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Life during the Medieval and Renaissance eras is often romanticised as being quaint, quirky, idyllic, relaxing and easy. A simpler time where simpler people with simpler pleasures led simpler lives. But what were the realities of life during the Medieval era and the Renaissance which followed, a period of time lasting 1,200 years?
Before the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations were slow. It wasn’t uncommon for things to be done the same way that they’d always been done, for hundreds of years. The same building techniques, the same methods of cooking, the same basic styles of clothing and countless other practices remained unchanged for generations.
In this posting, I’ll be looking at some aspects of daily life as it would’ve been lived during the Tudor era, from roughly 1485-1600.
Housing in the Tudor Era
In the 1500s, the majority of people would’ve lived in humble wattle-and-daub houses, often with a thatched roof. The walls were made of thick posts driven into the ground, and braced with wooden beams. Rods were driven up and down between the open spaces, and reeds (the ‘wattles’) were woven in and out of the rods, back and forth, up and down, a bit like weaving a basket. It was easy work and could be done relatively quickly. Wattles (reeds, essentially) were always sourced green, and never dry. Dry reeds, like dry wood, cracks and breaks really easily. The reeds had to be green when they were woven, or they wouldn’t have the elasticity to be bent back and forth between the rods.
Once the walls of the house were rodded and wattled, then came the daub – a mix of water, mud, grass or straw-clippings, and excrement – usually horse, or cattle – which was easily found almost anywhere in Tudor England! The mixture was trodden and mixed underfoot, and then toshed up onto the walls, packed into the reeds and wattles and rods to create a thick, weatherproof layer to set and dry and harden. Entire houses were built using this method, with gaps in the framework for windows, doors and passageways.
What about windows?
Glass for the most part, was extremely expensive. If it couldn’t be made locally, then it would’ve been imported from Europe (most likely Italy), so most people didn’t actually have glass in their windows. They might’ve had lattices, and at night – shutters – but for the most part, windows were open to the breezes. At night, it was common practice for the head of the household to go around ‘locking up’, which meant barring the doors, and shutting and bolting the windows.
For people who were a bit better off, and could afford glass, windows were often leadlight – meaning that they were a lattice of dozens of square or diamond-shaped panes, held together by strips of lead, melted and crimped into place. Glass was expensive, and large panes of glass were difficult to transport over bumpy and pothole-riddled streets, so smaller panes which could be clipped, chipped and broken down to smaller sizes, and then simply ‘glued together’, essentially, by strips of lead, were easier to produce.
Okay, not everyone had nice glass windows. But what about flooring?
Again, that varied according to what you could afford. If you were absolutely dirt poor, then you had…a dirt floor! Usually just earth, packed and compacted and rammed down with sledgehammers. If you were a bit wealthier, then hardwood floors were common. If it was possible or necessary, your floor might be made of stone, or if you were of the upper echelons of society – marble or granite, or fancy tiles.
Every home in Elizabethan times would’ve had at least one fireplace. Temperatures during this time were a lot colder than they are today, due to a phenomenon known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. In fact during Stuart times, the weather in winter could be so cold that the River Thames in central London would freeze over solid! ‘Frost Fairs’ were held, where people could go skating on the frozen river!
Fireplaces had been rare in the medieval era. They had to be made of stone or brick, which was expensive, so most people had open floor hearths, with the smoke just finding its way up out of the house through the roof, but by late Tudor times, fireplaces and the materials to make them were becoming cheaper, so it was now possible for most people of moderate means to have at least one fireplace in their house, usually in the kitchen.
Fireplaces were of course used for cooking, heating water, keeping warm, and providing light, but one thing they couldn’t be used for was baking! The inconsistent heat from the fire being stoked and fuelled and dying down meant that baking was not possible at home. It was for this reason that most people took their bread, cakes or pies to the local bakehouse to be baked by their local baker. This is why you prick it, and poke it, and mark it with ‘B’, so that you knew which pie was yours, so that you could get it back when it came out of the oven!
Houses in the Tudor period could be surprisingly large. It was common for houses to be two, three, or even four storeys high, often with the upper floors being wider than the lower ones. The result was that in especially narrow streets, your bedroom could be almost kissing the bedroom of your neighbour, which could be as little as just a couple of feet apart! Often, houses doubled as shops, so the ground floor of a building was often the family business, whereas the upper floor or floors, contained the family home.
But what about rooves?
The majority of rooves were thatched. This meant that bundles of straw were sewn to the roof using yarn, to keep the rain out. Thatch could be extremely thick, and while it was surprisingly weatherproof, it would still have to be replaced occasionally, as old bundles wore out, and new ones had to be brought in to replace them.
With the majority of houses built in this manner, you can bet that fire was a huge risk. Close-packed wattle-and-daub constructs with straw rooves are highly combustible, and it was what caused, a hundred years after the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Great Fire of London, in 1666.
Water and Sewerage
Clean water and removing sewerage are the two biggest challenges of any city in the world. In Tudor times, water was sourced from springs and rivers far from the city, or else from the River Thames. Finding clean drinking water was such a problem that most people didn’t even drink water – well into the 1800s, the drink of choice for most people was alcohol – either wine, beer or ale. The boiling process for making beer and ale, as well as the alcohol content that it contained, killed bacteria and made it safe to drink.
Alright. What about going to the toilet?
The majority of houses in towns had either a cesspit or a chamberpot. Cesspits were dug out as frequently as every three to six months, to maybe once a year. Any filth on the streets was swept and shovelled away by streetsweepers. But what about the sludge in your cesspit?
Enter: the nightman.
Sewerage was meant to be carted out of the city by gong-scourers, muck-rakers or nightsoil-men, who worked the night-shift, digging out cesspits, clearing crud off the streets, loading it onto carts and then driving it out of town where it would be used as fertiliser. Nightsoil labouring was dangerous to one’s health, pretty unpleasant, and very physically demanding! For this reason, anybody willing to carry out this unenviable occupation actually got a pretty impressive weekly wage! Provided you didn’t mind shovelling crap all night long, you could earn yourself quite a lot of money…or if you were Queen Elizabeth’s personal gong-scourer…an impressive amount of booze…he insisted that half his wages were paid in alcohol!
So, how much could you make as a gong-scourer? Well, it depended on who you worked for. If you worked for the City of London, for example, you were paid by quantity. Two shillings paid for every ton of excrement removed. If you worked for the Queen at Hampton Court, you earned sixpence a day, or 3/- (three shillings) a week (if we assume a day off on Sundays). Not a bad wage in an era when most daily expenses were counted out in farthings, ha’pennies and pennies and most people earned maybe two or three pence a day! Keeping people clean and hygienic might’ve been unpleasant and messy, but at least the job paid well!
