Buried Treasure: My Very Own ‘Armada Dish’!

Just because it’s what they do, doesn’t mean that they know it all! And if you’re patient, you can get your hands on a really nice, and interesting, piece of silver! That’s what happened to me yesterday!

Nobody at my local auction-house knew what this curious little…dish…plate…bowl…thingy…was. As a result, it sold for next to nothing, and I was able to nab it at a great price. I was extremely skeptical of the description of it in the catalogue, which simply said: “Sterling Silver Ash Tray“.

One look at this item told me that it was quite obviously not an ash tray. The shape was all wrong. And there were no grooves to rest cigarettes.  I mean you could use it as an ash tray…and you could use a Gucci handbag to tip horse-manure onto the garden…but that doesn’t mean you should! This weird little piece of silver made me wonder exactly what it was and who made it and why.

Unusually, it was a modern piece of silver. It’s from 1997, according to the hallmarks, and it was assayed in Sheffield. Researching the company that made it eventually told me that it was something called an ‘Armada Plate’.

…A what?

Yeah I’d never heard of it either, and despite a lot of research, all I could find out was that there were loads of these things for sale online in various sizes, some larger than mine, some smaller. But none of them told me what the hell an ‘Armada Plate’ was. So, I went to Wikipedia to find out…

The Amazing Armada Service

In the 1580s and 90s, a thirty-one piece sterling silver dinner service was amassed by Sir Christopher Harris, and his wife Mary. Among other things, Sir Christopher was an MP, and Vice-Admiral for the county of Devon, and was charged with the protection of Devon by attacks from the sea.

The service became known as the ‘Armada Service’ because it was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date-letters on the silver plates and platters range from the 1580s up to around 1601.

Either way, the famous, 31-piece service was a point of pride for the Harris family – Sir Christopher after all, was familiar with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so he definitely moved in some pretty impressive circles!

What is known is that the service was passed down through the Harris family until 1645. At the time of the English Civil War, the service was buried to hide it from the Cromwellian puritans, who needed silver for their war-effort. It remained hidden for nearly two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1827 by farm-laborers who, of all things, were digging a hole to store potatoes!

The service was returned to the Harris family, who took custody of it for over fifty years, until it was sold at auction in 1885…by which time it had dropped from 31 pieces to 26 pieces…exactly what happened to the other five is unknown.

Either way, the pieces were sold at auction in 1885, and again some decades later, in 1910. In 1992, the 26-piece service was acquired by (and remains with) the British Museum.

But what happened to the other pieces?

Funnily enough – some of them have been discovered!

Through means unknown, some of them had ended up in the States! This was only discovered in 2009! This means that there is now a 28-piece Armada service in the world. However, the last three pieces, to make it the complete 31 once more, are still missing…

The Little Silver Plate

Alright, that was really interesting…but what’s that got to do with a little silver plate?

Well actually, the Armada Service is so famous, not just for its size, age and the fact that part of it is still missing, but because it represented a high-point of late-Elizabethan silversmithing. Its simple style and beauty, and the fact that it’s survived this long largely intact, have made it an object of fascination, and therefore, highly desirable.

Modern copies of individual pieces from the Armada Service are actively manufactured today by British silversmiths, and you can buy them online relatively easily, in sizes anywhere from a couple of inches, all the way up to seven inches in diameter! My own little plate is 3.75 inches across. It may not be a piece of 400-year-old Elizabethan silver, but it’s fun to own something that pays homage to one of the most famous silver-collections in the world!

 

Georgian Scent-Box – My Antique Silver Vinaigrette

In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:

This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?

Antique Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.

The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.

Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.

The Hallmarks

This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.

Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.

And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.

The Fall of the Vinaigrette

Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.

 

Fake Antiques – How Not to Get Stung!

I was at my local auction-house this week just poking around, seeing what was on offer for the first auction of the year, when I stumbled across some items which were being listed for sale, and they struck me as being rather strange.

Strange because they were obviously reproductions, and because this is an auction-house which deals largely in antiques, jewelry, art and furniture. Just looking at them I could tell they weren’t as old as the dates printed across them, but I expected that the chaps at the auction-house knew that when they put them up for sale.

The items, two telescopes, later sold for what I felt were pretty high prices, considering that they were obviously of modern manufacture. And this got me to thinking about antiques collecting, and the risks involved with it – specifically – buying fakes and reproductions, when you’re looking for a genuine antique!

