Antique Blue Enamel Tiffin Carrier (Ca. 1900)

 

The things you find on your vacations, huh?

I bought this at the Lorong Kulit flea-market in George Town, Penang, a few weeks ago, when I was there on holiday. The stallholder had a whole van overflowing with bric-a-brac, junk, battered antiques and nicknacks, and this was one piece hiding up the back. I ended up buying it, and two more pieces (which I may cover in a later posting), and somehow managed to get them all back home to Australia in one piece.

The carrier. In this shot, you can see the four containers, the lid, and the carrying frame. You can also see the flowery gold decals printed on the sides of each bowl, and the original owner’s name engraved into the side in Indian (probably Tamil?) script.

It’s a classic, four-tier antique tiffin carrier, of a style that was extremely common during the 1800s and early 1900s. I fell in love with the colour, condition, and quality at once. And at the price it was going for, decided that I simply couldn’t let it pass!

What’s a ‘Tiffin Carrier’?

If you haven’t read my other couple of posts about these things, I’ll summarise it really quickly here.

A tiffin-carrier is the English name given to a type of stacked-bowl or stacked-container food-carrying device which has been used in Asia for hundreds of years. Versions of these have been made from wood, bamboo, porcelain, and more recently, brass, stainless steel, enameled steel, and even plastic. They date back in countries like China, India and other countries in Southeast Asia for generations.

A side-on view, showing the frame and handle.

Each container of the carrier stacks on top of the other, with each one holding a different food, or component of a meal. Dumplings, noodles, rice, dessert, soup, etc.

Tiffin carriers started being made of punched brass and steel coated in enamel paint, in the 1800s. Although they were very popular throughout Asia (specifically India, Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, and Indonesia), a large number of them were actually manufactured in EUROPE, and exported to southeast Asia. That said, brass ones were commonly manufactured in India, where the interiors were plated in tin, to prevent the brass from corroding and tarnishing, which would affect the taste of the food stored inside them.

Where does ‘Tiffin’ come from?

‘Tiffin’ is an old English slang-word, a holdover from the Victorian era. It referred to any assortment of light snacks, nibbles, or comestibles consumed for luncheon or afternoon tea. It gained popularity among the British expats living in India at the time, and spread throughout southeast Asia, becoming virtually synonymous with lunch, afternoon tea, or a light dinner, taken anytime beween midday and the late afternoon.

Dissecting the Blue Meanie!

The blue tiffin carrier I have comprises six different components: Four stacked bowls, a lid, and a steel frame made out of one long piece of flat steel bent into a U, and a turned, wooden handle on top.

The four bowls or containers are used for storing the food. The first three are identical in size. The fourth one, at the bottom, is slightly larger. The staple food (rice or noodles) would’ve gone in the bottom bowl. Into the upper bowls would’ve gone meat, vegetables, or curry, with possibly, a dessert or snack in the uppermost bowl. The shape of the lid that goes on top of the topmost bowl means that it could be flipped over, stood up, and used as a rudimentary plate while eating.

The steel frame that holds the carrier together is shaped in such a way that the two ‘handles’ or ‘tabs’ on the sides of each bowl may slide down the inside of the frame. In this way, they may be held in place without being damaged, and without falling apart unexpectedly, which would cause food to spill everywhere.

The top of the carrier. Here you can see the lid, the turned wooden handle, the security clamp (which is hinged, so that it may be pushed out and up to open the carrier), and the holes drilled in the side of the handle and the clamp, where a padlock could be passed through, to secure the carrier even more.

At the top of the frame is a swing-down steel clamp. This serves to keep the lid and the bowls underneath it, firmly in-place. There’s also a hole drilled through the clamp, and the handle of the frame, so that it may be locked with a padlock (don’t want anybody stealing your lunch now, do you!?).

The handles at the top of tiffin carriers like this are usually turned wood. In brass models, the handles might be made of turned brass instead. The carrying handle on modern tiffin carriers are usually just flat steel, or moulded plastic.

As a decorative element, the enameled sides of the carrier were decorated in gold decals. Antique carriers were often decorated in a wide variety of ways. Some Indian ones were embossed or chased, with repousse work set into the brass. Others were engraved, or as with this case – set with gold decals on the sides. Tiffin carriers used by the Straits Chinese were often bedecked with handpainted flowers on the sides, and sometimes, gold leaf borders, decals, and words in Malay for good eating, and an enjoyable meal!

Modern Tiffin Carriers

“DUDE!! That thing is so cool…I want one! Gimme!”

No! Bugger off! Go gitcher own!

“Alright…where!?”

Actually, you can buy them pretty easily online. Modern tiffin carriers are widely available. These days, they’re usually plain stainless steel, enameled steel, and sometimes brass (although this appears to be rare). Some are even made of plastic. Typically, the design hasn’t changed much – it’s a set of bowls or containers (usually 2-6) stacked up, and held together by a frame of some description.

These have the advantage of being dishwasher-safe, and will typically withstand daily use, carrying your sandwiches, cookies, leftover spaghetti-and-meatballs, or last night’s Chinese takeout, to the office or school with you, easily. They’re also great as a conversation-piece in their own right, since most people outside of Asia have never seen them.

