Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shaken Not Stirred

QUESTION: A couple of years ago, I happened to be browsing in my local Goodwill Store and noticed an elegant cocktail shaker. Its chrome exterior glistened in the light of the florescent bulbs overhead. The price tag said $3. How could I resist? I couldn’t and didn’t. Now I have a small collection of this elegant barware. Since I’m not really a drinker, I don’t know much as mixed drinks, especially martinis. I’d like to know who made the first martini and how the cocktail shaker came into being. What can you tell me about these elegant items?

ANSWER: Cocktail shakers weren’t always this elegant. The first shakers were hollowed out gourds. Back in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia they served to mix liquids together and as such were a practical accessory for books back then. But they lacked the style of 20th-century shakers.

Collectible cocktail shakers arrived just after the invention of the martini. However, there seems to be some controversy as to just when that happened.

It isn’t known for certain who first mixed and served the first martini. The best guess places this great event in late 19th-century America. There are several theories as to its origin. One  credits a bartender named Jerry Thomas at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel in the 1860s with mixing a special drink for a traveler bound for the nearby town of Martinez. But for some reason, Thomas didn’t include the recipe for a martini in America's first cocktail book, How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant's Companion, that he first published in 1862, until the 1887 edition.

There are those, however, who insist that the martini, consisting of equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, was a New York invention, probably first mixed at the Knickerbocker Hotel by bartender Martini di Arma di Taggia. But if both sweet and dry vermouth were used, then the honor could belong to William F. Mulhall, who served drinks of this sort at Hoffman House, also  in New York City, in the 1880s.

Ever since those first concoctions, martinis have been a stylish drink, appreciated not only for the kick they deliver, but also for the accessories used in their preparation and enjoyment. The first recipe calling for an accompanying olive can be traced to 1888, with the v-shaped martini cocktail glass appearing early in the 20th century. Bartenders who made early martinis  either stirred the liquors together or poured them from one glass to another to mingle them together.

By the time that Prohibition came to an end in 1933, people throughout the nation enjoyed drinking martinis. Often viewed as the drink of trendsetters and glamour seekers, martinis became associated with movie stars, including William Powell and Myrna Loy. People at the time saw martinis as very American, urbane, high-status, masculine, optimistic, and adult— a drink for the wealthy and the powerful, or those aiming for that status. 

Wealthy bon vivants of the 1920s shook theirs up in silver, while their less affluent counterparts turned to glass or nickel-plated models. By the following decade, mass- production made shakers a reality for those with fewer means, manufacturing the shakers in chrome-plated stainless steel.

Every maker of decorative home furnishings made cocktail shakers in the 1920s and 1930s, from Tiffany to aluminum manufacturers. While the Chase Chrome Company, Revere Brass and Copper, and Farber Brothers were leaders in the production of metal shakers, Hazel Atlas, Imperial, Duncan Miller, and Cambridge Glass made them of glass.

As the demand for barware grew in the 1930s, the designs became more varied. Makers produced sleek shakers from silver and silver-plate. Some even sported Bakelite handles and trim. The shakers themselves featured Art Deco designs, from airplanes to dirigibles, dumbbells to golf bags. Some even took on the shapes of modern buildings.

The golden age of cocktail shaker design came to an abrupt end with the beginning of World War II. Metals were earmarked for the production of armaments, and cocktail shakers no longer seemed a priority to a country at war.

While cocktail shakers can be found at garage sales, flea markets, and thrift shops for under $10, the better designed ones can sell for four or five figures.

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 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Periodicals of the Times

QUESTION: I have some old almanacs dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Can you tell me if these have any value, and if so, where might I sell them?

ANSWER: Unfortunately, just because something is old doesn’t make it valuable. This especially applies to old books and periodicals. Of course, different people have varied reasons for purchasing old periodicals such as these. Before we talk about their possible value, let’s take a look at how this type of printed matter got started.

During the Colonial period of the United States, people got their news from small one-sheet flyers and four-page newspapers. During the 1750s and 1760s, these often appeared only once a week, but as the population grew and towns developed, the daily newspaper came into existence. Printing technology also improved, allowing small publishers to print larger numbers of their papers.  Some of these early almanacs had a political bent. Such was the case for Porcupine’s Political Sensor, a short-lived monthly periodical succeeded by the daily newspaper The Porcupline’s Gazette, both published in Philadelphia by William Cobbett.