In the antiques world, almost anything and everything can, will, has been, or will be, faked. And I do mean literally anything – you can go online right now, and buy a whistle which someone will swear up and down, was used in the trenches of the First World War. It’ll look old, and it’ll have period markings on it – but it is NOT an antique! (Incidentally – these whistles are reproductions manufactured by the ACME Whistle Co.

Now, to be fair, that’s not to say that the ACME Whistle Company is deliberately trying to cheat the public – they are manufacturing whistles with old-fashioned markings on the barrels, they are aging them and selling them – but they are selling them as modern reproductions of antique whistles. There’s nothing wrong with this. And there’s nothing wrong with you buying them. Just so long as you’re aware of the fact that these whistles are not 100-year-old, First-World-War originals! And so long as you don’t try and sell them as such!

However, there are people out there who will try and sell them as such, and at significantly increased prices. Knowing how to tell the difference between a real whistle from the First World War, and a modern reproduction, is just one example of how collectors need to be able to tell the difference between a real antique, and a reproduction, or a fake!

What is a Fake?

A fake, or fraudulent item, is something manufactured to look like, and be passed off, as an original item, and which will be sold at a price matching the original item. It has absolutely no value as an antique, and if you buy one, you will be stung – hard! Because reselling it will be almost impossible – nobody will willingly purchase a fake.

And just so we’re clear – faking items isn’t a modern phenomenon – people have been faking things for centuries! You can even buy an antique fake, as well as a fake antique! Some antique fakes might actually be worth money, because of the notoriety around them, but again, you need to be careful about what you buy.

What is a Reproduction?

A reproduction is an item which has been manufactured to superficially look like something else that was produced previously. Reproductions are legal, and sometimes even desirable, but they should not be confused with the original article. Reproductions can be useful in the sense that they give an impression of age at a fraction of the price, but one should not expect original-quality manufacturing standards for a reproduction-quality item. You get what you pay for.

What is a Replica?

A replica is generally defined as being an exact copy of an antique. Replicas can vary just in terms of visual appearance, all the way up to being fully-operational, functioning replicas. They differ from a reproduction in that usually, much more detail, time and money has been spent in manufacturing these, since they are meant to be faithful copies of an original item. Replicas are popular choices with historical reenactors, since they can get the ‘real thing’, but not worry about potentially damaging an antique, which could be decades, or even centuries old. Firearms, clothing, historical eyewear, kitchenware and many other items usually have modern replicas of antique originals available online. The quality is not necessarily as good as one might like, but the functionality should at least be on the same level.

The Three-Part Pick-a-Part

When you start collecting, the most important thing to learn is how to differentiate an antique from a replica, reproduction and fake. If you can’t do this, your collection could be filled with loads of fakes!

“So what?” I might hear you ask, “Does that really matter?”

Well, that depends. If you blew hundreds of bucks on something expecting it to be 200 years old, and it was made last week, would you be happy? If you unknowingly sold a fake and your buyer called you out on it, would you be happy? Buying and selling fakes can be a painful business, and not just for your wallet, but also for your reputation, if you do this regularly. People will avoid you, and once your reputation’s shattered, selling anything will be a real hassle!

In spotting fakes, there are some things which the novice can learn and read about to protect themselves, but other things only come with experience and the balance of probabilities.

The Real McCoy or a Fraudulent Ploy?

Even for the novice antiques collector, there are ways to tell reproductions or fakes, from the real thing. How to find these ways, these indicators, is all in the details of what the item is, what it looks like, how it was made and how it’s presented.

In some cases, knowing if something is an antique or a reproduction is pretty obvious, and in other cases, it can be nigh impossible. So what are some things to look for?

Indicators of Age are probably the first thing to check for. Anything which is a real antique will have genuine indicators of age. Wear, fading, paint-loss, chips, dings, dents, tarnishing, loss of colour, etc. Do fakes have these things too? You bet! The trick is knowing the difference between real indicators of age, and fake ones. Some indicators of age cannot be faked, such as stamps or engravings, particular types of decoration, or particular types of wear. Knowing how to differentiate between the two, is the rub. Some can look incredibly convincing!

Fit, Finish and Features are three more indicators of whether an item is an antique, or a reproduction. Antiques are simply everyday items which are very, very old. They were built or made decades, or even centuries ago, to fulfill a specific purpose. And chances are, they will have fulfilled that purpose very well. And they would’ve done that because of how they were made, what they made of, how they were completed, and the features found on these items.

Look at two seemingly identical items. Their shape might be the same, their physical measurements might be the same. Even the colour and patterning might be the same. But if you look closer, you will see differences.

