As Bold as Brass: Braving Antique Brassware

In looking over my blog I find that I have written about antique silver and how to read hallmarks, and various ways of cleaning antique silver and brass, but that  I haven’t covered antique brassware itself, as a subject. Something I’m rather surprised at, considering that I love things made of brass! That being the case, what follows is a brief look at brassware. Some of its history, its range of applications, and why it was used for so many products for so many hundreds of years.

Solid brass fire extinguisher. Ca. 1915-1930. 

A Brief Brassy History

Brass in one form or another, has existed since ancient times, but it wasn’t until after the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance era of the 1400s that brass as we know it today (an alloy of roughly 90% copper and 10% zinc) was discovered.

Early forms of brass were crude. Copper was the main ingredient, but the alloying metal could be any white metal which was available – tin (which would make either bronze, or pewter, depending on the ratios), and even lead!

Mortars and pestles were made of bronze, and then brass, for many centuries. 

Zinc, the metal now used in conjunction with copper to make brass, started being available in Europe in the late 1500s. Prior to this point, most items were made of bronze – such as bells, door-knockers, and even early cannons! But with zinc now recognised as a new metal, its addition to copper to make brass heralded a new age in metalworking.

Its brightness meant that zinc lent to copper a light and reflective sheen, not always seen in bronze. This is what gives brass its bright and glittering shine, and just why it can be polished to such a stunning brilliance.

Brass’s inability to rust (since it contains no iron), and its bright sheen, has made it popular for centuries as the go-to metal for all kinds of products and household implements. Strength, rustproofing, easily cleaned, and with a golden shimmer. What could possibly be better?

Stuff Made of Brass

Ever since its discovery, and the refinement of the formula from which brass is made, brass has been used to make a truly staggering array of items over the centuries. Among other things, items made of brass include:

  • Candleholders.
  • Chandeliers.
  • Tableware.
  • Bells.
  • Gas-lighting fixtures.
  • Lanterns.
  • Lamps.
  • Fire-extinguishers.
  • Telescopes and binoculars.
  • Magnifying glasses.
  • Window-fittings.
  • Hardware on early cars.
  • Hardware on trunks and suitcases.
  • Mortars and pestles.

The reasons why so many things were made of brass were numerous.

Victorian-era brass telescope

Until the creation of the Bessemer Process for producing large amounts of steel became possible, brass was the go-to metal for a lot of applications. It was easier to produce, was long-lasting and had an attractive shine. Unlike steel, brass did not have to be painted, oiled or plated to prevent it from rusting and corroding. It could be lacquered if desired, to preserve its shine, but other than the occasional cleaning, required minimal maintenance.

Brass was extensively used in seafaring, for making things like clocks, compasses, telescopes, binoculars, bells, binnacles, telegraphs, portholes and countless other fittings and accessories found on board ships between the 1700s to the 1900s. Brass was the only metal that would reliably withstand such long-term contact with water.

Early motor-cars (veteran or ‘brass-era’ cars) used a lot of brass in their construction – most notably for headlights, window-frames, radiators, dials and gauges. Most cars were open-topped, based on carriage-designs of the era, and similar components made from steel wouldn’t have lasted. At the same time, early cars were expensive, and manufacturers wanted their vehicles to look attractive. One way of doing this was by outfitting their cars with attractive, brass hardware.

The Rise of Steel

Brass was used for a wide variety of applications well into the 20th century. It was not until after the First World War that the newly-invented stainless steel, which was much more resistant to rusting, and which could be produced in large quantities, started replacing brass in any serious way.

Regardless of this, brass continued to be the metal of choice in a number of manufacturing processes. Until the quartz revolution of the 1970s and 80s, mechanical watches and clocks were all made with brass gears and wheels, although this too, is now slowly being taken over by stainless steel. That said, there are some companies and some products which were, and which continue to be made of brass almost exclusively, either for tradition, or necessity, or style.

A lot of products commonly made of brass are now made of steel – like these Victorian-era countertop bells.

