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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