An item made to be used every day, will be manufactured accordingly. It will be heavier, or lighter, as the case might be. It will have various additional features which will aid it in its function. It will be purely operational, without any excessive flourishes or decorations.

Now look at the reproduction, or fake. In many cases, telling the difference between the two will be fairly easy. The reproduction will ‘try too hard’ to look old. It will be excessively aged or patina’d. It will not have any of the extra features which the antique will have. Why? Because unlike the antique, it wasn’t designed as an object of everyday use – it was designed as a reproduction.

Now look at the fit and finish. Notice any wobbling? Any loss of details or decorations? Generally, a fake or reproduction will have fewer decorative details than an antique original, or again, will try too hard to look old-fashioned, and overdo it on the decorations. Modern reproductions or fakes are designed to fool at a distance – they won’t hold up to up-close scrutiny – provided that you know what you’re looking for. Understanding the difference between all these nuances is vital if you’re to differentiate between an antique item and a fake or reproduction.

Weight and Heft is another way to determine an original from a fake. Most people who manufacture fakes or reproductions will not care about this – their item will weigh less, or more than the item that they’re trying to copy. Why? Because they don’t care, and they don’t expect that YOU will care, either.

Knowing how much the genuine article weighs, when compared to a fake is very important when it comes to things like old coins. Antique coins which were made of gold and silver had by law, to weigh a certain amount, since they were made of precious metals, and the value on the coin had to reflect the weight of the coin itself.

A fake coin will not weigh the same as a real one. It will either be significantly heavier, or significantly lighter. In cases like this, the only way to be really sure is to look up the weight of the coin beforehand and keep it handy when you go hunting.

Grit and Grime are yet another way to differentiate an antique from a reproduction. Most antiques will not look perfect. You try looking perfect after 100 years! Most antiques will have some sort of blemish, some sort of tarnish, some grit, grime, dust or other gunk trapped inside its moving parts, or in crevices or cracks or gullies.

A reproduction will always look perfectly clean. A fake will always look perfectly clean. That’s because…it’s new! Duh!…Or, it might look dirty. But the difference is in the kind of dirt or patina, or tarnish. Real tarnish or grime builds up over time, over the course of decades.

This is not something that you can fake with acid or vinegar or by rubbing crud onto an object’s surface. It can only be achieved by years and decades of use and abuse. Grime and gunk get into every tiny little crevice inside an item, and that’s something you won’t find in a reproduction, no matter how superficially it looks like an antique.

Concluding Remarks

Well, there are just a few tips for the novice collector on how to spot a genuine antique, as opposed to a modern reproduction or forgery which someone might try and sell you as the real thing.

Of course, the tips mentioned here will not cover all antiques – they’re intended as general guidelines, but they should be enough to help most people avoid strife while out at flea-markets, auction houses, antiques shops and when surfing online for that next interesting item for their collection.

 

Grinding through History – Antique Brass Spice Mills

These are pretty neat, aren’t they?

I picked these up at my local flea-market before it closed for Christmas. The last market of the year – almost everybody was selling stuff off cheap. One last chance to make money before three weeks of nothing. As a result, these were going cheap!

“What the hell are they??” I hear you ask.

Well, they’re antique brass spice mills! Ain’t they just the cutest lil’ things you ever saw in your life??

OK, okay…ok…let’s be a bit more serious now…

What are they, really?

Well that’s a bit of a tricky question to answer, actually.

The short answer is that according to all the research I’ve done, they are spice mills, used for grinding up things like coffee, salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and whatever else you can cram inside them. But that’s not entirely true. See, mills of this design were originally meant, not for spices, but coffee beans!

They originated with the Greek army because apparently Greek soldiers needed a lot of coffee to make it through a day’s fighting. The problem was that to get the coffee, they had to grind the beans, and grinding beans on the move was a problem, because of how chunky old-fashioned coffee-mills were. Have you seen those things? They’re huge!

To find a compact and portable alternative, some bright spark came up with these things!

Now, they do come in various sizes. All the way from well over a foot long, down to about five or six inches in height. The small mill is about 7.5in high, which makes it a medium, while the other mill is about 13in high, which makes a large! In fact, I don’t think any current manufacturers produce a mill this big!

“So what are they used for?”

As I said, originally these were coffee mills, but these days, people use them for all kinds of things. They’re very popular as spice-mills, for grinding pepper, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon…basically anything that you can cram inside it! The fineness of the grind is adjusted by the screw or nut inside the base of the grinder. A tighter nut means a finer grind (because the grinding-wheels are closer together) whereas a looser nut means a more coarse grind (from the wheels being further apart).

