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!?

Popping Pills: Restoring an Apothecary’s Pill-Rolling Machine

 

This gorgeous artifact and fascinating piece of medical history is the latest addition to my collection of antique brassware, and is also the latest thing I won at the local auction-house…

“Ooooooh!” I hear you say.

“Wussit do?” I hear you say.

“Can I have one??” I hear you say.

Well…uh…no, you can’t have one! I’ve been chasing one of these for five years, and I finally got one!

“Awww…okay fine!…But…w-whassit do?”

Well, it’s a pill-rolling machine, from the Victorian era! Ain’t it neat?

No, seriously dude…what does it actually, like…really, do?

…I just told you. It’s a pill-rolling machine!

I know, I know, it looks like some sort of antique cheese-grater, but yes, this is actually a pill-making machine, and back in the mid-1800s, no self-respecting apothecary would’ve been without one of these proudly on display on his shop counter!

“So how does it work?” I hear you ask, “And I mean…why does it exist? I thought pills were made in factories and stuff?”

Uh, yes…they are…now. But 150 years ago, they weren’t. In this post I’ll be talking about what this device is, how it works and what it does, I’ll also be going into a few of the differences between pharmacies today, and how they were, a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, when this pill-rolling machine was invented…

Your Friendly Village Apothecary

This machine dates back to the days when your local pharmacist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs, medicines and curatives to everybody who lived within the bounds of a given community, and when the dispensing, manufacturing and purchasing of medicine was very different to how it’s done today.

These days, we get sick, we go to the doctor, he’ll give us a script, we’ll take it to the pharmacist, he’ll read it off, get the medicine, give it to us and we’ll walk out of his shop with a bottle of pills, a tube of paste, a jar of ointment, and a bag of diabetic jellybeans.

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, when machines like this were invented, how you got your medicine was very different.

For one thing, you likely didn’t even go to the doctor! Back in Victorian times, physicians were usually far beyond the reach, financially, of most people. Your average, workaday schmoe likely never met a doctor professionally, unless it was a real emergency. On a day-to-day basis, most poor and middle-class people would visit the pharmacist or apothecary for the majority of their healthcare needs.

Even if you did go to the doctor, he’d write out a prescription, and the instructions he generally gave you were to take the script to the apothecary and have the chap behind the counter make up the medicine for you, which the apothecary would’ve done anyway, even if you hadn’t gone to the doctor. And that’s the key difference between a Victorian pharmacist, and one which trades and deals today: Victorian pharmacists and apothecaries MADE their drugs, whereas modern pharmacists just sell them.

Let’s make some drugs… 

Back in Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat everything from a sore throat to fever, headaches to constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the pharmacist. There was no such thing 150 years ago, of medicine-making factories like what we have today.

“So where’d they get their drugs from, then?” I hear you ask.

Well, what used to happen was that pharmacists would draw on the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, over countless generations. This knowledge foretold of which plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, piths, saps, syrups, foodstuffs and various animal parts, had healing properties. It was knowing how to find these ingredients, how to identify them, how to use them and what they did, that was the biggest part of being a pharmacist or apothecary back in the Victorian era. Indeed, a lot of ancient and past medicine had far less to do with pills and potions, and more to do with herbs, roots, leaves and saps. A lot of the medicine was plant-based (it still is, we just don’t realise it, that’s all!), and because of this, a pharmacist 150 years ago did not have packets and jars and bottles of medicine – he would’ve had jars, and jars, and jars, and row after row after row of drawers, all filled with these plant extracts and component-parts.

Old apothecary shops were famous for having dozens, hundreds of jars, bottles and drawers, all filled with plant and animal components, all of which were used for treating illnesses. Stuff like willow-bark, opium, cannabis, cocaine, smelling-salts, essential oils, cold-creams, arsenic, cyanide, moisturizers, lip-balms and all other manner of countless ingredients!

What used to happen is that you’d go into your apothecary, and he would diagnose you, and then recommend a treatment based on that diagnosis, or based on the symptoms which you told him of. After making his diagnosis or recommended course of treatment, the apothecary would then make the medicine for you – on the spot, there and then. This might take a few minutes, it might take hours! You might be told to come back later to pick it up, or you might just take a seat in the corner and read the newspaper in the meantime.

Victorian-era Medicine

Medicine for most of the Victorian-era varied little from medicine in previous centuries. All medicinal plant-and-herb components were bought, sold, and used in their raw form. No aspirin – just willowbark. No sleeping-pills – just opium. No laxatives, just rhubarb!

So what happened when you had to take your medicine?

