Married By Phonograph

About the only way to control smallpox before immunization was quarantine.   So, if you’re on your way to your own wedding in 1902 and end up in the pest house, what do you do?

Hope Pioneer, 3/20/1902”                                   WEDS BY PHONOGRAPH.

Young Ohio Couple Overcomes the Dilemma Into Which Smallpox Had Plunged Them.

Miss Nellie Stone, of Ottawa, and J. F. Duncan, of Oswego, N. Y., were married at Toledo, O., the other day under the most trying circumstances. They had been engaged for some time and the bride-to-be went to Oswego to have the ceremony performed. She stopped with a family, one of whose members was suddenly stricken with smallpox.

The quarantine of the house put the young couple in a quandary. Finally a phonograph was taken to the young woman. She spoke the marriage vows into the machine and it was taken to the office of the health department, where it was disinfected.

Armed with the phonograph Duncan sought a minister and made the responses in the marriage service, while the brass transmitter ejected the vows of the Ohio girl and they were pronounced man and wife. The bride is a contributor to eastern papers and the groom is a newspaper man.”

Happily, it does not appear that the bride ever came down with smallpox.

The Return Of The Typewriter!

We love typewriters; we sell a few of them too. So naturally I noticed this news article about The Times adding the sound of typewriters back into the newsroom. But it isn’t quite what you think…

To the surprise of Times journalists, a tall speaker on a stand has been erected in the newsroom to pump out typewriter sounds, to increase energy levels and help reporters to hit deadlines. The audio begins with the gentle patter of a single typewriter and slowly builds to a crescendo, with the keys of ranks of machines hammering down as the paper’s print edition is due to go to press.

This is only a test, so who knows how it will fare?

Also mentioned in the article is news about the Hanx Writer App from none other than typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks. (You might know him best as a movie star; but he’s a typewriter nerd too!)

Tom Hanks has developed the Hanx Writer app, which simulates the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter and has gone to the top of the iTunes app store in the US. Hanks, it noted, can tell the difference between the sounds of an Olivetti, a Remington and a Royal typewriter model.

Viva la typewriter!

PS More on the Hanx Writer at Mashable.

hanx writer typewriter app

The Beard Tax


We’re at the height of Movember, a charitable movement raising money for men’s health issues like prostate cancer by encouraging men to grow their facial hair while people donate money in amounts appropriate to the growth accomplished.  Sort of like Jump Rope For Heart, but with less panting and leg cramps.   Beards have been used to raise money in the past as well, but in a much different way.


Peter the Great ascended to the tsarist throne of the Russian Empire in 1682, at only ten years old, and by the time he turned twenty he had seen Europe’s cultural and scientific growth and wished the same for Russia.    From a purely superficial stance, one of Peter’s goals was to adopt the dress and style of 17th century Europe.

Until Peter’s modernization push, a thick, bushy Russian beard was a sign of status; when Peter shaved off his beard in the style of au courant European culture, he passed a resolution that encouraged everyone else to follow in kind.

A beard tax was instituted in 1705: men who wished to keep their beard could pay a tax, otherwise men would have to shave.   Men who paid the tax were given a proof-of-payment token to show they had made their payment.

beard-token-obverse-and-reverseMembers of the Boyards received silver beard tax tokens and the lower classes received copper tokens.  A counterstrike indicated if additional years had been paid.  On one side depicted the double-headed eagle of Russia and the words “payment received”, and the reverse showed a nose, mustache and beard with the words ” The beard is an unnecessary burden”.

The tokens are quite rare today and sell for thousands of dollars each.   As one might expect, people interested in keeping their beards without paying the taxes made for a flourishing counterfeit beard token market, so fakes are somewhat common.   Then, in later years, the Russian mints began producing “novodel” replica beard tax tokens, which are “official” as they came from the mint but are not original nor from the correct era.   If you’d just like the pleasure of carrying one around in your pocket to prove your beardiness, you can buy pewter replicas here.







The Fargo Record Fair


Last weekend we went to the Fargo Record Fair, an annual event where you can find all sorts of records.   We, per our budget, bought a bunch of dollar albums.   I was pleasantly surprised: all the vinyl I saw was in really good shape, compared to what I run into at thrift shops and rummage sales.   Very few scratches, even on the bargain bin albums, and a lot of contemporary music.  I’m tired of flipping through a zillion Ferrante and Teicher and Sing-Along with Mitch before getting to the good stuff.


From today’s Main Street on Prairie Public, you can hear (fast-forward to 14:50) Ashley Thornberg interview several of the vendors, particularly Antiques on Broadway’s Uncle Roy, who had a whole room of albums downtown.

