07 Apr Chapter 13: Things Common and Uncommon
When scouring estate sales and flea markets, in addition to such questions as “How old is it?”, “Where’s it from?” and “Who made it?” you’ll often have to ask yourself “What is it? Or “Why in hell did they make it?” In other words you’ll encounter things that catch your eye but leave you mystified as to what it is you’re looking at. More often than not it will also be something that falls into no identifiable category, leaving you with little idea as to value. Take for instance the cast iron cow in Figure 13-1, which we saw earlier in Figure 8-15. First, she’s a sold cast cow as opposed to the usual 2-part construction for pieces of a seemingly similar ilk. Second it’s made with full anatomical detail. So ok … it’s attractive and a bit unusual you say. But still, what is it and why was it made? Surely it’s not a doorstop. It’s too delicate for that since one hit with a door and the feet would break off. And since there are no thread holes to be found anywhere, she wasn’t attached to anything. It’s too small … no more than 14″ long … to be a trade sign; and even if it was, what was it advertising? So again, why was it made? Frankly, I have no idea. But I bought it for no other reasons than that it appealed to me. Oh yes, there was another reason – it was cheap, under $100, so the downside was minimal in the event my taste, as sometimes happens, wasn’t shared by anyone on the planet. I did, though, subsequently sell it … and at a profit I might add … but to someone who had no better idea as to why it existed. Like me, it appealed to him. So see … ya just never know.
Fig. 13-1: My Mystery Cast Iron Cow
The cow is hardly the only mystery I’ve encountered over the years. Consider the Civil War drum in Figure 13-2. Now here’s the problem: If one imagines the bentwood rings that would have to be set top and bottom to hold the hide in place to make it a functioning drum, upwards of 1 1/2″ of the image top and bottom would be covered. So has the drum been cut down? The answer depends, apparently, on who you ask. As for my opinion, keeping in mind that I’m anything but an expert in the field of Civil War drums, I’d say No. That opinion is certainly not based on any knowledge of drums, but rather because, as the second part of Figure 13-2 shows, the interior offers no evidence whatsoever to hint that the drum wasn’t in fact originally made and painted as you see it. Specifically, the internal support rings show absolutely no evidence of ever having been disturbed in any way and their color and patina match the rest of the drum’s interior. And it is possible to imagine it being painted on something akin to an assembly line wherein the artist in question used the same template for his work regardless of size. Note though that the interior rings cover part of the label, so it would be useful to learn whether the label was normally glued on at the factory before or after those rings were attached — that, as much as anything, would tell us if the drum was cut down at some later time. Well, all I can say is that all things are possible. But now if you attempt to estimate value, good luck. Go ahead and look up auction records for Civil War drums. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did, but I haven’t found one to match this example. So does that make it a rarity or simply one that people will forever question as to whether its 100% original?
Fig. 13-2: Civil War Drum
Then there are those things that we know what they are but we don’t know why they are. Take for instance the folk art carving in Figure 13-3. We know what it is … a snake, all hand carved from wood and coiled around two sticks that serve as a stand. And while it stands but a bit more than 19 inches high, if the snake were uncoiled it would stretch to over seven feet. So to say some effort went into making this thing is surely an understatement. But why would anyone care to make it is the mystery. Yes, there’s fantastic skill on display here, but it this something you’d want gracing your living or dining room? All I can say is that I had two friends planning to visit shortly after a brought it home from the flea market and their response to seeing a picture of the carving was “ugh … hope you sell it before I get there.” Nevertheless, there it is … folk art.
Fig. 13-3: Folk art carved snake
There are, of course, always mysteries as to the origins of things. Take for example the carved lion in Figure 13-4. Now obviously a lion, your first thought would most likely be “Africa”, and given my repeatedly stated admonition ‘guilty until proven innocent’, that’s not a bad thought. But consider the two 19th century redware lions in Figure 13-5. Want to guess where they’re from? Answer: Pennsylvania. Now you might ask why the heck are they making redware lions in Pennsylvania, and frankly I don’t know. Yes, there are the Nittany Lions, but that’s Penn State University’s football team and while there may have been mountain lions roaming the hills of Pennsylvania many moons ago, anyone who confuses a mountain lion with its African cousin needs to get themselves a 2nd grade book on animals. So is this hand carved lion possibly from Pennsylvania? That’s an important question since, if it’s from Africa you’re probably looking at something that might retail for under $100 whereas if it truly is a 19th century example of Pennsylvania folk art, add a couple of zeros to that price. And there really is only one way to tell for sure … a microscopic examination of the wood (which, frankly, I’ve never done).
Fig. 13-4: Africa or Pennsylvania?
Fig. 13-5: Two 19th C Pennsylvania Redware Lions
Worrying about Africa should be a real concern and on at least one occasion I got fooled out of a surfeit of wishful thinking. Take a look at the war club in Figure 13-6a. When I scooped this up at an estate sale I thought I’d just scored big time. Why? Well, compare it to the three 18th or 19th century Iroquois war clubs in Figure 13-6b. Not identical, of course, but generally no two clubs are — they were often individually crafted make-do creations. In any event, I think you can understand my excitement at finding the one in Figure 13-6a at an estate sale for $50. And mine had 22 notches on it … someone had seemingly done a lot of mischief with my club. Alas, my excitement was short-lived. A week or two after my ‘find’ I was told that a friend of mine had just returned from Africa and guess what he brought back with him as a souvenir? Yup, you got it. Oh well, c’est la vie.
Fig. 13-6a: 19th C War Club
Fig. 13-6b: Three Iroquois War Clubs
To perhaps further put the fear of God into you, aren’t those “plumb bobs” in Figure 13-6c nice (at least I think they’re plumb bobs)? Frankly, when I first encountered them (at an Americana shop mind you) I couldn’t scoop them up fast enough. To me they looked like they might also have served as hand carved butter stamps. Well, imagine my surprise when months later, while walking the aisles of the Rose Bowl flea market, I encountered a large wash bucket full of these suckers … there must have been fifty or hundred of them in there. But there was a problem: The dealer was selling stuff from Africa. That’s right, they aren’t American and they are, apparently, anything but rare.
Fig. 13-6c: Plumb bobs from _____.
Sometimes mysteries sort themselves out with a more careful inspection of the item in question. Take, for instance, the “basket” in Figure 13-7. Once again, what is it? It sure looks like a basket of sorts, but not one designed to hold anything smaller than a softball, and claiming it was intended to hold grapefruit seems a bit of a stretch. Have any ideas? Give up? Well, maybe you’re quicker than me, but if you could see the ends you’d notice that each top bar has a screw hole dead center. So it was attached to something, and that should be the big clue you need. OK, here’s what this was — part of a swinging cradle (and certainly a baby is bigger than a softball or a grapefruit).
Fig. 13-7: Wood Basket for Softballs?
Now consider the item in Figure 13-8a. You probably think you know what it is the second you look at it. A birdcage, right? Well, yes, but only sorta. It’s actually a bird catcher. Figure 13-8b shows the cage with its three trap doors open. This elaborate creation, which for all I know is the unique product of a devious mind, is constructed so that if a bird lands on any of the internal perches within any of the cage’s three sections, the door above, set on a spring, slams shut. Pretty neat, huh?
Fig. 13-8a: Bird Catcher
Fig. 13-8b: Bird Catcher’s Trap Doors Set Ready to Spring Shut
Leaving mysteries behind, let’s turn now to things that either teach you something when determining what it is or force you to learn something you probably should have learned if you paid better attention to your school studies — in this case, what you might learn about history when coming to grips with a schoolboy or schoolgirl hand drawn map. Once upon a time in an era long long ago, geography was taught in our schools so that kids would at least know where Canada and Mexico are. And as part of that education children drew maps … not maps that any sailor or explorer might use, but maps that taught them there was a world beyond their cell phone or whatever it was the distracted kids in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. So with that in mind, consider the hand drawn map in Figure 13-9a and the close up of the name in Figure 13-9b. When encountering this on an auction website, the question was: How old is it and where’s it from? And here’s where knowing a little bit about European history comes into play. First, notice that Prussia is not yet part of Germany (or actually, of the several German states). So that pushes the date of the map before 1871 when Germany was unified under Bismark. That, though, is not terribly informative since even a casual glance at the document would suggests an early 19th century genesis. So now look at Sweden and Finland and notice they’re not portrayed as separate countries. That pushes things back even further … to 1809 when Finland was split off to form the Grand Duchy of Finland. Finally, notice how an ‘arm’ of the Polish state pokes into Germany and contrast that to the map of the various partitions of Poland in the late 18th century (Figure 13-9c) by Poland’s avaricious neighbors (proving once again that Poles have the misfortune of residing in a bad neighborhood). That would seem to push things to around 1795. With all of that in mind and making allowances for the possibility that there would be some lags in the maps students might use to draw their own, it’s time to do a genealogical search on little 13 year old Elisa Dyer. And here we find but one candidate after allowing for Elisa being born sometime between 1775 and 1800 — specifically, little Elisa was born in 1789 in Massachusetts, thereby nailing the date of the map as ca 1802. So time to bid and, hopefully, to buy (which I did).
