Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Collecting Souvenir China

By Jim Claflin


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In the 1890s pictorial souvenir china was introduced to the United States from Europe for the enjoyment of vacationers throughout the country. Much the same as you might take home a tee shirt or pamphlet on your summer getaway, Victorian visitors took home a pictorial china memento featuring wonderful color or black-white lithographed images of the areas that they had visited. Because of their beauty, and the fact that cameras were not readily available to capture the scenes, such pictorial pieces were in great demand. Soon a wide variety of shops and merchants began offering such items with local views. From pharmacies to card shops, general stores to photography studios, hotels and merchants across the country began to offer these pieces in an effort to build their business. By the late 1930s the flow of goods from Europe began to be cut off. That combined with advances in photography and increased costs of production would soon halt the production of these pieces.

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Whatever your area of interest there is bound to be a segment of souvenir china collecting that will capture your imagination. While some collect pieces from their hometown, others concentrate on particular views such as lighthouses, life-saving stations, railroads, steamships, mills, and more. Still others look for particular styles such as creamers, mugs or plates. Less common products such as shoes or baskets might also be collected.

One of the most interesting features of china collecting is the wide variety of styles and scenes depicted. Souvenir china was made in countless designs and most bore beautiful gold leaf borders and trim. Some forms commonly seen include cup with saucer, plate, mug, folded edge dish, dresser tray, butter pat, creamer, sugar, salt & pepper, pin tray, hot plate, vase, stamp or match box, desk items, ink well, powder jar, shoe, touring car, candlestick, urn, pitcher, cheese keeper, basket, fish, and many more.

China pieces were of two color types – white-based or color glazed. The white-based items might be entirely white or they might be tinted. If white, the image was usually done in black or brown, though full color images can be found as well. Sometimes the white-based pieces would be tinted in a lovely rose color, probably the most common. Other tints included light blue, canary green, magenta and even burnt orange. Those that were color-glazed were most commonly a beautiful deep cobalt blue. Less common were emerald green, turquoise, brown, and tan. Rims were generally decorated with gold leaf borders or filigree and might be scalloped or embossed.

Typically these pieces were ordered by merchants in multiples of 144 to obtain the most favorable pricing. While the style upon which the scene was shown might vary, the total produced of that scene would add up to 144. This would lead one to hope that at least a few of each scene and style might have survived breakage or being discarded for us to find. Surely some stores did not have the resources to order in such large volumes however, and these pieces might surface only rarely. Some may have been manufactured only as samples and might be one-of-a-kind. I find that such scenes as Billingsgate Lighthouse in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Race Point Light, and Monomoy Life-Saving Station are extremely rare, while such lighthouses as Highland (Cape Cod) and Absecon are found much more often.

The majority of these souvenir pieces were manufactured in Germany and Austria and imported for area shops by such companies as C.E. Wheelock & Company of Peoria, Ill.; Clark, Adams & Clark of Boston, and many more. In 1891 the McKinley Tariff Act required that the country of origin be shown on all imported items. As an added marketing incentive, importers began offering merchants the opportunity to have their shop’s name imprinted on the bottom of the piece. Therefore, pieces without such markings on the bottom probably date prior to 1891.

The value of souvenir china generally depends on two considerations: condition and rarity. Though these pieces are quite delicate, most seemed to have survived the 100 years since their manufacture in remarkably good condition. Condition, without cracks or chips, is most important to consider when evaluating pricing. Cracks can generally be seen well by looking at the white inside of the piece. Look for good edges without chips, as chips or cracks can reduce the value by as much as 75%. While hometown scenes may range in price from $24-74, lighthouse scenes may fetch from $45 up to $200 or more depending on the location. Life-saving stations, shipwrecks, Revenue Cutters and other similar scenes may bring still more if of the more rare locations. Generally speaking, pieces in the higher ranges should be in near fine condition and of an unusual design and/or of a rare light or station. One of the best locations to find these pieces seems still to be local flea markets and antique shops. It is uncommon to find an antique shop without at least a few styles and scenes, hopefully including one for which you are searching. Many pieces are now finding their way onto Internet auctions as well. This provides a great variety of pieces but the prices there tend to be greatly inflated. However, it does remain an important source to find that one-of-a-kind scene when money is no object. In future columns we will talk more about the various producers, designs, and more.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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