20 Mar Chapter 11: Evaluating Antiques, Accessories II
I know biologists and botanists expend considerable effort developing their classifications and thereafter identifying the class any one thing belongs to. But no matter what anyone tells me, I’ll never think of a tomato as a fruit, a potato as a tuber, nor will I be convinced that a bowl of buttered and salted popcorn can’t satisfy my recommended daily intake of veggies. So if the classifications of others can run counter to my views, I feel justified in asserting that if you don’t like my differentiation between folk art and manufactured Americana accessories and how I divided subjects between this chapter and the previous one, you can continue eating your sliced tomatoes for dessert. Indeed, the next item I’ll review isn’t even American. So there!
Historical Staffordshire: As noted in my Introduction, British makers of pottery and porcelain had a serious problem after, by mutual consent with neither side crying ‘uncle’, the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain was deemed a draw (even though Canadians, then stubbornly regarding themselves as British, know they whipped our butts). Specifically, we didn’t like them very much (and I suppose they didn’t like us). So how were the porcelain factories of Staffordshire going to resurrect their export to the colonials … oops, sorry … Americans? Answer: Becoming more overtly an American patriot than an American patriot. Time to put the likes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and all those other radical revolutionary crazies to shame. And if your business is making transferware pottery, the way to do that is embellish your wares with images of that British nemesis, George Washington and his home, or of America’s naval heroes (there weren’t a lot of them), or the American eagle and shield, or, swallowing a big pill for a Brit, that Frenchman Lafayette (or, more correctly, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette … don’t ya just love the French?) at Washington’s or Franklin’s Tomb. Add to this a variety of other American themes: The half completed US Capitol, the B&O Railroad, The Landing of Gen Lafayette at god-knows-where, Faneuil Hall, the Erie Canal, and to prove that capitalism has no ideology, plates celebrating the unfathomable reality of American independence. Figure 11-1, then, gives you some idea as to the variety of themes, where in this case we have examples of the following patters: The Landing of Lafayette, Arms of Rhode Island, Justice Marshall, The Grand Erie Canal, Upper Ferry Bridge over the River Schuylkill, Nahant Hotel Boston, Commodore MacDonnough’s Victory, View of Trenton Falls, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, American Independence, Harvard College, Bank of the United States Philadelphia, Pine Orchard House Catskill Mountains, Highland North River, Capital Washington, Fulton Steamship, Boston State House and American Villa. Anything and everything, in other words, to overcome American hostility and boost sales.
Fig, 11-1: Some Examples of Historical Staffordshire Transferware Patterns
Staffordshire potters also produced tons of the stuff, assuming perhaps that our insane experiment in self-governance was doomed and that they best get in on the fad before it went poof. As a consequence, here’s an area where you just might want to get yourself a price guide – not necessarily to learn specific prices but to learn what’s rare, what’s common, and which patterns came in sets. And when assessing value, keep in mind that value can vary from one person to the next and from one form to another. Some people only collect plates with which to fill their pewter cupboards with “blue”, whereas others collect sets and are madly in search of specific patterns and forms, which in addition to plates can include coffee pots, pitchers, tureens, platters, creamers and so on. The three most general dimensions of value here, though, are color, form and condition. Historical Staffordshire came in a variety of colors – most notably blue, salmon in various shades, black and brown. But among collectors blue is hands down the winner for pieces commanding the highest price. But not just any old blue. As Figure 11-1 illustrates, blue came in a variety of hues that pretty much cover the range of that portion of the spectrum. Pieces can be “too blue” (too dark or too blurred) as well as not blue enough. What’s optimal is something in between – a nice rich blue such as the two pieces illustrated in Figures 11-2a and 11-2b that lies a bit to the dark side of dead center of that part of the spectrum.
Fig. 11-2a: Landing of Gen. Lafayette in New York
Fig. 11-2b: Pitcher of the Same Pattern as the Plate in Fig. 11-1a
After color comes form, with large platters, covered tureens and coffee pots and pitchers standing at the top of the pile, especially if they correspond to a particularly patriotic theme. Thus, a large platter can easily be worth $1,000 to $2,000, a pitcher or coffee pot between $500 and $1,500, but a regular size dinner plate would have to be something special and truly rare to be valued above $500. All of these valuations go by the wayside, of course, if the item is damaged. Take for example a 10” dinner plate by Stevenson portraying the US Capitol as it existed before 1835 (though I suppose the folks in England had to be careful here to avoid producing an image of a burned out Capitol or White House after their army had finished with DC in 1814. That’s called bad marketing). You should be able to find such a plate in perfect condition for around $250. But give it a hairline that slightly mars the image and is visible from the backside and you’ve now got a $50 plate (if you want, you can substitute a chip for that hairline). But now here’s an interesting fact about historical Staffordshire. Suppose that crack had been professionally repaired sometime in the 19th century not to disguise its existence but to merely stabilize the plate – two staples professionally applied over the crack to the plate’s backside. That plate might now move up a bit to $75 to $100 in value. Seems that some people like damaged Staffordshire that was appreciated enough in the past to not be thrown away.
Now if you’ve had any experience whatsoever collecting historical Staffordshire, there’s no need to read anything I can write about it. But if you’re a novice, just getting started with filling that newly acquired pewter cupboard, keep in mind that there is no way to patent the idea of putting images on a plate (and if there were, people would steal the idea anyway). And any good idea deserves copying. So unsurprisingly, the manufacture of historical transferware plates and platters has remained an ongoing enterprise that’s expanded far beyond the kilns of England’s West Midlands. Later plates, though, don’t generally mimic the deep blue of the original, nor insofar as I know do they plagiarize the original images (is that because the Chinese haven’t gotten into the action yet?). But if you’re in doubt, just turn the plate over – odds are it will be marked for what it is (and more often than not read “souvenir of ….”). Also, keep in mind that the Bunker Hill Monument wasn’t completed until 1843, the US Capitol building in Washington didn’t take its present form until 1863 and Concord’s Minute Man Statue wasn’t unveiled until 1875 – all long after the heyday of the historical Staffordshire that collectors pursue.
Currier & Ives Prints: Whether it’s a college student’s dormitory room or some WWII army barrack with an image of Betty Grable pinned above a bed, prints have long been a poor man’s art, and things were little different in the 19th century. People like to decorate their abodes by hanging things other than mirrors and photographs of relatives on their walls and unless your in an authoritarian regime where that picture had best be some romanticized image of Lenin or Mao, the market is sure to step in and give you what you want in the form of mass produced printed ‘art’. And that’s precisely what Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives proceeded to do between 1834 and 1907. I have no idea how many different Currier & Ives images there are – I’d bet something on the order of 7,000. And as for value, pick a number between $50 and $20,000. But don’t pick randomly! Their prints came in three sizes — small folio which measure around 8” x 12”; large folio which measure around 14” x 20” or more; and medium folio, anything that’s between small and large – and for a crude rule of thumb: the bigger the better. Beyond this, the dimensions of value are subject, color and condition. With respect to subject, there’s an entire category of small folio C&I prints that, for instance, begin with the title “Little ___” to which you can append “Mary”, “Sarah”, “Lulu”, “Playmates” and so on. These are the least desirable prints and abound at flea markets for prices in the range of $20 to $50. If you’re buying for resale on an internet site such as eBay, it’s best to stay away from these examples (unless it comes with a super frame). Also relatively inexpensive are those portraying old George Washington (not rare for the obvious reasons) or any of our other presidents. The biggies – those that collectors lust for – are the large folio images of steam boat races (e.g., Rounding a Bend on the Mississippi), hunters and fishermen (e.g., The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix – if you find this one and can also find the right collector, you can decide what you want for your next car) firefighting scenes (e.g., Burning of the NY Crystal Palace, The Great Fire at Chicago or The Life of a Fireman), sports (the biggie here is American National Game of Baseball), trains (e.g., American Railroad Scene — any large folio version) and sailing ships (e.g., The Yacht ____, fill in the blank yourself). While keeping in mind my earlier admonitions about price guides, if you nevertheless want some idea as to relative values and desirability, get yourself a copy of Robert Kipp’s Currier’s Price Guide to Currier and Ives Prints.
But now we come to condition. When originally sold, C&I prints, while all hand colored, were manufactured in large quantities and not deemed fine art. Along with apple peelers they were the quintessential hallmark of America’s middle class home. As a consequence, people often had them framed with a backing of wood or whatever cardboard they had lying around so they could add a bit of color to a room, much like poster art today. People then certainly didn’t view them as fine collectibles. The result of this haphazard framing is staining – primarily the brown discoloration that results from a non-acid free backing. And when a family’s status rose or tastes changed, those prints might be consigned to the attic or, worse yet, haphazardly relegated to the basement, whereupon they suffered from moisture water stains. All such indignities, of course, detract from value. As I discussed earlier, a few years back I sold the relatively rare 1872 C&I image The Port of New York for roughly $1,500. Not a bad number, but that price could be attributed to a dark brown stain running down its center from a wood backing. Absent that stain, a fair wholesale price would have been in the neighborhood of $3,500 or more, with a Park Avenue gallery retail value of $8,000 or so. It’s true that stains can be removed by a skilled restorer, but if you or I try it, we’d be left at best with a print where the background paper has lost the subtle brown toning that comes after a hundred years.
Fortunately, my print didn’t suffer from three other potentially debilitating issues: Tears, holes and cut down margins. Rips in the paper that go into the image wreck havoc with value (you can begin dividing values by numbers such as 4 and 5 then). The four images in Figure 11-2 illustrate other horrors that can befall a C&I print so as to utterly destroy value. Beginning with the upper left image below, The Roadside Mill is listed in Kipp’s book with a value of $355. But not this one. Despite its bright bold hand coloring, some cretin has trimmed the margins down to nearly nothing, thereby making this print of little interest to any collector. On eBay you might now get $25 for it on a good day. To the right of that print is the image The Notch House, White Mountains. In Kipp’s book we see an attached value of $420; but not this one since someone allowed mold to bleach out emasculate things. Below it is one of C&I’s many still life images. But which one is it, since someone, doubtlessly working hard to fit it in a specific frame, cut off the title, rendering it essentially worthless. Finally, there’s George Washington, but notice the brown hole on his coat collar. That’s not any old hole though — rather, it one occasioned by a little bug – silverfish (lepisma saccharina if you insist) – that thrive under glass on a diet of paper. The long and the short of all of this is were you to encounter any of these four prints at a flea market or estate sale, you should simply walk away.
