Tuesday, September 25, 2018

For My Lady’s Dressing Table

QUESTION: When I was a little girl back in the early 1950s, I remember my mother’s skirted dressing table with its many glass and silver boxes, which contained her combs and her perfumes and the fine white powder she used when she went out. Sometimes when she was busy doing something, I would sneak into her bedroom and sit at her dressing table and play with her dressing set, pretending to be a big girl. Now that I’m older and have been all grown up for quite a while, I’d like to find out more about those early dressing sets. I’ve seen some at flea markets, but I have no idea if they’re worth much. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Dressing table sets first became fashionable in the 18th century. Back then, a variety of items may have graced a lady’s dressing table, including comb and brush sets, little boxes, and perfume bottles. 

Perhaps the most beautiful items of the Victorian lady's dressing table were the brush sets, which included hair brushes, clothes brushes, hat brushes, combs and a hand mirror. These sets became fashionable in the second half  of the 18th century.

Leading silversmiths of the time backed many of them with engraved silver. Others used ivory or tortoiseshell backs, sometimes inlaid with the fancy scrolled monogram of the owner in silver.

Combs have been in existence since ancient Egypt. The Romans taught the Britons to use  combs rather than go through their hair with four fingers. An early alternative to the comb was a scratching stick, often in the form of a hand or bird's foot carved in ivory or hardwood, which ladies might also use to relieve their itching scalps.

There were two categories of combs. Ladies used back, puff and side combs to hold their hair in place after having it styled. Both men and women used dressing and folding combs to arrange their hair, These dressing combs were often part of fancy brush sets.

Early comb makers used cattle horn, ivory, and tortoiseshell for their combs, as well as wood, bone and metal. Ivory and tortoiseshell were the most desirable and costly. At the end of the 19th century, a cheaper substitute for ivory was Xylonite, also called French Ivory, an early form of white plastic sold by the Xylonite Company. Few of these sets have survived because when the brushes wore out, a woman would discard the entire set.

In addition to comb and brush sets, a variety of boxes adorned ladies’ dressing tables. First made in the 17th century, dresser boxes contained a number of tiny compartments and drawers to hold trinkets, jewelry, and other items, and often had a mirror fitted in the inside of them. Today, these have become known generically as “jewelry boxes.”

Patch boxes are small elegant boxes used to store patchet, worn by wealthy women to hide an imperfection or to draw attention to a pleasing facial feature. Made from a variety of materials, patchet were often shaped
like tiny hearts, circles or diamonds.

But powder boxes were the most essential item on the dressing table. Figural ones took the form of half dolls or ballet dancers. From 1870 to 1920 a woman could wear powder without being considered a prostitute, so these boxes appeared in large quantities. A few of them contained a tiny puff, made of fibers or cotton with a tiny handle sticking up.

Another container to hold powder was the talc, a small elongated container similar to a salt  shaker. A lady shook some talc out on her fingers to help ease the often tight-fitting kid gloves onto her hands.

But one of the largest and most ornate containers found on a dressing table was the porcelain trinket box, made by Limoges, Capodimonte, and other European and Asian porcelain companies. Ladies used it to hold button-cufflinks. odd pieces of jewelry, or small souvenirs,. Some featured hand-painted flowers, designs and portraits and came lined with colored plush or velvet. The more elaborate boxes had interior division and trays.

Another required item on a lady’s dressing table was the perfume bottle. The tradition of encasing perfumes in expensive and beautiful containers is an ancient one. Ancient Egyptians used alabaster bottles to store perfumes, due to its density and coolness to prevent evaporation, but they also used elaborate blown glass perfume containers.

The variety of 18th century perfume containers was as wide as that of their fragrances and uses. Liquid perfume came in beautiful Louis XIV-style pear-shaped porcelain bottles. Glass perfume bottles became increasingly popular.

Fine china makers brought out all sorts of dainty things for the dressing table. The hairpin holder, hair receiver, pin tray, manicure set and the small tray upon which it lies, powder boxes, cold-cream casket, lotion bottles, rouge pot, comb and brush, jewel boxes, frames of the hand and triple mirrors, bonbonniere, perfume bottles, sachet holders and the cunning little barrel for small change were all of china and all matched and decorated with small isolated flowers pansies, violets or daisies—scattered carelessly over the entire surface.

