In review: American Furniture 2013

AmericanFurnitureAmerican Furniture 2013, edited by Luke Beckerdite, Chipstone Foundation, University Press of New England, 2013. Hardcover with dust jacket, 352 pages, color photos. List price: $65.

When it comes to research about American furniture, this is the book.

First published in 1993 and written by the foremost scholars in the field, this annual compilation of articles provides a comprehensive forum on furniture history, technology, connoisseurship and conservation. That sounds intimidating if not a bit egg-headed, but it’s not meant as such. American Furniture 2013, the latest edition of this laudable project, is likely to be appreciated by anyone seriously interested in the genre.

As the publisher noted, “American Furniture is an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to advancing knowledge of furniture made or used in the Americas from the seventeenth century to the present.”

Considered the publication of record in its field, American Furniture presents new research on furniture design, use, production and appreciation. The papers are research-driven, detail-oriented and heavily illustrated, with 384 images used in the latest edition.

Six articles, ranging from about 20 to 70 pages each, are presented in American Furniture 2013. They are:

* “The Early Work of John Townsend in the Christopher Townsend Shop Tradition” by Erik Gronning and Amy Coes

* “New Insights on the Virginia Royal Governor’s Chair” by Leroy Graves

* “Scientific Imaging Techniques and New Insights on the WH Cabinetmaker: A Southern Mystery Continues” by F. Carey Howlett and Kathy Z. Gillis

* “The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day” by Patricia Dane Rogers and Laurel Crone Sneed

* “‘A Shadow of a Magnitude’: The Furniture of Thomas Cook and Richard Parkin” by Carswell Rush Berlin

* “Philadelphia, Furniture, and the Pennsylvania Germans: A Reevaluation” by Lisa Minardi

American Furniture 2013 also includes reviews of five books of note, offering readers additional material worth investigating. Covered are:

* Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson, reviewed by Allan Breed

* Stretch: America’s First Family of Clockmakers by Donald L. Fennimore and Frank L. Hohmann III, reviewed by Dennis Carr

* The Art of Thomas Nisbet, Master Cabinetmaker by David Nasby, reviewed by Laura Fecych Sprague

* Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840-1880, Vol. I (revised edition) and Vol. 2 by Lonn Taylor and David B. Warren, reviewed by Gerald W.R. Ward

* Woods in British Furniture-Making, 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary by Adam Bowett, reviewed by Alan Miller

The work concludes with a bibliography of recent writings on American furniture, compiled by Gerald W.R. Ward. The list primarily includes works published from 2012 through October 2013.

This reference book belongs on the shelf of any collector or dealer who has a serious interest in American furniture. Both informational and intriguing, it’s well worth the price.


A ‘Gem’ of Americana

Gem, also known as Eagle & Shield

Sometimes Americana doesn’t have to be American-made.

That’s the case with Gem, a small line of English dinnerware by Hammersley. The example I added to my collection last year, and which now sits on a shelf above my desk, is a 6.5-inch plate having a mulberry transfer print of an American eagle atop a Federal shield over a banner lettered “E Pluribus Unum.” The edge of the plate has a geometric design in stick sponge, also in purple. The backmark shows the maker’s name, pattern name and a registry mark.

Ralph Hammersley made pottery in the Staffordshire district of England from 1860 to 1863. During the 1861 census, he was 30 years old, married, had two sons and a daughter, and employed a 17-year-old servant. Twenty people worked at his earthenware business — 11 men, four women, three girls and two boys. Business must have been good. The company was renamed Ralph Hammersley & Son in 1864, reflecting a new family partnership. By 1871 the pottery’s workforce had grown to 200.

Gem, which was registered on April 23, 1868, was created for export to the American market.

Although it’s not a rare design — examples have sold at numerous auctions in recent years — the motif is far from common. My plate varies from most others due to the use of mulberry. Blue is the color typically found.

The plate represents a transition from handwork to transfer designs. The central transfer of the eagle and shield was relatively easy to apply, allowing manufacturers to create uniform decorations at a rapid rate. The stick-spatter border around the edge, however, was more time-intensive. A sponge having a design cut on the end was attached to a stick, dipped in glaze and dabbed inside the rim.

