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.

The Tale of the S.S. Antinoe – The Most Famous Shipping Disaster of the 1920s!

 

The Tale of the Antinoe

These days, technologies such as sonar, radar and satellites warn us of dangerous weather and shipping hazards in our paths when we head out beyond sight of land. Helicopters, rigid-shell lifeboats with inbuilt motors, and clear and easy radio communications make rescue at sea easier and safer. But imagine what high seas rescue was like before these machines and technologies were invented. Imagine trying to affect a rescue in a roaring hurricane not with a helicopter, but with a wooden, oared lifeboat. Imagine life-or-death communications where you didn’t have radio or walkie-talkies – just the flashing pulses of a manually-operated Morse-lamp. No GPS. No satellite tracking – just maps, charts, maritime chronometers and a pair of compasses to find your way.

Imagine all these challenges and more, which were faced by the men who carried out one of the most famous ocean rescues of the early 20th century.

The S.S. Antinoe is completely forgotten today. If you stopped most people in the street and asked, they would have absolutely no idea what it is. And yet, this was an event which made international headlines when the news broke. It turned ordinary sailors into celebrities and heroes before they’d even set their feet back on dry land! A tale of endurance, bravery and sheer ballsiness not yet coming to a motion-picture theatre near you! Forget “The Perfect Storm”, the events surrounding the S.S. Antinoe are far more spectacular!

Wednesday, 20th of January, 1926 – The Roosevelt Departs

The year is 1926. American ocean liner, the S.S. President Roosevelt, is steaming out of New York Harbor. In charge of this vessel is Captain George Fried. The Roosevelt’s ultimate destination is the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, but it will make various stop-offs along the south coast of England along the way.

The voyage to Europe will be long. A week at sea at least. The weather was bad before the ship had even left American waters, but it couldn’t stop just because it was wet and cloudy – the Roosevelt had 200 passengers on board who had paid for safe passage, along with several thousand bags of U.S. Mail.

Before the days of satellite weather-tracking, the main way for ships to attain accurate weather forecasts was in the form of the telegraph. Ships out at sea sent Morse Code radio-messages between each other, warning of things as storms, icebergs, and other ships in distress. The President Roosevelt didn’t know it yet, but it was sailing into a storm of unimaginable ferocity.

A postcard of the S.S. President Roosevelt from the 1920s.

The Roosevelt was not just steaming into a storm. It was steaming into one of the fiercest hurricanes ever witnessed in the north Atlantic. Over the coming days, the situation on board ship deteriorated significantly and a number of measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers and of the ship. Roosevelt passengers were kept below-deck, forbidden from going outside, for their own safety. Lifelines were thrown up outside and inside the ship, to catch people who stumbled or fell when the ship rolled.

When it was safe to cook, stewards would soak table-cloths in water and wring them out before laying the tables. The wet fabric would prevent place-settings and dishes from sliding off the tables in the dining saloon when the ship rolled or plunged through another wave. And things only got worse as the voyage continued. By the third day, Capt. Fried ordered the ship’s engines to be run at reduced speed. It would be pointless to operate them at full-tilt and burn precious coal in a futile attempt to get anywhere in this storm. And so the Roosevelt laboured onwards.

Sunday, 24th of January, 1926 – The Antinoe Calls for Help

Despite the raging storm, Capt. Fried of the Roosevelt was determined that nothing more than the most essential precautions be taken, to prevent causing a panic among the passengers. As a result, regular crew-shifts went on as normal. There were no double watches or any other abnormal crew activity. Everyone was just expected to do their regular duties. If the situation got significantly worse, then extra measures would be taken.

With this mindset, the crew went about their duties. At four o’clock on Sunday morning, wireless-operator Kenneth Upton relieved his colleague and took up his position in the radio-room. He slipped on his headphones, sat down at the desk, and prepared himself for a long, boring shift of a whole lot of nothing. Considering the storm, there was probably nothing going on out there! How wrong he was!

Not two hours later, at 5:40am, a barely discernible message gurgled through the air. Because of the hurricane, radio reception was appallingly bad, and Mr. Upton could barely hear the frantically hammered-out Morse Code.

The cry for help came from the Antinoe, a British freighter-vessel which was fighting for life. It was severely damaged by the storm, unable to move, developing a heavy starboard list and had lost all her lifeboats, which had been ripped off her decks or smashed to pieces by the storm. She had no way of giving her position with great accuracy as the hurricane made it impossible for the crew to take a reading of their position by the sun or the stars.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Upton immediately informed Capt. Fried.