Fig. 13-9a: Hand Drawn Schoolgirl Map
Fig. 13-9b: Closeup of Map Above
Fig. 13-9c: Wikipedia Map of the 18th Century Partitions of Poland
For similar example, consider the more expansive schoolgirl map in Figure 13-10a. Here, unfortunately, the portion of the map describing Europe (Figure 13-10b) is too imprecise for a repeat of Miss Dyer’s map, and the name New Holland applied to Australia merely pushes the date back to before 1850. So instead, take a look at Figure 13-10c. Here we see that the Louisiana Purchase seems to be nowhere in sight, thereby suggesting a date prior to 1803. So if we do a genealogical search on Miss Keziah Kneeland with the assumption that she was born sometime between 1775 and 1800, we come up a bit short of a definitive answer as to the map’s genesis. A Miss Keziah Kneeland pops up as having been born at an indeterminate date in Massachusetts, is married in 1835 and has a child in Ohio in 1839. So the odds are the map originates from Massachusetts, but again, that’s only a best guess and nothing absolutely definitive. More often than not, we have to be satisfied with that.
Fig. 13-10a: Schoolgirl World Map
Fig. 13-10b: Eastern Hemisphere in Map Above
Fig. 13-10c: North America in Map Above
Folk art can also create mysteries for which there is no definitive resolution. Take for instance the ladder back chair in Figure 13-11. Its 5-slat form is typical of late 18th or early 19th century and, ignoring the paint, there’s no reason to suppose its anything but American (the wood is ash and the seat obviously replaced). And as my montage of images shows, someone went absolutely nuts painting and decorating this otherwise common chair. But that’s where the mystery begins … the painted medallions on each slat is not of an American scene, but with its windmills, sailboats and thatched roof buildings, Northern European in style. So is the chair American or European? Could it possibly have been painted in America by someone fresh from Europe? Well, anything is possible and short of a microscopic analysis of the wood (which itself need not be definitive), it should simply be appreciated as a wonderful example of how our species can make something wonderfully unique out of the ordinary.
Fig. 13-11: Mystery Painted Chair
Shifting gears now from mysteries and research to the more common, another thing you’ll often encounter at flea markets and auctions are wicker baby buggies or strollers from the 19th century, such as the especially complex example in Figure 13-12. Looking at the craftsmanship that went into its construction, you know immediately that it wasn’t some tenant farmer, pioneer on the frontier or West Virginia miner who strolled their kid in it. It doubtlessly cost a pretty penny when new (around 1860), but what’s it worth now? Here it pays to begin trying to imagine what purpose it might serve now in some decorating scheme. I suppose if you were a doll collector, you could display a few of your treasures in it. And if you want to impress the neighbors when strolling down the street with a newborn grandchild, you can use it for that. But if you’re not a doll collector and if you don’t have a newborn grandchild then I’m at a loss as to what to do with it. You might, in a moment of weakness, say “gosh that would look nice in the living room”, but just think about the space it occupies.
Fig. 13-12: 19th C Wicker Baby Stroller
What I’ve just said about wicker baby strollers applies as well to spinning wheels, especially those large creations like the one in Figure 13-13. Yes, they were a mainstay of the early American home. Yes, they add a definite country feel to any room they’re in. But yes, they are monsters and command the space a modest sized sofa might more usefully occupy. As such they are one of the hardest things to sell in the early American antiques business. Which leads to the following suggestion: If you’re a tad masochistic and intent on owning one of these big wheel entities, don’t go hunting for it at an estate sale. Your typical estate sale manager won’t have the foggiest idea what they sell for and instead will price it according to the rule “it’s old, therefore it must be worth at least ____ [pick a number between $150 and $500]”. In fact, at auction expect to see them sell for under $100 (and often for as little as $50). So if you’re determined to own one of these suckers, you’ll do better at a flea market once the dealer whose selling it realizes that if you don’t buy it, it’s going back into their truck when its time to pack up. And you’re likely to do just as well in an antique shop once the dealer there realizes they can stock stuff worth 100 times what that spinning wheel will sell for … if it ever sells.
Fig. 13-13: 19th C Spinning Wheel
I realize that what I’ve most likely done at this point is upset every spinning wheel enthusiast out there who by some miracle happened to read what I’ve just written. So here’s my confession: I have in fact bought and sold several wheels the past few years. But there is a catch. First, they weren’t one of the monsters pictured in Figure 13-13. They were smaller. And second, each of them had something special about them. Consider the spinning wheel in Figure 13-14a. Its form is anything but uncommon, but just look at that paint! The paint’s old, original and quite frankly doesn’t get any better than this. Next take a look at the upright “ladies” spinning wheel in Figure 13-14b. Once again, not an entirely uncommon form (especially for Europe, which is where this one is from), but check out the bone (or ivory) accents, especially the spiked ones in Figure 13-14c as part of the wheel.
Fig. 13-14a: Original Blue Paint Here on an Otherwise Common Wheel
Fig. 13-14b: Nothing Special Here EXCEPT For Those Ivory Accents
Fig. 13-14c: Some of the Ivory Accents
Next, check out the spinning wheel in Figure 13-15a. At first glace this simply looks like an unpainted version of the wheel in Figure 13-14a, and thus of little interest. And that’s how it struck me and when I first encountered it. Stuck off in a corner at an estate sale, I paid absolutely no attention to it whatsoever … and I do mean none. Fortunately, I had a reason to return to the house it was in the next day and by sheer accident my eyes focused on it for an unintended instant. And it was in that fraction of a second that I determined to buy it. Why? Well, check out Figures13-15b, 13-15c and 13-15d. That’s right, the sucker is carved and is anything but an ordinary run of the mill space-consuming spinning wheel. I should also add, by the way, that it’s possible the wheel, obviously Norwegian, dates to the early 20th as opposed to 19th century. For reasons I’ll never understand, there apparently was a spinning revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and this is most likely a byproduct of that revival. Thus, in addition to not being American, not being 18th or 19th centuries, and not being something other than a spinning wheel, we have here exhibit #1 that there are exceptions to every rule, including one that reads “Ordeshook deems spinning wheels boring and unsalable.”
Fig. 13-15a: Looks Pretty Common, Doesn’t It?
Fig. 13-15b: Well, Maybe Not Exactly Common
Fig. 13-15c: Still More Carved Embellishment
Fig. 13-15d: When’s the Last Time You Saw Carving Like This on a Spinning Wheel?
Spinning wheels were, of course, a strictly utilitarian object for the home. That, however, hardly stopped people from making them in ways the left their creation a piece of folk art. Consider the wheel in Figure 13-16. Not only is is made of marquetry … something I’d never seen before in a spinning wheel prior to encountering this example … but as an added touch so as to clearly move it into the folk art category, note the integrally carved and turned rings that proliferate throughout as illustrated in the last two images of Figure 13-16. So whose to say spinning wheels can’t be interesting?
Fig. 13-16: Marquetry Spinning Wheel
Now at least two and possibly all five of the spinning wheels I’ve just discussed originate from the other side of the Atlantic. So once again we have here exceptions to the rule of “buy Americana only” when decorating one’s home with a colonial flair. But now suppose you want some color in your decorating scheme and you fdon’t have access to that blue spinning wheel. After learning what American items in original paint cost, you throw your hands up and say to heck with it. With that in mind, then, consider again the two Norwegian pantry boxes discussed in Chapter 10, reproduced here in figures 13-17a and 13-17b. Nice huh? And how about the hanging wall cupboard in Figure 13-17c. Old and gorgeous, no? Well, I think so despite the fact that it’s Scandinavian (as an inspection of the bare pine interior would reveal). But should that really be a problem? Well, if you were Abby Aldrich Rockefeller or Pierre DuPont, yes since you only collect Americana and have the loot to buy whatever it is that appeals to you. But if you’re a mere mortal like most everyone else, consider this: Being Scandinavian you can probably find a comparable cupboard priced in the vicinity of $1,000. For a legitimate Pennsylvania or New England piece, on the other hand, you best get out the checkbook and see if your account can handle a withdrawal of $5,000 or more.