Values for Gem, which is sometimes referred to as Eagle & Shield, can vary greatly. Items sold at live auctions, according to, have included four handleless cups and saucers in blue for $356 the set and eight 8.75-inch plates in blue for $593 the set, both offered at Skinner in March 2011; 7.75-inch plate in mulberry, $130 at Horst Auctioneers in September 2007; oval vegetable bowl in blue, 6 by 7.5 inches, $330 at Conestoga Auction Company in September 2000; and an oval platter in blue, 10 by 13.5 inches, was $302 at Garth’s in September 2000. eBay prices tend to be considerably lower.

History lessons

The conversation was birthed in a hospital waiting room. The two ladies to my left, friends of a friend who was having surgery, had ping-ponged a dozen topics that morning. When the word “eBay” bounced past, I looked up from my laptop and stopped them mid-sentence.

“What are you selling?” I asked.

One of the women lived near the Ohio River and had a collection of riverboat memorabilia, including older photographs and prints. She was downsizing and ready to part with the material.

“eBay might not be your best choice,” I said. “Depending on what you’ve got, you might do better to run it through a traditional auction.”

She wasn’t convinced. I went back to my work, but the mention of framed prints brought me back into the conversation.

“How big?” I asked.

The prints, it turned out, were poster-size. When I explained the hassles of shipping that type of item, the woman seemed more willing to explore other options, noting she was most interested in selling her collection of steamer photographs.

“How old are the photos?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re old,” she said. “They’re from the ’80s.”

That’s when I knew we might have a communications problem.

“The 1880s or the 1980s?”

“The 1980s,” she replied, as if it was ludicrous to think otherwise.

I forget sometimes that not everyone has the interest in and/or knowledge of antiques as those of us who have been involved in the hobby for years.

Not that I’m belittling the woman’s collection of riverboat memorabilia. I still have photographs I took of the Delta Queen 30 years ago, when I lived a block from the Ohio River. But today I’m more inclined to display an image that’s considerably older, such as a vintage photograph of the steamers Greenwood and Ann Bailey at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The image captures the paddlewheelers by a bend of land containing a monument. The back has a brief inscription, “Unveiling of monument Oct 9/09.”

The Greenwood and the Ann Bailey at Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

The memorial is at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, a bend of land where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River. The park is the site of the Point Pleasant Battlefield Monument, an 84-foot granite obelisk dedicated on Oct. 9, 1909, to commemorate the battle fought on Oct. 10, 1774. That single-day clash, the Battle of Point Pleasant, saw an undetermined number of Indians (possibly 300 to 500) led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk attack about 1,000 Virginia militiamen under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis. The fighting resulted in heavy losses on both sides, but the militia prevailed. The significance of the engagement went beyond the initial defeat of the Indians. The outcome led Cornstalk to remain neutral over the next several years, when British forces sought to build a coalition of Native Americans to fight against the Colonists.

Some have argued that if the Shawnees had prevailed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, it would have changed the power structure on the frontier, leading to a British-Indian alliance that might have reversed the outcome of the American Revolution.

In the vintage photograph of the Point Pleasant Battlefield Monument, the obelisk is clearly visible in the background. However, the two steamers are the main focus.

There’s history there, too.

According to Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994 by Frederick Way Jr., the Greenwood was built in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1898. A sternwheel packet with a wooden hull, the boat nearly sank on its trial voyage when it hit something in the river, resulting in broken floor timbers. After repairs, the Greenwood had a long career, running a number of routes over the next quarter of a century, including Pittsburgh-Parkersburg, Pittsburgh-Charleston, Cincinnati-Pomeroy-Charleston and Pittsburgh-Cincinnati. At Cincinnati in November 1925, the Greenwood was struck by the Chris Greene. The blow ripped open the Greenwood’s hull, turning over the steamer. It was the end of the line for the ship, whose three boilers were salvaged for the towboat John F. Klein.

The Ann Bailey was a sidewheel ferry built in 1909 at Point Pleasant, where it operated between shores of the Ohio River. The boat was named after “Mad” Anne Bailey, whose first husband was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, leading her to join the militia. Dressed in buckskins, she became legendary as a frontier messenger and scout. The Ann Bailey ran until the Silver Bridge opened in May 1928, connecting Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio. The boat was sold in October 1929 and met its demise in heavy ice at New Haven, West Virginia, in February 1936.