Using the Antinoe’s feeble radio-transmitter as a reference-point, Capt. Fried was able to determine through triangulation (using two known positions to find a third) the Antinoe’s location. Unfortunately, he also determined that it would take six hours just to get there!

The Tale of the Antinoe

The Antinoe was captained by Harry Tose. It had departed its port of embarkation on the 14th of January and had sailed without incident until the 23rd when it ran into the same hurricane battering the S.S. President Roosevelt. Heavy seas had damaged the ship severely. In all the heaving, rocking and rolling, an ice-chest had been knocked loose when the ship rolled from a wave. The heavy ice-chest had fallen and smashed against the ship’s steering-mechanism, rendering the vessel impossible to steer.

Despite throwing the damaged ice-chest and other broken parts overboard and trying to fix the broken steering mechanism, the ship was in sufficient enough danger that Capt. Tose ordered an S.O.S. signal to be sent out. Two ships responded: One was the S.S. President Roosevelt. The other was the famous Cunard ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Aquitania. In the end, it was the Roosevelt which dared to stay alongside the stricken Antinoe and attempt a rescue-mission in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane.

The Arrival of the S.S. President Roosevelt

Around midday, the two vessels found each other. Capt. Tose of the Antinoe wanted his ship taken in-tow and hauled back to safety…wherever that was! Capt. Fried agreed, but had no idea HOW to do it! Three attempts at bringing the Antinoe under tow failed.  The weather was too rough and either the towline never caught on, or it would snap once it had been fastened to the Antinoe.

By that evening, the situation was spinning further and further out of control. The nonstop pounding of the waves had smashed in the Antinoe’s decks. This flooded the engine-room, killing the generators and depriving the ship of all electrical power. Now, she had no lights, no heating and no radio! And to cap it off…it started snowing in the middle of the ocean! Capt. Fried knew that he if abandoned the Antinoe now, her crew were almost certainly going to die.

The raging storm was wreaking havoc on both ships. The wind, the crashing waves, the pitch blackness and the white-out blizzard conditions made keeping visual contact between both ships almost impossible! For a period of several hours on Sunday night, it was impossible for the Roosevelt to see the Antinoe – the blinding snow rendered the Roosevelt’s powerful searchlights impotent, and Capt. Fried feared the very real possibility of a single wave slamming both ships together and sending them to the bottom of the sea!

The Antinoe had no lifeboats of her own, so to try and carry out a rescue-mission, Capt. Fried ordered his officers to use their own lifeboats to row across to the Antinoe and bring back survivors. The Chief Officer, Mr. Miller called for volunteers. Positioning the ship to launch the lifeboat, Miller and eight men got into the boat and it was lowered away into the raging sea. It was a complete disaster! The ship rocked unexpectedly, slamming the lifeboat against the hull! Two men were thrown out and were drowned at once. The other seven were quickly hauled back on-deck. The lifeboat was considered a total loss.

Monday 25th of January, 1926 – Lifeboats Lost to the Sea

By the next day, things were getting desperate. In numerous failed attempts to maintain contact with the Antinoe, the Roosevelt lost another four of her own wooden lifeboats and was running out of patience and time…especially time! Because, gallant as Capt. Fried’s actions and intentions were, he could not stay alongside the struggling Antinoe indefinitely. His supplies of fuel and food were finite. On top of that, he had passengers who he was supposed to take to Europe. He had mail on board which he was supposed to deliver to Germany!

So what? That was the attitude that Fried took. And he told anyone who asked him, just so! He was not about to leave until the job was done. And that was final! And that was what he told his bosses, too! In fact, Fried sent telegrams back to his company offices in New York, informing his superiors of the situation, and stating quite firmly that come Hell or High Water, he would stay alongside the Antinoe until the ship either sank, until an effective rescue had been completed, or until he could no-longer render assistance.

These words of defiance which were flashed across the ocean went on to have an incredible effect which few, least of all, the people at the centre of this drama, could possibly have foreseen. Trapped at sea, nobody on either the S.S. President Roosevelt, or the Antinoe could possibly know that Capt. Fried’s telegrams back to New York were at that very moment making the rescue of the Antinoe an internationally-observed incident!

Tuesday, 26th of January, 1926 – Rescue At Last!

The next day, the weather finally started to let up. The Roosevelt was able to re-establish contact via searchlight with the Antinoe and rescue-attempts began anew. A lifeboat was successfully launched and rowed over to the Antinoe.

