Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stringing Along

QUESTION: I like to browse thrift shops. There are several in my area in which I’ve found some unique antiques and collectibles. One of the most unusual has been the string holder. This kitchy item has an almost comic character. I’ve purchased several over the last few years but know practically nothing about them. Can you tell me how string holders originated and how long they were made?

ANSWER: String has been a common item in homes and businesses for a long time. But string can easily get tangled, so inventors came up with ways to keep string in line. During the 19th century, the traditional shape of cast-iron string holders was the beehive. Others were egg-shaped  with openings around their sides so storekeepers could see how much string was left.

People often associate string holders with general stores, when storekeepers wrapped purchases in brown paper dispensed from a roll mounted on a frame with a cutting bar. Then, the storekeeper secured the package with string or twine. The wrapping paper generally sat on its frame at the end of the counter, and the string holder was suspended from the ceiling right over the. counter. Some of these holders were elaborate, complete with a sign promoting some product, such as Heinz pickles. Others, were simply a cast iron hole tin frame that held a ball or cone of twine and fed the string through a hole in the bottom.

By the early 20th century string holders had come into the home. These were usually figural pieces that hung on the wall and had a compartment to hold a ball of string. A person could feed the string through a hole in the figure, typically through the mouth in  a face, where it could be pulled out for a given amount, then cut off for use. While some of the early examples date to the 19th century, these decorative figures became popular from the start of the Great Depression through the 1950s. Manufacturers produced string holders from a variety of materials, including cast-iron, wood, glass, and porcelain, but the predominant choice of material was chalkware, more commonly known as plaster of paris. Many string holder manufacturers used it because of its low cost and ease in which it could be cast.

Once it cured or hardened, workers removed the plaster holder from the mold and painted to give it strong eye appeal. It was a popular item sold in five and dime stores, and the designs seemed to be endless. More often than not, manufacturers produced a broad line of wall pockets, of which string holders were one of the line. Wall pockets were designed to hang on the wall and hold a variety of items, such as stamps, matches, flowers, letters, etc. Some of the better known manufacturers of`wall pockets and string holders include McCoy, Roseville, Weller, and other established firms.

One of the companies that produced unique string holders was Miller Studio of New Philadelphia, Ohio. Miller Studio made string holders from 1947 to 1958. Some of their early designs included Jo-Jo the Clown, a wormy apple that featured "Willie the Worm, Susie Sunfish, and a kitten on a red ball of yarn. In 1949 they dropped the clown and sunfish and added "Miss Strawberry" and "Little Chef." In 1952, Miller replaced “Little Chef” with "Prince Pineapple." Then a year later, Miller dropped “Prince Pineapple,” replacing him with "Posie Pig." Because of its short time on the market, “Posie Pig” is the most difficult to find today.

String holders came in a large variety of shapes and designs. Most collectors focus their collections on a single category. Fruits and vegetables have always been a popular design for producers. Collectors can find everything from apples and bananas to green peppers and pineapples to hang on the kitchen wall. Animals have always been a top selling category, from cats and dogs to birds of every description.

While the cartoon characters and animals have always been popular with collectors of string holders, some choose to focus their collections on people designs, which include black memorabilia,  girls and women, fairy tale figures, boys and men, chefs, clowns, and comic cartoon characters.

Another category popular with col tors are designs featuring cartoon characters or advertising icons, including Elsie the Borden Cow, the Coca Cola Kid, Aunt Jemima, Smokey the Bear, Popeye, Shirley Temple, Betty Boop, and a rare 1940s Mickey Mouse.

But beware of the many reproductions and fantasy string holders currently for sale online. This is especially true in the category of black memorabilia where many of the figures of chefs, mammys and other black character figures are being copied in off-shore facilities and are flooding the marketplace. Don't confuse these reproductions with the new limited editions crafted by various artists and sold as new.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Elusive Rosenthal

QUESTION: My mother has a 12-place setting of Rosenthal china that she uses only on holidays and special occasions. I’ve always loved this pattern—her dishes say “Rosenthal Maria” on the bottom—but other than her set, I’ve never heard of this china company. I guess that’s because today we don’t entertain as formally as people used to. She told me that the set was given to her as a wedding gift. She and my father just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. I’d love to know more about this china since I’m sure one day it will be mine. What can you tell me about Rosenthal?

ANSWER: Rosenthal is and has been one of the finest European potteries since Abraham Rosenthal founded it in 1883 in Selb, Germany. Some experts compare it to some of the best German porcelain manufacturers. Even though they’ve been around for over 130 years, the firm’s products remain elusive to collectors because people who own pieces like them so much they tend to keep them.

