If you look up the definition of “folk art,” you’ll run into confusion. That’s because the term’s meaning has changed since the 1920s, when it gained widespread use, thanks to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948).
She was a collector of crude but charming paintings, sculptures and other folk art. Her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., helped restore Colonial Williamsburg. Abby’s fame and her art selections determined what followed in the world of folk art. The paintings she collected were done by untrained artists whose works lacked perspective, used bright colors and simple lines, and often did not flatter the subject. Carvings were large cigar-store figures, carousel figures or weather vanes.
Also considered folk art in those early days were everyday items like furniture, embroidery, baskets and ironwork if they were homemade in regional styles by talented people. Many art experts thought these everyday items were just crude copies of upper-class originals. But collectors began to see value in the folk-art tradition. More and more objects were included in the definition: mourning pictures, scrimshaw, quilts, carved parts of ships, handmade store signs, carved eagles, woven coverlets, pottery animals and face jugs.
A 1980s book on folk art extended the definition to include tattoos, gravestones, firefighting tools like decorated buckets and belts, and even machine-made, metal mechanical banks and windmill weights. Even though you may not be able to define folk art, you can identify it. Carnivals are filled with examples, including tip-over comic figures and handmade game targets, like open-mouthed clowns. The sideshows offer painted banners advertising weird animals and acts. Arcade games often have animated figures like “Laughing Sal,” who chuckles and shakes outside the funhouse. Shooting galleries have metal figural targets, some with moving parts. Today, even the patterns used by tattoo artists are collected. To be a folk-art collector, you need the courage to buy what you like and the ability to recognize the talent of the maker. The best pieces are worth thousands of dollars.
Note: A letter from a reader reminded me that a stein mentioned in an earlier column had a slogan on it, “Grub Vom Westerwald.” The reader suggested that it really said “Gruss vom Westerwald,” which means “Greetings from Westerwald,” a sentence often found on souvenirs. In German script, the double-S looks very much like a capital B.
Q: Please tell me something about the maker of my small, round, wooden table. Its label reads “Dean C. Woodard Furniture Co., Owosso, Mich.”
A: The Dean C. Woodard Furniture Co. made good-quality coffee and end tables from the 1940s to the 1960s. Dean Woodard was the grandson of Lyman E. Woodard, who founded another furniture manufacturing company in Owosso in 1866.
Lyman’s company switched from making wood to making wrought-iron furniture in the 1930s. Now the company is called Woodard Furniture and makes wrought iron, cast-aluminum and wicker furniture and accessories. It’s headquartered in Chicago but still has a factory in Owosso.
Q: I have a surveyor’s brass transit and wooden tripod made by a St. Louis company called Wissler. The set is in a wooden box labeled “Railway Express Agency, Grants Pass, Oregon.” How do I find out when the surveying equipment was made?
A: Adolph Wissler (1866-1926) founded the Wissler Instrument Co. in 1891. The company was sold in the late 1930s and closed in 1944. The Railway Express Agency wasn’t founded until 1929, though. So your surveying instruments probably were made between 1929 and 1944.
Tip: Glass becomes cloudy if not kept completely dry when not in use. That is why decanters and vases often discolor.
Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions.
• Stork Club table centerpiece, figural, wood, painted, foot holds glass cylinder for flowers, 1940s, 7 1/2 inches, $115.
• Hop & Low mushroom salt-and-pepper shakers from “Fantasia,” amber-glazed ceramic, Vernon Kilns, copyright 1941, 4 inches, $135.
• “Gunsmoke” lunchbox with thermos, Matt Dillon in gunfight with bank bandits, red plastic cup, Aladdin, 1973, $145.
• Van Briggle chamberstick, maroon-and-blue matte glaze, c. 1915, 5 1/2 x 5 inches, $210.
• Fireplace bellows, wood and leather, brass nozzle and tacks, urn of fruits and flowers design, “Manufactured by I.M. Johnson, Southington, Conn.,” 18 inches, $356.
• Coalbrookdale cast-iron corner umbrella stand, open top, oval dividers for umbrellas, ferns-and-vine design, beaded base, iron drip pan, 19th century, 22 x 19 inches, $480.
• Wall clock, attributed to Samuel Abbott, reverse-painted splat and dial, stenciled half-columns, full-length door with mirror, c. 1840, 32 1/2 inches, $505.
• Steuben vase, celeste-blue handle and shell design, matsu-no-ke, clear glass, 4 1/2 x 6 inches, $710.
— Terry Kovel answers as many questions as possible through the column. Write to Kovels, Lawrence Journal-World, King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.