The occupation of nightman or nightsoil-man persisted in London into the mid-1800s, and in other parts of the world, right into the 20th century, although it’s now mostly relegated to history, except in some undeveloped countries.
Travelling Around, Tudor Style
Travelling anywhere in Tudor England was slow and dangerous. Unless you had a horse and cart, your speed and how much you could carry was entirely up to how fit you were. The fastest way to travel was arguably by water. Travelling in London was particularly difficult due to the filthy state of the roads, and the sheer congestion of people. London Bridge, the only bridge across the River Thames for hundreds of years, dating all the way back to Roman times, was the only nearby river-crossing in Tudor times. The bridge had shops and houses built on it, and traffic was often so congested, it was faster to jump from boat-to-boat across the river, than wait at the bridge! The bridge also had to abide by a strict curfew. The gates were locked each night and unlocked at dawn. If you were unlucky enough to fall foul of the Tudor courts and end up with your head on a spike…that spike was driven into the bridge, so that everyone passing could see it.
Cooking and Cleaning
For most people in Elizabethan England, food comprised of pottage, vegetables and bread. Meat was often a luxury as animals such as chickens, sheep and cows were more important alive rather than dead. The only exception to this was the pig – which could be fattened and slaughtered regularly. Pork and bacon were the most common foods you were likely to come across in Tudor England.
Okay, what about cooking, then?
In theory, if you had a fireplace at home, then you could do most of your cooking at home, too. Cooking was traditionally done on a round-bottomed pot called a cauldron, hung over a fire on an iron hook and chain. Raising or lowering the hook (and therefore, the cauldron) determined how much heat was transferred to the pot (and the contents), thereby varying temperature and cooking-times. Most people just ate pottage – whatever they could find to chuck into the pot. Fish. Meat. Vegetables. Peas. Bread. Oats. Barley.
It’s the origin of the modern word ‘porridge’.
As mentioned, most homes did not have ovens. Ovens were larger and generally harder to work properly. Part of the reason was that most ovens (not all) required you to rake out the flames, embers and burning wood, before chucking the bread in and closing the door, not like the wood-fired pizza-ovens we know today, where you keep the fire going while the bread bakes. The danger was that an errant spark could set the whole house on fire, and obviously this could only really be done safely in homes with dirt or stone floors.
Well that’s cooking. What about cleaning?
Although it would be centuries before knowledge of microbes was available, that did not mean that people back in Tudor times did not at least try to keep clean, although their concept of hygiene was somewhat different to ours.
Contrary to popular belief, people did wash and bathe, and keeping clean was considered important, but at the same time, bathing was not done as often as we might do today. Even into the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for most people to have just one bath a week. This was because of the expense of water, soap and firewood or coal to heat the water.
In Elizabethan times, personal hygiene as well as keeping a clean house were just as important then as now. Bathing was often done whenever and wherever it was practical to do so – a pond, a stream or river, or simply by heating water up in the copper (the enormous copper basin in the scullery or kitchen) and bucketing it into a tub for a quick scrub-up in the kitchen.
Cleaning the house involved many of the tasks we still associate today with cleaning – hot water, rags, brushes and brooms, however the Tudors did have some other rather more interesting cleaning methods, which they used in an era before soap and detergent.
For scrubbing wooden surfaces such as chopping boards, tables, benches, buckets, milk-churns and other wooden food-preparation items, salt and boiling water was used, one after the other, to sterilise and clean out an item thoroughly. They of course did not understand sterilisation, but the Tudors did know that improper cleaning spread disease.
For cleaning clothing, linen and fabrics, the Tudors used lye, an alkaline solution created by straining water through wood-ash, which was simply scooped out of the fireplace. The concentrated alkaline-water solution created by this straining process was added to the laundry and it helped to loosen up grease and sweat stains to make washing clothes easier.
Along with the lye solution, another common cleaning agent, for a whole host of things was…urine!
Stale urine, usually collected and left to sit for a few days, up to a few weeks, was the Tudor washing-liquid par excellence! Urine degrades over time, turning into ammonia (which gives it its delightful fragrance), and it was this concentrated ammonia that was useful in shifting stains, polishing metals, fulling cloth, and a whole host of other household tasks! Urine was also actively collected out in the streets, the nitrate inside it was concentrated and added to charcoal and sulphur to create gunpowder. Householders were encouraged to donate their urine to the State for gunpowder manufacturing. Public houses, inns and taverns often had large, communal piss-pots parked outside the front door where the gentlemen of a community could make a contribution to the safety of the realm and aid in the production of gunpowder!
During the Tudor era, the majority of people wore garments made of wool and linen. Cotton wasn’t generally available, and silk was extremely expensive. For most men and boys, the typical outfit was the doublet and hose, complete with underclothes, stockings, a belt and boots.
The hose was a pair of leggings with an opening at the crotch, which was covered with a removable pouch or flap of fabric known as a codpiece. Underneath, one wore one’s linen underwear, and a linen undershirt. Over the top, a man would wear his doublet – a short jacket made of a double-layer of wool (hence the name ‘doublet’). The doublet was buttoned at the front, and then to keep everything together, short cords were looped and tied through eyelets at the top of the hose and the bottom of the doublet, holding everything together. This was reinforced with a belt, onto which things like knives, pouches or pockets could be tied to, or hung from. Garments with pockets included in them would not be a feature of clothing for another few centuries!
If it was cold, a man might wear an overcoat, or a cloak or cape on top, along with a hat. If it was sunny and hot, he might remove his doublet and just wear his hose and undershirt, however to be seen in one’s shirtsleeves was tantamount to being seen in one’s underwear – It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the shirt would gain any sort of respect as a garment in its own right. Even in the Victorian era, it was considered impolite to show off one’s shirt in public, without a waistcoat to cover it.
Women on the other hand wore a whole host of fabrics! An undershirt or blouse known as a chemise typically went on first. Then came a corset stiffened with reeds, whalebone, or wooden stays. Then came petticoats, a stomacher, an overskirt and then another jacket or blouse to go over the top. Everything was held together by drawstrings tied in elaborate knots, or else by clothespins which were sharp little brass or steel pins designed to keep everything from coming apart at the seams. Pins were essential for proper dressing in those days, especially for women, which spawned the expression of ‘pin-money’ (a bit of cash on the side), but which came from the days of the Tudors, when you actually needed money for pins, otherwise your clothes wouldn’t stay together!