Fig. 13-17a: Norwegian Pantry Box
Fig. 13-17b: Another Norwegian Pantry Box
Fig. 13-17c: Early 19th C Hanging Scandinavian Cupboard
If it isn’t obvious by now, Scandinavians liked color as much as did Pennsylvania’s Germans, witness the bowl in Figure 13-17d. And as with the cupboard and pantry boxes above, this bowl would most likely cost you a fifth or even a tenth of what a comparable Pennsylvania pieces would be ticketed at.
Fig. 13-17d: Painted Scandinavian Bowl
But now ask yourself whether you should care if it’s Scandinavian or American? The answer is up to you, but I know there’s a great many people out there who don’t care. Take for instance the small pantry box in Figure 13-17e. Scandinavian or American? Probably Scandinavian but should you care? I know this: People, whether Americana collectors of not, love those colorful and wonderfully painted bride’s boxes illustrated in Chapter 10 (Figure 10-11b) and generally care not a twit whether their Scandinavian of Pennsylvania in origin. Sometimes you just gotta sit back and enjoy the paint.
Fig. 13-17e: Small Bentwood Pantry Box of Unknown Origin
One can enjoy an imported antique for reasons that go beyond price and the equivalence of style. Consider the 17th century Scandinavian Head of Clan bowl in Figure 13-17f. In and of itself it’s a wonderful example of early hand carved folk art. Now I realize that it may or may not appeal to you, but if it does, don’t go hunting for an American example – there ain’t any (you might find a Northwest Coast grease bowl of similar design, but you best be prepared there to write a five or six digit check to get it). So you either enjoy it for what it is – perhaps your family originated from one of those winter sodden places and you like to think of yourself as a Viking – or move on and find something else to enjoy.
Fig. 13-17f: 18th C Scandinavian Head of Clan Bowl
Now on the subject of Scandinavian stuff, take a look at the large bread board in Figure 13-18. Insofar as I can tell, the prices realized for such boards at an auction site such as eBay depend solely on color, quality of the paint and whether there’s anything written on it such as a date. Almost uniformly they’re advertised as Pennsylvania, but between you and me, I’d eat half of the ones I’ve seen advertised as such if they didn’t in fact come from the other side of the Baltic. For the record, the board in Figure 13-18 is definitely European because I got it from someone who I know imported it from there. Moreover, when I sold it on eBay it brought a price which suggested that bidders cared not at all as to its origin.
Fig. 13-18: Scandinavian Painted Bread Board
While we’re on the subject of cutting boards, there’s yet another type that people seem to care little as to where is was made. I’m referring to those round maple bread cutting boards, typically twelve to thirteen inches in diameter and often carved with words and images around the rims. Figures 13-19a and 13-19b offer two examples. The first is nice enough with carving that has yet to be worn down from use. The second is far more detailed with some funny foreign language in Gothic lettering (ok, not so funny … German). So does that mean the first is American (or English) while the second is Continental? Well, before you decide, any collector of Americana will have seen Gothic lettering before – on Pennsylvania fraktur (more on this shortly). So what does that tell us? Well, the answer is that we haven’t the foggiest idea where either bread board came from. And a check of listings on eBay would also tell us that for the most part people don’t care – both boards can be expected to command a price somewhere north of $100. Of course, there are qualifications to this appraised value. First, make sure there some shrinkage to the boards – at least a ¼” or so. Second, you can add to the price if they’re accompanied by a matching bread knife with carved handle (something that perhaps has the word “bread” carved into it). Finally, make certain it hasn’t warped and sits flat on the table. Despite the fact that few people are likely to actually use one for cutting bread today, even if they’re simply for display people seem to want boards that don’t rock like a cradle.
Fig. 13-19a: Maple Bread Cutting Board
Fig. 13-19b: Yet Another Maple Bread Cutting Board
One substantial area of collecting that I’ve only briefly touched on in earlier chapters that also pertains to color are the fraktur of Pennsylvania’s early German population – supremely graphic, colorful and hand drawn birth and baptismal certificates. Here I’ll ignore later versions that were printed and subsequently hand colored, since I can only cover so much territory. In fact, I’m not even going to give much of a review since the literature on this quintessential American folk art is so extensive and the subject matter so deep, that it would take volumes to say anything of critical importance. If like me you’re a relative novice, then head off and get yourself a copy of Corinne and Russell’s Fraktur: Folk Art & Family (Schiffer Pub., Alglen, Pa., 1999) and start your drooling there. Instead, all I’ll do is note the peculiarities of the market in terms of pricing, or at least with prices realized at auction. I have in mind an auction held here in Los Angeles with a substantial collection of relatively average quality Fraktur, wherein I came away unable to comprehend or fully rationalize the variation in prices realized. To begin, consider the two fraktur in Figures 13-20a and 13-20b. Sold as a single lot, after buyer’s premium, they brought $1,375 – hardly expensive and, despite the damage to one, perhaps even a bargain.
Fig. 13-20a: Dated 1814 Berks County, Pa. Birth Fraktur
Fig. 13-20b: Dated 1815 Berks County, Pa. Birth Fraktur
Now feast your eyes on the fracture in Figure 13-21, which is approximately the same size as the two above – 16” x 13” and of the approximate same date and source, 1814, Berks County. Knowing the price realize for the two above, what would your guess be for the one in Figure 13-21? Might $1,000 or $1,500 seem a tad high? After all, the two above sold for less than $700 each. Well, you’re wrong – the fraktur below sold for $2,750. Why? You tell me – I have no idea since it certainly isn’t color or complexity, the two usual differentiating variables. Perhaps it’s the heart as a centerpiece that accounts for a 4 to 1 price differential.
Fig. 13-21: Dated 1814 Berks County, Pa., Fraktur
OK, go ahead and treat the preceding example as an aberrant case. So instead consider the dated 1836 Fraktur in Figure 13-22a. This one brought $930. A decent number and perhaps also a bit of a bargain. But now compare it to the fraktur in Figure 13-22b. Now I wont quibble here – the fraktur in Figure 13-22b is clearly the superior example both in terms of detail and color. But how much is that difference worth — $1,000, $2,000 or $5,000. The answer is “none of the above” – it sold for $17,500! How’s that for a step up?
Fig. 13-22a: Dated 1836 Berks Co, Pa. Fraktur
Fig. 13-22b: Dated 1835 Berks Co. Fraktur
Now you might say that the fraktur in Figure 13-22b warrants a big number because it truly is exceptional in terms of complexity and color, so instead consider the three small (6 ½” x 4”) bookplates in Figure 13-23. Nice enough to be sure but how do you think they compare to the fraktur in Figure 13-22b? You might think they’d warrant a price falling somewhere between what it realized and the price realized by the fraktur in Figure 13-22a. Once again, though, that ain’t so. These three bookplates as a single lot brought $27,500. As for why, you’d have to ask the two bidders – and sadly, I don’t know who they are. I know people like birds, if only because Pennsylvania Dutch likes birds, but in the end it all simplyl goes to show you that beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder (and those with deep pockets).
