Terry Kovel, Published August 14 2009
Schoolmaster desks not used with chairsSchoolteachers – or, as they were called in the early 19th century, schoolmasters – stood in front of the class at a special schoolmaster’s desk. It was not used with a chair. The slanted desktop had a book ledge to hold a book so it could be easily read. Usually the top opened and the inside had cubbyholes and other storage space. Many desks also had shallow drawers. Legs were plain and straight. Although desks were about 39 inches high, they could be customized to the height of the schoolmaster.
By the end of the 19th century, teachers used desks with chairs. Old schoolmaster desks often are used today by people with bad backs who like to stand while working. They are still being made.
Q: Among my many antiques is an old Chinese export tea pitcher. It dates from the late 1700s, I think, and has a mysterious picture of an eye on the bottom of the inside. Any idea why?
A: When we first started collecting years ago, Chinese export porcelain was very popular and expensive, but research into the patterns had just started. Several discoveries were reported that sounded like myths. We know the porcelain was ordered by people in the United States, England and other western countries. A customer sent a written order to China with a description or picture of the coat-of-arms or decorations wanted. About a year later, the finished dishes came back across the ocean. People who ordered dishes often found mistakes and a number of off-color decorations. One mistake supposedly was a plate decorated in black and white with a border design and the words “paint this blue, paint this red.” Of course the Chinese craftsman couldn’t read English and he just copied the “design.” Another tale was that someone sent Benjamin Franklin a lewd joke, a potty decorated with an eye in the bottom that would “see” his unmentionable body parts. We have seen these porcelain pieces, one in a museum and the other in a photograph. What the joke could be about an eye in the bottom of a tea pitcher we can’t imagine. Perhaps it was a pitcher for an alcoholic drink and the eye is watching to see if the user is drunk. But it certainly would be a pricey Chinese export rarity.
Q: I own an aluminum relief sculpture of a half-kneeling man caressing two children, a boy and a girl. It’s 16 inches high by 7 inches wide and is signed by William Zorach. I haven’t been able to find out much about his work. Please help.
A: William Zorach (1889-1966) was born in Lithuania but immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 4 years old. He grew up in Cleveland and studied painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art and in Paris. He started sculpting in 1917 and later taught sculpture at the Art Students League in New York City. Zorach was a very prolific artist. He painted watercolors and sculpted many small works as well as large public sculptures. His “Man and Work” relief sculpture is mounted on a Mayo Clinic building in Rochester, Minn. Take your aluminum sculpture to an art appraiser or museum so an expert can judge its authenticity and quality. A
15¾-inch Zorach aluminum relief sculpture on a mahogany plaque auctioned for $10,800 in 2004.
Q: Is my Shmoo toy collectible? It must be 70 years old.
A: Shmoos are fictional cartoon characters introduced in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip in 1948. They’re amorphous and prolific creatures who look like fat bowling pins. They wanted to make everyone happy – if a human was hungry, a shmoo would jump into a frying pan so it could be eaten. The popularity of shmoos led to the sale of more than 100 licensed products, including dolls, salt and pepper shakers, pins, clocks, banks, bottles and even air fresheners. Shmoo items are sought by a small group of collectors – particularly those who remember reading the original “Li’l Abner” strip. Prices of shmoo collectibles depend on rarity and condition.
Q: Among the sterling silver flatware handed down to me I found a small piece that’s a mystery. The handle is similar to that of a spoon or fork, and the bottom looks like a small blunt knife blade. But the “blade” is attached horizontally to the handle, not vertically like a knife blade. What is it?
A: Your sterling piece is a “food pusher” designed to help a child push food onto a spoon. Food pushers were made toward the end of the Victorian era, from about 1850 to 1900. They were considered safer than forks for children. Many American silver companies made food pushers, but they weren’t included in large silver services. They were sold individually, often as baby gifts.
Check your antique dolls regularly to be sure no insects have moved into the sawdust filling or tasty wool fabrics.
Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions.
- Spurs, heavy wrought-steel rowels, exterior face inlaid with engraved silver, tooled leather straps, c.1920s, 7½ inches, $585.
- Cut glass ice-cream tray, Old Irish pattern, 15½x9½ inches, $600.
For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s Web site, www.kovels.com
The volume of mail makes personal answers or appraisals impossible. Write to Kovel, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.