The Porcupine’s Gazette ran for 770 issues. Cobbett, the prolific, controversial and often contradictory, and anti-authoritarian writer, wrote under the pen-name of "Peter Porcupine." In 1796, a few years after he arrived in the United States, he began a monthly periodical called the Porcupine’s Political Censor, which he used to poke fun at his political opponents, usually those supporting a pro-French or Jeffersonian- Republican sentiment. Cobbett published his Censor until March 1797, when he replaced it with the Porcupine's Gazette. The first issue appeared on March 4, 1797, the day of John Adams’ inauguration. It had a subscription base of about 1,000 readers, which more than doubled within a few months. By November 1797, Cobbett was printing 3,000 copies a day.

Cobbett used the newspaper to support the Federalist party and to strike out against the French and their American supporters during the period of increased tensions between the United States and France. His contentious articles thrived in the politically charged atmosphere, though Cobbett often found himself on the receiving end of libel suits. He filled his newspaper with articles on national and local politics, foreign policy, news from Europe, and economics. Today, issues of the Gazette provide a rich source of information on daily life in Federal Philadelphia, with each issue containing commercial ads and notices, reports of arrivals in the port of Philadelphia, local prices for goods, advertisements for schools and doctors, and much more.

Another form of printed matter was the almanac. These were smaller in size and usually had a number of pages. They were the first periodicals and usually appeared less frequently, often just once a year. They contained articles of interest to the rural society, including information about the weather and farming techniques, plus some local stories.  A good example of this type of periodical was The Burlington Almanack, published by Isaac Collins.

Collins was a printer, publisher, bookseller and merchant in Colonial New Jersey. He’s most noted for this New Jersey Gazette and New Jersey Almanack, which followed his original one, The Burlington Almanack, a periodical for west-central New Jersey that ran from 1770 to 1777.

He was a firm believer in the freedom of the press and had even refused to reveal his source of a pseudonymous article even though the New Jersey legislative council demanded it.  He stood on his grounds as a faithful guardian of the liberty of the press and would not reveal his source unless the source gave him permission. He wrote many persuasive articles on the principle of freedom of the press

The Port Folio was another political periodical, published by Joseph Dennie,  an American author and journalist who was one of the foremost men of letters of the Federalist Era. He originally wrote for various periodicals in Massachusetts but in 1800 moved to Philadelphia to found the Port Folio, along with Philadelphia bookseller Asbury Dickens. Writing under the pseudonym Oliver Oldschool, Esq., Dennie composed and published in 1803 a scathing attack on Jeffersonian democracy, for which he was brought up on charges of seditious libel.

The last of your periodicals is The American Magazine, first published in the fall of 1757 and only running for 12 issues and a supplement.

While all of these periodicals are historically important, their condition is rather poor. Even more so than with other antiques, the condition of books and other printed matter is very important. Collectors seek out those in the very best condition. But that doesn’t say that no one would be interested in your items. All of them contain a wealth of information about life and culture, as well as the political climate, of the time. Historians and writers working on historical novels and history books would find their contents invaluable.

Selling your periodicals will be challenge, however. It will take a very special person to buy them and finding that person may be difficult.

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 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mementos of Faith

QUESTION: I was browsing at a local flea market this past weekend and came upon a strange object. It seems to be some sort of wand. It has a turned wooden handle at the end of which is a round metal ball with tiny holes in it. The dealer said she picked it up at a church sale, so I bought it out of curiosity. Can you please tell me what this is and how it might have been used?

ANSWER: You are now the proud owner of an aspergillum or holy water wand, used by priests in Catholic and Anglican churches.

The priest uses an aspergillum to sprinkle holy water. It comes in two common forms—a brush that the priest dips in an aspersorium or bucket of holy water and shakes, and a silver ball with tiny holes attached to a stick.

