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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Sand Man---Andrew Clemens

A 1970s fad and, more recently, an elementary school craft, sand bottles were a real, bona fide art form in the hands of Andrew Clemens, a deaf mute working in 19th-century Iowa.

Rivaling the realism of Victorian painting and lithography, Clemens’ remaining bottles garner thousands of dollars at auction today.

Working without glue, using naturally colored sand from Iowa’s Pictured Rocks region and tools of his own making, Clemens fashioned detailed images of (among others) George Washington, Old Glory, eagles, Native Americans, ships in full sail, steamboats, and flowers — often combining them with beautifully lettered names, dates, and greetings.

Using sand for decoration, however, was not his invention. A technique called marmotinto was employed in eighteenth century Britain to create temporary banquet table pictures for King George III, not to mention for hundreds of years previous by Tibetan monks making elaborate sand mandalas.

By the 1840s the making of permanent sand pictures had become a parlor craft among middle class women. Depicting cottages, cliffs, or churches, they were created by sifting sand — especially naturally colored sand from the Isle of Wight — over glue-covered boards.
These pictures were often made as mementoes of trips to the seaside. Those tourists who didn’t create seaside souvenirs often bought them, including artistically filled bottles of sand.

Sand bottles made by Choctaw and Sioux Indians a decade after the craft fad had run its course in the East, when examples made their way West. Using variegated sand, which they arranged in designs resembling their textiles, these Native Americans sold the bottles as souvenirs.

Soon settlers in the Dakotas, Oklahoma, western Illinois, and Iowa — especially members of the “cracker barrel clubs” that met in grocery stores, shut-ins, and the handicapped — began to imitate the Indians’ bottles. It’s not surprising, then, that an early Clemens bottle design read: “Filled By A. Clemens A Deaf Mute of McGregor, Iowa.”

Born in 1857, Andrew Clemens was the third son of German immigrants who settled in McGregor, Iowa, then a thriving transportation hub. At five, Andrew contracted the encephalitis which left him deaf and, eventually, speech-impaired. For six years, Clemens studied at the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. It was on family trips to the Pictured Rocks region, a mile south of McGregor, that he discovered the sand that was to become the basis of his future fame.

Pictured Rocks sand is colored by the iron oxide in water dripping onto it from the limestone above. Shades range from pale pink to deep red, every shade of grey between white and black, as well as green, blue, and earth tones. Andrew Clemens would use 42 different colors of sand in his bottles. Twice a year, he and his brothers spent two or three days at Pictured Rocks, collecting sand in bags sewn by their mother.

Soon mail orders arrived, even from overseas — and Clemens moved from the grocery into his parents’ home, setting up in business for himself in their front room. There, probably for the light, he worked by the window — attracting the attention not only of McGregor’s townsfolk, but also of European tourists and local schoolchildren who tried, with limited success, to imitate him.

By then, his bottles had evolved past his early geometric designs into the complex motifs for which he became well known, with different pictures on the fronts and backs. Clemens only worked from a picture or model when he worked on commission — as with a bottle depicting the pontoon railway bridge at Prairie du Chien or one showing an early engine of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway. He often reproduced a patron’s new home or commemorated a holiday or personal celebration.

For a short time, he even worked in a “dime museum,” earning $25 a week. Chicago’s South Side Museum, however, was more carnival sideshow than art gallery. A barker would break every bottle Clemens made — as soon as he made it — to prove the veracity of his “glueless” method.
Asked to participate in Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Clemens declined for health reasons — the tuberculosis which caused his death, at 37, the following year.

Clemens began his bottles by rubbing the sand dry with the bowl of a spoon, creating teeny, uniform grains. His tool kit consisted of seven implements he had fashioned from green hickory. A tiny scoop, holding one-quarter teaspoon of sand and attached to a 9? hickory stick, introduced the sand into a bottle. To do the actual “painting” and to keep his pictures straight, Clemens manipulated two other 9? rods — one sharpened to a point, one ending in a hook.

