Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life on the Walls

" A work of art goes through many phases of development ..but in each phase it is always a work of art "- Hans Hoffman

This quote comes to my mind when friends often ask me if there is some-thing "missing" on this wall- since its lacks the 'expected' symmetry. Our ever-evolving dining room, and the collage of art work on its walls keep changing with time.

When we started our lives together many years back, decorating our modest apartment became our most-cherished pastime- like many of you. It was all very clean lines back then, awash with white walls & white linen with simple, modern & colorful accessories. However, over the years, experimenting, and out of sheer boredom and the need for change, our design ideas kept shifting. About 2 years back, Joe had a new wave of inspiration and started collecting old paintings ( the ones with gilded frames , very traditional ones ) which were such a contrast to our initial years. However, we were so mesmerized by the sheer beauty of some of the worn-out frames and faded-tones, that transitioning to another phase of decor happened as a natural phenomenon.

As much as I would love to fill up our wall with many paintings ( the ultimate plan is a salon-style wall), as most of you "collectors" already know, one would pick up a piece only when one absolutely falls in love with it, at which point the artwork becomes a "must-have". And so we keep adding one by one to our collection based on our hunts and trips. So now you know why the wall lacks symmetry !!

Here are some pictures on the journey of how this wall & the room came to be, since we moved into this house 3 years back.

Above : In recent times, kitchen's have become the new "gathering places", for your close friends and family to spend time. And the natural spill-over would be into the dining room. The bench above offers a great solution there, it easily accommodates 3-4 people in a informal gathering without feeling too crowded during lunch or dinner. It also serves another purpose - and here's the fun part: The men folk would usually sit backwards on the bench, facing the kitchen, and participate in the lively "kitchen-discussions"!
Above : A few weeks later, the center chair, which is slightly taller than the sides ones was added (we were experimenting and it worked well). The interesting part to note here is that NONE of the elements here belong to the same dining set or series- they were all individual pieces which we put together to create our own mix! (That was a risky move, but Joe was trusting his gut-feel). The chair also got a make-over from Joe. He had just got these ormolus and he "had" to try it on something, giving it a french feel.
Above: Wall treatment. The first thing to go on the wall behind was a mirror and it stayed alone there for a long we were thinking of what else to do.
Above: These additions came about a year back from estate sales. A vintage lithograph, a small chinese oil floral , another animal oil-painting from a Australian artist, and a watercolor from an Argentenian artist. We took off the Kangaroo couple of months back to give him a better-ground and put up the "LaMode Illustree" fashion plates there (see below).

Below:We featured this pair of beauties ("LaMode Illustree" fashion plates) in a separate post on this Blog to give the whole history of these amazingly beautiful pieces. They still remain one of our most cherished pieces on this wall.And so the story of our wall continues to grow! Will we fill up the whole wall? Who knows? One day we might wake up and do just that .. ;-)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Restoration Affair

A corner of our sitting room , with the latest addition- A restored antique steamer-trunk.

When we first saw this trunk, we didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole. You’ll see what I mean when you scroll down. But I’ve been fascinated by my mothers old bridal trunk (which still awaits restoration), that I wanted to give this one a try for a pure "skills-test" purpose, before I ventured to take on larger projects.
After all-there’s still the option of putting it back on the kerb-side- in case things didn’t go as expected. :-P

After our usual modus operandi for tracking roots- which I must say has become a standardized process for us now (no ISO: 9001 yet, I confess), the process was something like this:
1. Trace by Baggage labels /Railroad labels,
2. Trace by Lock Manufacturer,
3. Trace by Trunk Manufacturer,
4. Merge all Traces, and you can pretty much narrow down a period with reasonbly good accuracy.

We will merge history and cleaning lessions as we go down the path of restoration.

Below: As-is condition. Pretty gruesome (and smell of old leather- not the good one, the bad one I mean).
Cleaning 101. Use of harsh chemical will damage the leather (that the old owner definitely cared for! as we can see). Anyway, under "new ownership", we must try and do as best as we can, shouldnt we? So back to basics- lightly moistened papertowels, and good old fashioned rubbing the grime off...for a few hours.
OK- onto History..
Trace by Baggage labels /Railroad labels- This is an interesting part- where have thou been? I know some trunks have fabled journey’s proof including travel labels from Shipping companies such as Cunard/White Star Lines (yep-The Titanic’s famed owner). Anyway, many of our trunk's labels are fully dilapidated, and in other places there are only marks that remain where labels have been. However, a few labels (newer ones) remain somewhat intact indicating last journeys around 1918-1928 - with the American Express Railroad Company (AREC) labels. AREC changed its name after 1929- so this trunk was on board, raibound, a few times before that year. (Labels show New York, Idaho, and Oakland, CA)

