A Victorian Candle-lit Christmas
Before the Victorian era in America, Christmas was not uniformly celebrated. In the Pilgrim century, Puritans even banned Christmas because it was considered pagan. Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a holiday in 1836, but after the Civil War ended, Americans longed for a celebration that united families and conveyed peace and good will: Christmas. The last state to recognize Christmas as a holiday was Oklahoma in 1890. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – published in 1843 and performed by Dickens himself to sold-out theater crowds in 1867 and 1968—captured the culture’s imagination about the celebration and meaning of Christmas.
Christmas trees were known as far back as the 1300s, but the German settlers of Pennsylvania brought to America the custom of decorating trees. A clever farmer from the Catskills named Mark Carr drove two oxen-pulled sleds piled with fir trees to New York City in 1851, and sold every one of them for Christmas trees. By the 1880s, there were some 400 Christmas tree peddlers in New York City, and by 1900, twenty percent of American homes featured a Christmas tree.
But what’s a tree without ornaments and lights? Some historians believe that the tradition of lighting the tree originates with Martin Luther, who attached candles to a fir tree to “remind children of heaven,” by one legend, to honor the birth of Christ, by another, or to imitate star-lit heaven by yet another version.
Before electric lights were invented in the early 20th century, some people clipped candle holders with lit candles onto Christmas tree branches—sometimes called “fairy lights.” They blew the flames out after about ten minutes or else the inevitable happened– the tree caught fire, then the curtains, then the house.
”Protection for Christmas Tree Candles.” Scientific American Magazine. November 28, 1908.)
A clever tinkerer named O.H. Rutherford invented a glass cylinder to contain the open flame and prevent Christmas tree fires. “It is foolishly dangerous,” the ad reads, to risk fire from the unprotected candles lights “commonly seen on Christmas trees.” Oddly, Rutherford’s invention arrived nearly a decade after electric Christmas tree bulbs were available. That’s because it took a few years for the public to both comfortable with electric lights, and for the lights to be affordable.
Edison invented the light bulb around 1879 (or at least he was the inventor who ran with the idea), and only a year later he strung lights outside of his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ. Eureka! (Did a cartoon light bulb appear above Edison’s head when he got that idea?)
Edison’s friend, Edward Johnson, who was Vice President of the Edison Electric Company, reportedly was the first to use electric lights on his Christmas tree in 1882. He wrapped his tree with a hand-wired strand of 80 red, white, and blue bulbs, a “scintillating evergreen…one can hardly imagine anything prettier,” a journalist wrote.
Just three years later, in 1895 President Grover Cleveland lit the White House Christmas tree with hundreds of colored bulbs. By 1898, the first ads for Christmas tree lights appeared in magazines, but people were still fearful of electric lights. In these pictures from Puck Magazine dated 1900, 1904, and 1906–twenty-four years after Edward Johnson lit his tree with electric bulbs–the illustration still shows a Christmas tree lit with candles.
At first, electric Christmas tree lights were affordable only by the wealthy. You had to hire a “wireman,” now known as an electrician to hook up your tree lights. By some estimates, it may have cost $2000 in today’s dollars to wire-up a Christmas tree. That may not have left much money for the presents under the tree.
In 1903, General Electric began selling pre-assembled Christmas tree light kits – “No Danger, Smoke or Smell” the ad assured–and slowly the “miniature lamps” for Christmas trees caught on with Americans. Early lights were made by glass makers in France, Germany, Austria, Russia, and some American manufacturers, who developed fancier “figural” lights for the consumer market over time.
The first electric tree lights were made with the base at the bottom (the part of the bulb that screws into a socket), so the lights tended to topple over. Japanese glassmakers improved the design and put the base on top of the figure, so the light hung properly.
Flower and animal figural lights with the base at the bottom. Photo courtesy Bill and George Nelson www.oldchristmastreelights.com
The Santa Claus, clown, and Orphan Annie bulbs, circa 1930, have the base at the top. I bought these at the Antiques Garage in New York City– $25.00 for all three. Two of these ornaments are heavier milk glass, while Orphan Annie is hand-painted on clear glass. These ornaments vary in value based on age, condition, and rarity.
