Friday, December 25, 2009

Dogs Playing Poker

I well remember the day about 1947 that my Father brought home a framed picture of dogs playing poker, given to him by a dental supply company. An avid poker player himself, he was captured by the art and probably would have hanged it in a hallway had he not been backed down by my Mother. Little did any of us realize then what a cultural icon the picture and others like it would become in America. Nor at that time did we recognize its pedigree.

“Dogs Playing Poker” refers collectively to a series of oil paintings 
by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, shown here. He was born in 1844 in Antwerp, New York to abolitionist Quaker farmers. Known to friends and family as "Cash,” Coolidge certainly knew how to turn his talent into cash. Although he had no formal training as an artist, his natural aptitude for drawing led him to create cartoons for his local newspaper when still in his early twenties. He gained national attention when he “invented” Comic Foregrounds, life-size painted cutouts into which one's head was placed and photographed, presumably resulting in hilarious effects.

When Coolidge was in his mid-50s, his creative imagination brought him to the attention of Brown & Bigelow, a St. Paul, Minnesota, advertising firm that wanted something new and different in an ad campaign for cigars. He obliged by painting a total of 16 pictures featuring anthropomorphized canines, of which nine showed dogs seated around a card table. The first three shown here are Coolidge’s work.

Like the Elvis or the Last Supper on velvet, Dogs Playing Poker have become derisively well-known in the United States as examples of low brow taste in home decoration. One critic has described Dogs Playing Poker as "indelibly burned into the American collective-schlock subconscious" because the images are so frequently seen.

In the current Disney/Pixar movie “Up,” a brief scene occurs of card-playing dogs. Coolidge’s creations also have had regular contemporary attention on TV programs like “Cheers,” and “The Simpsons.” In one recent episode of “Family Guy,” for example, the town mayor is discovered in the basement of the schoolhouse playing cards with dogs. The references go on and on.

The number of knockoffs of the paintings is also impressive. Shown here last are two contemporary artists’ variations on the Dogs Playing Poker theme. Note that these figures appear more like humans with appended canine heads than actual dogs.

The question remains of why Dogs Playing Poker has remained so popular an American icon for more than a century. My thought is that the incongruity of so animated an creature as a dog keeping a “poker face” like the best Texas Hold’em crowd just plain tickles the funny bones of generation-after-generation of Americans whose taste for wacky comedy never seems to flag.

Coolidge died in 1934 but not before seeing his creations embedded in American popular culture. If, improbably, he had lived to February 2005, he also would have seen two of his original Dogs Playing Poker paintings selling at auction for a whopping $590,400. It proves once again that in this country schlock sometimes can pay off big time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Appeals and Perils of Appraisal

From time to time I am asked to look at an artifact, often a whiskey jug, and provide the owner with an idea of its value. It is always a difficult chore for me. Recently, for example, I appraised an item that its owner had just bought and hoped to resell right away. When I gave him my estimate he objected that my quote was the amount he himself had paid --and he obviously wanted to turn a tidy profit on the resale. I wished him luck.

Moreover in my articles and this blog I deliberately shy away from making personal estimates of the monetary value of items being featured. While recognizing the appeals of appraisal, I am ever conscious of the ever present perils.

That was particularly brought home to me a few years ago at the Freer Gallery of Oriental Arts, located on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Once a month curators there provide free appraisals of items of Asian origin brought to them by the public. Among their unspoken motivations is locating a museum quality piece that might then be donated to the Freer.

Having spent almost two decades traveling regularly to Asia, I had a small collection of artifacts that were personal treasures, many of them on prominent display in our home. After waiting four months, the day for my Freer appraisal arrived. Among the items I brought for inspection were the four shown here.

The first inspected was a Chinese blue and white ink stand that I purchased from a shop in Vietnam about 1970. I am fond of the object, finding its slightly skewed designs very attractive. The Freer curator had other ideas. “Where did you get this?,” she demanded. Vietnam, I replied. “Well just look at the second rate work the Chinese were foisting off on their colonies.” I gulped.

From there we went to a cloisonné vase decorated with storks that has been among my prized possessions. “Where did you get this?” she asked. An antique store in Beijing, I replied. “Well, she replied, this is not Chinese. This is Japanese. Shows you how little those Chinese antique dealers know about anything!” I gulped twice.

The third item offered up for inspection was a small wine jug with an attractive glaze that has greeted visitors to our home for many years. I had purchased it in Vietnam assuming it was a vintage Vietnamese ceramic. This object was met with similar disdain. The Freer appraiser identified it as a wine jug made in China, shipped to France where it was filled with wine and then shipped back to Vietnam for French colonial consumption. Another letdown. I was beginning to regard the Freer as the Land of Broken Dreams.

