Antique Thimbles, American style

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All photos and captions courtesy of Kit Froebel, http://thimblescope.com/

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Steel-cored sterling silver thimble examples, England, Prices: $50-75. Left to right: Early DORCAS PAT., and NEW IMPROVED DORCAS, both by Charles Horner; DREEMA, Henry Griffith & Son; DURA, Walker & Hall; and DORIS, Charles Iles & Co. Charles Iles firm specialized in making steel and other base metal thimbles. It is thought that they likely produced the core for all these thimbles. Their "DORIS" is quite rare compared to the others shown.

A rainbow of thread, scissors, needles, stray buttons, and somewhere near the bottom, a solitary thimble … sewing basket recollections. By happenstance, some of those lonely thimbles managed to roll their way from one generation’s basket to the next.

Although fine needlework has a long history of being treasured, the tools used for creating it were often lost or tossed. Fortunately, there are now collectors preserving sewing implements. Kit Froebel is one of those enthusiasts. A thimble engraved with her grandmother’s name was her first purchase in 1976. Two more rapidly followed, then 90. By 1984 she’d acquired an entire collection for $11,000. “I sold the duplicates and found that I loved selling as much as collecting.”

embroidery thimbleSimons Bros. 14K gold embroidery thimble, engraved “Godmother.” Froebel has never seen another one like this. Simons is still making thimbles in Philadelphia.

During earlier times, thimbles were a necessity because garments and linens were all hand-made. Women considered to be in the “genteel” society let other people do their practical sewing while they passed leisure time doing fancy needlework with their embellished thimbles of precious metal, but the majority of thimbles were used by hardworking women.

Their thimbles were equally hardworking. And like the plain sewing done in their homes, their tools were also plain.

This was not a throw-away society. When pierced from constant use, thimbles were taken to silversmiths for repair.

Thimble-clad young girls were taught sewing by darning and mending. Handmade linens, quilts, clothes, and lingerie filled their hope chests.
Sampler-making perfected embroidery skills during America’s early history.

Thimbles were favored gifts for all ages. These were usually of higher quality and more embellished or ornate than those normally used. Many were unused because they didn’t fit or were considered too special for mundane sewing. Those were often tucked safely away … to the delight of today’s collectors.
Lily of the valley thimble
Sterns Bros. Lily-of-the-valley, American, Price: $151. Lily-of-the-valley with a bow. Raised designs such as this are much in demand. This is an outstanding example of bas relief. Bas is created either by carving away material (wood, stone, ivory, silver, gold, jade, etc.) or adding material to the top of an otherwise smooth surface.

Origin

Although thimbles were made world-wide, Nuremburg, Germany, was especially known for theirs. Metal thimbles were being made abroad over a hundred years before Columbus set sail. Today’s collections can have origins from faraway places or within our borders.

A thimble’s country of origin can often be determined by its marks, size numbering, shapes, and decorations. Look first to see if there’s a maker’s mark. Its location is also significant. English and French marks normally appear on the band; German are usually on the second row of the indentations. Although a few of the American and Norwegian are on the band, usually they are inside the cap.

Thimbles made prior to the late 1800s were not marked with sizes. American companies used similar, but not always identical, systems. Approximate sizes in the United States: child’s 1-5; small 6-8; medium 9-11 and large 12-14. (Zalkin’s Handbook of Thimbles & Sewing Implements, by Estelle Zalkin.)

antique thimble
Raised design of three different birds unmarked. Many early thimbles were unmarked as to maker.

Celluloid and plastic thimbles were usually made in only one size. Numbers inside their caps are mold numbers, not sizes.

Thimbles for children were often sold in sets of three graduating sizes. Since children usually outgrew thimbles, a pierced one would have likely been passed down.

19th-century English and American thimbles had a dome cap, but the English were taller in proportion. The 20th-century American style had a flat top. Most French thimbles had waffle indentation patterns along sides. The German usually followed the English style. Norwegian tend to be smooth sided, with indentations only on the cap.

American thimbles are known for scenic decorations, especially of farms and waterfronts. Floral designs were popular for English. The French favored highly elaborate gold thimbles embellished with enamel or semi-precious stones, while the Norwegians were often enameled over guilloche.

Materials

Needle pushers have helped sew everything from animal skins to silk. Porcelain, wood, glass, ivory, bone, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, leather, tropical nuts, plastic, celluloid, and Bakelite are some materials used for thimbles. But most were made of more durable materials, such as gold, silver, pewter, and brass.

The majority of silver thimbles during the American colonial period were imported. Those not imported were made by local silversmiths and were unmarked.

Froebel finds sterling thimbles popular among collectors. They run in the ballpark of $20-$60; those with a gold band are a bit more, around $35-$95. Famous ones can be $100-$1,500.

transportation thimbles

Simons Bros. commemorated their 100th anniversary of thimble making by producing the “Transportation Thimble”. It features the major modes of transportation at that time: a car, an airplane, a boat, and a train. A record sale price for an American thimble sold by Froebel.

