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! ūüėõ

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!

 

Four-Draw French Naval Telescope w/Sliding Lens Shield (Ca. 1845)

This was the last antiques purchase I made before it became necessary for me to pack up all my treasures, in preparation for a big move that I had to make. I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve been sick in bed for the past few days struck down by allergies! (damn cats…!)

Anyway, now that I am sufficiently recovered, and no longer rashy and puffy (yeah it wasn’t fun…), I have decided to take some time to write about what has to be one of the finest purchases I’ve made so far, and which was partially funded by the selling-off of some of my other antiques.

I bought this from a chap at the local flea-market who went on buying trips in Europe. He’d picked this up during a visit to France, he told me. It had to be by far the most complete and perfect example I’d ever seen, and after a lot of haggling and playing of the ‘repeat-purchaser’ card, we struck a deal.

The telescope, as you can see, is a large, four-draw naval telescope, with a wooden barrel, brass fixings, and a sliding brass lens-shield, complete with the original lens-caps and shutters. Its full length is 38.5in. Engraved on the eyepiece draw-tube are the words:

Maison de
L’Ing. Chevallier, Opt’n.
Place du Pont Neuf, 15
Paris.

Roughly translated, it reads:

House of Chevallier. Optician. 
Place du Pont Neuf, 15,
Paris. 

I have researched this, and it appears that Monsieur Chevallier was a very noted French optician, producing not only telescopes, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of microscopes, as well! He was also an optician to French royalty, according to one advertisement I came across. The address, 15, Place du Pont Neuf, is in central Paris, near the River Seine (‘pont’ is ‘bridge’ in French), near to the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame!

Just picking the telescope up and moving it around in my hands told me that this was a very high-quality piece, although like a lot of antiques, it had not been restored or overhauled in decades, which meant of course, that it was jammed up with gunk, grime, and dust, and therefore, entirely seized up. There was also a significant dimple on the lens-shield, which was causing it to jam.

Restoring the Telescope

Once I got it home, I started on the usual tedious, but necessary restoration process, to prevent the telescope from being damaged any further. This included blowing out all the dust, wiping down the lenses inside and out, disassembling the entire piece and cleaning and lubricating the threads, and flushing out all the grime and grit accumulated inside the focusing mechanism and draw-tubes – which is by far the most tedious part of this whole rigmarole!

One of the more fiddly parts of fixing this telescope was removing the dent in the sliding lens-shield at the front of the barrel. The dent was not large, but it was sufficiently concentrated, and deep enough, that it kept rubbing on the protective end-stop at the end of the barrel, thereby causing the entire mechanism to jam. No amount of oil would solve this, so the dent had to be removed.

Of course, removing the entire dent was not likely to be possible, but removing enough of it to stop the jamming would be sufficient. To do this, I unscrewed the lens-shield from its coupling ring, and then slid it off the barrel over the objective lens, past the end-stop which usually held it in place. The next step was to lay the shield on a flat surface without damaging the rim on the edge (which serves as a stop-point for the lens-cap).

Once I’d done this, I needed to locate the dent. Once found, I rolled the shield so that the dent was bottom-most, and pressing against my flat surface (a solid, wooden benchtop). Then I slipped a wooden rolling pin (like what you use to make cookies with) inside the shield to act as a mandrill. Next came the tedious process of rolling, pressing, rolling, pressing, rolling and pressing, using the smooth surface of the benchtop, and the smooth, round surface of the rolling-pin to pop the dent back out.

This had to be done carefully. Too much force and I’d end up with a nice OVAL-shaped lens-shield, which wouldn’t fit back onto my telescope. Not enough force, and I’d never get rid of the dent! However, diligence paid off, and I was able to remove enough of the dimple to achieve the desired result. Rather than tempt fate, I stopped there and reassembled the telescope.

Removing, or rather reducing, the dent was the only major repair I did to this piece. The rest of it was largely just cleaning, or small cosmetic things like light polishing, cleaning the lenses and tightening up loose couplings.

What’s the point of the sliding shield?

OK, so you cleaned it, you removed the dent, you oiled it, you washed out the grime and wiped it down…but what’s the whole point of that sliding cylinder, anyway?