Upon sighting the boat, Capt. Tose insisted that all married men, with the exception of himself, should go first. As a result, the first dozen men to abandon the Antinoe were the ones with wives and families waiting at home. Rowing back and forth between both ships for several hours, the crew and captain of the Antinoe were successfully evacuated to the decks of the Roosevelt. The lifeboat, badly worn out by the rough seas, was cast adrift.

One last attempt was made on the 27th to rescue the badly-damaged Antinoe but when once again the towline snapped, all aboard agreed that to keep trying was a waste of time. They left the ship to founder, and then sailed for Plymouth, England.

Back on Dry Land!

The toll had been heavy. The Antinoe was lost. Two crew from the Roosevelt had drowned at sea and six of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the hurricane during a rescue that had lasted three and a half days! But all twenty-five members of the crew on board the Antinoe had been saved!

When the Roosevelt and her crew arrived in Plymouth, England at the end of the month, they were greeted like heroes! Wild applause followed them, and reporters jostled for interviews! Newsreel cameras rolled, flash-bulbs popped! Mrs. Tose ran up on board the Roosevelt to be with her husband. Later, she publicly thanked Captain George Fried in front of the newsreel cameras, for delivering her husband, Captain Harry Tose, and his crew, safely from the jaws of certain death.

News of the dramatic rescue flashed around the world as fast as telegraph could take it. Articles appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore, the Buffalo Evening News in the United States, the Argus in Melbourne, and The Queenslander in Brisbane. The arrival of the triumphant President Roosevelt and its exhausted passengers and crew was filmed for posterity by newsreel cameras when it docked in England.

The saga of the Antinoe, and the ship which rescued its crew became legend! When Captain Fried and his men returned to America, they were treated once again to a heroes’ welcome, and given a ticker-tape parade through the center of New York City! The Antinoe was probably one of the most famous sea-rescues in history since the Titanic, and would not be eclipsed in peacetime until the sinking of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s.

— — — —

This article was originally published in The Australia Times – HISTORY magazine in March, 2015. Permission for republishing on throughouthistory.com was granted by the original author and copyright holder…me! 

Happy Chinese New Year for 2017!!

 

Wah liao!! Kung hey fatt choi!

Yes! Wah liao indeed! And much wealth, prosperity and good luck to all! It is the crowing year of the ROOSTER!! Not my year (damn, that sucks…!), but, it’s Chinese New Year nonetheless!

Now, others will call it ‘Lunar New Year’ and that’s their prerogative, but to me, being two different kinds of Chinese – it will always be CHINESE NEW YEAR!!

Two different kinds? Yeah – two. I’m Chinese-Chinese on my mother’s side, and Straits-Chinese on my father’s side. If you don’t know what ‘Straits Chinese’ is, then I’ll pop in a link to my article about the Straits Chinese here, so that you can read all about them, and their fascinating history!

Either way – It’s Chinese New Year, and that means dusting off all kinds of old, ancient, decrepit traditions and rolling them out of the shed for their once-a-year moment in the sun.

“What traditions!?”, I hear you wail, in your frustrated groan of ‘getonwithitedness’?

Chinese New Year actually has loads of traditions and customs, and it’s all those traditions, customs, superstitions and legends that we’ll be covering in this posting! So, let’s hop to it!…

Wearing Red!

This is the biggest and most well-known of all traditions during Chinese New Year. If you’re going to any major CNY celebration – make sure you wear red! A red tie, red shoes, red shirt, red dress, red jacket…something red!

Red is considered the luckiest colour in Chinese culture. That’s why all the doors, rooves, bricks and everything else in the famous ‘Forbidden City’ in Peking – is bright crimson red! To bring in all that good luck, baby! This is also why people hang red couplets outside their doors, and light red firecrackers outside their houses.

Red is the Chinese colour of good luck. This stems from an ancient fable where a brave warrior entered a village on New Year’s Eve. He noticed that everybody barred their doors and shuttered their windows, not daring to leave their houses after dark.

Perplexed, he questioned a village elder, asking for an explanation. The old man said that each year on New Year’s Eve, a vicious monster emerged from the forests nearby to devour anybody caught outside after dark.

While they were talking, a little girl in a red dress ran out into the streets. Before anybody had noticed, the monster had arrived. The girl screamed and the monster recoiled in horror, fleeing back into the jungles. Observing this, the warrior deduced that the monster was frightened of the colour red, and sudden, loud noises.