There are stories in many of the things we collect, from early steamer memorabilia to riverboat posters from the 1980s. The thrill of the hunt and the discovery of history keep the hobby alive.

Tuesday Tip: Do not tilt


Material on the site includes this ad for an early baseball-themed game. It appeared in the June 1931 issue of Atomic Age. (Photo: Internet Pinball Machine Database)

The Internet Pinball Machine Database — also known as the IPD or IPDB — is a comprehensive, searchable encyclopedia of virtually every pinball machine ever commercially made.

At last count, the database had more than 55,000 images of 5,688 games. There were also more than 4,000 other game-related files, including links to additional pinball websites, all grouped by machine.

The database also includes pitch & bat baseball games, cocktail table machines, bingos, and payout machines.

There is no cost to use the site.

Implausible but true

I’ve heard more comments regarding the following story than anything I’ve written in a long time. There are two reasons for the influx of interest. 1) It’s an incredible series of events. 2) The main character is a genuinely likable person. If you missed it, here’s the article.

David Yount is one of those guys with a knack for finding great things. As a collector who specializes in political memorabilia, especially items relating to his home state of Indiana, he often seems to be in the right place at the right time. But what happened this past year is a story that seems too implausible to be true.

Trust me, it really happened. I was there for part of it.

In late March I attended a Walther & Hawkins auction in Richmond, Indiana. The sale offered a varied mix that included boxes of vintage photographs. While shuffling through a beer flat filled with mounted albumen images, I came across one showing a couple standing at a picket fence in front of their home. Leaning against the fence was a framed poster.


The homestead photograph. (Photo: David Yount)

Digging a loupe out of my pocket, I got a better look at the poster. At the center was text that read “Vote Indiana’s 1888 Big Four Ticket.” The words bisected a large image of a mustached gentleman and oval vignettes of four other guys.

Suddenly my mind was racing. Knowing Yount would love this photo, I stood at the table, desperately wondering how best to get in touch with him. (Completely forgetting, I might add, that his cell number was in my iPhone.) Just then I looked up and, to my utter surprise, he walked into the room.

“I think I found something you might be interested in,” I told him.

Having traveled to the auction to bid on a Goldwater car topper, Yount assumed the light-up auto accessory had me excited. Instead, I escorted him to a table, pulled the photo to the top of its box, and pointed. “Take a look at the poster leaning against the fence,” I said, handing him my loupe.

I don’t recall his exact words — something to the effect of, “I don’t believe it!” Then he turned to me and, in almost a whisper, said something that took me totally by surprise.

“I just bought that poster,” he quietly revealed.

Needless to say, he left the auction with the photograph, which now hangs in his home. Beside it is the poster it depicts.

This wasn’t just any poster. But that’s getting ahead of the story concerning his acquisition of that piece.


The Cleveland poster. (Photo: David Yount)

Last September Yount was contacted by a friend regarding an auction located between Rushville and Metamora, Indiana. The sale, he was told, had a Grover Cleveland political bandana. When he checked photos posted online by the auction company, however, it wasn’t the textile that caught his attention, but another political piece — an 1888 Grover Cleveland poster he’d never seen before. Despite some damage to the item, Yount knew he had to have it.

But, there was a problem — he couldn’t attend the auction because he was hosting a stoneware group the day of the sale. Yount contacted another friend and asked him to buy the piece. That’s exactly what happened. Yount got the poster, which was subsequently restored. “It hangs in my den today,” he said.

“I’d never seen it before. It instantly became one of the favorite pieces in my collection.”

Roughly six months later, he walked into an auction to buy a Goldwater car topper and found me staring at him in disbelief and delight. I had no idea of the dots that were about to be connected that day. It’s still hard to believe.

The poster, it turned out, was previously unknown. Printed by Wm. B. Burford of Indianapolis, it showed not only Cleveland, but also Indiana’s candidates for the state’s top offices: C.C. Matson for governor, William R. Myers for lieutenant governor, Robert W. Miers for secretary of state, and Charles A. Munson for state auditor.

