Using Your Antiques – Having Fun with History

One question I do occasionally get asked from people, when I tell them that my main hobby is collecting antiques, is:


Or more precisely:

“What do you do with them!?” 

Well, to answer that publicly: It depends!

A discussion held with the mother of a longtime friend prompted this posting, and it made me think about my antiques, and what I do, or don’t do with them. And I decided it’d be interesting to examine the issue and share the answer in detail. So, what is the answer?

In short, the answer is that unless the antique is particularly fragile, small or breakable, the overwhelming chances are that I’ll probably just…use it! – as an everyday object, which I admit, I do with a lot of my antiques on a regular basis.

At least 2-3 times a week, I shave with my antique razor, from the 1880s…

I sharpen the blade, I strop the edge, and I put cold steel to my neck at least every 2-3 days, and I don’t just go through the motions – it really does shave!

On top of that, I write with my antique and vintage fountain pens from the 1910s and 1920s, 30s and 40s when I work or when I have to write out drafts or take notes. When I go to the theatre or out to some big, public event, I bring along a pair of opera glasses or binoculars from my collection of antiques, dating back as far as the 1880s…

If I’m going to see something particularly far away, then it might be my pocket telescope, from the 1890s…

If I need to tell the time, I keep a watch in my pocket, secured by a chain…

…this silver beauty is from 1925; and I have another gold-filled railroad chronometer from 1950 which I use every day.

Of course, antiques aren’t always the cute pretty things, they’re also the useful, serviceable things that we like to buy and use and decorate our homes and rooms with. Just last night, I smashed up some chili, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper and tomatoes in this antique Dutch brass mortar and pestle, while I was cooking dinner. Yes, it’s 200 years old, but these were made for regular pounding and grinding – my using it was never going to damage it if centuries of use haven’t done so already! And apart from anything else, using this instead of a food-processor is just so much more fun to do!!

That said, I don’t use all my antiques. Some are just too large, too small, too old or fragile to use on a daily, or even infrequent basis. These are ones which I collect mainly to enjoy, to photograph, to use for demonstrative purposes, or to protect and restore for future generations (what? That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!!).

Is it Safe to use Antiques?

Provided that you use your antiques for the purposes for which they were intended, and don’t overtax their abilities, for the most part, it’s perfectly safe to use your antiques. of course, some things hold up better than others. Antique metalware, silverware, mechanical antiques, brassware, furniture, musical or scientific instruments, tools, domestic appliances and pieces of specialist equipment tend to hold up better, as they were intended to be used on a regular basis, anyway. So long as you store them properly, look after them, maintain them and clean them, they’ll be in no danger of damage.

Other pieces should be treated with more care. Books, newspapers, textiles and fabrics, glassware and porcelain can still be used, but are best kept for occasional use, or for special occasions. That’s not to say that you can’t use it, but it’s best to keep it for instances where you really want to show them off.

Items made of natural products (ivory, bone, leather, etc) can decay or deteriorate over time. Depending on what these items are, they should be used sparingly, or not at all. Antique leather, especially, is prone to drying out, cracking, ripping and tearing. Unless you moisturize it regularly with appropriate leather-treatment ointments and creams, it can deteriorate very quickly from improper or heavy use.

So, is it safe to use and enjoy the antiques that you have in your collection? Or do you have to keep them locked up in safes, behind glass, and in protective steel cages?

In general – yes, it is safe, provided the item isn’t obviously fragile or prone to damage, and provided you use it in a manner, and for the purpose with which it was intended.

That said, it is entirely up to you whether you use something or not. There’s no law saying that you have to use your antiques, and there’s no rule that says you can’t use them; just keep in mind that future generations will likely look upon you with scorn or smirking, if you used something recklessly and smashed it, or kept something perfectly useful up on some sort of pedestal out of a misplaced fear of damaging it!


Photographic Memories: A Pictorial Tour of Family History

When a person dies, the only things you have left to remember them by are their personal possessions, your own recollections, and any images which were taken of them during their lifetime.

All too often, photographs are unmarked, undated, unnamed, and un-remembered. Soon, you’ll find yourself looking through boxes, books and albums full of old snapshots, with the faces of the nameless and forgotten dead, staring ominously at you for all of eternity.

This set of circumstances might not bother some people, but for others, it can be downright depressing, and frustrating, to not know who someone in a photograph is, especially if the picture is rare, or has some sort of family significance.

