Silhouettes cut corners and likeness in a distinct style

Terry and Kim Kovel
Cowles Syndicate

Silhouettes and profile images date to ancient times. Usually limited to the head and shoulders, the shape is a filled solid color attached to a high contrast background. Featureless, but easily recognizable, they offer fast identification.

Silhouettes were at their peak of popularity in the late 18th century as an inexpensive way to create a portrait miniature. French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette, who was known for cost cutting, became associated with anything made cheaply.

Cutting a person's likeness from paper was the simplest and most economical way to document their image. Before this time, the images were called profiles or shades. They have been used on coins since ancient times and still are today. Because they are used on currency, some of the most recognizable silhouettes in the United States are former presidents.

Silhouettes became popular as an inexpensive way to create a portrait. Today, antique silhouettes of famous figures sell for high prices.

Can you recognize any in this framed set? George Washington is in the center, of course, surrounded by the next 16 presidents. This set was made about 1870 and sold for $2,688 at an auction by Rachel Davis Fine Arts.Silhouette images today are on everything from road signs to mud flaps to targets to advertising. Jane Austen, Alfred Hitchcock and E.T. are a few of the most recognized silhouettes created. Twenty-first century companies and artists, including Apple and Kara Walker, effectively convey their products and artistic messages with timeless simplicity using this form of portraiture.

Question: A while back I saw on Google that someone found a picture believed to be of Billy the Kid! I have an early photo in which the person looks identical. Billy the Kid is standing between two other men. How can I find out if it's authentic?

A: Billy the Kid (1859-1881) was a notorious outlaw who was born in New York and later moved west. He was part of a gang of cattle rustlers in New Mexico and killed several people in Arizona Territory and New Mexico Territory while evading the law. His crimes were written about in some of the newspapers of the time. Several movies and TV shows have been made about him. Billy the Kid's given name was Henry McCarty. He began using the name William H. Bonney in 1877. Supposedly there is only one known photo of Billy the Kid. An authentic photo could sell for several hundred to thousands of dollars or more, especially if the other people in the photo can be identified. The photo needs to be seen by an expert to authenticate it. Contact an auction house that specializes in photographs.

Q: My older sister just went into a nursing home, and we're going through her things trying to decide what to do with everything. Is there any interest in wooden thread spools? She had several and there are some that were our mother's. Some still have thread on them.

A: The first wooden spools for thread were made about 1820. Before spools were mass-produced, some spool thread was sold with an additional half-cent deposit that would be given back to the customer when the empty spool was returned. Most wooden spools were made of birch. Cheaper plastic spools replaced wooden spools by the early 1970s. Only a few companies made small quantities of wooden spools after 1975. Thread deteriorates with age, and the thread left on a very old spool might not be usable. Empty wooden spools are often bought to use in craft projects. Most wooden spools sell online in large lots for less than 20 cents apiece. Spools with intact labels from another country or that have some other appeal might sell for a little more.

Q: Can you tell me the age and value of a cream pitcher marked "Wood & Sons, Potters for 200 years, Burslem, England?" The mark includes a heraldic shield with the names and dates "Ralph 1750," "Moses 1751" and "Enoch 1784" around it. It lists the pattern as "Covered Bridges, Old Sturbridge Village."

A: Several members of the Wood family were potters in Staffordshire, England. Wood & Sons traces its beginning to the work of three brothers, Ralph, Aaron and Moses Wood. Ralph began working in 1750 and his brother, Moses, began working in 1751. Enoch Wood, Aaron's son, began working in 1784. Wood & Son was founded in Burslem, Staffordshire, in 1865. It became Wood & Sons around 1907. It became one of the largest potteries in the district. The company was run by family members until it was sold in 1982. It closed in 2005. The "200 years" mark indicates your blue-and-white cream pitcher was made about 1950. This transfer-printed covered bridge pattern was made in blue and white and in red and white. A cream pitcher sells for about $15 to $20.

TIP: To preserve valuable photographs, use UV-filtering glass or an acrylic sheet.