It’s worth noting, they all lost — Cleveland, Matson, the whole gang. “Cleveland’s coattails were rather short,” Yount quipped. Cleveland did go on to win a trip to the White House in 1892.

Finding a photograph showing that piece of political memorabilia, and doing so just months after he had acquired the original poster, is as improbable as it is incredible. Yount agreed.

“To see that picture, I just about had a heart attack.”

But it’s more than that. Yount has another interest. “I also collect homestead photos,” he told me. “So, the photo fits a niche of mine.”

It’s intriguing to know that the two people in the photo were such ardent Democrats they not only owned a copy of the poster, but also posed with it. No doubt, they were heartbroken when Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the election to Benjamin Harrison (a Hoosier, it’s worth adding). Just as hard to take, in the Indiana gubernatorial race, Matson was defeated by Republican Alvin P. Hovey by a margin of 0.2 percent — a mere 1,149 votes statewide — while the Prohibition candidate affected the outcome of the race by garnering 2.2 percent of the ballots.

There was no identifying information on the photograph. No photographer’s imprint. No inscription. It’s unlikely the identities of the two figures will ever be known.

Another mystery remains. How did the political poster and a related homestead photograph turn up six months apart at two different auctions in east-central Indiana?

Yount doesn’t have the answer, but he is satisfied with what he does have — two great pieces of Americana. Finding the poster was one thing. To run across the photo was something else. As he explained, “It was like lightning striking twice.”

You know the name

Oscar Mayer might not have set the art world on fire, but he knew how to make a good hotdog. This bust of the meat-industry giant sold for $588 at an auction conducted by Garth's. (Photo: Garth's Auctions)

Oscar Mayer might not have set the art world on fire, but he knew how to make a good hotdog. This bust of the meat-industry giant sold for $588 at an auction conducted by Garth’s. (Photo: Garth’s Auctions)

Sometimes history and pop culture collide.

A bronze bust of a man likely went unnoticed by most people when it was sold by Garth’s Auctions during the company’s Ohio Valley sale on May 18, 2013. The sculpture depicted a distinguished-looking gent with a high hairline and a full moustache. You probably wouldn’t recognize the guy, but you’ve certainly heard of him.

As a kid, it’s almost a given you knew the name — Oscar Mayer.
Made by the Roman Bronze Works of New York, the bust was mounted on a marble plinth. In all, it measured 20 inches high.

According to Garth’s, the piece came out of the boardroom at Oscar Mayer’s headquarters in Chicago. After the company sold to General Foods in 1981, the firm’s office relocated to Wisconsin. One of the movers involved in the transition was given the bust.

For most people, Oscar Mayer was the name of a hotdog, not an entrepreneur. That’s where the history comes in.

Born in Germany in 1859, Mayer emigrated to the United States, where he and his brother Gottfried opened a small butcher shop in Chicago in 1883. Among their specialties were bratwurst, liverwurst and weisswurst, the latter being a white sausage popular in German neighborhoods.

By 1900 the company had grown to 43 employees and offered citywide delivery. Things got bigger from there.

As the firm grew out of its big-city breeches and wore the pants of a major player on the American meat market, advertising played an increasingly important role. That’s where the pop culture comes in.

While sausages and hams were in demand with the company’s customers at the turn of the 19th century, it wasn’t long before bacon and wieners were also popular products. With that, a marketing icon was created. Enter the Wienermobile.

An early Wienermobile.

An early Wienermobile.

Shaped like a hotdog in a bun, the Wienermobile was the 1936 brainchild of Oscar Mayer’s nephew, Carl G. Mayer. It was the first of 10 vehicles eventually produced. At least one example has remained on the road since then, except during World War II, when gas rationing put the oversized frankfurter out of service.

It should be noted, the driver of a Wienermobile is known as a Hotdogger. The job is reserved for recent college graduates who sign on for a year’s duty of guiding the mechanical marvel around the nation and abroad.

The Wienermobile spawned generations of collectibles, including countless Wienerwhistles — toy whistles shaped like the vehicle. Related collectibles have ranged from Hot Wheels to plush beanbag toys to pinback buttons.

