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Double-Hinge Writing Slope (ca. 1875)


During the Australia Day Long Weekend (Australia Day is the 26th of January for those who don’t know), I headed up to the country for the annual Fryerstown Antiques Fair. A three-day antiques fair which takes place in the tiny hamlet of Fryerstown, which is virtually in the middle of nowhere. Been going there for a few years, now. And I’ve always found something nice whenever I go.

Last year it was a Singer Puzzle Box. The year before that, it was a clothes valet. This year, it was this:

The Little Black Box

I purchased this rather battered-looking writing-slope for what I consider to be a very good price, considering the fact that it was missing almost everything that made purchasing something like this worthwhile. But I considered it a good purchase because it was a style of writing-slope or writing-box which I did not yet own. And I decided that it would make a good restoration-project.

At any rate, I purchased the box and brought it home. I cleaned the leather with beeswax and scrubbed off all the grime. I opened the box and cleaned out the interior. The box came without inkwells, or key. The owner had no information on it other than that he’d purchased it at auction and kept it at home, half-opened, as a display-piece, until he decided that since he didn’t use it, he may as well just get rid of it for a low price. That’s where I came in!

Restoring the Writing Slope

The box is beautiful and more-or-less structurally sound, but it suffered from a number of issues.

– It had no inkwells.
– It had no key.
– The antique ‘Russia Leather’ covering was dry and filthy.
- The lining of black, textured paper was peeling away, and was too brittle to glue back down (so I removed it).
- The base of the box was structurally unsound. It was starting to crack and part. So I needed to reinforce it.

The first step in restoring the box to full functionality was fixing this whole issue with the inkwells. This was going to be a bloody nightmare. Antique writing-slope inkwells are damn near impossible to find, they’re expensive to buy, and they’re even MORE expensive to import from Europe. And what’s worse – this box needed TWO such inkwells!

Knowing my chances to finding two identical glass antique inkwells that precisely fitted the slots inside the box were very, very slim, I looked for suitable alternatives, and found one in small, 18ml flattop medicine-jars used for ointments, and which had tight-sealing metal lids with foam washers inside to prevent leaks. They fitted ideally into the slots, and were exactly the right height so that the box would always close securely. Wonderful!

To cover up the original brand-name on the bottle-lids, I glued on circles of red velvet. To make the bottles easier to pull out and unscrew for use, I put cut slits in the velvet and threaded some yellow ribbon through to act as little handles.

The two new inkwells in their slots

In case anyone else is restoring a writing-box like this and is struggling to find inkwells – I used 18ml ‘Tiger Balm’ jars. They’re little hexagonal glass jars with flat, brass screw-on lids. They were the perfect size. The closest thing I was likely to get, barring the purchase of actual inkwells.

To be clear, you CAN purchase reproduction glass and brass-topped, screw-down inkwells for writing-slopes. But they’re prohibitively expensive. For me, it would’ve cost at least the price I paid for the box, and more. I wasn’t willing or able to spend that kind of money on it.

After finding appropriate inkwell substitutes, the next step was to reinforce the base of the box. It was originally covered in a simple, paper backing, and this had peeled right off. The wood underneath had also started to split and part company from the rest of the box, to the extent that you could feel the wood moving when you picked up the box.

To fix this, I put on sheets of adhesive foam padding. The foam would be thicker than paper, and last longer than felt (which is what most vintage boxes were covered with, on their bases). The foam bottom would allow the box to be slid around smoothly, and not catch or scratch anything if it was moved around on a table or other smooth surface.

The next step in restoring the box was to put in a new lining.

Re-lining the Interior

The original lining of the box was black, textured paper. It was peeling right off and bubbling up, coming away from the wooden surface of the box. The original glue had long since dried out. Gluing the paper back down was not an option because of how fragile it was. It would simply crumble and crack into dust. It was only the layer of glue that held it together. I found out how weak it was when I tried vacuuming out the dust and it peeled right off.

The original black paper lining. You can see where it’s peeling away and bubbling up

I removed the original black paper and decided to line the box with red velvet. To make it easier, I used thin cardboard to cut out simple templates which I then glued onto sheets of velvet. Doing this means that the velvet can be placed more precisely and more neatly, into the interior of the writing-slope.