Fig. 11-2: Destroyed Value
One final issue needs to be addressed: Reproductions. People like C&I prints because they’re a colorful window onto an idyllic past – an America that once was and ought to be today, but no longer is (and probably never really was in the first place). But that means reproductions were readily made the subject of countless calendars and full sized coffee table books. Reproductions of this sort are easy to detect with a loop … look for the dots of a contemporary lithograph (look it up on the internet). The sizes of reproductions, moreover, bear no relationship to the originals. Thus, if you find a copy of, say, The Life of the Hunter that’s 11” x 8” or even the size of a large coffee table book, no need to get out your loop. This image, one of the most desirable of them all, came in only one size – the large folio 27+” x 18+”. More difficult to detect are what’s called the Andres’ Reproductions. Produced in the 1940s, they can easily fool you since, like the original, they’re hand colored, made the correct size, and printed on high quality paper. All I can tell you here is get a list of what images were reproduced and thereafter proceed with the utmost caution. It has also recently come to my attention that Niepold’s Inc. of Maryland, under the label Borghese, manufactured hand colored reproductions as well. In fact, Borghese, beginning in the early 20th century, manufactured reproductions of just about everything – early Federal watercolors, silhouettes, chalk figurines, 19th C style trinket boxes, and so on. If you saw any of the gold gilt frames they employed, you’d swear they were early 19th century. In other words, their reproductions were damned good, but always marked so as not to be deemed fakes. But that isn’t to say that labels can’t be removed and … well, you get the idea.
Graniteware: Can it be any more of a non-sequitur to move from Currier and Ives prints to graniteware? Actually it isn’t. C&I prints were, at the time, art for people of modest means, while graniteware, I suppose, was their ‘porcelain’. OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but be that as it may, there was a time when my wife loved collecting the stuff because of the color it added to a kitchen – blues, reds, yellows and greens. Even when we were still in our “modernistic” phase and had a contemporary kitchen with open shelves, graniteware added something visual along with those tall glass canisters filled with beans, spices and Italian pasta. The accent on color, though, tells you what lies at the bottom of the pile in terms of value and collectability – grey. Having said that I suppose I’ve just made enemies of those who collect grey graniteware — and I know a few. And perhaps I shouldn’t utter such generalities after seeing a friend of mine list a grey graniteware condiment set on eBay and having it soar above what I normally get for a good 19th century quilt. Perhaps that’s the all-purpose exception that proves the proverbial rule. Nevertheless, the dimensions of value for more common pieces (plates, coffee and tea pots, colanders, cups and so on) are probably pretty obvious: boldness of color, condition and form. What most collectors want are pieces that aren’t solid in color but instead offer a swirling pattern, as if the paint in the can had been imperfectly mixed (don’t ask me what the actual manufacturing process is to yield that swirl), with the sharper the color the better (although, having learned my lesson, I’m always on a lookout for another grey condiment set).
Next up is condition, and here we have to appreciate that graniteware, being enameled, does chip and wear. So it’s a rare piece that doesn’t have some signs of use, with, naturally enough, the fewer signs the better. Some wear, however, is a good thing, since that helps distinguish antique and vintage pieces from contemporary reproductions (more on that shortly). Of course, we can go too far here. In its day, graniteware wasn’t intended for the likes an Astor, Carnegie, Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. If it appeared in their kitchen it was something the staff used for itself. No Robber Barron ever had coffee served from a graniteware coffee pot (since otherwise, what good was is to be a Robber Barron). Teddy Roosevelt might have eaten off a graniteware plate but only when he was out in the boonies hunting bears. Few pieces, then, were given the care we’d apply to a set of Limoges china. The result oftentimes is the worst form of deterioration such a piece can incur – rust and rust holes. So unless a piece is spectacular in some way – a gooseneck coffee pot with boldly bright green swirl, for instance, such damaged can reduce a piece’s value to zero.
Finally, we come to form, and unlike a good many other things, bigger is not better. Remember, people today decorate with graniteware and where exactly in the kitchen will you display, say, a 24” x 18” x 14” deep graniteware tub? Damned if I know, and it would seem, damned if anyone else does either. And how about coffee pots? As far as I can tell they come in two sizes: regular and campfire size (picture that chuck wagon in an old Western with Gabby Hayes as the “chef”), and if you take examples of each that are otherwise identical, the smaller version will sell for upwards of three or four times the larger. What collectors are also looking for are uncommon forms with accentuated swirls to the colors. Plates, cooking pots and muffin pans probably constitute upwards of 90 percent of all graniteware made (just a guess – don’t hold me to that number). So if you run across anything else of modest size in color, you have yourself a find. To prove my point, consider the lot of four graniteware pieces in Figure 11-3a. Would you like to guess what this lot sold for recently? Well, as reported by liveauctioneers.com, it brought $1,400. Now personally I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that bidding reached that level only because there were two people at the auction who hated each other and one got solace in the knowledge that his or her rival didn’t win the bid while the other gained satisfaction in making someone pay thru the nose. Nevertheless, let it not be said that we’re talking here of nickel and dime flea market things.
Fig. 11-3a: Some Uncommon and Boldly Colored Graniteware
One variation of graniteware you’re likely to encounter that differs significantly in color and price from the above examples are those enamelware pieces (most often coffee and tea pots along with sugar bowls) with pewter or nickel plated brass accents such as those shown in Figure 11-3b (lids, handles and/or trim). Almost uniformly, though, such pieces do not correspond to the swirl patterns of unadorned pieces. Instead the colors are more commonly solid, white with floral decoration or occasionally of the grey graniteware variety. Quite frankly, while still officially “enamelware”, this is a collectible category all its own, and in my experience at least does not sell for nearly as much as a good green or red coffee pot (despite the prices flea market dealers might optimistically put on such pewter accented pieces).
Fig. 11-3b: Three 19th C Enamelware Pieces with Tin or Pewter Accents
One final comment now: Reproductions. What collectors value is graniteware made prior to 1900 or shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, a good share of what you’ll encounter today at flea markets is marked Czechoslovakia. Sorry, but Czechoslovakia didn’t exist until after World War I (1918 for the historically challenged) when the sclerotic Austro-Hungarian Empire joined the Ottoman in extinction and the Western powers redefined Eastern Europe by drawing random lines on the map so as to give Hitler some 22 or so years later an excuse he didn’t really need to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland. Now before I say there are some hard and fast rules here (there never are), I should note that some enamelware made in Western Europe (generally France, Belgium, etc) in the 1930s such as the examples in Figure 11-4 are collectible, at least by some people (not me). Nevertheless, the more highly collectible colored swirl graniteware pieces (especially plates and cups) have been made by whomever ever since. I have no idea where it’s made now, but as with anything manufactured today, the best guess is somewhere in Asia. Indeed, I recently encountered a red graniteware tea kettle with a label on the bottom that read “Made in Indonesia”. The form didn’t match a 19th century style, but suppose it did (and I’ll bet they’re out there somewhere). Well sorry but the label won’t save you – it peels off. So again, buyer beware. The new stuff is lighter (gotta fight inflation somehow) and rarely exhibits much in the way of wear, so when finding a piece in perfect condition assume it was recently purchased at some household goods outlet.
Fig. 11-4: Some Examples of 1930s Western European Enamelware
Coffee mills: It’s admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic for me to include coffee mills as a discernible category, but I collect one type of them so you’re stuck with a few pages of discussion. Heck, prices here have been dropping so maybe my discussion will bolster things a bit and keep my collection from becoming little more than one of oversized paperweights. But let me be a bit more precise – I’m concerned here with those cast iron creations that more often than not were intended for the counter of the 19th century version of the 7/11. And more specifically, those creations made by the likes of Enterprise, Landers, Frary and Clark, Lane Brothers, or Woodward & Edwards (Elgin). Ranging in sizes from a foot or so tall, to monsters that have their own cast iron stands, unless you’re decorating a country store and immune to hernias, you’ll probably be more interested in the smaller versions. Enterprise (see Figure 11-5), for instance – the most prolific manufacturer – numbered their mills, beginning with #2 and moving up to #3 and so on (there is a #1 but frankly, I find its design uninteresting compared to other models), so that by the time you get to #9, you’re threatening yourself with a trip to the hospital after trying to move it (just contemplate 20” x 19” x 17” of cast iron!).
Fig. 11-5: Enterprise #2 and #3 Cast Iron Coffee Mills
However, before I get to dimensions of value, let me also take note of two other items commonly found on the counter of your 19th century general store – cash registers and candy scales. And I don’t mean any old cash register or any old scale – I mean a National Cash Register and a Dayton (Ohio) Scale. These together with coffee mills tell you that once upon a time in a country far far away (in time and style) things were made to last. No plastic (which didn’t exist) or cheap pressed tin (which did), but instead we find iron, steel and cast brass. It’s as if cash registers in particular were made to take an anti-tank shell should one come whizzing thru the store’s front door. Alas, that’s all history and now we make do with stuff destined for the junk pile in 5 or 10 years. How the mighty have fallen! Coffee mills, candy scales and cash registers also tell us a good bit about the American economy in the later parts of the 19th century as compared to Europe. In terms of beauty, construction and detail I’ve not found anything European to compare to these American products, and surely nothing that falls into the category of decorative accessory. Seems that while American’s were making things for the commercial entities that serviced its burgeoning middle class, Europeans were busy beating up on each other – the Austrian-Prussian war (1866), the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), the Russo-Turkish war (1877-78) the Greco-Turkish war (1897), the 1st, 2nd and 3rd (!) wars of Italian Independence (1848-66) and the Crimean War (1854-56, which while fought in the slightly distant peninsula of Crimea, surely didn’t help interstate commerce on the Continent). Add to this various messes in the Balkins, a ‘country’ (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) whose military manuals had to be printed in eleven different languages, the competition among European states for who could best bring ‘civilization’ to the great unwashed masses of India and Africa or rip off bits and pieces of China and you have some serious disincentives to invest resources in fancy cash registers or nicely painted candy scales.
Be that as it may, let me note an important difference between coffee mills and those other two ubiquitous general store items. Figure 11-6 shows a model 313 National register in unrestored condition. In this instance a few of the keys are missing their numbers (which is a trivial issue since replacement key caps are readily found on any number of websites) and, more importantly, the nickel plating has begun to wear off so as to show the brass that lies beneath. As such, then, you can expect to find this model at flea markets and the like for something in the range of $300 to $500 (provided it also has its original brass plaque at the top). Full restoration (which includes a thorough cleaning of the interior, a re-plating or the full removal of its original nickel plate and a polishing of the brass, and perhaps a repainting of the pop up numbers) raises the value of this particular model to something like $1,500. The Dayton candy scale in Figure 11-6, in contrast, is already fully restored and can be expected to bring something in the vicinity of $700 at auction whereas its unrestored version with worn paint and worn decals might sell for under $200. These price differences between unrestored and restored versions makes sense. Neither the register nor the scale are restorable by anyone other than someone knowledgeable of the inner workings of these mechanically complex items. And I doubt there are a great many of you out there equipped to do brass re-plating or to apply a factory-quality enameled repaint. Labor, knowledge and the right equipment need to be paid for.
Fig. 11-6: National #313 Cash Register & Restored Dayton Candy Scale
But now here’s the comparatively odd thing about coffee mills. All such mills were originally painted (most commonly red, sometimes green, and on a truly rare occasion, blue) with decals applied as decoration. But unlike the cash registers and candy scales that most likely shared the same store counter, one of the humiliations suffered by many a mill is a repaint. A repaint, no matter how well done (and reproduction decals can also be found on the internet), wrecks havoc with value. In other words, unlike candy scales and brass cash registers, people who collect or decorate with coffee mills want them in their original unrestored condition (though there are limits since who wants a rusting hulk). Take, for instance, a #7 Enterprise. Assuming its original paint and decals are in decent though not perfect condition, a complete model should easily sport a price tag of $1,000 even with worn paint. However, should someone get the brilliant idea of restoring it with a repaint and reproduction decals, that value can easily drop by a factor of 5 and be of no interest to collectors except as a source of parts. Similarly, while the smaller #2 Enterprise in its original paint might sell for $500, if it were repainted a collector wouldn’t look at it twice. The other thing to keep in mind is that the original mills were rarely painted a uniform color. Accents of yellow and blue were common, with pin-striping to the spokes of the large wheels and sometimes gold to the raised lettering. And speaking of wheels, all the desirable cast iron models have two. Also, the larger mills (for Enterprise, anything larger than a #3) had a cast brass eagle surmounting the lid. A missing eagle doesn’t cripple a mill’s value, but it doesn’t help either.
