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Metal Antiques - Tinware

[Indispensable Metals]  [Pewter]  [Brass]  [Bronze]  [Copper]  [Iron]  [Tinware] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

Tinware and ironware were an important part of the stock carried by the peddlers who traveled the highways and byways during the eighteenth and a great part of the nineteenth centuries. Much of the tinware is still around, and neglected because it is rusty, dented, or battered. If tinware was painted originally, such decoration will be faded and perhaps peeling too. None of this tinware, plain or painted, was expensive. People pay much more nowadays for a faded and battered piece than the original owner did when it was shining and new. Sometimes tinware also was decorated by piercing, punching, or crimping.

No deposits of tin exist in the United States, so the colonists were dependent on supplies from England, where tin mines in Cornwall have been worked from the days of the Romans. Because England was niggardly about shipping this metal here, it was not until after the Revolution that much tinware was made in this country. By 1830 tinsmiths-or whitesmiths, as they were often called-were well established and their products were keeping many a housewife happy. One of the chief centers of production for peddlers was the state of Connecticut.

Tin is not an alloy but a metal almost as white and lustrous as silver, although inferior to silver. It is essential to making such important and beautiful alloys as bronze, pewter, and britannia. However, utensils, boxes, and cans were made from tinplate, which is sheet iron or steel covered on both sides with tin. The iron or steel gives strength, the tin a pleasing luster and protection against corrosion under normal conditions of exposure. The making of tinplate is complicated and requires great skill.

Much of the nineteenth-century tinware that is still around consists of cooking and kitchen utensils. Pots and pans of all sizes, dippers, mugs, cups and measures, spoons, cooking forks and ladles, pudding and candle molds, cookie cutters, teapots, coffeepots, teakettles, and plates were sold everywhere. Spice boxes and nutmeg graters made a century or more ago may still be usable. Pie cupboards with door panels of tin pierced in a decorative pattern are interesting finds that most often turn up in rural areas.

Tin was important for lighting too. Candlesticks and chambersticks of tin, plain or painted, were inexpensive and hence in great demand even during the 1800's. So were sconces. Sconces with round shields were often crimped or scalloped along the edges. A higher, narrower, shield-shaped back might be punched so that the "buttons" raised thereby caught and reflected the light. Cone extinguishers of tin were plainer and much cheaper than similar ones made of brass. Like old oil lamps, sconces now are sometimes electrified, and electrified reproductions are made to hold candle-shaped light bulbs.

Lanterns to provide light outdoors after dark were made of pierced tin. Lamps to burn whale oil were made of tin from the 1820's to the 1860's. They might be tall or low, with or without a handle, and some had saucer bases. Chandeliers of tin belonged to the eighteenth century. They were not plentiful because tin itself was not plentiful here then. Those that were made usually had six arms, each one holding a candle. On the whole, tin chandeliers were simpler in design than those of pewter or brass.

Fireplace equipment included footstoves, which were square or rectangular boxes with a handle. The sides were pierced tin. A box for wood also might be tin. Tin match-holders were common.

Painted tinware, also called japanned ware, toleware, or tole, has been popular for a good 200 years. About 1700, experiments in Pontypool, an iron town in England, resulted in the successful painting of tinware to resemble the lacquered pieces imported from China. By 1730, a flourishing business had been established.

Tole, painting on metal, was done not only professionally but also by amateurs. Metal painting became a lady's hobby between 1750 and 1800, just as china painting did about 1900. In America, where metal painting did not become fashionable until the early 1800's, and in England, tole was largely painted tinware. In France, where it was fashionable and popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was sometimes done on copper. These countries and Holland, too, developed their own style of tole. After 1840 when electroplated and papiermache articles became the fashion, little was heard or done about tole for another 100 years or so.

The backgrounds for the designs painted on metal were usually dark - black, brown, deep red, or tortoiseshell. The designs themselves were done either freehand with brushes and oil paint or by means of stencils. Colors and bronze powders (metallic tones of gold, silver, and colors) were equally favored. Decorations ranged from oriental scenes and designs copied from oriental lacquering, peacocks and other birds, to country scenes taken from prints or possibly an oil painting. Garlands, large and natural-looking flowers as well as smaller sprigs, and fountains were used again and again.

Probably more trays and boxes than anything else were painted. Serving trays with a lacy or pierced edge were popular in this country around 1800. Later, both large rectangular trays with rounded edges and octagonal ones became more common. Bread trays were smaller. Boxes in all sizes were painted.

Many that had handles were large enough to hold a lunch. Some were called document boxes. Then there were tea caddies and small trinket boxes. Even coffeepots, teapots, and mugs sometimes were painted tin. Nothing but the most utilitarian tinware was immune while tole was at the height of its popularity, particularly when amateurs dabbled at it.

The fashion of making a utensil in the form of a person, animal, fish, or other "character" caught the public's fancy during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although most of these character pieces were made of pottery or glass, a few were made from tin and painted-especially cookie jars and other covered pieces. Some of the character tinware resembled the Toby character jugs or pitchers of earthenware.