Scotty The Pup Desk Accessory

You may have seen these vintage wire desk sets, but chances are you didn’t know they had a name — or at least you probably didn’t know their name. Like many vintage items are found without the boxes, it can be hard to find out the actual name of an item. Thankfully, I found this one boxed so I know this little guy is Scotty The Pup, aka Mac’s Dog.

vintage scotty dog desk secretary

His metal coil body holds letters, his coiled tail holds a pen (or pencil), and you can hang paperclips off his chin. These vintage doggy desk sets came in silver chrome, gold, and matte black finishes. I’ve got one silver, and one black one. The silver desk secretary doggie was an early one; the box is marked that the patent was applied for.

vintage scotty the pup box

Vintage Refrigerator Drawers

I love using old refrigerator drawers and crispers for things. The old metal drawers make great planters. If you’re thinking you’ll be missing fresh herbs from the garden, get yourself one of these old metal fridge drawers and voila! Indoor herb garden!

vintage vegetable drawer planter

I have a pair of blue enamel fridge drawers — with the white plastic “tops” they would slid into inside the appliance — that I use as stack-able organizers on my desk. So much nicer looking that those open in-and-out boxes!

fridge drawers as desk organizers

It’s Not a Ditto Machine

The auction we went to in South Dakota last spring had two rings, so Wifey and I split up to do our buying.   The fun part of this setup is getting to show off all the neat things we bought while the other wasn’t looking.    I bought one of these:

mimeograph machine fargo

“Oh, a Ditto machine — remember that smell?!?” Wifey exclaimed.  She had visions of fuzzy purple-text pages becoming our regular method of correspondence with family and friends, if only for that famous post-printing chemical smell.  Unfortunately, she was close but not quite right: this is a Mimeograph, the teacher’s lounge compatriot of the Ditto machine.

The two processes are quite similar, but about as different as an inkjet printer is from a photocopier.    The Mimeograph process has the same pedigree as the light bulb and the record album.   Thomas Edison patented the process in 1876, and office technology innovator A B Dick licensed the process and developed it into a useful machine.


The Mimeograph works by producing a rather straightforward stencil — a thin sheet with letter-shaped holes in it — which is wrapped around a drum.  The drum has a fabric outer cover with an ink dispenser inside.   The ink is squeezed out through the drum and squirts out through those letter-shaped holes, similar to silkscreening.   Then, like a printing press, the rotating drum picks up a sheet of paper and impresses the ink on the page.    Thus, the Mimeograph has the capability of producing nice, crisp black printing of similar quality to an actual printing press.

Unfortunately, unlike steel letterpress letters, there’s a finite life to the stencil of a Mimeograph machine.   Constant pressing against pages wears away at the thin edges of the text, and things like the open-area in the lowercase ‘e’ and ‘a’ fall out, making solid letters.    A wide variety of methods were developed to create and duplicate stencils, so the combination of speed and quality is exactly why the Mimeograph stayed in use for well over a hundred years.  The technology lives on in the Risograph printing process, which still enjoys a certain fanbase around the world.


The Ditto machine is about 60 years younger than the venerable Mimeograph.  Patented in 1923 by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld, it pulled from an older technology called a Hectograph, which used a gelatin base to hold the ink.   Rather than a sheet of gelatin with the printing pattern set into it, Ritzerfeld’s process turned the system around with the Ditto Master sheet.   While the Mimeograph cut through the master sheet, the Ditto machine left letter-shaped gelatin marks on the back of the master, a mirror-image of the text, in a thick ink-tinted film.

The technical term for the Ditto machine is a ‘spirit duplicator’ due to the use of a combination of alcohol solvents to transfer the ink from the Ditto master to the sheet of paper.   So, when the sheets are “hot off the presses”, so to speak, there’s still enough solvent left in the paper to encourage heavy sniffing.    Because a Ditto master only held so much ink at a time, the copies became progressively blurry and lighter as the print-count increased, but the less messy and significantly cheaper Ditto system  was quite popular for schools, churches, and other budget-conscious organizations.

Mimeograph machine

The Mimeograph machine I bought is in very good shape — it does need a cleaning, and the faint impression of the last document printed on it is a sign of needing the fabric pad replaced, but aside from this it is is good working order.   You can see it — and even turn the handle if you like — in the front window of Fargo’s Antiques on Broadway.


I Am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That?

For less important doodles in text, the kind that go no farther than your desk or refrigerator door, the tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop. Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap like ones you hear in a Starbucks — work may be getting done but it sounds cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.

The sound of typing is one reason to own a vintage manual typewriter — alas, there are only three reasons, and none of them are ease or speed. In addition to sound, there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses.

See on

Vintage Paint By Number Metalware

Combining two of my favorite things, vintage metalware wastebaskets and vintage paint by numbers, what’s not to love about this 1950s paint by number Tole Craft Wastebasket!