Although not as common as porcelain dresser sets, matched dresser sets in cut glass, pressed glass and milk glass appeared in the late 19th century. Cut glass colognes came in a variety of shapes. The stoppers might have matched the design or have been made of silver.

Dressing table sets can range from perhaps $25 at a flea market to over $300,000 at auction, depending on when they were made. Finding one from the 18th century in one piece will be a challenge.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of 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 Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

From Boredom to Art

QUESTION: I belong to a reenactor group that specializes in Revolutionary War reenactments. Some of the men carry powder horns as part of their equipment. Most of these are plain reproductions. They serve the purpose. At several larger gatherings of reenactment groups, I’ve seen some beautifully engraved horns. What can you tell me about these engraved horns?  Might they be original or are they reproductions?

ANSWER: Powder horn collectors are a very specialized group. The horns they collect are usually engraved but not all of them are valuable. Today, there are a number of very good reproductions and contemporary powder horns being made. They’re so well done that it’s often impossible to tell the authentic ones from the reproductions.

Powder horns once provided a practical, inexpensive way to carry gun powder for use in the early flintlock and percussion firearms. They were America's first art form. Early settlers had to work so hard there was no time to make art.

The French and Indian War was the catalyst for horn art. Soldiers had a lot of time on their hands and were lonesome. So on their horns they drew images of their houses, trees, their gardens, their dogs, their girlfriends and other things that reminded them of home. But the simple powder horn of the early frontier evolved into personal works of art out of necessity. Soldiers, and perhaps groups of hunters, had to have an obvious way of identifying their horns.

Sometimes they used only their initials. If the horn owner was literate, or knew someone who could copy letters, dates, names and places, he had them engraved onto his horn. Eventually, animals, mythical creatures like mermaids or griffons, birds, snakes, various styles of flowers and vines and all sorts of geometrics decorated powder horns. To make their horns more personal, some men engraved rhymes on their horns. Next to his wife and children, a man’s powder horn was often his most cherished possession.

This high level of artistic competence among common soldiers and pioneers shows that many people in the Colonies must have had art training. Children who went to school learned penmanship and calligraphy which helped in engraving their horns as young adults.

Less artistic soldiers could pay professional hornsmiths, who traveled with the troops, set up tents, and took orders, to customize their horns. Better-paid military officers could afford to set the trend around camp for horns with similar designs. Historians believe there was a community of horn carvers who observed and borrowed from each other's work.

The earliest known American engraved horn, inscribed with the name Daniel Tuttle, dates from 1727. But older doesn't translate into more valuable. Seventeenth-century "pilgrim horns" sell moderately because they were plain and lacked artwork. Most of the classic engraved horns are 13 to 17 inches long. But horns may vary from a few inches to over two feet long. Usually, the bigger the horn is, the older it is, because men took longer forays into the forest to hunt in the 18th century.

Early on, settlers hunted for weeks at a time. As they got more settled, they would go hunting in the afternoon, so they didn't need to carry two or three pounds of powder with them. Because of this, they took smaller horns which they would carry in their bags or pockets.

Early settlers often carried two horns. One was a smaller horn which held fine-grain, faster burning gunpowder used only for priming the pan in early flintlock mechanisms. When percussion replaced flintlocks beginning in the 1830s, most men carried only a single horn in the field.

But many hunters and soldiers ceased using powder horns altogether in the 1830s with the advent of brass flasks and leather pouches.

So how can a collector tell an old horn from a new one. Old engravings often start deep when the knife first enters but then pressure is decreased and the rest of the line has uniform depth. Lines made with a knife and not a dentist's drill won’t end abruptly but will extend beyond the image's outline.

Collectors look for the "warmth and glow" emanating from an antique powder horn. The most prized horns are those with maps engraved on them. Often they show forts or towns along a river. Some originated as guidelines allowing soldiers to find their way back to forts. They became popular Ind eventually were professionally made by hornsmiths. Some map horns, though are believed to have been carved long after the war when soldiers returned tome. In some cases, horns were used as proof of military service, thus qualifying their owners to a pension.