It doesn't pay to be hasty about throwing out a long-empty tin or canister that once held cookies, biscuits, or other foods sold or displayed in a store. It may be useless from your viewpoint, but there are eager collectors of gaily decorated tin boxes. Some firms made a series of them that, in spite of any advertising included in the decoration, were the kind people just couldn't throw away. Leaders in the decorating of tin cans and boxes with bright lithographed designs instead of paper labels were the Somers brothers, metalworkers in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1870's. Some businessmen designed containers for their products. For example, Schepp's coconut was sold in a tin pail with a fantastic design featuring monkeys (later Schepp's put up their coconut in glass jars with a coconut as a knob on the cover). The Hercules Powder Company used a decorated flask that could be attached to a hunter's belt. Most of these lithographed designs included self-advertising.

Tobacco companies were especially fertile in ideas. Green Turtle Cigars were packed in a lithographed tin lunch box with an appropriate design that incorporated a green turtle on the sides. One of the containers for Continental Cubes tobacco had a richly colored standing portrait of George Washington.

All sorts of household necessities as well as drugs and cosmetics were packaged in tins. Among those sought after now are the Huntley & Palmer's biscuit tins. This is an English firm that packed their products in this of unusually imaginative shape prior to 1900. Examples are a pedestal topped with a sundial, a 12-inch grandfather's clock, and a set of "leather-bound" books. The tins were covered with lithographs that carried out the idea of their shapes. People bought -such tins eagerly and, in fact, the public was urged to "collect" the variously lithographed tin boxes for tobacco and candy. Many firms brought out a series in distinctive shapes and colorings.

The canning industry grew from an award given in 1810 by Napoleon to a Frenchman who had perfected a method of preserving food by cooking it partly and then sealing it in bottles with cork stoppers. Also in 1810, an Englishman was granted a patent for preserving foods in "vessels of glass, pottery, tin and other metals or fit materials." A canning factory in New York was set up about 18I 2 by Thomas Kensett, an Englishman. At first he used glass containers, but after 1837 Kensett and others who had entered this new industry used tin cans. Both the California Gold Rush in 1848 and the War Between the States gave an impetus to using food from tin cans.

Not that people save old tin cans. However, it is interesting that tin, which was once so scarce and precious here, has been the basis of an enormous industry for more than a hundred years. By the 1880's, tin was plentiful enough for the manufacture of toys. All of these were painted and many of them were animated. Some of the mechanical ones would seem to have supplemented the cast-iron circus wagons, for they were performing animals. Collectors are interested in tin toys, if they arc in reasonably good condition.

Both painted and unpainted tin can be sold for surprisingly good prices. Tin boxes and containers, even with selfadvertising on them, will sell for $5 to $10. Rarity, unusual shape, and the condition of the lithograph covering influence the price that may be asked and expected. A tole box, however small, commands higher prices. A painted coffeepot in good condition is worth about $7.50; an unpainted one, equally good, perhaps $5. Large tole trays starts at about $15 and go very much higher, depending on their age and condition.

Tin articles made during the eighteenth century are worth about twice as much as those made during the nineteenth century, if the condition is good. An eighteenth-century wall sconce, for example, can be valued at about $30; a nineteenth-century one, probably machine-made instead of handmade, may be worth no more than $10 or $12, and current reproductions sell for $10 to $20. A tole sconce might be worth $50. An unpainted candlestick with saucer and push-up knob should be priced at about $5, or more if the condition is really good.

A tin mold for making candles probably goes back to the late 1700's or only the earliest years of the 1800's. A mold for making a dozen candles sells for about $8.50 at the present time. Pudding molds with fluted or tapered sides and a design in the bottom were much used throughout the nineteenth century, but any that are in good condition will bring at least $5 and perhaps as much as a candle mold. The tin wash basin kept in a kitchen is worth a dollar or so, and the portable tin bathtub may sell for close to $10, although neither one may be more than 75 years old and the purchaser probably has no intention of using them for their original purpose.

During the last two centuries, candleholders in various styles, sconces, teapots, coffeepots, and teakettles have been made not only in precious silver but also in pewter and britannia, brass, copper, iron, and tin. An iron candleholder may be older and more unusual than one made in any of the other metals. In spite of these two merits, it will not be as easy to sell an iron candleholder, even for less money, as the more attractive ones of pewter, brass, or painted tin.

Weathervanes were made chiefly of metal during the 1800's, with copper, brass, iron, and tin all used to some extent. After 1850, the vane of copper or other metal was shaped by means of a mold of cast iron.

A sewing bird might be made of brass, iron, or, more rarely, silver. Both brass and iron birds sometimes were plated or lacquered to disguise their basic material. Most of these birds either carried a velvet pincushion on their backs or stood on a cushion, and a few had two pincushions. Victorian sewing birds sell for $7 and up.

As already mentioned, during the 1800's two metals sometimes were combined in one object, such as the scales for store and home use that might be tin or iron with brass face or pans. An old steelyard sells for about $5.

Other metal alloys of which nothing is heard nowadays were used for decorative accessories and personal articles after 1850. A jewel or trinket box of hard metal that is golden in color might well be what was called jeweler's bronze.

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