As if to complicate an already delicate task, Clemens had to “paint” upside-down because of his bottles’ openings. He used four packers, the longest measuring a foot, to press the sand down tightly. A stopper overlaid with wax sealed the finished bottle which bore a round label on its bottom reading: “Pictured Rock Sand Put Up By A. Clemens Deaf Mute McGregor, Iowa.”

Depending on the complexity of its design, a single bottle could take as little as three weeks or as long as three months to complete. A truly complicated pattern occasionally required a year, not that surprising given the detail Clemens achieved, whether in a breaking wave or blade of grass.

Many consider Clemens’ greatest work to be the 12-inch bottle with George Washington (on horseback) on one side, the Great Seal of Iowa on the other. The seal side also proclaims the state motto, “Our Liberties we prize and Our Rights we will maintain.”

For small bottles, Clemens charged $1. A pint-sized bottle with a more elaborate motif cost $5. A large bottle with lettering and fancy designs, however, could set a customer back $8, a lot of money at that time. McGregor’s children often asked $1 for their bottles but were delighted to get a dime.

Clemens made hundreds of bottles in his lifetime, but only a few dozen survive. Most recently, a Clemens bottle with a sailing ship on one side, “E.F. Parkhurst, Sheldon, Iowa 1887” on the other, sold for $12,075, while a bottle with a steamship/eagle and flag sides realized twice that. Although the auction house that sold “C. & R. Cox to Cora Sept 20, 1883,” prefers to protect the amount of the buyer’s successful bid, it too acknowledges that Clemens bottles can sell for as much as $20,000 each.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tiny Plastic Toys--Cracker Jack

Although the Cracker Jack prizes were the smallest toys a child could play with, they were fun and made you use your imagination. I loved to eat Cracker Jack's but I couldn't wait to get to the prize inside. I kept a box full of them as a child, but they have been long ago lost or thrown out. Recently I found a tin full of them. Good memories, I couldn't help but smile inside and out. I dumped them out and began to sift thru the little treasures.

Some of the prizes I found were: animals, spinning tops, whistles, tools, key rings, sports figures, circus people, a trophy, and others. Some of the prizes were the kind that needed to be put together. Many of the prizes needed some assembly. Some were as simple as snapping two pieces of plastic together. “Look what I just made.”

About a year ago I had a bracelet made with Cracker Jack toys. It was constructed with a heavy elastic cord and safety pins. Each pin held a different Cracker Jack toy. I put it in the shop for $25.00 and it was gone very quickly. I was sad to see it go, but I could tell the person that bought it was thrilled.

Many Cracker Jack toys have no markings on them at all. Some of the markings are: The C. J. Co; Cracker Jack, C. J. C. O; The Cracker Jack Co, and Cracker Jack SP.
A good website for Cracker Jack toy archives. Shows photos of toys and their names and meanings. Pretty cool.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Haggling – the dealer’s perspective

I found this article and it is right on so I decided to share.

Haggling over the cost of merchandise is a practice centuries old – a practice alive and well in the antiques market. For buyers, the temptation to ask for a better price is just too strong to deny. For sellers, coming down a bit on the price is often a good way to make a sale. It’s a practice that can benefit both buyers and sellers, but can, at times, be a bother and annoyance.

I understand the anger some dealers have over haggling. Not all customers are polite and some can be downright rude while trying to negotiate a better price. While I hope my columns anger no one, I do not apologize for what I’ve written about haggling. Like it or not, haggling has been a part of commerce for centuries, and it’s here to stay.

I’ve been on both sides of the haggling process. I consider myself primarily a collector, but I do have a retail sales license and have dealt in antiques for many years. I once had an antique shop. I’ve had booths in antique malls. I’ve sold antiques and collectibles on eBay and at traditional auctions. I’ve set up at antique shows and flea markets. I know what it’s like to be a dealer as well as a collector. Having been on both sides of the haggling process gives me insight into what it’s like for both the seller and the buyer.

