, then pared, cored, and cut them into slices which they strung on strong linen thread and hung to dry. They also made applesauce, apple butter, and apple vinegar, all of which required the apples to be pared and sliced.

To offset the drudgery of paring apples, they held “apple bees.” Members of various farming communities gathered together, rotating from farm to farm, to socialize and pare apples. According to the November 1859 Harper's Weekly, a popular pastime during such bees was for a young woman to throw the string of apple paring over her shoulder where it would form the initial of the name of her future husband when it hit the ground.

But there was still the drudgery of paring apples until Yankee inventiveness created a wide variety of paring machines. The first parer, devised by 13-year-old Eli Whitney of later cotton gin fame, appeared in 1778. But it was Joseph Sterling of South Woodstock, Vermont, who came up with a mechanical parer in 1781. In 1801, Thomas Blanchard, another 13-year-old, from Worcester County, Massachusetts, came up with his version of an apple parer. Finally, Moses Coates of Downing’s Field, Pennsylvania---now Coatesville---obtained the first U.S. patent for an apple parer on February 14, 1803.

Whether basic or complex in design, one thought was clear—pare the apple as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

The first parers were wooden and featured a shaft with a turning crank on one end and a wood or metal fork on the other to hold the apple. The operator turned the crank with one hand and guided, with the other hand, a wooden handle with a mounted blade or knife, paring the apple.

Farmers made early parers by hand. They copied the devices of other farmers and borrowed ideas from farm magazines to fashion their own devices. The various types of early parers are amazing, including, to name a few, the straddle board, table top, table mount, table mount gallows, floor pedestal, leg strap, knee hold, and bench.

As these primitive machines evolved, their makers speeded up the turning of the fork holding the apple with the addition of cords, belts and gears, and anchored the paring cutter in an upright post, although still guided by hand, as in Coates’ parer.

It was inventor Ephraim C. Pratt who was credited with the first practical parer with the blade being guided over the apple mechanically with spring tension, leaving the operator a free hand to pull off the pared apple and put on " a new one. Pratt’s parer  allowed the knife to vibrate and accommodate itself to any irregularity in the surface of the apple.

Essentially, apple parers can be organized into five categories—Lathe, Turntable, Arc or geared segment, and Return, quick or otherwise, as well as the Commercial models added later on.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

An American Tradition

QUESTION: My grandmother always had several hooked rugs on the floors in her house. I grew up playing on them and grew to love them. As an adult, I’ve learned how to make them and have purchased several antique ones. But no one seems to know anything about antique hooked rugs, other than approximately when they were made. Can you tell me more about these beautiful old rugs? I’d love to know how rug hooking began and how it got to where it is today.

ANSWER: The making of hooked rugs dates from New England in the early 19th century. Poor farmers’ wives, in need of some padding on cold dirt floors, began using old fabric scraps no longer suitable for clothing which they cut into strips and pulled through old burlap sacks to create mats for their floors. And while these original rugs were somewhat crude, the women who made them got ideas for improving the process and for decorative patterns from their friends and neighbors.

For centuries the method of pulling loops of colored material through a mesh of open fabric was well known but the settlers who came to America. The technique of pulling up or hooking rag strips and woolen yarns through a woven fabric base proved to be an economical and undemanding method of making floor coverings for drafty homes. Plus the simplicity the simplicity of the hooking process allowed rug makers the freedom to express their individual creativity.

While the craft began earlier in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1850s, when jute burlap from the Indies, which lasted longer than earlier materials, came into common use for burlap feed sacks, that rug hooking gained popularity. Women would stretch the empty burlap feed sacks onto a wooden frame, draw a pattern with a charcoal stick, and then draw yarn or thread through the burlap. And while the result was usually artful as well as very practical, it look a long time to make a rug. To make a rug with an intricate pattern took nearly as long as it took to sew a full quilt. 

By the 1860's, the art of making hooked rugs had spread all over New England and as far away as Ohio, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

By 1867, Philena Moxley of Massachusetts had begun stamping patterns of horses, dogs and other animals onto the burlap to allow homemakers to then produce hooked rugs without first sketching a pattern. By the 1870's peddlers were traveling from house to house selling stenciled designs on burlap. It wasn’t long before general storekeepers began selling hooked rug patterns and completed rugs.

Ebenezer Ross enhanced the process of hooked rug making in 1886 with the invention of a mechanical punch-hook in Toledo, Ohio. Prior to that time, rug makers used crochet hooks made of wood, bone, or metal. Ross and his company became a major supplier of the punch-hook in both the eastern and central United States, and by 1891 the company also published a catalog of 56 color-printed patterns. Ross’ catalog stated, "every household has a supply of odds and ends, rags and ravelings which can be woven into articles beauty and utility.”

In 1895 the Montgomery Ward catalog featured patterns that included a Spaniel dog with  lake and mountains in the background.

Rugs depicting ships, landscapes, and people required far more skill than the simpler deigns. Those who were unable to purchase a commercial pattern often relied on a talented family member or friend to  draw the design. One or more family members would then hook the rug.

Because pictorial patterns took longer and required more skill, many rug makers chose, instead, to use floral or geometric patterns.

Floral patterns very often involved combinations of trees, flowers, vines, branches, and leaves. One of the most common featured a bouquet of flowers in the middle surrounded by a vine border. They were frequently produced on commercial patterns following the Civil War and into the1920's and 1930's.

Rug makers usually produced geometric patterns—featuring rectangles, squares, circles, and ovals—freehand. They were as popular as homemade patterns as they were commercial ones.

Still, commercial patterns persisted. Among the many innovators was Edward Sands Frost, a disabled veteran, who sold patterns made from metal stencils to the women of New England and built up a business which flourished into the 20th century.

By 1908, Sears, Roebuck and Company joined the many companies offering patterns with a selection that included a pretty flower design, Arabian horse, a large lion, and two kittens playing on a carpet.

During the 1920's and early 1930's, cottage industries of hooked rug making flourished in sites like Deerfield Industries in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Rosemont Industries in Marion, Virginia, Pine Burr Studio in Apison, Tennessee, and the Spinning Wheel in Asheville, North Carolina.

The popularity of hooked rugs peaked in the 1850s and again in the 1890s as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement which lasted well beyond the turn of the century, and as part of the American Colonial Revival of the latter 1920's. They were also popular for a time during the 1950s era of Early American decor.

Because hooked rugs were made in the home for personal use, they can seldom be traced back to their original maker or pinned down to an exact date. Those believed to be over 100 years old command the highest prices.