Fig. 13-23: Three Berks County Pa Bookplates
Now when things begin to sell in the multiple thousands, you can be certain the fakers will start coming out of the woodwork. And when things can be faked relatively easily, hang onto your wallet. First off I can tell you that as is the case with hooked rugs, there are people today making wonderful reproductions of early Pennsylvania fraktur. And they are not doing so to decieve since they are indeed proud of their work. But again, once it leaves the hands of the artist, all bets are off and it’s buyer beware. Take for instance the watercolor drawing in Figure 13-24a and ask yourself: Is it real (i.e., old)? This is not, I hasten to add, a creation of any artist drawing contemporary fraktur as art. No, this one’s simply a fake. Aside from falling into the category of “too good to be true” how would you know that? The paper appears to be toned from age and it’s all hand drawn and colored. Could this possibly be the flea market find of the year? Alas, no. What you can’t see from the picture is that the paper is perfectly glued down to a heavy artist board … glued in a way that seems as if it were part of an industrial process of gluing. Legitimate frakturs, for instance, can be found glued to most anything — cardboard, books, lids to blanket chests, etc … but generally not with absolute perfection. But there’s another clue to this being a fake. Take a close look at the woman’s profile in Figure 13-24b. She has a Hollywood movie star and quite contemporary appearance akin to what one of today’s sidewalk artists is likely to draw for you at a street fair. Women simply weren’t drawn this way in the 19th century. Nevertheless, I realize that you might not consider all of this definitive evidence of this drawing being a fake … but it sure as heck should keep you from shelling out a couple of grand for it.
Fig. 13-24a: Hand Drawn & Colored ‘Fraktur’-Type Drawing
Fig. 13-24b: Evidence of a Fake
Caution, I fear, is always in order when it comes to watercolor drawings purporting to be classics of American folk art. Consider for instance the drawing in Figure 13-25a, executed by the itinerant Pennsylvania artist Jacob Maentel. Born in Kaessel Germany, after emigrating, Maentel was active in and around Lancaster County between 1800 and 1840. Otherwise preciously little is known about him, including both his birth and death dates. His folk art watercolors, nevertheless, bring BIG money, sometimes in excess of $100,000, and the simple but pleasant one in Figure 13-25a brought $14,950 at a 2004 Pook & Pook auction. So imagine my reaction when encountering the drawing in Figure 13-25b at a local auction here in California. It’s certainly in the style of Maentel, but is it a Maentel? Unfortunately, having handled but one of his drawings in the past, my ‘expertise’ ran dry here. But the drawing wasn’t being offered by some obscure auction house nor was it buried among countless lots of Continental antiques. The auction was strictly Americana and certain to be noted by East Coast dealers far more knowledgeable than me. So I decided to simply sit back and be an observer, learning whatever I could learn. The result was that it, along with two inconsequential drawings, brought a tad over $1,100 to a phone bidder. So now ask yourself: Did someone walk away with a tremendous steal or did the painting bring about what it’s worth and possibly even a bit more? The answer I think should be obvious. Think back to what I wrote about auctions in Chapter Five. If you think a Jacob Maentel slipped thru the cracks and went unnoticed by countless East Coast dealers who know a Maentel when they see one … and also know a fake when they see it … then your just as likely to believe in the tooth fairy. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that there was enough uncertainty as to the drawing’s legitimacy, based on a simple internet listing, to keep those dealers from charging ahead and laying out the big bucks. But when you’re talking about folk art that sells, when legitimate, for tens of thousands of dollars, eleven hundred is too great a discounted number. The only reasonable conclusion is that it’s not a Maentel and simply a nice 19th century drawing “in the style of Maentel”. So once again, buyer beware, especially when you’re stepping out of your zone of comfort.
Fig. 13-25a: Jacob Maentel Watercolor, Pook & Pook Auctions
Fig. 13-25b: Watercolor by _______?
Since we’re wandering around in the domain of Pennsylvania collectibles, I think I best turn to yet another subject that I’ve thus far ignored – redware. While redware can originate from any place with red clay – and that includes places as dispersed as France, Eastern Europe, New England and Mexico. Owing to its diverse sources and the fact that distinguishing a piece of Pennsylvania redware from, say, a contemporary Mexican reproduction can require a bit of expertise, I strongly urge the reader to get a book on the subject such as Kevin McConnell’s Redware: American Folk Art Pottery or William Ketchum’s American Redware. Too often I’ve seen pieces on eBay from The Czech Republic, Mexico or Ukraine advertised as American either out of ignorance on the part of the seller or simply as instance of fraud. With this in mind, let me then focus exclusively on what is perhaps the most widely collected category of redware — plates that exhibit some manner of slip decoration — and in doing so limiting myself primarily to pieces made in Pennsylvania or Connecticut. My focus, then, is on plates such as the ones shown in Figures 13-26a through 13-26e.
When evaluating such plates, it needs to be kept in mind that redware was primarily a poor man’s pottery — perhaps filling the gap between having to eat off of a wooden plate and the luxury of using one made of pewter. As such then, they are purely utilitarian objects likely to have seen hard use. The decoration on them in the form of an applied bit of slip (yellow clay) speaks once again to the fact that even those who couldn’t afford the step up to pewter nevertheless sought to add some minimal decorative touches to what might otherwise be a rather drab existence. Decorated redware, then, needs to be viewed and appreciated in that context. So looking first at the plate in Figure 13-26a, we can say that it’s nice enough to warrant inclusion in a beginning collection – a good size (appx 10”) and with a reasonable amount of slip decoration, it has the added decorative touch of a coggled rim (formed when the clay was still in the mold before firing in the kiln). The negative here, though, is the deterioration to the slip near the center of the plate -– a common occurrence since the slip is raised a bid from the plate’s surface and thus subject to wear. The plate in Figure 13-26b has somewhat the same problem, though less so. But it has something else common to redware plates – a sizeable chip. For most items this would literally cripple the value, but in the case of redware – a fragile utilitarian pottery form — a defect that collectors are a bit more tolerant of that if the plate were glass or saltglaze stoneware. Aganin, redware wasn’t made to be sold to tourists – it was made to be used, often in the backwoods of Pennsylvania where pewter was scarce. To underscore the tolerance of collectors for imperfections, consider the two plates in Figure 13-26c. Now you might think that being in absolutely perfect condition they’d bring a premium price. However, the slip decoration here is of the commonest sort and boring, and and the added touch of a coggled rim is wholly absent. Thus, I’d expect the first two plates, despite their imperfections, to outsell this pair. None of this should be taken to mean that collectors do not discount for damage and imperfections. The plate in Figure 13-26d, for example, is superior to any considered thus far – the wear to the slip is minimal, the slip itself is bold and plentiful, and there are no chips or cracks. This plate, then, could readily set you back $400 or more. The plate in Figure 13-26e, though, is superior to even the one in 13-26d. Aside from also being without flaw, its maker clearly had something in mind when applying the slip. What that was is beyond me, but I’ve watched people gravitate to it like a moth to a flame so they could turn it this way or that to see if they can decipher a word (you can do the same if you want). In other words, it generates far more interest than any of the preceding examples, and with that comes added value (I’d say something north of $500).
Fig. 13-26a: Redware Plate with Worn Slip
Fig. 13-26b: Redware Plate with a Chip
Fig. 13-26c: Two Boring Redware Plates
Fig. 13-26d: An Above Average Redware Plate
Fig. 13-26e: A Redware Plate that will Attract the Curious
At this point you’ve probably grown a tad frustrated that I’ve provided no clues whatsoever for distinguishing between a legitimate 19th century piece of redware and the 20th century reproductions I mentioned earlier. So by way of offering some assistance, take a look at the plate in Figure 13-27. With its profusion of slip decoration, this is a particularly nice plate and the subtle small chips around the rim suggest that it has indeed seen some use. And that’s precisely what we want to see in such a plate … evidence of use since such plates were in fact intended for use. But the underside is equally important for evidence of use … scratches, wear, etc., which is what the underside of our plate exhibits. Better still, though, is the fact that such plates were often used directly over a fire to cook or heat food, in which case a legitimate underside might look lige the third image in Figure 13-27. When one sees this, confidence in the authenticity of a piece of redware soars.
Fig. 13-27: What We Like To See In A 19th C Redware Plate
There is a related type of plate that warrants notice here – the loaf plate such as the two in Figure 13-28. Larger that any of the plates above – often 17” across – there’s ample room for elaborate slip decoration, and if it ain’t there, the plate isn’t of much interest. But if it is there, then you’ve shot past $500 in value – heck, unless there are some serious apologies such as cracks, chipping or heavily worn slip, you’ve more than likely shot past $750 as well.