I like to focus on the positive, but the negative is more instructive. Let me give you the dealer’s perspective by relating some of my less than pleasant experiences with buyers. Buyers can consider this a guide on what not to when seeking a better price.

At a recent flea market, I took some of the stoneware I’ve been culling out of my collection. Among the pieces was an eight gallon jug, circa 1890. I had bought the stoneware pieces long ago and wanted to clear them out, so I priced them very reasonably. The jug had a very small, old chip. In my area, such a jug in that condition is usually found priced at $45-$65. I priced mine at $38. One collector offered me $30 for the jug, nearly 25 percent less than the market price. A discount of 10 to 15 percent is about as much as a buyer can expect. I offered to come down to $35. In a rude tone of voice the collector announced, “Well it’s chipped! It’s not worth that!” She was entitled to her opinion of course, but I didn’t like the rude delivery. Needless to say, we didn’t strike a bargain. The lesson for buyers here is that rudeness will get you nowhere with most dealers.

Another piece I took to the flea market was a nice 1-gallon jar, circa 1900. It was a beautiful piece with a nice ochre glaze. I would generally expect to see such a jar priced at around $25-$35. I knew I’d probably paid about $8 for mine and priced it at $18. If it sold, it would be quite a profit for me and quite a good buy for buyer. A collector asked my best price. I offered her the piece for $15. She countered with $10, nearly 50 percent less than the asking price, which was already significantly below the value of the piece. I wasn’t willing to take less than $15, so there was no sale. In this case, the collector wasn’t rude, but her offer was unrealistic. Collectors shouldn’t expect dealers to give deep discounts. As a dealer, I’m also not fond of the counteroffer. When I’m asked for my best price, I give it. At that point it’s take it or leave it.

As a dealer, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of extreme rudeness from those who use such rudeness as a tactic to get a better price. Let me throw in a quick disclaimer here – the vast majority of collectors are very kind and polite. Remember, we’re exploring the negative side here. Over the years I’ve heard such comments as “That’s twice what that’s worth!” “In that condition, it isn’t worth anything!” “You’ll be lucky to sell that for half what I’m offering!” “It’s obviously a reproduction!” “That’s far too high!” Most often, the comments are made in a rude tone. I’m so accustomed to enjoying my encounters with buyers that the rude individuals are a bit of a shock. I find such comments insulting. I always try to price my items for a bit less than they can be found elsewhere. That way buyers will purchase from me and not the dealer next to me. I’m well aware damage detracts from value, so when a piece is damaged, I price it accordingly. When someone comes along and criticizes my prices or my integrity, I’m not inclined to give them a better deal. Rudeness will get a collector nowhere with me and I’m sure most dealers feel the same.

It costs a lot more to deal in antiques than most collectors realize. I used to set up at a nice flea market in Princeton, Ind., about 15 miles from where I lived at the time. I went there because it was close, spaces were reasonably priced, there were a lot of buyers and sellers, and the flea market was well organized. It cost me $35 for a spot for two days – very reasonable considering some flea markets charge as much as $150. I was also out the expense of gas for three round trips, one to set up, two to sell. That’s 90 miles of driving, not an insignificant cost with high gas prices. There was also my time to consider and all the work. It takes me several hours to unpack all my collectibles for a flea market and just about as long to pack them up at the end. Then there’s the work I did at home, cleaning, pricing, and packing – days worth! If you’ve never set up at a flea market, take the amount of work you think it takes a dealer to set up, multiply it by 10, and you’ll have it about right. Add to this the time and cost of gathering pieces to sell and you’re looking at a lot of time and expense. I think it becomes understandable then, that dealers are not pleased by rudeness or ridiculously low offers.