When it comes to advertising, however, the Wienermobile doesn’t carry all of the company’s weight. Several television commercials have become classics in their own right.

Early success came through a 1965 animated TV spot showing a young girl leading a group of children singing, “Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener…”

Of equal acclaim was a 1974 commercial of 4-year-old Andy Lambros sitting on a dock, a fishing rod in one hand, a sandwich in the other, as he sang, “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R. My bologna has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R. Oh, I love to eat it every day, and if you ask my why I’ll say, ’cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A.”

For several generations of Americans, that advertisement became the face of the company. Which brings this story back to Oscar Mayer himself and the bronze bust offered by Garth’s. Outdone by a preschooler with a catchy tune, the replica of the founder of the company never had a chance. In a marketplace where plastic figural whistles can garner more excitement than a piece of antique art, the bust wasn’t expected to set any auction records. Nonetheless, it sold toward the upper end of its presale estimate, realizing $588.

At least a few bidders must have recognized the face and/or knew the history behind that piece of art. And, it’s highly likely any potential buyer could spell the name of the guy. They might have even learned it from a fresh-faced kid on TV.

Can we get a mulligan?

Deadlines. They’re a necessary evil when writing is the full-time gig that puts spaghetti on the table and Exxon in the Camry.

Up to our eyeballs in deadlines this week, we missed our Tuesday Tip. Not that we didn’t have anything in mind — we did. But, the day simply got away from us. One minute Tuesday was still young and coffee was brewing in the office, the next minute the clock said it was Wednesday already. Time flies, as they say.

So, how about a do-over?

Made in Indiana in the mid 19th century, this Drunkard's Path quilt sold for $587.50 at Cowan's Auction in October 2011. Price for textiles are slowly starting to improve, according to Diane Wachs. (Photo: Cowan's Auctions)

Made in Indiana in the mid 19th century, this Drunkard’s Path quilt sold for $587.50 at Cowan’s Auction in October 2011. Textile prices are slowly starting to improve, according to Diane Wachs. (Photo: Cowan’s Auctions)

Our Tuesday/late-Wednesday tip comes out of an interview with Diane Wachs, director of fine and decorative art at Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati. While discussing the company’s recent $1 million decorative-arts auction, Diane noted a trend regarding textiles.

“I’m seeing textiles inch back up, inch by inch,” she said. “We’ll have a number of quilts in our fall sale. We’ll see how they do. Textiles in general seem to be seeping back into the market. In dribs and drabs we’re seeing these things.”

It wasn’t long ago that I stood at an estate auction, watching vintage quilts sell for next to nothing. Textiles have struggled for quite some time. Maybe things are slowly turning around, one drib and drab at a time.

Tuesday Tip: Cast-iron cookware

A June auction of more than 900 lots of cast-iron cookware provided a good barometer of the marketplace. According to Rilla Simmons of Simmons & Co. Auctioneers, Richmond, Missouri, the best items sold well, while the lower and middle sections of the market were soft. No surprise there.

However, the sale did indicate some trends.

* Griswold remains the name most collectors want.

Groupings of common skillets have seen increased interest at some auctions. Pictured here, however, is no everyday assemblage. This stack of 13 Favorite Piqua Ware skillets, from the No. 1 to the hard-to-find No. 13, sold for $3,200 at an auction conducted by Simmons & Co. Auctioneers. (Photo: Simmons & Co. Auctioneers)

* Favorite Piqua Ware continues to see increased interest. “For some reason the Piqua Ware from Ohio was especially strong,” said Mrs. Simmons. “There is a more limited supply of it than there is of Griswold and Wagner.”

* Common cookware has little appeal. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of tremendous interest in what anyone can find at the local garage sale,” said Mrs. Simmons.  The most notable exception has been the demand for groupings of skillets. “We were very surprised how strong stacks of skillets were…. If I was thinking a good stack of lower-end skillets would bring $50, they were bringing $100 and $150.”

What’s it all mean? The right piece of cast-iron cookware is still worth lugging home, but be selective. A tremendous number of common examples have been produced over the years. As a result, most of those pots and pans have little value today, while hard-to-find items continue to bring premium prices.