Fig. 13-28: Pennsylvania 19th C Redware Loaf Dishes
One final warning now for the novice collector. The absolute pinnacle of redware are those highly decorated sgraffito plates from Pennsylvania that are utterly evocative of Pennsylvania German design. But if you have it in your head to begin a collection, it would be best if you were one of the original investors in Microsoft when Bill Gates and his buddies were still working out of a garage or you bought Apple at $1/share. A legitimate sgraffito plate will cost you upwards of $20,000, if not more. Needless to say, with numbers like this, 20th century reproductions abound. For the most part these reproductions are not intended to fool you since they are manufactured by known artists or well-established pottery works. But it still pays to be cautions, and to that end take a look at the six plates in Figure 13-29. The first row presents three legitimate 19th century examples that each broght $20,000 and up at auction. The second row, in contrast, are three contemporary reproductions that can be found in abundance on a site such as eBay for as little as $75. Enuf said I think.
Fig. 13-29: Legitimate 19th C and Contemporary Reproduction Sgraffito Redware Plates
OK, so much for redware. As I said, if you want to learn more, go read a book on the subject. The same will hold true with things associated with lighting. Here, then, I’ll use some space to take a look at a few items not discussed of featured elsewhere in this volume because I couldn’t figure out where to discuss them (how’s that for an organizational scheme – sorta like the Framers of the US Constitution setting up a Committee of Unresolved Issues). First up is the candle snuffer. Here we need to keep in mind that candles were expensive from the perspective of the “lesser classes”, which is one reason why people took their life in their hands with rush lamps. Unsurprisingly, then, we find that the simple act of putting out a burning candle received some attention so as to not waste wax. Enter the candle snuffer, such as the one in Figure 13-30a. Admittedly, this is a somewhat uncommon one owing to its length, but even shorter ones operate on the same principle … a chamber that snuffs out the flame (despite looking like a pair of scissors, it didn’t necessarily cut the wick but rather merely deprived the flame of oxygen), along with a pointed tip for digging out the wick in the event it was buried when the melted wax hardened. The most common affliction of candle snuffers then is a broken tip, in which case there’s no reason whatsoever to own the piece – it’s then of zero interest to collectors.
Fig. 13-30a: Wrought Iron Candle Snuffer with Uncommonly Long Handle
Now comes the question of where candles come from (no, don’t say Bed Bath and Beyond). Answer: People made them themselves despite the fact that it was a messy and smelly enterprise. But to do so they needed a candle mold of which there are two basic types. The first, the tin mold as in Figure 13-30b, is the most common and in ample supply at nearly any antique flea market. You might have to settle for one with as few as one or two tubes or as many as twenty four (and on occasion I’ve seen them with as many as 48 tubes), but if I were to offer any advice here it’s that you not buy one at the market. Instead, head to eBay. As of this writing I find over a hundred such molds of various sizes, all generally selling for less than what I normally see them priced at in flea markets. I don’t know why, but that’s been my experience.
Fig. 13-30b: Twelve-Tube 19th C Tin Candle Mold
There is, though, a second kind of mold that in some ways is a mystery to me, an example of which is offered in Figure 13-30c. The mystery in this instance derives from finding such molds with the tubes made of tin, pewter or redware. Now I understand tin. And I suppose I might even be led to understand pewter since it is an easy metal to work with given its relatively low melting point. But redware? Why would it occur to anyone to make a ceramic candle mold – one fall off the table and you can kiss it goodbye. Well, maybe there’s a reason, but I don’t know it. What I do know, though, is that if you find one made with pewter tubs, expect to pay upwards of $700 whereas one of redware can easily pop above $1,000.
Fig. 13-30c: 19th C Pewter Candle Mold
OK, so you’ve got a pile of candles. Now, how to use them. You might think the simplest thing is to get something with a hole of the right diameter, stick the candle in the hole and light it, right? See what happens when you have a mind of limited imagination, and far be it for those seeking “a better mousetrap” to be satisfied with that solution. Take for instance the candleholder in Figure 13-31a. If there wasn’t a candle in it, your first instinct might be to ask what it was. For whatever reason its maker felt that the entire length of the candle needed support (crappy wax?) and thus it needed to be held in a cage as it burned. That sorta makes sense I guess, especially after seeing all those homes burn to the ground because the owners insisted on being cheap by using rush lamps. Oh, and that hook … just in case you wanted to hang it off the fireplace mantle or, without concern for burning your hair, to hang it off the back of your chair while you squinted your eyes trying to read something in dim candlelight. There is, nevertheless, a lesson here: Just as imaginations ran wild building a better apple peeler, the same was true with figuring out how to burn a candle, which in turn yields a collectible category all its own – 18th and 19th century candle holders.
Fig. 13-31a: 18th C Adjustable Candle Holder
The candle holder in Figure 13-31a isn’t the only lighting device that leads us to ask “why did they make that?”. Consider Figure 13-31b. Here we know what it is … a rather simple chandelier — but its difficult to fathom why it was made given its size: 8 1/2 inches from the center of one candle socket to the other (and less than 8 inches in height overall). Seems to me this has to be the smallest chandelier ever made in the 18th (or early 19th) century. Nevertheless, there it is.
Fig. 13-31a: World’s Smallest 18th C Chandelier?
Staying with lighting, take a look again in Chapter 11 at Figure 11-33, and let me throw this challenge out: Take a miner’s candle holder pick and design an improvement where the essential properties your innovation must sustain is the ability to hold a candle and the ability to be stuck into a supporting beam of your mine shaft. I’ll give you five minutes to think about this (which is all the exercise is worth). ……… Ok, time’s up. Any brilliant ideas? Well, it doesn’t really matter if you did or didn’t come up with anything since not much has been done or needs to be done with this simple device. But far be it for people not to try, as witnessed by the pick in Figures 13-32a through 13-32c. That’s right … what we have here is a miner’s spike with a gimbaled candle socket so that even if you stuck it into the beam at an angle, the candle can be made to stand upright. And just in case you only have a small lunch pail in which to carry a few essentials aside from food, the spike folds up. Can things be more brilliant than that? Actually, a serious collector of mining equipment told me that he knows of only two other such spikes, both subtly different. His best guess: They were patent models to decidedly failed designs. The one shown here certainly wasn’t one that went into mass production. And I bet you thought that collecting miner’s spikes couldn’t possibly yield anything unusual.
Fig. 13-32a: Gimbaled Miner’s Spike
Fig. 13-32b: Gimbaled Assembly
Fig. 13-32c: And It Folds Too!
Time to leave lighting and turn to another category of collectible – tin. But not just any old tin. Let me ask this first: If the appropriate gift for a 25th wedding anniversary is silver, and for the 50th is gold, what’s appropriate for the 10th? Answer: Tin. And during the Victorian era people apparently took this notion rather seriously by having a variety of items made from tin for the husband to give the wife or, less commonly, vise versa. Figures 13-33a through 13-33f, then, illustrate yet another collectible domain, anniversary tin. The first four gifts were obviously intended to be given by the husband to his beloved while the last, the tin straight razor, from wife to husband. Whether the last item, the tin shaving mug and brush in Figure 13-33f was an actual anniversary gift I cannot say, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with being practical at the same time. But now imagine encountering one of these gifts at a flea market, and suppose the dealer selling it knows nothing about anniversary tin. How do you think any of these items might be priced? Ten dollars, twenty dollars, fifty dollars? That’s likely to be the range, it which case, you best scoop it up because you’ve just made a few hundred bucks or more (upwards of, say, $400 for the razor). See how easy it is to make money in this world? Of course, I’ve never found a piece of anniversary tin at the flea market and had to rely for the examples below on a knowledgeable dealer who passed on to the great antiques emporium in the sky.
Fig. 13-33a: 19th C Anniversary Tin Tray
Fig. 13-33b: 19th C Anniversary Tin Purse
Fig. 13-33c: 19th C Anniversary Tin Hair Comb
Fig. 13-33d: 19th C Anniversary Tin Slipper
Fig. 13-33e: 19th C Anniversary Tin Straight Razor
Fig. 13-33f: Tin Shaving Mug & Brush
So where to next? I’ve got an idea: How about off the wall folk art. Crazy things produced by people in the 19th century that fit in no particular category whatsoever other than that they were made to amuse, entertain or simply add something special to their or someone else’s life. How about, for instance, the stick in picture 13-34a. Now forget about what’s been carved on it for a moment and ask yourself “what is it?”, or rather, “what was it originally?” The answer should be obvious – it’s a stick for stirring clothes in a washing or dying tub. It’s what you’d use instead of your hands if the water were too hot or you preferred not to end up with blue hands when dying fabric. But now look what’s been done to it … an ordinary stirring stick made into an absolutely incredible piece of folk art. Indeed, with its cut out hearts, we can surmise that it was a love token – a gift to some lady, presumably someone’s wife from her husband: “Hey honey .. stir my dirty jeans with this the next time you wash.” We can, of course, only speculate, but one thing is certain – it is now an incredible piece of Americana.
