Friday, December 29, 2017

The New Kid on the Block

QUESTION:  This lamp has been in the family for reportedly over 100 years. It does not have a signature of any kind. The lighting fixture itself had been missing and my father installed a new one some years back. Is there any way to date and identify the maker of this piece?

ANSWER: Looking at your hanging lamp, it doesn’t look to be over 100 years old. Most likely it dates from the 1920s, maybe slightly earlier, based on the configuration of the socket frame.

Although Thomas Alva Edison is often given the credit for inventing the electric light bulb in 1879, the actual creation can be credited to several people, each of whom improved upon the basic concept.

In 1875, Henry Woodward received a patent for an electric light bulb. And four years later, Edison and Joseph Wilson Swan received a patent for a carbon-thread incandescent lamp. Edison initially worked with J. P. Morgan and a few privileged customers in New York City in the 1880s to light their homes, pairing his new incandescent bulbs with small generators.

In 1878, Thomas Edison began serious research into developing a practical incandescent lamp and on October 14, 1878, Edison filed his first patent application for "Improvement In Electric Lights." So it could be said that Thomas Edition created the first “commercially practical” incandescent light.

The first electric lamps, however, were nothing more than electrified gas lamps. Often the manufacturer didn’t know which sockets to use, so they put in a variety in the same lamp, and the wiring left a lot to be desired. Safety wasn’t even thought of much back then. Even the light bulbs were different. There was no standardization like we’ve known through the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st. The electric lighting industry took a while to take off.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, electricity was just beginning to find its way into the homes of average Americans. Before that, it was mostly a new toy of the wealthy.

A number of improvements occurred as the 20th century dawned. Peter Cooper Hewitt created the first commercial mercury-vapor lamp in 1901. Alexander Just and Franjo Hanaman invented the tungsten filament for incandescent light bulbs. In 1904.

By 1913, Irving Langmuir had discovered that inert gas could double the luminous efficacy of incandescent light bulbs. Burnie Lee Benbow patented the coiled coil filament in 1917. But the most far-reaching improvement was the production by Junichi Miura of the first incandescent light bulb to use a coiled coil filament in 1921. Finally, in 1925, Marvin Pipkin invented the first internal frosted light bulb.

All these improvements had lamp makers reeling. Once the electric light bulb had finally been stabilized, they saw the opportunity to use this constant source of even light to their advantage.

As household electricity became increasingly common and the light bulb more stable and long lasting, so lamp manufacturers started paying attention to the art of lighting indoor spaces. Shades gave lamp makers an opportunity to shine a light on their sense of aesthetics, whether it was to create a romantic background glow or an eye-catching centerpiece.

Lamp makers of the early 20th century looked to the Art Nouveau style, with it plant and animal motifs, to inspire their designs. Manufacturers were soon creating shades in a spectrum of colored glass, either hand-cut into complex patterns or blown into natural forms like flowers.

Louis Comfort Tiffany designed and made some of the most recognizable Art Nouveau lamps, including shades made from iridescent Favrile glass or intricate stained glass mosaics. Originally conceived by designer Clara Driscoll, Tiffany’s Dragonfly lamp shade is possibly the Studio’s most famous, featuring minuscule glass pieces in each detailed dragonfly wing. Such shades were created using a leaded-glass technique the company perfected for stained-glass windows. Capitalizing on the Tiffany trend, companies like Duffner & Kimberly, Gorham, and Seuss also created ornate stained-glass shades in the early 20th century.

Because electricity for mass use was in its infancy in the first decade of the 20th century, no two lamp manufacturers used the same electrical components. Although   the sockets in your lamp have been replaced, the lamp, itself, is more sophisticated than those produced say from 1900 to 1910. A lot of manufacturers produced lamps like this. The thickness of the glass and the soldering of the lead came indicated that this lamp was made in a small factory, most likely by hand. But without a signature of any sort, it’s hard to tell exactly which company produced it.

 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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It’s Snowing—Babies!

QUESTION: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been fascinated by the little white porcelain figurines called “snow babies.” My mother had a number of them and would place them on the mantel above the fireplace nestled in a bed of fresh pine and holly. I can still remember handing them to her since I was too short to reach the mantel. What can you tell me about snow babies? How long have they been around? Are they collectible? If so, I’d like to start my own collection.