Rosenthal originally started out founding a porcelain-painting business, but when he couldn’t get enough pieces to paint, he opened his own porcelain factory.

In 1881, there were four porcelain painters working for the company. By 1951 the number had grown to 6,000. Today, the Rosenthal firm owns two porcelain factories, the Selb and Rotbuhl both in Selb, and a ceramic factory in Kronach, plus several others not pottery related.

The Rosenthal family had a great interest in modern art. Philipp Rosenthal, son of Abraham, was a designer and his son together invited famous modern artists to collaborate in the development of both artistic porcelain and pieces for everyday use. In 1961, Rosenthal introduced the Studio Line, characterized by the simple lines modern design.

Rosenthal dining sets first appeared in 1900. Even though it was a new century, they were influenced by Victorian design and decoration. This dinnerware came in complete sets of 12, as was the custom of the time, including many pieces no longer included in today’s dinnerware sets. Back then sets included handled soup tureens, ragout bowls, fish dishes, fruit bowls on feet, salt and pepper cellars, blueberry bowls with saucers, chocolate plates, four sizes of coffeepots, three sizes of sugar bowls and cookie jars, as well as the usual dinner plates and cups and saucers. While the shapes of some pieces evolved over the years, some have remained unchanged, such as the pear-shaped coffeepot, the round teapot, and the oval  chocolate pot.

Early painted patterns included "Rococo/Louis XIV," 1892, made in Selb, "Gladstone" and "Moliere," both produced at Kronach factory in 1900. Art Nouveau style services included "Flora" in 1899, "Iris" in 1900 and "Botticelli" and "Donatello," both made at the Selb factory. The firm’s most successful dinnerware service, "Maria," appeared in 1914.

The challenge that collector’s face when identifying which Rosenthal pattern they have is that through the years Rosenthal placed hundreds of designs on the same shapes. While a collector may say he or she owns pieces of Donatello, for instance, what they actually have is Rosenthal’s Donatello shape. Artists rarely signed their decorations on Rosenthal china. The company mostly used a combination of transfers and hand painted details over top. Even the modern Studio Line with its incredibly bright colors is usually decorated with a transfer and then hand applied gold and other colors.

Rosenthal produced china using all the design innovations of the 20th century, including Art Deco, Bauhaus, and International Classicism in the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, collectors can purchase open stock of the exquisite "Suomi" pattern, designed by Timo Sarpaneva in 1976. Other artists who decorated "Suomi" included Salvador Dail and Victor Vasarely. Rosenthal has also developed a collector line of cups. The first was in the "Cupola" shape—each decorated by a different artist and boasting a diagonally mounted, grooved handle impossible to actually use. The second was a group of 10 espresso cups taken from the "Mythos" service, plus more than 30 artist cups. Rosenthal also produced limited edition Year Plates and Artist Plates designed by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Edna Hibel and LeRoy Neiman.

While Rosenthal produced some dinnerware sets in great quantity, putting them on the lower end of the value scale, there were special pieces painted by famous artists which sell for as high as $800 to $1,000.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Pin a La Chapeau

Question: My grandmother had a great collection of ladies’ hatpins, you know, the kind worn during Victorian times when women always wore hats. I inherited her collection and would like to continue collecting them. I always admired her hatpins whenever I visited her. I guess that’s why she left them to me. What can you tell me about these large and sometimes very fancy hatpins?

Answer: Hatpins are a hot collectible now, so you should be able to find some great additions to your grandmother’s collection.

Many of today’s women don’t wear a hat regularly. And if they do, it’s most likely some sort of cap. Hats today aren’t an important fashion accessory, except perhaps in England.  But there was a time when going out in public without a hat was as much a fashion faux pas as wearing white shoes after Labor Day.  Women kept their hats on their heads by means of a hatpin.

Silversmiths began making the earliest hatpins around 1850. These hatpins had shanks  ranging from 6 to 13 inches long, with the most popular being about 7½ inches. Women used hatpins to not only keep their hats in place, but also to anchor the hair-pieces and highly-piled hairstyles of the Victorian Era.

Hats during Victorian times, especially in the 1890s, were very big and sat on top of a  ridiculously high hairstyle. So the hatpin became the mainstay of every woman's coiffure. Hats of the time sported everything from buckles, beads and flowers to actual stuffed birds. Sometimes a woman needed three to six hatpins to hold a large, heavy hat in place.

Hats and haptins go hand-in-hand. When hats were large, so were hatpins. So what caused the demise of the large hat? By the dawn of the 20th century, the automobile had come on the scene, so smaller hats were more suitable. These smaller hats therefore required smaller pins.