Fig. 13-34a: Folk Art Stirring Stick
Or how about the chip carved piece in Figures 13-34b and 13-34c? It’s a niddy noddy – something you’d hold in your hand and, twisting it back and forth, wind your yarn. But its not really a niddy noddy anymore with all that chip carving. It too, we can surmise, is a love token and thus now a piece of American folk art. Pretty neat, huh?
Fig. 13-34b: Chip Carved Niddy Noddy
Fig. 13-34c: Closeups of the Niddy Noddy
For yet a third example, how about the serving spoon in Figure 13-35, which may or may not have been a love token but is surely something more than a mere spoon now.
Fig. 13-35: Chip Carved 19th C Serving Spoon
The preceding three examples are instances in which someone has taken an otherwise ordinary thing and embellished it to make it a truly collectible piece of folk art. There are, in addition, those simple things that were special from the get go, such as the carved spoon in Figure 13-36. The beauty of this creation lies not simply in its unique design, but also in its practicality – the ducks feet are positioned so that the spoon will rest perfectly horizontally on a table without spilling its contents. Pretty clever, huh? Surely an idea worth patenting.
Fig. 13-36: Carved Duck Spoon
Folk art can be created not only by skillful carving, but also by the careful selection of material, where what I have in mind is the wood a person might use to create an otherwise ordinary kitchen tool. Consider, for example, the common butter scoop or pat … what you’d use for scooping out some butter from a vat and then packing it into one of those molds to give it a nice look on the table. Figure 13-37a shows three such scoops, where the first is utterly ordinary. The second, at least in its basic form, isn’t much different EXCEPT its maker used a wonderful piece of tiger maple. The third scoop in the lower right is an example where the maker went the extra mile, using a piece of burl and in doing so created a truly exceptional piece. While the scoop to the left shouldn’t sell for more than $20 or $25, the tiger maple example could easily fetch between $150 and $250, whereas for the burl scoop don’t be shocked to see price tags in the vicinity of $700. And, as Figure 13-37b shows, even the lowly spoon can be made a piece of folk art with the right wood.
Fig. 13-37a: Three Distinctly Different Butter Scoops
Fig. 13-37b: A Spoon as Folk Art
And when transforming the ordinary into folk art, there’s no reason why things have to be limited to something made of wood. Consider, for instance the common kitchen scooped strainer … not much that can be done there you might say. Well, think again and take a look at Figure 13-37c.
Fig. 13-37c: Kitchen Scoop Strainer as Folk Art
Not only can folk art emerge simply from the skillful use of wood and tin, but it can also emerge from something that was never intended to be folk art. Take for instance the toy truck in Figures 13-38a and 13-38b. Almost certainly hand made for a son by his father who either couldn’t afford a store bought toy or had no access to one. As such it’s a manifestation of a father’s love for a son, and to my mind at least, it is no less an example of folk art than is any drawing or carving of the period. If you don’t agree with me, then that’s your problem!
Fig. 13-38a: Folk Art (In My Opinion) Toy Truck
Fig. 13-38b: And It Even Has an “Engine” Under the Hood
While on the subject of toys as folk art, its evident that children in the 19th century were well aware of the fact that horses were the primary means of transportation. This in turn manifested itself by the proliferation of rocking horses for the home. Made in a multitude of styles by innumerable companies, Figures 13-39a through 13-39c in descending order of age (ca 1850 to 1900) illustrate this fact about them: As accents for the home they can each present itself as relatively inexpensive (prices will vary between $400 and $1000) yet colorful sculpture.
Fig. 13-39a: Ca 1850 Rocking Horse
Fig. 13-39b: Ca 1870 Rocking Horse
Fig. 13-39c: Ca 1900 Rocking Horse
Changing the subject once again abruptly, it would I suppose be criminal of me if I didn’t say something about blue and white kitchen spongeware . Now to be frank, I’m not gonna spend a lot of time here except to throw out a couple of warnings. Dating generally to the last quarter of the 19th century, the two primary forms are pitchers and bowls for which there are three dimensions in any assessment of relative value. Being stoneware, the first of course is condition, with such things as chips and hairlies wrecking havoc on value. Spongeware was made in vast quantities and whenever there’s a lot of the stuff, collectors want it undamaged. The second dimension I’ll present as a question — specifically, between the two pitchers in Figure 13-40a, and between the two bowl in Figure 13-40b, which is likely to bring the higher price? In answering this question keep in mind that spongeware is largely a decorative accent and that one of the favorite colors for decorating is blue. Does that help? Well, the answer for both the pitchers and bowls is the item to the left since the left mst pitcher had a deeper and more pronounced blue as does the left most bowl. The third dimension of value is age, which in this instance is especially critical because they’re making the stuff today and examples can often be found in those boutique gift shop country stores that sell reproductions. Look first for wear on the base, which around the bottom rim is generally not glazed. And then, keeping in mind that spongeware in, say, 1890, was anything but mass produced utilitarian ware, look for fresh-from-the-factory imperfections in the stoneware itself.
Fig. 13-40a: Two Spongeware Pitchers
Fig. 13-40b: Two Spongeware Bowls
Speaking of pure utilitarian ware, no book on American country antiques and collectibles can be considered complete unless it mentions Peaseware. Sometime around 1850 a fella by the name of Elmer Pease built a sawmill with some lathes in Ohio with some damned nice hardwood trees nearby – maple especially. Shortly thereafter, he began turning out various covered lathe-turned pots, selling them to whoever. His sons picked up the lathe-turning bug as well and continued his work for some 80 or so years. Little did they all know that they were producing yet another category of Americana collectibles. Well, once again I’m not about to go head to head against those who’ve already written extensively about peaseware — get yourself to the library and look up the article by Gene and Linda Kangas in the December 1996 issue of Maine Antiques Digest, “Peaseware: Fruit of the Garden of Eden”. I’ll simply point out the existence of Peaseware and an inherent problem you’ll likely encounter if you have the good fortune to encounter some. Figure 13-41a offers a typical lidded bowl, which was made in a variety of sizes from itty bitty to big enough to carry the soup for a family of 5 or 6. Figure 13-41b, on the other hand, illustrates a typical lidded bowl problem – the wood has shrunk and cracked. Actually, the crack shown here isn’t a bad one – I’ve seen some that mimic what people imagine the San Andreas fault will look like after the “big one. All I can tell you now is that collectors don’t like cracked peaseware. Enuf said.
Fig. 13-41a: Typical Peaseware Lidded Bowl
Fig. 13-41b: Typical Peaseware Lidded Bowl Problem
Now we shouldn’t get too upset at Hiram Pease and his sons because their bowls cracked. They weren’t making collectibles, but instead were in the business of offering people something they could use in a 19th century kitchen. And they weren’t the only ones feeding America with housewares – witness, of course, the apple peeler and Singer. With an ever burgeoning middle class, people got pretty inventive in the pursuit of profit. Naturally, not all ideas succeeded even though some were ahead of their time. Here my two favorites concern one that was at least semi-successful while the other a dismal failure. The semi success is shown in Figure 13-42a. Actually, this might not have been a success for whoever built it since I don’t think they built many. But the idea lives on. Turn the handle and the tin drum rotates while the steel blade inside it moves up and down. Have any idea what we’re talking about now? Ok, lets stretch the imagination … attach a motor, get yourself a design team who can figure out how to make it a tad more compact and looking spiffy, figure out what parts can be made inexpensively with molded plastic, then scoop up your plans, ship them off to China and have someone make a million or so of them. Need a name for your product? Try Cuisinart… how’s that? Yup, that’s what we got here, folks .. the 19th century version of the food processor.