Vintage Tole Craft Paint It Yourself No 17 Oriental Teahouse

Frankly, I had no idea metalware came in DIY crafting sets…

So I searched, finding a vintage promotional Tole Craft “Paint-It-Yourself” Art Metalware piece at Pine Street Art Works:


And I found an ad from 1958, listing all eight of Tole Craft’s metalware craft kits: Hanging Picture Tray, Waste Basket, Desk Basket, Chippendale Hanging Tray, Snack Trays, Magazine Rack, Planter Plate, and Tissue Box. I need all of those! Especially the magazine rack.

Now that I do know about these vintage paint by number metalware kits, I’ve saved eBay searches for vintage “tole craft”, and vintage metal paint by number — and I purchased/bid on a couple of kits. *wink*

But I did find and leave a few of these kits for you too. Like these six metal paint by number trays. It’s not a set of six, but three different pairs of trays; a pair of equestrian or horse trays, a pair of floral pattern trays, and two Scandinavian themed trays.

vintage paint by number metal trays

Along with kits by Tole Craft, look for kits and finished pieces by the Morilla Company, and even Family Circle. You’ll find wall sconces, book ends, and maybe more — if you patiently keep looking!

PS I just got this completed paint by number bookend with a heron as a gift for my bird-loving, antique addicted parents! (Shhhh! Don’t tell them!)

vintage paint by number bookend with heron and birds

I Love Trash – Cans

But not just any trash cans, mind you; I love the smaller-sized, vintage and retro trashcans more properly called wastebaskets.

vintage metalware wastebaskets

At first glance, the uninitiated might dismiss these gems for several reasons.

“Eeeiwww, they’re used!” the skeptics recoil. I’ll acknowledge that, like most vintage items, these wastebaskets have been used — and that may mean bits of gum and I’m-too-afraid-to-guess-what-it-is spots. But in all honesty, doesn’t your brand new waste can end up the same? Wash it out as best you can and then stick a liner in it. Starting fresh and clean may seem preferable, but this is recycling. Do we really need landfills filled with old wastebaskets?

“They’re too small to be practical!” is the other complaint I hear. But I assure you they are not too small. They are just the right size to fit in those small but well-used places that you need a receptacle for used tissues, out-dated appointment cards, spent pens, unnecessary receipts, and other useless bits and bobs that pile up on desktops, counters, etc. because folks (not you, I’m sure, but other people you live with wink-wink-nudge-nudge) are too lazy to carry them off and properly dispose of them. Places like bathrooms, bedrooms, foyers… Any room with a desk — in fact, many of these vintage wastebaskets actually fit in that side-space on modern computer desks! The more places you put these little beauties, the less clutter you’ll suffer from.

And they are little beauties.

retro kitsch trash can huge scottie applique

With decades worth of designs, there’s likely sure to be plenty to appeal to you and go with your home decor. Everything from kitschy fun retro wastebaskets with fabric Scottie dog appliques to classic feminine florals — and more.

When it comes to vintage wastebaskets, I prefer the metalware models (but plastic versions are available too). The big name in collectible vintage wastebaskets is Ransburg, but there are other names, less known and so less sought after.

Frances Martin made my blue painted wastebasket with gold flowers; the cans will usually have the name printed on the bottom, centered, like this (hard to read, even when you click and enlarge the photo):

bottom vintage metalware frances martin

My pink texturized waste can is by Pearl-Wick. It has a plastic rim-footer around the bottom which was once gold; but most of that has peeled away, leaving a milky clear band which isn’t noticed when it sits on the carpeted floor in the bedroom.

bottom of vintage pearl-wick wastebasket

The fabric-covered metalware wastebasket — the adorable Scottie on burlap — was made by Creative Made (Hand-Crafted Gifts, Annapolis, Maryland). The paper label remains fixed to the bottom, with the hand written copyright date of 1975; many collectible wastebaskets have lost their tags and so go uncredited, making finding and/or identifying makers difficult.

creative made label 1975

Many vintage wastebasket collectors don’t mind signs of wear, as long as they do not detract too much (like other old things, signs of wear are part of the charm), but in terms of ‘collectible conditions’, the things to look for and avoid are rust, dents, splits at the seams, and damages to paint or other decorations.

To keep your vintage metalware wastebasket in great condition, avoid keeping it in damp or wet places. Cleaning the outside is best done by washing it with a mild dish soap and a soft cloth — and drying it thoroughly. Avoid harsh cleaning products, never use abrasive cleansers; test any cleaning products on the bottom of the can where boo-boos will not be noticed.

For more stubborn spots and marks on the inside you can be more industrious, if you’d like; trash liners will hide scouring marks as well as whatever you can’t remove. Be sure to dry it well.

A word on rust: If you want to slow or stop the spread of rust, you can do so with a very fine steel wool. I don’t recommend doing this on the outside of the can at all; but on the bottom and/or insides you likely can’t make it look any worse. Personally, I just leave it — or avoid buying those cans to begin with.

Some people save less-than-perfect cans for creative gardening, like Kathy Stantz; just know that such use will only further damage the vintage wastebasket — even if you don’t drill drainage holes.

