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Old Brass And Copper Utensils
A CONSIDERATION of antiques and collecting would seem hardly complete without some mention of old brass and copper. And yet, if we are to confine ourselves to such things as were actually used by our American forebears in the old days, the subject becomes reduced, after all, to narrow limits. Having already considered old brass candlesticks and fire-irons in these pages., there remain only door-knockers and brass and copper kitchen utensils. With these latter the shops are well supplied, but only about one tenth of the pieces for sale are genuine Colonial. Most of them are Russian importations or modern counterfeits.
A study of the whole subject of Russian and Oriental brasses would be extremely interesting, but it hardly has a place in the present volume, since very few of these pieces found their way to this country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The things our forebears really used were of English and American manufacture, with some of Dutch and French origin. These are now very rare, and are seldom to be found in the shops. The brass and copper utensils offered as Colonial are mostly Russian, and half of those are modern repro ductions. They are often beautiful, and make handsome ornaments for the home, but they are not what the average American collector of things Colonial is looking for.
Much of the genuine old Russian ware has been brought to this country by Russian Jews, and old Moorish, Persian, Indian, and Turkish pieces are to be found. The enthusiastic specialist in old brass finds delight in these exquisite pieces of workmanship, but the amateur antiquarian had best beware of them. He is more likely to pay a good price for faked antiques made recently in Russia, Asia Minor, or Allen Street, New York. The only really safe places to look for old Colonial brass and copper utensils are the old farmhouses of New England and Pennsylvania, and the absolutely reliable dealers.
It is not altogether easy for the novice to distinguish a Russian piece, though the expert can almost always tell one. In general, with exception of the samovars, the Russian utensils are a bit clumsy. It is the form of the piece that indicates its source.
The best of the old brass and copper utensils came originally from England, much of it from Birmingham. Very few of these English pieces bear any mark or stamp.
From Holland and Brittany came brass and copper milk-cans and a few other pieces that our forefathers used.
Undoubtedly a great deal of the old brass and copper was of American make. Among the early settlers there were a number of braziers, and some of the oldest brass utensils that have come down to us were doubtless their work. They worked locally, and suited their styles to the needs of their customers, so that nothing like a classification or analysis is possible.
During the early part of the eighteenth century English braziers came in considerable numbers to New England and plied their trade there, introducing many of the English forms, so that it is often impossible to tell whether a piece is of English or American make, except that the American pieces are a little heavier. At the same time there were English and Dutch braziers working in New York and Penn sylvania. A famous New England brazier was Jonathan Jackson, who died in 1736. He made brass hand-basins, pots, skillets, kettles, plates, saucers, spoons, and warming-pans, as well as knockers, candlesticks, and andirons.
During the last half of the century nearly all our brass and copper utensils were made in this country. But aside from the andirons and candlesticks, and eliminating the more or less elaborate and beautiful Russian and Oriental pieces, there still remain enough good things to interest the Colonial collector-utensils that were employed in American homes a century or two ago.
Copper was perhaps less commonly used than brass, but some of the most interesting pieces were of that metal. There were measures, jugs, tankards, mugs, small pitchers, and sugar-bowls of copper, platters, saucers, bowls, and kettles. Sheet brass was imported from Wales and elsewhere and hammered into pots and open kettles. Both copper and brass utensils were frequently furnished with handles riveted on, and these were often hollow, holding a longer handle of wood. Long-handled ladles and skimmers were made with and without perforations. Copper tea-kettles were common, copper coffee-pots and coffee-urns less so. Dutch milk-cans were made of both brass and copper.
Copper chafing-dishes were popular about 1750, and kettles standing on tripods over charcoal furnaces.Sometimes the furnaces were brass or iron.
Braziers, like pots with perforated covers, for carrying coals from room to room, were in common use, but are now comparatively rare. There were also braziers like open pails for burning charcoal. Warming-pans of brass and copper, sometimes beautifully chased and engraved, were used for heating beds in the cold New England winters. They are often very graceful, with their long wooden handles, sometimes of polished mahogany.
A copper trivet a device for keeping kettles hot in front of a hob grate. The two hooks at the end held it on the front of the grate, or it could be stood in the coals. The top was a sheet of perforated brass or copper, on which the kettle stood. Occasionally tea-kettles were also made with feet long enough to permit standing them in the coals. A common form was a globe-shaped pot with a straight wooden handle.
Brass was even more expensive than copper, and good pieces are rare. There were ladles, tea-kettles, jugs, sugar-bowls, and small pitchers of brass. Brass skillets were made sometimes with iron tripods for standing in the coals. Plain pail-shaped kettles were common, chiefly without feet.
Coal came into general use in this country about 1744, and the Franklin stove became popular soon after. Brass and copper coal-scuttles and pipkins came into use. Chippendale, Heppelwhite, and Sheraton all designed pipkins.
The chief charm in collecting old brass and copper lies in the beauty of the metal itself, and the fact that many of the pieces lend themselves readily to decorative purposes in the home. Almost any shapely piece of old brass, and particularly old copper, with its rich color, makes a beautiful ornament. Open kettles and pots serve admirably as jardinieres, and the smaller jugs as vases for cut flowers, while ladles, skimmers, warming-pans, platters, and other flat pieces need only to be hung on the wall to serve as their own justification. If the copper is highly burnished it looks its best in a subdued light.
Many collectors prefer not to polish their old brass and copper, but to allow it to retain the softened tints that age has given, with here and there a suggestion of green, red, and gold-the results of oxidization. Sometimes, of course, an old piece is so black and dirty as to need some treatment to bring out its beauty. Soap and water should be used first, and then an application of oil and rottenstone to take off any incrusted dirt. Then putz pomade may be used to give as high a polish and as new a look as is desired. Most amateurs need to be cautioned against too vigorous a cleaning, however. Finally, the palm of the hand and much patience will serve best to bring out the luster without wearing away the colors.
Genuine old brass and copper utensils command a fair price, but no more than they are worth as decorative ornaments in the home. The Russian pieces in the shops are cheap in comparison. A Russian copper pot may be worth $5, while an old English or American piece of similar shape and size would be worth $12. Copper jugs and measures are worth $6 or $8; tea-kettles, from $10 to $15; pots and skillets, $10 or $12; warming-pans, from $12 to $20. Brass is worth less than copper; a small brass jug may sometimes be picked up for $3 or $4, and a kettle for $5.