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( Originally Published 1963 )
Brass is not as important to the smooth running of a house nowadays as it used to be. When the United States was a young nation, a caller gained admittance to many houses by clanging the brass knocker on the front door. Indoors, candlesticks and chambersticks, the andirons and fender at the fireplace, the pots and kettles hanging around it, were softly gleaming brass. The tools to tend the fireplace also often were tipped with brass handles. In the fireplace corner stood at least one long-handled brass bedwarmer. Ten to one, the key to the front door was made of brass too.
Brass added a cheerful gleam to any room then as it does now. It was not used for a wide range of tablewarespoons, plates, and serving pieces-as was pewter. The teakettle and other handsome kettles, the long-handled fork for cooking at the fireplace, ladles, dippers, and milk pans probably were brass. But although brass was used for a host of essential articles and many decorative ones, people did not eat from it.
Brass is an alloy consisting chiefly of copper and zinc in variable proportions. Unlike pewter, brass is not soft. A kettle or pot may have been dented accidentally, but candlesticks, andirons, and the like generally are in excellent condition. Although brass will tarnish, it can be polished with little effort to its original sheen.
A considerable amount of brassware always has been imported. Undoubtedly many settlers brought some pieces with them from England and Europe. Nevertheless, braziers are known to have worked here in Colonial days. One of the earliest ones was Henry Shrimpton, who died in 1665. During the early 1700's braziers came here from England, Holland, and Germany.
A few of the silversmiths did a certain amount of brass work (the Revere family in Boston was one example). Coppersmiths also worked with brass. Still, there were thousands of braziers working here by the end of the eighteenth century and during the early years of the nineteenth century. Although their work was quite as beautiful in its own way, braziers were far more self-effacing than silversmiths and pewterers.
Most braziers kept busy turning out useful articles for the households in their communities. They made bullet molds, bootjacks, and powder horns for the men, sewing birds for the ladies. But the greatest part of their output was for the house itself and the chores that had to be done in and around it. Of candlesticks, kettles, and pots there seems to have been no end.
The first glimpse of the brazier's work, as mentioned before, was often seen on the front door. As early as the 1700's, knockers were made of brass as well as iron. For the more handsome brass ones, such classic motifs as a shell or an elongated vase were preferred, with a brass hoop attached. By 1790, eagles were as popular a form for knockers as for furniture decoration; some were simpler than others, and the poses varied. Brass knockers continued to be made during the 1800's.
Candlesticks and other articles followed the styles that braziers had known in their native countries. Brass as well as pewter candlesticks were fashioned after the more expensive silver ones. It is safe to say that no new styles were developed in this country.
Candlesticks, made in pairs, ranged from short ones about 4 1/2 inches tall, to high and quite elaborately shaped ones. Heights of 6 1/2, 8 3/4, 9 1/2, and occasionally 12 inches were common. Candlesticks had square, octagonal, or round bases during the eighteenth century. A distinctive and not too common style was a round base with swirling. Sometimes a small saucer was attached just tinder the socket or at mid-height of the stick to catch drippings so that they did not mar the table.
Chambersticks, perhaps no taller than 2 1/2 inches, with saucer bases and ring handles were a style made over and over again between 1750 and 1850.
Chambersticks are short candlesticks meant to be carried about the house and particularly to light the way to the bedchamber.
Chambersticks and some candlesticks have a slot with a knob jutting from it at one side. By pushing up the knob, the stub of the candle can be dislodged effortlessly.
Sconces, or brackets to attach to a wall and hold a candle, were widely used during the eighteenth century. Like candlesticks, sconces were often put up in pairs. Many sconces held only one candle, but those made to hold two candles were also popular and some held a group of candles. Occasionally a sconce was made to hold a globe protecting a candle much as glass hurricane shades were made to slip over tall
brass candlesticks. Backplates varied in height from about 61/2 inches to almost 12 inches. The backplate usually was quite simple in design, and if the projecting arm for the candle was scrolled, this also was simple.
Candelabra and double-armed candlesticks were made in brass as well as silver. The arms on the latter in some cases could be adjusted at different heights, as could the later brass lamps. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brass also was well-liked for chandeliers and hanging lanterns for indoors. Chandeliers held from four to a dozen long candles, and many lanterns held two to four shorter ones.
Two essential accessories for candlesticks and other styles of candleholders were a snuffer or extinguisher and the combination snuffer and trimmer. They
could be made of tin, iron, or copper, but brass ones were made for brass candlesticks. Old brass ones are particularly nice.
The extinguisher, which is often called a snuffer, is nothing more than a small cone of metal to be held or dropped over the candle to extinguish its flame. Some of them are exceedingly plain, others are tipped with knobs or finials and have a ring handle attached to one side at the base.
The combination snuffer and trimmer is sometimes called a scissors candle snuffer. This often stood on a small matching tray. If not, small mounts were attached to the underside of the handles and the long blade. This type of snuffer was a scissors-like tool between five and six inches long, with an open box an inch or so long attached to the one pointed blade and the fourth side of the box on the other short blade. Its purpose was to clip off burnt portions of the wick so the candle would burn more evenly and brightly. The clippings were caught in the box so they did not fall to mar the wood or the cloth under the candleholder. While doing this, the tool also snuffed out the candle.
Perhaps even more important than lighting devices were kettles and pots. They were produced in a vast array of shapes and sizes and were prized highly by housewives. All manner of cooking utensils were made of brass. So were teakettles, and trivets on which to stand these and other hot dishes. Some brass pails were made too. Incidentally, most brass trivets are handsome, whether they are the cyphers and simply scrolled designs, many of which were imported from England during the 1700's, or the fancier patterns of the 1800's similar to those of cast-iron trivets.