Now once the coffee beans were ground, the stuff didn’t simply fall to the floor or countertop – it was collected in a drawer or tin bin of some sort (go to the internet to check out the alternatives). So if that drawer or bin is missing, the mill is incomplete. And next to the brass eagle, the thing most likely to be missing is that drawer or bin. The problem here, though, is that those little drawers or tin bins are readily remade and replaced, so always check to see if the paint, patina and wear on them matches the rest of the mill. If not you have a mill that’s lost a third of its value. The final insult that can be visited on an old cast iron mill is having it made into a lamp. I can’t tell you how many I’ve encountered where someone removed the inner grinding gears, drilled a hole in the top for the light fixture and another on the side for the cord. All I can say is: Buy it only if you want a lamp and buy it cheap since at that point it’s only a lamp.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression now that the only coffee mills worth pursuing are the colorful countertop models found in a turn of the century dry good or grocery store. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of home counter-top or wall mounted models and thus mills form a sizeable category of collectibles. And not only did the United States manufacture god-knows-how-many types, but so did Europe – France, Spain, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, England and so on. Seems Europeans had a thing for grinding coffee beans but not for peeling apples. In any event, there’s apparently a reason why having a Starbucks on every street corner isn’t considered overkill, and wouldn’t have been considered overkill in the 19th century. Figure 11-7, then, illustrates four of the less common American models if only to show you something other than the more common wood box variety that populate flea markets.
Fig. 11-7: Four Somewhat Uncommon American Home Coffee Mills
Coin silver flatware: By flatware I’m referring here to knives, forks, spoons along with smallish serving pieces such as sugar tongs, berry and gravy ladles, and so on. And by coin silver I’m referring to those American pieces made from colonial times to the 1860s by melting down coins and molding them into utensils. Needless to say, eating utensils made of silver held far more prestige than those of pewter, iron or wood. However, silver except in the form of coins was largely unavailable to American colonists and it wasn’t until the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada that the metal became readily available here and where flatware manufacture could be upgraded from the 0.900 ostensible content of coin silver to the international (read: British) sterling standard of 0.925. I say ostensible because there was no Consumer Protection Agency in existence back then aside from caveat emptor, so early silversmiths often cheated by adding small amounts of other metals such as copper to the mix (should I say that I’m shocked, shocked to learn that anyone cheated back then?). I read somewhere that in a study of flatware labeled “coin” conducted by the Winterthur museum staff, the actual silver content varied between 0.700 and 0.900. This fact is relevant here since too often, when judging the value of coin silver at an estate sale or flea market, it’s assumed that a minimum value can be established by multiplying the item’s weight in troy ounces times the current spot price of silver with a 10% discount (and remember that a troy ounce is different from those commonly used today in weighting things at the grocery store … there are 14.58 troy ounces to the familiar pound as opposed to 16). Frankly, if someone offers to sell you coin silver “at scrap”, you best multiply it’s weight by the spot price of silver and then divide by 2 (since no one is going to pay you true scrap value – any foundry that might be melting what you buy to extract the silver won’t be in business very long if they did that).
Scrap metal values aside, it might seem that every town, village or hamlet in colonial or early 19th century America had a silversmith, and in assuming that you wouldn’t be far from the truth. I can count upwards of hundred and fifty silversmiths with last names beginning with A or B working in the 19th century, and if I use that to make an overall estimate I come up with a number approaching two thousand. For collectors, then, rarity is all over the map, so if for instance you take two coin silver sugar tongs, one might sell for $50 and another, seemingly identical to the first, might be valued by a collector for upwards of $350 or more. The rough rule of thumb is that Southern coin silver sells for a considerable premium over its Massachusetts, New York or Pennsylvania counterpart. At this point, then, you can try learning the names or touchmarks of Southern silversmiths, and good luck there because you’d still need an encyclopedic memory (it does pay, though, to learn British touchmarks for sterling since I’ve often seen sterling sold at estate sales as silverplate when a touchmark but not the word “sterling” was used). Or you can simply buy things for their intrinsic aesthetic appearance. And here, setting aside who made the item, look for spoons that can be classified as “fiddleback” or that have an embossed “shell” where the handle connects to the spoon’s bowl. As with nearly everything else in the world, these functionally unnecessary aesthetic embellishments add value.
Fig. 11-8a: $50 vs $350; The Difference is in the Touchmark
Fig. 11-8b: Classic Fiddleback Spoon and Shell Embellishment
Now anyone whose ventured into the coin silver market will soon learn that tea spoons (and soup spoons to a somewhat lesser extent) are like banana flies on a banana boat. Forks, on the other hand, are a different matter. I have no idea what the ratio of coin silver spoons to forks might be, but if someone said 50 to 1, I wouldn’t argue. In any event, what this all means is that unless a spoon is by a known and specifically collectible silversmith, scrap is a good estimate of value. But why is this … why so many spoons? There are two answers. First, there’s tea – or rather, drinking tea. Serving tea to a guest was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the essence of Western civilization (we can blame the British for that), and one hardly wants to do that with a wooden or cruddy pewter spoon (which would be akin to wearing sneakers to a White House dinner). But that’s only one explanation, since it doesn’t explain soup spoons (they didn’t drink THAT MUCH tea … only enough to foment a revolution when the East India Company was granted its monopoly!). Well, here’s another possible explanation: During the 17th and first part of the 18th centuries, if you sat down to eat, you did so without a fork … they didn’t exist. Instead, you used a pointed knife to cut and bring your food to your face. At some point in the 17th century someone (an Italian, doubtlessly frustrated with trying to eat spaghetti with a knife) came up with the brilliant idea of the fork, at which point tableware knives lost their pointed tip and assumed the rounded end we see today. For reasons I don’t quite understand, these rounded knives made their way across the ocean rather quickly but forks didn’t immediately follow (few if any Italian restaurants perhaps?). So American colonists had a problem – either eat with your fingers or find another way to stuff one’s face. Hence, the oversized spoon. All of this brings us to an interesting bit of conjectural trivia. Ever see a European eat with a fork? If you’re an American, you know Continentals use their forks ‘upside-down’ – stabbing the food with the fork curved down, like wild animals. Barbarians, huh? Well, not quite. Seems that Americans have it backwards, or rather upside-down. Once the fork finally made its way here in sufficient numbers, spoons could be returned to their ‘proper’ function. But forks would thereafter be used as substitutes for spoons, curved up, whereas Europeans used it as a substitute for pointed knives, curved down for stabbing. Now if you think I just made this all up, guess again because I’m not that imaginative. Go read James Deetz’s classic In Small Things Forgotten (Anchor Books, NY, 1977). Of course, maybe he made it up, but it’s a great story.
Weathervanes: Here’s another category that’s hard to contend with in the space of a few pages (bet you’re getting tired of me saying that). Basically, there are three types: Full bodied copper vanes (i.e., 3-dimensional), sheet metal iron vanes and hand crafted wood vanes. Regardless of type, the one thing to keep in mind is that while even antique trade signs might have been hung indoors, vanes were never intended to be put on a mantle or hung on a wall. Now you might think I don’t have to tell you this, but there’s the case of having a friend bring a large – I’d guess 40” or more – sheet metal vane to my attention at an estate sale when it was too late for me to drive the ninety or so miles to get to it when the sale opened its doors. Even a solitary picture told me it was old, so I called the estate manager a hour or so before the sale began, hoping that she’d have it priced a bit high … maybe a number like $1,000 or even $1,500. My thinking was that if it were ticketed in that range, it might not sell immediately so if I drove like a bat out of hell I might get there in time to pick it off. She told me, though, they didn’t have a weathervane at the sale. I noted the picture in her online ad, whereupon she said “oh, that’s not a weathervane … it’s on the fireplace mantle.” And no, I didn’t drive up to get the vane because she priced it as if it were just some random sheet of decorative iron. I think she told me she ticketed it at $50. I knew it would still be there only if everyone at the sale was utterly brain dead, and, with the exception of their politics, even people in California aren’t that far gone. Damn!!!!!
Weathervanes weren’t intended to decorate home interiors, but were functional things for the roof of a home, barn, public building or church. And as with trade signs, weather can age a vane in mere decades. As I noted earlier, a copper vane that’s sat on a rooftop for, say, thirty years, can look much like one that’s been buffeted by the elements for a century. For that reason alone, whenever I see one at a flea market or estate sale, I assume it’s not old – if ever there was a collectible that qualified for the admonition “guilty until proven innocent”, it’s weathervanes. But if you still have the urge to spend some real money on a vane as an accent to your decorating scheme, I again suggest that you first go to the library and look at some old copies of Antiques magazine and the advertisements in the back pages. There you’ll see ads for reproduction full bodied copper vanes in all forms and sizes, with the problem being that you’ll find those ads regardless of whether you’re looking at an issue from 1920, 1940, 1960 or 1980. Identical reproduction vanes have been made throughout the 20th century using the same molds as were used in the 19th. And today we can add the miracles of chemistry. You want patina (verdigris)? There’s a chemical for that. You want a crusty pitted and weathered surface? There are chemicals for that. And do you want that worn aged tarnish that a 19th century gold gilt vane acquires over a century of exposure to the elements? There are chemicals to give you what you want. So it’s a treacherous world made all the more dangerous by the fact that legitimate (and, I’m sure, a fair number of illegitimate) antique vanes have soared in value to where it’s not uncommon to find them priced in excess of $2,000 for common forms (e.g., horses, roosters) and above $10,000 for uncommon images (e.g., trains, leaping stags). So unless you know what you’re doing, you can be badly burned.
To illustrate what I mean here, take a look at the two vanes in Figures 11-9a and 11-9b. Aside from a bit more pitting to the second, both have about the same amount of copper corrosion – verdigris if you want. But that’s where the comparison ends. Frankly, I’d be shocked to learn that the horse is older than fifty years and if I found it at the flea market for, say, $50, I’d walk away. The second vane, a classic full bodied running stag, is on display at the Americana wing of the Huntington Library here in California, and I think that says it all. So keep this comparison in mind when you spot a vane at the flea market respledant in green … that tells you virtually nothing about age.