It’s called a lens-shield. They were pretty common on antique telescopes, both of the pocket-sized terrestrial variety, and the larger, handheld maritime variety (like this one). Their purpose was to protect the lens while the telescope was in-use. They were slid out ahead of the objective-lens, and they provided protection to the glass from things like rain, snow, and excessive sun-glare. Having the shield extended meant that when looking in the direction of the sun, the rays of light hit the shield before they would hit the lens, preventing reflective glare.

In inclement weather, the shield kept rain, condensation and snow off of the lens, so that you didn’t have to keep wiping the glass every few seconds, thereby providing you with an unobstructed view – very important when you might be on the deck of a ship in the middle of a heavy storm!

Interesting Notes on Construction

I’ve seen a fair few antique telescopes in my time, ever since I started getting interested in antique optical stuff, about eight to ten years ago. While most telescopes from the 1840s-1850s up to the 1930s, 40s and 50s were all basically made the same way, with the same components and methods of construction, there were elements of this telescope which the manufacturer included which just make me love it just that little bit more.

The first element was the way the lens-shield was attached to the barrel of the telescope. On all other telescopes of this type that I’ve seen, to remove the shield, you need to pull apart the barrel and slide the shield backwards off of the body of the telescope. It’s fiddly and annoying. With this telescope, the shield is screwed onto a threaded coupling-ring that slides up and down the barrel. You simply unscrew the shield from the ring, and then you can slide the whole thing off the telescope, without having to disassemble anything!…You don’t even have to take off the lens-cap, if you don’t want to! This makes cleaning and overhauling this particular telescope much easier!

The second element about this telescope’s construction that I really liked was the inclusion of tiny holes which were drilled into each draw-tube, at the points where their coupling-rings screw together. I’d never seen anything like this on other telescopes before, and this confused me at first. It wasn’t until after I’d cleaned, polished, and de-grimed the entire instrument that their purpose was revealed to me, since only then would their function be fully understood!

So why on earth would you have tiny pinholes drilled into the draw-tubes of a telescope? The simple answer is air-pressure!

Telescopes, for all their simplicity of construction, actually have components that fit together with remarkable precision. Every lens, every rim, every coupling-ring, every tube and cartridge, slips, slides and screws together in a very precise, tight-fitting way. To ensure smooth action, and to ensure that the telescope will not pull apart accidentally, the tubes and the coupling-rings, lenses and everything else, are fitted together with almost microscopic tolerances, so much so that the whole thing is virtually airtight!

The result of these tight-fitting parts is that when the telescope is collapsed for storage, there’s a lot of air trapped inside the draw-tubes which despite their snug fits, are obviously, not airtight. On small telescopes, this air can easily be forced out of the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes, but on larger telescopes where this might not be possible, collapsing the telescope in the sharp, brisk, business-like manner that most people might’ve seen in TV shows or movies, just wouldn’t be practical, or probably, possible!

Here, you can see the three holes (on the left) drilled into the draw-tubes, with the maker’s details engraved on the right.

The holes in the draw-tubes therefore serve as air-pressure valves. The give the air somewhere to go when the tubes collapse into each other and force the air inside them out of the telescope. They make the process of opening and closing the telescope much smoother and easier. Without them, the resistance caused by the trapped air would likely make the draw-tubes jam or stick, both in opening, and closing the telescope.

Concluding Remarks

This concludes this latest posting, and my examinations of this latest addition to my collection. While other pieces may come and go, I’m pretty certain that this one will be a lifelong keeper. It really is an excellent piece and in such fantastic condition. There are a few minor blemishes that’s true, but you’d have a few yourself if you were nearly 200 years old!

Now all I need is a round-the-world cruise on which to bring it, so that I can do a spot of touristy sightseeing through its lenses, from the high, clear vantage point of the boat-deck of some grand ocean-liner… Eh…one day!

 

I’ll String Along With You – My Victorian-era Brass String-Caddy

Because why wouldn’t you have one??

One of my main areas of collecting has always been antique writing equipment, antique writing instruments, accessories, nicknacks and associated paraphernalia. And that also extends to pieces of desktop accessory. Inkstands, inkwells, desk-sets, candleholders, writing slopes…the list of things that mankind has invented purely to fill up his desk so that he had a suitable excuse as to why he couldn’t get any work done, is truly astounding.