Well, to make it easier to digest, and to make the active components easier to absorb, the plant material had to be broken down. This was most often accomplished by grinding, crushing, pounding and muddling, using an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, like this one:

A lathe-spun Victorian apothecary’s mortar and pestle, made of brass to make it easier to clean, more resilient to constant daily use, and to prevent medicine or poison from absorbing into the body of the mortar (which might cause poisoning!) This one’s from my personal collection of antique brassware.

Once the medicine had been crushed, ground and pulverised into dust, it could then be either dispensed into a jar, wrapped up in sachets, sealed inside capsules, or mixed with syrup in order to form a paste, which could then be rolled, or pressed into pills or tablets. As tablets were tricky to make by hand, some medicines were simply sold as the powder they ended up as – put inside a folded piece of paper and put inside a box along with a whole heap of others. One folded piece of paper meant one dose. The medicine was unfolded, tipped into a glass of water or other convenient beverage, and then consumed. It’s the origin of the expression ‘to take a powder‘. My dad remembers having to do this when he was a child for things like painkillers when he had a fever or headache – he said it always tasted horrible!

The Victorian Pill-Roller – How Does it Work?

Hard tablets were tricky to make. The powder had to be poured into a mold, the mold was closed and then hammered to compress the powder. The mold was broken open and a single tablet would drop out. This was slow, fiddly, and imprecise. Making pills on the other hand, which didn’t require this fiddly process, was much easier. And that’s where my Victorian pill-roller comes in.

Once the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured, crushed, ground and pulverised, a final ingredient was poured into the mortar – syrup. The syrup wasn’t there to sweeten the mixture, it was there to act as a binding-agent. You mixed the syrup into the powder until the entire thing coagulated into a paste or doughy mixture. Then you could scoop out the entire mass, and roll it into a snake or sausage – one long, continuous worm of medicine!

Obviously, nobody wants to take an entire worm of medicine, no matter how sick they are. So to make it easier, the whole mass had to be cut up and shaped into pills.

This used to be done by hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that no two pills were then ever exactly alike – which could be dangerous if the medicine was exceptionally potent!

To even the odds, and to make pills more uniform, the pill-roller was invented, around the 1850s.

So, how does it work?

Well it’s very simple. It has two parts (well three, but the third one is missing – I’ll get to that later on).

The largest piece is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage that I mentioned earlier. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.

Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills – each one exactly the same size now (wow!) – roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom. And there you have it – two dozen pills all done in less than a minute! Talk about mass production, huh? This process could be repeated countless times and the results would always be the same – perfectly shaped pills, which were all the right size, and the right dosage.

Now, remember I said that the board was on an angle? That’s to ensure that the pills only roll one way – across the grooves from one end, to the other, turning from lumps of clumpiness on one end, to emerge as recognisable pills on the other. Now this presents a problem: Pills are round. And if you studied university-grade physics like I didn’t, then you might or might not know that round things on a sloping surface…roll. A simple application of gravity overcoming friction.

To prevent your newly-formed pills from rolling off the board, onto the table, and then all over the floor, the pill-roller came with a third component, which on this one, is missing – a removable, wooden collection-drawer. At the end of a session of rolling, the pills would land inside the drawer and remain there while you made more. When the drawer was full, you could slide it out and empty its contents into a jar or bottle, easily, and cleanly.

That said, simply rolling the pills wasn’t always sufficient. To improve their look, or to change their shape, each pill was then placed inside a highly sophisticated pill-rounding device, which is different from a pill-rolling device, in that it doesn’t roll the pills, it rounds them.

What’s the difference? One device makes the pills, the other one pretties them up for the camera.

The pill-rounder is basically a flat wooden disc or cup. You stick it over the pill (one pill at a time) and slide it back and forth and all around. This rolls the pill inside all over the place, smoothing out any lumps and bumps, so that it’s a perfect sphere. Shaking the rounder back and forth flattens out the sides so that it looks more oval than circular – one trick to differentiate pills from each other if they’re the same size or colour, but have different functions – was to make different pills a different shape. You don’t want to confuse a laxative with a sleeping-tablet…

Restoring the Pill-Roller

Anyway, so much for the pill-roller and how it works. What about fixing it up?

Well, this is what it looked like when I bought it…

As you can see, worn out, and rather dry. The wood was supposed to be a beautiful dark mahogany colour and the brass is supposed to be a gleaming gold…instead both elements look rather dusty. In that photograph it’s almost impossible to tell them apart! It took a lot of polishing with Brasso and ultrafine steel-wool to restore the brass back to its previous luster…

The brass grooves and rails after my first concentrated polishing effort. It would take a lot more to finish it off.

Apart from polishing and cleaning the brass, I also had to tighten screws, fix dents in the brass rails (which fortunately were few and easily remedied), and clean out the grit and dust stuck inside the cracks.