After gluing the cardboard templates to the velvet sheeting, I cut the velvet out, tracing around the cardboard backings. Then I glued the card and the velvet into the box, and then simply dropped in the velvet base, without gluing it to the floor of the box (it seemed pointless anyway – it’s not going anywhere!) I know for a fact that writing slopes were lined in velvet, so I felt that this was an entirely appropriate choice for a period-accurate restoration-material. The enormous quantity of velvet fabric which I had, originally came from a shop that sold huge rolls of curtaining-material!

Cleaning the Leather Exterior

Cleaning the exterior on this box was tricky. It’s covered in ‘Russia Leather’, that is to say, leather that’s been treated with oil from the birch tree after the original tanning process. It’s called ‘Russia Leather’ because this method of leather-treatment was developed in Russia. Treating the leather thus made it impervious to insect attack, rot, and also rendered it waterproof. An ideal material with which to cover a wooden box which would be transported all over the place.

But that was 130+ years ago. In that time the leather has become caked in dust and grime and has dried up. To prevent it peeling and cracking, I rubbed and scrubbed the whole surface over with dubbin (standard beeswax polish) to clean and soften the leather. This isn’t an easy or quick process. Dubbin is laid on, rubbed in, then wiped or brushed off and then the whole thing is rubbed over again. This moistens the leather and removes the grime at the same time. But it takes a while! The result, however, is that the leather will continue to endure

Filling out the Box

Having cleaned the box inside and out, having re-lined the interior and having found inkwells for it, my next step was to try and fill out the box with appropriate accessories which might’ve been found inside it during the heyday of its use. This was both easy and not so easy.

Some things are easier to find than others. Notepaper, envelopes and such, are easy to find. So are dip-pens, pencils, pen-holders, ink for the inkwells etc. The harder items to find were things like the ivory utensils that likely comprised part of this box’s equipment when it was new.

All kitted out. Pencil, pen, inkwells, an ivory page-turner and other stuff which isn’t visible

It took considerable searching and luck, but in the end, I did manage to find an authentic Victorian page-turner made of ivory, to put into the box’s front slot. I also included stuff like spare nibs, sealing-wax, a seal, and a bone-folder to finish off the look.

The last thing to do was to find a key for the box. This was essential, as the box would be impossible to carry without a key. After a trip to the local flea-market and considerable testing and measuring, I was able to find a key that operated the lock smoothly and easily.

The key is tied to the box by yellow ribbon, to prevent it being lost

How long did this whole process take?

From the day I bought the box until the day I found the final piece (the key), it was all over and done with, in about two weeks.

Not bad as far as time goes.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Antiques

 

Ivory Ruler for an Antique Writing Slope


Greetings, regular blog-followers and readers.

Sometime back, you may remember a posting I did about my 1862 Toulmin & Gale writing-slope. And what a gorgeous thing it is, too!

Gorgeous, but incomplete. As the photos show, a number of the slots in the organiser-console were all empty.

Since that post I’ve managed to find appropriate, period items to fill out the gaps. Such as a pocket dip-pen, and the crowning glory, an antique ivory ruler.

The ruler was probably originally 12 inches long (1ft), but this one is only 11 inches. Not sure why. Maybe it was broken at one point and ground down to repair it. No idea. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the end-result looks like this:

The ruler has some writing on it, which says…

It says: “LUND – MAKER 57 Cornhill, London”.

Haven’t been able to find anything out, but it’s definitely old. I love it, despite it flaws :) Just something I wanted to share.

 

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Antiques

 

Ladies’ Victorian-Era Writing Slope & Crochet Box (Ca. 1880)


The Little Red Box

This unassuming red box was something I picked up from a local flea-market about two weeks ago. I thought it was rather cute, and after a careful examination of it, I decided to buy it. On the outside, it doesn’t look anything special, and its outward appearance certainly doesn’t provide any clues as to what’s inside the box. But when I opened the lid, I just knew I had to have it.

The box with the lid opened

And here we are! With the lid unlocked and folded down, we see that it doubles as a writing-surface, with tabs for holding in blotting-paper. Beyond that is a storage-compartment and inkwell-slot. With…the original inkwell! Whoo-hoo! Beyond that is the leather stationery console…

Top to Bottom: Photograph album. Order-booklet. Pocket calender. Dip-pen. Pencil. Bone-Folder.

