Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Seashells by the Seashore

QUESTION: Ever since I was a child playing in the sand at the seashore, I’ve loved seashells. I started collecting them and eventually began making shell crafts with them. I’ve seen antique shell-covered boxes at antique shows. How old are these boxes? And why are they decorated with shells?

ANSWER:  When you pick up a pretty shell on the beach or purchase a shell souvenir from a seaside gift shop, you’re following a tradition that goes back as far as the 16th century. A homemade sewing box decorated with shells gathered during an outing at the seashore evokes memories of a wonderful vacation.

Shells from the Far East were rare and expensive collectors' items as far back as the late 1590s. Archduke Ferdinand II devoted four rooms of his castle near Innsbruck, Austria, to shells, fossils, amber and mounted branches of coral. Soon, all over Europe, it was the fashion to decorate rooms with both common and exotic shells.

With the exploration of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the expansion of European trade, interest in sea shells as decorative items grew even stronger in the 17th century. Merchants imported large quantities of exotic shells into Europe, and shell collecting became a serious hobby. 

In the early 18th century shellwork became a popular pastime for upper-class women. They practiced all sorts of shellcraft, including making shell plaques and pictures. To help Georgian ladies with their shellwork, Mrs. Hannah Robertson published The Ladies School of Arts in 1806. In it she described various techniques of shellwork. When Victoria became Queen in 1837, the study of shells and their inhabitants became a popular subject in school. Teachers encouraged their students to take walks along  the seashore to study marine life which led to an increased interest in shell collecting and shellwork.

Ladies covered glove boxes, trinket boxes, work boxes, and musical boxes with shells. They used heavy pasteboard to construct the boxes, using patterns they found in books on shellcraft. Once they had the parts cut out, they lined them with absorbent cotton and covered them with velvet or silk, then they sewed the sides together with strong thread. They then pasted muslin over the seams and fastened the lids with strips of muslin attached with strong glue. The box makers then made a cushion which they attached  the top of the box with a glue and proceeded to cover it with shells. Those who didn’t want to make their own boxes could buy plain ones onto which they could attach their shells.

Many of the Victorian boxes contained mirrors inside the lid and had heart-shaped pincushions attached. Ladies often gave them as gifts and pasted sayings such as "Forget-me-not" and "To My Dear Mother." Some Victorian women glued on paper scraps and pictures cut out from magazines to enhance their designs.
To obtain shells for their projects, some ladies would gather them on trips to the seashore. Those who lived too far away from the sea could obtain them from sailors or purchase them from shell dealers.

After women gathered their shells, they soaked them in fresh water for a few hours. Some shells naturally possessed a fine polish and required no preparation for display. In many cases, however, when shells became dry, they lost their natural luster, which women restored by washing them with clear water into which a little glue had been dissolved. The most popular shell, the periwinkle, which lined almost every box, had to be specially treated. The natural, grayish outer scale had to be removed with acetic acid to reveal the pearly iridescence underneath.

After cleaning their shells, women had to sort them according to size and color. It was important to have large quantities of tiny "rice shells," and other small shells in order to fill in spaces. Ladies then laid out their shells to form a design. Roses and hearts were popular in the center of a design. Once they had their designs finalized, women dipped the ends of their shells in a mixture of white wax and glue which adhered them to the cotton batting or paper.

Shell work declined in popularity toward the end of the 19th century though it has never faded as a home pastime.

 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. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," coming this week.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Look of Beauty

QUESTION: I recently have become interested in possibly collecting ladies’ compacts. I see them at flea markets all the time and the prices are reasonable enough to fit my budget. Also, I live in an apartment, so their small size is a plus. But I don’t want to randomly begin collecting them without knowing a little about their background. What can you tell me about ladies’ compacts? Are they a good item to collect? Will I be able to find enough of them to make collecting them worthwhile?

ANSWER: They say good things come in small packages and ladies’ compacts are a good example. These little treasures not only represent a lost art but are also a connection to the past that’s still affordable.  With so many different types on the market, you’ll have no problem finding plenty in to fit your collecting budget.