The Magic Of Polavision

I’ve been shopping for “lots” on eBay lately: sellers box up a bunch of low-end things, like cameras or 8mm movies, and then sells them as a set.  I’ve found I can get some pretty cheap fun stuff — plus, the mixed-bags aren’t always described very well, so sometimes you get a surprise.  In a lot of three movie cameras, I got this strange little beast:

It looks about the same size and vintage of Super8 cameras, and upon opening it up I can see it required a film cartridge.  However, the cartridge is too long and too thin to be Super8, or even a cartridge-loading 8mm roll-film camera.  The Polaroid logo on the front should have been my first clue — In the land of Land, Polaroids weren’t the kind of camera that used over-the-counter film formats.  This is a Polavision camera: Polaroid’s first and only foray into self-developing movie film.

Yes, that’s the part that blew my mind:  the magical Polaroid 600 film that everyone shakes like a Polaroid picture is awe-inspiring enough, so doing that at 20 or 30 frames a second blows my mind.  The film was, technically, 8mm film, but it wasn’t the same beast.   The film was pre-loaded in a cartridge, along with a reservoir of developing fluid.  The movie was filmed in a Polaroid camera, like any other normal home movie.   The specialized player did most of the work:  the first time a cartridge was played, the player released the developing fluid, and in 20 seconds the whole movie was ready to be watched.

Polaroid devoted enormous amounts of money and resources into producing these instant-watch films — compared to regular 8mm home movies, which could take days to get back — and when they released it to the market they expected these Polavision cameras to take off like hotcakes.

In 1950, maybe:  color silent movies were the standard of the day, and quick developing would be a big advantage.

In the 1960s,  Super8 film, with a larger frame and better sensitivity, was beginning to take over the market — but Polaroid might have still been able to hold their own.

The Polavision home movie system, unfortunately, debuted in 1977 — the same year the VHS tape broke into the United States market.   Betamax had been around since 1975.  Even Super8 got sound recording in the early 1970s.    The self-developing technology was an enormous breakthrough, but as a personal movie-maker it was about twenty years too late.

The image quality was too poor, even by the low-quality bar that VHS lived with well into the 1990s.  It could only shoot for two minutes at a time, and being locked in a cartridge means no splicing film together into longer movies.   The Polavision film had a very low ISO, so it only worked well in outdoor bright daylight.   The Polavision viewer that was crucial to the development of the film was inadequate for shared viewing, and wasn’t able to project on a large screen.  Pretty much the only advantage the Polavision system had was that magical quick developing, which made it only useful for speed, and not for, you know, enjoyment or artistic creativity.

The Polaroid company was already beginning to implode, even without this huge financial failure;  Land left the company in 1980, and the business struggled to hold on until 2001 when it was sold off to investors, and stopped producing instant film shortly thereafter.   The quick-developing technology didn’t die, though, at least not right away:  Polaroid upscaled the process and loaded into standard 35mm rolls, releasing it as the quick-developing Polachrome instant 35mm slide film.

Just Four Dalers

In 1921, Mr. Farren Zerbe’s photograph hit the news wires, holding what appears to be a large loaf of bread. Not so, says the caption:

Farren Zerbe, of Cincinnati, is holding the world’s largest coin, an old Swedish copper plate. Weight, 6 pounds. Worth $4.

There’s a bunch that’s not right about that caption, but it’s not Mr. Zerbe’s fault. In fact, Mr. Zerbe’s influence in the numismatic world is felt in the weight of his namesake, the Ferren Zerbe Award, the highest award given by the American Numismatic Association. This giant coin was one of 30,000 coins in Zerbe’s collection in 1921, and Zerbe wrote extensively regarding coins and coin collecting. Unfortunately, even with that much knowledge he couldn’t count on an AP writer, aiming for the fewest number of words possible, to correctly identify the gray lump Zerbe was holding in the photo. While the ‘Swedish’ part is right, the rest is a little off. The plate Mr. Zerbe is almost worth four dollars, but only due to a spelling error.

Sweden is a land of natural resources, and one of their greater assets is a vast storehouse of copper. Swedish copper mines have been producing large amounts of the semiprecious metal since the 10th century, and although copper didn’t have the high value of silver and gold, its malleability and usefulness for manufacturing did give the metal a significant value. But, as it has been for centuries until today, copper is only worth a tiny fraction of what the same weight in silver or gold is worth. The fledgling United States considered making one-cent coins out of copper, but found that to have a penny’s worth of copper the coin would be much too large to be useful, somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in size. Going a hundred times that to make a copper dollar would require a wheelbarrow just to buy lunch.

But Sweden was a copper-rich country, and they had wars to pay for, so they began issuing copper “dalers”, the monetary unit of the time. The copper was rolled out and formed into plates of up to 40lbs of copper worth 10 dalers. The plates were not the sort of thing you carried to the corner store to do your shopping; they were for larger-scale commerce, and as such they are less common than other coins from the same time. Sweden used these to keep their economy above water, and since they were put into use for a couple hundred of years they proved that Sweden could use its copper reserves to successfully maintain the nation’s coffers.