Just before leaving home, however, I had spied a small earthenware vase with a brown glaze, purchased at a flea market in Jakarta, Indonesia, for half a dollar and, for a lark, included it in my haul. It was the final item for appraisal. When the curator came upon it she stopped short: “Where did you get this?” I told her. Examining it carefully under a magnifier, she kept muttering under her breath. Then she called over her fellow curator and they began a low conversation.

When they finished talking, my curator returned: “We think someone is trying to fake a early Chinese glaze.“ “Why would someone do that and then sell the vase to me for fifty cents?” I asked. She ventured no reply. Then it occurred to me that I had seen a second jug with an identical glaze at the market. “When I return to Indonesia would you like me to purchase it for you?” For the first time all day the Freer lady was enthusiastic: “By all means.”

When I returned to Indonesia and visited the same market stall, the second vase had been sold. Back home, however, the little brown vase immediately began occupying a place of special honor in our living room. It has been there ever since -- a subtle reminder of both the appeals and perils of appraisal.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discovering the Past in Cyberspace

William Gibson, the well-known science fiction writer and the man who first coined the term “cyberspace,” is fascinated with eBay. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Gibson said: “EBay is serving this very, very powerful function which no one ever intended for it. EBay in the hands of humanity is sorting every last Dick Tracy wrist radio cereal premium sticker that ever existed. It is like some sort of vast unconscious curatorial movement.”

The author goes on to say that eBay plus Google can allow an individual in some backwoods town “become the world premier info-monster about some tiny obscure area of stuff.” Gibson is dead right. While the archeologists unearth the past shovel by shovel, others of us drag it off the Internet.

For example, take the glass paperweight shown here. It is solid glass with raised letters that say “Remember Ungar’s Hungarian Hunyadi Arpad, Natural Aperient.” It looks as if it might have been made yesterday. A few years ago, coming on this paperweight, its provenance would have almost impossible to decipher. With the help of the Internet, however, today it is possible chart the history of the object with some precision and do it in a relatively short time.

First, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “aparient” as a laxative. Good to know. Second, the Web tells us Hunyadi was the last name of a Hungarian hero known variously as John or Jonas or Jean, and sometimes as Johan Hunniad. A great warrior, in 1441 Hunyadi delivered Serbia from the Ottoman Turks and recovered for his native Hungary the region of Wallachia. In 1450 he vanquished another Turkish army and became renowned throughout Christendom. Returning to Hungary he was made governor of the kingdom. In 1456 a flotilla assembled by Hunyadi destroyed the Ottoman fleet. He died in the same year, a national hero. His tomb, shown defaced, is a place of pilgrimage even today.

Now the story jumps ahead four centuries when a Hungarian named Andreas Saxlehner about 1863 began bottling the waters of a well he owned within the city limits of Budapest. He adopted the name “Hunyadi Janos” for his product and trademarked it in Europe. Business was brisk for this bitter-tasting laxative water and Saxlehner eventually owned 112 wells. He soon was exporting it worldwide, including to the United States. His bottles bore a highly elaborate paper label for bearing Hunyadi’s likeness.

The success of this aperient, however, drew competition. A number of Hungarian springs were tapped and bottled -- and many of them used Hunyadi in their brand name, to the dismay of Saxlehner. Chief among his competitors was Hunyadi Arpad. This laxative water was bottled beginning in 1880 from a Budapest area spring owned by Ignatz Ungar. In his ads Ungar claimed that his product had been legally conceded by the Prime Minister of Hungary to be the best and strongest natural aperient. Saxlehner, asserting the Hunyadi name was proprietary, sued his rival in European courts -- to mixed results. He also financed ads claiming that his was the only genuine Hunyadi water.

Almost inevitably the watery conflict spilled over into the New World. Saxlehner had a partner firm that merchandised his aparient in the U.S. Ignatz Ungar had a brother, Joseph, living in New York who served as his agent. Between 1886 and 1893, according to import figures, 1,395,050 bottles of Hunyadi Arpad were shipped into the U.S. By this time eight other mineral waters with Hunyadi in their name also were being imported from Hungary.

The Saxlehners had had enough. In 1893 they bought out the Ungars and shut their water off. Then they went after their other competition. With their America partners they sued for the exclusive right to use the name Hunyadi in the United States. The case went through the Federal court system and all the way to the Supreme Court where the case was heard in 1898. The Supremes in a lengthy decision upheld a lower court verdict that Hunyadi was a name in general use for aperient water and that it could not be held exclusively. The Saxlehners were charged court costs.