The rhythms of life were very different five hundred years ago. In general, people woke up earlier and went to bed later. Waking up at dawn or near to it, was common. Work was started early and the main meal called ‘dinner’ was taken at late morning or midday, and another meal of ‘supper’ was had in the late afternoon, before one went to bed in the early evening.
The reason was light. The availability of light affected everybody. It affected when and how long you could work, when you woke up, when you went to bed. The only forms of light were either oil lamps, candles or rushlights – cheap reeds (rushes) drenched in tallow (animal fat), dried, and then lit to provide illumination.
For most people, the main source of light was either an open fire, or candles, either made of beeswax, or tallow. Tallow candles were cheaper, but as with anything – you get what you pay for. Tallow burned horribly, it stank to high heaven, and it was never very bright. It was basically a candle made of animal fat! Eugh…
Beeswax could be melted and purified, it could be coloured and scented, and it burned and melted more cleanly. This gave beeswax candles a much brighter, purer light. But this light came at a price, and candles were taxed…five hundred years later and we still have electric light bills…so not much changes! Because of the expense of candles, however, people, rich or poor, burned as little light as possible at night, and generally retired early. This was what dictated the rhythms of everyday life.
This article was originally posted in the September, 2016 issue of TAT History, and was reproduced here by permission of its author…me!
Looking Chinese, I get this question a lot. Almost every time I meet a new person, it pops up. Depending on the situation, a sarcastic or honest reply usually follows. But it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been fully comfortable with saying that I’m Chinese. I’ve been to China but once in my life – I don’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t born in China, and neither were my parents.
Despite this, we have undeniably Chinese roots. Both my grandfathers were born in China in the early 20th century. But here again there’s a separation – my grandmother (on my father’s side, at least) – was not. She was born in Singapore – at the time, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire. She grew up speaking English, along with a slew of other languages,
You can start to see why there’s hassles involved in researching my family history.
My Own Historical Journey
I only really started getting interested in genealogy after my grandmother died in 2011. She had led what I felt, was an incredible and arduous life, as well as growing up during an incredible time in history, and as part of a unique element of Chinese culture.
I knew very little about my grandparents’ lives while they were alive. My grandfather died before either my brother or I were old enough to know him, and I never felt comfortable asking grandma about him. At any rate, grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease as she entered her 90s meant that by the time I was old enough to ask intelligent questions, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to answer them. As a result, I learned most of my family history by asking my father, uncles, aunts, and older cousins.
It was only after my grandmother passed away that I gained access to a whole wad of her personal papers. Statutory declarations, passports, immigration papers, household documents, employment slips, hospital records, and even my grandfather’s death-certificate, that I was able to really delve into the history of our family – who was who, when and where they were born, and how everyone was related to everyone else. This was very exciting, but also incredibly confusing and difficult – not least because half the documents were written in a mixture of Cantonese, and Malay – two languages which I know almost nothing about!
The Difficulties of Asian Genealogy
In the Western world, tracing one’s family history is relatively easy. There are workhouse records, war-department records, immigration records, census-documents, birth and death registers, marriage records and school and university records to look through, to find out all kinds of things like when grandpa migrated to America from Italy, where and when he met grandma, what his parents and grandparents did for a living, where your Uncle Tony was born…all kinds of stuff.
Sadly such ease of access to ancestral information is next to impossible to attain for Chinese families. Centuries of war, revolution, invasion, occupation, more revolutions, more wars, more occupations and changing governments throughout China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Asian countries has meant that the likelihood of finding a complete and unbroken chain of records and dates going back more than a few generations is pretty unlikely.
Confucian Filial Piety
Another huge barrier to recording Asian genalogy is filial piety, a notion established by Chinese philosopher Confucius, centuries ago, and something which a lot of Chinese people still adhere to, to this day. Confucius stated that in everything, there was an order, a ranking and a hierarchy which had to be maintained. Every person in this hierarchy, from the emperor downwards, had a ranking and a title. This even extended to the family-unit, where every member was addressed not by name, but by rank and title. And in many Chinese families, this has continued into the 21st century.
“Alright”, I hear you say. “So what?”
Well, imagine trying to trace your family tree through even just a couple of generations, when you don’t know ANYBODY’S names. Not your grandparents’ names, not your uncles or aunts’ names, not the names of your great-grandparents, your grandparents’ siblings, their spouses…nobody, all because they would’ve been known by rank and title, and not by name.
Beginning to see the problem here?
The fact of the matter is that it is very, very difficult, unless you have access to loads of documents, and someone who is willing to sit down with you and go through them all, and explain things – especially if, unlike your parents or relations, you don’t speak your ‘mother tongue’, let alone read or write it!
For my own part, I was lucky enough that my father’s side of the family was largely brought up Christian, and as such, almost everyone had Christian names as well as Chinese ones. This made recording names, dates and relations much, much easier! I didn’t have to think in terms of first uncle, second uncle, third uncle, second aunt, second-aunt’s husband, fourth uncle’s wife’s brother, third uncle’s cousin’s brother…
You get the idea. It can be maddeningly confusing!
Researching My Own Family
Researching family history can be a lot of fun. I found out the names of my great-grandparents, I found out when and where my grandfather was born, I found out that my grandmother had a little brother who died in the 1950s – and that he worked as an apothecary! I found out that our family has had more adoptions in, adoptions out, and adoptions around the family, than a revolving door orphanage, but it helped to explain how we got where we are, and how the current family all fits together.
I found all these details out from photographs, records, and from interviewing family members. Unfortunately for me, finding out about my family history isn’t as easy as doing a Google Search, and that means that every single unearthed speck of genealogical gold-dust that I find is precious and fascinating. If you’ve ever struggled to piece together your family history, you’ll know what I mean!
For some people, knowing who they are and where they came from is a point of pride and fascination. For others, they couldn’t give a damn!…My uncle is one such person – he didn’t even keep his wedding photographs! He told me so! I have copies of them, though, and keep them as a record of everything that’s happened in our family which I’ve been able to find out.
Researching Your Own Family History
Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, albeit a frustrating one. if you ever intend to start, then the best advice I can give is to find every elderly member of your family that’s left, with decent memories, and absolutely pump them for every single drop of information you can squeeze from them.
Living memories are better than dry words on paper, and questioning people when they’re alive means that you get more details out of them, rather than trying to figure out everything from records, after they’re dead! This is one thing I wish I’d done with my grandmother before she’d died, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the interest back then.
Next, get a-hold of all the papers you can find. Birth records, death records, passports, immigration records, in any way that you can. If you need to, get them translated! And above all, make sure that you cross-reference things. Records are not always as definitive as you’d like them to be!