When it comes to the value of copper, the AP writer’s math doesn’t quite work out in the picture above. Six pounds of copper, even at $0.12 per pound in 1921 prices, is worth nowhere near the $4 claimed in the photo’s caption. And, the relative rarity of this kind of plate money means at the time it was worth more than $4 on the collector’s market. The intrepid reporter sent to document Mr. Zerbe’s massive money just heard wrong. The unit of money is the daler, which sounds about the same as the U.S. monetary unit over the phone, and this is a four-daler chunk, a simple mistake if you don’t have the benefit of a fact-checker. The value of the daler changed wildly, both due to the nation’s monetary system and the inherent value of the copper, so each plate is marked with its value at the corners and in the center. Like ‘pieces of eight’ and fictional wire-money, the Swedish plate money was designed to be cut into smaller denominations as needed.

Mr. Zerbe may have bent the truth just a little regarding the rarity of his plate of copper, though: the British Museum still has an intact 8-daler plate larger than the Zerbe example, and other similar coins have been pulled from shipwrecks. And then, if you adjust your definition of coin, the people of Yap have something to show Mr. Zerbe. Any which way you cut it, Mr. Zerbe’s large chunk of copper, marked with its value and the seal of the issuing king, is not the kind of thing you accidentally notice in the change bowl on your nightstand. As an interesting cul-de-sac in the history of sovereign money, it’s quite the unique piece, if only because it is a numismatic rarity that can be displayed nicely on the mantlepiece. This old plate money does show up in the market from time to time, and from what I’ve seen it’s mostly rather corroded examples from shipwrecks or buried in somebody’s back yards. The example held by Zerbe in his photo is a surprisingly nice, clean example of the coin, and despite the errors in the caption, he is right to be proud of his big coin.


Of Revolutionary War Items & Revolutionary Bidding

In Philadelphia, PA, Freeman’s auction house reports that “one great history lover” was dedicated to procuring every single item in yesterday’s Historic Muhlenberg Property from a Private Collection auction. The private collector, who wished to remain anonymous, was successful — spending $646,063 to ensure the entire collection would remain together and be added their own private collection of Revolutionary War materials.

This auction contained items from the Muhlenberg family, having descended through the family, which included an extensive archive representing the public and sometimes private lives of Pennsylvania’s leading German family from the period of the American Revolution through the Civil War.

The collection’s signature piece was The Grand Division of Color of the Eighth Virginia, a Regimental flag which descended in the family of the Regiment’s original commander, Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807), the legendary “Fighting Parson”, who served in the Continental Army, as Colonel., Brigadier-General and finally as a Major-General. (His robe was featured on PBS’s History Detectives.)

The flag, which sold for $422,500, is cited in the 1849 biography, The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army by descendant Henry Augustus Muhlenberg. (Henry Augustus Muhlenberg was the son of Henry Augustus Philip Muhlenberg and grandson of Henry Muhlenberg Jr. (1753-1815), General Peter’s brother.) The flag’s description reads as follows on pages 338-339:

The Eighth Virginia Regiment was generally known as the ‘German Regiment.’ By that name it is designated in the Orderly books of Generals Washington and Muhlenberg during the campaigns of 1777, 1778 and 1779….The regimental colour of this corps is still in the writer’s possession. It is made of plain salmon-coloured silk, with a broad fringe of the same, having a simple white scroll in the centre, upon which are inscribed the words, “VIII Virg(a) Reg(t)

Samuel M. “Beau” Freeman II, Freeman’s Chairman and specialist in Americana said, “Revolutionary battle flags are rare and those in private hands are almost unknown or only fragments have survived–this is an extraordinary discovery. Muhlenberg is a legendary hero of the Continental Army and this flag represents his Virginia regiment. This flag pre-dates the Tarleton Colors and may be the last remaining battle flag in private hands.”

Among the lots were hundreds of letters, including historical content concerning the political affairs of U.S. Congressman and diplomat Henry Augustus Phillip Muhlenberg, General Muhlenberg’s letters to his brothers about his military role, several letters from sitting presidents, and a document signed by Benjamin Franklin.

Called “especially illuminating” was the General Order and Brigade Order Book, kept by General Peter Muhlenberg’s orderly from May through November, 1777, a period that encompasses the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. That book set an auction record when it sold for $98,500.

As for the pieces from the Muhlenberg collection remaining together, Lisa Minardi, author of Pastors & Patriots: The Muhlenberg Family of Pennsylvania, Assistant Curator at Winterthur, and the president of The Speaker’s House (a preservation group that overseeing the restoration of Frederick Muhlenberg’s home), said it best. “This collector is my hero! It’s amazing that these items descended in the family and are now staying together in a single collection.”

