Our Featured Items for Sale on Etsy

Sunday, September 29, 2013

1975 Alaska Crafted Nugget Jewelry

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Depression Era Green Glass Candlestick Lamp

Friday, September 20, 2013

Snapshot Summary of Major Costume Jewelry Makers


A company whose origins go back to 19th Century Paris and its founder, Jacques Hobe, a master goldsmith known throughout Western Europe.  His sons continued the tradition of excellence and one son (also named Jacques), was intrigued with the use of machinery in making jewelry.  His son, William, made the Hobe name famous for its mass-produced yet very elegant costume jewelry.  Jewelry from this era exhibits superior workmanship with stones hand-set and of the highest quality.  Hobe was frequently the jewelry of choice in 1950's Hollywood.


A Parisian style boutique chain founded in 1918 and selling Carnegie-designed clothing.  The company's namesake, Hattie Carnegie, began manufacturing jewelry to complement the clothing line.  Her boutiques were frequented by the rich and famous, including, among others, Joan Crawford.  Jewelry from this company is highly collectible due to its quality of design and workmanship.

Weiss Necklace

Founded in New York City in 1942 by former Coro designer Albert Weiss, this company flourished during the 1950's and 1960's, offering the highest quality jewelry using Austrian crystal rhinestones.  Design of Weiss pieces is somewhat traditional and the name is well known and highly regarded for its figural jewelry.  Of particular beauty are those pieces in the form of butterflies and other insects.  Without a doubt, Weiss created some of the most beautiful and appealing jewelry of the post-WWI era.

In recent years, there have been issues with fake and reproduction Weiss pieces.  So far, they are easy enough to identify as the quality and fit and finish are poor.


Founded in Chicago in 1914 by Jonas Eisenberg, the company produced high quality ready-to-wear clothing and accessories.  The jeweled accessories were made using the highest quality Austrian rhinestones provided by the Swarovsky Company.

Jewelry production began in the 1930's and continues to this day under the Eisenberg name.  Clothing production was halted in 1958.

Vintage Eisenberg jewelry is highly prized for its elegant design and quality materials.  It is easily identified by its superior workmanship and the use of the very best shimmering stones.  Eisenberg cannot be mistaken for anything else.


Part of a Hollycraft Pin & Earrings Set
Founded in the 1940's by an Armenian immigrant, this firm was in business making fine costume jewelry until the late 1960's. Hollycraft jewelry is among the top names in exquisite design and high quality workmanship. Typically, the Hollycraft lines were made with pastel colored enclosed stones with a japanned back. Pieces with red stones are quite rare.

Trifari Faux Pearl Brooch

The history of this company can be traced back to the mid-1800's in Naples, Italy and to a small workshop owned by Luigi Trifari.  Luigi's grandson, Gustavo Trifari, learned the jewelry making trade from his grandfather before emigrating to America in 1904 at which time he founded his own jewelry company.  Two years later, Trifari was producing beautiful rhinestone decorated hair ornaments and accessories and later became one of the largest and best-known producers of costume jewelry.  They manufactured a wide range of designs and quality pieces available at various price levels.  Trifari jewelry is recognized by collectors for its superb design and workmanship.  Early pieces marked KTF and figural pieces are particularly highly valued.

© 2013 Big River Mercantile

Brief History of Dugan Glass, Its Relationship to Northwood Glass And Its Contributions to the American Carnival Glass Era

Dugan Glass, operating under that name only from 1904 to 1909 was in many ways a version of the related company, Northwood Glass. At one time or another, company principals and members of both the Northwood and Dugan families were involved in some combination of cooperation in the formation and operations of both companies. The Northwood and Dugan Glass companies could trace their common heritage back to the Hobbs-Bruckunier plant for which both Harry Northwood and Thomas Dugan worked as glass etchers.1

5 Hearts Footed Bowl in Marigold

Late 19th Century America was actively engaged in establishing its own glass industry, and this was mostly accomplished by importing European and English glass artisans to work in American factories. The principals of what would become the Northwood Glass Co. and Dugan Glass, Harry Northwood and Thomas Dugan were cousins who lived, trained and became glass-making masters in the same region of England. At the urging of friends already living in the U.S., and motivated by the potential for becoming wealthy, they emigrated to America within a year of each other and right away found lucrative work in the glass industry. Northwood briefly worked for the National Glass Co., and Dugan for Hobbs Bruckmier of Wheeling W. Va.

In 1896, Harry Northwood and Samuel Dugan (Thomas' father) formed Northwood Glass Co., the first of four factories that would bear the Northwood name (the last plant closed in 1925, seven years after Harry's death). Thomas Dugan and his sons all worked for Northwood at one time or another before setting out on other pursuits.

Dugan Opalescent Honeycomb Bowl
From 1900 to 1903, the Northwood Glass Company founded by Harry was taken over by Thomas who changed the name to National Glass Co. This venture was operated jointly by Harry Barstow and Thomas A. Dugan. In 1904, under Thomas' sole management, the name changed again to Dugan Glass Co., and a 'Diamond D' glass mark was introduced which appeared on just a few of the pieces being produced (mostly on the company's carnival glass). In 1913, due to another significant management change, Dugan Glass became The Diamond Glass Co., a name it would carry until its demise by fire in 1931.