Do these things leak?

Honestly? Yeah, some probably do. They were never designed to be airtight, so if you do buy one, best to transport it standing UPRIGHT. If you’re only carrying dry-ish foods which don’t have a lot of sauce or soup, knocking it over or laying the carrier on its side shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t try that with anything that has a lot of liquid in it.

The interior of the carrier, and the empty frame. The inside walls of the containers are lined in white enamel whereas the outside is in blue.

“Why should I buy one instead of say…a box?”

Good question, 99! A tiffin carrier has many advantages over a box, or even a thermos-flask! (does anybody use those anymore?).

For one thing, it’s bigger. You can put more stuff in it. Yummy!

For two things, it’s compartmentalised. Your food tastes and smells won’t get mixed up. Your chocolate muffin won’t taste like last night’s beef stroganoff, and those delicious cookies that your wife baked as a treat won’t get soggy when they’re separated from your spaghetti by another one or two bowls in between, which no doubt hold the meatballs, and the shredded cheese that you want to put on top of your spaghetti.

For three things, each container in the carrier is its own individual bowl. No need to decant the contents of your thermos into something else before eating it, or to try and recreate Aesop’s fable of the fox and the stork.

Do tiffin carriers keep food warm, then?

Uh, no. Traditional ones do not. But you can buy modern ones with insulated sides, which will. Antique carriers were usually wrapped in cloth, or stored in a metal tube or casing, to keep the food warm. This had the added advantage of protecting the carrier from damage while it was being transported. The tiffin wallahs of India still use this method today when they transport lunches to office-workers in Bombay.

So, why did you buy this?

I guess because I’ve always been nonconformist and unconventional. I have never liked doing what ‘everybody else’ does, just because they’re doing it, and it’s the ‘in thing’ or whatever. And I suppose that extends to the type of antiques I like collecting. I like collecting, owning and selling things which are just…different, and weird. Or unusual. Tiffin carriers are hardly known in the western world, and the chance to buy a really good bargain was just too great to pass up. Plus, they’re a link to my own family’s culture and history, so why not?

Will you use it?

Uh, probably not. It’ll mostly be used as a photography prop, as a decorative piece, and a conversation starter, but hey, it’s still cute, yeah?

Uh, don’t you already have one of these?

Yuh-huh! Sure do! Here they are together:

So, what’s the difference? Well, there are a few differences, if you pay attention. The biggest, and most obvious one is colour, of course. The one on the left is punched steel, coated in enamel paint. The one on the right is just plain, polished brass. The interior on the left is white enamel. The interior on the right is tin-plated brass.

Size-wise they’re just about the same. The one on the right is exactly 18 inches tall, so the one on the left is a bit more, maybe 19 inches, or 18.5in.

The other thing you might notice is the slightly different design of the lids. The one on the left is a flat, plate-style lid, whereas the one on the right has yet another little compartment on top (used for storing spices, sauces, etc).

“I want an antique tiffin carrier too! Where do I get one!?”

Uh…ahem…uhm…huh.

*scratches head*

That’s a DAMN good question.

You can always try eBay. That’s a good start. But to find them in places like antiques shops or flea-markets and such, you really have to go to the ‘source’. Next time you’re on holiday, go to India, or Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, etc. Tiffin carriers of a WIDE variety of styles were used throughout this region for a LONG time, and that’s where you’re most likely to find them ‘in the wild’, like I did.

How much do they cost?

Eh…it really depends. A simple one is probably under $100? A really fancy, or rare one (either in design, style, decorations, condition, etc), could be going for nearly $1,000.

How do you tell an antique from a modern one?

There are various ways. Usually, it’s pretty obvious, just based on size, style, colour, materials, etc.

Antique ones were meant as day-to-day food-carriers. You took your lunch to the office with them. You took it to a friend’s house for pot luck, when they ask you to bring dessert. You gave them to the kids and they took them to school. That being the case, a lot of the antique ones are actually in quite bad repair. Most of them were used day in, day out, day in, day out, for DECADES, until they literally fell apart. That’s what makes functioning antique ones quite expensive.

But, to tell the difference, look for things like genuine wear and age. A real antique one will have wear on the lid, the rims, the bottom edge or base, the sides and along the security frame that holds the whole thing together. This will be caused by years of heavy use, years of rubbing, washing, opening, closing, stacking, unstacking, and of course – eating.

Antique ones were almost entirely made from either brass, or steel (the latter was almost always enameled, to prevent rusting, which would’ve been EXTREMELY common in the South Pacific, thanks to the humidity and sea air). Modern ones are made of stainless steel and plastic.

Look for things like markings and engravings. Modern tiffin carriers are all made in China or Thailand. Antique ones were mostly made in Europe, or India (brass ones were usually Indian or Burmese). A tiffin carrier with European markings is more likely to be an antique one. A tiffin carrier with Indian script on it is more likely to have come from the subcontinent.

What do I look for?

Look for damage, basically. Remember that antique tiffin carriers were used relentlessly, day after day, after day after day for years on end. Make sure that there are no cracks, chips, big rust-spots, bent frames, dents, scratches or missing parts. Check the hinges on the security clamp, check the state of the handle, check that the brackets that hold the containers to the frame are not damaged. Make sure that the bases of the bowls are not dented or deformed – if they are, they won’t stack properly.

