How 18th-century families special ordered dishes

Sample design plates are very rare. They were made for store displays. A c. 1795 Chinese export plate showing four sample borders, one with a monogram, auctioned for over $8,000 this year in New York. Cowles Syndicate photo

Kovels’ Antiques and Collecting

Ever wonder how the rich American families in the 18th century bought their dishes, glassware and other necessities from other countries? Many of the best sets of dishes came from China by ship. If you lived in a major city like Boston, a shopkeeper would show you samples. The shopkeeper also might draw a picture of your family crest or initials, or designs of flowers, leaves and geometric border patterns. Some shops had actual sample plates made with multiple borders. The sample plates were sent from the Chinese factory to be used for special-order dishes. It could take up to two years to send the order, have the dishes made and ship them to the customer in Boston. A joke among antiques collectors is the story about one set of special-order dishes. A black-and-white design drawing and color directions for a set of dishes were sent on a ship to China. The set came back and it was an exact copy of the directions. The blue-and-white design showed the borders and initials, and each had the blue words added that read “paint this red,” “paint this green,” etc. Of course, the Chinese workman couldn’t read English, and he thought the letters were part of the design. We are told a plate from this set does exist in a museum. A plate with four sample borders was sold this year for $8,125 by Christie’s in New York.

Q My husband has had a White House Vinegar bottle in is family for a very long time. We tried to look it up online, but we couldn’t find any like it. It is shaped like a large cruet with flowers on a crackled background and two handles at the top. Do you have an idea when it was made? Also, we’re curious as to how much it might be worth.

A White House Vinegar originally was made in 1908 on the west bank of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. The plant had a view of the White House. In 1915, production was moved to Winchester, Virginia. White House Vinegar was sold in bottles, jugs, jars, cruets and pitchers made in different shapes and designs to attract the attention of customers. The bottles were reusable, and buyers could bring the empties back to the store for a refill from the wooden shipping kegs. Bottles were made that were shaped like an apple, lighthouse or the Unisphere at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Some had embossed designs, like the cabbage roses on your bottle. White House Vinegar still is available, but it’s sold in modern bottles with paper labels. Your White House cabbage rose bottle was made about 1929, is 9 1/2 inches high and holds about a quart of liquid. It is worth about $20.

Q I’m trying to sell five old office chairs. They look like bankers’ or courtroom chairs. Two of the chairs have labels for the High Point Bending & Chair Co. I don’t know their worth or how and where to go about selling them, so help would be appreciated!

A The company began in 1901 as the Siler City Bending Company. It made bentwood parts for horse-drawn carriages. In 1904, it was reorganized by M.J. Boling and renamed High Point Bending & Chair Co., after a nearby city. In addition to a chair-making plant in Siler City, the company also built a plant in Mount Olive, N.C. that made desks, tables and bookcases, mostly for office use. In 1956, the company name became Boling Chair Company, and later, just the Boling Company. It is now out of business. Your chairs were made sometime before 1956. Sets of four chairs have recently sold from about $30 to $200 in good condition. If your chairs have been stripped or are worn, the value would be at the lower end.

Q I’d like some information about a square bowl marked “Shawnee USA 1904” on the bottom. It’s embossed with raised diamond-shapes and the base is painted to look like brass. It’s 7 inches across. Is 1904 the year it was made?

A The number is the mold number, not the date the piece was made. No. 1904 is a planter with Petit-Point design. Shawnee Pottery started in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1937. The company made planters, jardinieres, lamps, plaques, vases, cookie jars, and other decorative ware. The company closed in 1961. Your planter could sell for $10-$15.

Q Is my G.I. Joe doll worth anything?

A In 1963, Hasbro marketed a new doll for boys. They realized a boy wouldn’t ask for a doll, so they sold the G.I. Joe doll as an “action figure.” The toy was a huge success, and it was followed by comic books, video games and more. G.I. Joe was discontinued in 1978, but it was soon put back into production. Today the high-priced G.I. Joes are early or rare. A figure with painted hair or Vietnam camouflage clothing is best. Also collected are 1960s and 1970s figures in very good condition or, better yet, in the package. The G.I. Jane Nurse in her box, made only in 1967, sells for $3,000 to $5000. Some talking action figures sell for more than $1,000. There are others that are special enough to sell over $1,000, but most figures that have been played with are in poor condition and have very low, if any, value.

Tip: Do not use an old crib or place old painted furniture and toys near very young children; check the paint. The use of lead paint was discontinued in the U.S. in 1978.

By sending a letter with a question, you give full permission for use in any Kovel forum. For return of a photograph, include a stamped envelope. Write to Kovel, Farm Forum, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.