Circa 1930s figural Christmas tree lights
Now you can buy cheap strands of tiny Christmas lights, icicle lights, or even novelty lights that are reproductions of the 1940s “bubble lights”— like these authentic ones picture below.
Authentic 1940s bubble lights. Photo courtesy Bill and George Nelson www.oldchristmastreelights.com
Perhaps it’s time to bring some “character” back to Christmas tree lights. While a clever “wire man” (or woman!) might be able to rewire the early bulbs for lighting, even unlit, antique Christmas tree lights make charming ornaments. Happy Holidays!
August is vacation month, and many people are out enjoying themselves and spending money–maybe perusing antiques stores and flea markets, or going to outdoor antiques fairs, like one of my favorites, the Maine AntiquesFestival in Union, Maine, which is the site of one chapter of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money. (Celebrity sightings there the last year I worked the show with Curt Avery: Genie Francis, who played Laura on General Hospital, and Jamie Wyeth, the artist, who bought some very nice antiques from Curt Avery.)
So for everyone on vacation looking for great souvenirs, I’m posting a Letterman-like list–”The Top Ten Reasons to Buy Antiques”– which is one of my favorite articles by Holly and Andrew, “The Young Antiques Collectors,” a husband and wife team of antiques dealers, writers, experts, who write a column for Maine Antiques Digest, and have a fantastic blog: Thanks to Holly and Andrew for permission to post this list.
It’s fly season in Maine (also mosquito, no-see-um, greenhead, tick, and other insect pest season). What to do? If it were the 1920s, you’d fumigate your house with Fly-Tox. Those fat buzzing houseflies aren’t just annoying–they are vomiting all over your house… possibly in your cake and pie. Just look! (click to enlarge).
Dr. L.O. Howard, who the ad says was “unquestionably America’s most distinguished entomologist,” testified that flies ingest disgusting things–like the “exreta of typhoid patients”–and then they regurgitate those filthy germs in “small droplets” of matter called “vomit spots.”
(Sidenote: Dr. L.O. Howard — Leland Ossian Howard–really was a leading entomologist, with many national and international honorary degrees and awards. He was an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1878 to 1931, and helped bring entomology “from a nebulous state” to recognition as a legitimate branch of biological science. He was also an “international ambassador for entomology!” Source: Annual Review of Entomology, 1978. 23:1-15.)
Here is the text directly from the ad that will make you think twice about eating cake left out on the counter. (click to enlarge):
I asked my friend, Nancy, who is a wildlife biologist (yes, flies are wildlife) if it was true that flies puked all over your house. She showed me her windowsill and pointed to ACTUAL FLY VOMIT SPOTS! And she had not washed them off! (As a field biologist, she has a very high tolerance for the incursion of wildlife into her home.)
Below are the fly vomit spots on Nancy’s windowsill, and the offending fly! (click to enlarge). I paid $2.00 for the Fly-tox ad because I thought it was cool, but look at what I learned…wash your windowsills! Have fun locating fly vomit in your own home.
I have other flies in my house, too–these very cool vintage tin insect pins made in Japan. I bought these for $1 at a flea market and now they adorn the wall in my office. Inspiring!
What is it about warm crispy bread, the staff of life, the stuff of breakfast? The pleasure of my repast this morning –peanut butter on whole-grain toast– reminded me I’ve been wanting to write about vintage toasters. But first a little about toast, or ‘tost,” as it was called in Britain in the Middle Ages.
A stick, a fire, a slab of bread–that was the humble origin of toast. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, people got fancy, a sort of toast enlightenment, and toppings were added: eggs, ham, cinnamon, and that favorite of anglophiles everywhere — cheese. My father and I ate many pieces of toast with melted cheese in pubs in Ireland on our trip in the mid 1980s. It sopped up the excess Guinness! The French improved toast considerably with an egg-bath: Voila! French toast. (French toast, or pain perdu, originates in Medieval France, when egg and milk were used to revive stale or “lost” bread.)
Toasters were primitive at first. Note the cage-like toasting device below–that’s some smoky-flavored toast. (Click on image to enlarge.)
"Making Tea and Toast for Mrs. Underwood," photo by William Lyman Underwood, circa 1896 in Duck Lake Maine. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Art Museum.