…which pops up… …to reveal more stuff on the other side: Here we have even more of the box’s original bits and pieces. I believe most of these to be crochet tools. We have yarn in a variety of colours and various hooks and picks, together with hole-punchers, a file, and a paper-knife or letter-opener. They’re all made of ivory. Between the legs of the pop-up stand is a beautiful, red silk interior, for storing stuff like the needle-case, the pin-cushion and other stuff… The little bundle of sticks up the back are actually tiny, tiny, tiny pencils. I’ve no idea what they’re for. They came with the box. Here’s a closeup of all the cute things inside the box:

Hole-puncher. Hook (button-hook?). Crochet hook. Crochet hook. File and spike.

Itty-bitty pencils. Four dip-pens. Needle-case (on the right). Pin-cushion (or what i think is a pin-cushion) on the left.

I was able to roughly date the box by its contents. Inside were calenders, booklets and photographs, dating between 1891-1899. I took that to meant that the box was manufactured sometime in the 1880s, possibly before then. In roughly 10 years of collecting antique writing instruments and accessories, and roughly 20 years drooling over writing-slopes of various kinds, this is the first slope or box or desk of this kind, that I had ever seen. I was amazed at a number of things. The first was the design. I’d never seen something like this before. And until someone else showed me a finished eBay auction, I thought that it might even be unique. But it does seem to have been an established style in the 1800s. Albeit one that must be pretty rare. In my time, I’ve seen about half-a-dozen different writing-slope designs, but never something like this! The box has no manufacturer’s mark on it anywhere at all. Which I find odd. You’d think something of this quality would come with a mark or label somewhere. And perhaps at one point it did. But I can’t see it anywhere. Restomodding the Box When I purchased this box at the start of the month, I was more-or-less, thrilled by its condition. But there was one problem with the box that needed to be swiftly rectified. And that was the broken storage compartment, which looked like this, when I bought it:

The broken storage compartment. Awww…

The storage-compartment bottom or floor, was originally one long, length of wood, which ran from one end to the other, fitting in place between small, wooden supports. Unfortunately, this was broken at some point in the box’s history. As it was the one piece that held all the other pieces in the storage-compartment together, everything had since gone out of alignment. There was evidence of at least one attempt at a repair, but it obviously didn’t work! So I was determined to try and fix it. If I wanted to, I could easily just cut a piece of wood and slot it back in and reassemble the box as it was originally. But I felt that this created a huge waste of space underneath the storage compartment. So I decided to restomod (restorative-modification, for those who’ve never heard the term) the box. To rebuild the broken floor, as well as incorporate a secret storage compartment underneath it. To do this, I pulled the box apart…

The box in pieces

…then I glued in small, wooden blocks to act as supports… …after that, I cut out two pieces of wood. One to support the inkwell, and the original storage-compartment-inkwell divider, and the other to act as the base for the storage-compartment, and the false-bottom, and lid for the secret compartment, underneath. The finished product looks like this:

Everything back in place. The inkwell is up on its correct level, and the original lid is back in place.

And here we can see the new floor:

Covered in green felt

…and without the inkwell… And here’s what it looks like with everything in place:

Press down on the left and the false bottom pops up. Take it out, and then you can access the space underneath. Then just slot it back in and pop it back down.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2015 in Antiques

 

Travel-Tips for the Vision-Impaired (and probably everyone else)


I decided to write this major departure from my blog’s usual content, kind of out of boredom. And to have a bit of fun, spread the love and share the knowledge and whatever…

Travel is fun. Travel is exciting. Travel is memorable. Travel is a pain in the ass.

Especially when your eyesight is far from perfect. Like mine. Oh thrill of thrills and joy of joys. Whatever…

Here are my tips for visually-impaired people who go travelling, who might want to travel, or normal people who go traveling and might have visually-impaired travelling companions coming along for the ride. Tips on how to get organised, tips on how to cope and tips on how to get around any problems along the way. Also in this guide are more general travel-tips, written by one who has been flying around the world since the age of 5. Anyway, here goes…

Packing

Wherever possible – conserve space. Socks inside shoes. Undies inside toiletry bags. Use zip-up clothing-bags to pack your clothes. You can cram more into a smaller space, organise your suitcase a hell of a lot better, and cram in more of those cutesy souvenirs that you buy.Using zip-up clothing bags allows you to store and organise your clothes in ways which wouldn’t be possible without them, maximising the space available to you in your roller-bags and suitcases.

