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:
- Gas-lighting fixtures.
- Telescopes and binoculars.
- Magnifying glasses.
- 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!