A bent or misshapen frame can sometimes be repaired. Careful bending and reshaping will get it back to its original shape, and everything else should just fall into place accordingly, but do this with CARE – too much bending and the frame will just snap in half. Woops…

Be very careful with cleaning your carriers. Don’t remove any decals or paintwork on the sides, as these are often what give the carriers their VALUE. People collect the carriers with fancy decorations. If you’ve gone and scrubbed them off…well…I hope you like it, because other people might not.

Can I eat out of it?

That depends. If it’s in really good condition, then yeah, probably, if you want to. But carriers with serious rust, chipping, enamel loss, or damage to the frame, should only be used as display-pieces. If you have an antique brass carrier, then if you can find one, send it to a guy who does tin-plating (this is sometimes still a service provided, because people need to get their copper cookware retinned from time to time).

A fresh, solid coating of tin inside the brass interior should be all that you need to make a brass carrier usable again.

Concluding Remarks

Anyway, that finishes off this posting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and found the photos interesting! Getting this back in one piece was challenging, but at least it didn’t take up too much space in my luggage. At least, not after I stuffed the insides of the carrier with rolled socks and T-shirts! It’s always easiest to bring back antiques that you can pull apart, or fill up.

Whistlin’ Dixey: Two-Draw Georgian-era Guillotine Pocket Telescope

 

Yarr-harr!! Avast, landlubbers! Belay thy squabblin’ and take heed:

This telescope was one of about half a dozen things I bought at the local flea-market this weekend. And ain’t she gorgeous!?

She is a Georgian, or very-early-Victorian two-draw pocket guillotine spyglass or telescope, with brass fittings and a wooden barrel. ‘Two-draw’ comes from the two, brass draw-tubes that comprise the telescope’s focusing mechanism. The ‘guillotine’ refers to the built-in lens-shutter that protects the glass from grit, rain and damage. It is a beautiful example of an early telescope, made in London by one of the best manufacturers of the age.

How do you KNOW it’s Georgian?

Good question, 99!

I know it’s Georgian, because of the way it’s constructed.

Most telescopes these days are solid metal. This one has a wooden barrel – a feature common to antique telescopes made during the 1700s and 1800s. By the later 1800s, telescope barrels were made more, and more out of brass (which was more expensive), rather than wood (which was plentiful, and cheap!), than wood. By the last decades of the 1800s, leading into the early 1900s, wooden barrels had almost entirely disappeared, replaced by brass barrels (sometimes clad in leather, to provide grip).

Secondly, I know that it is exceptionally old because of the built-in, sliding lens-shutters.

This French naval telescope, from the 1840s or 50s, has a removable, spun brass lens-cap, common to telescopes made from the second half of the 1800s, to the modern day…

Most telescopes you buy today – and most antique telescopes – have removable, round lens-caps. Some of the older ones also have swing-open, kidney-shaped lens-shutters over the eyepieces, to keep out dust. But only the really old telescopes have what some people have called ‘guillotine’ shutters. That means that the lens-shutters are built into the body of the telescope itself, and when the telescope is in operation, they simply slide up, out of the way, and then snap back down again (like a guillotine, hence the name), when the telescope isn’t being used.

I don’t know why that particular aspect of telescope design died out…I think it’s a pretty cool feature, actually. But that’s how it is. At least it’s a useful dating tool.

…however, this other telescope has a different type of sliding, ‘guillotine’-style lens shutter, which is only found on much older models.

The third reason I know that it’s Georgian is because of what’s engraved on the draw-tubes, the maker’s mark of “DIXEY / LONDON”, a company that was established in Georgian times, and which is still going today (more about them in a minute).

The fourth reason I give for saying that this telescope is Georgian is how the lenses are fitted into the telescope.

Most lenses these days are either screwed in, with washers to hold them tight, or are glued in with clear adhesive (as was the case, starting from the Victorian era). However this telescope’s lenses are neither. They’re turned in.

By that, I mean that someone fitted the lenses into the telescope, an then secured them in place by spinning a brass rim directly against the glass. This would’ve been an easier construction technique than having to cut threads and grooves to make the lenses drop and pop and screw in with washers, but it also meant that if the lenses BREAK…you can’t replace them. A bit of a problem…

Fortunately, the lenses on this telescope are in great condition, so I’m not worrying!

So how do I know it’s Georgian? That’s it! How it’s made, what it’s made from, and what features were included in the telescope during construction.

These are the sorts of things you need to learn, if you’re going to date antiques, even if it’s only a general ballpark number.

‘C.W. Dixey & Son – LONDON’

Telescopes were extremely common during the Georgian and Victorian eras. At a time when all international travel was done by sailing ship, or steam-powered ocean-liner, it was vital for members of the crew to own telescopes of quality. And at any rate, passengers who frequented the seas with any regularity, would likely have one as well, if only for sightseeing. Telescopes, although larger and bulkier, had a much further range than most binoculars of the day, and had much greater magnification.

The first draw-tube, with the maker’s mark of C.W. Dixey & Son.