For the sheltered few who may not know, compacts are devices women carry that help them pursue their quest for beauty. Many of the compacts are works of art themselves. They first appeared during in the early 1900s. In 1908, Sears, Roebuck & Co advertised a hinged, silver-plated case that sold for 19 cents, described as “small enough to carry in the pocketbook.” This small and round housing for face powder, puff, and mirror became known as a compact. By the 1920s, during the age of the flapper, the compact had become a fashion accessory. And right from the beginning there was lots of competition.

Manufacturers used metal because it was readily available, cheap to produce, and could be brushed, enameled, engraved, and painted. Sterling silver was extremely popular, as was brass, aluminum, gunmetal, nickel, and gilt bronze. Those made at the close of World War I featured shapes, patterns, and motifs that reflect the geometric style of what would become known as Art Deco.

The companies making compacts had intensive marketing campaigns, assuring women that they simply had to have a collection of compacts, not just for every occasion, but also to make a particular statement during each occasion. A Coty double compact advertisement urged women to "be lovely always”— morning, noon and night... and it is so exquisitely smart with its polished platinum tone that you will feel a subtle bit of pride in having it in your handbag.”

The ones most sought after by collectors, however, include those made by obscure companies such as Fisher, La Mode, F & B, R & G, FM Company, DFB Company and the makers of Italian silver vermeils.

Volupte, founded in 1920 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, made one of the most desirable designs —the Golden Gesture Hand, designed by Ruth Warner Mason for a special promotion of "Genuine Collector's Items." These compacts are also referred to as the "Praying Hands" or "Gay Nineties" compacts. The most desirable and costly ones feature either a black or white lace mitt and enhanced with a faux engagement ring, diamond bracelet, or with manicured fingernails or multiples of these enhancements. The hand compacts are about five inches long and can cost as much as $800 each.

These compacts are extremely fragile and dent easily. They’re relatively rare to find in anything but the plain gold version, which sells cheaply compared to the decorated ones. The latter are rare and even then, to get one in mint condition is like finding a needle in a haystack. Condition on these is very important with compacts, as with other collectibles. Dents and wear will lessen their value considerably. Beginners should always seek the unusual over the commonplace.

At one time, compacts were all similar in design. Collectors call these "flapjacks" because of their shape. They measure approximately 4½ to 5 inches and their size allowed a woman to see herself from her chin to the top of her hairdo. However, the cases of these large flapjacks often warp. If the mirror is intact and the case closes, collectors usually overlook any side gaps. The design and overall condition is the deciding factor when it comes to value.

Divine compacts, on the other hand, are small but often have fantastic designs. Many are souvenirs, depicting buildings, cities, landmarks, or world's fairs. Generally, prices for souvenir compacts are lower, but there are still some very stunning examples out there.

Guillouche compacts are highly collectible. The guillouche technique was an attempt to copy Faberge. By using colored foil stamped with appropriate patterns and topped with a clear plastic dome, the results were surprisingly effective. Not to be confused with cloisonné, guillouche enameling always has a translucent pattern. Faux guillouche is stamped on foil with a plastic top. Compact experts define genuine guillouche as machine-engraved decoration on metal, over which a translucent enamel is often applied.

Many companies marked their compacts on the powder cover or inside the powder well and on the puffs. Sterling compacts may have a word or number stamped into the tiny rims of the mirror or base. These marks are highly desirable by collectors. These can be identified by old catalog advertisements or simply by getting a feel for the quality of workmanship that particular company produced. However, even an unknown compact with no identifying features can still be a work of art and be of high value.

Before purchasing a vintage compact, the beginning collector judge the quality of construction, detail of artwork, and the type of base metal. Top quality items will always retain their value —an unmarked piece may have been produced by a small company that made excellent pieces and therefore there will be fewer of them, thus the price will be higher.

Collecting compacts should be fun. Part of the fun is in discovering unique pieces. It’s like finding a piece of history.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Fair Where Electricity was the Star Attraction

QUESTION: I love to browse the small items found in showcases at antique coops and at flea markets. Recently, I came across a matchsafe with a cigar cutter that came fro the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. I’ve never heard of this. Could you tell me more about it? Is this matchsafe something I want to hold onto?