Please recall that we began our quest with just a single glass paperweight. By investigating its origins through Internet sources we 1) learned the meaning of aparient, 2) discovered the exploits of the 15th Century hero John Hunyadi, 3) traced the origins and growth of Hungarian laxative water, and 4) ended with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This array of information and images could be assembled only because of the riches available through Google, eBay, and other web sources.

There also is a practical result. Because Hunyadi Arpad was imported here during only the eight years 1886-1894, we can estimate safely that my glass paperweight, despite its utterly pristine and contemporary appearance, is between 106 and 114 years old and a true antique. That also is something important to know.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beam Bottles: A Sequel

At the risk of seeming to “beat a dead horse,” I return to the subject of Beam bottles, specifically decanters in its self-vaunted “Executive” series -- a subject first raised in my posting on September 3 of this year.

Recently on eBay four decanters in the Executive Series, shown here, were offered as a group with bidding beginning at $9.99. From left to right, they were “Charisma” issued by the Jim Beam distillery in 1970, “Flora de Oro” from 1976, “Reflections” from 1975, and “Regency” from 1972. All were attested to be in excellent condition.

Researching the values placed on these decanters in recent bottle price guides, Charisma by itself was worth $15, although by 2005 the Antique Trader guide had reduced it to $4-7. Flora de Oro warranted a $12 value from both. Koval set Reflections at $13 and Regency at $12; Antique Trader valued them at $8-10 and $7-9, respectively.

Using Koval’s as a guide, the total value of the four was $52; for Antique Trader the total was $38. Yet the opening asking price on eBay was $9.99 or approximately $2.50 each. Even at that that give-away price, there were no bidders. Nobody in eBay’s national audience was interested even at a bargain basement price.

Recall that this series was touted by early Beam Bottle guides in glowing terms. A 1967 example of the hyperbole about the Beam Executives: “Decanters in this series are highly sought after by collectors today and will surely be tomorrow’s treasured antiques! Most everybody, even non-collectors it seems, cherishes these bottles. Consequently the empty bottles are very seldom seen offered for re-sale.”

Wrong! They come up for sale all the time. Just after the Beam quartet failed to find a buyer, the 1965 “Marbled Fantasy”, shown here, was offered in original box at $25. Again no bidder. This item was valued at $27 in 1967 and $42 in 2005. Same result as earlier: no bidders.

I have only one Beam item, purchased more than 20 years ago. It is a small stoneware pitcher issued by the Milwaukee Jim Beam Club that imitates the bark of a white birch tree. I have kept it not because it will be “tomorrow’s treasured antique,” and someday hope to make a bundle on it, but because it is from a town to which I have emotional ties and because it has a highly unusual motif.

There is one final indignity to relate to Beam bottle collectors. The Executive Series quartet shown here subsequently was relisted on eBay. This time their owner asked $24 for the lot on a “buy it now” or “best offer" basis. Again, there were no takers. Once touted as tomorrow’s treasures, Beam decanters instead are today’s duds.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sherwood Brothers: Under the Radar

Almost two decades ago, I wrote an article entitled “Who Made America’s Whiskey Ceramics?” At that time I was convinced that most, if not all, of the fancy jugs and bottles were made in Scotland or England and shipped to our shores. Alan Blakeman, the leading guru on British bottles, disagreed. He argued that the U.S. must have had
pottery firms with the capability of designing and executing even intricate transfer designs. Alan was right.

I saw the proof for myself in 1998. It was a small stoneware crock, a salesman's sample for the Sherwood Bros. Pottery of New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Shown here in a detail, the crock is drawn with an elegance and precision equal to anything the “Old World” could produce. The ad copy on the item offers to provide underglaze transfer printed items of equal perfection to Sherwood Brothers clients.

With about 7,000 population New Brighton is nestled in the western Appalachian mountains not far from Pittsburgh. Founded in 1815 and shown here in an 1883 sketch, the town is situated on a bluff on the west bank of the Beaver River. Because of good clay sources in the region, the town spawned a number of ceramic manufacturers. About 1879, the Sherwood brothers, G.W. and W.D., founded their pottery. By 1895 they were employing as many as 140 workers and had the capacity to produce two railroad carloads of pottery per day. Their success extended into the 20th Century.

For most of its existence Sherwood Brothers had a highly skilled force of pottery workers and artisans. Unlike other American potteries of the time, this firm had mastered the art of the underglaze transfer. This process requires great skill and precision. Sherwood Brothers boasted of its “Sherwood Ware” as a “decidedly superior line, made up in a decidedly superior way.” Its transfer work, the company said, was accomplished “from fine designs cut in copper, bringing out patterns than cannot possibly be reproduced by a rubber stamp.” Stamping was a more commonly used, and cruder, method of inking a design or label on pottery. The firm bragged about its workforce: “Sherwood artists, experts who devote all their time to this work, are constantly producing some strikingly beautiful results.”

A catalog from early in that period shows Sherwood Bros. Company offering a wide range of stoneware items, including whiskey jugs, stoneware bottles, inks, canning jars, jelly crocks, mugs and steins, pitchers, teapots, stacking bowls, cuspidors, match scratchers, and water coolers, chicken watering fonts, ice tubs, butter and preserve jars and -- not to be overlooked -- chamber pots. Shown here are examples of their jugs.

Because a major component of the firm’s trade was whiskey containers, the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 was serious blow to its business. This shock was compounded by the onset of the Great Depression a few years later. Business directories indicate that by 1931 the number of employees had dwindled to 40 and by 1935 was only 35. About 1939 Sherwood Bros. went out of business.

Other defunct potteries such as those in Red Wing, Minnesota; Knowles, Taylor & Knowles in East Liverpool, Ohio; and White’s of Utica, New York, have continued to attracted the attention of generations of collectors to their ceramic containers. Sherwood Brothers, perhaps because they did not always mark their products, consistently have flown below the collector radar. As America’s foremost transfer printing pottery of the 19th and 20th Centuries, they deserve a much better fate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Frightful Face of Prohibition

In Hillsboro, a Southwestern Ohio farming town, just before Christmas 1873, 70 women left the Presbyterian Church and marched downtown to saloons and drugstores that sold liquor. They prayed on the sawdust floor or, if barred from entering, outside on the snowy ground. The effects were startling. Owners were seen pouring booze into the gutters. That day, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was born.

Within 50 days the WCTU Crusade, according to their publicist, “drove the liquor traffic, horse, foot and dragoons, out of 250 towns and villages.” It took another 47 years for liquor to be made illegal throughout the Nation -- a significant victory for the WCTU. As shown here in a cartoon, adherents felt like Joan of Arc, coming to the rescue of the country with battle ax in hand, fighting “Womans Holy War.”

For many males of a drinking persuasion, however, the efforts of Temperance women were depicted less heroically. Another cartoon , entitled “The Struggle,” shows a man being pulled on one side by a comely woman through a fancy archway and tugged on the other by a spinsterish woman in a funny hat. She is urging him toward a wooden shack on which is written, “Abandon Joy All Ye Who Enter Here.” It leaves little doubt which way the gent will be heading.

The public face of the WCTU did little to discourage this sexist view of prohibition. Francis Elizabeth Willard, the president of a women’s college in Evanston, Illinois, left academia in 1879 to become the president of the WCTU. Shown here, her stern visage appeared frequently in the pages of newspapers nationwide as she campaigned vigorously against strong drink.

Willard’s image helped give rise to a series of cartoons and photo mocking the WCTU mantra, “Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine.” These images often sarcastically juxtaposed the motto with pictures of women who looked as if they had never been in danger of being kissed by drinkers, teetotalers, or anyone else.

When Carry Nation burst upon the scene in 1900, she reinforced male stereotypes about the kind of women carrying the torch for Prohibition (see my posting May 2009). Like Joan of Arc, she brandished a weapon, in this case a hatchet, and traveled the country storming and wrecking barrooms. A series of postcards from that era parodied her actions as those of the “Saloon Smasher.” So identified did Ms. Nation become with the Temperance Movement that the venerable Dr. Seuss himself ridiculed her in 1942, long after her death, in a cartoon satirizing efforts to reestablish the Anti-Drink Crusade.

There is more than immediately meets the eye in this effort to depict anti-alcohol females as unattractive and sometimes violent hags. The WCTU preceded by almost a half century women being given the vote in the United States. Upon taking the reins of the WCTU, Francis Willard had added the cause of Women’s Suffrage to the organization agenda. If females in advocacy roles could be portrayed as highly offensive, some opponents reasoned the images also would discourage efforts at giving women the vote. In the end, Prohibition failed and was repealed. Women, on the other hand, were enfranchised in 1920 -- and the rest is history.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cigars Under Glass

Perhaps it is the mystique of the cigar that renders its merchandising so colorful and flamboyant. For years cigar labels and cigar bands have featured elaborate images often splashed with gold. Glass paperweights advertising cigars are somewhat more restrained, but still worth noting.

