Wheat or Chaff? Part III: How to identify, date and price antique and vintage farm collectibles without getting fleeced

This exclusive excerpt is from American Farm Collectibles, Identification and Price Guide, 2nd edition, by Russell E. Lewis


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American Farm Collectibles4. Package colors and materials. These also evolved and are an obvious indication of approximate time of manufacture. Items packed in wooden crates are normally older than items found in cardboard boxes and the crates marked with a stencil painted label are older than others. Labels such as fruit crate labels ended for the most part by the 1950s and would indicate an approximate age of the item. Also look at the box construction itself, with many of the cardboard boxes being dated by the maker even when the contents were not dated. Also, some catalogs and magazines showed the packaging and this would assist dating a found item if the package is still present. Regardless of the packaging, items can usually be dated to a range of years, at the very least by the package type and/or color. Of course, addresses on the packaging may also help date a company if you know the various locations of the company.

5. Handle items. The most important way to date an item is to handle as many that you already know the dates on and can learn to compare by examination of similarities and differences. This is one of the main advantages to the many collectibles and antiques shows you can attend. You are able to walk around, pick up items, ask questions, make comparisons, learn, and not spend a cent. I know I have spent many days as an instructor, e.g. set up to sell items, for others to learn from my experience and have enjoyed the opportunity to teach others what I have learned. Most people who do the shows also enjoy teaching you about the items they have for sale, so go, ask, learn, and maybe even buy an item or two. As for me, I no longer go to shows in anticipation of selling, as I believe the Internet is a far superior tool for that avenue. However, I still enjoy seeing thousands of collectible items in one spot and it is a great social activity, too.

6. Company names and packaging. As indicated in No. 4, one way to help date an item is to examine its packaging and note the full company name, which often changed through the years, and the complete address of the company.

7. Benchmarks. What I refer to as benchmarks include literature or advertising introducing an item as “new.” But beware, as some companies used the designation “new” for more than one year to sell their products. A review of numerous company and wholesale catalogs from 1901 through 1987 when researching for my fishing lure books  (see the Dec. 1 issue of Antique Trader for an exclusive excerpt), demonstrated this over and over again. These can be catalogs, magazine advertisements, company brochures, call box inserts, separate wholesaler fliers or advertisements, or company histories. I think that the wisest investment the new collector can make is that once a direction for the collection has been decided upon, purchase the company catalog for the particular year of the beginning of the collection, if available. Then, attempt to follow the changes in following years through catalogs and advertising in trade magazines and popular literature. Research and collecting must both have a beginning and once you have this foundation, the rest of your collection is built on the strength of knowledge of your product. Two of the best sources for post-war collecting are the Sears and Montgomery Wards farm catalogs that each company produced apart from their general catalogs. I recall going to the special farm store one of these large chains had in Grand Rapids as a boy and being dazzled at all of the farm equipment. These early catalogs document as well as any source what was available and when, from the post-war period up until the 1960s.

8. Oral history. As a former working anthropologist and folklorist, I long ago learned the importance of paying attention to oral history and seeking out “informants” when attempting to learn the history of an area or subject. This is no different in farm and farming collectible history. How many of us have listened to stories told by our fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles only now to find they are no longer here to jot those memories down? It is most important to the future of farming history and farm collectibles that we document all we are able to about the history of items by seeking out individuals with knowledge and writing down what they have to say while the information is still available. I have learned much of my information through discussions with farmers, family members, collectors, jobbers and retailers in the trade and I can only hope that others are also documenting all they are able to while it is still fresh in the minds of those involved.

9. Patents, trademarks, trade names and copyrights. One final way to date an item is to complete a patent search for it on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, http://www.uspto.gov, by entering the appropriate data. The site is quite easy to use and will result in finding great details on an individual piece. Sometimes the only information about an item we have is the patent number printed on it and this will result in a complete history of the item by entering the number in the search process. There are limitations on certain searches unless you know the patent number and keep in mind that the patent year only indicates when the item was actually granted a patent; sometimes this is years after an item was “used in commerce.”

It is also possible to conduct trademark, trade name and copyright searches for items; however, this is a bit more complicated than entering the patent number. Trademark and trade name searches are conducted through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and copyright searches would be completed through the Library of Congress, the organization in charge of protecting copyrighted material in the United States. You can go from the http://www.uspto.gov site to the copyright site, http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/, and it tells you how to go about searches.

Also, keep in mind that if you are printing items for publication, some of the materials on the U.S. Government sites are protected by copyright and you will need permission to reprint certain items for publication. ?

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