I recently had such a case, which I’ve decided to write about. It concerns the following photograph:

Click on the photograph for a higher-resolution image!

The hard copy of this photograph is in the custody of my Uncle John – one of the several thousand Uncle Johns in the world – all of whom, I’m sure, are equally as interesting, fun and fascinating as my own. But this is my Uncle John, and in my own roundabout way, I want to thank him for preserving this snapshot so wonderfully, and for rescuing it and keeping it safe for the family.

This photograph sat in my Uncle John’s home for years. I don’t know how long he’s had it, and I never recall seeing it in the many times I’ve visited his home for Christmas, and other events, but apparently that’s where it’s been for many, many years. Indeed, it was only because of a family reunion several months ago that I learned of the photograph’s existence!

So, what is the significance of it? 

Well, to put it simply, it is a photographic record of my grandmother’s family, and its very existence means a lot to me, purely because we don’t have very many photographs of my grandparents or their extended family which have survived. Because of that, getting to see this photo has helped me learn more about my own family history, and has helped to clear up more than a couple of things which I could never understand about my family tree!

Such is the power of old family snapshots. They bring back memories, and they are an indelible record of what has, or hasn’t happened during the lifetimes of relations who have since passed on.

So, who are the people in the photograph?

The photograph depicts my grandmother, her sisters, her brother, their mother – my great-grandmother – as well as spouses and in-laws. Grandma, her sisters and brother are No. 2, 4, 6 (grandma!), and 7 in the photograph, from left to right, with great-grandma seated out the front. The others are my great-uncle’s two wives (yes, such things happened in Malaya back then), and another sister-in-law (far left). There is yet another sister in the family, which isn’t included in the photograph.

Apart from my grandmother, and my Great-Aunt Annie (3rd in the photograph), I’ve never met anybody in this photograph. Most either lived too far away, or were already dead (such as Great Uncle Jackie in the middle, and Great Grandma out the front, who died in the 1950s, and in 1976, respectively).

How Old is the Photograph? 

As best as we can determine, the photograph dates to ca. 1954/5, at which time, my grandmother (born 1914), would be around 40 years old. She was the oldest of four sisters and one brother, and Uncle Jackie was the youngest.

What are they Wearing?

The clothing represented in the photograph is a mix of styles. My great-aunt on the far right, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, on the far left, and my great-grandmother (front and center) are wearing a traditional Straits-Chinese/Peranakan outfit called Sarong Kebaya. Sarong is the wraparound skirt, Kebaya is the close-fitting, light-material blouse buttoned over the top. This is capped off with traditional, hand-beaded Peranakan slippers.

My grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s family were ‘peranakan’, also called ‘Straits Chinese’, Ethnic Chinese who lived in Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia. Today, the Peranakan are a small subset of the Chinese diaspora, and are only found in Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, and after World War Two, further afield in other countries.

By contrast with my great-grandmother and her daughter, my Great-Uncle Jackie, and one of his wives are wearing more Western-style clothing – A suit and bowtie, and a blouse and skirt.

Great-Aunt Annie (third-left) and grandma (second-right) are wearing a type of dress called a Cheongsam, a rather formal-type Chinese dress, popularised in Shanghai, in the Roaring Twenties! You’ll notice that both dresses are made of the same material. Grandmother was a dressmaker, and most likely, made both dresses for them!

If you look REALLY closely, you’ll notice that my great-aunt on the far-right, and my great-grandmother, are not only dressed in traditional ‘Nyonya’ outfits, but are also wearing traditional Peranakan jewelry! My great-aunt is wearing a Nyonya silver belt (to hold her sarong up), and my great-grandmother is wearing what’s called a ‘kerongsang’, a set of (usually three) brooches, used to hold the kebaya together.

This is my grandmother’s nickel-silver Peranakan belt, of the same style, one of two such belts which have survived in our family, and which I treasure above almost anything else! These belts are extremely rare today. They were all hand-made, and each one was a one-off artisan piece, produced by a Peranakan silversmith or jeweler. Many of them are family heirlooms.

Concluding Remarks

Learning about the family history behind this photograph meant a lot of picking the brains of my collective aunts and uncles, and it wasn’t easy, since no one person knew the entire background of everybody in the photograph! Finding out who everyone was, who their children were, who they were married to, birth-dates, death-dates, descendants and so-on, involved interrogating every relation I could find! (Thanks to Uncle John, Uncle Henry, Aunty Lily, and dad for filling in SO MANY BLANK SPACES!!!)