The details, I learnt, are very important in determining the age of trunks.
So now you know.
Above: One of the AREC labels, in still fairly readable form (i.e. The "printed" details. The handwritten details are long gone!)
Above: Another label. Possibly the last stop, since it's in California! Ship COLLECT! Uh Oh. Which in shipping terms means that the Receiver bears ALL freight charges, and will pay upon receiving/collecting the item. (So I dont think very valuable freight like perfume, and linens and spices would have arrived, atleast on that last consignment :-) )
Above: I really cant read this label, and I'm kinda cross-eyed by the time I got here. It does look intriguing though, and if anyone has any guesses, feel free to comment! (The letters AR are visible, and I think the next letter is G. Below are the smaller font words "Count on/off..whatever") Doesnt make much sense to me. Also is the small print "New York" on the below right corner.

OK, now... Trace by Lock Manufacturer-
Before 1830's steamer trunks were mostly handmade, but after around 1836 the trunk locks started to be machine made. Eventually steamer trunk manufacturing boomed in the US during 1860-1900. By then, many makers of trunks outsourced the lock part to expert lock manufacturers like Yale, Excelsior and Hartmann to name a few.

Yale lock Company was established in 1868 in Stamford, CT, by Linus Yale Sr., and Henry Towne. Yale Sr (inventor of the tumbler lock) died a few months after the company was formed, never knowing how world famous his locks would eventually be. And partner Henry Towne was probably gentleman enough not to drop his deceased partner's name, and the company was renamed Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co. in 1883. The reason I'm going to such depths is because ours bears the stamp of "Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co.". So we now know that the trunk was manufactured after 1883- possibly very close to that period, and the last 'recorded' travels were around 1918-1929 (from the Railroad labels above as we saw).

Unfortunately our trunk came with no key. I discovered a site called Antiquekeys, which will get you pretty much any key you may be looking for in your restoration. After photo-magnification (thanks to all the digital camera improvements in recent years), I could read through the rust, and see that our lock# was Yale-Y54.

Now back to "Cleaning", to give a break from our History lessons.
The fine art of rubbing with oil: This one was simply based on a whim. We initially tried cleaning it with the leather cleaner that I use for my car's inside. Not only was it a waste of cleaner- but it was more like a drop in the ocean on the century-plus old parched leather. A lightbulb moment brought us to try out with oil. (we used olive oil, but I'm sure you could do with others as well)- half a bowl should do the trick. At "First rub", the leather "drank" the oil, and we could see it dry up within a minute. Poor guy mustve been thirsty since the 1880's.

But the patience paid off. Subsequent rubs retained the oil, now that the leather was beginning to soak in it.
Above: we're getting somewhere. See the colour change, and the deep black beginning to show! I must say that I didnt have much hope on this after the initial rounds, that it would ever get back in this shape.

Below: The latch locks, tee up and fit perfectly, like it's just rolled off the assembly line. Pretty amazing build quality.

Trace by Trunk Manufacturer- Trace the maker of the Trunk, or the retailer, or both, and find out the company history and period of existence.
The Manufacturer in our case: Standswell Trunks. Fortunately, most part of the label remains. I could find almost no record on Standswell trunks as an independant manufaturer, though I did find links to Perkiomen Trunk & Bag Co. in Philadephia, PA. Later labels show the Standswell Diamond logo merged with the Perkiomen Logo. (It's reasonable to assume that Perkiomen might have aquired Standwell Trunks). You can find some pretty good history of Old Trunk labels on
After extensive searches, I still couldnt find even a single trunk with ONLY the "Standswell" emblem- like ours. (I found 1-2 with Standswell-Perkiomen merged emblem though). So in its own charming way, this piece we have could be a rare part of the Great American Trunk history after all! :-)

Final Touches: Cedar blocks on the inside to absorb any odor, and keep it clean for the years to come. We must say that were were absolutely thrilled at the end state, and also amazed at how sturdily they built trunks in the olden times. In spite of all the abuse it has gone through, the structure is rock-solid, and who knows-perhaps built to take a few more centuries on!
Below: And so it has come to rest - for now. A conversation peice in our quiet chat corner. Thanks for stopping by, and look forward to your comments!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why do people collect?

Here is an example. We got this old model ship from eBay. It was one of those spur of the moment bids- which you kinda later end up regretting- to be honest. :-) The ship arrived in broken condition, and with literally balls of dust (and grease!) collected on its deck and sails. On first thoughts, we had a good mind to put it back on eBay, or just sink the cost. It really was that bad. And we didn't want dust mites crawling in our home. It looked like it was a part of someones kitchen hood.

