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Family Heirlooms And Antiques - Part 2

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( Originally Published 1963 )

It is difficult to tell, by looking at one of these little pictures, whether it is a daguerreotype, a tintype, or an ambrotype (made by another one. of the methods that led to photography as we know it today). Even a professional photographer usually has to take the picture out of its case to identify the process. However, a daguerreotype is likely to be a much better and less faded picture. The process called for care and skill, but the results could be excellent.

Daguerreotypes were made on a silvered copper plate, ambrotypes on glass, and tintypes on an iron plate. By far the majority of all three are rather stiff portraits of a family or some one or two members of it. All three types usually were mounted in cases of real or imitation leather with a plush or velvet lining into which the picture was fitted, perhaps framed with gilt.

Prints or lithographs to hang on walls became immensely popular during the Victorian era. Lithography provided pictures, of which Victorians were so fond, at far lower cost than hiring an artist, even one who may have worked for only overnight lodging and board. Lithography was a comparatively inexpensive as well as a fast way of making prints of the same picture in quantity The process of lithography was worked out by Alois Senefelder in Germany before 1800. It consisted of putting designs on stone with a greasy material, often with crayon, and from this producing printed impressions. Senefelder took out patents in England in 1801, but by that time Englishmen had worked out a similar process.

Lithographs can be excellent. At first, all prints were black and white. Later came the chromolithographs, which were printed in colors from a series of stones prepared by the lithograph process. The shortening of this term to chromo, usually spoken in a derogatory tone, can be attributed to the harsh coloring of many of these prints. Some, of course, were of good quality.

The most famous firm in the United States to produce lithographic prints was Currier & Ives. Nathaniel Currier went into business in New York City in 1834; then in 1857 James Merritt Ives became his partner. Both retired in the 1880's, but the firm continued in business until 1907. There were many other lithographing firms, not only in New York City but also in such cities as Hartford, Boston, and Buffalo.

Currier & Ives produced a tremendous number of prints. Their subjects alone totaled more than 7,000. The early lithographs from Currier & Ives were printed in black and white. If color was called for, it was applied by hand by means of water colors. By 1880, this firm printed in various colors.

The subjects of the prints produced by all the lithographic firms appealed greatly to Victorians. There were American views and scenes, artists' conceptions of historical events, country and garden scenes, portraits of prominent persons, family groups idealized and sentimentalized, cartoons including political ones, horses and horse racing, hunting, fishing, and other sports including boxing and baseball, railroad and Mississippi River themes, religious subjects, fires, and other current events. In other words, these inexpensive prints covered all phases of living and the outlook of the time. One of the notable Currier & Ives prints, and a great favorite today, was titled "Home for Thanksgiving."

Any lithograph is worth taking to an expert for his opinion of its value. It need not be a Currier & Ives. Those from this as well as other firms differed greatly in quality. Subject matter is as important in determining a lithograph's present cash value.

Other types of "pictures" appealed to Victorians. An example would be an aquatint, made by an etching process so that the print imitated the broad, flat effect of an India ink or sepia drawing or a water color. Another process of engraving (on copper and steel, by scraping or burnishing a roughened surface to produce light and shade) gave the mezzotint. Then, of course, there were wood and steel engravings and etchings. But these were more expensive and hence not as commonly found today as the lithographs.

Prints were turned out in quantity by several processes, and are a specialized field in themselves. Bird, animal, flower, and fruit prints can be important; also prints of Indians and the American West. Some flower and fruit prints may come from nursery catalogues of the 1880's. Prints of John James Audubon's famous paintings of birds and animals (quadrupeds) of North America were expensive even in their day. Mark Catesby and Alexander Wilson were also noted for their paintings of birds, reproductions of which illustrated their volumes of natural history. From the portraits and documentary sketches of American artist George Catlin came prints of the Indians of the Plains and western mountains, and Alfred J. Miller, who traveled to Wyoming about 1837, immortalized the trappers and fur traders of his time. Charles Bodmer, Edward Borein, and Frederie Remington are others whose fame rests on Western themes.

Not of as widespread interest as prints but currently attracting many collectors are lithophanes. These are porcelain transparencies, first made at the Berlin Royal Porcelain Manufactory in 1828. They continued to be made elsewhere in Germany and in France and England until about 1900. These unusually translucent porcelain pieces were used as shields for candlelight, lampshades, and plaques to be placed in windows. Children and pets, groupings of a father and child, figures, and flowers were typical designs.