By the onset of World War II, ladies no longer had to wear hats in public. Though some still wore smaller hats, hatpins became nothing more than frivolous ornaments. From 1850 to 1901, hatpin makers used a variety of materials to make their pins. Many were hand-wrought, ornate and often custom-made. When the small bonnets of the 1840s gave way to the larger hats of the 1850s, hatpins became necessary.

The mid-19th century also brought with it die-stamping and the ability to mass-produce pins. The manufacturing of hatpins, took off. These mass produced hatpins were nowhere near the quality of those made by hand.

Besides being functional, hatpins were also ornamental. Only imagination limited the variety of hatpins made. When the Art Nouveau style gained popularity, hatpins incorporated flower and leaf motifs and anything that had to do with nature. Manufacturers used jewels, precious metals and jet to produce hatpins making the majority of the more elaborate creations quite expensive. Except for the wealthy, hatpins of precious stones and metals were priced out of reach for most women. However, there were imitations selling for as little as 29 cents.

Top U.S. hatpin producers included such famous names as Louis C. Tiffany of New York, William J. Codmand of Providence and the American `clique' comprised of James T. Wooley, Barton P. Jenks, and George C. Gebelein. While these makers worked primarily in metals, manufacturers of glassware in New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts produced glass-headed pins..

Silver was the metal of choice during the Art Nouveau period. Major American manufacturers of these hatpins included Unger Bros. of New York and New Jersey; The Sterling Company and Alvin Manufacturing Company, both of Providence, Rhode Island, and R. Blackinton & Company of North Attleboro, Massachusetts. Man collectors consider the hatpins created during the Art Nouveau period as being the finest examples made, with those crafted by Renee Lalique of Paris to be second to none.

Settings of many hatpins incorporate shells, scrolls and leaves being almost rococo in design, while others are made with beaded heads, woven raffia, fine needlepoint or polished straw. Collectors seek hatpins that have carved ivory heads, as well as those made with abalone, pearls, and gemstones.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Listen to That Radio, Mister

QUESTION: I’ve been going through old boxes filled with junk that have sat in my attic for years. In the process, I came across several old transistor radios, all of which work. Are these collectible? And are they of any value?

ANSWER: Transistor radios were the first common electronic device to be downsized. Today, we take miniaturization for granted and have radio broadcasts and music at our fingertips on multiple devices. But when transistor radios first came on the scene, the modern age for many had begun.

Once a worthless, "modern" radio, the transistorized radio has become the foremost radio-related collectible. In the late 1980s, most transistor radios would be left on a dealer's table for $25 or less. Today, many of those same sets cost $50 to $250.

The Regency TR-1, the first transistor radio, introduced for the 1954 Christmas season, could have been bought in 1990 for about $100. Three years later, most TR-1s sold for about $300, and certain rare colors sold for several times that amount. But the market for transistor radios can be volatile. The Zenith 500H, a larger radio from 1957, sold for about $125 to $200. Not only is the styling of the 500H interesting, but the sound is better than many tube-type radios. However, quite a few 500H radios surfaced, so 500H radios often go unsold or for very low prices.

Novelty transistor radios, those shaped like an item or product, started the transistor collecting  craze, but few have ever broken the $200 mark. Most sell for $10 to $50 while early transistors have at least doubled in price.

If you’re considering collecting or dealing in novelty transistors, you can find early generic examples from the United States and Japan, like the derringer, rocket ship, and owl, or you can look for product-specific transistors like the Tropicana Orange, Mork from Ork TV-inspired set, and the Planters Peanuts can. Generally the typical bottle-, can-, and animal-shaped radios sell for under $25, while the early and interesting household item-shaped sets sell under $75.

You can assemble a good collection consisting of about 50 radios in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and types can be put together for under $1,000. These can be easily picked up at flea markets, antique malls and shops. While many collectors look for 1960s-made sets in interesting shapes, don't ignore the 1970s and 1980s product-type sets, especially if they’re clean or boxed.

New novelty radios in the box are often twice the price of clean, but used, sets. Manufacturers made most of these novelty radios within the last 30 years, and sold or gave away tens of thousands of each variety, so selection and availability shouldn’t be a problem. You should wait and choose only the best examples of novelties, unlike the early transistor radios, which appeared over 50 years ago and often saw considerable use. People considered transistor radios to be disposable and threw many of them  away when they no longer worked.