Do not overpack. I made this mistake on a trip to London. Huge pain in the ass. Going somewhere cold in winter? Bring ONE coat. Make it a decent one. Forget about scarves and gloves. It ain’t that cold. You’ll be walking around or driving or riding most of the time anyway. Unless you’re doing what my brother did. He went to Russia in winter, and damn near died of hypothermia. If possible, buy what you need when you’re over there. Don’t bring socks and undies for every day of the week – you won’t need them. Wash them, dry them, use them again. Bring one or two spares, just in case.

Keep all your liquids in a separate bag. It’ll save time having to dig them out later at the security checkpoint.

Do Not Bring Books! My dad always brings books when he flies. God knows why. You only read them when you fly. And they take up valuable space in the meantime. And they’re heavy. If you must – then bring a small book. Or a book that will help you – like a guidebook or translator or something. Chances are you won’t read them on the plane anyway – that’s what the in-flight entertainment system is for.

Compartmentalise Your Packing. If you’re visually impaired and you can’t remember where the hell anything is inside your bag. If you can’t remember or even worse, can’t see, then one simple way around it is to pack everything in compartments. You can use those zip-shut packing bags, or for other more important stuff (house-keys, medicines etc), you could use those plastic snap-lid takeaway boxes. You can stick things the tops (colourful stickers, velcro-dots etc) to help you remember what items are in which box. And it makes conserving space inside your suitcase a damn lot easier!

The Airport

Get there with PLENTY of time to spare. At least two or three hours. Sometimes this is mandatory. And if it is, add another hour or two on top of that.

If you’re visually-impaired like I am, you’ll know how much planning you have to do when you go to a place you’re not familiar with. Especially when you can’t read the damn signs which are stuck twelve feet up in the sky. If you have a monocular – use it. If people stare – stuff ‘em. Let them stare. You don’t care and neither do I.

It’s better to get there really early and then spend your time eating, shopping and pissing, rather than panicking and sprinting around the airport like a recreation of the start of “Home Alone: Lost in New York”.

Take your time and don’t rush. It’s your holiday. Don’t spoil it by sprinting through the airport. Take your time to find out where important things are – like the chocolate shop. Or the toilet. Or the gate and lounge.

Tie Something Big, Ugly and Colourful to your Suitcase-Handles. This is what I do when I go on a trip. Some flashy bright rope. A bright red or multicoloured plastic bag. A soft squishy cuddle-toy. Tie something that’s easily recognisable, easily spotted and which nobody else would ever dare admit to owning, to your suitcase handles. This way, you’ll always be able to find your suitcase on the carousels when it’s being offloaded from the airplane. Or if you can’t find it and someone asks you what it looks like -you can just tell them that it’s the one with the Polka-Dotted Piggy Toy tied to the handle. This is especially useful in this day and age, when all your luggage can look frustratingly similar to everyone else’s luggage.

Navigation, Orientation, and Mobility

On holiday, your camera is your best friend. And not just for the selfies. Use your camera to…

- Take a photo of your hotel.
– Take a photo of the nearest intersection/street.
– Take a photo of the map that you’ll use (once you’ve annotated it).
– Take a photo of any nearby landmarks.

Whenever I travel – London, Paris, Shanghai, Peking, New York, San Francisco, Toronto…I always take a photograph of the map which I intend to use when I’m in town. Why? Because a photograph on your camera will last a hell of a lot longer than a paper map that you keep folding, unfolding, opening, closing, writing on and marking. Eventually it’ll rip, tear, fall apart, get stuff spilled on it, and you’re stuffed. And they always come with those stupid vouchers and advertisements which make the map twice as large as it should be. Paper maps are hard to read, and they take up valuable space in your everyday-carry bag. They’re also a pain in the ass to fold! On a camera (or camera-phone), you don’t have to worry about all that garbage, and you can enlarge the image to crazy-huge proportions to read EVERYTHING!! Building-names. Street-names. Grid-references. It’s so much easier!

