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( Originally Published 1963 )
Firemarks appeal to almost everyone. In fact, they are so popular that many old ones are being reproduced in miniature as wall ornaments or paperweights. Firemarks were made of iron, lead on wood, or terra cotta; reproductions usually are iron. Before the days of professional firemen (the first groups were hired by cities in the 1850's), every insurance company had its own insignia and furnished its plaque to each client, who fastened it somewhere on the front of his house or business building. The firemark indicated to the amateur firefighters that the house was insured, and therefore it would be worth battling a blaze there because a financial reward could be expected. First to issue a firemark-clasped hands against a shield-was the Philadelphia Contributorship For The Insurance of Houses From Loss By Fire, formed in 1752 with Benjamin Franklin as one of the directors (the firm is still in business). This firm would not insure houses surrounded by trees, but the Mutual Insurance Company of Philadelphia, organized in 1784, would, so its device featured the now-famous "flowering tree." Popular with the many other insurance companies formed during the next hundred years were motifs such as firefighters in uniform, speaking trumpets, hydrants, and various pieces of equipment. Also often used was an eagle. The Eagle Insurance Company of Cincinnati in 1855 issued an oval plaque to be mounted horizontally, with an eagle and the name of the company on a ribbon below. Another oval, to be mounted vertically, showed an eagle whose pose has been changed several times since the first one was issued in 1792 by the Insurance Company of North America.
Telescopes or spyglasses, binoculars, and compasses may be fully as serviceable now as they were when they were first used a century or more ago. Spyglasses were little used by mariners until the late eighteenth century, and compasses were not common until the nineteenth. Barometers, clocks, and lanterns, as well as bells, ships' logs, and old navigation maps and charts are other nautical accessories to be set aside for appraisal and sale.
Models of ships old enough to be antique may be worth considerable money to people who study and collect them. However, everyone is fascinated by a ship in a bottle. The art of inserting a miniature ship into a bottle and creating a scene around it originated in the early 1800's. British sailors presumably started this hobby, but soon sailors of all countries were trying their skill. All kinds of vessels traveling the oceans during the nineteenth century were re-created to ride their bit of sea made of tinted clay or plaster fastened in a bottle. Scenery included sea and possibly a lighthouse or a shoreline with village and trees.
Another seaman's art, scrimshaw, was peculiarly American. Scrimshaw is the term for small things carved from the tooth or bone of a whale. Every member of a crew from captain to cabin boy is said to have passed time on the whaling voyages that lasted two, three, and sometimes five years by making scrimshaw. It is a natural art to have developed among New Englanders, who on land were noted for whittling. A ship model or small chest for keepsakes or jewelry was an ambitious project known as large scrimshaw. More numerous are the innumerable small gadgets and useful objects, such as buttons, clothespins, handles for canes, a pie crimper, a corset stay or buskboard, even picture frames. There also are a good many examples of a sperm whale's tooth carved into an artistic piece such as a wreath, emblem, or figure.
Some scrimshaw is finer work than others, for the quality varied with the skill and patience of the seaman. Only the simplest tools were used. Files of varying coarseness and sometimes sharkskin smoothed and polished the rough, ribbed surface of the sperm whale's tooth. This was followed by rubbing with the fingers and palm of the hand for a shining, smooth surface. The seaman's knife, awls, and needles were used for carving the bone or tooth into the desired shape and then decorating it with an elaborate and detailed, yet often delicate, pattern.
The best way to identify scrimshaw or a piece you suspect to be scrimshaw is to visit one of the maritime museums such as those in New Bedford, Massa-chusetts, and Mystic, Connecticut, on the East Coast or in San Francisco, California, on the West Coast.
Anyone who counts the captain of a clipper ship or a whaler among his ancestors may find ivory carvings which he brought from the Orient. Miniature ivory carvings used to be displayed on the whatnot. Or his preference may have been for netsuke, the small fastenings like a knob or button that have been carved for generations in Japan.
Ivory, bone, jade, wood, and other materials have been used for netsuke, which were often elaborately carved in such forms as dogs, frogs, figures, and gods. Some of them were inlaid, lacquered, or enameled.
Articles have been fashioned from animal horn in America as well as in countries all over the world. In addition to the indispensable powder horns, drinking cups, small dishes, boxes such as those for snuff, and napkin rings were carved from horn during the 1800's.
Finding an Indian arrowhead is comparable to plucking a four-leaf clover. Some people can look down on a Long Island meadow and pick up either one; others never see them. For those whose eyes are sharp enough, there are still probably some other Indian artifacts to be found. Stone arrowheads and spearheads are quite plentiful, but differ in size, shape, and color of stone. Don't scorn anything from arrowheads to flints or drills that sharp-eyed relatives may have found and displayed in their homes. If you don't want to keep them or the children are not interested, by all means give them to a museum or local historical society, or sell the lot to a dealer for whatever he offers.