Priests use an aspergillum for the Rite of Baptism and during the Easter Season. In addition, priests use an aspergillum to bless the candles during candlemas services and the palms during Palm Sunday Mass. At a requiem, if a coffin is present, the priest will sprinkle holy water on it. The aspergillum can also be used when blessing other things like houses, pets, crops, and such. The name derives from the Latin verb aspergere “to sprinkle.”

Ecclesiastical collectors search antique shops, flea markets and church rummage sales in the hopes of finding objects and furniture used in mostly Christian religious practices. Examples of monastic art, the delicate needlework of cloistered nuns, painted icons, carved candleholders, prayer beads and baptismal fonts originally intended for Christian houses of prayer often command astronomic prices from knowledgeable antique dealers. Cups, bowls, dishes, altar linens and the ceremonial vestments provided the finest examples of craftsmanship and art work.

But, what became of the thousands of beautifully wrought religious utensils, garments and symbols made obsolete by the sweeping changes in Catholic Church policies and the closures of Catholic churches beginning in the 1960s?

Back then, no one wanted the larger-than-life statues, banners appliqued with obscure religious symbols, heavy marble holy water fonts, old-fashioned altar pieces and paintings that graphically depicted the tortured deaths of religious martyrs? Since these weren’t quick moving commodities or even investment items for antique dealers, church basements, rectory attics, and parochial school storage areas began to bulge with hand-turned altar railings, huge sanctuary lamps, ornate metal reliquaries and the delicately carved doors of closet-sized confessionals.

Gradually, these outmoded, unwanted and useless items trickled away. Well-intentioned volunteer groups hauled much of this detritus back into the light of day and offered it at fund-raising events such as church rummage sales. When it became necessary to raze a church, the church hierarchy offered old stained glass windows and exquisite, glass door inserts to local antique dealers on a "make-an-offer" basis. Salvage companies carted off the carved lions, fancy wooden fretwork and the masonry arches from above church doors.

Starting in the late 1980s, interior decorators began to incorporate religious artifacts into the interiors of up-scale homes. This trend propelled discarded church surplus into the realm of high style. Pieces now command huge prices at architectural warehouses. Consider the wild popularity of angel items, for example.

Candleholders for weddings and christenings, long pine pews, processional crosses mounted on oak poles and even altars are showing up at large flea markets. Since most churches use flowers during the year for religious services, collectors can find all types of large altar containers and floor vases. Bibles, candleholders, altar linens and crosses of every size and material, as well as religious utensils, such as cut crystal cruets, used by altar servers to present the water and unconsecrated wine to the priest and easily identified by the incised crosses, wheat sheaves and grape cluster motif.

People buy religious items for three reasons. First, they might purchase a chalice because of its artistic beauty. Second, they want it because it evokes an emotional response from their childhood, a time when the family attended Sunday services. And third, some people collect Christian religious items with much the same interest that African cultural memorabilia collectors buy tribal masks. They don’t use the masks, but enjoy displaying them, researching them, and using them as unique decorations.

And don’t think religious objects appear for sale only in the U.S. Flea market vendors, especially in Mexico City, often have beautiful old vestments on display, as well as santos, carved wooden figures of saints. A small but unique item is the nicho, a three dimensional, recessed shadow box, dating back to the Spanish colonial period. Traditionally, people used nichos as portable shrines for patron saints or pictures of loved ones. The faithful often carry these with them when going door to door in their village asking for donations for the church.

Another item, often found hanging on the wall of a side chapel in a Mexican church, is the retablo. These paintings on tin depict a loved one who is sick or dying. Hanging their image in the church is a way of asking people to pray for them. Other retablos are beautifully handpainted testimonies of faith of the people of a particular Mexican village.

Religious objects mean different things to different people. Many mundane religious items retain value because many ceremonial practices have been eliminated from worship and therefore the elaborate trappings and religious utensils won’t be produced in the future.

tin plate frames, or nichos. These 3-d, recessed shadow boxes date back to the Spanish colonial period. Traditionally nichos were used as portable shrines for patron saints or pictures of loved ones. Frescos on tin depicting the 12 apostles, most likely from an altarpiece.

For more on collecting religious objects, read my previous blog on collecting old Bibles, "The Most Printed Book of All Time."

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 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.