ANSWER: Believe it or not, snow babies have been around since the early 1890s. And, yes, they are very collectible. However, over the decades a number of different ones have been produced, not all of which are authentic. So unfortunately, it’s buyer beware.

Snow babies are small figurines, usually of a child, depicting a Christmas or winter sports activity. Like Hummel figurines, they emphasize the nostalgia of childhood and days gone by. But unlike Hummels, their manufacture wasn’t tightly controlled.

Since their introduction in the last decade of the 19th century, snow babies have enchanted collectors all over the world, especially during the holidays. They’re made of unglazed porcelain, also known as bisque, and show a children dressed in one-piece, hooded snowsuits covered in small pieces of hand-whipped crushed porcelain bisque, giving the appearance of fallen snowflakes.

The idea for snow babies evolved from early 19th-century German candy cake toppers, called tannenbaumkanfekt, used to decorate the tops of Christmas cakes and to decorate Christmas trees. Confectioners molded flour, sugar and gum for firmness into little figures, then painted them with vegetable dye. The best loved became known as zuckerpuppes or sugar dolls, which people used, along with igloos and polar bears, to create snow scenes under their Christmas trees. Later, confectioners began making them of marzipan, a mixture of crushed almonds, egg whites and sugar. They were especially popular with confectioners in Lubeck, Germany. One of them, Johann Moll, commissioned Hertwig and Company to re-create these adorable almond paste babies in porcelain bisque. The oldest ones were typically either all white with a painted face or painted in pastel colors.

Hertwig and Company began operation in 1864 in Katzhutte, Thuringia, Germany, making porcelain doll heads and bisque figures. However, the Hertwig snow babies didn’t thrill German children, who naturally preferred the candy version. But their  mothers loved them and used them to adorn their trees and homes during the Christmas season. Then they could pack them up and save them safely for another year.

The first snow babies produced by Hertwig were one to two inches tall, but the company also made some five to seven-inch ones. As production increased, Hertwig began creating snow babies in a variety of winter activities, such as sledding, skiing, and tumbling. Eventually, the company’s artists made the figures’ hands and feet more clearly defined, and even gave their little figures shoes. Although babies predominated, Hertwig produced some older children as well.

Because of Hertwig’s success, many other German companies began to produce snow babies, including Wagner and Appel, Galluba and Hoffman, Bahr and Proeschild, Christian Frederick Klurg, and the Huebach Brothers.

In 1893, Josephine Perry, wife of the famous arctic explorer Robert, shocked the world by accompanying her husband to Greenland on his famous expedition to the North Pole, even though she was expecting a child. On September 8, 1893, Marie Ahnighito Perry, the first non-indigenous baby to be born that far north. The native Intuit came for miles to see the white-skinned baby they called her Ah-pooh-nick-ananny, Inuit for snow baby.

In 1901 Mrs. Perry wrote a book showing a photograph of her daughter wearing a white snow suit and called her a “snow baby.” Suddenly, the German-made figures were in high demand. For many years the Nuremburg firm of Craemer and Co. exclusively exported the figures from Germany. In the U.S., Scholl and Company and Westphalia Imports, both of New York, sold them, as well as confectionery and baking suppliers in the German communities of New York, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. They reached their peak of export to the U.S. between 1906 and 1910 as women’s magazines featured them as Christmas decorations.

In 1910, the R. Shackman Company of New York, an importer of fancy goods, toys and novelties, advertised and distributed them at 20 cents each. In 1914, Sears and Roebuck and Marshall Field, who called them “Alaska Tots,” sold them through their catalogs.

Prior to World War I, snow babies had highly detailed faces, with the paint fired onto the porcelain so that the color would be longer lasting. Some figurines had different pastel colors of ground bisque decoration while others were left all white except for painted faces. But then the Great War began and the export of snow babies came to a sudden halt.

When production resumed after the war, snow babies were smaller, usually ranging from one to three inches tall. Although the paint used came in vibrant primary colors, snow babies now had less facial detail than previous models. The paint was also less durable and prone to flaking. Models in more varied poses appeared, including children singing Christmas carols, riding polar bears, and building snowmen. 