And one of those pieces is this:

At first glance, you’d imagine that this is something wonderful, something amazing, something meant to hold…chocolates…peppermints…tobacco?…Face-powder…spices…it’s solid brass…it’s got beautiful, Art Nouveau decorations on it with flowers and loops and swirls, dragonflies and tulip-bulbs. And yet, its actual function is so much more banal than that!

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the small, but rather obvious hole right in the middle of the lid, you could imagine that this little brass jar held almost anything…coffee? Tea? Sugar? Powdered cinnamon? Quills of rarest saffron, perhaps?

But no…this adorably and excessively over-decorated brass tin is actually nothing more glamorous than…

…a string-caddy!

WHY does this thing Exist!?

No seriously…WHY? What the hell is wrong with just…I dunno…a ball of string!? I mean really, c’mon, right? Who the hell woke up one morning and said: “I know how we can improve on a large amount of intertwined threads coagulated into a spherical mass! What we need is something to put it in! Huzzah!

Why on earth is this even a thing?

Well, it’s a thing because of the age in which it was created.

By the 1870s and 1880s…which is approximately when an item such as this is likely to date from, the industrial revolution was in full swing. For the first time in history it was truly possible to mass-manufacture a whole wide crazy range of all kinds of products. Products that people wanted. Products that people didn’t want. Products that people needed. Products that people didn’t need. Products that people didn’t KNOW they needed!

…Like string-caddies!

By the last quarter of the 19th century, business and commerce are really taking off. For the first time, you have reliable postal systems, you have telephones, typewriters, electric telegraphs, telegrams, cheap steel dip-pens, the first reservoir fountain-pens, cheap, wood-cased pencils and…no email.

This meant that there were enormous amounts of paperwork flying all around the world. People did a lot of writing every single day. Business letters, social letters, essays, short stories, novels, business reports, newspaper columns, telegrams, postcards, love-letters…and since writing was such a preoccupation, people in Victorian times took the whole act and ritual of writing far more seriously than we do. The number of accessories that they came up with to improve, streamline and make more pleasurable, the act of writing, is truly staggering.

Inkstands, blotters, pen-wipers, wax-jacks…hell, you can even find Victorian-era stamp-moisteners, if you look hard enough! And no I didn’t make that up – stamp-moisteners really were a thing.

The Victorian era was also when people were accustomed to receiving packages done up in brown paper and string. It was ludicrously common to wrap up almost anything in brown paper. Books, food, gifts, purchases at a shop, clothing, shoes, everyday items…hell, even other types of paper! And in an age before sellotape became common, string was needed to tie all these parcels together.

Now if all you did was one or two parcels every now and then, how you stored your string probably didn’t matter. But if you were in the habit of wrapping and posting several parcels a day – perhaps you had a home-business, or maybe you worked in the giftwrapping area of a department-store, or perhaps in the mailroom of a mail-order business – then constantly hunting for your ball, or spool of string would become extremely annoying, extremely swiftly!

So, to prevent your ball of string rolling away off your desk, bouncing along the floor, hitting buttons and levers along the way, jamming up the machinery and forcing two brothers to work together to…oh wait, that’s the opening to the movie ‘Mouse Hunt‘…

…great movie, by the way – one of my favourites as a child.

…But I digress. You can probably see where this is going.

String caddies like these were invented to make it easier and neater to access string on a regular basis, which in an age when everything was done by hand, would been practically every working day of your life. And string caddies weren’t just reserved for working stiffs, either! Caddies were made of all kinds of materials. Wood or papier-mache were common for cheaper caddies, but for more refined desktops, or the counters of smartly-dressed shopfronts, or sleek hotels or office-buildings, something more refined was required.

Because of this, string caddies were commonly made of brass to blend in with the brassy tones commonly found in buildings in those days – brass lamps, brass candleholders, brass doorknobs, brass bells…or, they could even be made of solid sterling silver! Now exactly what the demand for a sterling silver string-caddy might’ve been in say, 1885, I’d have no idea, but apparently people were buying them, because they certainly did exist!