Before the days of accurate maritime navigation (in the late 1700s), sailors found their way by ‘line-of-sight’ navigation – telescopes were used to sight landmarks such as buildings, cliffs, land-formations and rocky outcrops. Telescopes were therefore vital for safe navigation, when sailors ‘hugged the coasts’ of continents, to prevent their ships from being wrecked on reefs and rocks.

Engraved on this telescope are the words “DIXEY” and “LONDON”.

‘Dixey’ refers to C.W. Dixey & Son, an 18th century family firm of opticians, established in London in 1777. Although they don’t make telescopes anymore, the company still exists, as a manufacturer of eyeglasses. Among others, C.W. Dixey & Son made optical gear for the Qianlong Emperor of China (a telescope), Winston Churchill (a pair of spectacles), famous author Ian Fleming, Napoleon Bonaparte, and several British monarchs. It’s rather thrilling to own a telescope made by such a famous manufacturer!

Restoring the Telescope

The telescope required very little work to make it function properly, which is surprising, given its age. A good general polishing, blowing out dust, cleaning the lenses, and wiping down the draw-tubes with oil to remove interior grime, was all that was required to fix it and make it function like new! The sight down the barrel is clean and crisp, and the lens-shutters open and close smoothly and firmly, and the draw-tubes open and close without problems.

Cleaning off all the grime on the telescope of course wasn’t really possible – it would’ve required far more disassembly than I wanted to endeavour, but the end-result is pleasing enough. Now, it works, and it looks nice, and that’s really all you could hope for!

The finished telescope with its brass all polished and clean!

Victorian Writing Slope with Green Velvet Skiver (Ca. 18–?)

 

Anybody who’s known me for any length of time (and for that you have my sincere condolences!), you’ll know that one of my pet passions in collecting and restoring antiques is the refurbishment of antique writing slopes.

Slopes and Me

I got into writing slopes, writing boxes, stationery-boxes, writing-cases…whatever the hell you wanna call them – analogue laptops…when I was very, very young. As a child, I lived very close to two antiques shops, and I used to go in there every weekend as a five, six, and seven-year-old boy and drool over the antiques, wishing that I had the money to own even a quarter of the amazing things they had for sale.

But of all the things I saw, one in particular, grabbed my attention. I would’ve been seven or eight years old when I first beheld a Victorian writing slope – complete with its gorgeous, tooled leather skiver, bright green in colour, with gold leaf inlaid into the edges. Oh how badly I wanted it! Ever since the age of six or seven, I’d had a mad passion for antique writing equipment – dip-pens, quills, inkwells, the list goes on…and to me, to own a writing slope was a dream come true, ever since that fateful day.

Unfortunately, writing slopes are extremely expensive, and as employment opportunities for prepubescent boys are limited, my dream remained a dream for twenty years, until I finally started buying, collecting, and restoring my own writing boxes, starting in about 2010. Ever since, I’d like to think I’ve become a bit of an expert on them. I genuinely feel that they are an underappreciated and forgotten antique, and too few people bother to save them or understand the historical significance they once held.

The Velvet Box

I purchased this particular box, the box on which this posting will be focusing, at my local auction-house. I’d never actually won one of these things before. I’d bought a few, and fixed them, but I’d never won any – mostly because the prices they go for – even in appalling condition – can be prohibitively expensive for a budding antiques dealer such as myself.

Anyway, this particular trip to the auction-house, I got lucky. Nobody wanted it, and I managed to catch it at a good price.

The box was essentially intact. It had no key and no inkwell…which is pretty common with these old boxes…and the writing slope was a bit wonky…and the security-catch didn’t work right. But I was convinced that I could repair it. I’d refurbished boxes in worse condition than this, after all, so I was sure it wouldn’t be an issue.

Cutting a Key for the Lock

The closed box, with the new key on top.

How easy it is to cut a key for an antique lock, I think, largely depends on two or three different factors:

1). Complexity of the lock.
2). Accessibility to the lock.
3). Materials and equipment that you have available to you. 

If the lock you’re dealing with is a simple, one-lever dealie, then finding, or making a key to fit the lock is pretty easy (although it may take a while). If the lock you’re dealing with is open (as in, you’re not trying to pick a lock that’s already locked and shut and tight!), then cutting or finding a new key for it will be much easier – especially if you can actually remove the lock, pull it apart and then put it back together again to see exactly what type of key it needs.

Lastly, comes the rather fiddly process of actually cutting the key – should this be necessary – for your lock. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a key that fits perfectly and you won’t need to cut it. But if for whatever reason, you need to (to fit the lock, to fit the wards, etc), then having the right stuff will determine how easy, or how difficult, this is going to be.

First, you won’t actually be ‘cutting’ anything. You’ll more likely be filing. Get yourself a set of small, fine-grained metal files. Find a standard, flat, rectangular one, and start there. Make sure the files are fine – if they’re coarse, you could scrape off too much metal on the key and be left with something useless.

Second, you need access to the lock. This is why it’s so much easier to work on a lock when whatever it’s locking, is open. That way you can see more easily how the lock works (or even better, remove the lock entirely). If you can’t, then cutting a new key will be much more difficult, probably even impossible. It can be done (I’ve done it!), but it will take a lot of trial and error.