Regrettably, the collective knowledge of the family didn’t go back very far, only one or two generations at most. Nevertheless, I intend to record it all!! Once we lose this information, we’ll never get it back, and I don’t intend to lose any of it, if I can help it! There’s no Graveyard Google or anything to consult, so I hope to get everything written up properly soon. Eventually, I intend to create little information-cards to stick into the back of the fresh, printed copies of the photograph, and keep them there as a record of family history, such as it is.


Repairing My Victorian Telescope – A Lesson in Persistence…and patience!

“It’s broken. I can’t get it to work…”

I hear this a lot in flea-markets, antiques fairs, and antiques shops. Or something like it. “It jams”, “It’s very stiff”, “It won’t turn”, “It rattles”, “This thing won’t stay still”, “It doesn’t move like it’s supposed to, see?”

Because of this, a lot of antiques are sold as being ‘broken’, or in ‘original condition’, which is a euphemistic way of saying: “It’s stuffed and I can’t be arsed fixing it because I don’t know how!”

Both online and in real life, I’ve heard loads of people howl and bitch and whine and cry about heathens like myself, who go around cleaning, restoring and breathing new life into an object, erroneously claiming that doing so ‘destroys the originality’ of a piece and therefore ‘makes it worthless’!

That said, restoring antiques is the only way that they ever survive. Repairing them, cleaning them, and overhauling them is how we ensure that they’ll exist in a working state, well into the future, and that they won’t be damaged beyond repair by someone who didn’t know any better, because they tried to force something to work that can’t, for any number of reasons.

Such was the case with the massive, brass telescope I bought for my birthday. When I got my hands on it, although it was cosmetically in great condition, its actual operation left MUCH to be desired. The lenses were filthy, the draw-tubes were clogged with so much grime they wouldn’t even open properly, and the threads on one of the coupling-rings were worn down, meaning that they wouldn’t screw in properly…and if something doesn’t screw, then it doesn’t hold, which means the whole thing can fall apart at a moment’s notice!

Not fun!

Disassembling the Telescope

Having decided that the telescope was something with which I stood a reasonable amount of success in restoring, I haggled down the price and bought it.

The first step was to clean the lenses. As far as restoring this telescope went, that was the easy part!

To clean the lenses properly, the telescope has to be pulled apart. There’s simply no other way to do it. The objective lens housing at the front of the barrel has to be screwed off, and entirely disassembled. The relay lenses in the middle of the draw-tubes has to be removed and entirely disassembled, and the eyepiece lens also has to be removed and disassembled.

Pulling apart my telescope. From left to right is one of the brass collars, the objective lens and its housing, the eyepiece shutter, the eyepiece lens, the two relay-lenses and their housing, and one of the draw-tubes.

Although all the components of the telescope look like they screw in nice and neat and tight and flush, the reality is that an impossible amount of dust and grit does manage to find its way inside the telescope, through the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes. Over the course of several decades, this dust and grit builds up to intolerable levels, and it eventually dries and crusts over, and even though it’s barely a milimeter thick, it’s enough to jam the telescope – and any attempts to operate it will likely cause irreparable damage. All this accumulated grit also makes it impossible to focus the telescope, or see anything through the lenses, hence the absolute necessity for cleaning.

The achromatic (two-part) objective lens in its housing. It is actually possible to unscrew the lens-frame entirely, and for the glass lenses to drop out of their frame by removing the retaining ring. This allows for really good cleaning and dust-removal…Just don’t cut your fingers on the edge of the glass!

Unscrewing the lenses can be really easy, or it can be really hard. Fortunately for me, most of my restorations of this kind have been pretty easy – a firm grip and the right sort of pressure will unscrew  most lenses with minimal problems. Just make sure that you wash out the threads (both sets of threads!) with oil, before you screw the components back together – because…y’know…dust, which causes threads to jam. Yes, it even gets in there!

Once the majority of the grime was removed from the lenses, and I was able to see that the telescope would be capable of functionality once it was working, I moved onto the next step: Cleaning.

Cleaning the Telescope

Cleaning this telescope was a real lesson in patience. Oh God, was it ever a lesson in patience!

As I said before, massive amounts of dust and grit get inside the telescope, through the joints between the draw-tubes. This causes a buildup of friction between the sliding parts, and this causes jamming. If you get a bit too enthusiastic trying to open the telescope tor viewing, it results in dents, warping, jamming, and if you’re really energetic – complete destruction of the connecting-rings between the draw-tubes… not fun.