Why did you BUY this crazy thing!?

Alright, whatever, fine. We know what the hell it is!

So why on earth did you buy it?

…would you believe, I thought it was cute?

Actually, I bought this for a number of reasons. First, it was cheap. Only a few bucks. And that’s always a good thing.

Second, I like antique brassware. If it was made of anything else, I probably wouldn’t have bothered buying it!

Third, it’s an antique desk accessory, and like I said, that’s one of the areas I collect!

Fourthly, I thought it’d be something unusual. If nothing else, it was certainly very beautiful.

Fifthly…because I figured I’d get good use out of it. I sell antiques online, and whenever I post something, I always tie the package up with string (I don’t trust the postal system not to rip the parcel open, deliberately or accidentally, so it’s an extra safeguard!), so in that respect, I’m always hunting for balls of string. And this seemed as good a reason as any, to buy it!

And sixthly, and finally, and last-of-all-ly…(I swear to God, this is my last reason!), I was struck by the sheer fact that all this ridiculously over-decorated thing ever did, or was ever intended to do, was to hold, and dispense…string!

There was absolutely no reason for this thing to be as elaborate, or as highly decorated as it was, and yet, someone took the time to make it so. It’s this quality, quite above and apart from any other, which makes me love and want to collect antiques – the fact that something so simple could be so amazingly embellished – and the fact that this wasn’t a one-off thing – they did this with ALL of their string-caddies! They saw a need, or wanted to believe that they saw a need, or a desire, to create something far more beautiful than what it ever, ever needed to be!

You try buying something like this today, and see how far you get!

What’s with the Title?

For those of you who are wondering about the title for this posting, it’s taken from the 1934 song, “I’ll String Along With You”

 

WERTHEIM Manual Sewing Machine. Made in Germany! Ca. 1920.

“Made in Germany! Y’know the Germans always make good stuff! Y’followin’ me, camera-guy? It sews, it patches, it fixes, it goes forwards and backwards! It can even sit on your shelf and look a darn sight more decorative than the modern junk you could buy today! Ain’t that right, Charlie!? Charlie says ‘Yes indeed, folks!'”¬†

Wilkommen, mein damen und herren!

This post is all about…this:

I picked up this beauty at my local auction-house. I also picked up a mini-hernia trying to lug it home afterwards! Isn’t it a beauty?

What we have here, my curious compadres, is a German-made sewing machine, manufactured sometime in the 1920s. It was produced by the Wertheim company, which was one of the major European competitors to big-name American brands like…I dunno…SINGER. Or WHITE. Or NEW HOME.

Along with big names¬†like Frister & Rossmann, and Seidel & Naumann, Wertheim was one of the most popular manufacturers, during the 1800s and early 1900s, of German-made sewing machines. While many people would swear by Singer, the Germans were giving the Americans a serious run for their money in the sewing machine department! And in cars! Radios…typewriters…hey, you just can’t beat German engineering, guys…

Unlike American companies, where sewing machine manufacturers made…sewing machines (Duuuuuuuuuuuh!)…German manufacturers made much more! Seidel & Naumann, for example, also made bicycles…and typewriters! Wertheim made sewing machines…and pianos! Wertheim pianos were extremely popular in Australia, where a factory was set up to manufacture them. This machine may not sound like a piano, but certainly is as sleek as one!

What Made German Sewing Machines Different?

German-made machines differed from their American cousins in a number of ways, both good, and bad. German machines had gears which were more precisely cut and fitted, than their American counterparts. This made the machines smoother, quieter and easier to operate for longer periods of time. They also had features which most American machines wouldn’t have for a good long while!

The back of the machine, revealing the detail of the decorations and gold-leaf applications.

Features like an auto-stop bobbin-winder, or a forward-reverse lever (something which SINGER didn’t have until WELL after the Second World War, but which German machines had back in the Edwardian era!), or even built-in¬†measuring tapes on the bases of the machine-beds, for convenience in measuring, or even – built-in pin-cushions!