Once you’ve successfully found, or cut a key for the lock, the next step is to lubricate the lock, just to be sure that everything works exactly as it should, and to prevent the lock from seizing up on you unexpectedly.

Repairing the Skiver

The trickiest part of restoring this box was repairing the skiver.

The skiver is that thin sheet glued over the writing-leaves which holds them together. They’re usually made of leather, but this one was made of velvet. Velvet skivers were a thing, and they certainly were popular, but as with anything that’s over a hundred years old, they wear out.

The skiver on this box was starting to come apart. The glue used to hold it down had deteriorated long ago. Fortunately not to any great extent, but it still put the future of the box in a precarious position. All it would take was one careless tug or rip, for the entire thing to come apart. Re-gluing the skiver and pressing it down to stop the rot, was the first restorative action which I took on this box. Everything else could take time and patience. This could not. It had to be tackled right away if keeping the box in one piece was going to be a reality.

The skiver is the dark green velvet rectangle in the middle of the box, which makes up the writing surface.

Antique writing boxes were made in such a way that the writing-slope panels were held together not with nails, screws, rivets or hinges, but…glue. Glue, and fabric. And only glue and fabric. The two wooden panels that make up the writing-surface are held onto the box only by the velvet panel going across them, and the sheer grace of God.

And a bit of glue.

You can see the implications here. Once the fabric rips – the ENTIRE PIECE has to be replaced. And it’s a very fiddly, irritating, messy, long, drawn out process.

I should know. I’ve done it before. And it’s not a pleasant operation.

That was why, to save the skiver and glue down the loose fabric as fast and as effectively as possible, was the first thing I did. Once that was done, I re-enforced the hinge with some extra-strong adhesive tape from the inside, underneath the wooden panels, to ensure that the box’s writing-slope panels really could be opened and closed without incident. The skiver and its beautiful border-decorations had been saved.

Cutting a New Notch

The next step in restoring this box was to rebuild the notch in the lower writing-leaf.

All boxes of this kind had a notch chiseled or carved into the lower writing-leaf. This was to accept a little brass catch which held the leaf closed when you opened and shut the box. If you didn’t have it, then the lower writing leaf would drop open the moment you closed the box, spilling whatever was inside it, all over the place.

As is fairly common with these old boxes, the notch in question had worn away from decades of the little brass catch rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing on it, over and over again, from the countless times the lid was opened and shut. Because of this, it simply didn’t work anymore. The writing-leaf would pop open, or fall open or rattle around inside the box, and it’s probably how the skiver got damaged in the first place. With a spare piece of wood, a hammer, a chisel and some extremely strong glue, I was able to chisel out the old notch and replace the worn out wood with a fresh piece of wood large enough to catch the brass tab, without damaging the box.

How Old is this Box?

Uh…

…Um…

Eh…

*clears throat…scratches head*

…Very?

The truth is that dating antique writing boxes is very, very hard. They were manufactured for a very long time (approximately three hundred years), and once established designs had been formalised, they rarely altered. Unless the box is of a particular style, or from a particular maker, they can be extremely hard to date. Most boxes of this type were generic, and were made in their thousands. My roughest guess would be mid-Victorian, probably around the 1850s or 60s, and I’d just as likely be wrong as right. At any rate, it’s certainly been around the block a few times, although whoever did own it at one point certainly seemed to have taken good care of it, since it’s not in anywhere near as bad a condition as some boxes I’ve seen!

Anyway, that concludes this little foray into restoring yet another Victorian writing-box. This one was easier than most, but it was still a challenge to get everything right. That said, I am extremely pleased with the end results!

Clang-Clang-Clang Went the Trolley: A Rattling Good Time at the Melbourne Tram Museum!

 

If you know anything about Australia beyond the fact that we have weird animals, dangerous snakes, venomous spiders and an abundance of tanned, bleached surfer-dudes populating the ‘top-end’, then you might also be aware of the fact that the city of Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world (or at least the southern hemisphere!).

Melbourne’s tram network is world-famous. Anyone who’s ever been to Melbourne, heard about Melbourne, or seen photographs of Melbourne on the internet, will know that Melbourne has trams.

A Brief History of Melbourne’s Tram Network

Following hot on the heels of San Francisco, Melbourne installed its first tram-route, operating a grip-cable streetcar, in 1885. Built on the floodplain of a river, Melbourne is a relatively flat city, but there are places where hills are found in abundance, and to traverse them, something other than your stoutest pair of wingtips is probably ideal.

The Hawthorn Tram Depot, the location of the Melbourne Tram Museum. The streetcar barn (building with big grey doors) is where the main exhibits are housed!

Cable-cars ran in Melbourne from 1885 until 1940, and featured a dummy car trailing behind a grip-car, with the grip-car being open to the elements, and the dummy-car being closed off with windows and doors.

Tales from the Grip

Cable-cars were operated by a two-man team — emphasis on MAN — very few women ever did this job — and you’ll find out why in a minute!…these two men were the gripman, and the conductor.