The two relay-lenses and the tube they screw into.

To clean out 150 years’ worth of grime, I used WD-40, sewing machine oil, and enough tissues to fill a bathtub! Cleaning out loads of grime came down to spraying or dripping oil liberally over the draw-tubes, and snapping them shut, twisting them around, and opening and closing them hundreds and thousands of times, to flush out all the gunk, grime and grit trapped inside. This had to be done countless times to loosen up and wash out all the crud trapped within. It wasn’t pleasant!

“Why can’t you just put oil on it, lubricate it and leave it like that?” I might hear you ask.

Well…You could! You could just coat it in oil, and that would make the telescope easier to open and close…but it would also make it impossible to hold from how greasy it is! It would also turn your hands black from the grime. Oiling the telescope doesn’t remove the problem, it only masks it, and once the oil dries up, you’re left right back where you’re started…and probably even worse! Because oil attracts dust!

Eyepiece lens and the shutter that screws over the top to prevent dust and damage.

Nope! The only way was persistence, flushing, oil, lubrication, and just working the oil through the telescope, over and over again, to loosen up and wash out as much crud as possible. And this was a process which took a week of almost nonstop, daily cleaning…hey, it is 150 years’ worth of gunk, after all. It was never going to be done in a hurry!

Repairing the Telescope

While I cleaned the telescope, I became acutely aware of another one of its flaws. It wasn’t just grimy and dusty and jammed with filth, it was also broken! The thread which screwed the largest coupling-ring into the barrel, and connected the draw-tubes to the front of the telescope was completely worn down. Or at least partially so.

No amount of tightening and screwing and cleaning would induce the thread to bite, and hold the telescope together. All it took was one good, firm pull (which was necessary because of how stiff everything was!) to completely pull the telescope in half!

Taping the threads to stop them coming apart.

After extensive cleaning, I fixed this problem using ordinary, white masking tape. Once around the threads, and pressing it in with my fingers, and then screwing the components back together fixed the problem. The tape built up the layer of thickness which was necessary for the threads to grip and bite, and now all the components screw in and out, and hold, as they should!

Polishing the Brass

The final step in cleaning the telescope, after cleaning and tightening the lenses, washing out loads of grit and grime with loads of oil and WD-40, and taping up the threads to make them grip properly, was the polishing of the brass!

Before Polishing

From what I’ve seen on a lot of antiques websites, polishing up brass telescopes is an accepted and acceptable practice. And since I like polishing brass anyway, who am I to argue with the experts? Out came the Brasso, and I started polishing away furiously! It took a whole day to do it, but I did get it done in the end.

After polishing!

Polishing the brass does a number of things: One, it makes the telescope look SO much nicer!…Two, it makes it look much more cleaner, and three, it removes even MORE of the grime that was on the draw-tubes, which means that it will operate even better!

One thing about brass is that it never stays ultra-shiny for long. It only takes a small amount of handling for brass to start tarnishing again (which is why polishing brass was such a preoccupation back in the Victorian era, when this telescope was made), but this property suits me just fine, since it gives the telescope a clean, but aged look, all at the same time. This way, it doesn’t look entirely brand-new, and it doesn’t look like I dug it out of the ground this morning.

All up, a very satisfying little birthday project for myself 🙂


Mid-Victorian Mahogany-Sleeved Naval Telescope. Ca. 1860.

“Cap’n! Presents off the larboard bow!” 
“I see ’em! Ready the launch! You there – come about into the wind! We’ll not let them escape us now! Bring up the harpoons!” 

The greatest thing about collecting antiques is that you always find the best birthday presents for yourself, if you search hard enough! I picked up this stunning beauty for my birthday! Yes, I’m officially…29. Oh, the horror, shame, and disgrace of it all…!

Up Close and Personal!


What we have here is an old-fashioned nautical telescope, as was used on the sailing-ships of old. And boy is it ever a monster! It’s 11in. closed, extends to 39in drawn out, and weighs a substantial 1lb 10oz (approx 750g)! A lightweight, it ain’t!

Features of Construction

This stunning antique features entirely brass construction, with the exception of the wooden sleeve around the barrel, and of course, the glass in the lenses. It is possessed of four, brass draw-tubes, as you can see in the photograph below:

All Drawn Out… 

A four-tube telescope means that it has four tubular extensions which collapse into each other, and which then all slide into the main barrel at the front of the telescope.

