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What Sits on Top of a Piano and Gurgles?

April 14, 2001|RALPH KOVEL and TERRY KOVEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every well-dressed piano of the 1880s was covered with a Spanish shawl held in place by a "piano baby." Bisque figurines of babies, ranging in size from 3 inches to 12 inches, were displayed on pianos.

The babies were lying on their stomachs, playing with their toes, crying, smiling, crawling or rolling on their backs. Sometimes two were posed together. Some were even modeled inside a shoe or holding a toy.

The best of the piano babies were made by the Gebruder Heubach firm of Germany. They made dolls and figurines after 1820. Heubach figurines and piano babies are almost always marked. Copies have been made. The old figures have a small, pencil-sized hole in the bottom. The recent copies have large holes.

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Question: My brother has an old basket he says is made from an armadillo shell. Can this be?

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Answer: Armadillo baskets are curiosities that have been made in Texas since the late 1880s. Charles Apelt, a German basket weaver who had moved to Texas, accidentally discovered that the shell of a dead armadillo curled up as it dried. The tail could be positioned to make a handle for the shell basket.

He began hunting and killing armadillos for baskets. Later, his company expanded and he made purses, lamps with armadillo shades, smoking stands and many other novelties. The company continued making gifts of armadillo shells until 1971.

It also bred armadillos to be used for medical research.

Armadillo-shell baskets were very popular Texas souvenirs that sold for about $3 in the 1940s. Today they are found in antiques shops and flea markets from time to time, priced at about $85.

The millions of armadillos living in the southern United States no longer have to fear the basket makers, but they are hunted for their meat. It tastes like turtle.

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QI have a piece of marked Rookwood pottery that is covered with a sterling-silver network of leaves and lines. Was the silver added after the pottery left the Rookwood factory, or is it original?

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ASilver overlay designs have been used on pottery and glass since the mid-1800s. The Rookwood factory of Cincinnati sent finished glazed pieces to Gorham & Co. of Providence, R.I., to be given the added silver decoration.

The silver overlay was not cut out of silver and then fitted over the pottery; instead, a chemical was painted on the pottery and then "plated" with sterling silver. The finished piece had a tight silver trim.

The artists at Gorham put the overlay pattern on the vase with little regard for the decorations on the vase, so a silver stem might cover part of a painted flower. The Rookwood overlay pieces were made only from 1892 to 1894.

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QYour column on the various English words that mean "sofa" left out my favorite: chesterfield. Where did that term originate?

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AA chesterfield is a large, overstuffed couch with two upholstered arms. The word might have been taken from a town by that name in Derbyshire, England. Or it might have originated with the same 19th century Earl of Chesterfield whose name describes a semi-fitted overcoat.

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QWhile we were cleaning out our grandparents' kitchen drawers, we found a small, folding single-blade pocketknife with an off-white handle that's engraved with the words "Corn Knife." The blade is thin and narrower at the bottom than at the top. Was this knife specially made to take corn off cobs?

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ANo, it was specially made to slice corns off human feet, one layer at a time. Corn knives became popular in the late 1800s, when fashionable women wore very narrow-toed shoes. Corns became a widespread podiatry problem--which led to the development of corn knives.

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QI have a battery-operated toy bear. The eyes light up, the arms move and he plays a drum. He also marches by sliding his feet.

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AToys like yours were popular in the 1950s and '60s. A drumming bear was made in the 1950s by Alps Shoji Ltd. of Japan. Battery-operated toys are going up in value. Ten years ago, your toy was worth $55. Today it would sell for more than $100.

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QMy breakfast set is marked "Royal Winton, Grimwades." When was it made?

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AGrimwades Ltd., of Staffordshire, England, used that mark from 1934 to 1950.

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Q What does the word "federal" mean, as in "federal furniture"?

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A The term "federal furniture" is used to describe a style of American furniture made from 1780 to 1820, the first four decades of our country's independence. The style itself is considered neoclassical, and it borrowed heavily from the British furniture styles designed by Sheraton and Hepplewhite.

Federal furniture was based on classical designs and is noted for its simplicity, clear lines and delicate ornamentation. American makers added some patriotic decorations, such as eagles, to the traditional urns and bellflowers.

For a listing of helpful books and publications, include a self-addressed, stamped (55 cents) envelope to Kovels, Los Angeles Times, King Features Syndicate, 235 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017.

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