Northwood Glass and Dugan Glass were well known for their popular iridized carnival glass, a process Harry had learned in England. Although 1908 is the year most frequently considered as the beginning of carnival glass production, and though Northwood Glass produced its own line of carnival from 1908 into the 1920's, journals from the time give a strong indication that Thomas Dugan was experimenting with the process as early as 1902 and his company, Dugan Glass began marketing their own carnival glass in 1905, making it the actual first company to mass produce it.

In a somewhat specious approach to marketing, Dugan Glass purported to make glass of such quality as to compete with Webb and Loetz. However, even though it was clearly nothing like the quality of the glass it sought to emulate, truth in advertising was not a principle to which companies strongly adhered in the late 19th Century. For example, surviving Dugan company brochures for vases advertised their glass as '...exact reproductions of expensive imported vases....'. Further, items listed in their catalogs were often described as 'Japanese', 'Pompeian', or 'Venetian' in order to give their glass the cachet of fine European crystal. Interestingly, catalogs from one year to the next revealed the inconsistency of these claims, as items previously shown as 'Japanese' for example in the 1905 catalog, were called 'Pompeian' in the 1906 catalog. Clearly, the terms were relative and used only for their perceptive value for implying European or Asian origins.

Because of the various permutations in the relationships between family members, managers and owners, the Northwood Glass, Dugan Glass and later the Diamond Glass companies are tightly woven together in the tapestry of late 19th and early 20th Century American glass-making history. Each man had worked for one or been a venture partner in one or the other of the companies. This is particularly true for cousins Northwood and Dugan as they shared processes and worked so closely together that even molds between their factories were often the same. For that reason, it can be easy for collectors today to mistake a piece of Dugan for Northwood and the other way around. One clue when viewing a piece from that time is to look for a Northwood Glass mark. Almost all Northwood had a mark, but early Dugan, almost never. Only after 1913, when Dugan Glass became the Diamond Glass Company, did most pieces bear the 'Diamond D' mark. Further, because there was a major change in the company's management right in the middle of the carnival glass production era, Thomas Dugan's influence in respect to design and quality control was evident for just a portion of the company's output. The glass produced under his management from 1909 to 1913 was substantially different in pattern design, color and iridescent quality from that made during the 1913 to 1931 period, making Diamond Glass pieces much easier to discern from Dugan Glass items. However, the Dugan era glass is considered to be of better iridescence and design quality.

Dugan Glass, Fenton Glass, and Northwood Glass were among the big players in late 19th Century glass production. But it was Harry Northwood and Thomas Dugan and Dugan's sons that brought true artistry and stable processing methods to the American Glass Industry. Thomas Dugan's story is particularly compelling and his early 1902 contributions alone can arguably be considered the true beginning of the carnival glass period in America.

1Dugan & Diamond Carnival Glass, Carl O. Burns, copyright 1999, Collector Books

© David Simons, January 2012

Identifying Alaskan/Northwest Native Artwork

For centuries Northwest Coast Native people (those inhabiting the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California and British Columbia, Canada) measured their world organically and led an existence as fishermen, hunters and subsistence dwellers. By taking their subject matter directly from the natural world within which they lived, these folks created hauntingly beautiful and distinctive carvings, woven works and paintings. Using only the natural grasses, spruce roots, and cedar bark around them, the women wove intricately designed and crafted baskets of every imaginable size and for every imaginable purpose. Some were brightly colored and used for trade while others were constructed more plainly for day to day use. From the hunt or scavenged on the beaches, the men used walrus ivory and whale baleen which they carved into jewelry and sculptures, often hand-decorated with inlays of various types. Scrimshaw was an advanced art form in this culture.

While technically a form of folk art, fine workmanship and the artisans’ commanding ability to capture the natural movement and pose of their subjects, in truth, places these craftsmen and women among the most accomplished artists and sculptors in the world. Late 19th and early 20th Century Tlingit spruceroot basketry is an example of an art form unrivaled anywhere in the world for its unique design elements and construction. Unique to the decorative aspects of these baskets was the Tlingit weaver’s use of false embroidery, a method by which the colored design was raised on the exterior wall of the basket but could not be seen on the inside wall. It is breathtaking to see such a basket created by a master weaver.
Purse Made with Loon Feathers

Understandably, vintage walrus ivory jewelry, carvings and basketry created by Northwest Coastal people is prized and highly sought by collectors and the values continue to go up dramatically over time. 

An unfortunate fact of life in today’s environment are those who try, and sometimes succeed, in deceptively reproducing Native Alaskan and Northwest Coast artwork; many pieces have come into the market represented to be authentic which are not. The purpose of this article is to offer insight into the characteristics one should look for in order to help ascertain authenticity. Whether adding to your own private collection or acquiring these types of crafted articles for resale, it’s important to be aware that fakes do exist and that some basic specific knowledge should be sought before making any major purchases.

A few years back, so-called Alaskan native ivory carvings were found for sale in gift shops and souvenir stores along the cruise ship routes in Alaska. They were represented as authentic Alaskan Native artwork but upon investigation were shown to have actually been manufactured in Bali, legally exported to the U.S. with paper tags stating the items to be of Balinese origin. These tags had been removed and the item put on the shelf for sale as Alaskan art. 