The conductor helped people on and off the tram, operated the brakes, collected fares, issued tickets, answered questions from commuters, and oversaw the general welfare of the passengers. To be a conductor required a fair bit of acrobatic expertise – swinging between the benches and in and out of the rails, jumping up and down between the carriages and helping people up and down was an exhausting job!

His counterpart was the gripman. The gripman got his name because he operated the two ‘grip-levers’ at the front of the cable-car. One lever was the brake – which does what a brake has always done – and the other lever was the grip-lever.

An old Melbourne cable-car from the 1880s, rattling past Spring Street in the CBD. The building on the right is Parliament House. The building on the left is the venerable Hotel Windsor, commonly called the Duchess of Spring Street!

The grip-lever was what grasped the moving steel cable underneath the streetcar, which ran along in a groove between the two running-tracks. Once the claw at the end of the lever had grasped the cable, it would pull the car and it’s trailer along.

If this doesn’t sound hard – remember that you’d be doing this in freezing cold, pouring rain, boiling heat and raging storms. Remember that you’d be doing this going uphill, and downhill, going across intersections and around corners. Remember that these streetcars were entirely mechanical…and weigh about five tons each!

The oldest tram in the Melbourne Tram Museum. The two levers in the middle of the tram (between the benches) are the ‘grips’ which operate the cable-clamp, and the brake, giving the ‘gripman’ his name.

There were no engines or motors to operate them – only human muscle. They were pushed out of the stables by muscle, they were spun around on turntables by muscle, and they were started, stopped and operated by muscle. The upper-body strength to operate these things for HOURS EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK was why gripmen remained MEN – the sheer physical exertion meant that no woman wearing a full-length Victorian dress and corset could ever operate something like this.

The Hotel Windsor, or the ‘Duchess of Spring Street’, as she appears today – Melbourne’s last great Victorian-era luxury hotel. The cable-car in the previous photograph would’ve been rattling along across the street, from left to right in this photograph, heading into the Melbourne Central Business District (the CBD to locals!).

The last cable tram in Melbourne ran in October, 1940 whereafter the system was ripped up and replaced entirely by electric trams.

The other end of the cable-tram. When the sliding door is shut, it has a warning on it for passengers to hold on tight. For those who couldn’t read, conductors (‘connies’) would shout the words ‘Mind the curve!’ to alert passengers to expect a sudden change in direction which would make the entire vehicle shake as it crossed the tracks.

Power from Above!

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Melbourne had both cable-driven and electrical trams, as well as older horse-drawn tram technology, and for quite a while, all three ran together. By the 1920s, most of the city’s main tram-routes had been laid out, extending to St Kilda, Hawthorn, Camberwell, across the Central Business District, north to suburbs like Macaulay, North Melbourne, Kew, and even Far Kew….which, for the sake of taste and decency, was later changed to the more polite-sounding “Kew East” (say it five times fast, and you’ll soon figure out why…).

Melbourne’s W-class electric trams operated continuously from the 1920s onwards. A few are still in regular service, but most of them are either in storage, or serve as tourist attractions, like the Tramcar Restaurant, or the classic City Circle tourist tram which rattles around the CBD offering people a free lift.

Trams continue to be a major part of the Melbourne public transport network, and in the 50s and 60s, when a lot of cities around the world, from London to New York, Los Angeles to Shanghai, Singapore, Ballarat and countless others, were ripping up their streetcar networks, the Melbourne network remained, saved by public sentiment and probably, the cost of replacing it with something else. The result is that in the 21st century, the Melbourne tram network is the largest and most complete in the Southern hemisphere.

The Melbourne Tram Museum

Housed in the old Hawthorn Tram Depot, the tram museum is open two Saturdays a month. I’d been meaning to go for years and years and years, but I never got around to it. You know how it is – when you live there, you can see it anytime you want…which means you never bother to actually go!

Anyway, I found out from a friend’s Facebook post that the museum was having another open-day, so I hurried on over as fast as Routes 48 and 75 could take me there, and shuffled on in.

The museum featured twenty trams, ranging from 1886 to 1977. The trams were all lined up on their tracks, and open for inspection. You could jump on, jump off, and check out every single part of every single tram, hopping into the driver’s seat, or behind the grip-levers, turning cranks and pulling levers. Like many of the people there, I couldn’t resist ringing the bells on every single tram I came across!…Come on, we’ve all wanted to it! It’s like that kid in The Polar Express:

“I’ve wanted to do that my whole life!”

I went around taking photographs of all the information boards, all the trams and some of the pieces behind glass cases. In all honesty there wasn’t that much to see, and I was done in about 90 minutes, but what there was to look at, was certainly worthwhile. The majority of the trams dated to the 1920s and 30s, but I think most people agreed that the oldest tram was the one which held their interest the longest!

I bought a reprint of a 1908 tram network map while I was at the museum, as well as a book on the history of cable cars. As interesting as the place was, I felt it suffered badly from a lack of volunteers to run the museum – which is why it’s only opened a few times a year. That said, the trams in the museum do get occasional use! The last time one of them was rolled out of the stables was ten years ago, back in 2007…when they required period Melbourne streetcars to roll past Flinders Street Station during filming scenes in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific“!

