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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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Harmonica Memories

QUESTION: When I was about six years old, my dad gave me a harmonica. It was just a basic one, nothing special, but to me, it was very special. This was back in the mid-1950s and westerns were big on T.V. I watched several of them in which the cowboys would be sitting around the campfire and one of them would invariably be playing a harmonica. I loved that harmonica. What can you tell me about the history of the harmonica? I’m considering starting a collection of them and would like to know what types to collect.

ANSWER: Most harmonica collectors can trace their interest in them to their childhood. Fathers would often give their sons a harmonica—it was definitely a boy thing—when they were five or six years old.

The modern harmonica was invented in Germany. However, the distinctive element that makes a harmonica play—the "free reed" that vibrates to produce a tone as wind passes over it—dates to a Chinese instrument called the sheng, supposedly invented by an empress named Nuwa around 3000 BC.

This deceptively simple, portable instrument—also known. as the mouth organ, mouth harp, pocket piano and tin sandwich—does span a surprisingly broad range of American culture. It has been said there are as many harmonicas in the United States as other kinds of musical instruments combined, although they aren’t as visible today as they once were.

Besides the standard versions, harmonicas have featured such entertainment icons as Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, to name a few, as well as sports figures such as Stan Musial, an avid harmonica player who published a song book. Novelty harmonicas come in a variety of shapes, including crabs, alligators, a cob of corn, even guns.

A basic Hohner Marine Band 10-hole diatonic harmonica can often be found for around $20-$25. One could collect just Marine Band models, in fact, for this name has been applied to at least 30 different models over more than 100 years, each available in a variety of keys and packaged in an array of boxes. Some collectors specialize in particular models.

Most collectible harmonicas sell for $45 to $200. A small number go for $200 to $400, and there are just a few higher than that. As with all collectibles, their rarity, age and condition are important.

The Holy Grail of harmonica collecting is the Pipeolion by the C. Weiss Company, a 10-hole, 7-inch model with sounding pipes that fan out from the body.  About eight are known to exist.

Beginning harmonica collectors often have difficulty determining the age of a particular model.  In fact, they may be fooled into thinking a harmonica is older than it is because some companies, especially Hohner, stamped  a variety of 19th and 20th-century dates on the cover plates of most of their harmonicas. These don't indicate when the harmonica was made, but rather important dates in company history, such as the founding of the Hohner factories, or in some cases when the company won a prize, such as the Grand Prix Paris of 1917.

But reasonably accurate dating is possible by carefully examining both the external and internal structure of a harmonica. Some manufacturers stamped their instruments with registration numbers that can be tracked. Early harmonicas had reed plates made of lead, with nickel-plated covers of stamped steel or tin. Reeds and covers became brass in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Celluloid cover plates became common on some harmonicas in the early 1900s, and both bright metallic colors and a streamlined look clearly mark harmonicas made in the Art Deco 1920s and 1930s.

The material of the central body, or comb, of a harmonica evolved, as well. Early on, pear wood was the standard, but swelled and become rough with moisture over time. Very old instruments sometimes show the marks of whittling or trimming to alleviate this problem. Mahogany and other hardwoods proved more durable. And synthetic bodies, sometimes translucent, took over on less expensive models beginning in the 1950s.

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