Fig. 11-9a: A Cheap Copper Horse
Fig. 11-9b: A Classic 19th C Running Stag Copper Weathervane
OK, so much for dire warnings. Insofar as relative values are concerned, full bodied vanes that retain at least remnants of their original gold gilt stand at the top of the heap, wherein horses are the most common form, followed by eagles then roosters which are in turn followed by, perhaps, cows and bulls and then running stags. Because of relative rarity of form (including relative rarity of reproductions), a legitimate full bodied copper running stag without any evidence of gilding can easily outsell a horse with its gilding (let’s say $5,000 versus $2,000). But lets not get carried away with looking for truly rare forms: If someone offers you a glass eyed gold gilt grasshopper vane, its either a reproduction or they just stole it off the roof of Boston’s Faneuil Hall and the Feds are hot on the chase looking for it. For some sense of how surface impacts value, the vane in Figure 11-10a, because it retains its original gold gilt surface, can expect to sell for between $2,000 to $3,000. Compare this to the one in Figure 11-10b. This second running horse vane is larger than the one in Figure 11-10a and about the same vintage, late 19th century. But while is has a decidedly weathered surface, it doesn’t have the visual appeal of the above example. So in this case you’re probably looking at a vane that with a little patience you can find on eBay for between $600 and $1,000.
Fig. 11-10a: A Common Running Horse Weathervane but With the Right Surface
Fig. 11-10b: A 19th C Weathervane but Without a Great Surface
Now take a look at the sulky weathervane in Figure 11-11a. This is actually a reasonably decent vane but it suffers from two problems. The first is that it has an utterly boring surface – no gold gilt and only the verdigris that any copper vane can acquire in a few decades. The bigger problem, though, is that it’s also a commonly reproduced form — at the time of this writing I found seven sulky vanes listed on eBay and all are 20th century reproductions (see for example Figure 11-11b). So, is the vane in 11-10a a 20th century reproduction or a legitimate 19th century example? There are, obviously, differences between it and our example of a self-evident reproduction – the cast lead head and feet of the driver along with the construction of the wheel hubs in Figure 11-11a, and an utterly crudely formed horse in Figure 11-11b. Nevertheless, absent a gold gilt surface, can we be certain of anything? Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in physics tells us that certainty is nowhere to be found in the universe and this is nowhere more true than in the domain of weathervanes. But our confidence in the vane in Figure 11-11a is bolstered by the fact that, except for the gilt surface, we can find the absolutely identical vane in Steve Miller’s The Art of the Weathervane (p. 142, Figure 11-11c here). Now it’s true that there are vanes in which we can at least approach the unreachable limit of certainty. But its also true that reproductions have pulled down the value of even a legitimate pieces. Were the vane in Figure 11-11a to have a better (i.e., more difficult to reproduce) surface and you’d be looking at an example of folk art that could easily retail for more than $5,000. But as it sits, she’d probably bring no more than $1,500 at auction, and only if two or more bidders recognized it as old. Absent a recollection of its corresponding image in Miller’s book and it could easily bring no more than $200 at auction.
Fig. 11-11a: An Extensively Reproduced Vane
Fig. 11-11b: Contemporary Reproduction Vane
Fig. 11-11c: 19th C Vane as Pictures in “The Art of the Weathervane”
Wooden vanes, in contrast, are not only more difficult to reproduce (the chemical possibilities available to age copper don’t work as well on wood), they are also more likely to be pure examples of folk art since a good share of them were made by their original owner for use on their barn or home. The odds are, moreover, that whoever made a vane in the 19th or even early 20th century didn’t beforehand visit some museum on American folk art to get his ideas if only because such museums didn’t exist then. So if you find one that’s absolutely identical to one in a museum or illustrated in any one of several books on the subject, it’s likely not only a copy but also an outright fake. This isn’t to say that people didn’t copy each other’s vanes in the 19th century, but finding one that matches a well-documented original on display in some museum should be a red flag. And while a course in chemistry is less likely to aid the faker of wood vanes, wood and copper do share one thing in common: Both weather quickly when exposed to the elements. To illustrate the problem here, consider the trade sign in Figure 11-12. The Rincon Irrigation Company opened shop in Whittier California in 1900, so it’s impossible for this sign to be 19th century. In theory, of course, this sign could be a tad more than 100 years old. But is it? Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell. There’s no telephone number, so no help there. And the company is apparently still in business, so that’s no help either. The nails holding it together are factory made extruded nails, but they had those in the last quarter of the 19th century. For sure the sign isn’t new, but how fast does wood weather in a hot desert sun and occasional sandstorm. Damned if I know, and so I can’t preclude the possibility that the sign was made when Ronald Reagan ran Jimmy Carter out of the White House. Now imagine this sign being a weathervane instead, posted high up on a building and thus buffeted by the elements even more than this sign. How confident would you be in any guess as to age?
Fig. 11-12: Weathered Trade Sign
Part of the answer to this query is supplied, perhaps, by the vane/whirligig in Figures 11-13a and 11-13b. Made exclusively of wood, consider the wear and weathering to its surface. But now notice the subject – a biplane. Thus, unless its maker was a time traveler, it cannot possibly be older than, say, 1914 when the likes of Britain’s Sopwith Camel gained fame. It certainly isn’t 19th century. None of this detracts from it being a highly collectible piece – it may not be more that eighty or ninety years old, but it is a wholly legitimate example of early 20th century folk art. Indeed, you might notice that the plane is missing a wheel. I like to think that Snoopy is in the cockpit and that the Red Baron shot it off. See … there are ways to learn to live with an imperfection, even for something that’s less than a hundred years old.
Fig. 11-13a: A 20th Century All-wood Biplane Weathervane
Fig. 11-13b: Closeups of Biplane in Figure 11-11a
To perhaps add confusion to this subject of age, consider the wood whirligig vane in Figure 11-14a and its closeup in 11-14b. What you can’t see in my pictures are the few places where the wood is nailed, and it is there that we gain an approximate estimate of its age – specifically, 19th century since the nails are cut and not extruded. The painted surface, on the other hand, shows little of the aging found on the biplane. The reason is simple: While the biplane enjoyed but a single coat of paint in its lifetime, the whirligig in Figure 11-14a has been painted multiple times. And with multiple coats of paint protecting the surface, there was little opportunity for the wood to acquire any of the weathering exhibited by the biplane.
Fig. 11-14a: 19th Century Painted Whirlygig Vane
Fig. 11-14b: Closeup of Whirlygig Vane
In the case of wood, though, there is often another hint as to age. Seems that a good share of all weathervanes were at one time or another subject to target practice. Indeed, some people think that legitimate copper vanes should have a hole or two in them, but the presence or absence of holes prove nothing … anyone with a gun can add them to a reproduction while the absence of holes on a legitimate vane might simply mean is that anyone proposing to take a shot at the vane on farmer ____’s barn stood a good chance of walking away with a load of buckshot in their butt instead. In any event, if you do find a wood vane that’s been hit by buckshot, the odds are that some of that shot is still embedded in it and if the vane is legitimately old, then some of that shot should have corroded so as to no longer be perfectly round. It’s pretty hard to shoot corroded buckshot today without a good chance of blowing off your hand or an eye and there’s only so much danger a faker will tolerate before finding something else to fake.
This brings us to the third category of vanes – sheet metal ones – which are perhaps the most dangerous of all. Indeed, I’m certain that someone in Asia is, as you read this, hand hammering the rivets on the support bars of one that when finished will look “damned good”. Once again, the “proper” application of paint and chemicals will produce for you a one year old vane that looks a hundred. There really is only one surefire way to detect true age: Look at the back and the bracket used to hold the vertical post around which the vane would pivot. If it doesn’t have wear from spinning in the wind, forget it – 99.99% of the time you have a repro or outright fake in your hand. Take, for example, the running horse vane in Figure 11-15. Is it old? Well, frankly, there is absolutely no way to tell by looking only at the front. Yes, there’s definitely some pitting to the metal, but once again, nothing that can’t be reproduced with the appropriate chemicals. The only solid clue to age is by looking at the back and, in this instance, the cast iron braces around which the vane swung. Here, as the two lower images show, the requisite wear – wear that cannot be artificially reproduced (I hope) – is there. Not only has the vane’s vertical post given the sheet metal of the horse itself some wear, but the hole in the cast iron brace shows natural (out of round) wear that only decades of swinging in the wind can yield. And I emphasize here the words “out of round”. No vane can be perfectly balanced. It’s not a scientific instrument after all. So it will wobble a bit no matter how carefully constructed and that wobbling will yield wear that produces a hole that’s not perfectly round.
Fig. 11-15a: Is It Old?
For another example of the detective work you need to engage in when evaluating a weathervane, consider the rooster vane in Figure 11-15b. At first glance it certainly seems to be an impressive beauty … original paint and 29″ from tail to beak. But how old is it. Well, the warning here is don’t let the weather worn paint surface in the left side of Figure 11-15c nor its heavily pitted iron post shown in the right of this figure lead you astray into thinking you have a 19th century vane here. Take a good look at figure 11-15d. What do you see there? OK, I’ll tell you … that bubbled surface along the post isn’t bubble gum but rather the accumulated iron residue from welding. And what does that tell you? Simple … the vane is 20th century. Most likely early 20th century and a great decorative piece to be sure, but definitely not 19th century.
Fig. 11-15b: Sheet Metal Rooster Weathervane
Fig. 11-15c: Evidence of a 19th Century Vane?
Fig. 11-15d: Nope, Sorry … That’s a 20th Century Weld
Like wooden vanes but unlike the commercially produced copper ones, sheet metal vanes have one advantage – they can be idiosyncratic and therein have an appeal that a copper vane, even with a great surface, will not have. The vane in Figure 11-16a, which retains traces of its original paint, is such an example. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheet metal vanes, buyer beware. It’s not always that easy to judge whether a vane has enough age and wear. The inherent uncertainty of provenance (was it New England or Jakarta?) and people’s natural risk aversion have driven prices down to where it difficult for even the best sheet iron vanes to climb above $1,500 in value. I do know this: You’ll never find me buying a sheet metal vane on the internet since I can’t then hold it in my hands to inspect it (nor would I try to sell one there as well since I know the discount people are likely to apply as a rational response to risk aversion). Consider for instance the sheet vane in Figure 11-16b. The question here is: How old is it? Well, I’m pretty certain it’s not 19th century. Odds are anything made as delicately as it is would have corroded enough so as to be on the verge of collapse. But is it 1930 or 1990? Good question, although if you wanted to believe 1930, I’d accuse you of entering the realm of “too good to be true.” I feel far safer with a post WWII attribution and leaving it at that. All of this means that if you’re buying one as an investment, it may be relatively inexpensive today, but it will also likely remain inexpensive into the indefinite future.
Fig. 11-16a: A Somewhat Idiosyncratic ca 1900 Sheet Metal Vane
Fig. 11-16b: A Sheet Metal Vane of Questionable Age
Adding perhaps to the confusion of things, there are artifacts of the past that might have been a weathervane but we can’t be sure. Consider the copper “thing” in Figure 11-17. At one point someone added a section between the ball and the banner so as to make this creation a lamp. But in doing so it was thereafter unclear as to whether the banner ever originally swung freely in the wind. So was this a vane or merely a roof ornament to some Victorian era home? Here, I fear, we’ll never know so your only recourse is to take this for what it now is – a rather interesting decorative accessory and nothing more.
Fig. 11-17: Weathervane or Roof Ornament?