If you’d like to start picking up the early transistors, experienced collectors agree that you should look for nicely colored, clean and complete sets and those that are small, pocket-sized if possible, usually with a plastic or nylon case. Few of the leather sets are popular, although some of the smaller, shirt-pocket sized leather radios from 1955 and 1956 are bought and sold. Look for civil defense markings on the dial. Most collectors choose AM-band only sets, although some AM/FM sets can have a nice look.

A collection of about 40 to 50 early transistor sets with some important radios included, may cost you well over $2.000, unless you spend a lot of time looking for bargains. However, if the sets are clean and complete, they should be worth more than the typical asking prices of today, that is if you hold your collection for a few years before deciding to resell. Regardless of your interests, early and novelty transistor radios are “hot,” and getting hotter and are a great item to collect.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

George Ohr—Just a Little Bit Eccentric

QUESTION: On a recent trip to New Orleans, I found and bought a quirky piece of art pottery in an antique shop. The dealer said it was by George Ohr, but I’ve never heard of him. I like the bizarre look this piece has and would like to find more. Can you tell me more about this potter?

ANSWER: George Ohr was a local potter that actually hailed from Biloxi, Mississippi. He was a real character and his personality definitely comes through in his pots.

In the early 1850s, Ohr’s parents moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where his father opened the town’s first blacksmith shop. George worked with him and learned the trade. But when he was 18, Ohr left to seek his fortune in New Orleans.  There he worked at a ship chandler's shop for free room and board plus soap for washing. After three years, he was still getting free soap and only $15 per month. So he went back home to Biloxi where he worked as an apprentice in a file cutter's shop and in a tinker's shop.

Disenchanted with his situation, he returned to New Orleans to learn all he could about potting. As soon as he mastered enough technical skills, Ohr left and spent two years traveling to 16 states to observe other potters and their potteries.

He returned to Biloxi in 1883 with $26.80 with which he equipped his own pottery. He spent most of the money on bricks for his kiln. He did all his own work—digging the clay from a nearby riverbank, loading it in a wheelbarrow, and hauling it back to his shop, which he called the "POT-OHR-E." He called his creations "mud babies" and made over 600 pieces in his first  year. He exhibited some of them at the North Cotton Centennial Exposition, but someone stole them.

On Sept. 15, 1886 Ohr married Josephine Gehring of New Orleans. They had 10 children, but the first two died very young. To support his family, he began selling novelty pottery and souvenir items, such as flowerpots, ceramic hats, children's banks and plaques of Southern buildings at local fairs. He once said that if it weren’t for the housewives of Biloxi who have a constant need of flowerpots, water coolers and flues, the Ohr family would go hungry. Ohr hated to part with his "mud baby" creations, so he put high prices on his best works to see what the market would bear.

It didn't take Ohr long to get the reputation of being just a little bit eccentric. People began calling him “the made potter from Biloxi.” This was in part due to his bizarre appearance. Ohr had long hair that he knotted on top of his head with a brass pin and a long beard that was usually tucked into his shirt to keep it from getting caught in the potter's wheel. He often made a public spectacle of himself—from boasting about his artistic talents to zooming down the street on his bicycle with his 18-inch-long mustache tucked behind his ears. Ohr admitted that he acted "crazy" to attract tourists to his shop.

Although Ohr won a medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, he became disillusioned with the pottery business because he didn't think people appreciated his work. So he abruptly closed his pottery in 1906 and became a motorcycle salesman and then an automobile dealer. Ohr died in 1918, still convinced he was the greatest potter who ever lived. He left his pottery to his children with the request that it not be sold until 50 years after his death. He believed the originality of his work would be appreciated in time.

In 1968, exactly 50 years after Ohr's death, James W. Carpenter, a New Jersey antique dealer, discovered over 7,000 pieces of Ohr's pottery in the attic of the Ohr Boy's Auto Repair Shop. He purchased all of them from Ohr's children and offered it for sale in the New York area. People soon recognized these works of an obscure turn-of-the-century potter as the creation of a genius ahead of his time and not just the works of "the mad potter of Biloxi."

Each piece of pottery created by George Ohr is totally unique. Although he made the usual bowls, vases, mugs, pitchers and teapots, no two were alike in shape or decoration. Ohr had a mischievous nature and enjoyed making unusual forms as well, such as puzzle cups for which the puzzle was how to drink from it without spilling the contents. He made a coffeepot with a lid that couldn’t be removed. The trick was to fill it from the bottom.

Some of Ohr's work showed the Art Nouveau influence of the time. He applied snakes, crabs, seashells, dragons and even the head of a wildcat. Today, these pieces sell for high prices.