I’m not sure how old this telescope is, to be honest. It’s of a style that was widely manufactured from the 1700s right up to the 1900s, but the fellow I got it from believed it to be from around 1850 or 1860. For something roughly 150 years old — after extensive cleaning — it does work pretty well! The threaded brass coupling-rings hold well (or they do, after a minor adjustment), and the tubes slide in and out smoothly, if a bit more firmly than I’m used to!

The telescope has a two-piece achromatic lens at the front, a two-lens relay system inside the smallest draw-tube, and an eyepiece lens at the far end – so four (or five, depending on how you count it), lenses in all!

Here it is, next to my solid brass, pocket telescope from the 1890s. As you can see, there’s a huge size difference! 

As one would probably expect from something like this, it’s got a GREAT range, and surprisingly clear optics for a piece that’s obviously seen quite a hard life. There’s one small blemish on an interior lens which, try as I might, I couldn’t remove, but other than that – the clarity is impressive.

Using the Telescope

Since it is 150 years old, I expected the telescope to be dirty. I didn’t expect it to be THIS dirty! It required EXTENSIVE cleaning to get it to function even halfway decent! And I’m still cleaning it! But despite that, it’s beginning to show signs of the smoothness of function it once had.

To draw the telescope, I’ve found it’s best to hold it at the near end of the barrel (away from the lens) and to pull firmly, but smoothly, to get the draw tubes out, and to hold the barrel in the middle, when snapping the tubes shut again.

As I said, this telescope is quite chunky, so using it can be a bit of a challenge. I generally hold the largest, or second-largest draw-tube in order to balance this beast, and then adjust the focus by sliding the smallest draw-tube in and out, until clarity is achieved.

The good thing is that this is done relatively easily. The bad thing is that it’s surprisingly tiring on the arms! A telescope that weighs about a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much to carry around (and it isn’t), but when you’ve held it up in one hand for any length of time while trying to look through it, the weight does start to pull on your shoulders a bit! One wonders how the sailors of old ever managed to use this thing on the rocking, rolling deck of a sailing ship!

Cleaning the Telescope

The one saving grace about this telescope – and most telescopes of this design – is that they’re extraordinarily easy to clean. All the draw-tubes, lenses and coupling-rings screw together. All you need is a box of tissues, some oil, and a firm grip to screw and unscrew, and you can pull apart the entire telescope to clean it. There aren’t that many parts, and there’s no way you can confuse one part for another, so they’re very easy to put back together again.

You don’t need any special tools or equipment – just a few basic cleaning supplies and a spare afternoon. I think it’s amazing how something which is so easily assembled is at the same time, so incredibly powerful, and yet, so simply constructed. Even a child could do this. I love the thoughtfulness of the design in that the manufacturer imagined that the owner might want to disassemble his own telescope for cleaning and maintenance. I don’t know many consumer products today which are this user-friendly!

Repairing the Telescope

As much fun as this telescope is to use and to clean and polish, when I bought it, the telescope also had one significant flaw – It wouldn’t stay together.

As I said above, the telescope’s components quite literally just screw, one-into-the-other, in a set sequence of construction. Easily followed and impossible to screw up. A few good twists would be all that’d be needed to pull the thing apart, clean it, and reassemble it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this telescope.

Probably due to overzealous cleaning in the past, or possibly a manufacturing fault, or simply just 150-years’ worth of wear and tear, the thread that held in the largest draw-tube (the one which connects to the barrel) was not gripping properly. It simply refused to hold. After screwing it in as hard as possible, it’d simply pop right out again after one good pull! Hardly ideal!

I pulled the telescope apart and cleaned the threads, and then to fix this problem, I wrapped ordinary paper masking-tape around the threads on the coupling-ring. Just once.

Group Shot! My big telescope, my small telescope, and my field glasses all together. All brass, all antique. What a pretty trio they make.

I trimmed off the excess tape with a pocket-knife, and then screwed the two components back together. No oil, no graphite powder, nothing. Just a simple layer of sticky tape. It cost me literally nothing! and yet…the repair worked!

Just one layer of tape was all I needed to build up the necessary thickness, friction and ‘bite’ necessary for the threads to screw in smoothly, and for the connection to hold! it took me less than five minutes to repair. Don’t be daunted by broken antiques – sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity to return them to full functionality.


Last but not least, here’s a short video I made about the telescope: