A Sinking Feeling: Sunday School and Celluloid

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Oh, celluloid, how I love thee. I found these two celluloid pinback buttons at a coin show, of all things. Amidst the sea of coins, there was a display case that contained a few small trinkets; GAR medals and political buttons mostly. I began to walk away from the booth. But suddenly, my heart skipped a beat when I saw the name “Lusitania” peering back at me. I froze in my footsteps, instantly intrigued. Was the pin a period advertisement for the infamous ocean liner? The plot thickened when I found a similar “Mauretania” button further back in the display case.

Lusitania and her sister ship, Mauretania, were commissioned by the Cunard Line in Southampton, England. Both had their maiden voyages in 1907 (September 7 and November 16, respectively).

Like me, many of you have probably learned in school that Lusitania’s sinking was a catalyst for United States involvement in World War I. Having departed from New York City, Lusitania was six days into a trip toward Liverpool when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The ship sunk in eighteen minutes and three-fifths of the passengers perished. Of the passengers, 128 were American.

An “I told you so” snippet from the New York Times. May 8, 1915.

With so much animosity surrounding Lusitania’s sinking, how do my celluloid buttons fit into the equation?

The pinbacks give us the answer.

These buttons were made by the Griffith & Rowland Press, originally of Philadelphia. The company was a well-known producer of religious reading material in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While many books published under the Griffith & Rowland name survive, little information can be found about the company itself. 

Entries from auction websites, however, shed some light on the purpose of my buttons. One source notes that celluloid pinback buttons such as these were used in a Sunday school setting to promote higher attendance. To me, this theory sounds like pure bribery of children. I don’t completely buy it.

A listing on the Hake’s Americana and Collectibles website expands upon the issue. Not only did Griffith & Rowland make buttons that look like mine, but the company made some that included the ranks of ship staff. One could acquire a button that said “Captain,” “First Mate,” “Second Mate,” “Steward,” or “Purser.” This implies that some sort of role-playing game might have occurred. Going along with the Sunday school theme, I suspect these celluloid buttons were used during Rally Day.

The purpose of Rally Day was to bring Sunday school students together in celebration at the end of the summer. The event was a final hurrah before work began in the fall and winter. In addition to live music and other festivities, students marched in a procession to deliver their offering envelopes.

From “The Expositor and Current Anecdotes,” Volume 13. October, 1911.

The Beacon Street Diary‘s history of Rally Day mentions a 1911 publication called The Sunday-School of Today. In this book, Rev. Lester Bradner identifies pins as one of several “Rally Day devices.” Bradner stated that such devices were most useful when they offered “a personal touch” and “an effective free advertisement scheme.”  

My Lusitania and Mauretania pins certainly conform to Bradner’s specifications. The ocean liners are clearly depicted for reasons of advertisement (which means Lusitania had not yet sunk when these pins were made). Meanwhile, the ship ranks offer that bit of personal touch to hold one’s interest.

For such small objects, these pins are part of a large history. I have never attended Sunday school, but I’m quite grateful to reap the benefits of Rally Day.

Biographia Dramatica and the Unfinished Thesis

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Hello, readers! Perhaps I should take a moment to say that I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth. You see, my abrupt and painfully long (well, at least for me) absence was because I’ve been working on my master’s thesis. I thought that a hiatus from blogging would help me to focus more on my thesis work…but I was wrong. I’m a procrastinator no matter what. So, I figure I’ll stop fooling myself and start writing again about what I love, when time permits. I should mention that just because I took a break from blogging, I certainly haven’t stopped collecting!

Whew. Back in the saddle again. Where to start…

Well, today I smashed my foot. I can’t even explain how, as it was a strange accident. I’m clumsy. These things happen often. And what better way to heal than with retail therapy? (Yeah, I know. Typical girl.) Even so, I realized it would have been silly to buy a pair of shoes with a foot injury. That’s why I decided to pick up two leather-bound volumes from 1782.

These volumes of Biographia Dramatica: or, A Companion to the Playhouse were written by David Erskine Baker, Esq. and printed in London for Messrs. Rivingtons as a continuation of the 1764-82 set. The books claim to contain “Historical and Critical Memoirs, and Original Anecdotes, of British and Irish Dramatic Writers, from the Commencement of our Theatrical Exhibitions; amongst whom are some of the most celebrated Actors,” also “An Alphabetical Account of their Works, the Dates when printed, and occasional Observations on their Merits.” As if that wasn’t enough, these books also present “An Introductory View of the Rise and Progress of the British Stage.”

If you know me, you know that I love to buy books for more than their readable content. Let’s talk about the fabulous spines on these volumes! I absolutely love the classical references: the draped urns festooned with foliate garlands (olive, perhaps?) and the triglyphs and metopes. So good.

I was also intrigued by the signature inside the front cover of each volume. “J.W. Willett, Merly House.” A perfect lead for further investigation.

Merley House. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Merly House, or as it is spelled today, Merley House, is located in Merley, Wimbourne, Dorset, England. The property originally belonged to the Lords of Canford. Ralph Willett, a West India proprietor, bought the estate in 1751 and built the Georgian mansion that currently sits on the property. Willett had a massive collection of books and art. By 1772, his collection had outgrown the house and prompted the construction of two additions. To read more about the history of Merley House, check out the estate’s website.