There’s one last weathervane category to be considered: The smaller commercially mass manufactured vanes that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Figure 11-18 offers two examples that are commonly found in antique cooperatives or flea markets. They’re not expensive (generally in the price range of $75 to $175), and certainly not anything a serious (read: wealthy) vane collector would collect. But if you’re on a tight budget and want a vane to add as an accent piece, there’s nothing wrong with setting one of these on a shelf or mantle. I should also note that since, like coffee mills and apple peelers, they were made in a great variety of sizes and styles, they too form a collectible category all their own. So don’t be surprised to learn that there are rarities even here that collectors will pursue.
Fig. 11-18: Two Inexpensive Commercially Made Weathervanes
Saltglaze Stoneware: If we set aside the fact that there are names associated with 19th century stoneware that command premium prices (e.g., Remmey, Cowden, Bell), there are two basic dimensions dictating relative value if we keep in mind that I’m writing here about salt glazed stoneware as opposed to stoneware with other (e.g., alkaline) glazes. Since the most desirable pieces are those with some sort of applied cobalt decoration, the first dimension is the complexity of that decoration. Take, for instance, an undecorated 2 gallon salt glaze stoneware Pennsylvania jug and you probably have something worth no more than $50, if that. Add a relatively simple cobalt flower and the price can move up to $125. Add a bird – perhaps the most common non-floral embellishment found on 19th century stoneware – and the crock’s value jumps to $300. Make the bird a stenciled eagle and you’re into the $500 category. Remove the eagle and instead add a unique hand drawn animal … a deer perhaps … and now you definitely have something that’s shot past $1,000 in today’s market. If you substitute an image of a person for that deer, don’t be surprised if that crock is now commands a $5,000 price tag or more. Pull everything off and decorate the entire crock in elaborate hand drawn cobalt detail so it looks like the graffiti on one of LA’s bridges and you’ve got something that could easily command a five digit price at auction.
For some lower end comparisons, then, consider Figure 11-19. The left-most crock is about as boring as one can imagine and still have some cobalt decoration to it. Frankly, if I found it at a flea market priced at $100 I’d probably walk away unless I had a specific plant in mind that needed a deep pot (not bad also as a holder for kitchen tools – ladles, spatulas, strainers, etc). The second crock is a bit of a step up, but not by much – a $175 crock if undamaged but I’d still grumble if I had to pay anything over $100 for it for resale. The third is definitely better than the first two despite not having a maker’s mark, and while hardly being a cause for unrivaled joy if found at a market, it would be difficult to walk away from for anything under $200. The fourth crock – a classic Western Pennsylvania design – is a definite step up because of that eagle and while not otherwise overly spectacular would most likely fetch something in the range of $500 to $600.
Fig. 11-19: Four Everyday Crocks
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule about complexity. Earlier I wrote about the lowly 1 ½ gallon crock decorated simply with the stenciled name Hamilton and Jones and a fruit. But because it was part of a 12-piece set and because collectors lust for complete collections, it sold far above what I thought it was worth. But that was indeed the exception to the rule. Be that as it may, what I need to confront here is the fact that stoneware is a vast area of collecting and one in which I can offer only the most superficial of treatments. First, as I write these words there are dozens if not hundreds of people out there across America digging thru the remnants of long extinct kilns, extracting whatever bits and pieces of pottery they can find. It’s not that they collect broken stoneware, but with the shards they can deduce the genealogy and regional specifics of stoneware manufacturing in the country. In doing so they not only develop dirty fingernails, but also a level of expertise I’d be unable to match in several lifetimes. But to truly appreciate the range of possibilities here, I’ll refer you to the website of the reverend (yes, that’s right) Dr. Duane Watson (www.docscrocks.com) that advertises well over 1,000 crocks from Maine to California. And unlike those websites that, under pricing, annoyingly tell you to “contact dealer for pricing”, has every piece explicitly priced for sale and, thus, is as good a contemporary market-savvy price guide as you can find.
Returning to the norm in conjunction with my meagre knowledge of the subject, let’s back up and, in addition to these various increments of cobalt design, add a hairline crack from top to bottom or a spider crack at the base. Oops – take all those numbers I just gave you and divide by 2 or 4 (and cracks are more serious than small chips or dings). Actually, the divisor will depend on how expensive the crock was in its undamaged form. For that $75 crock in Figure 11-19 you best divide by infinity – you’ve got something that’s worthless. But if it’s a crock or jug that, undamaged, would command a five digit price, the crack might leave the price at five digits but where the first digit is now a 1 rather than a 2 or 3 (after all, crack can be repaired and rendered undetectable ). One of my many missed flea market opportunities involved a ten gallon Western Pennsylvania crock profusely hand decorated in cobalt (and I do mean profusely!). There were, though, two problems. The first was that a crack had developed around the base (probably when it was dropped) so that the entire bottom had fallen out and was now held in place by duct tape. The second problem was that I’d spotted the crock too late – it had already sold. Undaunted, I offered the new owner $1,000 knowing he probably hadn’t paid more than $100 or $200 for the piece. My offer was still rejected!
For a less exhaulted example of the consequences of damage, consider the Pennsylvania cheese crock in Figure 11-20a. Cheese crocks in this size are not terribly common (12” diameter here), and were it in mint condition, it could readily retail for between $500 and $750. But it’s not in mint condition. Take a look at Figure 11-20b. Yup, that’s a barely discernible hairline .. a hairline you can’t really see from the outside unless you knew beforehand that it’s there. Nevertheless, as seemingly inconsequential as this apology might be, it knocks the vale of this piece down below $300, maybe even below $250.
Fig. 11-20a: Pennsylvania 19th C Cheese Crock
Fig. 11-20b: The Unfortunate Hairline to the Cheese Crock
Returning now to the complexity of the cobalt design, there are exceptions (when aren’t there exceptions?) now to the rule about complexity being the main criterion of value. The first concerns incising. Some crocks might have, for example, a fish incised into the clay before firing that’s only lightly colored with cobalt. Incising, because it took a bit more effort as compared to slapping on some cobalt with a brush, therefore commands a premium. With that incised fish, your $300 crock might then be worth $1,000 or more. The Remmey crock in Figure 11-21 has nice enough cobalt decoration, but the fact that it’s also incised (along with its attribution) readily moves its value up past $2,000 despite the evident rim chip.
Fig. 11-21: Decorated Crock with Incising
The second exception is form. Jugs and crocks (canning jars) are ubiquitous, but jugs in an exaggerated bulbous form are generally earlier and command a premium over those with otherwise straight sides. Take a look at the two in Figure 11-22a. At first glance there might not seem to be much difference between them and thus should be of about equal value – say in the vicinity of $200. In fact, the second is worth a bit more. The relatively straight sides of the first marks it as most likely having been made in the second half of the 19th century (probably the 1880s) whereas the bulbous form of the second pushes the date of its manufacture back into the first half and possibly even the first quarter of that century. So even if we ignore the fact that we know who made the second jug but not the first, you’d probably want to tack on a $150 to $200 premium to the second. Less common still are stoneware pitchers. So take that one gallon jug with some modest cobalt decoration that might be worth two or three hundred and make it a pitcher instead. Now you’re looking at something whose value can easily shoot above $700 (and more if it’s attributable to a particular potter). Take for instance the two stoneware decorated pitchers such as the two in Figure 11-22b. Here, if in perfect condition, you’re talking about pieces that can easily climb above $700 in value and even past $1,000.
Fig. 11-22a: Two Jugs of Different Vintage
Fig. 11-22b: Two Decorated Pennsylvania Stoneware Pitchers
The third exception is if there’s something uncommon about the jug owing to its maker or if someone is being advertised on it. Consider the 19th century jug in Figure 11-23a. At first glance this seems to be a pretty ordinary piece with its best use being that of conversion into a lamp – there’s no cobalt decoration whatsoever. However, notice the impressed letters, the first of which are M, r and s. That’s right, it’s advertising a female business! Today, of course, that might not be a big deal. But in the 19th century – the good old days for some – female owned businesses were hardly common, especially one sufficiently established to warrant having jugs made to advertise its existence (and I’ve never seen a jug advertising a bordello). Clearly, Mrs. Tempi was a woman ahead of her time and most likely a source of aggravation to the men competing against her. More generally, crock manufacturers such as Hamilton and Jones in Western Pennsylvania took orders from various retailers (generally in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia) and would thereafter cobalt stencil that retailer’s name and perhaps the address on the crock before firing in the kiln. This adds value, especially for those who, for instance, collect the artifacts of their hometown. Thus, an otherwise ordinary $200 crock with the name of a retailer in the right uncommonly represented town can easily double or triple that’s crock’s value.
Fig. 11-23a: Mrs Tempi’s Jug
The advertising crock in Fugure 11-23b is unusual in another way. Like the jug in Figure 11-23a, employs impressed lettering to advertise someone’s business along with some cobalt decoration. That business, though, is in North Carolina whereas the crock itself originates further north (Baltimore Maryland to be exact). This crock, then, speaks to the existence of a 19th century interstate market for even ordinary things … things (stoneware) that can be made almost most anywhere. Well … almost anywhere since, we’re about to see that if the crock were made in North Carolina it would look substantially different than this example.
Fig. 11-23b: Baltimore Crock with North Carolina Advertising
Keep in mind, now, that everything I’ve said here pertains to the salt glaze stoneware common to New England, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Southern stoneware is a different story entirely. First, all of the stoneware pictured here thus far achieves its glaze via salt (hence, the genius of referring to it as salt glazed stoneware). But with salt less available for generating the glaze in the South than elsewhere, lead was initially the glazing base of choice. We know (as the residents of Flint Michigan now do) the consequences of lead poisoning on children, and it was ostensibly this fact that led Dr Abner Landrum of South Carolina to develop (or at least adapt to Southern clays) the technology of alkaline glazing (i.e., glaze that originates from the alkaline basis of calcined lime or wood ash). Similar in character to Albany slip glaze, Southern stoneware thereby developed its own unique character – typically brown in color (as opposed to the grey or tan found up north), so that the three gallon jug in Figure 11-24 is not an atypical color for a Southern piece (which it this case is a ca 1830 jug from Edgfield South Carolina).
Fig. 11-24: Edgfield South Carolina Jug ca 1830
Owing, moreover, to the more watery base of alkaline glazing, the glaze on a Southern piece will often look as if it had been dripped or haphazardly poured over the crock before entering the kiln as illustrated in Figure 11-25 from a photo pilfered from the website of Crocker Farms Auctions. Such glaze often referred to as “tobacco spit” but trust me, it ain’t that!