ANSWER: You’re not alone when it comes to knowing much about this world’s fair. Unfortunately, all the hoopla about the technology exhibited at the fair was overshadowed by a traumatic incident—the assassination of President William McKinley. And while this happened towards the end of the fair at the beginning of September, it undermined the importance of this event.

For six months in the summer of 1901, all the world came to Buffalo, N.Y ,to see the wonders of the new century and to celebrate the unity of the countries of North and South America during the Pan-American Exposition. More than 8.3 million people came to the exposition. Visitors called it “Doing the Pan.” For most, it was the trip of a lifetime. For one person, President William McKinley, it was his last. While canals and gardens dazzled them, the midway seduced them. The buildings, covered in the new electrical lights, kept them in awe.
President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while he was shaking hands with visitors in the Temple of Music on the fairgrounds on September 6, 1901. He died eight days later.

Every country in the Americas participated. The exposition Vacant land at the northern edge of Buffalo was transformed into a Spanish Renaissance style wonderland. Electric light bulbs outlined all of the major buildings. The 391-foot Electric Tower alone boasted 40,000 bulbs. At dusk, visitors gazed in awe at the display of electrical lighting, a novelty at that time.

The fair’s theme was to unite the Americas. Prior to the opening, the exposition’s organizers held a contest for the design of the logo. Raphael Beck, an artist from Lockport, a city on the Erie Canal northeast of Buffalo, won the $50 prize with his entry. The logo featured a map of the western hemisphere. North America was depicted by a fair-haired woman and South America depicted by a dark-haired woman. The women joined hands to form Central America.

The Pan-American Exposition produced thousands of souvenirs which collectors seek today. Many souvenir items were made picturing the buildings and other features of the fair. The Electric Tower pictured on your letter opener was the tallest structure at the fair and often appears on souvenir items.   Many of the souvenirs were pans, said Boyd. One frying pan had a button on the side. When the button is depressed, the lid opens and one sees a tiny buffalo standing in the middle of the pan.

Many of the souvenirs were made of aluminum, a new metal introduced at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. By the time of the Pan-American Exposition, aluminum had become a major industry in nearby Niagara Falls. After President McKinley's death, people bought presidential memorials made of aluminum.

Among the most popular souvenirs were postcards, of which about 500 different ones have been identified. Pan-American stationery allowed exposition visitors to send letters. The Pan-American logo, with or without a buffalo, appeared on the envelope.

Nearly every day was a special day at the Pan-American Exposition, and sponsors of various ceremonies and special days sent invitations. Many of these invitations as well as the envelopes have survived.

Post offices sold special issue stamps in denominations of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 10 cents. These stamps weren't to be used as postage and had to be specifically requested by customers.

And visitors could find free samples of food or beverages or free souvenirs in the Manufacturers & Liberal Arts Building, free sample soap bars in the Larkin Building, free machine-woven ribbons, bookmarks, etc. These, in addition to free brochures and advertising cards, enabled those who could afford only the costs of getting to the Exposition to carry away remembrances of their experience.

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, January 8, 2018

Did Someone Yell Fire!

QUESTION: My father was a fireman for most of his life. During that time he acquired a modest collection of firehouse memorabilia. When he passed away last year, I became the keeper of the flame, so to speak. And while I appreciate the history of these items, I don’t really know much about them. What can you tell me about firehouse collectibles? What is the market like for them today and are they readily available should I wish to expand his collection.

ANSWER: Firehouse memorabilia is one of those very specialized areas of collectibles. Not everyone is into them. In fact, many of the collectors of these objects are or were firefighters and, therefore, have a nostalgic attachment to them. And while fire fighting today is very much high-tech, it wasn’t always that way. The days of throwing buckets of water on a fire are not that far long gone.

To understand what firehouse memorabilia collectors seek, and why, it’s helpful to know something about firefighting history. Man has been struggling to control fire ever since its discovery. In 24 B.C., the emperor Augustus Caesar established groups of watchmen to stand guard, watching for fires in the city of Rome. If and when one of them spotted a fire, he would alert the local residents who would work together to fight the blaze.