Much older than this type of room decoration were the old hand-lettered and hand-decorated pieces called F rak-tur, the work of the Pennsylvania Germans. These were primarily certificates of birth, marriage, or baptism or perhaps house blessings, with lettering and decoration consisting of flowers, birds, hearts, and angels in color. During the 1700's the work was done entirely by hand, but in the 1800's many were printed, with blanks for filling in names and dates. The coloring of the designs might have been done by hand. These pieces were large enough to be framed and hung on the wall.

Needlework pictures were stitched by adults during the 1700's and 1800's, and were unlike the samplers which were done by children. Needlepoint, cross-stitch, and embroidery with silk floss were in and out of favor for these scenic, floral, or sentimental groupings, or possibly copies of famous paintings. Painting on glass was an acquired art for young ladies, especially in Pennsylvania and New England, during the early 1800's. Also fashionable among young ladies were theorems or stencil paintings with water colors on paper or with oils on velvet. The vase of flowers or bowl of fruit was not done freehand but by the arrangement of variously shaped stencils. Then there were pinpricked pictures, and shellwork wreaths and bouquets in frames and under glass domes.

Much of the fancy art work done by young ladies was inspired by such magazines as Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine. Godey's Lady's Book, as it is usually now called, was a tremendously successful monthly publication that was started in Philadelphia in 1830. Fashions, household hints, sketches and floor plans for houses and cottages, continued stories, short stories, essays, and verse all contributed to the "high moral tone" claimed by Louis A. Godey, the publisher. Among the famous writers whose work was published were Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. But the most famous name of all was that of Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the magazine and this country's first woman editor. She was not only a successful editor but also a prolific writer of novels, essays, and poems.

Nineteenth-century magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine are a wonderful guide to the fashions, furniture, customs, and activities of the time. Issues were lavishly illustrated with full-page lithographs, many of them bearing the printer's name. A single print, cleanly cut from the magazine, means cash in hand. In fact, many of the fashion prints of the 1800's came from these magazines. However, a complete issue and particularly a full year of issues are considerably more valuable.

Magazines and periodicals that were printed monthly began to be published in the United States as early as 1741. Most of them were short-lived and unimportant until The American Museum was launched in 1787. Many magazines in addition to the two designed primarily for the ladies were started during the 1800's--for example, Harper's Magazine (1850) and The Atlantic Monthly (1857), which are still being published. An occasional issue of many of these magazines may be valuable to collectors, libraries, and the like because it marks an anniversary or contains articles on special events. Complete files for a year or longer, not only of general magazines but also any on specialized subjects such as chemistry, botany, nature, and the like are fairly easy to sell.

Almanacs have had a longer and much livelier history than monthly publications in the United States. The most famous publisher of an almanac was Benjamin Franklin. The first appearance of his Poor Richard's Almanack, which he wrote and then published in his own printing shop in Philadelphia, was in 1732. So widely sold and so thoroughly read were the issues of this almanac, which Franklin published for twenty-five years, that it was the foundation of his fortune.

Almanacs antedate newspapers, for the first ones were printed here in the late 1600's. From the 1680's through the 1700's and a great part of the 1800's, the average American depended on an almanac to keep track of the days and weeks, the phases of the moon, and weather predictions, to decide on planting times, and to calculate volumes and measures. Almanacs provided reading matter and amusement, for they included riddles and short articles, which writers often were glad to furnish free of charge in order to get into print. Of the innumerable almanacs published over a period of two centuries, Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack takes all the honors for being the most witty and pithy.

As a matter of fact, some almanacs were propaganda for various causes. Some supported the temperance movements; some were for Freemasonry, others against it. Sonic almanacs were practically religious tracts, except for their calendar of the days, weeks, and months of the year, the listing of ecclesiastical and saints' days, and the presentation of astronomical data and phenomena. In Utica, New York, in 1832, Edward Giddings published a 64-page anti-Freemasonry almanac that was offered for sale in New England, as far west as Detroit, Michigan, and in Charleston and Macon in the South. Almanacs were published in many states. In Connecticut, for example, between 1783 and 1800 they were published in three towns: Norwich, New London, and Hartford.

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