In some cases the craftsmanship in a fake can be excellent (but still not as good as the original) and differences in style can be difficult for the unpracticed eye to discern. To further complicate matters, an artificial resin material made to emulate the striations and color of one of the popular types of walrus ivory has been used, making it even harder to identify these fakes.
Beautiful Turn of the Century
Attu Basket

How does one know that a ‘vintage’ Alaskan or Northwest Coastal item is genuine? While provenance can be the best and most reliable method of identifying many types of genuine art, it is problematic here as written records for 19th Century to mid-20th Century Native work are hard to come by. These are and were verbal cultures whose histories have been handed down mostly in stories, songs and artifacts and the origins of works of art are rarely backed up in writing. Further, up until about mid 20th century, carvers rarely signed their work. Basketry is hardly ever signed even to this day. 

What’s left is to either understand and be able to identify the work stylistically or to buy it from a knowledgeable and reputable seller who will stand behind his or her guarantee of authenticity. There is considerable written resource available, with Native American basketry, in particular, being the subject of a number of highly regarded works. Also, if traveling in an area typically rich in these artforms take the time to visit the workshops of any contemporary native artists that are open to the public. Many will have a wealth of knowledge to share, if you but ask the questions, and some contemporary artists still use the same process and tools as their forebears, as well. Visiting local museums where aged examples might be displayed is also recommended. 

While not comprehensive, there are some basic ‘rules of thumb’ that should be applied when contemplating the purchase of Native work.

First, there is almost no significant artwork available for retail sale that dates earlier than about the 1880’s. Earlier pieces of interest are usually in museums or private collections.
Eskimo Made Kayak Hunter
c. 1960

Second, work from the last quarter of the 19th century until about 1972 was unsigned. The early 1970’s marked the passage of the Marine Mammal Act that prohibited general trade in ivory but specifically exempted Alaskan Native carvers from its provisions. This pretty much assured that all Alaskan Native produced ivory art was signed as a protection to the carver after this law was enacted. 

Pre-1970’s unsigned ivory art is distinctive in style and subject and is generally of very high artistic quality. A hallmark of Northwest Coast Native carvers’ work is their preference for depicting their animals ‘frozen’ in motion and they were true masters at capturing that in their work. A genuine piece will be efficiently wrought with relatively few strokes and yet the subject will have that flowing look to it that one can easily put in motion with the mind’s eye. Facial expression and other subtle details will be minimalist at best as the artist’s interest is not in the details but in the movement. This is the aspect of an animal that struck the subsistence-based artisan as beautiful and what he strove to express in its highest form. 

To some extent, an indicator of age for ivory pieces can be estimated by examination of the material. There are three basic forms of ivory identifiable by coloration. New ivory is recently harvested and is a gleaming white color. Old ivory, which was frequently collected along the beaches, usually displays tan or brown coloring from its exposure to the elements. And finally, fossilized ivory is often very dark as a result of having been buried for years in the permafrost. Much of the old carved jewelry was made with fossilized ivory.

About 1974 the Alaska Native Arts & Crafts Co-op (ANAC) was formed in Anchorage for the express purpose of adding legitimacy to the aboriginal art and to serve as a symbol of authenticity for Alaskan Native arts and crafts. Items sold through the co-op carried a special tag as certification that it was of genuine Native Alaskan origin. Vintage pieces sold today will frequently still have this tag attached.
Tlingit Cedar Root Basket
With False Embroidery c. 1900

As the commercialization of Native arts has grown, the quantity of art carvings has increased while the quality has decreased. Early artists focused on the expression of the piece. Contemporary artisans for the most part reproduce similar stylized examples but which are designed to appeal to a much wider tourist and non-Native audience. This work is fairly easy to identify because it is usually made with new ivory and displays little or no coloration. Further, few contemporary pieces have the quality of artistry attributed to older work. While new pieces are occasionally represented by unethical vendors as being vintage, most pieces are sold in gift shops and online and the vendors are truthful about their age and origin. Online auction venues tend to have more problems with truthful representations than other outlets. 

As with all antiques and collectibles, the best protection against being victimized by a fraudulent deal is to either be personally knowledgeable about the characteristics of genuine work or to buy from a known legitimate and honorable vendor who is knowledgeable and has a track record of trouble-free sales. A reputable dealer will always be willing to stand behind his sales and can be trusted to make honest representations as to the origins of his pieces.

© David Simons, July 2006
Here are links to Native Alaskan items we currently are offering in our Etsy shop.
Eskimo Grass Basket
Child's Caribou Skin Mask,
Miniature Alaskan Eskimo Mask

Using Micro Mesh Abrasives in Finish Application or Restoration

Micro-Mesh abrasives can polish to a high reflective state or leave a matte or satin finish depending upon where you stop while using the series.

1. Bare Woods

Before starting the Micro-Mesh series, coarse sanding should be done using up to 320 grit sandpaper. Shaping, sawing or turning of the work piece should be complete.
Begin with 1500 Micro-Mesh, sand unit all of the common sandpaper scratches are removed. Continue with the Micro-Mesh series ( 1800, 2400, 3200, 3600, 4000, 6000, 8000, 12000) You may stop at any point during this process when you have reached the finish that you desire.
Thinned lemon oil or Danish oil can be used on bare wood.