The regulation of building construction, as well as restrictions on the building of intentional fires, became an integral part of many future legal codes. Until the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, individuals were responsible for rebuilding anything damaged by fire, a responsibility shared with their neighbors. As a result of this shift in responsibility, insurance companies established fire brigades of their own, consisting of hired crews of firefighters.

American colonial cities relied on these fire brigades to protect their insured properties. Building owners prominently displayed fire marks, symbols of various insurance companies, on their buildings to indicate to firemen those buildings that fell within their realm of responsibility. Not only did firemen refuse to fight fires not covered by their sponsoring insurance companies, but they often hindered the progress of competing fire brigades.

While Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire brigade in 1736, it wasn’t until  April 1, 1853, the country's first full-time paid fire department was established in Cincinnati, Ohio. The introduction of the steam fire engine, which provided steam-powered pumping, coincided with this.

But what sparked the interest in firefighting collectibles. Mostly it’s a fascination with personal courage and pride in this special brotherhood.

Some firefighting collectibles are becoming scarce. Fire alarms are of particular interest. Prices for them have increased dramatically over the years. Alarms can sell for as much as $10,000. Other items collected include hand lanterns, engine lamps, uniforms, axes and hoses, fire marks, nozzles, apparatus adornments, as well as presentation items, such as trophies, pocket watches and plaques—the list is seemingly endless.

To collect firehouse memorabilia is not only to pay homage to the men who fought fires,  but also to appreciate the increasingly sophisticated tools they used. However, the collecting field isn’t limited to firefighting tools alone. It also includes non-firefighting memorabilia, as well.

The earliest American firefighting collectibles aren’t related to those who fought fires, but to those who alerted others of the imminent danger. People used rattles, resembling large wooden noisemakers, at the first sight of smoke or flames. Those  commonly used between 1658 and the early 1800s are less than a foot long and have a paddle-like rattle attached at a right angle to a round wooden hanger.

Collectors also seek leather buckets. Typically holding three gallons of water or sand, they’re generally made of cowhide stretched over wooden frames and were individually marked to ensure safe return to their owners following the fighting of a fire. It’s these identifying marks that make them particularly appealing to collectors.

Other collected items range from fire-fighters' hats and helmets to actual fire engines,  including steam pumps as well as red fire trucks. Collectors also seek certain badges and ceremonial items like trumpets. Ephemera collections often turn up firehouse-related articles, as well.

Because it’s getting more and more difficult to find good items, collectors are paying more for what they do find. Many have broadened their collections to include fire insurance memorabilia. And then, of course, there are the modern-day firehouse collectibles like caps and T-shirts.

As with any category of collectibles, collectors need to be wary of reproductions and fakes. The best advice is for you to limit your purchases to well-documented items from reputable sources.

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.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Best of Antiques Q&A

This year marks the ninth anniversary of my antiques blog, “Antiques Q &A.” What began as a pastime evolved into weekly answers to hundreds of questions sent to me by interested followers. In all that time, I never took the time to create a “Best of” list of posts.  So before I dive into answering questions already coming in for 2018, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a list of posts that you, my readers have found the most interesting. Check them out.

Ironically, one of the most popular posts was the last one I posted to this blog, “The New Kid on the Block,” an explanation of the beginnings of electric lamps and light bulbs.

Here’s a list of other popular posts, in no particular order. Click on the links to read any or all of these posts.

A Spoonful of Memories - March 4, 2013 (The most popular blog post) A look at Rolex souvenir spoons.

A Stitch in Time - June 18, 2012 - A look at Martha Washington sewing cabinets.

Saving With Uncle Sam - July 8, 2015 - A look at Uncle Sam banks.

Newlywed Furniture  - January 28, 2013

Deck the Halls Victorian Style - December 21, 2015 - A look at how Victorians celebrated Christmas.

As Delicate as Lace - August 18, 2014 - A look at Dresden lace figurines.

9 Ways to Help Identify Antique Furniture  - September 22, 2014 - A look at ways to identify antique furniture.

Less Work for Mother - February 18, 2013 - A look at old kitchen gadgets.

The Ultimate All-in-One - December 5, 2011 - A look at the hoosier.

What are some of your favorite posts from this blog? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Stay tuned for many more blog posts to come. Here’s wishing all who follow my blog a very happy and prosperous New Year.

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.