To protect themselves and bring good luck, he advised the villagers to festoon their houses in red fabric, and light firecrackers outside their doors at sundown. The bright colours and loud explosions would keep the beast at bay. When they tried this the next evening, New Year’s Day, the beast failed to materialise.

Ever since, it has been a tradition to wear red, and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and demons, and to herald forth good luck for the year ahead.

Offerings to Zao Jun

In households which follow Chinese customs and traditions, one of the most important annual rituals are the offerings of ‘nian gao‘, or new years’ cake, to the Kitchen God – Zao Jun.

As God of the Kitchen, the traditional heart of the home, Zao Jun’s shrine within this room would’ve been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and misdeeds. At the end of the year, it was his duty to rise to heaven, and to give a report of the family’s misdeeds to the Jade Emperor. The emperor then granted blessings or retribution accordingly.

An old-fashioned Chinese kitchen. The shrine to Zao Jun is given pride-of-place above the wood-fired hearth stove.

In order to ensure good fortune for the year ahead, the household (usually in the form of the lady of the house) would give Zao Jun offerings (or bribes!) of sweet desserts (including, but not limited to new years’ cake), so that his jaw would be glued shut and so he would only tell the emperor about the good things which the family had done that year.

Legend says that Zao Jun was a man who broke up with his wife, experienced hard times, and returned to her for charity when his luck had run out. While she went to get him a drink, Zao Jun, overcome with shame, crawled into the clay, wood-fired stove in his wife’s kitchen, committing suicide. The Jade Emperor of Heaven took pity on him, and appointed him as the Kitchen God thereafter.

Chinese New Year Food

There are loads of foods which are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year, either because they’re considered Chinese delicacies, or because they’re seasonal foods traditionally eaten during the New Year period. Some of the more common ones are…

Nian Gao

Nian Gao (literally ‘Year Cake’ or New Year’s Cake) is a big tradition in Chinese households. Given China’s vast size, it’s probably no surprise that nian gao varies significantly from coast to coast, north and south across the country, and that the ways in which nian gao is consumed is also extremely varied.

The type of nian gao that most people outside of China will be familiar with is a fat, round, dense, sticky little thing, which traditionally hailed from Canton Province (today Guandong Province), in southern China.

Canton-style Nian Gao.

If you’ve ever eaten nian gao, then you’ll know that what I say next will be more true than you want to admit – it’s extremely dense, sweet, filling, and in some instances, it can be bloody hard to eat! It’s so gooey and chewy it’s like trying to eat liquid tar! Good luck with that…

Despite this, however, nian gao is amazing. My favourite way of having it is with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. It tastes just divine. A pity we can only have it (or at least, only buy it) once a year.

Nian Gao should not be confused with moon cakes. The size is about the same, but the texture and taste are completely different!

Yee Sang

Also called Lo Hei, among several other naming variations, Yee Sang is popular in southern China, and many Chinese-expat communities, such as those in Malaysia and Singapore. Yee Sang is a Chinese-style salad, served cold with sweet sauces, a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and most uniquely of all – raw (or if not raw, then at least, cold) fish.

The tradition with yee sang is to mix it up by throwing it up in the air as high as possible, while using chopsticks. Trust me, this is not easy…it’s a lot of fun!…but it’s not easy! And if you do it wrong, it’s a hell of a mess!!

Longevity Noodles

Egg noodles, usually served with lobster or crayfish, is another extremely popular Chinese New Year dish. It’s also popular during anniversaries and birthdays. The length of the noodles symbolises longevity, continuity and a long life. As such, you should eat them and slurp them for good luck – but never snap, bite through, or break them, as that would symbolise one cutting short one’s life or run of good luck! Woops…

The Giving and Receiving of ‘Hong Bao’

Aaaah yes! Every little Chinese child in every gigantic Chinese family will have grown up with THIS amazing tradition – the yearly gifts of hong bao!

‘Hong Bao’ literally means ‘red bag’ or ‘red packet’ in Chinese (in Cantonese, it’s the slightly different ‘Ang Pow’, but it means exactly the same thing). They’re the little red envelopes stuffed with money, which parents and older, married relatives, give to children, and any unmarried relatives. When my brother announced that he was getting married at a family reunion – one of my aunts jokingly teased that he should reconsider his decision – it would mean no more red envelopes of cash from her!…or anybody else!…in the family once he tied the knot!