Watch Your Change

As the world adapts to converting money into bits and bytes that fly across the internet, about the only time I handle cash these days is when doing business.  Yesterday we paid cash to a walk-in selling a Tupperware bin full of costume jewelry at the antique mall, two weeks ago we were sellers at Elkhorn, and all summer we visited rummage sales.   As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of real money, specie and fiat alike, so I keep my eye out for interesting things.  A wheatstraw penny here, a 1950s nickel there, but interesting paper money is rare.  This summer, however, two passed through my wallet.

The first is a bill that’s absurdly unknown to most people even though they’re still printing new ones every couple years.  The ubiquitous $2 bill has confused Taco Bell cashiers for years, and rich people make them into notepads,  but cash register drawers these days don’t even have room for them.  When I was younger I coached chess for a gradeschool and the local chess association charged $3 entry for tournaments — thus, since everything higher than a dollar is multiples of fives, the chessmasters just got $2 bills for change and no singles at all.  The kids always looked at the bill in wonder, and a few parents wondered if they were even legal.  Or extraordinary valuable, since they seem so rare.   One rummage sale this summer gave me this, working on the same principle:

1976 two-dollar billAbout the most unique thing about this bill is that it’s a Series 1976, the first year the modern $2 bill was issued, but half a billion of them were printed at that time.  The proprietor of the rummage sale came up with the idea to give $2s as change was because it reduced the amount of bills to have to count out if she had fewer ones and a bunch of twos.  Makes sense to me!   I should have thought of that when I got change for Elkhorn; the wad of $1 bills gets ungainly by the end of the day.  Which brings me to the other neat bill I received.

I had sold a nice old lady something for $9, and she handed me a well-worn $10 bill.  I made change, but as I began to shove the $10 in with the others, something didn’t seem quite right about it:

At first glance, it could pass for any $10 bill up through the 1990s, but the “Will Pay To The Bearer On Demand” was a clue that I wasn’t looking at your everyday sawbuck.   On closer inspection:

Yup, that says 1934, almost eighty years young and it probably paid for something just about as old from our flea market antique booth.  In this condition, it’s really not worth much more than $10, which is fine by me.   I’d like to think that this old lady had a big roll of threadbare antique money in her purse, paying everybody with bills more than 50 years old.

My guess is that the 1934 bill didn’t actually start out in her pocket — a flea market the size of Elkhorn is a place where lots of money passes hands.  She probably had a stack of $20s from the ATM in her wallet, and she got the 1934 $10 bill in change from one dealer, who received it in a transaction from somebody who got it in change from another booth, and so on, all the way back to the one guy who didn’t notice it in a stack of $10 bills he got from his bank.  When cash starts passing between hands, it moves fast, so be sure to keep an eye on the money in your pockets: you might just find something cool one day.

Stella?!? STELLA!

This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.

Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.

The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.

The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.

Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10.  Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.

The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.

Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.

The Little Brass Box

A few months ago I was driving down I-94, on my way back into town after a work assignment, and I got a call from The Wifey. She had gone to the Fine Arts Club‘s semi-annual rummage sale, and wanted to know when I would be home. She wanted to make sure I’d be back in time to go to the sale before they close, because my expertise and obscure knowledge was required. Never one to back down from a challenge, I knew I had better be back in time.

I made it with plenty of time to spare, and we got to the sale a few minutes before they were about to close. When I arrived, the lovely ladies of the Fine Arts Club, who had already briefed on my talents by my wife, were excited to hear what I could tell them. I was shown this small metal canister:

Everyone was all abuzz about this fabled expert in strangeness, and I wasn’t one to disappoint. I picked up the little container, turned it around in my hands, slid the little door open and closed, and made my assessment.

“I believe it’s a container that held nibs for fountain pens,” I proclaimed. ” See, they eventually wore out — you wanted to keep them sharp — so you had to replace them regularly. You bought a bunch of them at once and these came in this little tin. Usually the tin got tossed out I’ll bet, but this one managed to survive somehow.”

This revelation brought about gasps of “AHA!” and compliments to my wife on the accuracy of her claims of my ability to identify the little box. It had been brought in by a member to be sold, and it had been placed on the antiques table. Many customers had attempted to identify the little canister, but none had reached such a satisfactory description.

Of course, now that I had properly identified the artifact, I was, by their standards, the best possible customer to purchase the tin as well. I could certainly have declined, but I also felt the same curiosity and intrigue that the tin brought everyone else, so I negotiated the price down to $10, and took my new mysterious prize home.

Now, I may have shown an unshakable certainty at the rummage sale, but I wasn’t entirely certain of my answer. Nib packaging is still the best answer I have, but the name of the product made me more interested in the actual origins of the tin.

