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Terry Kovel, Published April 01 2011

Kovel: Playing tricks is nothing new, old items show

April Fools’ Day is “celebrated” in most countries today, but historians don’t know where or how it began.

Remember switching sugar and salt to fool your family? Or calling the drugstore to ask if they had “Prince Albert in the can”? “Yes?” “Well, let him out” was the hilarious answer used by kids on April 1. (Prince Albert was a popular tobacco brand.) And, of course, you had to be careful what you believed that day – newspapers and radio and TV news shows all liked to plant fake stories.

Our ancestors played jokes all year long. One famous 18th-century joke was the puzzle jug, usually found in a pub. It was a mug or pitcher with a handle, but the top half of the mug was pierced. If you drank from it, the liquid dribbled out of the holes onto your shirt. Those “in the know” could empty the mug without spilling a drop. The mug had a rounded rim that was actually a hollow tube that led into the hollow handle and to the inside of the mug. Just suck on the spout in the rim and you could get a drink.

Some mugs were more complicated and had several spouts in the rim, so you had to know which ones to block with your finger. If the holes were left open, no liquid came through the “straw.” This type of puzzle mug is still being made to play a trick on April Fools’ Day or at a drinking party at any time.

Q: I read somewhere that some phonograph records were made of chocolate candy and could actually be played on a phonograph. Is this true?

A: Stollwerck, a German chocolate manufacturer, made chocolate disc records and a phonograph that played them. Franz Stollwerck (1815-76) founded the company in Cologne, Germany, in 1839. Its first products were cough drops. In 1860 the firm’s product line was expanded to include chocolate, gingerbread and marzipan. In 1903 Stollwerck made chocolate records that could play music on an 8 ½-inch horn phonograph operated by a clock motor. The records were 3 inches in diameter. The phonographs broke easily and their sound quality was not good, but at least the records were edible. The phonographs and records are collectible today, but not many survived. Even advertising material related to them is hard to find. The company is still in business making chocolate. A sad note: One of Stollwerck’s sons died when a steam-operated chocolate blending machine he was working on exploded and he drowned in a vat of chocolate.

Q: I collect opera glasses. Most of the vintage ones I see are made with mother-of-pearl. What else should I look for?

A: Opera glasses date back to the 1700s, when they were just a single eyepiece. The first binoculars, two cylinder-shaped parts with a lens in each, were made in about 1825. A piece connected the cylinders so they could comfortably sit on the nose. The focusing wheel was used even then. By the 19th century, opera glasses were made with enameled decoration, gold, gemstones and more. They were made to be seen by others at the opera while helping the owner see the opera. Makers in the United States, France, Austria and Russia made beautiful opera glasses that can be found at shows and auctions today. They are still being made.

Q: I have an old postcard that has a drawing of a man carrying a grandfather clock into a pawnshop. There are three balls hanging outside the shop. Aren’t they the symbol of a pawnshop? How did that start?

A: There are several stories connected with the pawn brokers’ symbol. The three hanging balls were first used during the Middle Ages to symbolize money or wealth and may have represented coins. Most think it was a symbol used by the Medici, a wealthy family in Florence, Italy. The Medici family, which included merchants, bankers, popes and politicians, established the Medici Bank, one of the most important financial institutions in Europe, in the 15th century. Some say that merchants in Lombard, Italy, hung balls in front of their houses. The custom of using three balls in front of pawnshops began in Italy and spread to the rest of Europe and eventually to the United States. Although the symbol is no longer common in the United States, it is still used in England. Different symbols are used for pawnshops in Asian countries. The number 7 with a circle around it is used in Japan. A bat, the symbol for fortune, holding a coin is used in Hong Kong.

Tip

Don’t move a bed all by yourself unless the bed is on wheels. You may cause stress on one of the bed’s joints and break it. Of course, you could also stress your own joints.


For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s website, www.kovels.com

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