Archives for category: antique

Tangents…

A.V. Walters–

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I am trying to return to writing. I have at least two novels to finish, and ideas for several more. Finally, we have moved into our home, and though there’s plenty left to do, our energies are not completely devoted to the building project. Tangents are the problem.

I’m currently working on a Prohibition era tale based, in part, on my grandfather’s rum-running days. I try to be historically accurate–which leads me constantly down the rabbit hole. In the current chapter, Trudy, our protagonist, hands a sheaf of papers outlining liquor distribution channels, to Red, who’s an overly ambitious rumrunner. Those papers, how are they attached to each other, physically?

A quick foray to the internet reveals that, though the stapler had already been invented in ’31, (the novel’s setting) it was still not a common household item. So, it’s not likely that these papers would’ve been stapled together. I suppose they could be folded, or rolled, and tied neatly with grosgrain ribbon, but that seems a bit precious in the context of this exchange. Paper clips. Hmmm, another not-so-quick trip to the internet… Yes, by all means, the paperclip was already in wide use at the time.

But, that lead me to the myth of Norwegian invention. Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, filed paperclip patents in both Germany and the United States in 1901 (Norway had no Patent Office then) for a similar but less workable product than the unpatented Gem paper clips already in common use in England since the 1870s. Vaaler’s patent described a single wire loop–a design that never made it to common usage. Other paperclip patents were filed in the United States, one as early as 1867–but none of these early patents describe the common Gem design still used today. And then there’s the role of the paperclip as a symbol of anti-fascist resistance.

Several countries had identifying pins which became symbols of national pride during the WW2 occupation of Europe, notably: some pins of national flags; a pin showing exiled Norwegian King Haakon VII’s cipher; and the Danish King’s Mark. The Germans made such displays of national unity illegal. In France, a simple paperclip worn on a collar, cuff or lapel, became a symbol of “unity” and resistance. The innocuous paperclip as a symbol of resistance spread across the occupied countries until, predictably, this too became illegal.

Learning this, it only took me a minute to locate a paperclip and to affix it to my jacket collar. It seems to me that we could use a simple unifying symbol for our own resistance to the current racist, fascist and anti-democratic trends in governments, everywhere. At least, we could use it to project our own disavowal for hate, and fear driven policies: We Do Not Agree!

There is a sculpture of a giant paperclip in Sandvika, Norway, celebrating Norwegian ingenuity in the invention. Unfortunately, that sculpture is of a Gem clip–and not Vaaler’s patented version. Sometimes “story” eclipses reality.

Except, of course, at my house, where the tangents of history lead me far from my intent to get on with the story. In this one, at least I’ll have the paperclip right.

 

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Dreams, Anxieties and Outcomes

A.V. Walters

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Ready to go!

When I was very little, my father dreamed of owning a sailboat. Saddled with five small children, it wasn’t a dream that was on his horizon, but a man can dream. He had the big blue book of sailing, Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling. It lived on the shelf in the living room, and he’d take it down from time to time and study it—while bringing my mum up to speed on the tips and best practices he’d learned. The closest we got to boating was an 18 foot, molded mahogany canoe. It was big enough to hold the whole family for day excursions, though in rough water the waves came dangerously close to the gunnels. Five little tow-heads with guarded, wide eyes scrutinized those lapping waves.

I understand the lure of the long-term dream. I’m approaching a number of mine—living in the country, building a home, and keeping bees. I have to keep pinching myself. In my mind’s eye, I also always wanted play a musical instrument. I cannot sing (or so say those around me) but I love music and throughout my life I wanted “in” on that secret language.

That’s how I think my father felt about sailing. His grandfather had worked the lake boats. He grew up on stories about the big lakes. When he retired, it was time. He didn’t need a fancy boat or a fast boat. He wanted something stable; after all, he was a beginner in his sixties. He settled on a MacGregor—a bit of a tub, with an oddly avid following. To pinch his pennies, he searched for one that needed work. (Sound familiar?) It was not seaworthy when he got it. He spent a couple of years upgrading, and, being a woodworker, he added a lot of nice little touches one wouldn’t expect on a beginner boat. As completion approached, he pulled out the big blue book and he and my mom drilled on small boat handling. As a landlubber, she was cautiously enthusiastic. Her father had been an expert boat pilot, both in the Coast Guard and during his 1920s exploits as a rumrunner in Detroit.

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We have finished the banjo restoration. I say “we” because a project this cool attracts volunteers. Rick could not resist, and it became our joint endeavor. Really, how hard could it be? It took many internet consultations. Rick re-machined some of the damaged parts. There are You Tube videos on how to stretch a calfskin banjo head. (Of course, beyond the general, no two of them agree on how it’s done.) We picked a natural calfskin (not white) because it’s most likely what would have been put on the banjo when it was first made, back in 1928. We were a little intimidated by the mounting process. Basically, you learn what you can—and then you throw caution to the wind and let common sense guide you. Then you have to set the tailpiece and the bridge, so that you can install the strings. Suddenly, it’s a banjo! It’s not rocket science, but I’m grateful that there were extra hands in the crunch. It’s beautiful, fully restored to its authentic 1920s glory. It has a rich, warm resonant tone—with just the right amount of steel-string twanginess. I am smitten.

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My father only sailed for a couple of seasons. He loved his boat. He had a vast book knowledge of how to maneuver it on the water. But he hadn’t counted on seasickness. Both of them. Even if you think you know the ropes, it’s hard to master sailing if the Captain and the crew (of one) are both incapacitated, hurling over the sides of the boat. In the calmest of conditions they could handle the motion, but of course, the calmest of conditions don’t include wind. Wind is a necessity in sailboat operation. They floundered. It became a bit of a joke in the Harbor—these two eager, elderly sailors, flailing at the task. More than once they ran aground, because neither of them could see beyond their nausea to steer to safety. My nephew (who apparently takes after my grandfather and can sail like a pro) tried to help. In the end, all he could do was to watch, laughing. I understand their predicament because I, too, am plagued with motion sickness.

My father did well on the sale of the boat. After all, it was in mint condition with many, many, lovely little upgrades.

Now it’s time to walk my talk on the banjo. I’m a little nervous. The instrument itself is so awesome that I feel like a fraud, holding it. It’s unnerving, to get that close to your dreams. All I need now is a pitch pipe, so I can start up with the proper tuning.

 

 

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.