Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

The English language can be confusing.  Certainly, many of our idioms have fallen behind the times.  Hold the phones – What phones?  Don’t have a cow! – Surely, I’ll pass.  Where did these phrases come from and why have they stuck around despite their falling out with modern technology and culture?

On my morning walk I heard someone mention that they had “heard it straight from the horse’s mouth”.  Well, unless his horse is Mr. Ed, it seems quite unlikely that the man and his horse had a chat over breakfast and coffee.  Who’s to say the horse’s information would even be slightly reliable; or more reliable than say, hearing something straight from a person’s mouth?

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The phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” has become an idiom.  An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.  What meaning do we deduct from this word cluster?

We take the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” to mean getting information from an authoritative or credible source.  It might seemingly indicate that horses know best, however the phrase has an unexpected origin.

One possible origin comes from buying and selling horses back before the invention of the automobile.  As a means of labor and transportation, horses were very valuable in American civilization.  When buying a horse it was very important to obtain information about the animal’s health history and extenuating attributes, similarly to the way someone today would want to know the details about a car for purchase.  Apparently an excellent way to gage a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth, literally getting the facts straight from the horse’s mouth despite seller chicanery.  In one of my personal favorites, ‘Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye discloses to a man that the allegedly six year old horse he was sold actually turned out to be twelve.  “It was twelve!  It was tweeeelve!” he shouts during the iconic opening scenes as the town sings of “traditions, traditions“!

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Another possible origin relates to horse racing.  When betting on a horse, gamblers would put their money behind someone “in the know” who possessed that golden tidbit of information.  How’d they bet on the winning horse?  Why, they heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!  The people who you’d imagine have the best conjectures about which horse might win are the trainers and stable boys.  So, to say that it was heard straight from the horse’s mouth humorously suggests that someone is a step ahead of even the inner circle of stable boys, hearing it from the horse himself.

Though you’d never guess that’s where a phrase we use all the time and understand the meaning of comes from, it seems to have stuck through the decades.  Though most of us don’t go around checking horses’ mouths to see if they’re a good purchase or spend our Sunday afternoons at the race track, you can be sure to trust it if you heard it from the horse’s mouth!

Porcelain Dolls

The hype surrounding porcelain dolls is seen everywhere from classic literature to modern horror films.  Every little girl has looked with shining eyes at a pretty little porcelain doll at one point or another, admiring her perfect curling locks and dress stitched with care.  Produced since 18th century, thousands of porcelain dolls are manufactured yearly today.  Where did this fascination begin?

The first porcelain dolls, china dolls were manufactured predominantly in Germany starting in 1840.  They were made of white glazed porcelain with hand-painted features, stockings or boots and molded hair.  Often, these “old-fashioned” dolls were made to look like women, rather than children, with a body of cloth or leather and porcelain extremities.  Produced in large quantities reaching into the millions, these china dolls were soon replicated in America and China.  These original dolls differ from successors in their characteristic glossy appearance.

Chinadoll

Soon to follow, parian dolls gained popularity with their unglazed porcelain faces and inset glass eyes from the 1850’s onward.  As the porcelain doll developed through World War I, they took on more complicated features and were given goat or human hair atop their porcelain heads.  As their reputation grew, every young affluent girl wanted one, necessitating industrial manufacturing of clothing and accessories for these fashion dolls.  Sometimes, Paris companies such as Jumeau and Bru would design the bodies while German companies manufactured heads.

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A large shift in the industry and intended audience occurred as dolls were created to represent children, rather than grown-ups.  By the late 19th century, child-like figures overtook the market.  The most notable of these porcelain dolls were French bebes which grew in popularity between the 1860’s and 1880’s.  Made of the highest quality material and with great skill, these dolls weren’t produced for long before cheaper German imitations drove French bebes to a lesser quality and production cost.  The original bebes dolls are worth thousands of dollars on the collector’s market today.

