Writing by hand took time and skill long ago, before letters were written with pens dipped in ink, with fountain pens or typewriters, or via e-mail on computers.
Most of us can still write with a fountain pen, and a few of us could get clear results with a pen and ink. But Asian scholars of the past used a more complicated method of writing. Until the early 20th century, many wrote with a brush, not a pen. The brush was stored in a brush pot that was carefully decorated, as was everything connected to the art of Asian writing. The pot was made of carved bamboo or glazed pottery. A dry cake of ink was kept on a specially shaped inkstone in the pot. A special water dropper was used to dilute small crushed pieces of the cake, and the resulting mixture created a smooth, black ink.
Today few people recognize one of these water droppers. The oldest examples were shaped like small teapots with a hole at the top instead of a lid. Some were just a cylinder that held the water. The favored shape was that of a peach, the symbol of longevity. Other forms were used, too, and even today you can buy new water droppers shaped like animals, birds, snails, peppers, insects or groups of objects. Droppers are usually less than a few inches high or wide. Antique examples sell for hundreds of dollars, but new ones can cost as little as $9.99. They are used today by some calligraphers and are sought by others as collectibles.
Q: I was given a trinket box that has a note inside saying "Bennington Parian 1845." The box is blue with raised white decorations and an applied bunch of grapes on the lid. What can you tell me about it?
A: Bennington pottery was made by two companies, the Norton Co. and the Lyman Fenton & Co., both in Bennington, Vt. There has been a lot of confusion over Bennington pottery, and much of the pottery identified as Bennington in the past is not really Bennington. The problem began when a major museum expert in the 1920s assumed that all pottery found in the area around Bennington was made there. Some of it actually was made somewhere else and imported into the United States. A later book on Bennington pottery pictured pieces that were made elsewhere but claimed they were made in Bennington. A trinket box with an applied grape lid was pictured in the book. Real Bennington pottery was marked with the name of one of the two potteries that operated in the area and with the name of the city. Both companies were out of business by 1896. Norton Co. operated under various names and partnerships from 1793 to 1894. Lyman Fenton & Co. was in business from 1849 to 1858 and then became United States Pottery Co., which was in business from 1849 to 1858. Archeological digs in the area turned up pieces of Parian, but no fragments of trinket boxes or pieces with applied grapes were found.
Q: I've been collecting cast-iron trivets for many years and have more than 100. Many were made by Wilton. One has the year 1894 on the top. I also have about a dozen that are marked with the initials "J.Z.H." and a year that ranges from 1948 through 1952. I would like to know what these are worth.
A: Wilton Products made cast-iron trivets, doorstops, match safes, kitchenware, sconces and figures from 1935 to 1989. The Wilton family founded Susquehanna Castings in Wrightsville, Pa., in 1893. But it was not until years later that reproductions of early American trivets were cast and decorated at the Wilton foundry. Trivets marked "J.Z.H." were made by John Zimmerman Harner (1872-1965) at the Union Manufacturing Co. in Boyertown, Pa. Union Manufacturing made a series of alphabet trivets in cast iron from 1944 to 1958. Designs were reproductions of antique trivets. Each was marked with a letter of the alphabet, the year and the initials "J.Z.H." Some of the company's popular designs have been reissued. Trivets are useful, so even reproductions sell for $25 and up.
Q: I inherited my grandfather's mustache cup. The bottom is marked "Mignon, Z.S. & C., Bavaria." There is a small chip near the rim. The outside and inside of the cup are decorated with roses. My grandfather was born in 1850 and died in 1923. Can you tell me the history of this cup?
A: Your mustache cup was made by Zeh, Scherzer & Co., a factory that made porcelain in Bavaria from 1880 until 1992. "Mignon" is the name of the pattern. Mustache cups were invented by Harvey Adams of England in 1830 and were popular until about 1900. The large, flowing mustaches in style back then often had curled and waxed ends. The ledge on the cup kept the ends of the mustache from dragging in the hot beverage and kept the wax from melting. Most mustache cups sell for about $50 or less. Yours would be worth less since it is chipped.
Q: I'm trying to find information about a mahogany bedroom set I inherited. Each piece is branded "Tru-Type" and labeled "Mahogany Association, Inc." The set includes a full-size bed frame, dresser, mirrored dressing table, chair and nightstand. Please help.
A: Your bedroom set was made in the 1930s by the Statton Furniture Manufacturing Co. of Hagerstown, Md. Philo Statton and his wife, Helen, founded the company in 1926. In 1931 Helen and one of the company's designers, William Beard, started displaying furniture in room settings — an innovation that caught on at furniture stores across the country. Statton called the room-setting displays "Tru-Type," and used the name again a few years later as a brand for a line of Early American furniture. Statton's Tru-Type pieces interest collectors. The furniture is the work of skilled cabinetmakers, and if your bedroom set is in good shape, it could sell for well into the thousands. Furniture, especially a room suite, usually sells best locally because of transportation costs.
Tip: Remove the musty smell from a bureau drawer by sprinkling fresh coffee grounds inside. Leave them for 24 hours.