2. Wood Finishes (polyurethane, polyester, epoxy, lacquer, etc.)

*Follow the manufacturer's recommended cure times prior to recoating or applying the finish coat. When you are applying multiple coats, sand from 1500 MICRO-MESH to 3200 or 3600 between coats to remove any orange-peel or dirt.
After the final coat has fully cured, polish the surface beginning with 2400 MICRO-MESH and continue through the series (3200-12000) until the desired gloss is achieved.
Satin finishes are achieved with the 3600 grade. The satin finish gets progressively higher in gloss through the 6000 step. High gloss finishes will appear by the 6000 through 12000 step. The wood, the finish used and personal preference determine where to stop. MICRO-GLOSS liquid abrasive can be hand rubbed onto the finish following the 12000 MICRO-MESH step for an "ultra" high gloss finish.
Micro-Mesh replaces steel wool and both pumice and rotten stone for final finishing.

3. Repair of Wood Finishes

Burn ins - Sand to remove discoloration. Cover with three coats of lacquer. Wet sand with 1500, then apply one more coat of lacquer. Polish with Micro-Mesh series beginning with 2400 MICRO-MESH and continue on thru the series stopping after each grade to see if you've reached the finish you're trying to match.
Guidelines for matching a satin finish - Begin with 1800 MICRO-MESH , followed by 3600, and continue on thru the series stopping after each grade to see if you've reached the finish you're trying to match.

4. Hints

Micro-Mesh can be used wet or dry. When using Micro-Mesh dry, it can be "unloaded" by rapping against the palm of your hand.
Micro-Mesh can also be cleaned by using a stiff, short bristled brush.
Thinned lemon oil or Danish oil can be used on bare wood.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Stunning Vintage Hobe Brooch

The Strange Story of John Meck As A Young Man

No one in his Chicago circle of friends and family understood John Meck very well.  Classic education, good grades in school, participation in inter and intra-mural sports were all expectations for boys in the 1920's who were thought to be headed toward a life of success. Although he struggled throughout his school career, was something of a loner (we would call him a 'geek' today), and did not distinguish himself in sports, John still managed, to the relief of his parents, to earn good enough grades to be accepted at Northwestern University.

Growing up in Glencoe, Illinois, John's life was that of the privileged upper middle class.  The Mecks were a model 1920's family as his father, a professor by education and background, was the school principal and his mother managed the family's active social life.  There is no evidence that John was anything but a typical and normal teenager, perhaps a bit more taken with the new gadgets and technology that were emerging during the 1920's, but otherwise just another smart, growing boy.

So in the fall of 1925, off he went to Northwestern, living on campus and pursuing his Freshman studies. Or so it was thought.  Sometime after December 1, 1925, John Meck disappeared from school. Neither his friends nor family heard from him after he left.  One college classmate recalled him saying something like he 'was dissatisfied with being a student and wanted to learn the radio business'.1

Mirror Tone Mod 850 Deluxe mfg 1947
Meck Industries
The amplifying vacuum tube had just been developed by the early 1920's and this new technology revolutionized the radio industry.  Companies were springing up all over the place manufacturing consumer radios for the burgeoning broadcast business.  In mid-summer 1920, AM type broadcasting began in Argentina.  Shortly thereafter, the first known radio news program in the U.S. was broadcast by station 8MK (the unlicensed predecessor of WWJ in Detroit). In November of 1920, station KDKA of Pittsburg was the first to broadcast election results (Warren Harding won). In 1921, the first commercial station, WBZ of Springfield, Massachusetts was licensed and by 1925, when Meck left school, there were more than 600 commercial radio stations and home radios were being manufactured and sold everywhere.2

In this exciting time of new technologies and industries, where in the world was John Meck?

His parents were so concerned after John mysteriously dropped out of sight (and college) that his mother reported him missing to the Evanston, Illinois police and commissioned a wanted poster offering a $200 reward for information of her son's whereabouts. There is no record as to whether or not anyone collected.

Finally, in April, 1926, after circulating fliers about her son around the area radio shops and factories, John's mother located him working in a radio store on Dearborn St. Again, he explained that he wanted to learn the radio business, not the classics or the law or any other liberal arts that his parents foresaw him doing.  In return for him returning home, his parents agreed that he could get his education wherever he wanted. 

Late 1940's Meck Radio Ad
No one knows where or if John Meck completed college.  No more is known of him until just prior to World War II when he founded Meck Industries in Plymouth, Indiana.  The company began business by manufacturing phonographs and public address systems.  During the war, it expanded into making quartz crystals for military radios and other electric devices for the War Department. After the war, the company produced radios carrying names like Deluxe, Lee, Mirror Tone, Trail Blazer and Plymouth. In 1949, they made and marketed their first home 7 inch and 10 inch TV receiving sets. The business continued on making radios and TV's, and even acquired another company, until 1956, when it closed.

To this day, no one knows for sure where Meck went to school.  Some speculate maybe Notre Dame, for why else would he have chosen Indiana for the location of his business? Meck's radios are not common finds since the company was never a real economic force in the radio boom during the post-War years.  But what the company produced was elegantly designed and made with high quality components.  Owning one today is a true collectible reflecting the innovative entrepreneurial spirit of John Meck


1. The Mystery of John Meck, Glencoe Historical Society web article, June 10, 2010.

2. The History of Radio, Wikipedia

© David Simons, Sep 2013

Here is a link to one of the Meck Industries radios recently restored and is available for sale in our shop.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Our Radio Restoration Process

Restoration of 1951 Crosley
Dashboard Radio

Vintage tube type radios have been a big part of our inventory for years.  Early radios reflect cultural and design influences of their era making them more than just an appliance, making them a type of icon of their time. Case design reflected all aspects of American life. Manufacturers like Crosley, for example, took their inspiration from the automobile industry (see Crosley 'Dashboard' radios), and the Jet Age look was reflected not only in the fins of cars, but in the table radios sitting in living rooms and bedrooms. Colors from home decor found their way into radio design.  Often, plaids and other patterns from the fashion industry were integrated into speaker grills or dials.