Thanks to Thomas Edison (and others), we can now make toast indoors. Toasting bread is a chemical process that involves a Maillard reaction — at about 310 degrees Farenheit, sugars and starches in bread react with amino acids and carmelize or “toast” the bread. (As you are crunching your toast, think of Louis Camille Maillard, who discovered the process in 1912. He joined the science faculty at the University of Nancy at the age of 16! Doesn’t that make you feel like an under-achiever? Toast his achievement by eating more toast.)
Here’s a c. 1915 advertisement for a toaster that was meant to sit right on your dining table. Thes toaster (bottom left), and the other electric appliances, will bring “lasting happiness,” said the power company on the way to the bank. (Click on image to enlarge.) Toasters were expensive back then. Today, this toaster would cost $118 (converting the buying power of a dollar from 1915 to 2010). Toast is worth it, I say!
Some toasters are works of art, like these (below) created during the Design Age in America. These toasters were for sale by Michael Sheafe, historian, repairman, and dealer of vintage and collectible toasters (www.toastercentral.com). I met him at a flea market in New York City. He generously shared his knowledge of toasters, and allowed my friend, Nancy, to take these great photos.
- Vintage and collectible toasters from dealer, Michael Sheafe, at www.toastercentral.com.
1930s single slice toaster, Westinghouse, from dealer, Michael Sheafe www.toastercentral.com
Look at the beautiful detail on this 1930s Westinghouse model (right).
Mid-20th century toaster models. Remember these? Nancy (photographer) has one from this era that still works great.
Some people collect toasters, but at least one guy collects toast–The Toast Guy! (www.toastguy.com) He doesn’t collect any old ordinary toast, but toasts in which appear uncanny images of idols, religious icons or in his case, celebrities, too. This phenomenon is called paraeidolia (para is Greek for “alongside, beside, or instead” and eidolia comes from eidolon, which means “image, form, or shape.”) Instead of toast you have, say, Jesus in the form of bread (which, transubstantiation-wise, seems appropriate).
The online casino, GoldenPalace.com, paid $28,000 in 2004 on eBay for a toasted cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. The toast had been owned for ten years by Diane Duyser of Florida, who claims that the sandwich had “never gone moldy” since she’d cooked it a decade before, even though she’d stored it in a plastic box.
If you are not so lucky to have a holy or otherwise recognizable image appear in (on?) your toast, have no fear, you can make your own.
My friend, Ellen, gave me this plastic mold. It’s the size of a slice of bread, and manufactured in China by some company or guy named “Fred.” I tried it once but it didn’t work well on whole-grain bread. For some things, like the visage of the Virgin Mary in your toast, I guess you just need Wonderbread.
Sources: www.foodtimeline.org (specifically the Oxford Companion to Food entry; www.toasters.org (The Toaster Museum Foundation); www.toastguy.com (The Toast Guy); The Smithsonian Institution; www.toastercentral.com (Michael Sheafe); BBC News; and of course, wikipedia.
The paperback edition of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money was released on May 29, 2012, with a fantastic new cover design and even a more user-friendly subtitle: “An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques and Collecting.”
The paperback cover features a mid-19th century Staffordshire porcelain hound dog figurine (especially cool because of the creature’s enigmatic expression and fine detail), a white “jasperware” Wedgwood coffee cup and saucer, and a toy Union soldier whose 34-star flag reads in tiny print (zoom in): 11th Regt. NJ. In 1862, 344 men “mustered in” to the 11th New Jersey Infantry Regiment and engaged in 29 battles, including the battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Sadly, only 95 men “mustered out” on July 1865 (of these, 107 were killed by disease or accidents, and 142 killed in battle). The 34-star flag this soldier figure holds became the official U.S. flag on July 4, 1861 after a star was added for the state of Kansas, admitted to the union on January 29, 1861. Lincoln was the only president to serve under this 34-star flag, which lasted two years.
In antiques, especially furniture, so much of the value and story of a piece is in the “surface.” Curt Avery and Tucker Small (pseudonyms for two dealers in my book) explained to me the meaning and differences in an “attic” and “crusty” surface, paint or no paint, wear patterns or no wear–you can judge an antique partly by its surface.
