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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