Sadly, it's as though the excitement of innovation has passed us by and we now too often find these classics sitting around for years, not working and mouldering away in a basement, shed or some other out-of-the-way place. Our mission has been to restore and bring life and relevance back to them. We believe vintage tube radios are an important historical artifact and look as beautiful sitting on a desk or dresser as when they were made; and we want to help get more of them back to that status.

Our objective is to restore each radio to as much of its former look and originality in as safe and reliable a manner as possible.  Cosmetically, we rarely re-paint a case unless it is so far gone that to do otherwise would be wrong.  When we have to apply a new finish, we choose both a period appropriate color and type of enamel paint that most closely resembles the original.  Many bakelite cases were painted with automotive enamels and luckily those type of finish materials can still be purchased through classic car outlets. Each case that has been repainted will also have been hand rubbed and buffed to a satin sheen.  Any of our vintage radio listings will disclose the extent of finish restoration that has been done.

Internally, most of our radios follow the same basic electrical design for super hetrodyne radios from the 1930's through the 1970's (when vacuum tubes were discontinued in favor of the newly invented transistor).  Most radios are known as 'American Five's' or 'American Fivers', which simply means the radio signal is received, translated and amplified through a series of 5 vacuum tubes.  Joining them together in a workable circuit to produce sound in a controlled manner are any number of capacitors, resistors, transformers and other components. In restoring an old radio, the main task is to make sure that the circuit is working correctly and safely. Any components that are 'out of spec' or are considered too obsolete, are replaced.  All tubes are checked and replaced as necessary.

It should be noted that some sellers of old non-working radios often speculate in their descriptions that the radio is not working "probably because of a bad tube".  This is almost never the reason an old radio doesn't work.  As old fashioned as vacuum tubes may seem, they were highly reliable and very efficient in doing their job; namely to grab out of the air and amplify an almost non-existent radio signal.  In most cases, a tube will have gone bad as a result of another component failing and plugging in new tubes generally will not bring a dead radio to life. For this reason, in those cases where a tube has gone bad, we carefully examine the circuit leading to and related to that tube in order to find and correct the underlying problem.  One of the ways we do this is by measuring the voltages to each of the tube pins and comparing them to known specs. We also measure pin resistances for the same reason. The results yield a lot of information as to where the circuit may be faulty.

Over the years we have invested lots of money in our collection of vintage radio electrical schematics and other reference material to which we frequently refer in tracing problems with old circuitry.
A Recently Revived Zenith AM/FM

Many old table radios grounded their circuits through the metal chassis, a dangerous practice not done in electronics today. This was not a problem so long as the radio was plugged in the right way to assure correct polarity.  However, since polarized plugs did not exist in those days, a radio plugged in that reversed polarity would work just fine but a lurking danger of electrocution hovered nearby on the metal chassis.  An unsuspecting person opening up the back to reach in and replace a tube or repair a part was subject to a nasty experience.  Radios that we restore with this issue always have the power cord replaced with a polarized plug (the small and large prongs) to make sure it can be plugged in only one way.

Somewhat Rare Silvertone in Plaskon Case
Finally, after we have corrected any electrical problems and installed new required parts, we let the radio play for several hours to make sure there are no intermittent issues.  We also test the radio again just before shipping it to a buyer.

Our policy regarding radio cosmetics is simple: restore to as close to original as possible and retain as much of the original finish and patina as we can. Because our radios are 40, 50, 60 and more years old, this means that we are willing to tolerate what we term 'character marks'.  It is not our intent to 'refinish' to a new condition.  We absolutely will not repaint a radio to anything other than its original color and we will not use easier to apply finishes that don't look proper for the age of the radio. In most cases, the paint used was high gloss enamel, often baked onto the case. We replicate this in our process. Wood cases were usually done in shellac or lacquer (a few were done with esoteric materials that are no longer available so we have to improvise).

A Beautiful Emerson Moderne
Radios listed in our shop will always disclose the level of restoration that was done.

© David Simons, Sep 2013

Here are links to some of the radios we have restored and are currently available in our Etsy shop:
Philco Clock Radio
Arvin Table Radio
Crosley Dashboard Radio
Westinghouse Clock Radio

Heisey Glass for Sale

Newly Restored and Working For First Time in More Than 30 Years

Monday, September 2, 2013

NOW AVAILABLE! Beautiful 1960's Native Alaskan Child's Mask (Click Thumbnail for More Info)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Timely Information from our Archives

Here is some basic information from our archives we thought would be interesting to share. Sometimes its nice to have these primary facts readily at hand.

Sterling Silver Quality 

Sterling Silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. 99.9% silver is called "Fine silver." Sterling components and jewelry made in the USA are often stamped "Sterling." Goods made for international trade are often marked "925" indicating the 92.5% fineness. "Coin" silver is used in some countries and could be marked "900" or "800" depending on fineness. 