All in all it was an enjoyable visit and a fun distraction for an hour or two. Anyone visiting Melbourne when the museum is open (2nd and 4th Saturday of every month except December) should certainly check it out. I just feel rather saddened that a museum dedicated to one of the city’s most famous moving landmarks is so inaccessible to the public.

All Aboard the S.S. Pap Boat! 222-year-old Georgian Silver Feeding Vessel…

 

“All Aboard the…what?”

Pap boat.

This thing:

In use largely in the late 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s, pap boats were small, shallow, boat-shaped feeding vessels used to deliver pap to the mouths of babes and sucklings. They died out in the mid-1800s when feeding-bottles (similar to the kind we have today) were invented. Sterling silver christening sets including a porringer (small bowl), spoon, fork, knife and sometimes a silver mug, as well, which became very popular in the Victorian era, also saw the decline of the pap boat. As a result, in the 21st century, they can be pretty rare pieces to get your hands on.

“What the hell is ‘pap’?”

In its oldest form, ‘pap’ means ‘breast’, ‘teat’ or ‘nipple’. By the 1700s, ‘pap’ also came to refer to a sort of sweet, liquidy gruel or porridge – basically baby-food – which was fed to infants and toddlers.

Recipes for pap typically included milk, flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes softened bread or breadcrumbs (for added bulk and nomminess!). Pap was thought to be soothing, tasty, and especially for babies – especially easy to digest. if babies were ill, medicine might be mixed into the pap formula so that the tot could take its dosage with minimal fuss.

Dating the Pap Boat

Dating this small piece of very old silverware was a real challenge. The actual date letter on the row of punched-out hallmarks was long gone. But there was still enough of the sovereign’s head duty mark to identify it as George III.

Duty marks on English silver came in starting in 1784. They died out in 1890. Marks changed over the reigns of the monarchs, changing marks every time the old ones either wore out as the monarch’s reign lengthened, or when the king died and another one replaced him. The duty mark on this piece of silver was identified as 1795. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when the boat was made and marked, that’s just when the new duty-stamp was introduced. Without anything else to go on, however, I’m dating this piece at 1795.

Stopping to Smell The Roses: A George III Silver Vinaigrette

 

I am a firm believer that products made in the 1700s and 1800s, and during the first half of the 20th century, were, and are, of far better quality and were held to much higher standards of manufacture, than anything made today.

It is the chief reason why I love antiques.

Today, I’m here to talk about this:

This tiny little object (tiny? You could fit two of them in a matchbox!) is one of the half-dozen or so things which I purchased during my latest antiques-bargain-hunting scrounge-fest. It is a vinaigrette.

“…it’s a what??”

It is a vinaigrette.

A what…?”

A vinaigrette! It would’ve originally held a tiny sponge impregnated with perfume (to provide sweetness), and vinegar (for pungency), in order to mask offensive or unpleasant smells and odours – hence ‘vinaigrette’ – it has nothing to do with that salad you’re munching on!

Vinaigrettes were invented in the 1600s, but were not really made out of silver until the 1700s. They are largely considered an artifact of the Georgian era (1714-1837), although they were also made during the Victorian era, albeit in increasingly…uh…decreasing…numbers.

Why are you writing about it?

Chiefly because to me, vinaigrettes are one of the best examples (apart from watches) of the capabilities of mankind.

This thing is microscopically small – almost literally! It blows my mind that something as intricate as this was made BY HAND. The silver sheeting was pressed, shaped, punched, cast and filed by hand. The tiny, tiny hinges were rolled and folded by hand. The grille was measured and pierced by hand, with amazing precision, enough to include little flowers in it!

The flowers-and-leaves engraved decoration on the lid is eye-wateringly detailed, in a space smaller than a modern postage-stamp!

The skill, the patience, the experience, the steady-handedness, and the phenomenal artistry that went into something so unbelievably small, really takes my breath away.

“The inside’s gold!…I thought you said this thing was silver!?”

It is! But the inside is gilt (basically – gold-plated). This was to prevent the acid in the vinegar or perfume, from corroding the silver. For all its luster and glory, silver has surprising weak-points: it’s very susceptible to acid and salt, and various foodstuffs like meat, seafood, and certain vegetables. It’s one of the reasons why silver was gilt, or had glass liners inserted in various pieces of silver dinnerware – to protect the silver and prolong its life.

It’s also, by the way, why in those period drama TV shows, the servants are forever polishing silver – because the use it was put to 100, 200 years ago, meant that it tarnished very easily, especially when it was exposed to the heat and smoke and dust of gas-mantles, candles, and oil-fired table-lamps.

“Who Used Vinaigrettes?”

Everyone! Both men and women used vinaigrettes, although some models or sizes of vinaigrettes were aimed more, or less, at each gender. For example, a vinaigrette which had a built-in snuffbox would more likely have been used by a man. A vinaigrette with a heavy floral motif, or which was extremely small (yes, they do get even SMALLER than this, believe it or not!), would’ve been used by a woman.

They existed at a time when the world…and the people which inhabited it…smelled very different to how we do today. Standards of personal hygiene were questionable at best, and although the streets did not reek of petrol-fumes and exhaust smoke, they were nonetheless polluted with the stench emanating from a rather different kind of horsepower. In many ways, the story of the vinaigrette is the story of human hygiene.