They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover of a book draws us inside to the story.
The design for the hardcover, along with the title, confused some people who at first glance thought the book was a murder mystery: a head on a chair in a gloomy setting, with the title “Killer Stuff”– it’s easy to see the confusion. I experienced this confusion first-hand at book signings.
The new cover is wonderful, and inside is the same great story. I’m happy to say that Killer Stuff and Tons of Money was recently selected as a 2012 “Must Read” book by the Massachusetts Center for the book.
And the hardcover, in spite of the confusion over the cover image, was a “Favorite Book of 2011″ in the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Jose Mercury News, The Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and San Francisco’s BeyondChron, among others.
Thank you to all the readers who purchased the hardcover and recommended the book to friends.
I received a lovely letter from a reader with a beautiful name, Posie Dauphiné, of Blowing Rock, North Carolina (and what a poetic town name, too). She says, “It never occured to me to buy other than antiques when I was young and newly married and then with a young family. I’m 74 now, so I guess I’m the hard core old guard.”
I couldn’t agree more–I buy antique, vintage, used objects whenever possible–both for the aesthetic, that funky look, but also for environmental conservation–reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurpose! In a great example of repurposing, Poise sent me a picture of a quilt she made with men’s suit coats, buttons and all. It’s a lovely piece of folk art and a great new life for old coats.
Posie's Quilt of Men's Suit Coats
I used to wear men’s suitcoats in college, and still have one or two that were repurposed as short coats (cut off to be waist coats). I still have a mustard-colored plaid suit coat, though rarely have the occasion to dress “funky” anymore–or maybe I’m too old for that look.
One more thought from another reader, Terry Leja (no return address so I couldn’t write back, Terry):
“As a ‘junker,’ a.k.a. collector, I loved the stories in your book. Following Curt Avery was splendid…I think often of buying new and say why? A table, a plate, a picture has a story to tell me if I will listen. The only new things I buy are mattresses and underwear.”
That’s a woman after my own heart, as they say.
This short video shows images of some of the objects mentioned in Killer Stuff and Tons of Money
Watch Video Here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF-Y5ZvJclg
The video was produced by the University of Missouri to accompany their article about my book, ”Bazaar America.” You can read the article here, http://illumination.missouri.edu/f11/bazaar_america
Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF-Y5ZvJclg
I wanted to share this great letter I received from Rob Dickson of New Jersey, which is both heartfelt and humorous. Thanks for writing Rob!
Greetings Ms. Stanton,
When I was a teenager I use to get up at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. on weekends (strange for a teen, I know) and head out to any flea markets or estate sales I could find. My purchases were mainly to fuel whatever current collecting jag I was caught up in at the moment.
I’m in my fifties now and long ago discovered that, “Hey…maybe I could sell some of this crap.” This was long before the advent of eBay or the internet for that matter.
This for me has been a long time passionate “hobby,” one that has taught me numerous things about the “things” that I find interesting. My main foray has been mid-20th century kitsch, items most folks would scoff at. For example I’m fascinated by a simple vintage appliance such as a toaster from the 1930s or 40s. These were more often than not commissioned to an industrial designer of that era by the various manufacturers. A guy who builds skyscrapers is designing an appliance that browns a piece of bread. Something you could accomplish with a stick and an open flame. A lot even looked like a skyscraper and are still functioning today, 75 years later. Some of these pieces I use every day.
Amazing. I could go on but I would like to get to the point.
I just finished your book “Killer Stuff.” It was incredible. It took me a long time to read because of all of the information. I was practically using it as a reference text book. Over the years I have befriended several “Averys” although none would ever allow me into their fold. Unlike Avery and the generosity of his knowledge to whomever needed it, these guys treat the business like covert spies for the CIA. Nonetheless I have never come close to the “hits” that these guys have. The way you told this story was extraordinary. I felt as though I was right there in the fields with you and Avery. I have experienced your stories many times and you were spot on. Hopefully your tale will enlighten the Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers addicts that think what they see on TV is sitting all dusty up in their attics. Those type of shows have always struck me as staged and not what it’s like in the real world of antiques.
I really like and respect Avery and I too share his connection with the past. I also like you and the way you endured his life style. You have written an astonishingly interesting as well as informative story. One that I’m sure I will read again. And again.