Other markings may be seen that are less clear. "Mexican Silver", "German Silver," "Indian Silver," "Montana Silver," or simply "silver" do not guarantee any silver content. "German Silver" is another name for the alloy of Copper, Nickel and Zinc usually called Nickel Silver. Despite the name, Nickel Silver contains no silver. 

In many countries, precious metal must be stamped with a quality mark such as "925" for sterling. Some countries require jewelry of precious metal be submitted to a governmental assay office for destructive testing before being marked and sold. 

In the USA, The National Gold and Silver Marketing Act does NOT require precious metals to be marked with quality. However, if a quality mark is used, the mark must be accompanied by a manufacturer's hallmark that is a registered trademark. If there is ever a question about the precious content of a piece of jewelry the manufacturer can be traced using the registered hallmark stamped on the piece. This accountability is particularly important in gold jewelry. A devious manufacturer could mark a piece 18Kt when, in fact, it was 10Kt and worth 1/3 less on gold content alone. 

Sterling Silver is very easy to test. Silver plated brass, Nickel Silver or low quality silver alloys will turn green when a drop of Nitric acid is applied. Sterling will turn a creamy color. When testing suspect goods a small file can be used to cut through any plating or lacquer in an unobtrusive part of the item. 

For many reasons, not all silver jewelry is marked. Registering a trademark costs over $1000. The maker may not spend the money to have a legal hallmark. Small time artists and Native American silversmiths rarely trademark their work. The sizes or designs of some pieces do not lend themselves to quality marking. Findings and components are often not quality stamped leaving the assembler the choice of attaching a mark, perhaps on a chain tab, to the finished piece. 

Many individual artists will stamp a quality mark along with their name or initials. While this satisfies the accountability at the heart of the US stamping act, it is not considered legal.

In summary: 

1) US Law does not require precious metal to be marked with a quality stamp.
2) Some European countries DO require marking. Many tourists in the US will question goods sold without quality markings.
3) US law requires a maker's mark in the form of a hallmark or registered trademark in addition to the quality mark if the goods are quality marked.

Content courtesy of Big River Mercantile archives

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hints for care of your vintage radio

Hints for the Care and Maintenance of your Vintage Bakelite Tube Radio

By David Simons

Machine Age Airline Radio c. 1938

Old radios sold through Big River Mercantile will always have been thoroughly checked, repaired (as necessary) and cosmetically restored in our shop. It will be a reliable and enjoyable addition to your collection for years to come. However, because of their age and older electronics, certain guidelines should be followed so you can continue to enjoy a tube radio's unique beauty and sound for years:

  1. The radio can be played for several hours at a time and it is normal for the case to feel warm to the touch. Vacuum tubes typically run hotter than solid state components and therefore, make sure there is plenty of space around the case to allow the heat to dissipate.
  2. In the interests of retaining originality, we do not replace old components that are in good condition…only those that are failing or likely to give trouble in the future. Because the radio is usually 60 or more years old, it should not be played constantly, day and night. The old electric components will wear out and fail faster. Alternatively, it is not a good idea to let the radio sit without playing for extended periods of time either. If it is not going to be played for a week or more, it should be unplugged from the wall.
  3. The vacuum tubes should last a very long time so long as the other components are in good shape.  It is something of a myth that a 'burned out tube' is the reason an old radio does not work. If a new tube is needed, they are readily available through collector organizations, antique electronic outlets and we always carry a large inventory of tubes.
  4. The bakelite case should only be cleaned with a damp rag and mild detergent. Once every couple of years, you can wax it with carnuba car wax (we always wax the case just before shipping so this is not a necessary maintenance item when you first receive a radio you have purchased from us). DO NOT USE PLEDGE OR ANY SPRAY WAX PRODUCTS AS THEY TEND TO BE DAMAGING TO THE OLD FINISH.
5. Always keep the radio out of direct sunlight.

The restoration of this unusual 1950 Truetone
radio was recently completed and it is available now in
our Etsy shop.

History of Buffalo Pottery - Part 1

A Brief History of Buffalo Pottery and the Roycroft Connection

Copyright: David Simons, December, 2011
All Rights Reserved
1. The Larkin Soap Company

John Durrant Larkin, the son of English immigrants, was born in Buffalo, New York in 1845. From a fatherless family, he was only able to go to school until he was 12 after which he went to work as a messenger boy for Western Union Telegraph Company to help support the family.

At age sixteen (1861) Larkin was initiated into the soap-making business when he went to work for a man named Justus Weller who operated a local factory. By 1871, Larkin was a partner in the enterprise, an association he maintained until 1875.

Larkin, newly married, was anxious to establish a soap making business of his own. In 1875 he sold his partnership interest and almost immediately began making soap in a two story building on Chicago Street in Buffalo. The business, known as John D. Larkin Company marketed its product, a variety of yellow laundry soap, under the name Sweet Home Soap. The soap was sold by peddlers from handcarts in the streets of Buffalo. Since it was both cheaper and of better quality than its competitors’ products, it quickly found a ready market among merchants and the general public. To facilitate sales, the Larkin Company would at a merchant’s request, package the soap with the merchant’s name on the label thereby making it appear to be the merchant’s own special brand.