On top of that…

- Use your camera to take a picture of the info-page on your passport. Just in case. This way, you can keep your passport safe in the hotel, and carry a picture of it around with you, if it’s necessary.
– If you’re using the subway and there’s a map at the station of the local area, photograph that, too. And use it as a guide while you’re in the neighbourhood.
– ALWAYS charge your camera. At least every second day. Just in case. Or carry spare batteries if you can.
– OMG!!! Your friends saw something REALLY COOL!!…across the river…on the other side of the road…on the fourth storey of a building…and…You can’t. Oh jeez. Use your camera to zoom in on whatever it is they’re drooling over, take a picture of it, and then enlarge the picture with your camera’s features to see what all the fuss is about!

Carry a Torch/Flashlight, and plenty of spare batteries. If you’re visually impaired, what’s enough bright for others is not enough bright for you, and sometimes a white cane is not the best solution. They’re bulky, and they can mark you out as a target. Not a safe thing if you’re in an unfamiliar city. If possible, carry a torch instead. Whenever I go out at night, I carry a super-powerful military-grade flashlight in my bag.

My weapon of choice is the LED Lenser P6. It takes two AA batteries – so they’re easy to find, easy to buy, easy to load. It’s VERY bright. It’s small, it’s portable, it has a wide beam and a focus-beam. And it’s solid as a brick. If you drop it, it won’t break. I also carry a AAA-battery LED Lenser P2 pocket light, just in case. If I need MORE LIGHT I also have a LED Lenser P7!

Don’t be embarrassed to whip out your torch and flash it around at night if you’re walking home from a night of tourism. Better that you should look like a weirdo and know where you’re going, than try and fit in with the crowd and walk into a parked motorcycle in a pitch-black street (that happened to me once).

Torches are handy for looking out for poles, steps, curbs and drunken hobos at night. But they’re also great for reading signs, and for looking at things in poorly-illuminated restaurants and shops. Antiquing, bargain-hunting and souvenir-shopping just got a whole lot easier.

Carry a whistle. If you get lost or separated from your group in a crowd, shouting isn’t always going to get their attention. Especially if it’s a noisy and crowded place like a market or street-carnival or parade. Or if you’re really short and you can get swallowed up by all the people around you.

I carry around an old-style dual-chamber Metropolitan general service whistle, which was a souvenir of my first trip to London.

Why? Four reasons.

1. It’s very tough. It’s solid brass. It won’t crack or shatter like those plastic whistles we have now.
2. It’s very small. About the size of a USB stick.
3. It has a unique sound. It doesn’t sound anything like your run-of-the-mill referee whistle that you see these days – which is good – because you don’t want your emergency whistle to be mistaken for anything other than what it’s meant to be. Otherwise it’ll be like a fire-truck playing Greensleeves.
4. It’s extremely loud! Which is what you want. Don’t forget, these whistles were designed for police so that they could call for help in an emergency. So they’re designed to be heard for blocks in every direction.

Carry a Magnifying Glass.  Science shows that straining your eyes does not permanently damage them. But it does make them hurt and it makes you sleepy. And you don’t wanna be sleepy on your holiday. Carry a pocket magnifying glass with you when you go out on holiday. Keep it in your pocket. Use it to read menus, maps and other such things.

When I was in London I kept a copy of the Tube map in my pocket. Great reference guide (the Tube is very easy to use), but the writing is microscopic! I carry a pocket magifying glass or ‘quizzing-glass’ in my pocket whenever I go out, now. It’s 5x magnification, which is generally good enough for most applications.

If you need something stronger, then seek out a jewellery-supplies shop, or go on eBay and look up loupes (prounced ‘loop’). A loupe is a high-power magnifier (starting generally, at 10x and going up as high as 50 or 60x). This is not only great for small font, but also looking at stuff like hallmarks and makers’ marks…that’s what they were designed for, anyway!!

Write down addresses. You wanna go somewhere. A shop. A street. A museum. Gallery. Restaurant…in Rome, Paris, Germany, or some other place where people are unlikely to speak fluent English. Oh crap. Now what?? Don’t panic. Simply look up the address of the place online. Copy it down exactly. Then give it to the taxi-driver when you hop in the car.