As hot water became more readily available with coal-fired boilers, piped, running water, cast-iron cookstoves and soap became increasingly cheap (it had previously been taxed to the hilt in Georgian times), men and women found themselves much more able to bathe in comfort, and take bathing as a pleasure rather than as an unpleasant and shameful chore. As more and more people bathed, the need to mask unpleasant smells with your own personal scent-box declined, leading to the eventual end of vinaigrette-manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century.

“So really…how small are they?”

Well, this’ll give you some idea…

…here we’ve got two vinaigrettes on top of a standard box of matches. They were made bigger than this, but most were designed to be small, pocket-sized things, just large enough to hold under your nose and take a whiff from.

Victorian-era Dutch Silver Basket – A Lesson in Historical Research!

 

The hallmarking of silver for the purposes of quality control and fraud-protection has been actively practiced for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years, going all the way back to Medieval times and beyond. Largely a European practice, countries as diverse as Russia, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany have had all manner of hallmarking systems which have lasted in their respective countries for generations. This diversity of hallmarking is fascinating, useful, and at times, frustrating!

European-style hallmarking, which typically consisted of a four-mark system, was established in the 12th and 13th centuries, gradually expanding both in scope and detail as the Medieval progressed. Eventually, the four marks which most pieces of European silver were stamped with became the standard: The purity mark, the assay mark, the maker’s mark, and the date mark.

Although there were attempts to standardise this system, the truth is that it varied significantly from country to country, and even city to city or province to province within countries, and even within a single country there could be several different systems and methods in place. Imagine what a piece of detective-work it becomes, then, when you’re trying to identify the marks on a piece of antique silverware!

The Piece in Question

Here it is:

Cute, huh?

It’s a mid-19th century Dutch silver candy-basket (what they called back in the Victorian era, a ‘bonbon basket’; ‘bonbon’ being the name given to bite-sized individual chocolates or candies). These were usually sold in sets (pairs were most common), although you can get them on their own. Little baskets like this, which come in all shapes and sizes and designs, were extremely common throughout the second half of the 1800s, and into the first few decades of the 20th century.

They died out when dining-habits and styles changed to something rather less formal, more like what we have today, but in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, baskets like these could be found on any number of higher-end dining tables tempting people with chocolates, after-dinner mints and candied fruits after their main meal of the evening.

Researching the Hallmarks

So much for the item and what it is. How about those hallmarks, eh?

As I suspected it would, the piece came with four hallmarks: A purity mark, an assay mark, a date-letter and a maker’s mark.

The easiest one to identify was the purity or fineness mark. It was easy to identify because it was what’s called a ‘Lion Passant’ (‘passing lion’).

The Lion Passant has been a symbol for silver in Britain for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Except, the piece wasn’t British!

The mark was a Lion Passant inside a hexagon, with the number ‘2’ underneath it. Typing this into Google revealed that it was actually a Dutch silver mark. A lion passant with ‘1’ is the higher grade of silver (about 93%), whereas the lion passant with ‘2’ is the second grade of silver, the more common (in Europe, anyway) 83% grade.

While Britain usually used the 92.5% grade (what we call ‘sterling grade’), most European countries, for centuries, used a slightly lower grade of around 80-85% (what some people call ‘continental grade’). This was largely thought to be for reasons of durability. The silver wasn’t as pure, but the piece made from it would be stronger and more resilient.

Having identified the piece as Dutch, the next step was to identify where the piece was hallmarked, and when.

Identifying the Assay Mark

it’s been the law in Europe for centuries that you cannot sell a piece of silver if it hasn’t been assayed (tested and marked) prior to sale. And that’s still the law today. Assaying and marking are traditionally done at assay offices. One of the oldest surviving assay offices in the world is Goldsmiths’ Hall in London…from which the term ‘hall-mark’ comes from!

This Dutch candy dish would’ve been hallmarked by officials at an assay hall just like any other piece of manufactured silver in Europe, and I was curious to find out where. Fortunately there’s a pretty straightforward way of finding this out: The Assay Mark.

Two of the four marks, struck to the base. One on the right, one on the left. The power of the lenses needed to help carve these microscopic hallmarks really blows one’s mind…

Dutch assay marks all rather look the same. They’re all the same mark: The head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, among other things. The way in which they differ is that every Minerva Head mark has a different letter stamped into it, to denote the town of assay. My piece had a microscopic ‘c’ stamped into it. This means that it was assayed and marked in the city of s’Gravenhage…better known by the Dutch people as Den Haag…or to English-speakers as…’The Hague’.

That’s pretty cool, huh?

The Last Two Marks

Unfortunately, finding out the maker’s mark wasn’t possible. The records simply didn’t exist. However, the date-letter was clear enough, and with a chart to hand, I was able to narrow it down to 1849, which makes this piece Victorian in era. I don’t think I’ll ever find out who made this piece; the maker’s mark was a ‘B’ inside of a shield cartouche, with two dots over the ‘B’, a bit like an umlaut – although I don’t think that’s what it is; umlaut are only used over vowels, not consonants. Either way, the details seem to have been lost to history. Maybe one day I’ll find out, who knows!?