Mortality makes the memento mori

Terry and Kim Kovel
Cowles Syndicate

When Halloween approaches, it's time to look into the spooky side of antiques. While there are plenty of antique decorations and toys made specifically for Halloween, you can see related symbols in more everyday pieces.

Skulls in particular show up on all sorts of collectibles, from poison bottles to Victorian mourning jewelry to toy pirate ships. Memento mori objects such as jewelry, timepieces and figurines have been made since the 16th century. Latin for "remember you must die," memento mori served as reminders of the transience of life and encouragement to live virtuously. They often included skulls or skeletons as symbols.

This paper clip features a bronze skull and bones, making it ready for Halloween any time of the year. Is it a modern-day memento mori or a sly comment on the tedium of paperwork?

Apparently, this style has yet to die out, as seen in this bronze paper clip with a three-dimensional skull decoration. It sold for $625 at Rago Auctions.

Question: I have an extensive collection of Napoleonic items -- busts, statues, plates, death mask, etc. -- that I would like to sell to collectors. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution. He was the leader of the French Republic as First Consul from 1799 to 1804. From his self-coronation in the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris in 1804 to his exile on Saint Helena in 1815, he built one of the most ambitious empires in world history that also resulted in millions of deaths in the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleonic items can sell for $10 to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the object and its rarity. If many of your items are of high value, you should be able to find an auction house or dealer that will sell your collection. You can also reach out to the Napoleonic Collectors club for other interested collectors and events (

Q: I have my late great-grandmother's White treadle sewing machine, and I was wondering what year it was made. The U.S. patents go from March 20, 1877, to March 20, 1890. The serial number is 1824745. If you have any information about this machine it would be greatly appreciated.

A: The White Sewing Machine company was founded in Templeton, Massachusetts, by Thomas White in 1858. The company moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1866. The serial number on your sewing machine indicates it was made between 1904 and 1914. Sales of American-made machines declined after cheaper foreign-made sewing machines became available in the 1950s. White bought several appliance brands and became White Consolidated Industries in 1964. It was bought by Electrolux in 1986 and resold to Husqvarna, a Swedish company, in 2006. White sewing machines were not made after 2006.  

Q: I've had a Ball Mason jar for quite a few years. The Ball logo is not underlined. What makes it special is the spelling. The word "perfect" is spelled "PERFFCT," with two "F"s and missing the second "E." Does the mistake make it worth anything?

A: Five Ball brothers started the Wooden Jacketed Can Co. in Buffalo, New York, in 1880, making wood-covered tin cans for kerosene, paint and other products. They began making glass canning jars in 1884. Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. was incorporated in 1886. Ball Perfect Mason jars were made in a variety of colors from about 1910 to 1960. The Ball script logo without the underline was used from about 1923 to 1933. Many Ball jars made at that time have missing letters or parts of letters. Molding machines had to be swabbed periodically to get rid of carbon buildup that could cause defects. Molds were recut when the embossing became too hard to read. Most of the time an error does not increase the value of the jar. Ball Corporation is still in business, now with headquarters in Broomfield, Colorado. Ball jars were not made after 1996. The company now produces aluminum beverage cans and designed the optical technology and mirror system for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Q: I have my great-great-great-grandfather's Civil War diary. He enlisted in the CSA in 1861 and was part of the 7th Texas Infantry. He was captured at the fall of Fort Donelson in 1862 and held as a POW at Camp Douglas in Chicagos. He was freed in a prisoner exchange and re-enlisted. We have his papers from his unit's surrender and a diary he kept while at Camp Douglas. I'd love to donate these to a museum in Texas that would preserve them and share them with the world. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Camp Douglas opened in 1861 as a training camp for Union soldiers. The first prisoners sent there were those captured by Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson in 1862. Personal diaries and letters from Civil War soldiers are of great interest to historians. There are several museums that have collections of Civil War items. If you want to keep your great-great-great-grandfather's papers in Texas, contact the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth ( or the Historical Research Center at the Texas Heritage Museum in Hillsboro ( If there is interest in the papers, find out how they will preserve them and display them to the public before deciding where to donate them.

TIP: Put books in the freezer overnight to get rid of many types of insects.

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, (Farm Forum), King Features Syndicate, 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803 or email us at