Once you’ve confirmed what you know, write it down! On the backs of photographs, in a family bible, in a document that you’re keeping – anything! Once lost, information like this is never won back, so guard it jealously! And make things easier for future generations (should you intend to have any), by keeping, saving and recording everything that you can, if not for your own children, then for your nieces and nephews further on down the line. You never know who might be interested in who came before them!
Just because it’s what they do, doesn’t mean that they know it all! And if you’re patient, you can get your hands on a really nice, and interesting, piece of silver! That’s what happened to me yesterday!
Nobody at my local auction-house knew what this curious little…dish…plate…bowl…thingy…was. As a result, it sold for next to nothing, and I was able to nab it at a great price. I was extremely skeptical of the description of it in the catalogue, which simply said: “Sterling Silver Ash Tray“.
One look at this item told me that it was quite obviously not an ash tray. The shape was all wrong. And there were no grooves to rest cigarettes. I mean you could use it as an ash tray…and you could use a Gucci handbag to tip horse-manure onto the garden…but that doesn’t mean you should! This weird little piece of silver made me wonder exactly what it was and who made it and why.
Unusually, it was a modern piece of silver. It’s from 1997, according to the hallmarks, and it was assayed in Sheffield. Researching the company that made it eventually told me that it was something called an ‘Armada Plate’.
Yeah I’d never heard of it either, and despite a lot of research, all I could find out was that there were loads of these things for sale online in various sizes, some larger than mine, some smaller. But none of them told me what the hell an ‘Armada Plate’ was. So, I went to Wikipedia to find out…
The Amazing Armada Service
In the 1580s and 90s, a thirty-one piece sterling silver dinner service was amassed by Sir Christopher Harris, and his wife Mary. Among other things, Sir Christopher was an MP, and Vice-Admiral for the county of Devon, and was charged with the protection of Devon by attacks from the sea.
The service became known as the ‘Armada Service’ because it was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date-letters on the silver plates and platters range from the 1580s up to around 1601.
Either way, the famous, 31-piece service was a point of pride for the Harris family – Sir Christopher after all, was familiar with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so he definitely moved in some pretty impressive circles!
What is known is that the service was passed down through the Harris family until 1645. At the time of the English Civil War, the service was buried to hide it from the Cromwellian puritans, who needed silver for their war-effort. It remained hidden for nearly two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1827 by farm-laborers who, of all things, were digging a hole to store potatoes!
The service was returned to the Harris family, who took custody of it for over fifty years, until it was sold at auction in 1885…by which time it had dropped from 31 pieces to 26 pieces…exactly what happened to the other five is unknown.
Either way, the pieces were sold at auction in 1885, and again some decades later, in 1910. In 1992, the 26-piece service was acquired by (and remains with) the British Museum.
But what happened to the other pieces?
Funnily enough – some of them have been discovered!
Through means unknown, some of them had ended up in the States! This was only discovered in 2009! This means that there is now a 28-piece Armada service in the world. However, the last three pieces, to make it the complete 31 once more, are still missing…
The Little Silver Plate
Alright, that was really interesting…but what’s that got to do with a little silver plate?
Well actually, the Armada Service is so famous, not just for its size, age and the fact that part of it is still missing, but because it represented a high-point of late-Elizabethan silversmithing. Its simple style and beauty, and the fact that it’s survived this long largely intact, have made it an object of fascination, and therefore, highly desirable.
Modern copies of individual pieces from the Armada Service are actively manufactured today by British silversmiths, and you can buy them online relatively easily, in sizes anywhere from a couple of inches, all the way up to seven inches in diameter! My own little plate is 3.75 inches across. It may not be a piece of 400-year-old Elizabethan silver, but it’s fun to own something that pays homage to one of the most famous silver-collections in the world!
In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:
This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?
Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.
The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.
Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.
This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.
Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.
And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.
The Fall of the Vinaigrette
Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.
These days, technologies such as sonar, radar and satellites warn us of dangerous weather and shipping hazards in our paths when we head out beyond sight of land. Helicopters, rigid-shell lifeboats with inbuilt motors, and clear and easy radio communications make rescue at sea easier and safer. But imagine what high seas rescue was like before these machines and technologies were invented. Imagine trying to affect a rescue in a roaring hurricane not with a helicopter, but with a wooden, oared lifeboat. Imagine life-or-death communications where you didn’t have radio or walkie-talkies – just the flashing pulses of a manually-operated Morse-lamp. No GPS. No satellite tracking – just maps, charts, maritime chronometers and a pair of compasses to find your way.
Imagine all these challenges and more, which were faced by the men who carried out one of the most famous ocean rescues of the early 20th century.
The S.S. Antinoe is completely forgotten today. If you stopped most people in the street and asked, they would have absolutely no idea what it is. And yet, this was an event which made international headlines when the news broke. It turned ordinary sailors into celebrities and heroes before they’d even set their feet back on dry land! A tale of endurance, bravery and sheer ballsiness not yet coming to a motion-picture theatre near you! Forget “The Perfect Storm”, the events surrounding the S.S. Antinoe are far more spectacular!
Wednesday, 20th of January, 1926 – The Roosevelt Departs
The year is 1926. American ocean liner, the S.S. President Roosevelt, is steaming out of New York Harbor. In charge of this vessel is Captain George Fried. The Roosevelt’s ultimate destination is the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, but it will make various stop-offs along the south coast of England along the way.
The voyage to Europe will be long. A week at sea at least. The weather was bad before the ship had even left American waters, but it couldn’t stop just because it was wet and cloudy – the Roosevelt had 200 passengers on board who had paid for safe passage, along with several thousand bags of U.S. Mail.
Before the days of satellite weather-tracking, the main way for ships to attain accurate weather forecasts was in the form of the telegraph. Ships out at sea sent Morse Code radio-messages between each other, warning of things as storms, icebergs, and other ships in distress. The President Roosevelt didn’t know it yet, but it was sailing into a storm of unimaginable ferocity.
The Roosevelt was not just steaming into a storm. It was steaming into one of the fiercest hurricanes ever witnessed in the north Atlantic. Over the coming days, the situation on board ship deteriorated significantly and a number of measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers and of the ship. Roosevelt passengers were kept below-deck, forbidden from going outside, for their own safety. Lifelines were thrown up outside and inside the ship, to catch people who stumbled or fell when the ship rolled.
When it was safe to cook, stewards would soak table-cloths in water and wring them out before laying the tables. The wet fabric would prevent place-settings and dishes from sliding off the tables in the dining saloon when the ship rolled or plunged through another wave. And things only got worse as the voyage continued. By the third day, Capt. Fried ordered the ship’s engines to be run at reduced speed. It would be pointless to operate them at full-tilt and burn precious coal in a futile attempt to get anywhere in this storm. And so the Roosevelt laboured onwards.