Ohr was an expert on the potter’s wheel. He created eggshell-thin vessels of fine quality but wasn’t satisfied with their static quality. He dug his fingers into the moist clay and twisted, dented, pinched, squeezed and generally "tortured" the white and red local clays into amazing one-of-a-kind forms. Ohr designed his elaborate handles with curves and scrolls in the style of wrought iron, influenced by his work with his father as a blacksmith.

Ohr’s glazes, in deep and lustrous in shades of brown, red, bright pink, purple, cobalt blue, yellow and green luster, were as varied as his pottery forms. His colors were Many objects had a gunmetal or pewter finish. He experimented with volcanic, sponged, drip, blister, iridescent, tortoiseshell and pigeon feather glazes. And on some of his pieces, he flawed or sometimes even burned his glazes.

As he got older, he left his works in the unglazed bisque stage. He believed God put no color on souls, so why should he put color on his pots.

It wasn’t until Carpenter put the pieces he discovered up for sale in the 1970s that Ohr’s work found a market, and it was his bisque pieces that got the highest prices. It seems that some of the buyers then glazed these pieces in order to earn more money from resale.

Today, collectors seek Ohr’s twisted, tortured forms and colorful vibrant glazes. It’s what he would have wanted when he was making them.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mementos of Utopia

NOTE: On this day in 1939, the New York World's Fair was well underway. People flocked to it as if going to some sort of urban paradise. Although it wasn't Utopia, it was the next best thing for all those who suffered through the Great Depression. The Fair symbolized hope in the future---The World of Tomorrow.

QUESTION: My uncle's dad founded Greyhound Bus, and he had this keepsake from the 1939 World's Fair.He claimed they made a ton of metal buses to give away, but never really put this tram into production. Have you seen one like this? 

ANSWER: I get almost as many questions about souvenir items from the 1939 New York World’s Fair as there were items sold or given away at the Fair. Well, not really, but pretty many.

The item this person mentions--a small cast-iron Greyhound Bus tram---was one of over 25,000 different mementos made for the Fair. Fifty stands sold souvenirs–everything from postcards to guidebooks to view folders and books, as well as a myriad of novelties that gave "knick-knacks" a whole new meaning. Vendors also sold a myriad of pins. Orange and blue World’s Fair emblems graced the surfaces of every one of them.

The Fair opened on April 30 , 1939–the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City. At 10:00 A.M. Mayor LaGuardia cut the ribbon at a dedication ceremony in the Temple of Religion. Trumpets heralded the procession of thousands of police officers and military men and public officials. And at 2:00 P.M. President Roosevelt dedicated the fair. Altogether, 60 nations and international organizations took part. Thirty-three states of the United States also had exhibits–and every one of them had giveaways and more deluxe souvenirs for sale.

Why is it then that the New York World’s Fair’s souvenirs seem to stand out from the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that same year and the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago six years earlier? For one thing, the shear numbers of items–millions of them–flooded the U.S. and the world with mementos of the Fair. Every visitor, no matter their economic status, brought home something, from small toys like the Greyhound tram to three-legged folding cane/seats so visitors could take a rest while walking the Fair. There were also wallets, bracelets, woman’s compacts, snow globes, and thousands of pins. And for stamp collectors, the Fair offered first day covers, postmarked daily at special U.S. postal stations at the Fair.

Another reason the 1939 New York World’s Fair offered so much variety was that unlike previous world’s fairs of the 20th Century, it was truly a commercial phenomenon. There, housewives first got their first look at automatic washers, cooking mixes, and small appliances of all kinds. So the corporations who sponsored the Fair went all out to promote their new products–products of science and imagination.

So to answer the question above–have I seen such an item–probably not, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and can be worth some good money in the very specialized World’s Fairs’ collectible market.

For more information about 1939 New York World’s Fair memorabilia, click here.
To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

QUESTION: I like antique clocks and have a number of them in my home. I saw this English, tortoiseshell carriage clock sold by J.C. Vickery of London in 1904 at an antique show recently but was hesitant to buy it because tortoiseshell is now illegal. Can I still purchase this clock or will I be committing an illegal act? Also, what can you tell me about tortoiseshell decoration?

ANSWER: While it’s illegal to use tortoiseshell in manufacturing items, it is legal to buy and sell antiques in which tortoiseshell has been used as a decoration.

Tortoiseshell is an ornamental material obtained from the curved horny shields forming the shell of the hawksbill turtle. People have long valued tortoiseshell’s marbled, varicolored pattern and deep translucence for making jewelry, furniture, and other objects. The Romans first imported it from Egypt. During the 17th-century, the French raised the level of artistry for tortoiseshell in decorating jewel cases, trays, snuffboxes, and other items. The craft soon spread to other parts of Europe.