The biggest repair I had to do was to rebuild the one missing piece from this device: The pill-collection drawer. This involved a lot of careful measuring, tracing, cutting, and research.

Rebuilding the Drawer!

I didn’t know that this thing was missing something when I bought it. I was so excited at the possibility of owning it that this had never crossed my mind! It was only after I’d started researching it, that I’d realised that something was missing. In researching the history of these things and trying to dig out photos of them online, I started to realise that mine was incomplete. Fortunately, rebuilding the drawer looked like a relative cakewalk, so I headed out, purchased the necessary materials, and started.

The first step was to measure and mark all the pieces that I’d need, after looking at loads of photos to determine the general style and shape of the thing. The next step was to cut them out and figure out how they’d all fit together. Due to the shape of the board and the grooves which the drawer had to slide in, each piece had to be carefully sanded, chiseled, cut, measured and oriented a specific way, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Sanding and chiseling took up the most time. The first and easiest step was to measure, cut and sand the baseboard for the drawer. This had to fit perfectly, because everything else would be measured and cut in relation to how it moved inside the pill-roller. Once its size was perfected and it could slide in and out comfortably, I started on the side-pieces. These were harder because to fit inside the drawer-space, they actually needed quite a lot of wood taken off. I accomplished this with a ruler, pencil, hammer and chisel to carefully score, chip and split off as much wood as I needed, before sanding the chiseled area smooth.

The next step was to cut the curved, quarter-circle rails that would be at either end of the drawer. One end had to be lower than the other, so that the pills would roll into the drawer easily. The other end had to be higher, so that the pills wouldn’t then be encouraged to roll out the other side! The challenge here was to cut and sand these rails to the right length. Too short and they’d fall out and be the wrong size. Too long and if I forced them between the sides of the drawer, I risked splitting the pill-rolling board in half – which would be a disaster!

The next step was to fit all the pieces together, and ensure that they would slide in and out smoothly, without jamming…

All the pieces fitted together, before final assembly.

Once I was satisfied with how they fit together, I started gluing them together. This was the easiest bit. I started with the end-stop rail first, then the rail closest to the pill-grooves. And then I glued the side-panels onto the sides of the rails and the top of the baseboard. Then I slid the whole thing into the drawer-space to compress it a bit while the glue dried. This was the result:

Drawer goes in…

…drawer comes out!

I had to be very careful with these last few steps. The drawer had to be just the right size. If it was even a fraction too small, then it would just fall out. If it was a fraction too big, then it would jam, and quite possibly damage the board. But patience paid off and the results speak for themselves. The final step was to nail the pieces together here and there, just to provide some extra strength and peace of mind, and then to stain everything with oil to bring out the grain and colour, but the project was essentially finished at this point – all the other things that still had to be done were purely cosmetic. The main ‘reconstructive surgery’ as it were, was now completed.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

And there you have it. The finished product. Next comes staining, and perhaps a demonstration of how this thing actually operates, but that’ll be for another posting! Stay tuned!

Antique Chinese Ivory Chopsticks – A Quest Concluded

 

My grandfather, born in Nanhai, Canton, Imperial China, in 1907, migrated from what would’ve been in his youth, the Republic of China, to the British Straits Settlements, in the early decades of the 20th century, carrying all his worldly possessions with him in a punched steel steamer-trunk. China in the 20s and 30s was a volatile place and incentive to migrate was strong. Very strong. So strong in fact that places like Malacca, Penang, Johore, Singapore, Java and Sumatra were inundated with thousands of Chinese migrants every year, who had sold all they could afford, to purchase steamer-tickets to get out of China and find a new life somewhere else.

These migrants were called ‘sinkeh‘ (“Sin-Kay”), a corruption of the Chinese ‘Xin Ke‘ (‘new guest’). Despite this title, they were rarely treated like guests.

Chinese sinkeh to colonies and communities of the South Pacific in the early 20th century often ended up working hard, backbreaking, low-paying jobs – what was called ‘Ku Li’ (“bitter labour”), from which we get the English loanword ‘Coolie’. They worked as rickshaw pullers, rubber-tappers, nightsoil haulers, clog-makers, fast-food hawkers, casual hard-labourers or (especially for women) domestic servants in the homes of wealthy, well-entrenched Straits Chinese families who had lived there for centuries.

My grandfather was one of such thousands of these sinkeh, but differed in the respect that he, unlike many, was an educated man. He was a scholar, and a calligrapher, and while others might’ve brought clothing or rice-bowls or other such things from China – he brought an encyclopedia-set!