Surrounded by men of exceedingly good business ability, including one Elbert Hubbard whose genius was in descriptive writing and sales promotion, the company grew by leaps and bounds. Within a year, the business needed larger quarters and a new three story plant was built on Seneca St.

With the plant expansion came new products. In 1879 a washing fluid called Sweet Home was added. In 1881 a new soap powder called Boraxine was introduced. With it came more innovation in marketing. To each box of soap powder a chromo picture was inserted as a premium. Giving premiums, per se, was not a new idea—providing coupons that could be accumulated and exchanged for premiums was a widespread late 19th Century practice. However, it was the inclusion of the premium right in the box that was the Larkin innovation. Henceforth, all new products introduced by the company included a premium as a buying incentive.

Over the years, the company introduced more products and more marketing ideas. Its goal was to sell directly to the consumer—with no dealers at all, wholesale or retail, and no traveling salesmen or brokers. The aim was to completely eliminate the middleman and sell staples on a large scale directly to the buying public. Thus the profits that would have been realized by the middleman would be transferred to the buyer in the form of premiums. A customer who bought ten dollars’ worth of soap at retail price would be entitled to a premium of equal value. For ten dollars, a twenty dollar value would be received.

In 1886, Hubbard’s fertile mind conceived another new method of merchandising; the “Combination Box” which sold for six dollars. It contained 100 cakes of Sweet Home Soap, and as premiums, an assortment of other soaps and various useful household items. In addition, the buyer would be allowed 30 days to pay the six dollars. The plan created such a problem in handling sales accounts that the traditional bound ledger had to be abandoned for another new idea, the index card ledger. Thus the Larkin Company is credited with being the first in the world to make such a ledger whose cards, after the account was paid, were used to make the nucleus of a giant mailing list.

By 1889, the “Combination Box” cost ten dollars and the premium given was either a Chautauqua desk or a Chautauqua lamp, which also had a value of ten dollars. If cash was paid in advance, a gift for the lady of the house was included. All boxes were sent on a 30 day trial basis. If a customer was dissatisfied, the unopened packages could be returned and payment made only for the items used. Boxes ordered around Christmas always included extra gifts.

Another method for selling was the “Larkin Club”. Ten housewives could form a club, each contributing one dollar monthly. This purchased one “Combination Box”, and the women drew lots to see who would receive the premium. In reality, the club was a means of buying the Box on the installment plan, although installment buying was frowned upon by the social mores of the times. Still, the club plan was the center of the distribution of the Larkin mail-order business and one of the biggest factors in the success of the company.

In 1893, the company published its first catalogue to inform its customers of an enlarged choice of premiums. The premium catalog of 1905 listed almost 900 items from which a customer could choose. By 1909 1.5 million catalogs were mailed out twice a year. The volume was so large that the Post Office maintained a branch right in the Larkin facilities.

Elbert Hubbard, the genius behind many of Larkin’s marketing schemes retired at age 35 to devote himself to more artistic pursuits. In 1895 after trying several things, he returned to New York and set up a colony of artisans called The Roycrofters. The colony patterned after the philosophy of William Morris aimed at reviving old handicrafts, particularly those associated with printing, bookbinding, leather craft, metal working and wood working.

Hubbard also became known as a writer, best remembered perhaps for his A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 and which sold 40 million copies.

Hubbard and his wife were lost when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915.

Hubbard’s departure had little effect on the growth and success of the Larkin Company. There was continued expansion almost yearly from 1877. The plant grew from a little over an acre in 1877 to more than 16 acres by 1901 and to more than 50 acres by 1907.

In 1903, Larkin consolidated the administrative duties of his company to one location and commissioned then-controversial architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a building. The new Administration building gained widespread fame in both the U.S. and Europe where it was often pictured in books on architecture.

For its time, it was one of the largest private office buildings in the world with working space for 1800 clerks and typists and all of the company’s executives and their secretaries.

For the company’s 25th anniversary, John Larkin installed a gigantic $90,000 pipe organ that would provide background music for the employees to work by. This was one of the dozen largest organs in the United States at the time. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1950.

Gradually over the years the company added perfumes and pharmaceuticals to its original soap and glycerin lines. By 1900, all these products were being produced in the factories and Larkin had become a very diverse manufacturing enterprise. By 1906, paints and varnishes were being manufactured and then furniture. Added next to the list were textiles including such garments as house dresses, aprons, and children’s clothing. Then came a bakery to supply all the bread, cakes and pastry sold in the company’s retail stores.

In 1901, the Larkin Company founded the Buffalo Pottery Company to produce dishes and other ceramic articles, both to be used for premiums and for general sale.

(To be continued  -- see the next installment "The Buffalo Pottery") 

First written by David Simons, June 1996, rev. November 2011

Sources: The Book of Buffalo Pottery, Seymour and Violet Altman, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1987.
Maine Antique Digest, March, 1997
Collectors News, March 1998
Colonial Homes, June, 1996, pp. 20

Lovely heavy duty Buffalo China dinner plate
Add caption
Lovely heavy duty Buffalo China dinner plate is an example 
of the high quality restaurant and railroad china produced.

History of Buffalo Pottery - Part 2

A Brief History of The Buffalo Pottery Company - Part II - Continued from Post of December 4, 2011

December 10, 2011 at 10:47am
2. The Buffalo Pottery

The Larkin Company required a considerable amount of pottery and china to satisfy its premium needs and merchandise of quality was expensive. Further, depending upon an outside firm for prompt delivery was chancy.

