Miscellaneous Antiques

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A staddle stone, American, 19th century. Tall, mushroom-shaped stone.Staddle stones take their name from the Old English stathol which means a support or the trunk of a tree. These nifty little pedestals that seem to defy the laws of physics have been used for hundreds of years as the elevating bases for granaries, beehives, game larders, hayricks, and even small barns – any outbuilding that might warehouse things prone to attracting pests. Staddle stones occasionally appear in other places, but are most common in England and in parts of Spain.

Early staddles were made of wood, but stone proved to be not only far more durable but also more stable when it came to holding up under the weight of the finished structure. (While stone is the most obvious choice, there are a few extant examples of cast iron staddles.) The stones themselves were made from whatever was available and thus appear in a variety of sandstone and granite, as well as other stone. Interestingly, the design of the stones varies regionally, both the base and the top, with the bases ranging from cylindrical to triangular to rectangular with varying degrees of tapering and the tops also exhibiting regional variations and even designs.

The key requirement is that the top is flat enough to support the corner of the structure soundly while also overlapping the base stone in a “mushroom cap” far enough to make a “squirrel baffle” of sorts, preventing any climbing rodent from making the transition from the base to the side of the structure and the hay or grain it contained. Elevation has the added advantage of increasing air circulation and preventing the damaging effects of moisture. If such buildings required steps, either a more temporary and portable option, such as a section of log, was used or the top step was simply omitted, assuring a gap large enough to deter rodents was still present.

For collectors, evidence of the stone’s age and wear consistent with a long-time connection between the base and the top are key to value (perhaps because they are also key to detecting fakes). Staddle stones with good age (collectors even like to see evidence of moss or lichen) can easily fetch several hundred or even a thousand dollars.

French patinated bronze funerary monument of the Emperor Napoleon ICatafalque comes from the Italian word catafalco, which means scaffolding.  It is the term used for a bier or platform that supports a coffin, and catafalques are often, although not always, moveable.  In the image here, Napoleon’s body rests on the catafalque in the lower left of the image. The slant-sided base or table which supports his body is the catafalque.

In the United States, the most iconic example of a catafalque is the Lincoln Catafalque, which was created for Lincoln’s funeral in 1865.  This pine platform covered with black cloth remains in the Exhibition Hall at the U.S. Capitol’s visitor center, but has been called into service regularly (with new cloth and some additional supports) since 1865 for all those who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda.  Lincoln’s funeral train traveled back to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at a number of cities along the way, so many catafalques were no doubt built for the ceremonies held in those cities, but the one in Washington is the one created for his funeral service there.

A carved [duck hunting] duck call by Charles Perdew (1874 to 1963) of Henry, Illinois.My brother came to visit recently and because he is intent on being the best uncle ever, he arrived with four stuffed birds (all of them play the appropriate bird song and all of them must now travel up and down daily with my daughter for naps and bedtime) and his turkey call. It’s spring and the wooded strip between our house and the creek bottom is alive with birds, including our local flocks of turkeys who are all atwitter for mating season. They were eager to talk and my daughter, who loves all things birds, was, of course, transported.

But she’s not apt to start collecting bird calls soon – and not just because of my sanity, but because various hunting calls are actually one of those classic examples of when it’s important to take a closer look. Many of them are commonplace, of course, and mass-produced, but certain ones could finance a college education! You’ll find handcrafted calls for a variety of birds in the antiques marketplace, including goose, turkey, and even crow, but duck calls are, by far, the most prevalent.

American Indians had likely used mouth calling for generations, but mechanical calls came into being around the mid-19th century with the first patent recorded in 1870. Several family names became associated with the production of mechanical calls – yes, before the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty came along. Fisher, Beckhart, Turpin, Perdew (see above) – and many others – are apt to show up at yard sales for pocket change, but a Perdew call, for instance, can bring anywhere from $200 to $8,000 or more at auction, depending on type, age, and condition. These are the kinds of little yard sale finds that the database can turn into big money, so when in doubt, it definitely pays to search!

Ferrotype photograph images of Civil War Union Generals Meade, Rosecrans, and Sherman set in tagua nut braceletOne of the things I love about this job is that I never know what it will involve next.  Sure, much of the time I tend to putter along in my own little world, dealing with historical ephemera and documents, 19th-century photography, and American stoneware, but smack in the middle of a group of photographs, I find myself unexpectedly staring a botany lesson in the eye.  Even the simplest of questions can drift off into uncharted waters.  You never know where what seems like a small voyage will take you.  (Of course, I had my share of questions that were akin to the Minnow‘s “three-hour tour,” too, but those are other stories….)

This happened last month when I was working on a sale of photographic material.  In the midst of fairly normal albumens and daguerreotypes was the odd little bracelet pictured above – a bracelet with three tintype images of Civil War generals (all Union – Meade, Rosecrans, and Sherman) strung with blue glass beads and set “in tagua nut.”  Because I can never just leave well enough alone, I went off to find out just what tagua nuts are.  Turns out, tagua nuts are the endosperm of a genus of South American palm trees, and for small little things that grow thousands of miles away, they actually appear fairly often in American material culture, for the simple fact that they resemble elephant ivory, both in appearance and in their ability to be carved into durable useful objects.  Elephant ivory has been long been fashionably ambiguous, either because it’s difficult or expensive to procure or just ethically distasteful.  Tagua nuts solved that problem and show up in a number of places that one would also find ivory, including cane handles and clothing buttons.  “Nutty,” but true!

George Trager photograph of the Wounded Knee battlefieldHistory is certainly filled with magnificent events: the Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of the 19th Amendment, the discovery of penicillin, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and on and on and on. We draw upon all this when we want to be inspired, but history is also ugly, small, and mean and all too often, we draw only upon the parts which allow us to feel good about ourselves. That’s one of the things I love about the database, actually: the balanced picture can’t be erased. We can erase the stories, but we can’t erase the evidence.

While you might not learn about the events in history classes today, a search of the database will still retrieve beaded pouches designed to carry an American Indian’s ration tickets. Forever woven into the history of many pieces of silver and art are stories of bribes for shelter and aid in fleeing the Nazis. There are Civil War documents with blood stains and bullet holes and we can’t scrub our history of Charleston slave tags or real photo postcards of lynchings. You can find photographs of the dead at Gettysburg, Wounded Knee (see above), Little Bighorn, and on and on. There is an indelible record of the awful things we have done to each other and the planet: engravings of the Boston Massacre, written accounts of life in Confederate prisons, pictures of hillsides obliterated by clear-cutting and objets d’art from the horns and bones and fur of creatures nearing extinction.

That is what makes the field of material culture so interesting and important: words lie. The founding fathers were conscious of the records they left, the boys writing home from all the fronts in all the wars were trying not to scare their wives and mothers, the writings in newspapers were opinions and hyperbole just as they are today. But objects, well, objects are…objective, and by studying them, we can reach different kinds of truth about the past.

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