Fig. 11-25: The “Drip surface” of Southern Stoneware
It’s once we get past these preliminaries that collecting Southern stoneware becomes especially interesting. Being a potter is messy work, and working at a hot kiln makes it all to easy to burn yourself. So if you’re going to manufacture stoneware in the South in the first half of the 19th century what better way to do it than have slaves perform the labor? After all, why have slaves if you can’t get them to do what you don’t like doing? So a big part of collecting Southern stoneware is finding examples that can be attributed to specific slaves, and here the most famous of them all is “Dave the Slave” (Google that if you think I just made it up). Dave’s notoriety derives from the fact that sometime in the 1820s he was owned by Dr. Landrum who, among other things, ran a newspaper. There Dave did something that would normally get him strung up on the nearest tree – he learned to read and write (and would have gotten the good Doctor himself run out of town after allowing a slave this luxury). Dave then decided to live on the edge by signing some of the stoneware he made at the Doctor’s stoneware works. Dave, in fact, learned to do more than merely write his name – he went so far as to compose poetry and inscribe it on an occasional jug or crock. Now I should tell you that Dave was anything but stupid about this, so when there was a massive multi-state suppression of slaves in the deep South following an 1840s slave revolt in Georgia, Dave lowered his profile and went silent with respect to signing and inscribing his product. The 1840s wasn’t the time to be seen as a black man capable of writing one’s name, never mind composing literate poetic verses. But apparently the Simon Legrees of the South settled down enough by the 1850s that Dave’s signature and verses reappeared. Thus, Dave the Slave’s work is a microcosm of the history of slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. But I’ll tell you this: If you ever somehow encounter a jug or vase with Dave’s signature inscribed on it along with a poem, be cautious … be VERY cautious. Before jumping the gun and thinking you have an utter steal on your hands because it’s being offered to you for a mere $20,000, first check to see if a museum somewhere hasn’t recently experienced a break in since that’s pretty much where you find such pieces today.
Now I should warn you that collecting stoneware can become an obsession (and no need to limit the subject to stoneware). During the time we lived in Texas and had our antique shop, my wife’s best friend, to keep herself busy, asked to work in our shop – an offer we eagerly accepted. At the time she had absolutely no knowledge or specific interest in antiques; her home was furnished much like ours had been before buying that Victorian in need of rehabilitation. But sitting in the shop gave her an itch to poke around flea markets and estate sales (see … it IS a contagious disease), whereupon she began buying examples of Texas stoneware for no reason other than it appealed to her and (at the time) was inexpensive. Well, to make a long story short, in a matter of ten or twenty years, her collection left no room in her two-car garage for a car. And she also became one of the recognized experts in the field, which in this case entailed traveling around the state (and again, Texas IS big) to the locations of long defunct kiln sites (stoneware grave sites you might say) so she could scrape thru the dirt in a manner akin to an Egyptian archeologist to uncover shards of pottery so that glazes and clays could be identified. Now that’s a hobby!
One final caution now. Figure 11-26 portrays a jug that is indeed profusely decorated with a truly bulbous form. But it has a problem. No, its not chipped, cracked or repaired. The problem here is that it’s not American. Most likely it’s German. A truly decorative piece, for sure, but still not Americana and thus remains something to be shunned by collectors on this side of the Atlantic. Were it American and you’d be looking at a $750+ jug; but being “foreign”, it’s likely to retail for less than $150. There are several clues to its origin. The first is that while it mimics the bulbous form of the jug in Figure 11-22, it does so in an overly exaggerated way and with a base that begins to straighten out as one moves toward the bottom. The second hint is that the cobalt itself is somewhat exaggerated in the brightness of the blue. Admittedly these are rather imprecise clues, so perhaps the best I can do here is to simply put you on alert as to the existence of European stoneware that’s similar in character to their more collectible American counterparts.
Fig. 11-26: German Stoneware Jug
Early wrought iron (candle stands, rush lamps, etc): Having covered or at least touched on the subject of sheet metal weathervanes, I probably should tackle the more general subject of hand wrought iron for those pieces normally associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sadly, as with sheet metal vanes, the miracle of modern chemistry has broad application, including that of making new iron look old. Consider the potential profit of reproducing a floor model wrought iron colonial era candle stand for $100 in some far off Asian location that can be aged to look no different than a legitimate $1,500 example. See the problem? There are, though, a few hints that can keep you from making a drastic mistake, though even here no guide covers all bases. First, don’t just evaluate a piece simply by its surface, thinking “if it’s pitted it must be old”. Acid pits rather nicely if you know how to do it. Instead, keep this in mind: Most if not all reproductions today are made from stock iron – stuff you can pick up at a building supply store. And what that means is that it has either uniform thickness or diameter. No such warehousing of supplies existed in the 18th century – each piece was made from scratch – in which case the iron rod or pad foot was hand hammered on the spot and millimeter perfection of dimensions wasn’t needed (or even desired, given the time it would take to achieve such a thing … see Figure 11-27a). There was also a noticeable lack of acetylene torches back then and welding wasn’t even a gleam in a blacksmith’s eye. Blacksmiths would have to hang around until the 20th century before they could get their hands on a welder, so iron had to be joined by hammering the hot metal together (see Figures 11-27b and 11-27c). So if you see the residue of a weld (recall the weathervane in Figure 11-15b), you’re either looking at a repair or an outright fake. Another clue is price. If you find that floor model candle stand in a shop or at a flea market for, say, $400, there are two non-mutually exclusive hypotheses to consider: The piece is a fake or the dealer is an idiot, and unless you’re absolutely secure in your knowledge of things, don’t bet on idiot.
Fig. 11-27a: Note the Non-uniform Diameter of the Rod
Fig. 11-27b: A Hand-hammered Joint
Fig. 11-27c: Hand-hammered Joint on an 18th Century Trivet
With these cautions in mind, let’s consider a wrought iron lighting device that has long fascinated me for a number of reasons – the rush lamp. The variety of flourishes given to them suggests they are a cross between something attempting to be functional and a whimsy, a virtual piece of folk art. In their basic form they look like a pair of needle nose pliers set upside down with one handle stuck in a block of wood wherein a grease soaked piece of rush would be clamped tight and set afire (see Figure 11-28 for some examples). I can only imagine the number of homes set ablaze in the 18th century by such a thing, and if they were the poor man’s substitute for a candle, then after using it once or twice I’d presume we were speaking of someone who was also now homeless. Nevertheless, it amazes me how many rush lamps exist out there – a testament I suppose to the incidence of poverty at the time. You’d think that after the first two or three were tried, someone would have said that this is about the dumbest way imaginable to get a bit of light in a home. In any event, a fair retail price here would be anything between $250 and $500, so if you find one for say $50, be very careful since even the lowly rush lamp is being reproduced! And what holds true for rush lamps and wrought iron candle stands holds true as well for almost anything intended for use in or near the fireplace – wrought iron toasters, peels, turning forks, grills, trivets, cooking pots, coal tongs, etc. Of course, you can also keep this in mind: The lower one moves down the price scale, the less is the financial incentive to make a fake. Thus, while reproduction toasters, peels and trivets abound, rarely do they fall into the category of “fake” if only because they weren’t made to deceive. Rather, they were intended as decorative accents for people who merely wanted “the country look” in their kitchen or fireplace without requiring authenticity. But if something as simple as a rush lamp can sell for hundreds, then be careful (and by all means, don’t experiment with trying to see how it worked).
Fig. 11-28: A Collection of 18th & 19th Century Rush Lamps
This is also an appropriate place to comment on fireplace andirons – and specifically, brass andirons since their core, including the log rest, is wrought iron. They have, of course, been making these from time immemorial up until the present. I’m not going to tell you how to evaluate all the different forms, but one should learn how to differentiate between a legitimate pair of federal andirons (ca 1800) and their more contemporary manifestation. The answer is to look at the iron and not the brass – the part that extends back into the fireplace and upon which the logs rest. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to see this, because years of use will coat the iron with a crusty residue. Nevertheless, if you look closely at a pair from the early 1800s, you’ll eventually find an area where the striation lines of the iron are apparent (see the lower right image in Figure 11-29). When the blacksmith worked the iron, pounding it to elongate it into a rectangular bar, the iron formed layers and thus lines akin to the rings on a tree except in this case they are straight and roughly parallel to the length of the rod. The iron extension on contemporary andirons, in contrast, were cast and don’t have those lines. And absent those lines, the andirons are not period federal pieces, but more likely 1900 or later (for similar striation lines on a more lowly triangular handled trivet, see Figure 11-30). There are other clues to age, such as the seam running up the side of the brass portion of the andiron (see the upper right image in Figure 11-29) as well and the hand forged (read: irregular) nature of the vertical threaded bolt onto which the brass section is screwed down. But the striation lines are the simplest and most evident sign of antique legitimacy and if you don’t see those, there’s no need to look further.
Fig. 11-29: Legitimate Federal Andirons
Fig. 11-30: Striation Lines on an 18th C Trivet
Most 18th and 19th century hand wrought iron – rush lamps, candlestands, trivets, and so on — are rarely categorized as folk art despite the fact that unlike Jacquard coverlets they are all hand made, from scratch. But folk art they can be, as evidenced by the pot holder and trivet in Figure 11-29. Designed so that a handled pot or pan can be tilted forward by the handle, it’s obvious that this is not your everyday ordinary wrought iron trivet. But, is it old? When one sees a wholly unique piece, especially one that is sufficiently different from any other that any collector of early wrought iron would be delighted to own it, one should worry about the outright fake – something out of Tijuana perhaps made to attract the attention of the unwary. If time is money today, it was doubly so in the 18th and 19th centuries, so people didn’t go about making unique items without appreciating that they were using time that could be put to profitable use. So let’s take a closer look at the trivet in Figure 11-31. Aside from its evident complexity and uniqueness, consider the three images in the bottom row of this figure. The first tells us little that is of any help except that the curled “rat tailed” arms for the pot’s handle are delicate enough to warrant an 18th or 19th century attribution. Later reproduction wrought iron items such as turning forks, spatulas and ladles, if they have similar ends to the handle, will have one that’s somewhat cruder than what you’re likely to find on an original. The second image is more revealing in that it shows a section of iron bar that couldn’t possibly come from a stock supply – there are hints of the striation lines along with an irregularity in width. The final image is perhaps the clincher. It’s here that the blacksmith separated the iron so as to hold the embossed disc trivet portion of his creation, and in doing so left the telltale signs of early blacksmithing as opposed to mass production – notably, uneven width and irregular curvature to the iron. None of this, of course, means that you’re totally out of the woods since there’s nothing to preclude a contemporary blacksmith making something precisely as it might have been made 200 years ago. At times you have little more to go on that your gut feeling.
Fig. 11-31: Folk Art Hand Wrought Iron Pot Holder
Pages of words about fake versus genuine still won’t help you without some additional examples. So consider the rush lamp in figure 11-32. At first glance this might seem a legit piece. And it might be, but I have serious doubts. First, consider the topmost picture in the center. The leg and foot just seem too clean, too well formed for my taste. Rush lamps, after all, weren’t considered high art, and those who used them were not of the upper or even “middling” sort (to use the terms a member of the English gentry might employ). The picture beneath it raises even more questions. That’s the bottom of a foot and while the corrosion certainly seems to match a late 18th or early 19th century attribution, one has to ask why the corrosion is there as opposed to some natural wear. OK, suppose we can explain that away (e.g., great great great great great grandpa knew a fire hazard when he saw it, and simply refuse to use it for lighting). Now look at the rightmost picture – the center shaft of the lamp. Once again, this just looks too nice – a rectangular rod with chamfered edges. Boy that took some effort to make – too much perhaps (unless, of course, the process was automated and you began with a stock octagonal rod of iron). Now I’m not saying the lamp isn’t old, but frankly, you’ve got better odds putting your money down on a state run lottery ticket.