With lower prices and increased production, porcelain dolls found their way into children’s hearts across the world.  Smaller unarticulated bisque dolls called penny dolls were popular into the early 1930’s when the United States began production.  Up until this point, porcelain dolls were viewed as toys rather than as collectables.  Artists such as Emma Clear first envisioned the porcelain doll as an elaborate and delicate collectable as hobbyist reproduction began in the United States.  By 1980 the hobby grew to include Europe, Australia and Great Britain and was of such great interest that large scale seminars were held by companies such as Seely’s and Wandke.  Many of these original dolls were created for an adult collector’s market.

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Because so many variations of porcelain dolls have been in circulation, their value is contingent upon time period, location, material, manufacturer, quality and condition.  The most expensive doll ever sold was a rare and unique Kammer & Reinhardt bisque doll that sold for the hefty price of $373,417.  Desirable characteristics for collectors include consistent tone and slight translucency, artist craftsmanship, attention to detail and articulated bodies with wooden joints.  Most 1860-1890 fashion dolls go for at least $2,000 and can easily be worth more than $20,000 if from a well-known source such as Bru and Huret, while later, cheaper dolls might be worth only a few hundred dollars.

No matter the price, these fragile little ladies have always engendered wondrous fascination.  Still produced in large quantities today in China, they’re here to stay for little girls and collectors worldwide.

All About Half Dimes

Before the invention of the nickel, the half dime was a lovely little coin that has now worked its way into some pretty impressive collections over the last hundred years.  With a limited production history and few variations, a well minted half dime is a collector’s dream.

Generally holding the same appearance and designs as larger United States silver coins, the half dime is immediately distinguishable by its small stature.  Originally 20.8 grains and .8924 fineness, the half dime is one of the smallest U.S. silver coins ever to be minted.  They appear to be half of a dime, and so the term for these 5 cent denominates was coined – no pun intended.

The half dime is a unique collectible in that some numismatists consider it to be the first coin minted under the United States Coinage Act of 1792.  The act officially minted currency as legal tender and implemented the decimal system for U.S. currency.  Others argue that it is no more than a pattern coin for testing a system in works.

With the authorization of production in July of 1792, a test piece known as the disme was in circulation the year before the first United States Mint actually opened for business.  Because the facilities were not yet made available, the first half dismes were struck in local craftsman, John Harper’s cellar with the oversight of official mint personnel.  Taking advantage of the limited quantity of available silver, it is rumored that President Washington donated his own household silverware!  In his fourth annual address on November 6, 1792, he stated: “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes: the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”  The half disme would forbear a long-standing history of U.S. coinage as a pattern piece for the half dime.  In 1795, the first official half dime was struck, though some were mint-marked 1794.  From then on, the coins were produced with great expedition and haste.

Over the course of eighty-one years thousands of half dimes were produced.  Most have been heavily circulated.  In 2006, a single PCGS MS67 half dime sold at auction for $1,322,500.  Their value is largely attributed to their historical significance and scarcity.

Image By DavidLawrence.com

Image By DavidLawrence.com

Various developmental designs of the half dime include the Early Half Dime Flowing Hair Pattern (1792), the Draped Bust Half Dime (1996-1797), the Capped Bust Half Dime (1829-1837) and the Seated Liberty Half Dime (1837-1873).  You’ll notice that none of these specimens portray images of presidents, as George Washington insisted the rejection of monarchical imagery, opting for visions of liberty.

As a tangible token from the beginnings of America, it’s no wonder the half dime is so highly valued.  Though your chances of finding one of these by luck are next to none, you can find them in exchange between passionate collectors.  The Stamp & Coin place is home to the world’s finest assembled Seated Liberty 1858-1873 Proof Half Dime collection.  You can view some of our half dimes for sale on  ebay.

“Bite the Bullet”

We’ve all faced those unavoidable challenges in life where we’ve had to bite the bullet, so to speak.  The phrase is not uncommon and is used today worldwide to discuss everything from measures taken against global warming to the philosophy of generative linguistics.  More literally, it might call attention to a 45 year-old male who necessitated aggressive treatment for lead poisoning after the actual ingestion of 206 bullets.  But where did the phrase originate and what does it really mean?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to bite the bullet is to “behave bravely or stoically when facing pain or a difficult situation”.

First recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 novel “The Light that Failed”, the phrase takes on a metaphorical meaning of fortitude:
“Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (152).

Though no actual bullet was present, the idea of showing courage in times of despair is aptly illustrated by the thought of showing teeth and biting a lead bullet, a romanticized vision of advancing unthreatened.  Though this is the first written account of the phrase, speculations are made as to how far back the idiom actually dates.

A more common explanation derives the practice of physically biting a bullet from the early 1800’s, a time before effective anesthesia was administered.  Patients were allegedly given a lead bullet to clench between barred teeth as a way to cope with extraordinary pain of surgical procedure without an anesthetic, preventing the patient from biting off his own tongue.  Though a bullet seems like a viable, impromptu battlefield option – malleable as not to break teeth, a leather strap or piece of wood was more likely used and is depicted in every historical photograph and reference.

18th Century Amputation Kit

18th Century Amputation Kit

The practice, often associated with the American Civil War seems factually inadequate at best, as evidence suggests the use of ether and chloroform with their invention in 1847, fourteen years before the Civil War began in 1861.  Up until that point, the best remedy for having a leg sawed off was a stiff drink and some gut-deep courage.

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By 1926 the phrase had found its way from bloodstained battlefields into the homes of English aristocracy.  English novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s famously funny character Bertie Wooster tells his valet Jeeves, “So brace up and bite the bullet.  I’m afraid I have bad news for you”, popularizing the phrase further.

Regardless of the beginnings of such a popular idiom, we all can relate to the feeling of sucking it up and biting the bullet.

 

The 1787 Brasher Doubloon

One of the rarest coins in the world was made when a goldsmith and silversmith was denied a petition to mint his own coins.

A man named Ephraim Brasher wanted to mint his own copper coins, but ran into a roadblock: the State of New York did not want to mint copper coinage.

But Brasher already had skills applicable to creating his own coins, so he set out to making his own. At the time he was already well known for his skills and his hallmark (his initials ‘EB’), which was stamped on his own coins and any coins that he proofed. Brasher had already established his name, to the point that he was nationally recognized.

So, against the wishes of New York, Brasher made his own coins. Perhaps his high status in the numismatic industry made him a little too confident.

So why are Brasher doubloons the rarest in the world? Few were made, and very few survived, and the rarest of the doubloons are the few that were made in 22-carat gold. The coins made in copper were more common, so they don’t sell for as much.

What do these rare coins sell for? In 2005, Heritage Auction sold all three varieties of the doubloons, where the most valuable, the New York Style EB Punch on Wing, sold for $2,990,000. That wasn’t the highest price paid for a Brasher Doubloon, however. A Wall Street investment firm bought a Brasher Doubloon for the whopping price of almost $7.4 million. Now that’s a valuable coin!

Chronometer Watches and Their History

The chronometer timepiece is a specific way of keeping time mechanically. Chronometers can be quite accurate in timekeeping and are known for their high quality.

When Jeremy Thacker invented a clock set in a vacuum chamber in 1714, he gave it the name “chronometer”.

Switzerland timepieces can only be given the “chronometer” label if they’ve been certified by the Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres (COSC). Other countries also often regulate what can be called a chronometer. According to the COSC, a chronometer watch must not lose more than four or gain more than six seconds a day.

Historically, chronometers have been the stuff of innovation. Some chronometers have stones in them, like diamond, ruby and sapphire to function as jewel bearings to decrease wear via friction.

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1761 H4 chronometer.

 

After the invention of the chronometer for timepieces, John Harrison invented the marine chronometer, a tool used to measure longitude through celestial navigation (much like the sextant!). The marine chronometer uses the same basic mechanical structure as the original chronometer, and came in very handy for navigation.

After the invention of these devices, astronomy observatories created competitions to judge their accuracy. The observatories ran and tested the devices for 30 to 50 days under strict guidelines. These guidelines were even stricter than the COSC’s standards today, ensuring the accuracy of the chronometers.

Today, chronometers aren’t as necessary to make timepieces, as inventors have further evolved clock making. But distinctive watch companies like Rolex still pride themselves on quality watches and clocks that use chronometer technology.