Carry a Compass. The iPhone comes with a compass-feature set into it. But if your portable telephone of choice does not have one (for whatever reason), then a simple compass is sometimes a good thing to carry around. Especially if you’re hopeless at reading maps or have no concept of the motions of the sun.

Surviving your Trip

Research public holidays. I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing more annoying than flying halfway around the world to your dream destination to find out on your first day that everything is locked up tighter than the recipe for Colonel Sanders’ Finger-Lickin’ Chicken recipe, and all because it’s National Guacamole Appreciation Week.

Research all the places you wanna go, way ahead of time. It’s a certified pain in the ass trying to find out stuff about the hotspots you wanna go to when you’re actually there. Don’t do it. Find out when they’re open, how to get there and what to expect when you are there.

Learn at least a few basic phrases. Where’s the toilet? How much is *whatever*. Hello. Goodbye. Good morning. Good night. How much for a pound of weed? In some countries, you may not have to. I went to the Netherlands and spoke English all the time. But in some countries you won’t be so lucky.

Watch out for pickpockets. Pickpockets are like rivers. They move fast, and they can get surprisingly deep when you’re not looking. And they are everywhere. Don’t be a chump and keep your wallet in an outside pocket or anywhere else easily accessible by someone other than yourself. Keep it inside your jacket or coat. Or in the hardest part of your bag to open.

“What about my money!? There’s a dancing Buddha statue which I MUST BUY!!”

Keep your money (but only small amounts) in your pockets. Preferably scattered about your person so that you don’t lose everything all at once if a pickpocket does decide to take you for a ride.

Use your Impairment to your Advantage. You have a visual disability. EMBRACE IT! Disabled discounts. Pensioner concessions. Pity discounts. Whatever you can get out of these suckers, milk ‘em for every Baht, Yen, Pound, Dollar, Yuan and Euro you can! I snagged discount seats in one of the best rows in a West End London theater to watch Les Miserables simply by spilling the beans about me being a poor blind beggar-boy who was here on holiday. OK I exaggerate a bit…but we did get those seats. See? It can be beneficial for your friends, too. Remember, sighted people. Your vision-impaired travel-companion can open doors that you can’t.

Never Leave Your Bags Unattended. And not just at airports, either! Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are crafty little bastards. Keep your valuables in hard-to-reach places. Inside pockets of coats, or zipped-up areas inside your bag. Only store non-valuable stuff in the outside compartments or pockets of your bag or coat. Cheap sunglasses. Your pocket umbrella. Maps. Valuable stuff like cameras, phones, wallets and cards should be kept in places which only you can reach. Or which pickpockets will have much greater trouble accessing.

Never keep your stuff in your trouser pockets. Not only is it easy to spot, and retrieve, it’s easier to lose stuff that way. If at all possible, keep your valuables in the safebox in your hotel room and only take the bare necessities with you when you go out.

Carry cards from your hotel. This will make it easier for you to find your way home, especially if you’re in a place that doesn’t speak English.

Packing Souvenirs

One of the great joys of travelling is buying souvenirs and bringing them home to adorn your humble abode, and share them with friends, and the fascinating stories that come with them. But one of the biggest nightmares of travelling is getting your souvenirs HOME!!!! Yurgh!! Now what??

If you were smart to begin with, you packed light, and therefore, your suitcase should still have sufficient space for souvenirs. But if you’re struggling, here’s a few tips, written by one who has brought home countless fragile, breakable, rare and antique treasures from trips abroad.

Remove the Packaging! A surprising amount of space is taken up, and wasted, by packaging. Cardboard boxes, plastic wrap, vacuum-sealed containers. Rip all that crap off! Not only does it make the item smaller and more manageable, it also makes the item…lighter! Very important in this age of luggage-weight restrictions.

Pack Your Souvenirs in your Clothes. If the item you’re bringing home is fragile, pack it CAREFULLY inside your clothes in your suitcase. But do not over-pad the item. You want it to be safe and shock-proof. You do NOT want the item to be CRUSHED when you close the suitcase!