In the 1920s, Japanese manufacturers began to produce snow baby replicas, though they were generally of a lesser quality than those made in Germany.

The early Depression years brought a final group of snow babies from Germany. People once again used them to create Christmas scenes, as well as for package tie-ons and table decorations. There were babies riding airplanes, playing musical instruments, and riding polar bears. However, these later pieces lacked the detail of early snow babies and were less lovable, so their popularity declined during the 1930s and by the outbreak of World War II, snow baby imports stopped. Here in America, interest in snow babies declined from 1950 to the 1980s. In 1987, an American company, Department 56, began producing replicas of the original snow baby designs and had them made in Taiwan. This helped generate a new interest in them as well as in the early pieces.

Obviously, the most collectible snow babies are those produced before World War I. These generally sell for the highest prices. Any of the German ones are also collectible, but as a beginning collector, you need to be aware of cheaper versions made in Asia.

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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A 1950s World in Miniature

QUESTION:  My Grandmother had a village of Plasticville that we continue to put up each and every year.  I would like to add to it, but I don't know how to judge the scale of what I have compared to what is available to buy.  Can you tell me more about it and can you give me any guidance?

ANSWER: Except for the flag and Mom’s apple pie, there’s probably nothing more all-American than Plasticville, USA—America of the 1950s anyway. Baby boomers recall their delight as they watched a toy train chug around under the Christmas tree. And in the middle of the track were plastic buildings that helped create the illusion of a little town. It sound like you’re continuing that tradition.

Plasticville is a brand of plastic toy train building sold in the United States, made by formerly Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based Bachmann Industries since 1947.At that time, the company began making small plastic fences for people to use to surround the displays under their Christmas trees. 

By 1950, Bachman added a variety of small accessories—trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis—to its plastic fences, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the components. The key, executives knew, was a name, so they decided on  “Plasticville U.S.A.”

At that time, many Americans looked upon plastic as a symbol of progress. They also yearned for a simpler, rural past, when change was slower. Marketers at Bachmann, sensitive to this wave of nostalgia, added "ville" to the name of their new line in order to tap into the lingering sentimentality.

With the success of its first items, Bachman added a Cape Cod house, yard pump, and birdbath. They stamped each piece with the word “Plasticville” or the letters “BB” on a banner within a circle. Also available was a barn with a silo, roof ventilators and a weathervane. Bachmann then released two versions of a country church. All were easy to build, came apart, and only cost at most a dollar. Bachman loosely based its Plasticville buildings on "S" guage with "O" guage doors and windows so that they could be used with either scale trains.

By Christmas 1950, Bachmann offered a white and red grocery store, plus a gas station molded in similar colors. Especially striking were the window inserts depicting details that enhanced the look of both items. A new fire house completed the current line.

Over the next several years, the firm added all sorts of buildings to its Plasticville lineup. A new trolley-style dinner appeared in 1952, as well as other types of businesses----a supermarket, hardware store, drug store, and a 5 and 10—in 1953. The following year, Bachman added a fast food establishment called the Frosty Bar. All of these buildings reflected the rapid growth of suburbs in the Northeast.

The first church in Plasticville was a small white one with a gray roof, introduced in 1953, which came with paper inserts that simulated stained glass windows. As the suburbs grew, so did the Plasticville line. In 1954, Bachman added a New England ranch and a two-story colonial, both common in new post-war housing developments. Both of these came in a variety of color combinations to encourage buyers to purchase more than one.

Community buildings, also added in1953, included a hospital, complete with appropriate furnishings, a post office, an airport, and an airplane hangar.

Right from the beginning, the toy railroads under the Christmas tree demanded specialty structures. First came a station platform molded in light gray or brown plastic and featuring a brown or green roof and a small sign identifying the locale as Plasticville. A manually operated crossing gate with a white arm and a black or red base came next. The most impressive newcomer was a suburban station, with a brown platform and roof and trim in light gray, brown, or green.

By 1954, the toy trains graduated to model railroad layouts and Bachman expanded its railroad buildings to include a switch tower, plus a black signal bridge. To this, the company added a black trestle bridge, a larger Union Station, a water tank and loading platform.