Sunday, 24th of January, 1926 – The Antinoe Calls for Help
Despite the raging storm, Capt. Fried of the Roosevelt was determined that nothing more than the most essential precautions be taken, to prevent causing a panic among the passengers. As a result, regular crew-shifts went on as normal. There were no double watches or any other abnormal crew activity. Everyone was just expected to do their regular duties. If the situation got significantly worse, then extra measures would be taken.
With this mindset, the crew went about their duties. At four o’clock on Sunday morning, wireless-operator Kenneth Upton relieved his colleague and took up his position in the radio-room. He slipped on his headphones, sat down at the desk, and prepared himself for a long, boring shift of a whole lot of nothing. Considering the storm, there was probably nothing going on out there! How wrong he was!
Not two hours later, at 5:40am, a barely discernible message gurgled through the air. Because of the hurricane, radio reception was appallingly bad, and Mr. Upton could barely hear the frantically hammered-out Morse Code.
The cry for help came from the Antinoe, a British freighter-vessel which was fighting for life. It was severely damaged by the storm, unable to move, developing a heavy starboard list and had lost all her lifeboats, which had been ripped off her decks or smashed to pieces by the storm. She had no way of giving her position with great accuracy as the hurricane made it impossible for the crew to take a reading of their position by the sun or the stars.
Realising the gravity of the situation, Upton immediately informed Capt. Fried.
Using the Antinoe’s feeble radio-transmitter as a reference-point, Capt. Fried was able to determine through triangulation (using two known positions to find a third) the Antinoe’s location. Unfortunately, he also determined that it would take six hours just to get there!
The Tale of the Antinoe
The Antinoe was captained by Harry Tose. It had departed its port of embarkation on the 14th of January and had sailed without incident until the 23rd when it ran into the same hurricane battering the S.S. President Roosevelt. Heavy seas had damaged the ship severely. In all the heaving, rocking and rolling, an ice-chest had been knocked loose when the ship rolled from a wave. The heavy ice-chest had fallen and smashed against the ship’s steering-mechanism, rendering the vessel impossible to steer.
Despite throwing the damaged ice-chest and other broken parts overboard and trying to fix the broken steering mechanism, the ship was in sufficient enough danger that Capt. Tose ordered an S.O.S. signal to be sent out. Two ships responded: One was the S.S. President Roosevelt. The other was the famous Cunard ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Aquitania. In the end, it was the Roosevelt which dared to stay alongside the stricken Antinoe and attempt a rescue-mission in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane.
The Arrival of the S.S. President Roosevelt
Around midday, the two vessels found each other. Capt. Tose of the Antinoe wanted his ship taken in-tow and hauled back to safety…wherever that was! Capt. Fried agreed, but had no idea HOW to do it! Three attempts at bringing the Antinoe under tow failed. The weather was too rough and either the towline never caught on, or it would snap once it had been fastened to the Antinoe.
By that evening, the situation was spinning further and further out of control. The nonstop pounding of the waves had smashed in the Antinoe’s decks. This flooded the engine-room, killing the generators and depriving the ship of all electrical power. Now, she had no lights, no heating and no radio! And to cap it off…it started snowing in the middle of the ocean! Capt. Fried knew that he if abandoned the Antinoe now, her crew were almost certainly going to die.
The raging storm was wreaking havoc on both ships. The wind, the crashing waves, the pitch blackness and the white-out blizzard conditions made keeping visual contact between both ships almost impossible! For a period of several hours on Sunday night, it was impossible for the Roosevelt to see the Antinoe – the blinding snow rendered the Roosevelt’s powerful searchlights impotent, and Capt. Fried feared the very real possibility of a single wave slamming both ships together and sending them to the bottom of the sea!
The Antinoe had no lifeboats of her own, so to try and carry out a rescue-mission, Capt. Fried ordered his officers to use their own lifeboats to row across to the Antinoe and bring back survivors. The Chief Officer, Mr. Miller called for volunteers. Positioning the ship to launch the lifeboat, Miller and eight men got into the boat and it was lowered away into the raging sea. It was a complete disaster! The ship rocked unexpectedly, slamming the lifeboat against the hull! Two men were thrown out and were drowned at once. The other seven were quickly hauled back on-deck. The lifeboat was considered a total loss.
Monday 25th of January, 1926 – Lifeboats Lost to the Sea
By the next day, things were getting desperate. In numerous failed attempts to maintain contact with the Antinoe, the Roosevelt lost another four of her own wooden lifeboats and was running out of patience and time…especially time! Because, gallant as Capt. Fried’s actions and intentions were, he could not stay alongside the struggling Antinoe indefinitely. His supplies of fuel and food were finite. On top of that, he had passengers who he was supposed to take to Europe. He had mail on board which he was supposed to deliver to Germany!
So what? That was the attitude that Fried took. And he told anyone who asked him, just so! He was not about to leave until the job was done. And that was final! And that was what he told his bosses, too! In fact, Fried sent telegrams back to his company offices in New York, informing his superiors of the situation, and stating quite firmly that come Hell or High Water, he would stay alongside the Antinoe until the ship either sank, until an effective rescue had been completed, or until he could no-longer render assistance.
These words of defiance which were flashed across the ocean went on to have an incredible effect which few, least of all, the people at the centre of this drama, could possibly have foreseen. Trapped at sea, nobody on either the S.S. President Roosevelt, or the Antinoe could possibly know that Capt. Fried’s telegrams back to New York were at that very moment making the rescue of the Antinoe an internationally-observed incident!
Tuesday, 26th of January, 1926 – Rescue At Last!
The next day, the weather finally started to let up. The Roosevelt was able to re-establish contact via searchlight with the Antinoe and rescue-attempts began anew. A lifeboat was successfully launched and rowed over to the Antinoe.
Upon sighting the boat, Capt. Tose insisted that all married men, with the exception of himself, should go first. As a result, the first dozen men to abandon the Antinoe were the ones with wives and families waiting at home. Rowing back and forth between both ships for several hours, the crew and captain of the Antinoe were successfully evacuated to the decks of the Roosevelt. The lifeboat, badly worn out by the rough seas, was cast adrift.
One last attempt was made on the 27th to rescue the badly-damaged Antinoe but when once again the towline snapped, all aboard agreed that to keep trying was a waste of time. They left the ship to founder, and then sailed for Plymouth, England.
Back on Dry Land!
The toll had been heavy. The Antinoe was lost. Two crew from the Roosevelt had drowned at sea and six of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the hurricane during a rescue that had lasted three and a half days! But all twenty-five members of the crew on board the Antinoe had been saved!
