Some 19th century stores used wooden carvings, glass jars as signs

Tim Kovel and Kerry Kovel
Kovel's Antiques and Collecting
This 1920s apothecary sign shaped like a mortar and pestle is 20 inches high, made of tin with cut and colored glass mounted to the outside. It sold at Cowan's for $8,125.

Large signs with flashing lights, clever electric signs with moving graphics and ads that identify a store by brand or content are important. But there were no electric signs before Edison invented the light bulb, so what did they use? 

The cigar store sign — a life-size, carved wooden Indian often holding tobacco leaves — is recognized even today. An oculist often hung a giant eyeglass frame near the front door. But what could serve as a trademark for a drug store or medical shop?

Some 19th century stores used a large glass jar in a special shape known as an apothecary jar. The jar was sometimes filled with colored water. By the 1920s, many shops used a large sign shaped like a mortar and pestle. 

Mortars and pestles have been used since the Stone Age to grind ingredients for food preparation or medicine. The earliest mortars were stones with shallow indentations. Soon other materials were used with deeper indentations like ceramics or metal. The name mortar comes from the Latin word for "pounder." Mortars have been recorded in history since the Bible and in Roman poetry. 

Modern pharmacies still use pictures of mortars for signs. A Cowan auction sold a large, elaborate sign shaped like a mortar with a pestle handle sticking up from the inside. The sign was covered with colored cut glass dots that lit up on the outside. The 1920s sign was estimated at $1,000 to $2,000 and sold for $8,125.

More:Aug. 8: Current prices

Question: I got a Hummel figurine called "Lost Sheep" at an estate sale. It's marked with a bee over the letter "V" above "Goebel, W. Germany." The numbers 68/0 are embossed on the bottom. Can you tell me how old it is and if it has any value? 

Answer: The mark on your figurine is called the "Last Bee" mark. It's sometimes listed as "TMK 5." It was used from 1972 until 1979. Collecting Hummel figurines was popular several years ago, but interest declined in the late 1990s. Most sell for low prices, although a few rare figurines sell for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. You can check online sites to see what the figurine is selling for, but remember, most are asking prices. It doesn't mean they will be able to sell them for that price. Try to find "sold" prices to get an idea of value. We've seen online prices for the Lost Sheep at $35 to $60 and a few not sold for up to $135.  

Q: Did Tiffany ever make desk sets? I think I own one. My parents believe it is from the 1920s. What is it worth?

A: During the late 1880s, Louis Comfort Tiffany had a New York firm that he later named Tiffany Studios. Tiffany Studios produced more than 15 different patterns of desk sets. A set had at least nine pieces: blotter ends, inkstand, pen tray, paper rack, paper knife, rocker blotter, memo-pad holder, stamp box and calendar. Also available were other matching pieces like bookends, paperweights, lamps, thermometers, scales and even reading glasses. Today, any single piece of a Tiffany desk set is worth hundreds of dollars. But beware, fake Tiffany pieces have been made. Authentic Tiffany desk sets made between about 1900 and 1919 are impressed or die-stamped "Tiffany Studios New York," and each piece is impressed with a different model number. If pieces are just marked "Tiffany," or if "Tiffany Studios New York" is written in raised letters in a depressed rectangular area, they are fakes.

Q: My father made business trips to New York City in the 1950s and early 1960s. He brought home Steiff toys for his six children. He gave me a tiger with eyes that glowed in the dark if you held him up to a light first. Can you tell me a little about this tiger?

A: The Steiff Co. in Germany was founded in 1880 by Margarete Steiff. Her first big seller was a stuffed elephant. In 1892, the first illustrated Steiff catalog showed elephants, monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, dogs, cats, hares and giraffes. In 1902, Steiff bears were shown at the Leipzig toy trade fair. The bears were a success in the U.S. under the name of "Teddy Bear"  — named after President "Teddy" Roosevelt. The trademark "Steiff Button in Ear" was added in 1904. The mohair tiger came in three sizes and had an embroidered pink nose. It sells for about $110. Glowing green eyes could add value.

Q: I found an odd, old nail that's about 2 1/2 inches long and has a flat round head that's about 3/4 inch wide. There are two numbers stamped on the top. Can you tell me what this was used for? 

A: You have a date nail. They were primarily used by railroads on treated railroad ties to indicate the year the tie was treated or the year it was laid. Date nails were also used on some utility poles and other wood products. Most were made of steel, but some were made of iron or copper. Different shaped heads or letters were sometimes used to indicate the type of timber, whether it was new or used or something other than the date. Date nails were first used in France in 1859. They were used in the U.S. beginning in 1897. Use of date nails declined during the Depression and World War II. Almost no railroads have used them since 1970. You might be able to find the name or identifying mark of the nail manufacturer on the shank of your nail. There are collectors of date nails. A collection of railroad tie date nails from 1907 to 1940 sold for $36 at a recent auction of railroad memorabilia.

TIP: If the drawer in a cabinet sticks, buy some silicone spray. Spray only the runners and the sides of the drawer. Do not let any spray get on the front finish of the cabinet.

Terry Kovel and Kim Kovel answer readers' questions sent to the column. Send a letter with one question describing the size, material (glass, pottery) and what you know about the item. Include only two pictures, the object and a closeup of any marks or damage. Be sure your name and return address are included. By sending a question, you give full permission for use in any Kovel product. Names, addresses or email addresses will not be published. We do not guarantee the return of photographs, but if a stamped envelope is included, we will try. Questions that are answered will appear in Kovels Publications. Write to Kovels, (Name of this newspaper), King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803 or email us at