Specialty buildings like a tan factory with gray or brown roof, a smokestack, and water tower, plus a red and white TV station came in 1957. All together, Bachman produced 104 different items in its Plasticville, U.S.A. line. And while the company had expanded its line of plastic buildings to cover just about every type of structure to be found in a small town, it would take another 20 years before anyone began collecting them.

Variations in common buildings can drive up the value. The common Plasticville one-story ranch house sells for about $5 while a variation using dark blue plastic sells for as much as $200. Larger buildings like the hospital and airport can go for much more.

To learn about Plasticville’s full story, read “Collecting Plasticville, U.S.A.” in #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

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 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Let the Star Wars Force be With You

QUESTION: My son was a big Star Wars fan when he was younger. He had just about every Star Wars action figure that came out—at least of the smaller ones. But now he’s grown and has his own family, and I seem to be left as the caretaker of his collection. I’d really like to know if these figures are worth keeping. Can you tell me something about them and if they’re collectible now or were they just a fad like Beany Babies?

ANSWER: Even though the first Star Wars movie premiered 40 years ago, the action figures that came out as a result of it and other Star Wars films are still highly collectible. Whether or not they’re still in their original packages will tell how much they may be worth.  If they’re still in unopened packages, then you have something. If not, maybe not.

In May 1977 "Star Wars: A New Hope" exploded across the big screen in a symphony of sound and light unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Fans went crazy over the film, some seeing it hundreds of times, and sci-fi films haven’t been the same since. Star Wars was the first movie franchise which created a voracious demand for film-related products. Fans clamored for tangible souvenirs of the new universe they were coming to know and love. Director George Lucas and film industry leaders were all taken by surprise.

While the variety and forms of Star Wars items are almost as numerous as the stars themselves, the most popular objects of Star Wars collectors’ desires are the toys. Furthermore, among the toys, the  most sought after are the 3 3/4-inch action figures.

Kenner Products is responsible for the most of the Star Wars toys that are on the collectibles market today. The firm obtained the original license to manufacture toys, games, puzzles and a few books prior the release of the first film in 1977. In time, the resultant outpouring of products from the Kenner factories far outstripped Lucas’ expectations. In fact, all he expected from his merchandising rights were a few posters and T-shirts with which to lure more children to his film. At a base price of just $2 or less, not only kids but adults quickly bought up the stock of figures. And over the years came back for more in a variety of re-incarnations.

Following Kenner, other toy manufacturers joined in on Stars Wars’ success. Chief among was Galoob, a company determined to "out-small" Kenner with its Star Wars Micro Machines. Play sets and spaceships were this company's main products. Action figures by Galoob were about the size of the smaller accessories that accompanied Kenner's figures. Galoob sold these tiny action men and women as part of  play sets. No other company ever came close to the Star Wars toy output of these two firms.

By definition, action figures are molded of plastic and designed for play. While they’ve varied in size over the years, the original ones were only a little over three inches high.  Kenner made these figures to have five points of articulation—at the neck, shoulders, and hips. They also had their clothing molded as part of the body, while some of the larger figures have removable clothing.

Toy companies package action figures of different sizes differently. The 12-inch and 8-inch figures generally are packaged and sold in boxes. The 3 3/4-inch-tall figures most often appear on store shelves sealed against a decorated cardboard backing within a plastic bubble commonly referred to as a blister. The package for the 3 3/4 inch figure is thus referred to as a blister pack.

Kenner designed its 3 3/4-inch high Star Wars figures for use with play sets, spaceships, and other accessories. But their 12-inch figures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and such were too large to be equipped with play sets. But one thing that action figures have in common is that the come with a array of small accessories that tend to disappear quickly once a child removes the figure from its packaging.

Then Kenner’s line seemed to die out for a while. In 1995, the firm re-introduced its Star Wars figures with a new design and/or a repainting that appealed to both kids and adults. But one thing to be aware of is that the newer figures tend to come and go. From time to time, Kenner would play with the mix of figures on the market at any one time. It would remove some of the older models and replace them with newer ones.

Kenner first released its line of 12-inch figures in the late 1970s, sticking mostly to the film’s main characters. But these 12-inch figures didn’t compete well with Kenner’s 3 3/4-inch ones and the company stopped making them. But its smaller figures live on. 

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.