When the Roosevelt and her crew arrived in Plymouth, England at the end of the month, they were greeted like heroes! Wild applause followed them, and reporters jostled for interviews! Newsreel cameras rolled, flash-bulbs popped! Mrs. Tose ran up on board the Roosevelt to be with her husband. Later, she publicly thanked Captain George Fried in front of the newsreel cameras, for delivering her husband, Captain Harry Tose, and his crew, safely from the jaws of certain death.
News of the dramatic rescue flashed around the world as fast as telegraph could take it. Articles appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore, the Buffalo Evening News in the United States, theArgus in Melbourne, and The Queenslander in Brisbane. The arrival of the triumphant President Roosevelt and its exhausted passengers and crew was filmed for posterity by newsreel cameras when it docked in England.
The saga of the Antinoe, and the ship which rescued its crew became legend! When Captain Fried and his men returned to America, they were treated once again to a heroes’ welcome, and given a ticker-tape parade through the center of New York City! The Antinoe was probably one of the most famous sea-rescues in history since the Titanic, and would not be eclipsed in peacetime until the sinking of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s.
— — — —
This article was originally published in The Australia Times – HISTORY magazine in March, 2015. Permission for republishing on throughouthistory.com was granted by the original author and copyright holder…me!
Yes! Wah liao indeed! And much wealth, prosperity and good luck to all! It is the crowing year of the ROOSTER!! Not my year (damn, that sucks…!), but, it’s Chinese New Year nonetheless!
Now, others will call it ‘Lunar New Year’ and that’s their prerogative, but to me, being two different kinds of Chinese – it will always be CHINESE NEW YEAR!!
Two different kinds? Yeah – two. I’m Chinese-Chinese on my mother’s side, and Straits-Chinese on my father’s side. If you don’t know what ‘Straits Chinese’ is, then I’ll pop in a link to my article about the Straits Chinese here, so that you can read all about them, and their fascinating history!
Either way – It’s Chinese New Year, and that means dusting off all kinds of old, ancient, decrepit traditions and rolling them out of the shed for their once-a-year moment in the sun.
“What traditions!?”, I hear you wail, in your frustrated groan of ‘getonwithitedness’?
Chinese New Year actually has loads of traditions and customs, and it’s all those traditions, customs, superstitions and legends that we’ll be covering in this posting! So, let’s hop to it!…
This is the biggest and most well-known of all traditions during Chinese New Year. If you’re going to any major CNY celebration – make sure you wear red! A red tie, red shoes, red shirt, red dress, red jacket…something red!
Red is considered the luckiest colour in Chinese culture. That’s why all the doors, rooves, bricks and everything else in the famous ‘Forbidden City’ in Peking – is bright crimson red! To bring in all that good luck, baby! This is also why people hang red couplets outside their doors, and light red firecrackers outside their houses.
Red is the Chinese colour of good luck. This stems from an ancient fable where a brave warrior entered a village on New Year’s Eve. He noticed that everybody barred their doors and shuttered their windows, not daring to leave their houses after dark.
Perplexed, he questioned a village elder, asking for an explanation. The old man said that each year on New Year’s Eve, a vicious monster emerged from the forests nearby to devour anybody caught outside after dark.
While they were talking, a little girl in a red dress ran out into the streets. Before anybody had noticed, the monster had arrived. The girl screamed and the monster recoiled in horror, fleeing back into the jungles. Observing this, the warrior deduced that the monster was frightened of the colour red, and sudden, loud noises.
To protect themselves and bring good luck, he advised the villagers to festoon their houses in red fabric, and light firecrackers outside their doors at sundown. The bright colours and loud explosions would keep the beast at bay. When they tried this the next evening, New Year’s Day, the beast failed to materialise.
Ever since, it has been a tradition to wear red, and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and demons, and to herald forth good luck for the year ahead.
Offerings to Zao Jun
In households which follow Chinese customs and traditions, one of the most important annual rituals are the offerings of ‘nian gao‘, or new years’ cake, to the Kitchen God – Zao Jun.
As God of the Kitchen, the traditional heart of the home, Zao Jun’s shrine within this room would’ve been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and misdeeds. At the end of the year, it was his duty to rise to heaven, and to give a report of the family’s misdeeds to the Jade Emperor. The emperor then granted blessings or retribution accordingly.
In order to ensure good fortune for the year ahead, the household (usually in the form of the lady of the house) would give Zao Jun offerings (or bribes!) of sweet desserts (including, but not limited to new years’ cake), so that his jaw would be glued shut and so he would only tell the emperor about the good things which the family had done that year.
Legend says that Zao Jun was a man who broke up with his wife, experienced hard times, and returned to her for charity when his luck had run out. While she went to get him a drink, Zao Jun, overcome with shame, crawled into the clay, wood-fired stove in his wife’s kitchen, committing suicide. The Jade Emperor of Heaven took pity on him, and appointed him as the Kitchen God thereafter.
Chinese New Year Food
There are loads of foods which are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year, either because they’re considered Chinese delicacies, or because they’re seasonal foods traditionally eaten during the New Year period. Some of the more common ones are…
Nian Gao (literally ‘Year Cake’ or New Year’s Cake) is a big tradition in Chinese households. Given China’s vast size, it’s probably no surprise that nian gao varies significantly from coast to coast, north and south across the country, and that the ways in which nian gao is consumed is also extremely varied.
The type of nian gao that most people outside of China will be familiar with is a fat, round, dense, sticky little thing, which traditionally hailed from Canton Province (today Guandong Province), in southern China.
If you’ve ever eaten nian gao, then you’ll know that what I say next will be more true than you want to admit – it’s extremely dense, sweet, filling, and in some instances, it can be bloody hard to eat! It’s so gooey and chewy it’s like trying to eat liquid tar! Good luck with that…
Despite this, however, nian gao is amazing. My favourite way of having it is with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. It tastes just divine. A pity we can only have it (or at least, only buy it) once a year.
Nian Gao should not be confused with moon cakes. The size is about the same, but the texture and taste are completely different!
Also called Lo Hei, among several other naming variations, Yee Sang is popular in southern China, and many Chinese-expat communities, such as those in Malaysia and Singapore. Yee Sang is a Chinese-style salad, served cold with sweet sauces, a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and most uniquely of all – raw (or if not raw, then at least, cold) fish.
The tradition with yee sang is to mix it up by throwing it up in the air as high as possible, while using chopsticks. Trust me, this is not easy…it’s a lot of fun!…but it’s not easy! And if you do it wrong, it’s a hell of a mess!!
