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Published July 08, 2011, 12:00 AM

Kovels Antiques: Collectors regain interest in Brownies

In the days before Disney, many imaginary sprites that excited children’s imaginations could be found in books. In 1881, Palmer Cox wrote an illustrated story about a group of characters called “Brownies” for Wide Awake magazine.

By: Terry Kovel, INFORUM

In the days before Disney, many imaginary sprites that excited children’s imaginations could be found in books. In 1881, Palmer Cox wrote an illustrated story about a group of characters called “Brownies” for Wide Awake magazine.

Brownies were imaginary characters based on Celtic mythology. The tiny men had long skinny legs, round bellies and large heads. They were never seen by mortals, but they lived in the homes of humans, helped with chores and sometimes played jokes and caused mischief.

In the world of the Brownies, there were dozens of characters, each dressed appropriately. It was easy to tell the policeman from the farmer from the businessman by their clothes. It was a time of massive immigration in the United States, so the Brownies included Chinese, German, Irish and other ethnic figures familiar to children. But there were no female Brownies to be seen.

The cartoonlike figures were soon an important part of 19th-century pop culture, and the original magazine article inspired a series of books, comic strips and commercial goods like toys, games, dishes, candleholders, figurines, sheet music, fabrics and even the very popular National Biscuit Co.’s Log Cabin Brownies Biscuits. A series of majolica Brownies were made in the late 1800s. Each stand-alone figure was about 9 inches high.

The Brownies faded from view after Cox died in 1924, but collectors are showing new interest today. A Brownie doll was introduced in 2007. Prices are beginning to go up. A majolica figure sold this year for $165.

Q: I have a Numsen silver pitcher, 8 inches high, inscribed with my mother’s initials (AES) and with the words “From the Wardroom Officers, USS Marblehead.” My dad served on the cruiser Marblehead in the early 1930s. Any notion as to value?

A: A 1929 Stieff Co. ad in the Baltimore Sun pictured a Numsen pitcher. The president of Stieff at that time was Gideon Numsen Stieff, son of the founder, Charles C. Stieff. The company was founded as the Baltimore Sterling Silver Co. in 1892. The name became the Stieff Co. in 1904. The company ceased production in 1999. The USS Marblehead was attacked by Japanese bombers in 1942. One of the bombs exploded in the wardroom. The ship was repaired and put back into service later that year. It was decommissioned after World War II ended and was scrapped in 1946. If your pitcher is solid silver, you should weigh it and figure out the meltdown value. Your pitcher would be worth 10 percent to 20 percent more than its meltdown value.

Q: I have an 1889 metal hatchet commemorating the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington. There is a cutout of his profile on the blade. Is it valuable?

A: The 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889 was marked with three days of festivities, including a parade, naval review and ceremonies. Many souvenir items were made, including hatchets like yours. The hatchets were made in several sizes in bronze, cast iron and other metals and were meant to be hung on a wall. The value varies depending on the size, material and condition. Some souvenir hatchets sell for less than $50, but bronze hatchets sell for more than $2,000.

Q: I have a brown top hat from the 1892 U.S. presidential campaign. Grover Cleveland and A.E. Stevenson’s pictures are inside. Also printed inside are the words “Tariff” and “Reform.” The hat is size 7C, and it has a leather band. I’d like to know the value.

A: Grover Cleveland is the only U.S. president to serve nonconsecutive terms. He was president from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897. Although he won the popular vote in 1888, he lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison. The vice-presidential candidate in the 1892 campaign was Adlai E. Stevenson, grandfather of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956. Cleveland and Stevenson campaigned on political reform and on lowering tariffs. Both Harrison and Cleveland used a top hat as a campaign symbol. Harrison’s slogan was “Grandfather’s Hat Fits Ben,” referring to his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison. Cleveland called Harrison’s ideas the “same old hat.” The value of your top hat today could be more than $300.

Q: I recently visited a museum and saw dishes from a set made in China that pictured the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Were these dishes made in the late 1700s?

A: The history of the dishes you saw is a recently solved mystery. It was thought the dishes were made soon after 1776. Then, scholars decided the dishes had been made for the American Centennial in 1876. The latest research suggests that this pattern, and other Chinese export pieces decorated with U.S. historical scenes, were made in the 1920s or 1930s – or even the 1940s. The design is based on a painting by John Trumbull that wasn’t finished until 1818. The dishes were first noticed in 1947, when they were offered for sale by a missionary in China. Forty-seven pieces were bought by Henry du Pont and are in the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del. Another group of these dishes was offered for sale in 1950. The dishes could be old plain china with 20th-century decorations or new pieces made in the old way. There is no mention of these dishes in American books until the 1950s. Tests prove the dishes’ glaze includes chemicals not used by the Chinese before the 1900s. It’s a good lesson for all collectors. Fakes are identified by comparing them to the real thing. When the piece is a fantasy – something that appears to be old but is not a copy of anything – dating it is much more difficult.

For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s website,