Zippo cigarette lighters are, except in rare circumstances, almost entirely made of brass. Occasionally some are made of steel, or sterling silver, or solid gold (usually collector pieces made in limited numbers), but apart from this, they’re almost all made of brass, and then usually plated, or finished in some manner, to hide the metal.

Solid brass chamberstick, modeled after a design from the 1600s 

Some companies (such as the Skultuna brass foundry) still produce high quality brassware in the form of candleholders, mortars and pestles, pitchers and jugs, and various other homewares, drawn to brass by its golden shine.

Brass has sadly died out as the go-to metal for manufacturing in the 21st century. I’m not sure why this is, really. I suppose it’s because cheap, rustproof steel is easier to obtain and brass has simply gone out of fashion. Either way, I love antique and vintage brass, and I’ll always be seeking it out and collecting it, selling it, trading it, and of course, polishing it!


Joseph Rodgers & Sons Geo. V. Ivory-Handled Budding Knife: A Case-Study in Researching Antiques!

You find the strangest things in charity shops when you huddle inside them to get out of the rain! I picked this up yesterday, while on the way home from town: An antique, ivory-handled knife.

I don’t know a great deal about it, to be honest. It was made by the famous Sheffield cutlery firm of Joseph Rodgers & Sons, and is in pretty good condition for its age; that much I knew. The rest, I had to find out through several hours of very careful detective-work!

Researching antiques is a fiddly business. Sometimes it’s impossible to find out anything, sometimes you can find out all kinds of things, and sometimes, only just part of what was potentially a much bigger story. It’s not always easy, or even possible, but if you do start on such a journey, it’s best to err on the side of caution and as ever, to use the Holmesian maxim: “Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!”

So, let us begin! First, a close examination of the knife, and all textual evidence…

The blade is marked “JOSEPH RODGERS & SONS”:

The hilt is stamped with:

“J. Rodgers
& Sons

6 Norfolk St. 

Researching the age of this knife is a classic example of why you need to consider all the evidence prior to jumping to conclusions. After much reading and deliberation, I dated it to the reign of King George V (1911-1936) and probably to the 1910s. This is based on the following evidence:

“G.R.” = Georgius Rex (“King George”). This tells me that it was made during the reign of *A* King George. It doesn’t tell me which one! it could’ve been George IV (which issued the Royal Warrant to Joseph Rodgers & Sons in 1822), or George V, or George VI!

“6 Norfolk Street, Sheffield” = HQ of J.R. & Sons from approx 1780, until the firm sold the premises in 1929. This tells me that it had to be made, most likely, in the 1910s or 1920s. This rules out George VI, who came to the throne in 1936.

“England” = This is a reference to the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, which decreed that all foreign-manufactured goods shipped into the ‘States had to have country-of-origin stamps on their products. This rules out George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830.

this being the case, the knife, whatever it was, had to be made in the reign of George V (1911-1936). I narrowed this date down to between 1911-1929, the year the shop closed, which would still make it between 87-to-105 years old, at the date of this posting. Which is pretty damn impressive!

If it was as old as I’d originally thought it to be (George IV), then this would be approaching 200 years in age! As it is, it’s about 100 years too young for that, but still a lovely piece of antique, ivory-handled cutlery. Now the only question is – what the hell is it?

The Purpose Revealed!

After much researching and questioning of other collectors and dealers, I’ve finally found out what it is! It’s an antique budding knife, used for pruning and budding trees, shrubbery and other plants and to maintain the plants and flowering bushes and trees in one’s garden! What a wonderful and interesting tool this is! Whoever owned this must’ve had quite a green thumb!


A Guide to Antiquing :)

Antiquing has always been one of my biggest hobbies. It goes by many names – bargain-hunting, flea-marketing, scavenging, but call it what you will, I find it an exciting, interesting, fun and relaxing pastime. You don’t always find what you like at prices which you can afford, but it is fun nonetheless.

I wrote up all my own tips and tricks to try and increase your success in the pursuit of bargain-hunting in my latest magazine issue on antiques. So if you’re going to flea-markets and car-boot sales, antiques fairs and antiques shops and not finding anything, hopefully the tips and ideas contained within, will improve your chances of success!