While ordinary 18th- and 19th-century horns are common and usually sell for $10 to $40, those engraved with intricate artwork have attained the level of treasured American folk art worth thousands of dollars. Engraved horns can sell for as little as $34 and as much as $34,000. Many engraved horns came from the area around Lake George, New York, site of Fort Ticonderoga. Horns inscribed with historic names from that region are more valuable.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of 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 Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Beauty of Ceramic Wall Art

QUESTION: At a recent antique show I saw a framed ceramic wall plaque that, according to the dealer, Rookwood Pottery had made. I know about Rookwood art pottery and own a couple of pieces, but I never knew the company made plaques. This particular one depicted a snow scene and came in a simple wooden frame. It seemed rather expensive to me, so I passed on it for now. What can you tell me about Rookwood plaques? Were they only produced for a limited time? And did they come framed or did people frame them?

ANSWER: Rookwood scenic plaques aren’t as well known as their art pottery. They were more artistic and more expensive than their art pottery pieces, so the average person didn’t usually buy them.

Rookwood Pottery perfected the production of ceramic tiles based on an ancient form of pottery craftsmanship. Many consider it to be America's finest pottery, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing through the 1930s.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, American ceramic artists began making utilitarian wares. But unlike utilitarian objects, Rookwood produced tiles for architectural and utilitarian reasons, while its plaques were purely decorative. The company produced plaques depicting landscapes, seascapes, and the occasional figural paintings from 1910 to 1930.

Primarily, Rookwood produced these plaques using slip decoration, finishing them in a vellum glaze. Most featured landscapes, and many took on a tonalist quality. Plaques displayed a variety of pastel colors, a few had snow scenes, and the majority had a bit of crazing resulting when the outer glaze contracts at a different rate than the underglaze painting or the ceramic body, rendering a lightly checked outer surface. Most early plaques had crazing. In later years, Rookwood learned how to make uncrazed plaques.

Rookwood produced many more ceramic vases and such than plaques, thus fewer people know about them. The original price hand-written on the back of an uncrazed plaque was usually higher in comparison to the price shown on the reverse of a crazed plaque.

Though the production of a plaque was simpler than that of a vase because an artist had a flat tile "canvas" on which to work, they did warp, but in spite of this, the value of plaques today exceeds that of their vase counterparts from the same time period.

Plaques are also more expensive because they’re classified as fine art. Rookwood made fewer of them than vases. A typical plaque originally cost around $175. Very few scenic vases with a vellum glaze would have been that expensive. Usually, the original price workers wrote the original price on the backs of tiles in pencil in the upper right-hand corner.

Artists who painted Rookwood plaques took their inspiration from local landscapes, with the exception of the Venetian scenes, painted by Carl Schmidt and Ed Diers. Though a plaque may have depicted a scene of snow-capped mountains, that certainly wasn’t part of the surrounding landscape, but more likely taken from a painting viewed at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Art Museum. located near the Rookwood pottery works. Early standard-glaze plaques, produced between 1900 and 1905, often feature Dutch or English gentlemen, as well as American Indians. The images of the European gentlemen came from famous paintings while those of the Indians probably came from photographs.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Rookwood produced faience plaques or tiles, usually made for installation into homes or commercial buildings. They almost always  covered these in a matt glaze, occasionally made with a painted and carved design, but primarily in a cloisonne fashion.

Rookwood plaques come in a variety of sizes, the smallest usually being 4 by 8 inches, and the largest, 14 by 16 inches. Most of the time, these plaques are uncrazed and unaffected by warpage. Because of their impressive size and fine decoration, they  bring a premium price today.

While artists who painted with oil on canvas could view the colors and brushstrokes as they produced them, those who painted Rookwood plaques with clay slip, couldn’t be sure how a color would look after firing. They may have applied the slip heavily, thus rendering “crawling” to the glaze. Perhaps the green trees would appear more blue, the pink sky too pale, or blue water some other shade.

Artists such as E.T. Hurley, Fred Rothenbusch, Ed Diers, Lenore Asbury, Sara Sax and Sallie did some of the best quality and most artistic work for Rookwood. Hurley was among the best at producing quality tonalist plaques, from nocturnal scenes to beautifully painted beech trees to landscapes with a vivid pink sky and exquisite mountain ranges.

Fred Rothenbusch produced some of the best large plaques. His color palette leaned towards deep purples, dark blues, and light rose. Ed Diers painted great landscapes and was one of the best at painting trees. Some of his plaques included forest interior scenes with bold tree trunks and an almost three-dimensional quality. Lenore Asbury also painted distinctive trees and employed a wonderful range of colors and was one of the best at painting tonalist landscapes. Carl Schmidt was famous for his Venetian scene plaques.