Eastern and Western artisans used tortoiseshell from ancient times until the buying and selling of raw tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Ancient Greeks used tortoiseshell to make their lyres and wealthy  Romans used inlaid veneers of tortoiseshell for furniture, especially couches for dining, and for small objects.

Craftsmen normally used it in thin slices or pieces to make a wide variety of objects such as combs, small boxes and frames and inlays in furniture. Despite its high price, manufacturers and consumers favored it because of its beautiful mottled appearance, its durability, and its organic warmth against the skin.

The French perfected the use of tortoiseshell on furniture by completely covering pieces with sheets of tortoiseshell and brass cut into intricate patterns that fit into one another, the tortoiseshell alternately forming the pattern and the ground, resulting in two types, boulle and counterboulle. André Charles Boulle, cabinetmaker to Louis XIV of France for whom this style of decoration is named, introduced and perfected marquetry combining thin inlays of tortoiseshell backed with metal or with woods and metal.

Another decorative technique, usually employed on tortoiseshell, was piqué work, in which artisans created inlaid designs using small gold or silver pins. The art reached its highest point in 17th- and 18th-century France, particularly for the decoration of smaller articles such as combs, match boxes, and snuffboxes.

To prepare tortoiseshell for decorative use, craftsmen would first separate it from the tortoise’s  bony skeleton by heat. They would then flatten the shields by softening them in warm salt water and flattening them using a press. finally rasping away any irregularities. Tortoiseshell can be easily worked using heat and pressure and can be shaped on a lathe. Two pieces could be fused by use of a hot iron, but like the earlier stages, craftsmen had to be careful not to lose the color. When a craftsman completed a piece, he would polish it using various techniques.

Victorians who wished to show off their wealth would prominently display tortoiseshell items in their homes. They enjoyed tortoiseshell boxes and containers as much for their decorative quality as for their storage possibilities. During the Victorian era, artisans embellished tortoiseshell jewelry with precious stones and gold and silver. They even hand carved some pieces.

Those who collect items made with tortoiseshell must be able to differentiate between the real thing and fake or faux tortoiseshell. But it takes an experienced eye to easily tell the difference. Generally, real tortoise shell is lighter than fake examples, and when compared, the former would have more depth and layers, which is part of the reason why it’s favored for use in jewelry making.

To help distinguish real tortoiseshell from faux tortoiseshell, collectors often use a pin test. However, the person selling a tortoiseshell item might not be too keen on having someone using a hot pin or a piece of sandpaper to see whether it will smell like burned hair since markings or spots may be left on the shell afterwards. Believe it or not, faux tortoiseshell smells more like burned hair than the real thing.

Collecting real antique tortoiseshell objects and jewelry can be expensive since these items are becoming increasingly rare.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Monday, April 16, 2018

Restoring an Old Rocker

QUESTION:  This rocking chair was left at our house by one of the previous residents. We live in a very old home (built around 1910) which makes me think the chair might be old too. Can you tell me it’s age?

ANSWER: Your chair probably dates to sometime in the early 20th century. I'm sorry I can't be more exact. It looks like it had been painted and someone tried to strip off the paint. They probably found it too much of a job, so they just abandoned it.

You’ve probably heard on the Antiques Roadshow that refinishing antique furniture can diminish its value. But in a case like yours, it can only improve it.

Before you do anything, take time to inspect your chair for any identifying labels or marks that may help you research its origin. Check the overall condition of the wood. If a piece looks to be valuable, leave it alone, or have a professional do the work. In this case, you can do the work yourself.

I would suggest fixing the chair. The part that seems to be apart on the left side of the seat can probably be pressed down and reglued. Use a generous amount of Elmer's wood glue and several C clamps. Let it set for several days.

Wash the chair using a sponge with a scrubby side and a mixture of anti-grease dishwashing detergent and water. You can use this on your chair because it’s been fairly stripped down, but you wouldn’t use the scrubby sponge on a piece with a varnished or painted surface, no matter how bad it looks. Don’t get the chair too wet. Do one part at a time and wipe immediately.

After the chair dries, you'll want to sand it---first with a 150-grit sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood or one of those sanding blocks. Follow this with a finer grade.

Finally, you'll want to select a good paint. Although Home Depot has some great
one-coat paints, in this instance you probably should use an undercoat and a final coat. The wood is dry and has been through a lot, so you'll want to seal it. Frankly, you can paint it whatever color you like. If you can see the color of the old paint, you could use that as a guide. Choose a semi-gloss finish. And give the seat at least two coats.