Fig. 13-42a: A 19th C Precursor to the Cuisinart
Now for the failure. Imagine yourself traveling around the country after the Civil War. Soon enough you’ll begin to notice that middle class housewives aren’t big fans of dirt floors. They’re not even big fans of wood floors, if only because they’re cold in the winter. People are beginning to catch onto the idea of covering those floors with carpeting – hand woven in some instances, braided in others, and machine made by those old coverlet weavers who’ve branched out a bit when the coverlet market went into the toilet. Now a rug that’s say, 3’ x 5’ can be cleaned by dragging it outside, hanging it on a rope and beating it to death with one of those wire rug beaters. But what to do with that 5’ x 8’ or 8’ x 12’ rug? Even if you succeeded in dragging it out to the yard, hanging it on a line would most likely pull down the posts to which the line was attached (or you’d learn that rope stretches and half your carpet would lay on the dirt). So suppose its 1876 or earlier and that Melville Bissell is still diddling around in his carriage house or basement working on the problem when you decide to design your own carpet sweeper. Try as you might to avoid the issue, you soon enough learn that it will work only if you can get a brush to rotate so as to flip the dirt up and deposit it in a container of some sort (can’t build a vacuum cleaner yet … no electricity). So suppose you come up with something like the sweeper in Figure 13-42b, whereby cranking the handle rotates the belt driven brush in the box. Neat idea, huh? Well, actually, it’s an utterly crappy idea, which is why you probably never heard of the National Carpet Sweeper, but have heard of Bissell. Crank the handle and all your handy dandy device wants to do is turn sideways. And the brush rotates against the friction of the carpet only if you have PRECISELY the right tension in the cord belt – good luck with that! Of course, what this all means is that your invention, while an utter failure, has contributed to yet another category of collectible – carpet sweepers (and don’t laugh – I do believe there’s a carpet sweeper museum in Australia).
Fig. 13-42b: A Failed Invention
Those of us ancient and old enough to remember homes in the Northeast heated by coal burning furnaces in the basement also will recall the onerous task of sifting ashes after they’d cooled so as to extract some remnants that could be added to a new supply of coal. Well, apparently even that task is incentive for the inventor so in Figure 13.43a through 13-43d we have pictures of the Portland Ash Sifter. Setting it on the ask barrel, putting the ash from the furnace in the bid and turning the handle would, presumably, leave you with what you wanted still in the cage. A great idea, actually, since sifting was a dirty task that filled the air with fine ash particulates. I can’t say, though, whether the Portland Sifter solved that problem since, after 40+ years of putzing around with antiques, this is the first one I’ve encountered. I suspect that it was something less than a gloriously profitable innovation.
Fig. 13-43a: Portland Ash Sifter, Late 19th C
One should never, now, underestimate the ingenuity of man when confronted with a problem. Suppose you’re sitting there, half starved, with a huge bag of walnuts in the woods with no nutcracker. What to do? I suppose you could try smashing them between two rocks and then trying to pick the innards out about the crushed shells. Odd are, though, you’ll more often that you’d like end up trying to chew or or digest some bits and pieces of hard shell mixed in the the nut’s meat. Well, if the solution hasn’t yet occurred to you, I’ll give it to you now: Run about the forest finding various twigs and branches and build yourself the nutcracker shown in Figure 13-44a. OK, I’ll admit it … I’ve cheated a bit and assumed you also have a supply of nails and a hammer. Nevertheless, if the solution presented here didn’t occur to you, it must only be because of your limited imagination. Actually, what’s pictured here really is a nutcracker (and most likely for walnuts since it also holds two carefully carved picks for picking out the nut’s meat from the opened shells). Why someone would go the the trouble of making such a device is beyond me, but there it is … a floor sized nut cracker. Strange huh? Well … maybe not so strange since there is a genre of furniture … chairs, benches and side tables … made in precisely the same way; namely, out of sticks of furniture, commonly labeled Appalachian or Ozark furniture. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Figure 13-44b. And yes, people collect this stuff.
Fig. 13-44a: Appalachian Twig Nut Cracker
Fig. 13-44b: Appalachian Twig Chair and Table
We’ve wandered a bit all over the map in this chapter, which is appropriate I think given this chapter’s catch-all title. And in that spirit it’s perhaps appropriate to address directly one category of Americana that surely fits under the label “uncommon” but that we’ve discussed in one context or another throughout this book — Folk Art. To begin, though, please don’t ask for a precise unambiguous definition of this concept, aside from having me say it corresponds to the whimsical decorative creations of people untrained formally in the decorative arts. This definition, though, seems somewhat incomplete. Consider if you will today’s sidewalk itinerant artists who for a few bucks will in a matter of minutes draw your portrait, which can range from being somewhat realistic to something akin to a cartoon. Is that folk art? The answer to that question is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. And you best be careful in how you answer that question, since if you say no, then what of the primitive portraits discussed in Chapter 10 that are commonly taken to fall under the large umbrella of my definition? Much like the sidewalk artist, those portraits were commonly painted by people who, while formally untrained, also worked quickly in pursuit of commercial success. The same is true, no doubt, of the artists who created fraktur or those who made decorating Norwegian pantry boxes a business. It’s tempting, then, to add some measure of “volume of production” to my definition of folk art. Consider, for instance, the family record in Figure 8-9. Drawn with about the same skill as fraktur, I’d unambiguously categorize it as folk art despite the fact that I found a nearly identical one (but for different family) at the Americana exhibit of the Huntington Museum in San Marino California. Clearly both were drawn by someone with a side business of making family records, but since he apparently drew few of them (I’ve only found the two), I can’t assume it was a true ongoing commercial enterprise. Fir the same reasons, things such as quilts, samplers and schoolgirl or schoolboy maps will fit anyone’s definition of folk art. On the other hand, volume of production or a concern with commercial success are imperfect guides to formulating an unambiguous definition. Take for instance the carvings of Wilhiem Schimmel. Those carvings exist in numbers that rival any well-documented portrait painter, but clearly I’d be properly ridiculed by connoisseurs of Americana if I attempted to exclude his work as folk art. Keep in mind, moreover, that Schimmel also worked with commercial success in mind, albeit with ‘success’ measured by his access to the next glass or pint of cheap whiskey. Indeed, if one wants to exclude any consideration of commercial motives from a definition of folk art, consider such things as trade signs, ship figureheads, and carousel animals. Any book on American folk art will offer examples from each of these categories, yet more often than not what you see was made by a professional sign painter, a professional (and trained) carver or even, in the case of carousel figures, in a factory specializing in making them. That leaves us, I suppose with having to say that folk art is like pornography … we know it when we see it.
Let me now use this inconclusive conclusion as an excuse to offer some additional examples of things I unambiguously deem folk art. The first example is the (dated) 1916 building in Figure 13-45. The soda can is included here to give some idea as to scale and, in particular, to indicate that the clock in the tower is about the size of a pocket watch. And that indeed is the purpose of this building … its a rather uncommon hand made (and somewhat large for the purpose) pocket watch holder. I suppose, of course, that if this is to be considered folk art, I’d have a hard time arguing that the birdcage trap in Figure 13-13a and 13-13b isn’t folk art as well. I can accept that.
Fig. 13-45: Hand Made Pocket Watch Holder
Wood carvings such as the those in Figures 8-22 through 8-25 are surely folk art, and for the same reason are the two shown in Figure 13-46a. But now what of the patriotic carving in Figure 13-46b. Is that folk art? Before you assume there’s an unambiguous answer to my question let me note that although it’s clearly hand carved and hand painted I have seen other identical examples of this piece. So I have to assume it was commercially made by a skilled hand, in which case I should ask: How, aside from age, is it different from the decorative “Americana” reproduction souveniers one finds today in tourist gift shops (especially in and around New England)? The answer I suppose is that perhaps those gift shop items will one day be valuable collectible folk art as well. I’m not holding my breath for that (nor am I stockpiling such things with an eye to a future in which I’m dust) but stranger things have become collectible in the course of fifty or so years (witness Formica kitchen tables, Pez candy dispensers and ceramic panthers).
Fig. 13-46a: Two ca 1900 Folk Art Carvings
Fig. 13-46b: Hand Carved, Hand Painted Patriotic Eagle
Moving in a disjointed manner to another “what is it” antiques, take a look at Figure 13-47. Take a few minutes and try to figure out what it is. Give it a good hard look and use your imagination. Frankly, when I first encountered this late 18th / early 19th century piece, my first guess was “glue pot”. Early glues didn’t come in an Elmer’s plastic bottle, but were made insted by animal parts and thereafter stored as a solid that had to be melted for use. The problem with that guess, though, is that the wooden insert had no glue residue. OK, here’s what it is: A chocolate pot. Like glue, chocolate was of course stored as a solid, which could then be broken up and melted (with possibly a touch of sugar added) before being used in baking, etc.
