Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Let the Action Begin


QUESTION: When I was a kid, my friends and I used to sit on the porch and read comic books. We especially loved those featuring the Super Heroes, such as Superman, Batman, and Aquaman. Naturally, we were thrilled when the first comic book action heroes came out. We all had a selection of them from a company called Mego. I had the biggest collection. Recently, while moving, I came across several boxes of these action figures. My interests have moved on to other things—now I have my own kids—but I’d like to know more about them and how this phenomenon got started.


ANSWER: You aren’t the only one. There are thousands of men out there reliving their childhood through these action figures. Only now they collect them and must have them “mint-in-the-box.” While collecting these action figures has been popular since they appeared in the 1970s, it’s only through the T.V. hit show “Big Bang Theory” that their popularity has risen to the stratosphere. And these little playthings aren’t only popular with “nerds.”

The Mego Corporation was a toy company founded in 1954. Originally known as a purveyor of dime store toys, the company shifted direction in 1971 and became famous for producing licensed action figures, including its long-running "World's Greatest Super Heroes" line.

D. David Abrams and Madeline Abrams founded Mego Corporation in 1954. Originally, they imported dime-store toys until advertising costs forced them to switch directions. In 1971, their son, Martin, became company president, and, as often is the case, the younger generation had other ideas.  Under Martin’s leadership, Mego began producing action figures with interchangeable bodies. He kept costs low by mass-producing generic bodies from which an endless assortment of figures could be created using different heads and costumes.

In 1972 Mego secured the licenses to create toys for both DC and Marvel Comics. The popularity of this line of 8-inch figures which it called "The World's Greatest Super Heroes," created the standard action figure scale for the 1970s. The line featured both superhero and villain action figures, including Batman and Robin, Superman, and Aquaman. Early on, the company released the figures in a solid box, but fans soon began tearing the boxes open to see the figures inside, so Mego changed the design to a box with a window that showed the figure. It produced the line from 197s to 1983.

The company began to purchase the licensing rights of films, T.V. shows, and comic books, enabling it to produce action figure lines for Planet of the Apes and Star Trek: The Original Series.

In 1976, Martin Abrams made a deal with Japanese toy manufacturer Takara to bring their popular lucite 3-inch fully articulated “Microman” figures to the U.S. under the name "Micronauts." This lead to even more licenses to hit shows like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and hit films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

To reduce costs, Mego began producing a line of smaller plastic action toys called “Comic Action Heroes” in 1975. These had costumes modeled onto the figure, eliminating the cost of creating them. In 1979, the company re-released the line under a new name, “Pocket Action Heroes.”

The Star Trek line was by far Mego’s biggest success. The first wave of figures included Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and a Klingon, soon joined by Uhura, later followed by a Star Trek Bridge playset with a “transporter” room—a revolving platform that allowed kids to simulate the dematerializing of the characters.

The second and third series of figures featured alien adversaries the Keeper, Neptunian, the half-black, half-white Cheron, the Gorn, Talos, the Mugato, and Trek baddies Andorian and Romulan in outfits that approximated what they wore on show. A second playset, Mission To Gamma VI, featured a dragon-like temple and four small alien primitives.

Although Mego produced action figures for such T.V. shows as Happy Days, the Waltons, and The Flinstones, their sci-fi figures were their biggest sellers. The company based another figure line on the animated series Flash Gordon which included Flash, Dale Arden, Dr. Zarkov, and Ming the Merciless.

Even the robot dog, K-9, and villains like Cyberman and Giant Robot from the long-running BBC series Doctor Who came alive in Mego action figures.

Although Mego produced thousands of action figures, their value continues to rise because the company went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1983. And with increased demand, especially for mint-in-box figures, comes higher prices in today’s collectibles market.




Monday, May 15, 2017

Would You Like to Have Tea With My Dollies?




QUESTION: I have a child’s tea set that once belonged to my grandmother’s mother.  Each piece has an illustration from a nursery rhyme. Each piece is stamped “Made in England” on the bottom. Can you tell me more about it?

ANSWER: You have child’s tea set made by Bilton’s of Staffordshire, England made sometime after World War I when the pottery began producing what they called  “nursery wares for children.” Each piece features a traditional nursery rhyme---Little Red Riding Hood, Little Bo Peep, Old Mother Goose, Ride a Cock Horse, Tom Tom the Piper's son, and others. The set, in particular the teapot, has pure the Art Deco styling of the mid 1920s..