Anyway. We are collectors- (or so we let ourselves believe), and werent quite willing to let go without a fight. So one afternoon we took this outdoors, and gave it a good dusting. Not much use.... Several paper-towels, and of-course baby-wipes (remember, its our favorite cleaning tool) later, the ship still showed no signs of recovery. We decided to give it a final shot, with compressed air- the ones you use to clean your laptop keyboards and electronic equipment. (Another run to the store, and $5.00 more sunk into the investment cost). After almost half a can of compressed air blowing through her sails, more baby-wipes, and earbuds, she finally seemed to be catching the wind. A little help from Elmer's glue helped fix back the broken front part (think its called the 'Boom').

With the wind changing, and the decision now in favor of keeping her, now that so much work had already gone into it, we started doing some study on the type and nature of this ship. (It was sold as a war ship- which it really wasnt). This is where it starts to get interesting. This type of ship is called a Clipper Ship, and they were famous for trade in the 1800-1870's. These were made for trade, and sailed the high seas mostly between England, US and other parts of Europe 'and China, and European colonies. These were built sleek and light for high speed, and clippers raced against each other setting record times which were often published in news papers. You can read the whole history about clipper ships on Wikipedia.

Now coming back to "our" ship :-), there is a small label on this one that says "Hurricane". Our research was based on this. The time spent, eventually paid off. Though the Hurricane, was not known among the great Clippers like Cutty Sark, and Flying Cloud, she too had her flying moments, before finally being sold in Singapore in 1876 and renamed (hence appearing for the last time in shipping registers. (By the way, she was launched in 1851 in the shipyard of Isaac C. Smith, in New Jersey.) The whole nautical history is thankfully registered here on one

The departures of clipper ships were announced on Clipper Ship sailing Cards at their ports such as the one shown below. (Source: UC Santa Barbara, Dept of Geography, Website)

It gets even hotter now: I found a reference on New York Times archives, about the Hurricane and other clipper-ships in a race to Rio de Janeiro, dated March 29th, 1852.
Her moment of Glory came when in1852, she arrived at San Francisco from Rio de Janeiro in 66 days, a time which has only been beaten once in those times.
Phew! that was some journey. We just went from a dusty old model one afternoon, to sailing around the world, and ending up on the top of our front door.
Perhaps, this is why people collect, to begin with. :-)

Below is an Oil Painting of the Hurricane, from the Peabody Essex Museum Archives.
Oil 29 1/4 x 41 1/2 in., signed: Skillet (Artist), Built 1851, Hoboken, N. J., weighing 1,680 tons.

Happy Sailing !!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Whale Lamp converted to Bouillotte Lamp?

Joe would like to go on and on how good-lighting enhances the beauty of life around you. He is the designated lighting-shopper here. So when he spotted this one on a sale last year and wanted to bag it right away, I wasn't too sure at first! It was the estate of a late-physician who had a great eye for all things beautiful ; and when Joe announced his pick, I was indecisive, still being mesmerized by all the lovely blue-n-white and Tiffany's silverware there (totally out of our budget). I really couldn't see past the ancient amber colored electric-wiring and all the dust that had collected on the lamp's shade.

But then, I trusted Joe's judgment and brought this fellow home. After about an hour of clean up ( guess what we used.. best cleanser ever : junior's wet baby-wipes ) we plugged him in and I have to say " I fell in love, again!"
At first look it looked like an old bouillotte (pronounced boo-yaht) lamp, but it was a really really old Whale-Oil Lamp ( est. to be from 1800-1840 when they were used), later electrified and converted to look like a bouillotte lamp.

When you pick up an item this old, you inevitably wonder how many events and people this lamp must have witnessed/seen in its possibly 170-200 year old history- from the ages when it was lit up with Whale Oil with its clear and bright natural glow, to its later history with the invention of electricity, all the way to the late-Physician's desk, and finally to us, and as we truly hope- to be passed down in future.
It has a small bell like shape (which we later figured- may have been to snuff the flames), mini tweezers to pick the wick, and a metal hook all adding to the miniature ornamentation around the neck of the lamp- serving no purpose now since the lamp has been electrified. There is intricate carving on the brass foot and stem of the lamp, and we simply switch off other lights before going to bed, and watch it's glow!

Some history:
Whale lamps were popular in the early 19th century. The lamps used whale oil as the fuel hence the name Whale lamp. More on Whale Lamps here.
Bouillotte (pronounced boo-yaht) lamps originated in France, to provide indirect and sophisticated lighting to the game of Bouillotte, a poker-like game, perhaps to hide the "poker-faces" and cards of the players! More on Bouillotte Lamps here.