Even if a piece isn’t a rare antique, it’s best to take the path of least resistance. Sometimes, all a piece will need is a good cleaning. Murphy’s Oil Soap will do a good job while giving the wood back some of its much-needed oil.

The joints of older pieces of furniture tend to dry out over time. This causes them to loosen. Using a little wood glue and a special glue applicator syringe, it’s possible to leave the piece intact while re-gluing them. You’ll also need some C clamps and perhaps one of those fabric clamps to hold everything in place while the glue sets.

If you have a piece of furniture with parts missing, you can try to replace them. However, this may take more woodworking skills than you possess. The best advice is not to try gerry-rigging a part if you can’t find a replacement and just leave the piece as is. Finer pieces may indeed be worth the cost of professional restoration.

If you can fix up this old rocking chair, it will make a fine addition to your porch and give you pleasure for years to come.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Colorful Elegance of Murano Glass

QUESTION: Last year to went on vacation to Italy. While there, I visited Venice. One day, I took a boat over to Murano, a group of islands where they make glass. I saw a lot of tacky souvenirs, but then I happened on the studio of one of the glass artists. His work was beautiful. I think I’d like to start collecting Murao glass, but I have no idea where to start. What can you tell me about it? How collectible is it?

ANSWER: While Murano glass has been made for several centuries, collecting those antique pieces may be out of your league. But you could start a collection of pieces from the 1950s or sooner.

Murano glass objects have gone up in price in recent years. Those items made in the 1950s are especially popular because of their reasonable prices. Typically, Murano pieces are low bowls and ashtrays with abstract shapes. Some are rounded or blobbed, kind of like an amoeba. Others have pointed "fingers" in the design which reach outward or up in many directions. A few stand higher, with fingers reaching upward to form a handle for a basket. There are also bud vases. All are have deep, vibrant colors, and all are heavy and have polished smooth bottoms.

Murano is a series of islands linked by bridges in the Veneto, or Venetian Lagoon, less than a mile north of Venice. Today, it has a population of over 5,000 and is famous for its glassmaking. This reputation as a center for glassmaking came about when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction of the city's mostly wooden buildings, ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. The glassmakers of Murano have specialized in fancy glasswares ever since.

They developed or refined many glassmaking technologies, including crystalline glass, smalto or enameled glass, goldstone or golden glass, mullefiori or multicolored filement glass, or milk glass, and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano still use these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass figurines to Murano glass chandeliers, as well as tourist souvenirs..

Murano's glassmakers eventually became the island’s most prominent citizens. By the 14th century, glassmakers could wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state, and had permission for their daughters to marry into Venice’s most affluent families. But there was a downside. Glassmakers weren’t allowed to leave the Republic. Anyone caught exporting professional glasmaking secrets was put to death. Many craftsmen took this risk and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands. By the end of the 16th century, three thousand of Murano island's seven thousand inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.

The late 19th century saw a resurgence in the art of glassmaking on Murano. By the turn of the 20th century, they only produced special pieces for La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that began in 1895.

Following World War I, the glassmaking factories began normal production of non-traditional pieces. By the 1930s, they began producing pieces in the Art Deco style. This continued until the Biennale of 1942, at which the Murano glassmakers outdid themselves by exhibiting pieces in exciting shapes and colors that brought a lift to war-weary Venice.

Some of Murano's historical glass factories, including De Biasi, Gabbiani, Venini, Salviati, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, Berengo Studio, Seguso, Formia International, Murno Gladst, Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, Vetreria Ducale, Estevan Rossetto 1950, remain well known brands today,. The oldest glass factory is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, founded in 1854.

Overall, the Murano glass industry has been shrinking as demand has waned. Imitation works from Asia and Eastern Europe have stolen an estimated 40-45 percent of the market for Murano glass, and public tastes have changed while the designs in Murano have largely stayed the same. The difficult and low-paying nature of the work has decreased  the number of professional glassmakers in Murano from about 6000 in 1990 to fewer than 1000 today.

Today, about 50 companies use the Artistic Glass Murano® trademark of origin. Regionale di Veneto Law Numero.70, passed in 1994, introduced this trademark and continues to regulate it. While glass factories on Murano aren’t required to apply for the trademark and many choose not to, works that bear it have their authenticity guaranteed.

One of the main characteristics of Murano glass is its bubble-free quality. By adding fluxes and stabilizers such as soda and lime to silica sand, glassmakers can melt the glass at a lower temperature, making the glass homogeneous and bubble free. While basic Murano glass is colorless, the addition of small amounts of minerals, oxides, and chemical derivatives to the base composition of the glass powder gives it its brilliant colors.