So who was J.W. Willett?

John Willett Willett (1745-1815) was not the son of Ralph Willett. Rather, Ralph was the first cousin of John’s mother. According to The History of Parliament, Ralph adopted John as an infant. While John had the potential to become a lawyer, he opted instead to pursue antiquarianism. It seems that John gained control of Merley House in 1795. He then auctioned Ralph’s books and paintings and tore down the home’s additions in the early 1800s. Based on this story, one can assume that my books were some of those auctioned.

Then, how did my books end up in the United States?

Beneath the Willett signature inside the front cover is an early twentieth-century label that reads “The Arthur H. Clark Company. Publishers and Booksellers, Importers of Old & Rare Books. Caxton Building, Cleveland, Ohio.”

The Arthur H. Clark Company was founded by Arthur H. Clark, an Englishman who came to the United States to apprentice publishers. After a stint in Chicago, Clark moved to Cleveland in 1892 and managed rare books for the Burrows Brothers. He then established his own company in 1902, which relocated to Glendale, California in 1930 and still exists today.

The Caxton Building, Cleveland. Ohio Architect and Builder, April, 1904.

Thanks for reading, everyone. It feels good to be back!

The Prevalence of Poppies

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‘Tis the season for poppies! I love to see the varied shades of fragile blooms and watch them unfurl from their wayward-growing stems. They always seem so spontaneous to me. Poppies remind me of my Limoges porcelain. I have three pieces; all separate purchases and all covered with poppies. It got me thinking about the symbolism of the flower and its importance to people in the early twentieth century.

The Wizard of Oz has made us all familiar (though maybe not accurately so) with the magical sleep-inducing powers of poppies. True, some poppies have been used as opiates throughout history. The Minoans and Sumerians used them. Then, in the nineteenth century, poppies were a big deal during the Opium Wars. But why else are these flowers significant?

My three examples of Limoges are somewhat telling. Because the pieces were made in France, one could generalize that poppies were important in Western Europe. But, it’s more than that. You see, the backstamps reveal that while each piece was made in France, each was not decorated in the country. Two out of the three pieces were exported as blanks, probably to America. This is evidence that poppies possessed meaning in America at the same time that they did overseas. What’s the connection? Let’s investigate.

The poppies on this cup and saucer were applied in an Art Nouveau design by means of a transfer process. With the exception of the gold edging, the decoration was not hand-painted. Take a peek at the handle of the cup. Even it bears a tiny blooming flower!

The cup and saucer were produced by the company Bawo & Dotter, also known as Elite Works. The saucer has a green underglaze manufacturer’s mark that dates it between 1896 and 1920. The red overglaze decorator’s mark dates between 1896 and 1932. You can see St. Martial of Limoges in the center of the shield. It’s also interesting to note that Bawo & Dotter began as an American firm in New York City. For a brief synopsis of the company history, check out e-limoges.com.

This charger is hand-painted with garish poppies that appear to have bloomed past their prime. A thin gold border frames the large flowers in the foreground. I love the shadowy leaf detail and variation of color in the background.

The green underglaze mark shows that the charger was made by the P.M. de Mavaleix Company from 1908 to around 1914. As far as I can tell, this piece has no decorator’s signature. 

This plate features poppies of various shades gathered in a nosegay. I love how the crinkled bud stems loom above the rest of the bouquet. Meanwhile, the bold orange background looks as though it has melted right off of the nearby flower.

This Jean Pouyat underglaze backstamp was used between 1891 and 1932. The plate is signed in gold by the decorator, “Taq.”

Having looked at my three examples of Limoges poppies and the joint efforts of Europe and America to make them, what can we deduce? One answer seems to stand out: World War I. All of the pieces were made sometime in that date range; and it just so happens that World War I sparked a major poppy movement. In late 1914, battles in Flanders and elsewhere began to desecrate the landscape. As a result, vegetation stopped growing…with the exception of poppies. They were the only plant to thrive among the casualties and disturbed soil. For more information, check out the BBC Remembrance page on the Great War.

In closing, take a look at Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem about the poppies in Flanders Field. McCrae died in the war in 1918.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. May, 1915.

Baba Merva and the Sad Iron

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So far in this blog, I’ve focused on items that I bought at various places…but I think it’s time to switch things up a little bit. What I never mentioned to you is that some of the pieces in my collection were passed down to me from family members. In the grand scheme of things, those are the pieces that are most important to me, so why not share them? From this point on, I think I’ll intersperse some family antiques in with the things I actively collect. 

Let’s start with my great-grandma Zuzana. My dad and my aunt lovingly refer to her as “Baba Merva,” so we will too. Baba Merva was born in 1899 and grew up in Kojsov (koy-shove), which, up to 1918, was in the Slovak portion of Austria-Hungary. The Treaty of Versailles caused this land to be divided into Czechoslovakia. After Hitler, Stalin, and a mess of other things, Kojsov is now part of Slovakia. It is located in the Gelnica District in Kosice (ko-sheet-ze). My grandma associates it with nearby Spisska (spee-ska). 