Fig. 11-32: A Highly Questionable Rush Lamp
Another common example of wrought iron likely to be found at most flea markets is the miner’s spike – an iron spike that can be driven into a wooden beam to hold a candle or off of which to hang a more conventional lantern. I’ve found such items at both flea markets and estate sales for as little as $10, which can earn a nice profit margin on eBay since they’ll often sell for anywhere between $25 and $65. But only if old. While ubiquitous in the 19th century, they were made over a very long period and quite possibly into the 20th. So consider the spikes in Figure 11-33. The two in the top row are unquestionably old, though one does appear to be older than the other (you guess which). Now look at the one in the bottom pair of pictures. Note the clean, essentially perfect lines. This is either one hell of a well-preserved specimen into which a blacksmith poured an uncommon amount of labor for something to be used in a dark and dirty place – or it’s somewhat contemporary and mass manufactured. You know what my bet is.
Fig. 11-33: A Comparison of Miner’s Spikes
Next up are the rat tail handles I spoke of earlier in reference to the elaborate trivet or pot holder in Figure 11-31. We can begin with Figure 11-34, which shows two cooking implements with handles that have the degree of delicacy one likes to see on a legitimate 18th or early 19th century piece. Figure 11-35, in contrast, leaves us with at best a question mark. Surely the double rat tail curls to form a heart is attractive and desirable. On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t have any delicacy to it, so one should wonder whether it is indeed 19th century or came out of a blacksmith shop recently from Tijuana Mexico.
Fig. 11-34: Two Delicate 19th C Rat Tail Handled Kitchen Tools
Fig. 11-35: 19th Century or Tijuana Mexico?
Let’s look now at some unambiguously legitimate pieces of wrought iron, under the assumption that the more you get to see, the easier it is to recognize when you confront it in the flesh. First up, in Figure 11-36 is a 19th century pair of sugar nips, used at the table to cut sugar from a block or cone of the stuff. The two lower images in this figure raise no questions whatsoever, so take a look at the top right picture, where the wrought iron moves into the wooden handle. If there is a piece of iron here that might come from stock, this would be it. But once again, note the subtle irregularity to the iron. One shouldn’t expect absolute crudeness here since the bottom two pictures show that whoever forged this piece did add the horned embellishments and, thus, didn’t see his work as merely pedestrian.
Fig. 11-36: Early Hand Forged Sugar Nips
If you’re looking for pedestrian, you’ll most likely find it when it comes to wrought iron grills (see Figure 11-37). Hardly rare, an average one can most likely be found with some patience on eBay for somewhere in the vicinity of $100. This one, though, has a touch of extra flair to it in the form of the handle and the curled feet. That flair almost certainly knocks it out of the reproduction box – too much effort, where little is needed to make a passable fake – and when combined with the iron overall having a good early feel, identifies this one as surely late 18th or early 19th century.
Fig. 11-37: Early Wrought Iron Grill
For another commonly reproduced item, we have the rotating grill in Figure 11-38. But this one, like the grill above, has those elements of flair that one wouldn’t expect in a reproduction intended to be merely decorative; namely, the cast boot rest and the curled feet. Add the fact that the wheel’s spokes are clearly not cut from stock hardware iron rods and we once again have some confidence in proclaiming this a legitimate 19th century piece.
Fig. 11-38: Early Wrought Iron Rotating Grill
My final example is the rather unusual wrought iron and tin “chamber stick” in Figure 11-39. Among the things we see here in support of an 18th or early 19th century attribution is appropriate wear to the feet (and when documenting such wear, make certain it’s of the smooth sort that develops slowly as opposed to wear induced by sandpaper, a belt sander or cement), and the fact that the spiral ring of wire intended to surround the candle is indeed hand wrought and not hardware stock.
Fig. 11-39: Early Tin & Wrought Iron Candle Holder
Butter Prints: Here’s yet another collectible that features both machine mass produced examples along with hand crafted pieces that are true examples of American folk art. And needless to say, those that can be classified as folk art greatly exceed in value those made commercially. We’re speaking here of things that were intended to take a glob of freshly made butter and turn it into something more appealing by both shaping it and giving it a decorative touch. And when I say blob, I mean it. When butter was freshly cured and taken out of its vat, it was literally plunked down on a board such as the one in Figure 11-40 so the excess water could run off. And what one was left with, of course, was hardly something that looked appetizing. So the next step was to block and divide it into more usable and storable chunks. It is at this point that the butter print enters the picture. But it does so in an interesting way, since the history of this rather common artifact of the 19th century is one of the footprints of America’s economic development. Briefly, while butter prints first appeared in America in the 1750s (and earlier than that in Europe and the UK), their heyday was the 19th century. And that, interestingly, was less a function of developing aesthetic tastes and more a consequence of America’s emerging consumer market. Recall the discussion in my introductory chapter of the caloric intake of Americans and the opportunities it generated for people to produce things beyond what they needed for their own consumption. Well, one of those things was butter and what better way to mark your product … to establish your brand … than by stamping those 1/4 pound or 1/2 pound blocks of butter with a print much as Campbell soup wants a recognizable and eye catching can. The proliferation of butter prints, then, was very much a part of America’s expanding consumer driven economy. The form of those prints, moreover, were hardly random motifs. The most prolific producer of butter, at least during the colonial era and early 19th century, was Pennsylvania, which as we know was populated by people with some specific aesthetic tastes, the Pennsylvania “Dutch”. Hence, a good share of prints we see today … especially those that are hand carved and idiosyncratic … have designs that match those normally associated with that part of Pennsylvania society. Before turning to butter prints themselves, though, I need to preface things by noting that no way in hell can my survey compete with Paul E Kindig’s Butter Prints and Molds (Schiffer pub., West Chester, Pa, 1986), which offers images of well of 800 individual prints of every size, description and origin. So with a nod to the modesty of my effort here …
Fig. 11-40: A 19th C Poplar Butter Board
Before we begin, one preliminary is to note that as with most everything, people can be amazingly inventive when it comes to designing even the most practical and mundane of things, and as Figure 11-41a shows, this is no less true of true of butter prints and molds. And needless to say, I’m not about to discuss and illustrate fully all the possibilities. Once again, I’d direct you to Paul Kindig’s volume for that. So turning to the prints I will pay some attention to, let me begin at the bottom of the pile in terms of desirability and collectability – a butter print like the one in Figure 11-41. This is an eminently undesirable piece for two reasons: The image is boring and the cup to shape the butter is cracked. Were I to encounter this at a flea market with or without a cracked cup, I’d prefer to spend my money on an overpriced hotdog and lemonade.
Fig. 11-41a: Various Butter Print and Mold Forms
Fig. 11-41b: An Utterly Boring (Valueless) Butter Print
Slightly more desirable are prints that are miniatures. The first row in Figure 11-42a shows a selection of miniatures (along with a slightly larger and a tad more interesting one with a square cup). These too are ubiquitous and while surely collectible, my warning is that I’m certain they are still being made today. It’s the miniatures on the bottom row of images in Figure 11-42a that are more interesting. Unquestionably 19th century, at least one of them – in the middle – might just be hand carved and thus sliding into the folk art category. Figure 11-42b, in turn, shows some of the more common commercially made prints one is likely to find in abundance at flea markets, and unless cheap ($25 or less) I’d recommend walking away from them if your goal is resale. There is, though, an exception in this figure – the image in the lower right corner. It may not be hand carved (or then again, it might be), but its complexity and detail far outstrip all the others in this figure. It’s actually quite a collage of images – a sunflower, an acorn and what I take to be a flower of some sort.
Fig. 11-42a: Miniature Butter Prints
Fig. 11-42b: Common Commercial 19th C Butter Prints (with one exception)
Now don’t get me wrong … I don’t want you to think that the only desirable or valuable butter prints or molds are those that are hand carved. Consider the print in Figure 11-42c. Find me one of these at the next flea market and you’ve made my Sunday (and if you will, instead of maple, make it as in this one out of cherry – hey, why not shoot for the moon?). Frankly, I’m not sure if this was hand carved or steam pressed. It’s a classic design and I’ve seen enough in the same identical pattern to question a hand carved attribution. But I don’t care, find me another.
Fig, 11-42c: Cherry Eagle Butter Print
It remains true, nevertheless, that what collectors naturally search form are prints that are either hand carved or otherwise unique in some way. Figure 11-43a offers examples of prints that are both hand carved and commercially produced and I leave it to the reader to decide which is which … it isn’t always easy. Figure 11-43b, on the other hand, offers examples that are unambiguously hand carved. More desirable still are butter prints called “lollypop prints”. The print in the lower right image of Figure 11-43b comes close to qualifying for this sub-category, but Figure 11-44a shows two that can be unambiguously classified as lollypop. Find one of these and you are easily be speaking of something a collector will pay more than $300 for. Better still are those hand carved double-sided lollypop butter prints such as the two in Figures 11-44b and 11-44c. The important point in all of this, however, is to appreciate that an everyday item for the kitchen such as a butter print can readily take one into the domain of true Americana, true folk art. For the lowly butter print was something literally begging for the creative and imaginative hand of those who sought to add something unique and personal to their lives.
Fig. 11-43a: Mixture of Hand Carved and Commercial 19th C Butter Prints
Fig. 11-43b: Some Hand Carved and Quite Personal Folk Art Butter Prints
Fig. 11-44a: Two Single-Sided Hand Carved Lollypop Butter Prints
Fig. 11-44b: Double-Sided Lollypop Butter Print
Fig. 11-44c: Yet Another Double-Sided Lollypop Butter Print
For a final example of the attention people paid to butter in the 19th century, consider Figure 11-45a. Here we have a print that comes in two parts so as to yield and impressed block of butter. And more than that, notice how the collar of this block opens so as to not disturb the chip-cut image that it would form around the block’s edge. Clearly, this was made for and owned by someone who really cared about how butter looked either when they sold it or when set on a dining table. And if that was intended to impress one’s guests in the event the butter was to be displayed on a formal dining table, what about the two block prints in Figures 11-45b and 11-45c. Here in no uncertain terms and as perhaps an ultimate expression of vanity or ostentatious dinner display, guests, compelled to observe the imparted initials, would be told who owns the butter and the food they were about to eat.
Fig. 11-45a: Block Butter Print
Fig. 11-45b: Two Block Initialed Butter Prints
Now one word of warning here. As I noted in the beginning of this discussion of prints, they are not unique to America, and Kindig’s volume offers upwards of 170 examples of German, Austrian, Norwegian and British prints. You need to look at these images since if any seem familiar to you as a collector of “American” butter prints, you shouldn’t be surprised. And it’s not simply that Europeans emigrating to America brought their designs with them. Yes, they did to some extent, but they also most likely brought some of their prints with them or, more likely still, bought them here from some purveyor of imported prints. I also don’t doubt that European prints today are making their way across the Atlantic and thereafter being sold at flea markets and antique shops as American. Now to be perfect frank, none of this bothers me in the least … nor does it bother collectors (except those who perhaps really do want to know the precise origin of each element in their collections). In may respects, then, butter prints are much like pewter wherein some of it was made here, some there and some god-knows-where.
