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Silver containers are worth their salt

Eating too much salt is a health problem today, but in past centuries salt was considered an important ingredient to be treated with reverence.

It was traditional to put a large container of salt near the head of the table, where the most important person sat. To be seated "above the salt" was a sign of a person's rank.

Salt containers were large and elaborate until the early 1900s because salt was not processed to be used in a shaker. Silver bowls with elaborate decorations were favored. Russian silversmiths created a unique style of "salt chair," a container about 5 inches high. The "chair" was really a stylized shape based on the shape of the izba, a small house with a gabled roof. The salt chair had a lid that covered the salt kept inside the "seat" of the chair.

Collectors who want to put a salt chair on their table must search auctions and shops that sell antique silver. These rare salt servers sell at auction for $500 or more.

Q: About 60 years ago, my father bought my sister a used "hope chest" because she was engaged to be married. Now I have inherited the chest. It's all cedar, on casters, and is 43 by 19 by 17 inches. A plate inside the chest says, "Manufactured by Universal Cabinet Company, Chicago, Illinois." What can you tell me about the company, and is the chest worth saving? I'm currently storing wool blankets and clothing in it.

A: The fact that you're using the chest makes it worth saving. The Universal Cabinet Co. was in business in Chicago during the 1910s and '20s. It manufactured cedar chests as well as medicine cabinets, mirrors, hat racks, pedestals and floor lamps. Its cedar chests were made of Tennessee red cedar and were advertised as "moth-proof and vermin-proof." The value of your 20th-century chest depends on its condition. If it's in excellent original condition, it could be worth $500. If your chest has lost its cedar scent, rub the wood with fine sandpaper.

Q: We inherited a ceramic plaque that hung on my grandmother's wall for decades. It pictures three Japanese women having tea and one woman holding a baby. There is a religious picture hanging on the wall behind them. The plaque is signed "Jos. Zasche Vienna." Can you tell us something about it?

A: Josef Zasche was born in Gablonz, Bohemia (now Jablonec, Czech Republic), in 1821. He was a porcelain painter at the Vienna Porcelain Factory from 1844 until 1847, when he established his own workshop in Vienna. His paintings on porcelain, enamel and ivory often included religious themes. Some were copied from paintings in museums. Zasche died in 1881. His plaques sell for a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the subject and the frame.

Q: I found an old lithographed tin political button in my garage. There's a picture of boxer Joe Louis in the center surrounded by the words "Vote for Roberts Says Joe Louis." What is the historical background of this button and what is it worth?

A: The "Roberts" named on your button is probably Frederick Madison Roberts (1879-1952), a Los Angeles mortician who served in the California State Assembly from 1918 to 1934. A Republican, he was the first black to serve in the assembly. Later, in 1938 and 1946, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since Joe Louis didn't become heavyweight champion until 1937, your button must date from one of Roberts' congressional races. A similar Joe Louis photo button endorsing Wendell Willkie auctioned recently for more than $350. Roberts, by the way, was a descendent of Sally Hemmings and, presumably, Thomas Jefferson.

Q: Can you provide information on an electric coffee percolator that my father gave to my mother as an anniversary gift in 1929? It's part of a set that includes an oval tray and a sugar and creamer. The manufacturer is Manning-Bowman of Meriden, Conn. The pieces appear to be chrome-plated but never need polishing. It has been making great coffee for four generations of our family and has never needed repairs. Is there any value to this set other than sentimental?

A: The coffee percolator was invented by Hanson Goodrich, an Illinois farmer, in 1889. Before that, coffee was made by boiling water and coffee grounds together and then straining out the grounds. Sometimes eggshells were added to the water before boiling to "settle" the grounds. The percolator kept the coffee grounds separate and eliminated the need to strain the coffee. Manning-Bowman was founded by Edward Manning and Robert Bowman in 1832. The company was issued several patents for percolators beginning in 1904. The first electric coffeepots were made circa 1915, and Manning-Bowman was making electric percolators by circa 1920. The company was bought by Bersted Manufacturing Co. of Fostoria, Ohio, in 1941. Your set should have a retail price of about $125.

Tip: Old tooled leather can be cleaned with a mild leather cleaner. Stores that sell leather purses usually sell a cleaner made to be used with leather. Then rub with olive oil to give a shine.

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