Rob Dickson, Longport, NJ
P.S. I sold a 1970s AT&T black Princess Phone (not the coveted pink one) that still lit up for $550 a couple of years ago. Maybe that would impress Curt Avery…well, maybe not.
I received this information today–yet another new show about “stuff.” We are in a new Age of Collecting. In fact, I think there should be a t.v. network for stuff that is the equivalent to the Food Network. Here’s the latest–a series that showcases collectors and their collections. If you want to be on t.v. with your collection, here’s the info.
National Cable Network and the producers of “My Collection Obsession” are currently looking for serious and dedicated collectors of all kinds. Is collecting a part of your daily life? Are parts of your collection in every room of your house? Do you have unique and special objects that you are extremely proud of? Then you may be the perfect fit for this exciting new series!
- COLLECTORS MUST RESIDE WITHIN THE UNITED STATES & U.S. TERRITORIES/CANADA.
- YOUR COLLECTION MUST EITHER BE TRULY GRAND IN SCALE, EXTREMELY UNIQUE OR RARE, OR HAVE AN AMAZING BACK STORY.
- COLLECTING MUST BE PART OF YOUR LIFESTYLE, NOT JUST A SMALL SIDE HOBBY.
IF INTERESTED, PLEASE SEND A DESCRIPTION OF WHAT YOU COLLECT, AND WHY AND HOW YOU DO SO TO MYCOLLECTIONOBSESSION@GMAIL.COM IF AVAILABLE, PLEASE ALSO INCLUDE ANY PHOTOS, ARTICLES, OR VIDEOS THAT WILL HELP US ASSESS THE EXTENT OF YOUR COLLECTION. ALL SUBMISSIONS WILL BE KEPT FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY.
Jessica Ribeiro, Associate Producer, MY COLLECTION OBSESSION (212)784 7740 ext 420 email@example.com
I love that Erik, who deals in ephemera, wrote an actual letter on paper and mailed it with a stamp. Letter writing is a lost art in the advent of email. What a pleasure to get a letter in the mail! Click to enlarge image.
I received a wonderful snail mail letter from a reader, Erik C. Powell, a dealer and “enthusiast” of Sports Memorabilia, Trading Cards, Confederate Currency, Civil War collectibles, militaria, and ephemera (paper objects–never meant to be kept, which is why it’s so cool that some have lasted for centuries). The letter sat in my mailbox in Missouri for two months while I was in Maine for the summer, so it was a lovely surprise upon my return to the Midwest. Erik gave me permission to share his letter.
The “piece of history” that Erik mentioned in his P.S. is a fifty-cents bill from The Confederate States of America, dated 1863. You can tell it is authentic and not a forgery because it is hand-signed (that lovely ink-well penmanship), and numbered in red ink (among other tell-tale signs).
The back side of the bill is blank. These bills have rough edges as they were hand-cut. This one also has nice foxing and age stains. Click to enlarge image.
From www.measuringworth.com (a very cool free site that converts historical currency into current values), an 1863 fifty-cents bill has the buying power of $8.96 today. (I’m not actually sure if this includes Confederate Currency–if you know the answer, leave a comment!)
This brings to mind one of my favorite books, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz. He traveled to each of the confederate states and hung out with hard-core Civil War re-enacters. It’s a fascinating look at that subculture–the re-enacters eat hard tack, seek out authentic uniforms down to the button, smother their hair in bear grease, and “spoon” to keep each other warm on the battlefield on cold nights when a thin wool blanket leaves them shivering. Every so often they flip, so that the outside spooners can warm their backsides.
Even more interesting, 1863 fifty-cents bills from this series in good condition sold for $15.50 to $27.05 in 2011 auctions. (Another excellent site: www.worthpoint.com, where you can look up recent sales figures for antiques and collectibles based on recent auctions, and not just eBay.) Whomever didn’t spend this bill in 1863 perhaps had great foresight as to its future value.
Thank you, Erik, for your enthusiasm about Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, and for this fascinating gift from our country’s history–I will treasure this treasure. Check out Erik’s antiques and ephemera at Showcase #38, Brimfield Antiques Center, Massachusetts (information on his business card above.)