Egg noodles, usually served with lobster or crayfish, is another extremely popular Chinese New Year dish. It’s also popular during anniversaries and birthdays. The length of the noodles symbolises longevity, continuity and a long life. As such, you should eat them and slurp them for good luck – but never snap, bite through, or break them, as that would symbolise one cutting short one’s life or run of good luck! Woops…
The Giving and Receiving of ‘Hong Bao’
Aaaah yes! Every little Chinese child in every gigantic Chinese family will have grown up with THIS amazing tradition – the yearly gifts of hong bao!
‘Hong Bao’ literally means ‘red bag’ or ‘red packet’ in Chinese (in Cantonese, it’s the slightly different ‘Ang Pow’, but it means exactly the same thing). They’re the little red envelopes stuffed with money, which parents and older, married relatives, give to children, and any unmarried relatives. When my brother announced that he was getting married at a family reunion – one of my aunts jokingly teased that he should reconsider his decision – it would mean no more red envelopes of cash from her!…or anybody else!…in the family once he tied the knot!
(Note to self: Never marry).
Like a lot of other Chinese traditions, the giving and receiving of hong bao goes back untold centuries. The earliest records of a hong bao-like tradition dates to the days when China still had large numbers of round coins with square holes in them, as part of their currency.
To wish their offspring good luck for the year ahead, parents and grandparents would tie coins together on red cord or string, and give them to children to symbolise good fortune in the months that were to come. This eventually morphed into the more convenient red paper envelopes or packets which are used today.
Traditionally, the amount of money inside the envelope is of significance. Ideally, it should always be an even number (so $10 instead of $5, for example). This is to ensure that good things always come in pairs (numbers divisible by two). In my long history of receiving hong bao, I’ve had amouts ranging from $5 all the way up to $100!
The traditional greeting expected at the receipt of a red packet is ‘Gung Hey Fatt Choy!’ (Cantonese), or ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (Chinese-Mandarin). In either dialect, the result is more or less the same: “Wishing you happiness and prosperity for the year ahead!”.
Another big, big tradition for Chinese New Year is the annual family reunion. When you have large families spread out all over the world, this can be a bit hard to pull off, but in China, at least – the annual family reunion is still a BIG event. Millions of people book flights, train-tickets and bus-tickets to travel hundreds of miles across China to be with their relatives on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
In some instances, it’s not just the living who join the reunion, either! In some parts of Asia, even the dead are invited! This usually takes the shape of visiting shrines or family temples, or graveyards to leave offerings to ancestors, to clean up gravesites, and to light incense, burn paper money and in some cases, light firecrackers to wake the spirits of the dead and invite them back to the family home.
Nothing like having the WHOLE family around during New Year’s Eve, huh?
Incidentally – this tradition is also why it’s considered VERY bad form in Chinese culture to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – You do the same with sticks of burning incense when offering prayers to the dead. So unless you want to commit a major social faux-pas – keep your chopsticks down!
The Lion Dance!
The lion dance – performed using a giant lion puppet, is yet another popular tradition. Although not an animal on the Chinese Zodiac, the lion dance has been a part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, the dancers come from local martial-arts schools, Chinese youth associations, or clan associations, and are typically young men (the exertion involved in the dancing is significantly higher than you might expect!).
The aim of lion dancing is to try and grab at offerings of vegetables, red envelopes (Hong Bao or Ang Pow), and to bring good luck to the local community. They’re usually accompanied by loud, raucous music, designed to drive away demons and evil spirits, and sometimes, even firecrackers.
The lion dance that most people are familiar with comes from the Canton or Guandong region of China, in the far south, near Hong Kong. Many people confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance – which are absolutely nothing alike. The lion dance involves a long, full-body lion with a working head, which the dancers move around inside of. The dragon is held up in the air on poles, with the operators working the poles from below.
The Twelve Zodiac Animals!
This is possibly the most famous part of Chinese New Year – The Chinese Zodiac! There are twelve animals in the Zodiac, they are, in order (yes, there is an order):
Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Each animal has specific attributes and qualities, and being born in one year over another means that you’re supposed to have different strengths and weaknesses.
Myself? I’m a rabbit, or ‘tuzi‘, in Chinese. And what could be more awesome than being a a fuzzy, cute little sex maniac who delivers chocolate? According to the books, among other things, Rabbits are highly creative. That sounds like me! 😛
So where do these twelve animals come from? Well, for that answer, we need to go back to the Guy in the Sky – the Jade Emperor. Confused with time, because they had no way to distinguish passing years, the commoners prayed to the emperor for guidance. In his wisdom, the emperor devised a twelve-year cycle. In trying to figure out how to structure this, he came up with the idea that each year would be represented by an animal. To decide which twelve that would be, he arranged a race. The first twelve animals to finish the race, and most importantly – cross the river at the end and make it to the other bank – would be honoured for eternity by having a place in the Chinese Zodiac.
Now whether or not you really believe this – it makes for a heck of a fairytale.
Happy New Year!
This is just a brief rundown of the most common Chinese New Year traditions, customs and rituals. Although they can vary from region to region around China, as well as from place to place among expat Chinese communities around the world, most families and communities who follow Chinese traditions will adhere to at least some of these, which are the most common and well-known customs.
I was at my local auction-house this week just poking around, seeing what was on offer for the first auction of the year, when I stumbled across some items which were being listed for sale, and they struck me as being rather strange.
Strange because they were obviously reproductions, and because this is an auction-house which deals largely in antiques, jewelry, art and furniture. Just looking at them I could tell they weren’t as old as the dates printed across them, but I expected that the chaps at the auction-house knew that when they put them up for sale.
The items, two telescopes, later sold for what I felt were pretty high prices, considering that they were obviously of modern manufacture. And this got me to thinking about antiques collecting, and the risks involved with it – specifically – buying fakes and reproductions, when you’re looking for a genuine antique!
In the antiques world, almost anything and everything can, will, has been, or will be, faked. And I do mean literally anything – you can go online right now, and buy a whistle which someone will swear up and down, was used in the trenches of the First World War. It’ll look old, and it’ll have period markings on it – but it is NOT an antique! (Incidentally – these whistles are reproductions manufactured by the ACME Whistle Co.
Now, to be fair, that’s not to say that the ACME Whistle Company is deliberately trying to cheat the public – they are manufacturing whistles with old-fashioned markings on the barrels, they are aging them and selling them – but they are selling them as modern reproductions of antique whistles. There’s nothing wrong with this. And there’s nothing wrong with you buying them. Just so long as you’re aware of the fact that these whistles are not 100-year-old, First-World-War originals! And so long as you don’t try and sell them as such!