Sandwich glass lighting and candlesticks: One of the many things I’m unwilling to write about in this volume is oil lamps generally, and Sandwich glass in particular. There’s too much I don’t know, and ample resources can readily be found on the internet and other published volumes. However, I did want to add here a few notes about distinguishing the products of the Boston & Sandwich Glass works from competitors, followers and reproducers. Briefly, the Boston & Sandwich Glass works was incorporated in 1826 in – you guessed it – Sandwich Massachusetts, and closed its doors in 1888, making, along the way a variety of oil lamps, candlesticks, glass furniture knobs and other assorted glassware. Given the company’s years of operation, it’s clear that what they made is not only of considerable collector interest, but also a visible component of the 19th century’s decorative accessories. The novice collector, though, needs to take account of the fact that a good share of the company’s products have been reproduced over the years, most notably its lamps and candlesticks. Thus, while a legitimate Sandwich Glass oil lamp might sell for a hundred dollars (and considerably more for their more artistic creations), a reproduction might not be worth more than ten or twenty bucks. So how to tell the difference, and in particular, how do we know whether the oil lamp in Figure 11-46a is Sandwich or a reproduction?
Fig. 11-46a: 19th C Sandwich Glass Whale Oil Lamp
The answer to our question comes from a close inspection of the lamp’s base, or more exactly, where the upper half connects to the base. Such lamps were mold blown in two halves and then connected with a ¼” or so thick glass wafer. So with that in mind, take a look at Figure 11-46b, which focuses on that wafer. The first thing to notice is the mold line to the upper part of the lamp. Less obvious in the picture because it occurs at a corner, is the mold line to the bottom half (to the right of the mold line of the top half). But notice that there is no mold line whatsoever to the glass wafer immediately below the top half’s mold line. If this lamp were a contemporary reproduction, that wafer would have the top half’s mold line continue on thru it to the base since the reproduction would have been made as a single molded piece. Put simply, a mold line running thru the wafer guarantees that you have a reproduction … no iffs, ands or buts about it.
Fig. 11-46b: Connecting Glass Wafer for a Legitimate Sandwich Glass Lamp
No less extensively reproduced are the company’s candlesticks, especially those with a dolphin base (see Figure 11-47). But again, the telltale sign of a reproduction is a mold line on the wafer connecting the dolphin’s tail to the upper portion with the candle socket.
Fig. 11-47: Sandwich Glass Dolphin Candlestick
Now I’m not going to say much more about Sandwich Glass. But I will note that the company was making lighting in various forms for a very long time, beginning as the Boston And Sandwich Glass company in 1826. And unlike the molded glass examples above, its earliest pieces were hand blown, as illustrated in Figure 11-48. Now you might notice something here; namely, in the first three examples the tub intended to hold the wicks extends down into the lamp but doesn’t in the last example. That’s because the first three are intended to burn whale oil whereas the last is for kerosene. Sometime around 1850 kerosene became not only widely available, but also the preferred fuel for lighting. Prior to that it was whale oil. Thus, one can guess (under the assumption that the burners to each of these lamps are original to them) that the first three are earlier than the last — dating to sometime between 1826 and 1850 versus post-1850.
Fig. 11-48: Four Early Hand Blown Sandwich Glass Oil Lamps
Copper Food Molds: I long ago lost count of how many estate sales I’ve attended in which both new and antique copper food molds were lumped together, all priced the same regardless of age — in some instances priced as if everything was antique and at other times priced the opposite. And more often than not, pricing was invariant with the relative desirability of the molds being offered. Take for instance the mold in Figure 11-49a. It’s old … most likely late 19th century … but its also a relatively common form and thus is unlikely to interest anyone other than a housewife decorating her kitchen. But now, how do we know if it’s old? Well, I’m no expert here, but here’s the three dimensions I know are critical. First, contemporary molds of the sort you’ll likely find in a store today are made of much lighter gauge copper than an antique. Second, antique molds of the type in Figure 11-49a were typically made in two sections … an outer and an inner section, with the two halves joined by brazing what looks like dovetails. In this instance what you’re looking for is what’s shown in Figure 11-49b. The final thing to look for is hand hammering. Contemporary molds are simply stamped out by a machine whereas an antique was hand hammered much as one would do copper repousse over a wood mold. Take a close look at Figure 11-49c and note the less than perfectly smooth surface.
Fig. 11-49a: A Common Antique Food Mold
Fig. 11-49b: Braised Dovetails Joining the Two Sections of the Mold
Fig. 11-49c: Evidence of Hand Hammering
Now take a look at the three molds in Figures 11-50a, 11-50b and 11-50c. The mold in Figure 11-50a is certainly more interesting than the one in Figure 11-49a above and here again you can see evidence of hand hammering. As for the two molds in Figures 11-50b and 11-50c, neither is big enough to require being made in two sections and both are less common that the mold in Figure 11-49a. Nevertheless, if I encountered any of the four molds pictured thus far priced around $50, I’d probably pass on all of them, keeping in mind that I’d be buying for resale.
Fig. 11-50a: Common Copper Mold
Fig. 11-50b: A Slightly Desirable Mold
Fig. 11-50c: Ditto
So what kind of mold would interest a collector wherein an estate sale price tag of say $50 would have me scooping things up as fast as I could? Well, take a look at Figures 11-51a through 11-51d. Now I’m not claiming that any one of these is a super-special mold, and indeed the fact that the mold in Figures 11-51d is half tin does detract from its value. But you can begin to see here some elements of creativity and imagination on the part of the mold maker, and that’s what collectors value. The two swirl bunt molds in Figures 11-49a and 11-50a are simply too common and too unimaginative to capture the interest of collectors. They’re good for decorating the country kitchen, but for little else.
Fig. 11-51a: A More Interesting and Creative Mold
Fig. 11-51b: Ditto
Fig. 11-51c: Ditto
Fig. 11-51d: Ditto but with a Tin Half
The Past We Can’t Ignore: OK, that’s all I’m gonna tell you about copper molds, and at this point you may be chomping at the bit over the categories of things I’ve failed to discuss – dolls, fishing lures, advertising tins, decoys, Halloween or Christmas collectibles, postcards, spongeware, tin cookie molds, brass candlesticks, early flint patterned glass, pewter, spatterware, redware, chalkware, stone fruit, scrimshaw, cast iron fire marks, snuff boxes, wallpaper hat boxes, and so on ad infinitum. However, to continue with a discussion of such things you’d soon find me annoyingly repeating myself, warning you about condition and reproductions. There are, for instance, reproductions that can be exceedingly difficult to detect and few guidelines to follow except the advice of experts (see especially scrimshaw, cast iron fire marks and fishing lures). There are categories in which even the slightest damage can cripple the value of a piece (almost anything made of pottery, porcelain or glass) and other categories in which there are so many sub specialties that it would take a separate volume to discuss all the possibilities (see especially dolls, clocks and decoys). Finally, there are categories in which two seemingly identical things can differ in value by a factor of ten depending on who made the piece (for instance, decoys, pewter). So let me conclude this chapter by noting that the things I have thus far covered — quilts, samplers, baskets, trade signs, weather vanes, copper molds and so on — may all be windows onto America’s past, but while we are sometimes prone to idealize that past (i.e., “the good old days”), there is a piece of history that is difficult if not impossible to idealize. The most obvious elements that blemish the past are slavery and racism. And that past also finds reflection in the artifacts of our history. Take for instance the early 19th century glass rolling pin in Figure 11-52a. The images on it are smudged, but when we focus on the center image (Figure 11-52b) we see that the pin has a specific political purpose — a clear anti-slavery message. The other panels tell us, by their imagery, that England is the pin’s origin, which in turn hints an even deeper political purpose. Following the War of 1812 the United States and England weren’t exactly on the best of terms, and one way for England to express its hostility was to embarrass America over the matter of slavery and the apparent inconsistency between that institution and Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. So in conjunction with England’s own active anti-slavery movement at the time, artifacts such as this rolling pin were exported to America both to support a still nascent anti-slavery movement here and to embarrass. Of course, to be fair, it wasn’t until 1833 that Parliament formally outlawed slavery throughout the British Commonwealth, so its equally possible that the rolling pin was intended for a British audience as well.
Fig. 11-52a: An Early 19th C Glass Rolling Pin
Fig. 11-52b: The Anti-Slavery Message on the Rolling Pin
One would have to say, nevertheless, that such messages and exports had at best an imperceptible or lagged effect here, and while slavery disappeared with our Civil War, racism didn’t. Thus, images of African Americans with accentuated racist features persisted well into the 20th century. The three examples of folk art below in Figures 11-53a, 11-53b and 11-53c are all, most likely NOT 19th century but rather early 20th.
Fig. 11-53a: Stereotypical African American Family
Fig. 11-53b: Stereotypical African American Male
Fig. 11-53c: A 20th C Racist Nutcracker
Now one might be tempted to write off these examples of racist folk art with the argument that they are somehow non-representative of society — that they are but the idiosyncratic expressions of the individuals that created them. That may be true, but only up to a point. A major category of collectible that I have not touched on in this volume is that of cast iron mechanical banks. Manufactured for the most part in the last quarter of the 19th century with well over a thousand distinct designs, their mechanical complexity were ostensibly intended to encourage children to save. Thus, like the apple peeler, pantry box and trade sign, they too provide a window on America’s past. And, as Figures 11-54a, 11-54b and 11-54c, show, racist charactures of African Americans were very much a part of commercial America.
Fig. 11-54a: “Jolly ____” Mechanical Bank
Fig. 11-54b: “Always Did Spise a Mule” Mechanical Bank
Fig. 11-54c: “Initiating First Degree” Mechanical Bank
One has to wonder, of course, what sort of market such banks were intended to appeal to, but the fact that such banks were intended for children say a lot about what was deemed acceptable in the late 19th century. Lest one think, though, that the manufacture of racist banks focused exclusive on African Americans, consider the two banks in Figures 11-55a and 11-55b. The first, titled “Paddy and the Pig”, speaks for itself in terms of what ethnic group is being less than benignly characterized. The second is perhaps less obvious, but it is in fact intended to portray a lazy Chinese. If ever there was a oxymoron in the language of antiques and collectibles, it’s that of a lazy Chinese.
Fig. 11-55a: “Paddy and the Pig” Mechanical Bank
Fig. 11-55b: “Reclining Chinaman” Mechanical Bank
I should emphasize that the above five cast iron mechanical banks represent but a tiny share of the mechanical bank forms that were manufactured in the 19th century. There are, in fact, literally thousands of forms and it is a virtue impossibility to say much of any value about this general collectible category here. To learn more the reader should first head over to the internet site http://www.mechanicalbanks.org/ maintained by the Mechanical Banks Collectors of America. That website, though, is an invaluable resource for another reason. Reproduction banks have in the 20th century proliferated without any apparent limit. Some reproductions are so poorly constructed that it takes only a passing familiarity with the real thing to identify them, But there are also some damned good reproductions, and the Collector’s website is a valuable resource for identifying those reproductions. Specifically, the website provides precise dimensions for essentially every known bank right down to 1/32nd of an inch. And it’s those dimensions … or rather, subtle deviations from them … that will help you determine whether the bank you’re looking at is genuine or a reproduction.