Local silversmiths also made gold thimbles in early America. These were mostly unmarked and not easily dated. Plain gold American thimbles may be found for as little as $50, while fancier ones can fetch up to $1,000. Those with jewels or enamel can cost $1,500 or more.

An 1860 United States law required gold and silver thimbles to be marked with the maker’s mark. A marked piece preceding that date is a tremendous find.

By the mid-1800s, brass and other common metal thimbles, such as copper and pewter, were made by the millions for the average homemakers who couldn’t afford precious metals. Few were marked.

American companies

American thimble factories came into existence in the 1830s. In 1832, Ketcham and McDougall was established in New York. Since thimble making was their main business, not a sideline, Zalkin refers to it as “The Thimble House.” Its thimbles, made until 1932, are noted for their superiority in workmanship and designs.

tiffany thimble casetiffany thimble case
The picture shows how the thimble would fit into the case. It is a coveted "Dogwood" pattern. This one has an early Waite Thresher star mark.

Look for Simons Bros. of Philadelphia, Pa., a company that began making thimbles in 1839 and which continues doing so today.

Webster Bros., who made thimbles and other sewing tools in Massachusetts, 1869-1950, sold their thimble dies and designs to Simons Bros. in 1932.

A fouled anchor (an anchor with a tangled rope) is the mark of early thimbles made by Stern Bros. of New York, beginning 1890. Around 1900, they added an “S” with “B” in the top part, and “C” in the lower. After merging with Goldsmith in 1913, the letters were changed to “G” in the top part and “C” in the lower.

Dorcas

At the time Charles Horner patented his Dorcas thimble in England (1884), silver thimbles already had steel caps to prevent needle piercing, but had unprotected sides. Horner came on the scene when an estimated over 60 million thimbles were being produced worldwide. His thimbles had a center core of steel covered with thick outer layers of silver or gold. Sturdy, yet beautiful … a marketing dream.

An ‘Improved Dorcas’ was followed by Dorcas Junior and Little Dorcas. All Dorcas thimbles are attracted to magnets.

Steel-lined imitators soon dropped into sewing baskets. The most noted, Dura, Dreema, and Doris, were made in limited quantity and are difficult to find.

There was also an American-made Dorcas. Although most of these were plain silver thimbles, Froebel’s photographic example makes note of the few exemptions. Inside the cap of America’s Dorcas reads: “Dorcas,” size number and “PAT. JUNE 11,’89.

timble case and thimble
Thimble cases were often made with a ring to attach it to a chatelaine for convenience and safe keeping. The antique varieties almost always had a mushroom shaped pedestal inside on which to seat the thimble. In this case, it is stamped with the maker’s mark. If it has the pedestal, you may be sure it is actually a thimble case and not a vesta case or pill box. There are many reproductions being made today. Look for those with an identifiable maker’s mark that is old. Many reproductions of sewing items are marked simple, “STERLING.”

Gadgets

There were thimbles with replaceable caps, collapsible thimbles, finger guards, magnetic ones to pick dropped needles out of floor cracks, and even thimbles to accommodate long fingernails. Some were quacks advertising to cure their users from ailments.

Evaluating

Bottom line is condition. Close examination is critical. Magnifying glasses are thimble collectors’ best friends. Froebel’s husband, Dick, fashioned a “Thimblescope” enabling her to better see inside caps. Check it out at http://thimblescope.com/thimblescope.html.

While silver, gold, brass, aluminum advertising pieces, and some pewter materials are worthy investments, condition is critical, regardless of material or age. Is the enamel chipped or stones missing? Is it bent, pierced, or repaired?

Rarity also influences prices. For example, World’s Fair thimbles were offered for sale only in the city of the fair’s location and only in that year. Zalkin writes that finding them is “like looking for a thimble in a haystack.”

“If it is a known pattern that would be recognized by its name, it will bring a higher price,” notes Froebel, giving Seated Cherubs, Pike’s Peak, Dolly Varden, Golden Spike, and Salem Witch as American-made examples. A Dolly Varden sold at auction for $2,000 during the 2006 Thimble Collectors International (TCI) convention.

Commemoratives & souvenir thimbles

Railroads made traveling easier. As more Americans hit the rails, thimbles were often favored souvenirs. Froebel finds those printed with names of places are worth more than an unknown scene. Big among American commemoratives are those celebrating world fairs, bicentennials, and major events.

landscape thimbles
This scenic thimble features two buildings, connected by a walking bridge. A pump is visible and each blade of grass, every ripple in the water, and all the clouds in the sky may be seen clearly.

sweetheart thimblebird honeysuckle thimble
Advertising thimbles

Zalkin refers to them as fingertip billboards. These were primarily American, advertising such things as which furnaces to install, what got rid of bugs on children’s heads, and who could bury your dead and where. They were usually giveaways handed out by salesmen. In 1904, Prudential thimbles helped get insurance salesmen across the thresholds of approximately a million homes. Thimbles were also packaged at the factory with products such as flour. Old Sleepy Eye Flour Company would be wide-eyed to know the price its thimbles fetch in today’s market.