You can read the issue here. Enjoy! Any feedback you have can be left in the ‘Comments’ section below this post.


Late Victorian Gentleman’s Writing Box (1886).

Another one of my writing-box restoration projects, I picked this up at a local flea-market and brought it home with me. I cleaned it up and then went about restoring the main hinge between the upper and lower halves of the writing slope.

It’s a beautiful box, but unfortunately, taping it down with black tape and sewing it together is the only way to prevent complete destruction. The manner of their construction makes any other type of repair nigh impossible on these boxes.

Here’s some still shots I took of the same box:

Up above, you can just see the black electrical-tape reinforcement to the hinge. It’s a passable solution to a finicky problem.

Here’s a closeup shot of the engraving at the top of the box:

I haven’t been able to find out anything about who S. Neaverson was, or what he did that caused him to buy a box in 1886 (which I take to be the purchase-date), but he certainly seemed to have fine taste in writing accessories!


Video: My 1860s Campaign Writing Case

I’ve written about this a while ago, but due to changes in my blog, I decided that I should write about it again. The old post was looking like a dog’s breakfast on a good day, and at any rate, didn’t reflect the current condition of the box in question (which I had finished restoring, since writing that post more years ago than I care to admit).

This post will be significantly shorter than my original one, mostly because the vast majority of the information is now contained in this video:

But suffice to say: I bought the box in London back in around 2010. I restored it over the course of a number of years, slowly finding the right bits and pieces for it, and fixing up various condition problems with the box.

I’ve seen a few Toulmin & Gale boxes in my time, none of which were as nice as this one. Or as complete, so I’m very glad to have this one. Toulmin & Gale operated from 1735-1876 (when the firm declared bankruptcy in the London Gazette), and I believe this box dates to the early-or-mid 1860s. So it makes it at least 140-150 years old. To this day, it remains my most prized possession!


My New Pinterest Boards!

Pinterest is pretty cool, except that a lot of the photographs on there are pretty damn awesome. And my photography is, more often than not – not-awesome. On a good day it might be alright, but I’ve never considered my skills behind the camera to be anything worth showing off, or writing home about for any reason whatsoever.

Which is a shame.

A shame for two reasons:

One is that I like photography, however mediocre my own end products might be. And because…

Two, I like antiques, which are infinitely photogenic. I mean, they’re so beautiful that it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph of one, provided that you have at least a basic level of photographic skill.

With this in mind, about two months ago, I set up my new Pinterest account and started uploading photographs. If anything, it’s made me up my game considerably when it comes to photography, although I don’t think I’d ever take anything which might even start to be construed as being ‘professional’ quality.

But, be that as it may, I decided that today I might be brave or foolhardy enough to share some of my latest photographic endeavours:

My Board on Antique Sewing Machines

My Board on Antique Writing Boxes

My Board on Antique Brassware

Feel free to poke around and look at the photographs I’ve taken and leave comments and feedback. Sharing my collection with the world is just as much fun as looking at it and using it.






“Why Salt and Pepper?”

I found this highly entertaining YouTube video this morning. Was uploaded a few days ago by the channel ‘It’s OK to be Smart’:

Highly informative and mostly accurate, EXCEPT for the part about Medieval cooks putting pepper on rotten meat. That has been a persistent myth for centuries. It never happened. It never happened because pepper in the Middle Ages was EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE. No cook who wished to remain in his master’s employ would dared to have wasted such expensive spices on meat already past its prime.

Other than that, a fascinating look into the history of salt and pepper 🙂


New Video: Victorian-era Lady’s Writing Box (1880)

Well over a year ago, I wrote this post about an antique lady’s writing box which I bought, and restored.

I’d been meaning to do a video about it for ages, but I don’t think I ever got around to it. I finally had some quietude today, so I cranked one out for the world to see. Here it is!

Feel free to post feedback here on my blog, or on my YouTube channel – whatever is more comfortable. Happy to answer any questions about it…Just so long as it’s not “Is that for sale?“…because the answer is no! Haha!

Here’s a few close-up photos of the box, in case I’m moving the camera too fast for you to see anything!