Biltons Limited began making ceramics in 1900. The company continued until 1911 when Joseph Tellwright acquired it and changed the name to just Biltons. Prior to World War 1 they had specialized in the manufacture of tea and coffee pots, jugs, kettles, and such. After the war, the pottery produced tablewares, plus figures and devotional wares known as “grotesques.” 

However, when technical advances occurred in the 19th century, faience and porcelain became widespread since their use was no longer restricted to making tableware and decorative vases. Potteries began using faience and porcelain to make certain types of toys, and European faience factories started to produce toy tea sets and doll's accessories, in addition to their usual production.

Potteries began to make toy tea sets on a small scale for children to play with their dolls. Originally, potteries made these sets by hand. As such, people gave them to little girls as precious gifts. Because of their fragility, parents only let their daughters play with them on special occasions under their supervision.
                   
While toy tea sets belong to the world of toys, the art and craft required to make them is directly linked to the skills required to handle whatever material used, whether it be copper, pewter, tin, silver, faience, or porcelain. In the 19th century, France, together with England was one of the leading producers of faience in Europe. While porcelain was for a long time the prerogative of Germany, the situation in the 18th century changed, and the French revival raised faience production to a peak. While contemporary toy tea-sets continue to be made in ceramic, the quality is no longer  equal to the former production.

The first toy tea sets appeared in the 16th century. These early sets, made in pewter and copper, came from Germany, a country known for producing toys in wood and metal. Until the end of the first half of the 19th century, France turned to Germany for many of its toys. Before the era of faience and porcelain toy tea sets, most of them were made from metals, including gold and silver, pewter and copper. Silver and goldsmiths especially catered to the wishes of the young princesses of Europe.

But back in the 18th century, when faience and porcelain tea sets weren’t yet a phenomenon, potteries made them only on order for wealthy customers. These toys didn’t reach the height of their popularity until 100 years later, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Toy tea sets finally came into vogue during  the 1850's, specifically when they appeared on display at the Universal Exhibition of 1855.

And while this tea set may not be the most exciting or the most valuable, it’s a great example of a phenomenon that still exists today.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Beat Those Biscuits



QUESTION: I live in South Carolina, though I’m not a native. Recently, I attended an estate sale at an old farm. Out of all the items for sale, I bought an old clunky table that looks like it may have been used for baking. It stands higher than a regular table and has a hinged top under which is a rectangular stone block. What can you tell me about this table?

ANSWER: It seems that you stumbled upon an old biscuit table. These specially made baking tables were a stable in 19th-century Southern kitchens.

When people think of Southern biscuits, they imagine fluffy, buttery pillows of golden, flaky pastry made from White Lily flour. But these delicacies weren't always common fare on the Southern dinner table. Until baking powder came on the market in the late 19th century, most biscuits were unleavened and beaten.

Housewives and plantation cooks back then pounded the dough, Iayer upon layer, to make the otherwise tough dough flaky and palatable. Recipes in the 1850s required the dough be worked for at least a half hour. The work was so labor intensive that rhythmic pounding resonated from plantation kitchens in the early mornings. One neighborhood in Danville, Kentucky, along its historic Third Street became known as "Beaten Biscuit Row." According to legend, the steady pounding of biscuits from the outdoor kitchens of the houses lining the street greeted passersby during the 19th century.

Preparing biscuits was a tiring job, so cooks, who had to bend over their kitchen tables to knead and pound biscuit dough, needed a special table to save their backs. The result was a worktable of appropriate height at which they could stand and beat the dough into layers for the required 30 minutes. In the beginning, slaves on plantations probably made the first biscuit tables from wood. They were about three feet in diameter and four feet high.

The biscuit table, like the sugar chest, evolved into a furniture form as the 19th century progressed. Increased sugar production and the demand for candies in Creole New Orleans fostered the concept of using marble slabs to prepare confections. This worked so well that the idea crossed over to bread making. By the 1850s, biscuit table makers began incorporating slabs of marble, limestone and granite into the once simple wooden biscuit slab. Going one step further, they added hinged covers to the tabletop to allow dough to rest without fear of insects or other critters ruining a morning's labor. Like the beaten biscuit, itself, the biscuit table seemed to appear in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, all of which take credit for its origin. Cooks in Louisiana used a related form to make candy confections.