Occasionally advertising thimbles were manufactured in silver, but most were made of celluloid, plastic, aluminum or other such metals. Silver made an appearance as premiums or gifts when an item, such as a sewing machine, was purchased.

roosevelt's new deal prosperity needle packRoosevelt Needle Book. $15. Needle packet touting The New Deal Prosperity, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 plan to help the country recover from the depression. It may have been used as a campaign give-away. No thimbles are known to have been issued for any of Roosevelt’s campaigns.

Thimbles even advertised candidates. Production of political thimbles began in 1920, the year women were allowed to vote. Warren G. Harding was the first presidential candidate to advertise on thimbles. Imagine today’s candidates handing out thimbles in their efforts towards sewing up an election.


Froebel’s advice to new collectors

• Find a copy of Estelle Zalkin’s Handbook of Thimbles & Sewing Implements. Printed in 1988, it covers a wide range of thimbles and sewing items from all over the world. For a resource specifically about American made thimbles, American Silver Thimbles, 1989, by Gay Ann Rogers, is the “Bible” for collectors on this subject. Both books are out of print, but may still be around.

• Join Thimble Collectors International (TCI).

• Buy only what you like, but keep in mind you may want to resell some as your collection evolves.

• Before buying: Look for repairs and damage. It is very important to feel the thimble. You can tell by touch if it has been “re-rounded,” mended, has tiny holes, or if the enamel is damaged. Light up the thimble. Use a magnifying glass or Thimblescope.

• Whenever possible, buy old rather than new.

• Acquaint yourself with eBay to see what’s out there.

• Get to know reputable dealers.

• As your collection grows, labeling will be crucial, so do this from the beginning. Get a “Little Sharpie” permanent pen, with ULTRA FINE point, for labeling inside many, but not all, of your thimbles … never use ink on porous materials such as ivory, bone, celluloid, unglazed porcelain, or wood. Marking done with the Little Sharpie on non-porous thimbles can be removed with a little silver polish or one of the cloths for sale at http://thimblescope.com. When labeling porous thimbles, mark reference numbers on transparent tape.

• Beginning with your first purchase, keep detailed records … and keep up with your record keeping!


“Coin” Silver

Early American silversmiths often fashioned thimbles from silver coins. Coin silver was heavily used in the 1830s-1870s for thimble making. Many early, unmarked, silver thimbles were made from coin silver and some are marked “COIN.” The silver content of sterling is .925 and that of coin silver is .90. While coin silver thimbles have less silver content than sterling, they are in demand because of their age and rarity.

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Political thimbles. $7- $15. JOHN F. KENNEDY for President, 1960; 2-color COOLIDGE and DAWES, for President and Vice President, 1925; HOOVER and CURTIS, President and Vice President, 1928; RICHARD M. NIXON for President, 1960.
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Simons Bros. gold band sterling multi floral, American, Price: $82. Nearly all American thimble makers produced a gold-banded sterling silver thimble, from plain to highly elaborate.
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Patented American Dorcas steel-cored thimble. Thimbles bearing this Charles Horner patent date inside the top are extremely rare. They are the only American made steel-cored thimbles, and come in just two patterns on the thimble itself, Greek key and the running scrolls shown. Three are known to have enamel with blue flowers, and one has turquoises set in the band. Most are rather ordinary in appearance and only the mark or checking with a magnet might alert someone to their rarity. Priceless. It is usually found by accident. Froebel, who got hers in a trade, has never known one to sell. No one knows what company actually made them. Charles Horner did make his own thimbles of the Simons Bros. patented cherubs thimble. Maybe it was a trade off. The present owners of Simons Bros. have found no record of such an arrangement.
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The first thimble in Froebel's collection. American. Her grandmother's name "Pearl" is engraved on the Stern Bros. thimble. It has a gold band applied to a sterling silver thimble. She bought it in 1976 for $27, but it is now worth $95.
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Simons St. Louis 1904 World's Fair, American, Price: $760. "Golden Spike" features bison; people at a campfire, walking, on horseback, and riding in a covered wagon, all ahead of a train. It commemorates the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, UT, that joined the Union Pacific from the East and the Central Pacific from the West to form the first transcontinental railway, 10 May 1869.
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Ketcham & McDougall Adirondack Mountains. American. $400. Ketcham & McDougall place name and souvenir thimbles are highly coveted. Many of their most beautiful thimbles were made using a manufacturing method patented 20 September 1881. It allowed beautiful raised designs such as this.
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Materials used to make thimbles varies widely; some of which were porcelain, wood, glass, ivory, bone, plastic, celluloid, and Bakelite, among others.
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Waite Thresher ornate embroidery thimble, American, Price: $86. Waite Thresher Co., Providence, R.I., made this thimble between 1890 and 1912. Thimbles with engraving or ornamentation, in lieu of indentations, are called "embroidery thimbles" by collectors.
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Webster Seated Cherubs, American, Price: $450. Webster Bros. Seated Cherubs. This is one of the rarer of the cupid/cherubs thimbles. They are all facing the same direction with a swag of leaves between them. The number of cherubs depends on the size of the thimble. The larger sizes also have a flower on the swag.

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