(Note to self: Never marry).

Various hong bao. These days, you can usually buy them from banks, or Chinese stores, which will typically stock them close to Chinese New Year time, although they are used during other major Chinese events (weddings, for example).

Like a lot of other Chinese traditions, the giving and receiving of hong bao goes back untold centuries. The earliest records of a hong bao-like tradition dates to the days when China still had large numbers of round coins with square holes in them, as part of their currency.

To wish their offspring good luck for the year ahead, parents and grandparents would tie coins together on red cord or string, and give them to children to symbolise good fortune in the months that were to come. This eventually morphed into the more convenient red paper envelopes or packets which are used today.

Traditionally, the amount of money inside the envelope is of significance. Ideally, it should always be an even number (so $10 instead of $5, for example). This is to ensure that good things always come in pairs (numbers divisible by two). In my long history of receiving hong bao, I’ve had amouts ranging from $5 all the way up to $100!

The traditional greeting expected at the receipt of a red packet is ‘Gung Hey Fatt Choy!’ (Cantonese), or ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (Chinese-Mandarin). In either dialect, the result is more or less the same: “Wishing you happiness and prosperity for the year ahead!”.

Family Reunions

Another big, big tradition for Chinese New Year is the annual family reunion. When you have large families spread out all over the world, this can be a bit hard to pull off, but in China, at least – the annual family reunion is still a BIG event. Millions of people book flights, train-tickets and bus-tickets to travel hundreds of miles across China to be with their relatives on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

In some instances, it’s not just the living who join the reunion, either! In some parts of Asia, even the dead are invited! This usually takes the shape of visiting shrines or family temples, or graveyards to leave offerings to ancestors, to clean up gravesites, and to light incense, burn paper money and in some cases, light firecrackers to wake the spirits of the dead and invite them back to the family home.

Nothing like having the WHOLE family around during New Year’s Eve, huh?

Incidentally – this tradition is also why it’s considered VERY bad form in Chinese culture to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – You do the same with sticks of burning incense when offering prayers to the dead. So unless you want to commit a major social faux-pas – keep your chopsticks down!

The Lion Dance!

The lion dance – performed using a giant lion puppet, is yet another popular tradition. Although not an animal on the Chinese Zodiac, the lion dance has been a part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the dancers come from local martial-arts schools, Chinese youth associations, or clan associations, and are typically young men (the exertion involved in the dancing is significantly higher than you might expect!).

The aim of lion dancing is to try and grab at offerings of vegetables, red envelopes (Hong Bao or Ang Pow), and to bring good luck to the local community. They’re usually accompanied by loud, raucous music, designed to drive away demons and evil spirits, and sometimes, even firecrackers.

The lion dance that most people are familiar with comes from the Canton or Guandong region of China, in the far south, near Hong Kong. Many people confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance – which are absolutely nothing alike. The lion dance involves a long, full-body lion with a working head, which the dancers move around inside of. The dragon is held up in the air on poles, with the operators working the poles from below.

The Twelve Zodiac Animals!

This is possibly the most famous part of Chinese New Year – The Chinese Zodiac! There are twelve animals in the Zodiac, they are, in order (yes, there is an order):

Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Each animal has specific attributes and qualities, and being born in one year over another means that you’re supposed to have different strengths and weaknesses.

Myself? I’m a rabbit, or ‘tuzi‘, in Chinese. And what could be more awesome than being a a fuzzy, cute little sex maniac who delivers chocolate? According to the books, among other things, Rabbits are highly creative. That sounds like me! 😛

So where do these twelve animals come from? Well, for that answer, we need to go back to the Guy in the Sky – the Jade Emperor. Confused with time, because they had no way to distinguish passing years, the commoners prayed to the emperor for guidance. In his wisdom, the emperor devised a twelve-year cycle. In trying to figure out how to structure this, he came up with the idea that each year would be represented by an animal. To decide which twelve that would be, he arranged a race. The first twelve animals to finish the race, and most importantly – cross the river at the end and make it to the other bank – would be honoured for eternity by having a place in the Chinese Zodiac.

Now whether or not you really believe this – it makes for a heck of a fairytale.

Happy New Year!

This is just a brief rundown of the most common Chinese New Year traditions, customs and rituals. Although they can vary from region to region around China, as well as from place to place among expat Chinese communities around the world, most families and communities who follow Chinese traditions will adhere to at least some of these, which are the most common and well-known customs.

Happy Chinese New Year!!

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!