Another feature common to German sewing machines, and seen only occasionally on American ones, was what I like to call the ‘shuttle-launcher’. After advancing the shuttle through the race to the point of extraction, sliding back the plate to take out the shuttle would catch a lever inside the race. This would flick the shuttle out of the machine to make it easier to extract, to refill the bobbin. Depending on the machine, the extraction lever might just nudge the shuttle up, or it might flick it up into the air!

It was little touches like this which made German machines popular, and American machines seem…I dunno…’adequate’…by comparison. I mean in theory, they’d all do the same thing – they all sewed, but like those ads for ‘V’ energy-drink, the German ones had that massive hit, which improved them a bit.

What Do We Know about This Machine?

Not a gigantically-enormous amount, but we do know a bit. First: it was marketed for the English-speaking market. Secondly, it would’ve been one of the company’s later machines. We know this, because it’s a vibrating-shuttle machine, and not an older transverse-shuttle machine (which were still being made in the 1930s in Germany!).

Although German machines were highly innovative in some areas, in other areas, they rather tended to lag behind the competition.

In the 1920s and 30s, companies like White, or Singer, in America, were producing compact, easy-to-use, round-bobbin machines, very similar to the types of domestic sewing machines still manufactured today. They were easy to operate, easy to load, easy to understand.

By comparison, even in the 20s and 30s, German companies like Wertheim, or Frister & Rossmann, were still manufacturing machines like this – vibrating shuttle machines.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great machine. But when you consider that the invention of the vibrating-shuttle mechanism PRE-DATES the American Civil War…you’ll get some idea of just HOW outdated this technology WAS by say, 1925. On top of that, the Germans were still making transverse-shuttle machines, as well! Now the technology behind that is even more ancient! It gets its roots from the shuttles which rolled back and forth between the warp-and-weft layers of threads which made up old cloth-looms…which dated back CENTURIES! All the way to the Middle Ages!

By comparison with this,¬†the Americans surged ahead with the latest and greatest – electric machines, more compact designs, built-in electric lights, attachable electric motors!¬†The Germans, on the other hand, tended to stick with more traditional, dare-I-say, antiquated designs, and then over-engineer and over-develop them until they were absolutely the very best that they could be…and then just keep on making them! Germany was still producing machines like this when the Second World War broke out, at the end of the 1930s.

Where Does This Machine Come From?

The lands across the oceans, where rain sings and clouds mourn and flowers dance in the sand…

…I dunno! I was the only bidder on this machine at the local auction-house, and managed to get it dirt cheap (or as close to dirt as I was able to, given the setting)! I packed it up, paid for it, and then lugged it home by hand, almost putting my back out in the process! They didn’t do things by halves in those days! This thing weighs a ton!

What did the machine come with?

A bad attitude, a drinking problem, and a string of angry ex-wives.

Probably, but not this machine. No, it came with four bobbins, one shuttle, the original green-and-gold (how Australian!) tin machine-box, the original lid, key, and a beautiful set of intact decals and decorations! It really is a beauty!

What’s wrong with the machine?

Not too much. The bobbin-winder needs a minor repair, but apart from that, the machine works perfectly. Or it did, once I’d lubricated it, and adjusted all the relevant thread-tensions. This machine comes with a forward-back lever on it, which I was eager to test – I’d never had a vintage sewing machine with this feature on it before. I’m pleased to report that it works perfectly! In my eagerness to test the machine, I completely forgot all about thread-tension and as a result, of course, it wouldn’t sew! I adjusted the tension-nut on the side of the machine, and then adjusted the tension-screw on the shuttle as well, to get it working right.

Once I’ve repaired the bobbin winder itself, it’ll work wonderfully!

What Type of Machine is This?

Machines using this type of technology, involving a bullet-shaped shuttle with long, barbell-shaped bobbins, which swings back and forth, is called a ‘vibrating shuttle’ sewing machine (usually just called a ‘VS machine’ in collector circles).

In sewing machine evolution, it’s the second stage in sewing machine design, one step up from the older ‘Transverse shuttle’ machine (‘TS’).

VS machines were made from the late 1800s (about 1860s and 1870s), right up to the 1960s, although they were already outdated by about 1910. VS machines are popular because they hold large amounts of thread, and are fun to operate.

What is the ‘Wertheim’ Company?