According to the tin, this belongs to the Atlantic Cable Pen, manufactured by Cutter Tower and Co. of Boston. It was patented in October 1856, and it’s identified as a No. 29 E.F., whatever that might be. It doesn’t give enough information to say whether the pen or just the tin was what the patent was for, and being such an early patent I could find no relevant patent from October 1856 in the online patent records. Cutter Tower and Co was an office supply and stationery distributor, who sold all sorts of writing implements, paper products, and other office equipment, often rebranded as their own. Still, the Atlantic Cable Pen eluded discovery.

The key to the tin came when I connected the 1850s with the atlantic cable — the Trans-Atlantic Cable, that is. Through the 1850s and 1860s several attempts to run a communications cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean were made, with final success arriving in 1867. As a communications revolution, a cable connecting Europe to North America was a big deal, and, well, if I were running a company whose products revolved around interpersonal communication, I’d try to capitalize on it, too.

So, the tin remains a mystery, but here’s what I think it is: With the coming of trans-Atlantic communications, Cutter-Tower Company decided to capitalize on the new technology by branding one of their pens as the “Atlantic Cable” Pen, evoking the future of communications. Just as “HD” is used inappropriately or 7-segment displays were added to analog equipment to call them “digital”, piggybacking your product on the buzzwords of cutting-edge technology is a tried-and-true road to success. Had the 1857 attempt to run a cable succeeded, Cutter-Tower might have had a big-seller on their hands, but it was ten years before a cable made it from one end to the other intact. I’d also guess that the patent is on the unique and charming container design, but was displayed prominently to encourage the idea that somehow the Atlantic Cable Pen was a new technology. In the end, it was an average pen, needing new tips, and the tin, and all it’s fancy design, was to sell a rather commonplace pen to the masses.

As a bonus, here’s what was inside:

This tin one belonged to Bessie Bayless, from Pennsylvania and Ohio. From the Atlantic telegraph lines, to Pennsylvania and Ohio, to the Fine Arts Club in Fargo, North Dakota, and finally into the hands of someone who obsesses over trivial mysteries, this tin is more than just a holder of nibs: it’s a world traveller and a mystery for the ages — and it’s mine.

Wire Money of Earth and Elsewhere

All I know of A Game of Thrones is that the series, which I cannot watch due to a lack of HBO and/or time to devote, looks totally awesome. As with most stories with a devoted set of followers, the replica-makers come up with some pretty amazing stuff. A small mint has produced a set of Game of Thrones money, and I was particularly taken by the Dothraki Puli. This is a “chain” of coins, minted from a single strip of precious metal and designed to be left together as one piece of money, or cut off smaller denominations as needed. I was surprised to see the note from the maker, which says these coins were based on a Russian coin style that was used for nearly a millennium.

The common method for minting a coin is to start with a planchet or flan. This is a disk of the right size and weight for the intended coin, punched from a rolled-flat sheet of precious metals or cast from a blank mold. The disk is then placed between two dies, and are pressed or pounded to leave an impression of the obverse and reverse on each side of the blank. This tends to be more accurate for creating uniform size and weight of coins, although sometimes in the past the coins were cast with their fronts and reverses from the start, but that varied and depended on the material. Bronze, for instance, was a bit too hard for die striking and were cast entirely.

Beginning around 980AD, minters in Russia came upon a novel method of minting coins. They found that it was easier to control the uniformity of thickness and quality by starting with a wire of the precious metal, then cut it into lengths of the right weight, and then strike the coin from those wire chunks. Although the wire was flattened before the die striking, it gave the ‘wire money’ a unique look, oblong with obvious blunt ends were the wire had been cut off. This unique shape earned these coins the name ‘fish scales’ in the Russian language. The simplicity of the process kept it in use until the 17th century and the introduction of modern minting processes, and the last of these coins were made in the early 1700s.

You’ll note that this is quite a bit different than the fanciful Game of Thrones coins above, which retained their wire-like form. Actual minters and financiers would realize a large flaw in the Thrones money quite readily if it were ever used in practice. The weight of a coin in precious metals is something that requires uniformity to ensure that the coin can be trusted to be an accurate payment. “Reeded” edges on coins are designed to foil coin-shavers, people who cut off small amounts off the edges of coins to collect the precious metal and then spend the now-smaller coins at face value. Now, take a look at the Game of Thrones coins. If you were to pull out your string of wire money, you could snip off the requested denomination slightly smaller than needed, and hope that the merchant doesn’t check the weight. Then, you take the extra-long end you just made, and trim it off a little smaller than it should be, too. Do that enough, you get to keep a bunch of the copper or silver while shortchanging the people you do business with. Even the ‘pieces of eight’ were not commonly actually cut into eight pieces, at least not in common money dealings. I suppose, on far-off Westeros, they may have a different way of dealing with these fancy currency, but here on Earth we’re less trusting of hand-cut coins. Although the Shire Post website doesn’t currently have any of their wire coins for sale, real antique Russian wire coins are actually quite plentiful, and can be purchased many places for just a few dollars each.