Fig. 13-47: A Late 18th / Early 19th C _______ Pot.
Next up on our parade of “have you ever seen one of these” is the little watercolor in Figure 13-48a. Now when first encountering this you might have said to yourself “gee, … that’s a cute idea, making the dog out of dots.” Well, actually, it’s stranger than that … those aren’t dots but rather pin holes in the paper and belongs to the genre of Pennsylvania pinprick drawings.
Fig. 13-48a: 19th C Pinprick watercolor
Fig. 13-48b: Closeup of Pinpick Watercolor
Now anyone whose ever been to an antique shop in Massachusetts with a broad selection of country antiques almost certainly knows what the next item is, in Figure 13-49. In all honestly, although I’m originally from that state, I’ve never been to a cranberry bog. But I have seen pictures, and there what I’v seen is a gazillion cranberries floating around in the water. So what we have below is a scoop to gather them up. They come in a variety of sizes, but today their most practical use is either set on the floor or hung on the wall as a magazine rack. And they are generally priced accordingly … under $100. There must have been a lot of cranberry scoops made at one time.
Fig. 13-49: Late 19th Century Cranberry Scoop
I probably should have included the next two items in my chapter on textiles (Chapter 9) and in the category of quilts, despite the fact that they aren’t quilted and thus technically aren’t quilts. Seems though that every time I had one and sold it, I sold it to a quilt dealer. Go figure, since what they are is little more than a stitched together arrangement of cigar bands. Once upon a time (late 19th century) individual cigars, for reasons that wholly escape me, were wrapped in silk bands advertising their brand. Well, seems that people collected these bands and thereafter made something with them, where that something was most commonly a pillow case. Or, if the old man smoked a lot, a bed cover. See … waste not, want not.
Fig. 13-50a: Cigar Band Silk “Quilt” or Pillow Cover
Fig. 13-50b: Yet Another Cigar Band Silk “Quilt” or Pillow Cover
The next category I’ll consider is one I touched on briefly in my discussion of miniatures (with reference to the miniature sideboard in Figure 13-51a below) that surely warrants a separate section all its own as opposed to being simply lumped into this chapter — tramp art. Once again, of course, the reader should consult either Fendleman and Taylor’s Tramp Art: A Folk Art Phenomenon (1999) or Wallach and Cornish’s Tramp Art: One Notch At A Time (1998) to see images of some true masterworks of this genre of folk art, from boxes to picture frames to whimsical models of buildings to full size pieces of furniture. Here, on the other hand, I can only present images of some of the lesser pieces that have passed thru my hands, but that nevertheless give one a sense of the variety of things that fall under this category of collectible. One myth, though, warrants being dispensed with here. The label “Tramp Art” conjures the image of semi-homeless men, scurrying about the countryside, hopping trains, cooking their meals over a can of Sterno at night, knocking on doors and eager to whittle a piece for you for their next meal or pint of whiskey. Some elements of tramp art may indeed have that as their genesis … but not all. Often it was simply a folk art form made by those with a surfeit of cigar boxes who, copying what they’d seen elsewhere, decided to try their hand at making something as an expression of their artistic and creative sense.
Fig. 13-51a: Tramp Art Miniature Sideboard
Fig. 13-51b: Tramp Art Frame
Fig. 13-51c: Tramp Art Vanity
Fig. 13-51d: Tramp Art (Crown of Thorns) Sewing Box
Fig. 13-51e: Tramp Art Wall Pocket or Letter Holder
Fig. 13-51f: Tramp Art Wall Cabinet
Fig. 13-51g: Quite Ordinary Tramp Art Trinket Box
Now back to mysteries, and the item pictured in Figure 13-52. Frankly, when I first encountered this piece I had absolutely no idea what it was and ideas ranged from a crudely carved foot to a similarly crude hair comb. Those guesses, though, were occasioned only by my unfamiliarity with spinning and weaving … or, more properly, with the process of preparing flax for spinning. Briefly, when harvested, flax needs to be “combed” or rippled in a complex and laborious process wherein the seeds of the plant are separated from the flax fibers and the fibers themselves are straightened prior to being spun into thread. Now if you really want to know what this process entails, you’re free to poke around the internet, since whatever information I have about it has been gleaned from there. I’ve never actually seen the process in real life and, frankly, have no incentive to rectify that hole in my lifetime experiences. So you might ask: How did I come to learn what this thing was? Answer: I listed it on eBay with the label “fingered scraper” and waited for someone to message me with the proper identification. There … how’s that for a research method!
Fig. 13-52: Flax Comb
My next mystery .. well only sort of a mystery … is the item in Figure 13-53a. So what do you think it is? It’s wood, it’s rather sizeable (roughly 15″ x 15″ x 12″) and clearly quite carefully made (note the dovetailed corners). Give up? Take a look at Figure 13-53b. Is that any help? Still uncertain? OK … final clue: Figure 13-53c. Well, if you’re the least bit familiar with country antiques, you know what this third figure shows …a carriage warmer, wherein hot coals would be placed in the tin pan, which is then put inside its tin and wood enclosure to provide some (I can’t imagine much) heat. So Figure 13.53a is but an “industrial sized” warmer wherein the hot coals would be put inside the lidded ceramic insert. See …it’s all quite simple (although I should tell you that the mind of man appears to have been as inventive in designing carriage warmers as with most other practical things. Always in search of the better mousetrap you might say).
Fig. 13-53a: A Cage?
Fig. 13-53b: A Cage With A Rock Inside It?
Fig. 13-53c: A Conventional Carriage Warmer
I’ll end this chapter now with two items that illustrate the power and value of the internet. First, consider the pair of figural pewter candlesticks in Figure 13-53, which are anything but American – they are in fact German. This pair was included in a large lot of pewter I purchased at an estate sale and while it was evident that they were in some way special, I had no information about them whatsoever. So I posted them on Facebook with the query “does anyone know anything about these?” Lo and behold, in less than an hour I got a message from someone in Germany who filled me in fully, including a number of links to museums in German with similar items on exhibit. As it turns out, the figures are miners from the ore mountain region of Freiberg, and the axe in their hands is one of their classic mining tools commonly referred to as a meter. The miners dress up once a year, generally around Christmas, and parade in costumes as in the candlesticks that are anything but what they’d wear in the mines. Now consider the likelihood that my poking around in a library would lead me to this information. Well, I suspect that likelihood is minimal. I did do a search of several internet sites reporting on auction results with searches targeting “pewter figural candlesticks”, “figural candlesticks” and simply “pewter candlesticks” and came up totally dry, so imagine what my success rate would be if it never occurred to me to find some books on German mining costumes or traditions (if there even is such a book in English). So in your search for goodies or information about goodies you’ve already snatched, in addition to a Google search, don’t forget the social websites — there’s all manner of expertise there waiting to give you a hand.
Fig. 13-54: German Miner Pewter Candlesticks dated 1780
Now consider the item in Figure 13-54 and the various close-ups in Figures 13-55a through 55c. When I first encountered this piece at a flea market, I could only guess that it was a cradle, but I had no idea as to its origin. And even my guess of it being a cradle was suspect since the “handle” protruding from it seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. Its construction, though, suggested a 19th century attribution, if not 18th, which along with its extensive and elaborate incising made it an irresistible purchase. I began with Facebook, but that yielded noting by way of any definitive information aside from one person’s assertion that it was a Polish food carrier. Food carrier? How it hell does one carry food in such a thing. Next stop, then, was eBay, but to post it there required a guess as to age and origin, and so I listed it as an 18th / early 19th century Scandinavian cradle, which was as good a guess as any. Several weeks went buy with neither a bid nor anyone contesting my attribution … until one day someone messaged me with the assertion that it was a 20th century Albanian cradle. Albanian cradle? You gotta be kidding me! But no, he wasn’t, since his message attached the following link to the British Museum in London:
Now I might dispute such an attribution from almost everyone, but certainly not the British Museum. All I can say is that Albania sure as heck wasn’t going to be one of my guesses as to origin. But at least I got the cradle part right.
Fig. 13-55: Albanian Cradle
Fig. 13-56a: Albanian Cradle Incising
Fig. 13-56b: Albanian Cradle Incising
Fig. 13-56c: Albanian Cradle Incising