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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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English cane with an ivory handle shaped like a lobster, circa 1890, sold for $10,175. Photo courtesy of Tradewinds
The 19th century back porch whittler rocked, relaxed and carved his walking stick out of one solid piece of hardwood. Nowadays it’s mostly a lost art. But walking sticks or canes, depending on what you choose to call them, are one of the most recognizable kinds of American folk art. A utilitarian art form, they are simple yet powerful expressions of the common man that go back thousands of years.

In Egypt, King Tutankhamen owned a collection of gold canes he carried as an expression of his stateliness. The French philosopher Voltaire had no less than 75 in his wardrobe, and social critic Jean-Jacques Rousseau owned more than 40.

During the 18th century, a cane was as much a part of a well turned out gentleman’s attire as a snuffbox and starched collar, and walking sticks served more than one purpose. Gadget, trick and container canes concealed weapons, musical instruments, tools and even contraband. The 19th century tradesman could camouflage his tools in a container cane and still look like the dignified gentleman. The piano tuner disguised his tuning hammer and the railroad man his gauges in a walking stick. The undertaker used a cane with a hook for closing the lid of the wooden case into which the casket was placed, and photographers used canes that converted into tripods for cameras.

Gadget canes were ideal for practical jokers. Some could squirt water up a victim’s leg, and others emit wolf whistles. A few gadget canes had a flexible inner segment that could be pulled out and used as a whip for horse-and-buggy rides. One cane had a hollow shaft that served as a spittoon. Another concealed an etched sword.

Few cane makers marked their work so it’s difficult to trace the origin, but sometimes you can tell by a craftsman’s style, and you can often date a cane by the design. Age, rarity and quality of workmanship are what collectors’ desire. But some of the crudely carved folk art canes are just as collectible, and gadget canes are judged in part by the purpose they served.

On April 24, Tradewinds Antiques in Danvers, Mass., featured 191 canes in their Cane auction. The sale totaled $308,688. A circa 1870, Remington small dog-head gun cane curio, 31 inches long, sold for $6,875. These canes were made in limited numbers and the small dog head sometimes referred to as a lady’s gun cane, is thought to be the rarest of all those made.

An ivory-skull handled cane depicting a well-carved skull with a one inch gold collar, hallmarked for London 1865 brought $990. An early-20th century rose quartz handled cane with a rock crystal ring and garnet realized $990. A carved ivory lobster cane depicting a full-bodied lobster with large claws, circa 1890, finished at $10,175.

Q. I am interested in finding information about the value of Russel Wright dinnerware? Pauline Fetsko, Camp Hill, Pa.

A. When a 2-by-4 inch add ran for the sale of Russel Wright dinnerware in a 1946 New York newspaper, crowds a block long formed around Gimbel’s department store.

Produced from 1939-1959, Wright dinnerware became one of the largest selling dinnerwares in history. President’s wives from Eleanor to Mamie used it.

The company producing the ceramic dinnerware, Steubenville Pottery, had to expand twice in order to keep up with the demand. The most popular selling line was American Modern. It was produced in a variety of solid colors.

The marketing approach for American Modern was broad-based. “This was art for the masses, not for the classes,” said Ann Kerr in her book "The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Russel Wright."

Russel Wright offered a new movement in the style and design of dinnerware that emphasized function and a sparseness of detail.

Values depend in large part on color. Casual, brick red and aqua are probably the most desirable colors in the American Modern series. White, bean brown, cantaloupe and glacier blue follow these.

Condition is important and prices range from $10 on up depending on whether you’re talking pickle dishes or tumblers.

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