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( Originally Published 1963 )
Equally salable are some of the wooden boxes in which things were shipped to, or displayed in, stores. The packaging to which Victorians were accustomed may not have had the sanitary aspects of current plastic bags and wrappings, but the workmanship of their ordinary wooden boxes is astounding and their display boxes were often further enhanced with colored lithographs. When such boxes are found in the cellars, attics, or closets of old houses, they deserve a good dusting and a second look before being thrown away.
Several dirty, dusty boxes found in a Pennsylvania cellar about ten years ago proved to be as sound as the day they were made. The clue to the age and original purpose of one of them (made of oak with brass hinges and clasp) was the picture of garden carnations that lined its lid, the colors fresh and the print unmarred. It carried the lettering of D. M. Ferry & Co., Detroit, Michigan, a seed firm that opened for business April 1, 1856, and in 1930 merged with another firm. The box had displayed packets of seed in the early 1880's in the general store that had been owned and operated by the owner of the house two generations before.
Boxes in which tea, coffee, grains, cereals, and the like were packed or displayed often are fine enough that, even with their advertising lettering, they suggest several possible uses today. If not to the person who finds them, they will to someone who becomes fascinated with them. One such seed box, 111/2 by 7 by 4 inches, now is a button box.
The clutter out of which a seed box and similar finds are dredged may also contain the store sign. By 1880, most signs had fairly prosaic lettering, but throughout much of the nineteenth century many special shops had extraordinarily graphic signs.
Shop signs, cut, whittled, or carved from wood, so clearly identified the wares or services dispensed within that a person had no need to ask directions or know the name of the shopkeeper. Giant eyeglasses, a large boot or high buttoned shoe, and a mortar and pestle indicated respectively an optical shop, a shoemaker, and a drugstore. Smaller trade signs cut in the shape of a fish and a ram's head called attention to the store that sold fish and the one that sold meat. These trade signs owed as much to the painter as to the woodcarver or carpenter.
The wood-carver really came into his own with figures, even though those made during the 1800's were painted too. In fact, carved figures now are ranked as folk art. In spite of their size, they are collected eagerly by people who display them in recreation rooms and elsewhere in their homes or some place outdoors.
Barber poles are more common than other old-time barbershop signs that announced the barber also was a surgeon. One of the latter had a basin hanging from a pole. The spiral stripes of red and white on a pole represent a bleeding arm wrapped with gauze.
Tobacco shops had fully as many typical figures as barbershops. The painted, life-size wooden Indian is the one usually associated with tobacco or cigar stores. The Indian was a standing one, but not always in the same pose or garb. Or the figure might be a sultan in robes and turban, or a sailor smoking a long-stemmed pipe. So enthusiastic were the Victorians about these figures that many shops displayed beside the door any carved and painted wood figure large enough to attract attention. A sailor holding a sextant announced the wares of a nautical instrument maker in New Bedford, Massachusetts. However, a Captain Jinks complete to handlebar mustache was little more than a come-on.
Inside shops, busts were placed on counters. Often these were of nationally-known persons. Figures also ornamented the common or public room of taverns.
Figureheads, which projected from the prow of a ship, comprise another im portant group of carvings. They were busts or three-quarter or full-length figures. Subjects ranged from a goddess to a Dutch girl, from Columbus to Admiral Dewey, and included animals. The figurehead often interpreted the name of the sailing vessel. If no figure was used, the head of the ship usually was finished off as a scrollhead or a fiddlehead.
A carver who turned out eagles had no trouble selling them, particularly in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Wooden ones invariably were covered with gilt paint or gold leaf. They were made in all sizes-small ones to top flagpoles, furniture, and mirrors, large ones with wings spread to display against walls and over entrance doors.
Ducks and other waterfowl were carved life-sized, as decoys, from solid blocks of wood, starting about 1750. There recently has been a revival of interest in these old and weathered objects, even those with the wood cracked or chipped and the paint faded. Strange things are done with them-they turn up as lamp bases, bookends, doorstops (after being weighted), or merely ornaments to be set on shelves or mounted against the wall.
Weathervanes and whirligigs were still another outlet for wood-carvers. Whittling the weathervane figure was a pastime for the first winter new settlers spent on land anywhere in the country. Only in America were weathervanes so original that they became a branch of folk art. The first weathervanes were whittled or carved from thin pieces of pine, and few-if anymade before 1800 are still in existence.
What possibly may be found are the carved (rather than whittled) wooden vanes that served as a pattern for the cast-iron mold in which the long-lasting figures were made. Before 1850, a metal vane was made by soldering together at the edges two convex pieces of metal to form a figure in low relief. After 1850, the custom was to make a cast-iron mold from a detailed wood carving of the figure. The finished vane of copper or other metal, when taken from the mold, was in high relief and displayed more and sharper details than did the older metal figures.
The earliest figures for weathervanes and the simpler ones made in the early 1800's were flat profiles of wood, tin, or iron. Such a profile of a rooster or other farm animal might be no more than 9 to 12 inches high. During the nineteenth century, the figures became larger and more elaborate-from 24 to 30 inches high and proportionately wide.