There’s nothing wrong with haggling for a better price. As a buyer, I often haggle. As a seller, I accept it. It’s a great way for buyer and seller to come together, but it’s not a pleasant experience when one party or the other gets rude. Don’t hesitate to haggle, but avoid the mistakes made in the examples above. If you do your chances of success will be much increased.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The collecting conundrum

by Art Elder

Have you ever wondered why collectors collect? The mystery has been studied by scholars through the years trying to answer this conundrum. Why collectors collect what they do is another fascinating topic.

It has been said that, as the human form developed, there were first hunters, then gatherers, followed by collectors. Almost everyone collects something – but why? One only needs to watch children to see they will pick up and put in their pockets just about anything they find that is bright and colorful. Perhaps that proves that in spite of our numerical age, all collectors are still just kids at heart. Or – possibly there is a hidden collecting gene in all of us that the researchers have not yet discovered! But wait – maybe it is just the basic survivalist instinct in all humans (and many other animals) to save for the hard times in the future. Perhaps it is merely the thrill of the hunt. Some ask if collecting can result from a medical condition or an addiction. After all, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once said that his collecting was an addiction, rivaled only by his craving for nicotine!

Collecting is usually pursued as an interesting hobby, although occasionally, some collectors are known to become obsessed. The majority of collectors ascribe the incentives and stimuli they receive from collecting to one or more of the following:

• The knowledge gained by learning about the items they collect.

• The networking with fellow collectors.

• The pleasure that they derive from finding and acquiring a new and much sought after object that fills a gap in their collection.

• Memories and recollections – particularly the fond memories of childhood – may frequently determine what a collector chooses to collect.

• Sometimes the collected item may have nothing to do with the collector’s childhood, but rather something that is discovered later in life, and is found to be particularly interesting to the collector. An example might be Civil War memorabilia.

Here are the views of three frequently quoted experts:

Marjorie Akin, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside, has studied the subject of collecting and wrote in her book, Passionate Possession, the Formation of Private Collections that people collect for a connection to the past and memories. Akin wrote, “Objects can connect the collector to the historic, valued past.”

Akin also includes four other reasons why people collect. The first is to satisfy a sense of personal aesthetics. Secondly, to please personal tastes. Third, to show individualism. Akin concludes the fourth reason is the collector’s need to be complete, and the sense of completion is one of the main drivers of collectors. She adds that collectors may choose a subject to collect because of the challenge there is to complete the collection. Akin said she has seen people cry out in relief once they find the final piece and their collection is complete.

Kim A. Herzinger, a Professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi, and an award-winning author and avid collector, provides another twist on obsession with collecting. He wrote, “Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.”

Herzinger adds that collecting may also become a passion. “Collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let (the collector) live in another world for awhile. If I could tell you why passion allows us to inhabit another world, I would stop collecting.”

He adds that the collector becomes engaged in a kind of worship. “The collector is experiencing the kind of sensory transcendence that we most closely associate with religion or love. Like religion or love, the collection is a kind of security against uncertainty and loss.”

However, if these reasons seem too implausible or complex, then Kurt Kuersteiner, offers one refreshingly simple reason. In his published article, “Collecting Collections,” Kuersteiner wrote, “I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic.”

Walter Annenberg, former publisher, philanthropist, and ambassador to the United Kingdom said simply, “If it moves me, that was enough. Being moved is what collecting is all about.”

In reality, there are probably as many different reasons as there are collectors. Collectors are individuals. The debate over the reasons will go on and on, but the one truth that cannot be denied is that people will continue, whatever the reason, and they will continue to collect the items that interest them – whatever that may be.

It is reported that Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”

What Einstein meant in this fascinating quote can be interpreted differently. I prefer it to mean that, for a collector, what is important should be the personal attraction to the collection, and not its size or value. The enjoyment of the collecting process is what really counts.

Monday, August 1, 2011


The Green Thing

In the line at the store, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.
The woman apologized to him and explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."
The clerk responded, " That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment."

He was right -- our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.
But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.
But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that old lady is right; we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana.
In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us.
When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.
But she's right; we didn't have the green thing back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water.
We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.
But we didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service.
We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then?

Please forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smarta-- young person.