Baba Merva in Kojsov, 1913. She was 14 years old.

Kojsov was a beautiful place nestled in the mountains. Baba Merva grew up on a farm and dearly loved horses. However, she lived a hard life. During one of the several uprisings in the area, Baba’s horses were slaughtered and eaten. Other sad events occurred in her life, such as the murder of her brother and the deaths of many of her children. With events like these, Baba had to be tough.

Below, you can see the Greek Catholic church Baba attended. It was built in 1805. Tucked away in the countryside, it is amazingly lavish to this day.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, members of the Merva family began to pursue opportunities in America. Baba followed. As a result, she went from this…

Baba’s church, the Greek Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Kojsov, Gelnica District. Kosice, Slovakia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To this.

Baba’s house in America. Walhonding, Ohio. My grandma was born here.

Baba Merva came to America seven years after her husband, my great-grandpa Nikulas. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1923 with $25.00 in his pocket. During his early years in the United States, great-grandpa Nikulas worked as a miner in Pennsylvania with his father, Mikulas.

My grandma always says that her parents didn’t have much money. To make ends meet, Baba bought many necessary household goods secondhand. This “sad iron” was one of those secondhand purchases. 

I’m guessing that the iron is from 1900 or so. Baba would have purchased it about thirty years after it was made. She probably bought it in Pennsylvania, as that is where she met up with my great-grandpa. 

“The Enterprising Housekeeper,” 1906.

Mrs. Florence Potts patented the sad iron to have a removable handle. Back then, many irons would have sat heating on the stove at the same time. A removable handle allowed for easy switching from cool iron to hot iron. 

After seeing that I have Baba’s sad iron, you might wonder what happened to Baba herself. Well, she continued to live a hard life, even in America. She did, however, learn to speak some English as time went on. How? By watching I Love Lucy. Baba lived to the age of 92.

Today, thanks to my grandma’s limited recollection of Slovak, I’m afraid I only know how to say a select number of swear words in my family’s native language. It always works out that way, doesn’t it?

Period Rooms and Prisms

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Whenever I go to an art museum or well-researched house museum, I love to look at the period rooms. What better way to immerse yourself in the culture and decor of years past? To me, the idea behind it is very similar to the room boxes and dollhouse miniatures I like to work with. 

While I admire the furniture, fabrics, and architectural details, I’d have to say that the lighting in these rooms is consistently my favorite. Show me some ormolu and prisms and I’ll be happy.  

I bought this mid-nineteenth century girandole at a second-hand shop. The research process for it has been rather tedious. Conflicting sources say that it was made by Henry N. Hooper & Company of Boston, Cornelius & Company of Philadelphia, and by an unknown company in New York. With so many opinions, I don’t know who made it. I suspect it wasn’t Cornelius & Company though, because many of their girandoles were marked. Mine is unmarked. I do know that originally this piece was part of a trio, which included another identical girandole and a larger candelabra.  

Oftentimes when I see this girandole up for sale, sellers refer to the figure as a sultan. In the book Nineteenth Century Lighting, H. Parrott Bacot agrees that it is a sultan model. He believes, however, that the figure is wearing a romanticized opera costume. That was the first thought that popped into my head as well, but I also think the figure could reference “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” – a Middle Eastern folktale added to One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) by Antoine Galland.

The sultan stands regally with a genie lamp on the table and a sword that looks like a Persian scimitar. The girandole is certainly evidence of Victorian interest in the “exotic.”

“New Crowns for Old Ones!” Punch cartoon, 1876. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When my girandole was new, it was covered with ormolu. Through the years, someone made the poor choice to polish it. Now, all of the ormolu is gone and the bronze bears a mottled blueish discoloration. It seems that the same culprit who polished the girandole also tried to turn it into an electric lamp. In the process, the foliate bobeche and prisms were removed. Even worse, a hole was drilled into the back of the candle holder to make room for a switch. After all that destruction, it seems that the lamp idea didn’t work out. The poor girandole was a hacked-up skeleton when I purchased it.

I did my best to give it a sense of grandeur again. I placed a crystal bobeche into the candle holder and hung five c. 1850s prisms from it. The original prisms were probably coffin-shaped. My replacement prisms are spear-tipped. Bacot calls this type of prism “improper” for such a fixture, but I think it works well enough for mine. The girandole looks nothing like it did originally, but at least it’s got a sense of dignity again.

As I said before, I can’t be sure who made the girandole. Nevertheless, I have a favorite lighting manufacturer: Henry N. Hooper.

Henry Northey Hooper was known for producing decorative lighting, chimes, and church bells. Upon the start of the Civil War, he turned his attention to artillery like the Napoleon cannon. 

Hooper was one of the most prestigious in the business. He was even commissioned to create a massive 7,500 pound chandelier for the House of Representatives. The piece was installed in December of 1840. Due to a faulty chain, it came crashing down to the floor the next day while a cleaning crew worked on it. Luckily, the House was not in session and no one was killed. 

Jeffersonian Republican. December 25, 1840.

Well, that does it for this post. Until next time!