Carpenters used mostly poplar wood to make plantation biscuit tables, though tables of yellow pine and walnut have been known to exist. Most biscuit tables that have survived are sturdy but crude in construction, with many having been fashioned from roughly finished lumber and square nails or pegs. The slabs or stones were generally of locally quarried limestone.

The biscuit table lost its usefulness with the invention of the beaten biscuit machine, a roller contraption cranked by hand much like that found on old wringer washers. This little device could be mounted onto the kitchen worktable or a cook could order one attached to a cast-iron table that could be delivered to a home. Factories in St. Louis commercially produced and shipped biscuit tables to eager housewives throughout the South.

It seems that by the beginning of the 20th century, the beaten biscuit had become Southern folklore, though still preserved in many old-fashioned kitchens of the day. But as the century progressed, southern biscuit tables were either destroyed or stored in barns.



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Most Printed Book of All Time



QUESTION: Last year I purchased an old Bible at a church festival. It’s one of those big Victorian pictorial family ones and seems to have all kinds of features besides just the Old and New Testaments.  As far as I can tell, the copyright date is 1881 from George V. Jones of Boston, Massachusetts. The presentation page says a woman gave the Bible to a man, most likely her husband, on Christmas Day in 1882. While the exterior shows some wear, the interior is in pristine condition. I also own two other Bibles from the second half of the 19th century. What can you tell me about this particular Bible and perhaps others like it?

ANSWER: From what I can tell about your Bible, you may possibly have a winner. In the world of Bibles, especially those from the later 19th century, only a few stand out.

George V. Jones of Boston did indeed print your Bible. This particular edition includes the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Concordance, Aprocypha, and Psalms. In all, it contains 2,500 illustrations. But what makes your Bible stand out is that it won a Diploma of Merit at the International Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1881.


With Bibles, condition is all important. Large family Bibles from the 19th century, particularly study Bibles with illustrations, maps, and commentary are very popular with collectors. But what do old Bibles include? Surely, the Old and New Testaments, but there’s often much more. Bibles published for various Christian religions may include different features, such as a Bible Dictionary, a History of the Religious Denominations of the World, and detailed studies of the events and persons in the Bible’s text. Then there’s the endless variety of translations. For most Bible collectors, figuring out how to narrow the scope of their collection can be a challenge.

The King James version of the Bible, revised many times over the centuries, is probably the most famous one in the English language. But prior to its printing, at least 239 editions of the English Bible were in print. Since 1611, the number of English versions has exploded.

Gustave Doré was one of the most acclaimed and popular illustrators of the 19th century, and his illustrated Bible is a landmark in the field. He made more than 200 engravings, illustrating the events of the Bible with great detail. The first edition appeared in France in 1866, but publishers like George Jones reprinted his work throughout the following decades. This Bible features the engravings of Gustav Dore.

The elaborateness of the binding doesn’t affect a Bible’s price. A Bible’s value depends mostly on the completeness, condition, content, and size of its pages, not on the age of the piece of leather that it happens to be bound in at the time. Many collectors prefer a new leather binding, to one that’s worn and less attractive. They’re more interested in the quality of the pages of text.

Ninety percent of all Bibles, including this one, are standard "Quarto" size printings, measuring about 7 to 10 inches wide by 9 to 12 inches tall by 3 to 4 inches thick. Larger pulpit "Folio" size printings are ten times as rare, and therefore more expensive.

Old Bibles are always hardbound. Most have full leather covers and spine while some have leather spines and corners but fabric centers on the front and back covers. Armored or ornamented bindings with metalwork at the corners and center and clasps and latches that hold the book shut also adorn some of these Bibles. Most old family Bibles also have raised bands on their spine known as a “hubbed” spine.

Bible makers used two decorative techniques—blind stamping where an impression is stamped into the leather resulting in a design or "Gold-Stamped", where gold has been applied into the groove of the stamping, such as the words "Holy Bible" might be stamped in gold on the spine. The cover of this Bible has extensive gold stamping.

Older Bibles often include a “concordance,” also referred to as “The Table of Names and Table of Things.” This is essentially an alphabetical index to the scripture which helps readers locate a passage based on what words appear in that passage.

Some older Bibles offer a 36-page illustrated "Family Tree of Man" which traces every generation of the first 4,000 years of mankind, from Adam and Eve through Noah through David to Joseph, Mary, and Christ.

Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible is probably the most valuable printed book, with single leaves selling for $60,000 and up. Bibles are the most common book in the world, especially in the English language.