The Sinkeh Experience

Imagine this for a minute. It is 1920. You have been born into a poor, dirt-farming family, somewhere in southern China. The old imperial government is long gone and China is tearing itself apart with internal struggles and in-fighting as it tries to form a modern, Western-style democracy. While externally, China looks like a modern, democratic country, internally, warlords and political corruption lie just under the surface. Away from the big cities of Peking, Shanghai, Nanking and Tientsin, unease fills the countryside.

To escape from drought, famine, political instability and corruption, thousands and thousands of Chinese migrants flee China before, during and after the Xinhai Revolution (1911), to find safety, stability and money, in other lands. Key ports of call were Singapore, the Straits Settlements, and the Dutch East Indies.

With so many people arriving from China every week, some variety of support-network became necessary. New arrivals to Singapore or Malacca, Penang or Batavia needed to know where they could live, where they could find work, what kind of work was available, and how to survive in these new countries. This led to the creation of the ‘clan association’.

And yes, that’s ‘clan’ just like how the Scots use it. The Scottish have clans, and so did the Chinese! Your ‘clan’ was the group of people who all shared the same surname, or who came from the same province or region of China. Migrants saw it as their duty to set up these clubs and associations so that people who arrived in these new countries knew that they could immediately head to their nearest clan association building, where friendly people who had already established themselves, could help them find homes, jobs and ways of settling into their new lives.

My grandfather, educated and intelligent, with excellent Chinese writing-skills, worked in just such an association for many years. He held the posts of both the association treasurer, and later, the association secretary, keeping and looking up records and information of everybody who passed in and out of the building’s doors. New arrivals, marriages, births, deaths, departures…the whole lot of it!

For his long years of service, the association saw fit to present him with a token of their good esteem – to wit – a pair of solid ivory chopsticks, with his name (‘Cheong Kai Chor‘) engraved on them in Chinese characters.

My own pair of ivory chopsticks, above my chained silver ones, which you might recall from a previous posting.

Sadly these chopsticks are now long-gone. Whatever happened to them, nobody in the family seems to know. But ever since I was told about them, it became a dream of mine to own a pair of ivory chopsticks, and recently, that dream was realised when I picked up a beautifully-decorated pair at a local antiques shop. I shall call them an early birthday present! 😛

So…Ivory Chopsticks?

Yeah, you read it right, ivory chopsticks. Chopsticks have been made of all kinds of things for centuries, and ivory – smooth, white, clean and able to be cut wafer thin if necessary, has always been one of the most prized materials from which chopsticks were made.

Don’t worry, I didn’t go out and shoot anything to get the ivory. I bought them cheap at my local antiques shop. They’re slim and square cross-sectioned, as well as being very long and tapered – 10.5 inches long in total, tapering from squared ends to squared off tips at the base. The only slight defect is age-warping – this happens a lot with natural materials like ivory, tortoise-shell, bone, etc. Even wood! As the material gets older, it dries out. If this happens unevenly, or if it gets moistened and dries out repeatedly, in cycles, then the item can warp and bend.

Fortunately the way in which these chopsticks are warped means that they’re still usable, since the warp is the same for both sticks. The curve was so gentle, I hardly noticed it.

How Do you Tell if they’re Ivory??

This is the one question that always gets asked, the moment you mention that you own anything that’s made of ivory! How do you KNOW that it’s ivory?

Well, a decade of collecting antiques will teach you a few things! But the simple explanation is that ivory is a natural material, like wood. And, like wood, ivory can be carved, sliced, polished, and, again like wood – ivory has a grain. If you can find that grain, it’s the surest way to know if an item is ivory, bone, or just plastic!

Any natural material – ivory, bone, wood, even human skin – is not flawless. There are variations in colour, texture and tonality all over it. This cannot be reproduced by mechanical means. Any attempt to do so will result in repetitions of any patterns found in the material that it’s trying to replicate. If it looks too perfect, then it’s probably not natural, and therefore, in the case of ivory, it’s probably plastic.

Ivory grain wavers and ripples, depending on how it’s cut and sliced, you’ll be able to see the dark and light streaks and lines or changes in tone, from creamy white to a sort of darker beige and back again.

Apart from that, there’s also the texture of ivory. Real ivory has a slightly rough, gritty feel. Plastic which is trying to imitate the look of ivory will be perfectly smooth because…well…it’s plastic. Ivory – real ivory – will never feel like that.

What’ll Happen to Them?

Chances are I won’t ever use them. Once I can, I’ll find a nice little display box for them or something, and bring them out occasionally for show and tell, but until then I’ll find them a safe place on my bookcase where they’ll be out of the way of trampling feet. I’ve given them a gentle cleaning with polishing liquid to remove some of the grime, but my efforts to restore them will end there – the last thing I want to do is snap a pair of 80-year-old chopsticks in half! I do think they’re very cool, and the intricacy of their decorations is mindblowing. I wouldn’t want to damage those!