A brass mortar and pestle was essential in an apothecary shop. Many of them were also put to good use in kitchens to grind herbs and spices.
In the old days, the cooking pots and teakettle used to hang from the crane, which was fastened securely to a wall of the fireplace. The iron crane could be pushed into different positions in order to keep the gleaming pots over the fire. However, other brass was considered desirable in or near the fireplace, which for so many years was doubly important because it was both the source of heat indoors and the center for cooking. Andirons too were needed, although they were not as indispensable for the fireplace as the crane and kettles. Less prosperous homes during the eighteenth century managed without them and supported logs on a couple of stones. When a family moved into a larger house, each room had its own fireplace for heat. AIthough not every one of these necessarily had a full complement of tools and equipment, all were furnished with enough so that a fire could be started and tended in safety.
Until quite late in the nineteenth century, many pairs of handsome brass andirons were made and used. Probably as many as andirons of all other materials, for brass was preferred for all but the most utilitarian ones. A good many andirons had both shaft and horizontal bar of iron, with the shafts tipped with a knob or finial of brass. As families could afford them, they liked andirons with brass shaft and legs. A good many andirons had small brass balls or finials on low shafts about three inches behind the tall brass shaft, and the bar between the two overlaid with brass. This, plus brass shaft and legs, is an indication of quality.
Some slight changes in design are noticeable in brass andirons. During the eighteenth century, brass shafts were usually baluster-shaped and tipped with an urn or pointed finial. Occasionally the brass column would be square and tapering. "Then in the early nineteenth century when all furnishings showed Empire influence, the shafts became rounder and heavierlooking and were topped with sizable round balls.
Fenders probably were never as popular in this country as they were in Europe. They were so low that they were not much of a guard for the fire, but even today they are still often used decoratively in front of a fireplace. Although they had given service in England and Europe much earlier, fenders were little seen in this country until the late 1700's and then only in the wealthier homes. A fender was curved at the ends or serpentine, between 6 and 8 inches high, and pierced in a decorative pattern.
A set of tools for the fireplace consisted of a small shovel, tongs, and poker. More often than not, these tools were made entirely of iron, but at least one room in the house was likely to have a handsomer set with brass handles. Sometimes brass tool-handles were made to match the brass shafts of andirons. The tools were hung on either side of the fireplace by means of jamb hooks, also made of brass. Two holes in the brass plate of each jamb hook enabled it to be fastened to the wall. The stands used nowadays to hold fireplace tools are a modern idea. Jamb hooks, on the other hand, belong to the days when a fireplace and its equipment were essential to comfort in a house.
By about 1850 when coal, and then gas, began to be used for fireplace heat, grates were needed instead of andirons. These grates or firebaskets made of iron were sometimes finished with brass finials and facings. Coal scuttles or coal boxes were made of brass to stand beside the fireplace. Both boxes and scuttles often were hammered to form a pattern on the surface.
Braziers were such a versatile group of workmen that they could go from making a pair of beautifully turned candlesticks to such everyday small items as buttons and thimbles, spurs, stirrups, and pony brasses. Pride could be taken in making keyhole escutcheons, other furniture hardware, eagle finials, and curtain tiebacks. Trivets, inkstands and inkwells, and an occasional sundial were made from the early 1700's.
Bells were another important order. Not all of the old bells were made of brass, but there's never any question about selling one that is. Size and to some extent shape varied with the purpose of the bell. Ship's bells are among the larger brass ones. Cowbells, almost rectangular instead of round, were made in more than one size. School bells and dinner bells were attached to wooden handles, and the small sleigh bells were fastened along leather straps. Brass bells differ in tone, but their ring is always a pleasant one.
In spite of the number of braziers who worked steadily in America, a good deal of brass continued to be imported. A great number of candlesticks and many cooking utensils were sent here from England. Brass milk cans as well as decorative tobacco boxes came from Holland.
It often is difficult to tell whether a piece of old brass was made in this country or abroad. Just as there are almost no records of braziers' names, so also was brassware seldom marked. However, it is not difficult to tell whether brass is antique or modern. The color is a true indication.
Antique brassware is a beautiful shade of golden yellow. It never turns red when it becomes tarnished, as do later pieces. It also has a soft patina as does old silver, and this is as impossible to reproduce as the color. Seams are another indication that brassware is old. Each article was cast in two pieces and joined together. Then it was polished and finished by hand.
Old brass consistently sells for good prices. The umbrella stand that is not really old enough to be an antique because it was a late-Victorian idea will bring $10 to $15. The very much older and smaller curtain tiebacks are worth $15 to $20, and a brass bootjack in the neighborhood of $7.50.
Since collecting bells is a popular hobby, there's always a market for them. A large cowbell can be sold for $6 or so, a 6-inch-high school bell with a wood handle for about $10. Sleigh bells are at such a premium that dealers frequently cut a leather strap into sections, each with two or three bells, and sell these small pieces for $1 or so. A 24-inch strap, intact, may bring $25.
Much of the fireplace equipment made only yesterday copies the styles of antique andirons, fenders, and the like. Andirons made between 1830 and 1850 and topped with brass balls are worth at least $35. Those from other periods range from $25 upward. A large coal scuttle with a hammered design might be priced as high as $50.
Brass kettles sell for $10 to $20, depending on their capacity. A small mortar and pestle can be priced at about $12.
Antiques made of brass have not deteriorated as have those made of many other metals. Brass is sturdy and, like silver, acquires beauty with its age. Furthermore, any article of old brass was the product of a crafstman, not a factory. It was handmade and its color is unmistakable.