Some collectors seek plaques by a certain artist. Others go by theme or other criteria.  For instance, some want snow scenes while others prefer harbor scenes. Some want only uncrazed examples, and some want colorful ones.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of 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 Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bottles, Bottles, and More Bottles

QUESTION: My father loved to collect old bottles. He would take me and my sister out on bottle hunting expeditions, digging for them or looking for them in old garbage dumps. We gathered every old bottle we could find without paying much attention to the type or age. I particularly liked the colored ones. Now that I’m older, I’d like to start to seriously collect bottles. I’d like to add to the few I still have but really have no idea of what to collect.  Can you help me?

ANSWER: Bottle collecting is a fun thing to do, especially if you have children. But serious bottle collecting can be addictive.

Bottle collectors find beauty and rarity in old, dirty, empty glass bottles made to hold food or beverages a century or more ago. They scour flea markets at sunrise, auctions until midnight, and go digging in old garbage dumps and cisterns—all for that elusive bottle to add to their collection.

To non-bottle collectors, bottles are confusing and at the same time fascinating. They see old bottles, priced from a few cents to incredible amounts of money with no apparent rhyme or reason, at most antique venues. The fascination kicks in when they see a collector pick up that old dusty bottle on a sales table, turn it around in the light as though it were a flawless diamond, and murmur how they’ve been searching for it for a long time.

Even the term “bottle collector” is itself a misnomer. Bottle collectors collect everything from soda and beer bottles to food or medicine ones to flasks, as well as canning and storage jars. Some collect stoneware jugs, advertising bottles, trade signs, and bottle openers.

Bottles come in all shapes and sizes. Jugs from the early part of the 19th century were more chestnut-shaped. Flasks were vertically oval and often embossed with designs such as eagles and cornucopias on the front and back. Early whiskey bottles were either flask-shaped in the early part of the 19th century or iron pontiled (held by an iron rod after blowing) by the time of the Civil War or barrel shaped during the last quarter of the 19th century. Bitters bottles had a vertical rounded rectangular shape with a flat front and back, usually embossed with the name of the bitters and the company. Some bottles had impressed glass seals with the name of the company added to them. And some whiskey bottles came wrapped in wicker.

Bottle collectors classify bottles based on what the bottle originally held. Most categories of bottles fall into one of the following broad groups—medicine, soda, beer, food and spirits. Within each of these categories, however, there are a number of subcategories.

For example, in the medicine bottle-collecting specialty, there are some collectors who specialize on a particular type of medicine, such as  cures or bitters. Others might specialize in medicine bottles that have their original labels or that still have their original content. However, it’s now illegal to buy or sell any medicine bottles with their original contents.

Most bottle collectors are specialty collectors who can look at a bottle and tell when the company that made it was in business, what other addresses the company used, what other products the company made, which glass company made the bottle, and even what other colors that particular bottle came in. They spend hours researching, looking through original records, business directories and other documents in their quest for information about companies that have been out of business for a long time.

Although many collectors specialize by bottle type, others specialize in a different way. For example, some people collect bottles that were made in their hometown or home state, regardless of whether the bottle originally held spirits, milk or medicine. Others collect bottles that have their name or interesting pictures, such as lions or eagles, embossed on them. There are collectors who select only bottles manufactured by certain glass houses. Others collect solely on the color of a bottle, so that a cobalt blue fruit jar shares display space with a cobalt blue soda bottle.

Some bottle collectors are generalists, who choose to collect a few key examples from many different specialties.

But collecting bottles can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it's difficult to go to a yard sale, flea market, auction, or antique show without seeing dozens of bottles for sale. Everyone seems to have some stored away in basements, displayed on shelves or windowsills, or taking up space in garages. This sheer volume of bottles available on the market certainly makes it easy to amass a large collection in fairly short order, and at fairly low prices.

Unfortunately, this abundance of supply causes some problems. Many novice bottle collectors find themselves in a quandary soon after beginning to collect, when their display space disappears before they have exhausted their collecting budget. This abundance of supply also causes problems for advanced collectors as well. Due to the volume of bottles manufactured during the past two centuries, no single bottle price guide pictures, describes, and prices all of the ones you might find in just one typical day at a large flea market. Thus, finding the value of a bottle can be a real challenge.

Learn more about the restrictions on collecting medicine bottles by reading "Take Caution Selling Medicine Bottles Says DEA" in #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of 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 Colonial America in the Spring 2018 Edition, "Early Americana," online now.