The carver who specialized in decoys or made the patterns for metal vanes, as well as the blacksmith who cast the iron molds, usually remained nameless. Their selection of figures ranged far beyond the rooster, which was popular in Europe, and well-known farm animals like the horse and cow. Fancy stretched also to fish, whales, and dragons. One of the most original figures that became popular here was a huge grasshopper.
Subjects varied also with different regions. Probably the coiled serpent was popular wherever any of the several Revolutionary flags that featured a rattlesnake and the words "Don't tread on me" was introduced. An arrow, although ornamented with carving, was simple in comparison to an Indian paddling his canoe or the full figure of an Indian topped with war feathers. The angel Gabriel, ships, and-later on-a horse-drawn sulky were other popular motifs.
Whirligigs-some parts of which can be made to twirl or rotate rapidlyusually are considered toys. But whirligigs 2 to 4 feet high also were mounted on the roof of a barn, a fence post, or elsewhere where the wind would put them in motion. They did not indicate the direction of the wind, but presumably the velocity of the wind could be approximated by their moving parts.
These good-sized whirligigs were figures with paddle arms that rotated in the wind. They are believed to have been introduced in Pennsylvania, probably in the Pennsylvania German farm country. However, their use spread at least as far as New England. Certainly the figure of a sailor was more likely to have been a New England idea. The sailor was dressed in the garb of his day and wore a cap; he stood, with sleeves rolled up, so that he looked as if he instead of the wind were turning the paddles he held in his hand. Most whirligigs were more formal figures, carved and painted to be quite recognizable.
Although whirligigs were not as generally common as weathervanes, they bring almost as good prices. Even if the paint has faded and one paddle is missing, a whirligig is probably worth a minimum of $150. A person is more likely to find a twentieth-century copy of a weathervane that gave service a century or so ago, either an outright reproduction or one made from an old mold. If a carved wooden pattern or a cast-iron mold could be found, either could be sold for an astronomical amount to the right person. Wooden or metal vanes that can be authenticated as nineteenth-century ones can be priced starting at about $100 and moving upward according to the condition and rarity of the figure, how it was made, workmanship, etc. Many old vanes have been sold for several hundred dollars. A decoy showing signs of use brings $25 to $50.
Least expensive of the shop figures are barber poles, and a good one with traces of its red and white paint sells for $50 or a little more. Life-size figures such as Indians start in the hundreds of dollars and move up into the thousands-some bring $2,500 or even $3,750. A ship's figurehead is likely to sell for more rather than less than $1,500.
Small wooden toys, especially those made before 1860, bring prices that seem fabulous too. A jointed doll of wood and pewter sells for not less than $100. Animated or mechanical toys can be priced much higher, and even simple little carved animals are out of the "couple of dollars" class. Of course, many people collect dolls, soldiers, and other kinds of toys and thus create a ready market.
The whittlers in a family produced what toys children had during the eighteenth century. Often these were made as much for the whittler's as for the youngsters' pleasure. Many toys showed the remarkable skill and imagination of their creators. Dolls were inclined to have rather severe expressions, but even wooden dolls by the early 1800's were likely to have jointed arms and legs that could be moved.
Animals perhaps were easier to make in miniature. All the familiar onescows, horses, oxen, dogs-were shaped from solid wood. A Noah's ark was a project that probably took more than one winter to complete, for it accommodated innumerable pairs of tiny animals and had room for Mr. and Mrs. Noah too. All the pieces were painted. Toy animals were made everywhere, but Noah's arks probably gained their popularity in Pennsylvania.
Extra-clever whittlers went in for mechanical toys. The simplest of these were the jumping jack on a stick and the bird with head or tail that could be moved by weighted strings. More elaborate mechanical toys began to be made in the early 1800's, but they were always based on familiar occupations. Some performed their tasks when the toy was pulled. One pull toy on wheels consisted of two woodcutters using a saw to cut planks from logs. Considerably more intricate was another nineteenth-century toy that showed four carpenters building a house. When set in motion, the carpenter on the roof laid shingles, two others attached clapboards to the walls, and another sawed wood laid across sawhorses.
Goodness knows how long the hobbyhorse has been beloved by children. Early ones were no more than a stick with a profile of a horse's head attached to one end. As the nineteenth century progressed, hobbyhorses became more realistic and worked on rockers.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, fewer toys were made in homes. Itinerant wood-carvers who traveled about the countryside carved toys in exchange for a night's lodging. Then, too, peddlers carried toys as well as wooden nutmegs. As toys began to be produced outside the family circle, they became more plentiful and diverse.
In the 1800's animals and many other wooden toys were painted even when they had been whittled or carved by hand. A small unpainted wooden animal probably is older than a painted one, and therefore more valuable. Good collections or displays of old toys have been acquired by several museums in different parts of the country. A visit to one of them can be interesting as well as helpful in establishing approximate dates for any toys you find. In setting a price for any you wish to sell, remember that the period when children played with them is as important as the woodworking skill and present condition.