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.


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.


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.


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.

Navigating the Seas

What is a sextant?

It looks like something from a Jules Verne novel – but this tool is pure nonfiction.

Long before GPS and other electronic tools took over in navigation, ship captains had to measure their location differently.

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

That’s where the sextant comes in. It looks complicated to modern eyes, but navigators were experts at each technical part. How does a sextant work? At the most basic explanation, a sextant measures the altitude of the sun or other celestial bodies above the horizon. It uses two mirrors; you look through one mirror at the horizon, while the other mirror moves on an arm to where the sun reflects off of it. Then the angle is read on the scale. This information is used to find the boat’s position on a chart.


The sextant is still sometimes considered an excellent backup on a ship for navigation, since unlike most modern navigational tools, it doesn’t run on electricity. It’s also a very accurate tool.

The sextant in the pictures is from 1837. It’s in remarkable condition and is even in its original box.


The label (a very pretty label, if only they made them like that today!) says: “the Sextant No. 19595 named Henry Hughes & Son LTD. of 6” radius & reading to 10” has been examined & found satisfactory.”

This site has a fun project to build your own sextant!

Rotary Dial Telephones

Rotary phones, now long extinct from any actual use, still make for great collectibles.

Tiny, speed-of-light hand-held phones have now taken over. But there’s something romantic and charming about having to slow dial a number instead of pressing a single button on your speed dial. Plus, vintage rotary phones look pretty darn good sitting on a table at home.

The rotary style telephone was popular through much of the 20th century. The first telephone dials were very complicated, needing complex sequences to function. This was improved upon and simplified over time for a better-functioning system.

A rotary dial telephone charm, available here.

A rotary dial telephone charm, available here.

The science-inclined might now be asking: How does a rotary dial phone work?

It all starts with a pulse. The number that the caller dials sends out a certain frequency of pulses. Once the number is dialed, a recoil spring inside sends the dial back to its starting position. The series of pulses interrupt the current flow of the phone’s line and the information goes to a selector system that makes the outgoing connection.

The rotary dial was slowly replaced by the keypad push-button phone, an invention introduced at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

Some places still use rotary phones for historical purposes, like the U.S. Route 66 Blue Swallow Motel, which promotes itself through its vintage Route 66 appeal.

Now, of course, home phones will soon become things of the past, with our phones buzzing in our pockets instead of ringing in the air.

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Evaluating Antiques

It takes years to become an adept antiques evaluator, especially with the ability to evaluate more than one kind of antique.

If you have an item sitting around that you want to know more about, take these steps to become more knowledgeable about your item.

You won’t get a spot as an Antiques Roadshow appraiser, but this cheat sheet will at least help you recognize the quality of Grandma’s old tea set.

A vintage travel gear store in Paris (via Jorge Royan, CC)

A vintage travel gear store in Paris (via Jorge Royan, CC 3.0)

1) Research.

Get to know the item you’re evaluating. A quick Google search will turn up every imaginable kind of antique and collectible, so the chance is someone else out there is asking the same questions.

You can also go old-school and see what those things with words printed on dead trees say (what are those called? Books?) about collectibles. These are likely to be more well-researched and thorough. Make sure they have a lot of reference pictures.

If you’re willing to sort through them, shows like Antiques Roadshow will also help.

2) Evaluate it.

Some factors to consider:

– Rarity of the item. How many were originally produced? Along the same vein, how many survived? If an item is fragile and lucky to have stayed intact through the years, its value will increase significantly.

-Condition. How used is the item? Is it damaged or stained in any way, and how bad is the damage? Also be wary of repair. If it’s professionally restored, great, but an amateur attempt at repair can greatly lower a value.

-Trends. How popular is it right now? This source uses cookie jars as an example: In the 1980s cookie jars were very popular collectibles and could get high prices. But their popularity is no more, and unless they reach another trend, they won’t reach the same high prices again.

-Details. The more details and care that have gone into the item, the more valuable it likely is.

3) Seek an expert if you want to know more or are unsure of your evaluation.

Professional antiques appraisers are probably available in your area. They can give a more definite opinion on your item.

Internet appraisals are also available, but be wary. The appraiser won’t be able to handle or closely examine the object, making the appraisal less in-depth than it should be.

Never try to clean or repair an item yourself until it’s been appraised by a professional! Doing so could cut its value in half.

These are only the basics when it comes to evaluating antiques, but should be a good start. In no time you’ll know all you need to about your antique items.