Mills like these have been popular for over a hundred years. And it’s not hard to see why – they’re beautifully made, extremely robust, and they have a huge capacity! They’re also pretty easy to clean.

“How do they work, then?”

The basic operation is pretty easy. You remove the handle, take off the dome-cap, and then you fill the mill with whatever spice you need to grind. You put the cap and the handle back on, and then start grinding.

As you turn the handle, the wheels grind, and the resultant ground-up spices are collected in the base. This stops them sprinkling and spraying all over the place and keeps things neat and tidy. It’s a ridiculously simple design, and I think, very effective and sensible.

“That thing looks COOL!…I want one! GIMME!”

What!? No! Bugger off! Gitcher own darn spice mill!

In all honesty, if you do want one of these things, they’re pretty easy to find. Spend enough time at your local flea-market and you’ll eventually find one. I’ve seen loads of them go through my market for years. I never bought one because I never saw their appeal until now. They’re usually pretty cheap – these two cost almost nothing – and once they’ve been cleaned and such, they’ll last a lifetime!

If you’re after a new one though, they are still made brand new – and you can buy them online. They’re manufactured in Greece, the country of their birth, by a company called Atlas. These might not carry the earth and heavens on their shoulders, but they can grind up a world of spices for you! And they’ll do it with style. Although I generally reckon – not with half as much style as the older ones do!

 

Creating Aged Beauty – Polishing My Antique Brass Tiffin Carrier

Way back in August, I went on holiday to Southeast Asia. It seems ages ago now, but while there, I bought something at an antiques market that I’d been chasing after for several years: An antique tiffin carrier…

Food-carriers of this basic style have been used in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, India and China for centuries, and the original ones were stacked baskets, usually made of wood or rattan.

With improved manufacturing and machining processes becoming possible with the industrial revolution, tiffin carriers made out of something other than wood (which was perishable and easily broken) now became possible. Decorative stacked porcelain ones were common in Peranakan households in the Straits Settlements in British-held Singapore and Malaya, but in terms of practicality and portability – few could go past the ones which were now being made of pressed steel and brass.

Manufactured in Singapore, India, China, and even some places in Europe, they were made of sheet brass, punched and spun into bowls, and lined in tin (to prevent damage to the brass), or sheet steel, which was punched and spun into bowls, and then painted in enamel paint, which was baked hard, to provide a durable, but smooth, and easily-cleaned surface. Straits Chinese tiffin carriers were often decorated to within an inch of their lives, with patterns of flowers and birds.

The Tiffin Carrier in This Posting

The tiffin carrier which I’ll be concentrating on in this posting – the one I brought back from my holidays – is probably the most typical vintage design, and you’ll find loads of these in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India, where they were made.

They consist of a single brass frame folded and riveted to a handle and a swinging clamp at the top. The bowls are cylindrical sections with bases, which slot between the frame, held in place by hooks riveted on their sides. They’re kept rigid and immovable by the swing-clamp at the top that holds everything in tension to stop it moving.

Most tiffin-carriers have guide-hooks on all the bowls, so that they slot in neatly and stack up one by one – but this one (and others of different designs) have bowls with smooth sides – the indented bases of each bowl lock together to prevent spills and leaks.

This tiffin carrier has four bowls. I have seen ones with as few as one or two, and some with as many as half a dozen or more! But for most everyday ones, between three to five (or more often, three to four) was more common.

The lid on the top of the carrier also has another compartment, which would be for storing condiments and spices with which to flavour your food, which is compartmentalised in each of the four bowls.

Polishing the Carrier

One reason why I bought a brass tiffin carrier over one made of steel is that the brass ones last longer. They don’t rust, the enamel doesn’t chip and flake off, and quite apart from anything else – they’re so much easier to clean!

As you can see in the opening photograph, the carrier I bought was heavily tarnished. It hadn’t been polished in decades! I spent about two days cleaning it up to restore it to something resembling its original shine, and I have to say, I’m very pleased with the results:

I didn’t bother trying to get it perfect – and for a number of reasons:

1). To get it this far was bloody hard work! And I didn’t want to put in excessive effort and risk damaging the brass.
2). I wanted it to look old, but without looking neglected and dirty. In this condition, it’s aged, but presentable!
3). There were some blemishes on the brass which I wasn’t able to remove, so I left it slightly aged so that everything blends in nicely.