Bid On Abraham Lincoln’s Hair

Also part of the Americana Signature Auction, is an antique photographic case containing a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair opposite an albumen portrait of the president.

Upon Lincoln’s death, apparently a number of locks of the President’s hair were removed as mourning keepsakes. This lock of Lincoln’s hair is approximate 3″ long and ranges in width from 1/2 to 1/8 inches. A small black bow has been added and the spine of the embossed leather case has been repaired with black tape. There’s “impressive” provenance for this historical auction offering as well. Heritage Auction’s estimate is $8,000 – $12,000.

The Americana Signature Auction will be held on May 12, 2012, in Dallas; absentee bidding ends May 11, 2012 at 10:00 PM CT.

Mercury Stamps: Then and Now

Fifty years ago last week, John Glenn orbited the Earth three times and splashed down five hours later…which was the signal for the US Post Office to release their commemorative stamp.  When the stamp was announced, Will Black got his mom to drive to the post office to get some of his own, and that got him in the newspaper:

Fifty years later, Mr Black still has those stamps…well, four of the block of six he originally got.   He parted ways with two of the stamps over the years, but the newspaper shows the proof of his original purchase.

$7.4 Million Brasher Doubloon

18th Century US coins are quite difficult to find. The Mint wasn’t even established until the 1790s, and until that time coins were minted from precious metals by foreign countries or private mints, and valued based on weight. Ephraim Brasher was one of those early minters, and in 1787 he created what we call today the “Brasher Doubloon”. Weighing at about an ounce, just the gold in a Brasher Doubloon would be worth over a thousand dollars just by weight, but the rarity of coins from that era drives the value up. Just last month, one of Brasher’s Doubloons was sold by Blanchard & Co for a record-setting $7.4 million dollars.

This particular Brasher Doubloon is the rarest of the seven known to exist. The other six Doubloons are marked with Brasher’s ‘chop-mark’ on the wing, but this coin, known as the DuPont Specimen, was stamped in the center of the coin, over the eagle’s shield. Aside from being one of the rarest gold American coins know, this particular coin has had an adventurous life of its own. On October 6th, 1967, thieves stole the Doubloon, along with many other valuable coins, from the collection of millionaire Willis DuPont. Although many of the coins were not recovered for many years, the DuPont Brasher’s Doubloon was recovered only a year later during a sting operation in Miami.

Since then, this Brasher Doubloon has been living a quiet life, exchanging hands a few times, and increasing in value with each sale. It doesn’t make it the rarest or most valuable of Brasher’s coins, though: Brasher also made a Half-Doubloon, of which only one known example exists.

Vintage Floaty Souvenir From 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo, Japan

Those oil-filled pens and other objects with moveable images are called “floating action,” “tilt” or “action” items — or just plain old “floaty” collectibles. These simple but fascinating things have been popular souvenir and promotional give-away items since the process was invented in the late 1940s. Pens are the most common floaty items, but pencils, letter openers and nearly anything with a cylindrical handle have been made over the years. This example, a key chain (plastic barrel is 3 3/4 inches long; standard 1 inch key ring), is a souvenir from the 1964s Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan.

Many people know of the Esso oil drum floaty pen by Eskensen, which is called the first floating action pen. But that’s not entirely true… Many attempts had been made before this, and by many other companies and inventors too. But it was Peder Eskesen who successfully found a method of sealing the oil-filled tubes that didn’t have chronic leaking problems. So the Esso pen might be best called the first commercially successful floating action item.

There are three variations on floating action:

The first and oldest type consists of an oil-filled chamber with at least one light object that simply floats; like a snow globe, a shake or movement makes the objects float about.

Next came the “conceal and reveal” type, in which graphics magically appear or disappear on the side of the pen as it is tipped from side to side. These are most commonly recalled as the “tip and strip” pens, in which tipping the pen causes the clothing on the female to disappear, revealing a partially clad or nude figure behind.

The third type is called photoramic float. In these floaty items, the liquid-filled chamber has at least one small pane of film with a graphic design floating inside the liquid; tipping or moving the item causes the panes to float up and down the chamber’s length, creating an animation. The more panes of film, the more fascinating the animation. Eskesen obtained the patent for manufacturing pens this way in 1955.

Souvenir floaty collectibles — vintage and new — are more likely to be found than advertising or promotional ones. Many promotional floaty pens and other items were created for in-house use, to thank employees, vendors, etc., and therefore were made in smaller quantity and so typically bring higher prices. Even true advertising items and promotional premiums for the public are less common because these usually were utilitarian items made to be used and given away so that the recipient would use the items and in doping so would be reminded of the company or brand on the piece. Such utilitarian use, however, means that many of these items were just tossed away — even more often than souvenir and travel items which, even without sentimentality, were purchased and therefore given a higher value.

Photos of the 1964 Olympics key chain is from my eBay listing.