The Wertheim company was established in 1868, by Joseph Wertheim.¬†By the turn of the century, the machines were being sold in England, Spain, Germany, and even Australia! This last, was made possible by Hugo Wertheim (Joseph’s nephew), who migrated to Australia in 1875.

To say that young Hugo (and he was young, in his early 20s at the time), had buckets of money, is putting it mildly. As with any family which delved successfully into sewing machines in the 1800s, the Wertheim family, just like the Singer family, made an absolute fortune in manufacturing, distributing, exporting and selling these beautiful machines. This advertisement is all the proof you need!

Determined to make a name for himself, young Hugo became an importer of his family’s sewing machines, and made a deal with his Uncle Joseph to be the family’s representative in the colonies! Hugo started with an emporium in the Australian city of Melbourne, with his shopfront opening onto Flinders Lane, in the middle of the Melbourne Central Business District. In time, he would also expand into Bourke Street, William Street, and Collins Street, nearby.

Apart from sewing machines, Hugo, and his growing Australian branch of the wealthy House of Wertheim, also sold anything else with the Wertheim name on it, including bicycles, laundry-mangles, infant perambulators, and most famously of all – Pianos! And you can still buy Wertheim pianos easily in Australia today. They even had a factory manufacturing them in Richmond, a suburb east of the Melbourne CBD.

So what does this say about my Wertheim sewing machine? It proves that it was imported by a family which came to Australia, and made it big, in a big way! It’s a part of Australian, and Melbournian history, and I for one, am very glad to be its latest owner!

 

Antique Norwegian Silver Shot Glass (1871)

I’m not sure what happened in Norway in the early 1870s, but whatever it was, someone felt the need to commemorate it.

I picked up this little silver shot-glass or beaker while I was at the local flea-market last week. It was in reasonable condition, it was cheap, and it had a lot of pretty engraving on it. It had a series of hallmarks struck to the base, but beyond the fact that it was silver, the seller couldn’t tell me a thing about it.

Decoding antiques can be a real challenge, and this shot-glass is a classic example of that. Even without the label on the item declaring it to be silver, I had already guessed, given the tarnishing, but also, the symbols stamped on the base:

Given the layout, the number of them, and the inconsistencies in the stampings, I deduced that they were hand-struck hallmarks, but not of any kind which I recognised. On a hunch, I bought the shot-glass, took it home, cleaned it up a bit and pressed out the dents, and then started researching the marks.

The cup came with a hand-engraved inscription on the rim, and translating this was my first clue. It read:

Erindring af mine Brodre“. Typing this into Google Search revealed it to be Norwegian: “In Remembrance of my Brothers“. After that, I started researching Norwegian hallmarks.

European hallmarks have a very distinct pattern. They typically come in groups of four, or five. A set of marks on a piece of silver will normally consist of an assay mark, a date letter, a maker’s mark, and a purity or fineness mark. Depending on where the piece was made and marked, it might also include import or export marks, taxation marks, etc.

The first mark to be uncovered was the seven dots in an oval (on the right). This was the assay mark for the town of Bergen, in Norway.

The second mark I deciphered was the ’13 1/3′. This was a reference to 13.3/16 LOTH.

In the 1700s and 1800s, European silver was divided into grades called lothiges (commonly shortened to just ‘loth’). Silver was graded according to purity on a sixteen-point scale. It started at 16, then¬†went down to 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, and finally, 10 loth. Apart from Norway, the loth system was also commonly used by Germany, Austria and Prussia.

From top to bottom, these grades were:

1000/1000 (16),
937/1000 (15),
875/1000 (14),
812/1000 (13),
750/1000 (12),
687/1000 (11),
650/1000 (10). 

So, I had a roughly 81% purity, silver shot glass made in Bergen, in Norway. But how old was it? Here I turned to two more marks. One was ‘6M’, and the other ’71’. These stood for June (the sixth month) of 1871.

The last mark were the initials PD, which made up the maker’s mark. The trail of research ran cold here, but I had enough to know all the basic facts about the shot glass. It might be small, and old, and battered, but I think it’s beautiful. After all, it’s not every day you can claim to own a piece of antique Norwegian silver!