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Typewriter History at Your Fingertips

April 28, 2001|RALPH KOVEL and TERRY KOVEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The computer has almost replaced the typewriter. Many young children would not recognize an old typewriter with an exposed typebar. Today's new typewriters usually print the letters from a ball. The typewriter was an amazing invention that gained attention in the 1870s. It was one of the most talked-about inventions at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The "writing machine" made it possible to easily copy papers and books. The invention was redesigned many times, and the keyboard could be rectangular or curved. The inking method was changed to pads or rollers. The paper feed was moved and the keys were adjusted so that more lines of type could be seen.

For about 30 years, inventors also tried to change the arrangement of the letters. They tried to ignore the QWERTY arrangement used on early Sholes & Glidden typewriters and on computers of today. (Starting from the left, Q, W, E, R, T and Y are the first six letters of the top row of lettered keys.)

One popular machine that had an improved typebar action was the Williams. It was made in 1891. The keys moved the typeface that printed the letters with a jerky, "grasshopper" movement. The curved, 28-key keyboard was replaced by a straight version in 1895. Collectors search for the unusual Williams I machine and others that show the technology of another day.

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Question: Can you tell me about my oak drop-leaf secretary? It has carving, inlay and brass hardware. A dealer told me it had been given away with soap.

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Answer: The Larkin Soap Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., sold soap directly to the consumer by offering premiums with each purchase. The company continued with these sales from 1891 to the late 1930s. The furniture they gave away was usually oak. You could buy a few cases of soap and get the desk for free. Today, a Larkin desk sells for about $750.

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Q My vintage china plate is decorated with little elves playing. The elves have large, round eyes, skinny legs and frowning mouths. The plate has two marks on the back: an eagle above the letters "CT" and a fleur-de-lis above a superimposed "CT" and the word "Germany."

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A Determining the age of your plate is like following the clues in a detective story. The marks were used by C. Tielsch & Co., which worked from 1845 to 1945 in Silesia, Germany, which is now part of Poland. The eagle mark was used from about 1875 to 1935, and the fleur-de-lis mark from about 1895 to 1918.

The word Germany (in English) indicates that the plate was made for export to England or the United States. England required imports to be labeled with the country of origin beginning in 1887; the United States required the same labeling in 1891.

The elves are probably the famous Palmer Cox Brownies. Cox (1840-1924), an artist and author who grew up in Canada, invented the Brownies in 1883 as characters in his children's books. The Brownies were used in many countries to decorate dinnerware. All this narrows the date of your plate to between 1895 and 1918.

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Q I bought a pair of strange-looking old scissors at a yard sale. There's a knob on the front that turns a gear, and there's an open-toothed hole in the center of each blade below the center screw.

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AYou have a pair of buttonhole scissors. Introduced about 1800, they were soon found among the necessary sewing tools used by a tailor or seamstress. You can still buy them at specialty stores.

The gear mechanism adjusts the scissors to start and end a buttonhole at the desired distance from the edge of the fabric. Antique buttonhole scissors run $15 to $50, depending on age and condition.

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Q I'm suddenly seeing jadite-glass reproduction kitchenware and dinnerware in mail-order catalogs. I don't collect jadite, but I do have similar blue dishes that I call delphite. I haven't seen much of it for sale for years. Is that color becoming popular again?

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A Martha Stewart uses jadite dishes on her TV show, which has helped spark interest in both Depression-era jadite and reproductions. The same two Jeannette, Pa., glass companies that introduced opaque green jadite also introduced opaque medium-blue dishes. McKee Glass Co. called the color of the dishes "delphite," while the Jeannette Glass Co. spelled it "delfite."

Far fewer dishes were made in blue than in green, so they're harder to find and generally more expensive. Some pieces in Jeannette's delfite Cherry Blossom pattern have been reproduced since the 1970s.

* 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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Current Prices

. Figures are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary because of local economic conditions.

* Geisha Girl teapot, geisha in cards pattern, scalloped cobalt blue, advertising premium, marked "Cafe Martin, New York," 3 inches, $40.

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