One of the most colorful cigar paperweights celebrates the Italian author, Dante
Alighieri and depicts scenes from his greatest work, “The Divine Comedy, a spiritual trip through Hell, Purgatory and finally to Heaven. The original label is said to have been lithographed with 22 separate colors and cost $6,000 in 1900 dollars to create.

Dante Cigars are also credited being the first to market their product with pictorial labels. Shown here is what many believe to be the forerunner of all such labels. Produced in 1857, one of the few extant examples is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Another cigar paperweight with a back story is J. P. Alley’s “Hambone” Cigar. Hambone was the nickname of Tom Hunley, a streetwise ex-slave. Interviewed late in life by cartoonist James (“J.P”) Alley, Hunley became the model for Alley’s widely syndicated illustrated column called “Hambone’s Meditations,” Begun in 1916, it was followed by two books. In the late 1920s a company was licensed to market cheap cigars under the character’s name and Alley’s illustration. The image on the paper weight is said to be a satire on Lindberg’s 1917 flight across the Atlantic.

A particular favorite of mine is the F. M. Kendrick & Co. “Crow Cigar” weight. Although it is only rendered in black and white, the clever use of a variety of type faces, sometimes called “carnival,” sets it apart. The weight was the product of the H.B. Hardenburg Co., a novelty producer in Utica, New York. Kendrick could also be colorful. Another brand from this company was Steuben Cigars, named for Baron Von Steuben, the German hero of the U.S. revolutionary war, and shown here on a 1909 box with its multi-hued label.

The kneeling Indian, designated “Chief of Them All” was the symbol of the Sheboygan Cigar Company from the town of the same name in Wisconsin. Incorporated about 1898, the firm not only made cigars but also cigar molds and cigar box lumber.

The final two examples eluded my research but are attractive enough to warrant attention. They are J.A. Champagne Cigar, showing a ship under furled sail, and La Verdo Cigars, depicting two lovers.

In short, cigar paperweights can rival cigar labels and bands for their visual appeal and deserve attention from cigar aficionados.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dickens in the Round

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is for me, as for countless millions of readers during his lifetime and after, the world’s greatest novelist in the English -- or perhaps any other -- language. As a result, during my jug collecting days when I came upon a series of mini-jugs that portrayed Dickens characters, I sought them avidly and eventually acquired the entire series. While most of my jug collection was sold years ago, these items have been kept because of my special affection for Dickens and his stories.

The series was issued by Pick Wick Wines and Spirits Company of Derby, England, for its Pickwick brand scotch. The base of each mini indicates that the jugs were produced by the John Humphreys Pottery of Staffordshire England. It also contains a small portrait of King Edward the VII of England, a royal crown and tiny sketches of a distillery and a kiln. Although Edward’s reign was from 1901 to 1910, I date these mini-jugs from the 1950s.

The pictures on the jugs replicate -- or are similar to -- the illustrations that accompanied Dickens novels. They come in four different colors -- red, blue, brown and black -- on a milk white base of porcelain. Each transfer illustrates a particular scene or characters from Pickwick Papers (3), Oliver Twist (4), and David Copperfield (1). At the rear of each jug is a figure of Mr. Pickwick waving his hat and a tiny bottle of his scotch.

The Pickwick jugs, shown here first, illustrate three important scenes in the novel: when Pickwick first meets Sam Weller, who becomes his devoted servant and companion, Pickwick’s hilarious drunken oration to his club, and the scene when the widowed Mrs. Bardell, who seeks to marry him, pretends to faint in his arms.

Oliver Twist, being an altogether darker portrayal of humanity, is represented by scenes in which the orphan Oliver is introduced to Fagin, the ringleader of a gang of thieves, as Oliver is being instructed by gang members in the art of picking pockets; and as Nancy, Oliver’s true friend, is being interrogated prior to her murder by Bill Sykes. In a lighter vein is a fourth jug depicting the humiliation of Mr. Bumble, the heartless director of the orphanage where Oliver earlier had been sent.

Unlike the others, the David Copperfield mini does not show an actual scene from the novel. David is with his older, ne’er-do-well friend, Mr. Micawber, who is saying “David, this whiskey is superb!” This jug also comes in a multicolor transfer.

It is hard to put a value on these mini-jugs. Three decades ago I paid about $15 apiece for them. Since they currently almost never come up for sale on auction sites, pricing them is difficult. In any case their value is in the high quality of their transfers and in their celebration of the novels on which they are based.