Today, the island of Murano is synonymous with glass. Everything imaginable is made from Murano glass: wine goblets, vases, candlestick holders, miniature animals, paperweights, chandeliers, lampshades, dinner services, tiny pieces of glass candy, beads, and every kind of jewelry you can imagine. There’s tremendous variety in quality, price, and style. When it’s quickly turned out for a cheap profit among the tourist trade, it can look hideous. When it’s well done, Murano glass is exquisitely beautiful.

Learn more about Venice by reading "Venice Sets the Stage for Magical Moments" in the Travel Article section of my Web site.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Idealized Scenes from Life

QUESTION: I’ve grown to love the scenes on English transferware. I’ve got a small collection that I add to from time to time. How did the makers of these wares know what sort of scenes to use to decorate their wares? Were they trying to illustrate stories or myths? Nearly all of the scenes on my pieces are rural. Is there a reason for that?

These are all good questions. The Victorians had a method to their madness, as the old saying goes. As it turns out, the scenes on your Staffordshire transferware pieces were a direct result of historic events and the lifestyles that people led at the time.

During the 19th century, Victorians began exploring the world around them.  Technological advances enabled them to make more ambitious voyages of discovery. And as they journeyed farther from home, their views of the natural world changed. This changing perspective reflected in the decorations of 19th-century ceramics ranging from early historical and romantic Staffordshire transfer printed wares to late 19th-century majolica. Idealized wilderness and pastoral scenes could be found on all types of vessels and dishes.

By this time Americans had begun to develop a different view of the land. To the Puritans, wilderness had been considered a land of devils and demons, a domain to be feared. But the Victorians reveled in the beauty of nature.

The American frontier had been pushed westward. Following this trend, Staffordshire potteries began producing transfer printed landscapes illustrating the popular, romantic ideal of nature. Favorite spots such as Niagara Falls and Newport, Rhode Island, began to accommodate sightseers. And the Romantic Movement of the first half of the 19th century influenced the images on ceramics, from country scenes to floral motifs.

The Victorians developed a passion for natural history. They chronicled what they found in journals--the world's flora, fauna, and sea life—and created museums for their discoveries, erecting home conservatories, and published illustrated volumes on the natural sciences. Staffordshire artists thumbed through botany texts and visited botanical gardens and zoos, sketch-pads in hand, for inspiration. Some of this fascination may be seen in the border designs created by several of the potters of  Staffordshire wares and the floral motifs seen in Flow Blue.

Another reason for the popularity of a romanticized image of woodlands, mountains, sandy shores, and even idyllically situated American towns may be traced to the actual dirtiness and difficulty of life in both rural and urban landscapes.

Scenes on dinnerware were pristine by comparison. Several of the city views do show cattle and sheep in the foreground, but the cleanliness even of those scenes provided at least temporary escape from the dirtiness of the real world.

Another result of the Victorians’ fascination with nature, plus the Victorians’ obsession with death, was the Garden Cemetery Movement, born in Boston. In 1832, a group created the Auburn Cemetery, a large rural cemetery in rolling countryside with plenty of room for adequate burials. The site was also far enough away from the city to make grave robbery difficult. They adorned the  garden cemetery landscape with sculptures and artful groupings of trees and flowers to combine a necessity for more burial land with a desire to revel in nature.

The sylvan burial plots brought families to the large, rural cemeteries on picnics. Young couples took long strolls and individuals wandered among sepulchers and statuary to seek out moral lessons and inspiration. In essence, the new cemeteries became the first American public parks—places to commune both with nature and the dearly departed.

This combination of movements explains several unusual historical Staffordshire prints. Neither George Washington nor Benjamin Franklin would have ever expected anyone to spend time ruminating over his grave. Yet Enoch Wood & Son in both the illustrations of “Franklin's Tomb” and `Washington's Tomb” depict General Lafayette reclining by urn-capped tombs drawing inspiration from the resting places of his departed allies. Edward and George Phillips, two other noted artists of the time, show a young couple gazing at a tomb in an open glade in their print “Franklin.” This example appeared on a handless tea cup. Enoch Wood & Sons produced the most unusual print and the one that illustrates romantic death, titled “Washington Standing by His Own Tomb With a Scroll in His Hand.”

So the illustrations on pieces of Staffordshire aren’t random but related to the everyday lives of the people who used those dishes and other ceramic vessels.

Learn more about the Victorian obsession with death by reading "When Death Came A-Calling" in The Antiques Almanac.