Among the pottery salesmen who regularly called on the Larkin Co., was one Louis Bown, representing the Crescent Pottery of Trenton, New Jersey. After numerous conversations between Bown and Larkin, a charter for the new pottery was issued in October 1901 and The Buffalo Pottery was capitalized at $50,000. Construction of the new plant was completed in 1903 and firing of the first kiln took place in October that same year.

Bown resigned from Crescent Pottery to become general manager of the new pottery enterprise. Wanting experienced potters to get the new venture off to a good start, he brought with him from New Jersey William J. Rea who was made the first superintendent of production. A number of other craftsmen were also hired.

Rea not only produced good pottery but tried constantly to raise the quality level, especially that of the underglaze ware. It was through his endeavors that the firm manufactured America’s first Blue Willow. Rea retired in 1927 after 20 years with the company.

Other knowledgeable and experienced employees were recruited from various potteries. Most skilled help was paid on a piece-work basis, and a conscientious worker could make a fine wage. Hence it was not long before potters from all over the country were seeking employment at Buffalo Pottery.

Among the job seekers coming early on to the pottery was Ralph Stuart a ceramic artist of the highest caliber. Hired in 1903, he brought with him a rich heritage in the ceramic arts. He, his father and his grandfather had all worked at leading potteries in the Staffordshire District of England. Stuart himself is said to have worked at Wedgewood and Royal Doulton. He was related to Gilbert Stuart who painted the renowned portrait of George Washington.

The original Buffalo Pottery buildings formed the largest fireproof pottery in the world. Constructed of brick, steel and concrete, it provided over 80,000 square feet of floor space and with more than 400 windows and skylights, an abundance of air and light entered the factory floor. It was the only pottery in the world operated entirely on electricity, power being supplied from a generator in an adjoining building.

Raw materials came from all over the world and were very carefully handled to ensure their purity.

There were 15 kilns in the Buffalo Pottery four of which were biscuit or bisque kilns, five “glost” (glaze) and six for decorating. The kilns could accommodate thousands and thousands of ware at one time, the bisque kilns burning the clay into ware of the whitest form, the glaze kilns fixing the glaze.

Thermostats for a kiln were unknown at that time. Instead, to gauge the temperature, the fireman peered through small holes at various points in the kiln walls and observed the condition of heat cones placed in groups of four. These cones were made of varying proportions of feldspar and clay, and of such consistencies that they would melt and droop at different temperatures. When the last little point just bent its head, the fireman knew he could stop shoveling coal.

When ware from the green room was taken to the bisque kiln, it was cream-colored and very fragile. After baking for fifty hours at temperatures ranging from 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, it emerged pure white in color, hard and bisquelike. Each piece was then brushed and sandpapered, to make it ready for the next step.

The production process was a continuous one, with a minimum of lost motion. Although the equipment at Buffalo Pottery was designed for maximum efficiency, probably the most important factor was the skill and experience of the management and the company artisans for they were strictly focused on turning out wares that were exclusive in design and pattern and of the highest quality.

Although most Buffalo wares were manufactured with the Larkin Company in mind, in time they were also distributed to wholesale and retail outlets. By 1908, Buffalo Pottery had selling agencies in New York, Chicago and St. Louis and by 1911 was exporting to more than 25 countries.

Early Buffalo Pottery pieces are easy to spot and identify since most of them were clearly marked and dated. From the beginning, the pottery had the foresight to date almost all the pieces it produced, a practice that was continued until mechanization entered the picture in the 1940’s.

In 1905 an underglaze Blue Willow was produced that was far superior in color, glaze and body to imported ware. Buffalo was the first pottery in America to succeed in producing a Blue Willow that not only duplicated but even improved upon the underglaze colors of the imported product, for which they were completely justified in claiming to be “…the originators of old blue willow in the United States.”

In 1908, seeking to produce an artistic quality product that would compete with and perhaps be superior to the prestige pottery imported from England at that time, Buffalo Pottery turned to the production of Deldare Ware. Today this ware is among the scarcest and most eagerly sought of all Buffalo Pottery products and commands a high price in the collector market.

An examination of the annual Larkin catalogs indicates that Deldare Ware was offered only once as a premium—in the fall/winter catalog of 1922-23. That catalog also represented the last time that Buffalo Pottery ware was mentioned as a premium. In the later 1920’s and 1930’s the Larkin Company turned almost exclusively to imported china for premiums because it was cheaper than producing their own.  Buffalo Pottery then turned to the manufacture of exclusive hotel and institutional ware under the  mark of 'Buffalo China'.

For decades the company was one of the biggest suppliers of this type of commercial china...they sold to railroad china vendors, created patterns and styles for individual restaurants and formulated some of the most unique china ground colors ever produced.

Sadly, though, on November 29, 1983, Buffalo China, Inc. was acquired by Oneida Ltd. of Oneida, New York and became a wholly owned subsidiary. A great American company that so richly symbolized the creative spirit of the country,  melted into the mediocrity of late 20th Century mass produced, design-less, featureless ceramic dreck.

First written by David Simons, June 1996, rev. December 2011

Sources: The Book of Buffalo Pottery, Seymour and Violet Altman, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1987.
Maine Antique Digest, March, 1997
Collectors News, March 1998
Colonial Homes, June, 1996, pp. 20