That said, the final result is lovely, as is the interior:

This is what the tiffin carrier looks like when it’s entirely disassembled. Now I didn’t actually do anything to the interior, beyond knocking out a couple of dents, and washing the bowls with hot soapy water, to get rid of any grime and dust.

The grey appearance is because these were lined in tin when they were made (to prevent damaging the brass with food). A similar process was used with copper cookware back in the old days (and in fact, they still make copper cookware lined in tin today).

Although I doubt I would ever use this thing ‘in action’ as it were, I couldn’t resist having my own. I scoured flea-markets for years to find one, and I’m so glad that I now have one which I can honestly call my own!

 

Late Victorian Dentifrice Pot (Ca. 1890)

“Why Did You Buy a Toothpaste Pot!?”

No, I mean…really! Like…y’know…um…why?

I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.

Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!

Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…

I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!

The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.

“Taking a Powder…”

These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.

Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.

Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.

And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!

A Biting History of Dental Care

Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).

I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.

Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.

Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?

Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!

Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.

When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.

The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!

Victorian Tooth Powders

Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?

Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!

The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.

Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!

For the apothecary or pharmacist, a solid brass mortar and pestle such as this one would’ve been indispensable in their work. Easily cleaned, and nigh indestructible, it would ensure the end product was pure and without contamination. 

Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!

The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!

Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…

Victorian Dentifrice Pots

Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.

These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!

Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.

Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!

I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!

And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!

That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!

To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.

Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!

Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!

Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.

Transfer-Printing

Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.

This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.

Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.

In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!

To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!

Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.

The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots

Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…

Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot? 

Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.

You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!

 

Sterling Silver Bowl with Coin – 1895 & 1787

Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes, you don’t.

This time, I got lucky!

It’s the most charming and adorable little silver bowl that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s made of sterling silver, and has the most amazing respousse patterning on the sides.

It’s late Victorian in manufacture, dating to 1895, just two years before the queen’s diamond jubilee. The detail on this thing just blew me away when I saw it – it’s got clovers and acorns all around the sides, and little flowers all around the rim. Floral motifs were popular in Victorian times, so this definitely fits the period! The sort of curvy-swervy patterning on the bottom looks like a nod to the then-rising movement of Art Nouveau as well.

This bowl was being sold in a local auction-house, and it was one of about half a dozen pieces that I wanted to try and buy. I got viciously outbid on some of the other pieces, and I had my reservations about buying this one. But when the price dropped…and dropped…and dropped…and nobody put up a bid, I decided to pounce, and managed to get a great bargain!

Small silver bowls, plates and cups like this were very common in Victorian times, and I’ve seen many of them in antiques shops, online, in flea-markets and in auction-houses.

Exactly what function they served is debatable, if indeed they did serve one at all! The Victorians were notorious for manufacturing all kinds of silver nicknacks for activities, events, items and niceties that we don’t even think about these days! Things like stamp-holders, card-trays, and even asparagus tongs and pickle forks!

The bowl is not gilt or lined inside in any way, so that suggests that whatever it held, it wasn’t corrosive – so therefore, it wouldn’t have been mustard or salt or something along those lines. Salt and mustard (which has vinegar in it) are both highly corrosive to silver – any silver vessel holding these condiments usually has a blue glass liner, or is gilt (gold-plated) to stop the silver from crusting over and turning black and flaky.

I think the bowl was likely used to hold chocolates or nibbles. Perhaps unsalted nuts or bonbons or something of that sort.

Whoever it was made for, and whatever use they intended for it, one aspect of this bowl really caught my eye – this:

No, your eyes are not deceiving you – that is a coin set into the base of the bowl. Exactly WHY there’s a coin there is anybody’s guess, but there it is.

That said, silver bowls and plates like this with coins set into them aren’t that uncommon, either! I’ve seen several of these over the years, and it seems to have been a perfectly acceptable practice. Some coins were used because they marked significant years, and some, just for decoration, like we see here. Another possible explanation is that the coins were out of circulation anyway – and it was an easy way to use free silver to make something!

The coin is a George III sterling silver shilling, from 1787.

It’s pretty worn, but you can still read the date, as well as the words: “GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA” (George III, by the Grace of God).

The silversmith’s mark on this piece is for Charles Stuart Harris. He seems to have done a pretty good job of fitting the coin in – both sides are visible, both inside, and outside the bowl.

All in all, it’s a beautiful piece of silver. Well-made and with stunning attention to detail. Its decoration just screams Victorian, and I love the coin – even if it’s almost impossible to read!

The date on the coin - 1787
The date on the coin – 1787