However, there are people out there who will try and sell them as such, and at significantly increased prices. Knowing how to tell the difference between a real whistle from the First World War, and a modern reproduction, is just one example of how collectors need to be able to tell the difference between a real antique, and a reproduction, or a fake!
What is a Fake?
A fake, or fraudulent item, is something manufactured to look like, and be passed off, as an original item, and which will be sold at a price matching the original item. It has absolutely no value as an antique, and if you buy one, you will be stung – hard! Because reselling it will be almost impossible – nobody will willingly purchase a fake.
And just so we’re clear – faking items isn’t a modern phenomenon – people have been faking things for centuries! You can even buy an antique fake, as well as a fake antique! Some antique fakes might actually be worth money, because of the notoriety around them, but again, you need to be careful about what you buy.
What is a Reproduction?
A reproduction is an item which has been manufactured to superficially look like something else that was produced previously. Reproductions are legal, and sometimes even desirable, but they should not be confused with the original article. Reproductions can be useful in the sense that they give an impression of age at a fraction of the price, but one should not expect original-quality manufacturing standards for a reproduction-quality item. You get what you pay for.
What is a Replica?
A replica is generally defined as being an exact copy of an antique. Replicas can vary just in terms of visual appearance, all the way up to being fully-operational, functioning replicas. They differ from a reproduction in that usually, much more detail, time and money has been spent in manufacturing these, since they are meant to be faithful copies of an original item. Replicas are popular choices with historical reenactors, since they can get the ‘real thing’, but not worry about potentially damaging an antique, which could be decades, or even centuries old. Firearms, clothing, historical eyewear, kitchenware and many other items usually have modern replicas of antique originals available online. The quality is not necessarily as good as one might like, but the functionality should at least be on the same level.
The Three-Part Pick-a-Part
When you start collecting, the most important thing to learn is how to differentiate an antique from a replica, reproduction and fake. If you can’t do this, your collection could be filled with loads of fakes!
“So what?” I might hear you ask, “Does that really matter?”
Well, that depends. If you blew hundreds of bucks on something expecting it to be 200 years old, and it was made last week, would you be happy? If you unknowingly sold a fake and your buyer called you out on it, would you be happy? Buying and selling fakes can be a painful business, and not just for your wallet, but also for your reputation, if you do this regularly. People will avoid you, and once your reputation’s shattered, selling anything will be a real hassle!
In spotting fakes, there are some things which the novice can learn and read about to protect themselves, but other things only come with experience and the balance of probabilities.
The Real McCoy or a Fraudulent Ploy?
Even for the novice antiques collector, there are ways to tell reproductions or fakes, from the real thing. How to find these ways, these indicators, is all in the details of what the item is, what it looks like, how it was made and how it’s presented.
In some cases, knowing if something is an antique or a reproduction is pretty obvious, and in other cases, it can be nigh impossible. So what are some things to look for?
Indicators of Age are probably the first thing to check for. Anything which is a real antique will have genuine indicators of age. Wear, fading, paint-loss, chips, dings, dents, tarnishing, loss of colour, etc. Do fakes have these things too? You bet! The trick is knowing the difference between real indicators of age, and fake ones. Some indicators of age cannot be faked, such as stamps or engravings, particular types of decoration, or particular types of wear. Knowing how to differentiate between the two, is the rub. Some can look incredibly convincing!
Fit, Finish and Features are three more indicators of whether an item is an antique, or a reproduction. Antiques are simply everyday items which are very, very old. They were built or made decades, or even centuries ago, to fulfill a specific purpose. And chances are, they will have fulfilled that purpose very well. And they would’ve done that because of how they were made, what they made of, how they were completed, and the features found on these items.
Look at two seemingly identical items. Their shape might be the same, their physical measurements might be the same. Even the colour and patterning might be the same. But if you look closer, you will see differences.
An item made to be used every day, will be manufactured accordingly. It will be heavier, or lighter, as the case might be. It will have various additional features which will aid it in its function. It will be purely operational, without any excessive flourishes or decorations.
Now look at the reproduction, or fake. In many cases, telling the difference between the two will be fairly easy. The reproduction will ‘try too hard’ to look old. It will be excessively aged or patina’d. It will not have any of the extra features which the antique will have. Why? Because unlike the antique, it wasn’t designed as an object of everyday use – it was designed as a reproduction.
Now look at the fit and finish. Notice any wobbling? Any loss of details or decorations? Generally, a fake or reproduction will have fewer decorative details than an antique original, or again, will try too hard to look old-fashioned, and overdo it on the decorations. Modern reproductions or fakes are designed to fool at a distance – they won’t hold up to up-close scrutiny – provided that you know what you’re looking for. Understanding the difference between all these nuances is vital if you’re to differentiate between an antique item and a fake or reproduction.
Weight and Heft is another way to determine an original from a fake. Most people who manufacture fakes or reproductions will not care about this – their item will weigh less, or more than the item that they’re trying to copy. Why? Because they don’t care, and they don’t expect that YOU will care, either.
Knowing how much the genuine article weighs, when compared to a fake is very important when it comes to things like old coins. Antique coins which were made of gold and silver had by law, to weigh a certain amount, since they were made of precious metals, and the value on the coin had to reflect the weight of the coin itself.
A fake coin will not weigh the same as a real one. It will either be significantly heavier, or significantly lighter. In cases like this, the only way to be really sure is to look up the weight of the coin beforehand and keep it handy when you go hunting.
Grit and Grime are yet another way to differentiate an antique from a reproduction. Most antiques will not look perfect. You try looking perfect after 100 years! Most antiques will have some sort of blemish, some sort of tarnish, some grit, grime, dust or other gunk trapped inside its moving parts, or in crevices or cracks or gullies.
A reproduction will always look perfectly clean. A fake will always look perfectly clean. That’s because…it’s new! Duh!…Or, it might look dirty. But the difference is in the kind of dirt or patina, or tarnish. Real tarnish or grime builds up over time, over the course of decades.
This is not something that you can fake with acid or vinegar or by rubbing crud onto an object’s surface. It can only be achieved by years and decades of use and abuse. Grime and gunk get into every tiny little crevice inside an item, and that’s something you won’t find in a reproduction, no matter how superficially it looks like an antique.
Well, there are just a few tips for the novice collector on how to spot a genuine antique, as opposed to a modern reproduction or forgery which someone might try and sell you as the real thing.
Of course, the tips mentioned here will not cover all antiques – they’re intended as general guidelines, but they should be enough to help most people avoid strife while out at flea-markets, auction houses, antiques shops and when surfing online for that next interesting item for their collection.