Artifacts from the world the white man created on North America may be worth gathering together for possible sale. Relics of old political campaigns, for example, might include flasks made with the likeness of William H. Harrison when he was running for president, and posters, banners, torches, campaign buttons, and badges from other local and national elections during the last 100 years. A Currier & Ives print depicting a favorite candidate may have been hidden away too.
The elaborate wicker or wire birdcage that has not been used in goodnessknows-how-many years can be disposed of for a few dollars. A decorator who buys it undoubtedly will charge a client many times what you receive for it. Wire cages made in the shape of figures, Chinese pagodas, and various styles of houses may not be in the best condition but probably can be sold for at least a couple of dollars. Or suppose that in clearing out a house, you have piled up a group of eggs, such as a darning egg whittled from wood, a china egg that formerly was placed in a hen's nest, a rather grimy but still glittering Easter egg with a peephole for viewing the scene attached inside, and an old perfume container in an egg. Well, some people collect all kinds of useful or decorative eggs and anything else that featured or was used in connection with eggs.
Just as Victorian birdcages are taking on whimsical importance in contemporary decoration, so are lavaboes. These wall basins with faucets and bowls were made of many materials, from about 1400 up until 1890. Silver, Sheffield, iron, pewter or painted tin, wood, earthenware such as majolica, and ironstone or other stoneware were used with varying degrees of skill. Most of them are quite decorative.
People have even been known to buy at an auction-and bring home to set up in a recreation room-an old postoffice cage that formerly stood in one corner of a country store. That being so, there is no reason to think you cannot sell a monster of an old-style typewriter, a cash register worked by hand, an early style of checkwriter, scales from butcher or grocery shops long since closed, or early fountain pens (but not those in use just before ballpoint pens displaced them).
A few cents for an old style of fountain pen, a few dollars for the typewriter that has not been used for years, will satisfy most people. Unless you want to keep it for sentiment's sake, a set of ebony and ivory dominoes that is complete in its original wooden box ought to sell for $7.50, even if no one intends to play with it. Chess sets will be priced according to the materials and workmanship, playing cards according to age and rarity. A magic lantern, even in the best condition, probably cannot be sold for more than $20, or a stereoscope that still works for much more than $5. Cards for a stereoscope in a set of approximately 100, may bring another $5.
It is much easier to set a price on imported ivory miniatures than on scrimshaw. Not that scrimshaw sells for fabulous prices, but a person would have to have some knowledge of scrimshaw in general to appraise any one piece. A carved ivory napkin ring may be worth $5, a letter-holder with elaborate carving perhaps $5. Netsuke vary from about $15 to $40 or more depending on the material, decoration, and workmanship. A horn napkin ring may sell for no more than $1, but a horn snuffbox should be worth at least $5.
Dolls in good condition bring excellent prices, particularly if any of their original clothing is available. A fashion doll is certain to sell for more than $100. A doll with a china head, hands, and feet that are not chipped may sell for about $75, wax dolls for $50 or less. Dolls with bisque heads range from about $50 to well over $100, and perhaps more if stamped with the name of the maker or country.
Considerable financial return may be netted from selling prints and pictures. Silhouettes range from a couple of dollars to $50, according to whether they were signed by the artist and depending on their condition and the identity of the person depicted. Miniatures painted on ivory or porcelain vary in quality. Again, the signature of the artist affects the value as much as the skill with which the painting was done. Many miniatures that are not outstanding sell for $40 to $75; others bring considerably more. Daguerreotypes that are authenticated as such bring a few dollars-as much for the case, if it is in good condition, as for the picture. Of course, a daguerreotype of a famous person such as Abraham Lincoln will bring considerably more money than one of an unknown grandfather. Tintypes have no particular value.
A lithophane plaque or picture may bring as much as $25. Prints sell for less - and a great deal more, since prices can range from a few dollars to hundreds and, in some cases, thousands. The subject matter as well as the condition of the print helps to determine its market value. It is a mistake to try to clean a very dusty or a stained print. This chore should be tackled only by an experienced person. An expert should be consulted about price, too. So many reproductions have been made of Currier & Ives and of Audubon bird prints that it is important to be certain you have originals. A subject for which there is constant demand will sell for a higher price than less popular ones. Some Western prints by such specialists in this field as George Catlin and Charles Bodmer may be sold for no more than $35 to $75, whereas a rare one by either artist may bring several hundred dollars.
The fact remains that it is possible to sell almost anything that deserves the qualifying word "antique."