Maximise Space! So you brought home that Chinese teacup set from Shanghai. Or that Royal Doulton from the Buckingham Palace souvenir shop (yes, Buckingham Palace has a souvenir shop. Go and check it out if you don’t believe me). But if you put that in your suitcase, then you can’t fit in that hardcover edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that you got during your saunter through Stratford-Upon-Avon. Oh dear…

If the souvenirs are hollow (teapots, mugs, bells etc), then stuff your clothes inside! Singlets, tops, T-shirts, socks, shirts. Not only does it conserve space, it protects the item from being crushed and broken!

Get a Box from the Hotel. Hotels are constantly getting deliveries. Food. Toiletries. Fresh linens. Stationery. The list goes on. Ask at the front desk or ask the concierge if there are any old cardboard boxes lying around anywhere, maybe back in storage in the offices. Any old cardboard boxes, and some duct-tape and scissors. Take whatever boxes they give you, cut them to the right size, fold them and pack them around the object you have, and then tape it together. This should give you at least some sort of packaging to carry stuff home in.

Pull It Apart! If you can, pull your souvenir apart into its component pieces. This will make it easier to pack, and you can spread the weight across your luggage to get it on the plane more easily. Just make sure you remember how to put it back together again! (Don’t remember how to do that? Use your camera to take pictures to help you).

Plan in Advance! If you’re anything like my family, you have a bad habit of going overseas, and bringing back massive, heavy, unwieldy souvenirs! Everything from Venetian theater-masks, to posters, to guitars, to replica Japanese samurai swords, Balinese carvings that weigh twenty pounds, sewing machines that weigh 30 pounds, or an extremely rare Victorian-era writing slope loaded with nick-nacks.

If you KNOW that this is likely, then plan for it! One way to do this is to pack a crushable, foldable or otherwise collapsible ‘souvenirs bag’ into your suitcase. I suggest a duffel-bag or carry-all made of tough canvas, with zippers, carry-handles and shoulder-straps (that’s what I use, anyway). It’s easily packed, easily opened, doesn’t weigh much, is tough, can hold lots of stuff, and is relatively easy to carry.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Family Heirlooms: Grandmother’s Antique Silver Peranakan Nyonya Belts


I’m writing this post as a tribute to my grandmother. I did write another post about this, but it was too waffly and boring, and the photographs looked like crap. So I decided to rewrite it and use better pictures. Anyway, without further ado, this is the story of my grandmother’s silver Peranakan belts.

Grandma and the Peranakan

My grandmother grew up in Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s, during the heyday of the British Empire. Grandma was descendant from, and was part of, the vibrant Peranakan culture that existed in what was then called the Straits Settlements. It was for this reason that the Peranakan were also called the Straits Chinese.

My paternal grandmother. Bertha Fu Kui Yok. The original owner of these belts. 7th May, 1914 — 28th November, 2011. Aged: 97. This photograph was taken about six months before she died.

The Straits Chinese or the Peranakan were the descendants of trading Chinese, who migrated from China to Southeast Asia during the 1500s-1800s. They were traders and merchants, sailing back and forth between the Chinese mainland, and countries in the South Pacific, like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaya and Bali. Over time, Chinese traders colonised these parts of the South Pacific, intermarrying with the local indigenous peoples. The descendants from these unions were called “Peranakan” (which literally means: “Descendant of Intermarriage Between a Foreigner and a Local”)

The Peranakan were famous for intricately decorated works of art. Everything from their dresses, skirts, robes, slippers and shoes, furniture, floor-tiles, window-shutters, porcelain, tiffin-carriers, even their dessert-cakes and snacks, their dinner-meals, luncheons and houses, and especially their jewelry were all very intricately decorated.

Grandma’s Peranakan Belts

Although not wealthy, my grandmother was fortunate enough to grow up with a small selection of jewelry to her name. Sadly, most of this has now been lost. But the two items which have survived are probably the two most important, and therefore, most valuable and significant of them all.

Her silver Peranakan belts.

The gold and silver belts owned by Peranakan women (“Nyonyas”) were specially crafted to be worn with traditional nyonya dress – Sarong Kebaya – A light, form-fitting two-piece outfit consisting of the Sarong (wraparound tubular skirt), and the Kebaya, the short, close-fitting jacket or blouse. The belts were worn with Sarong-Kebaya combinations to hold up the Sarong and prevent it from unwrapping or falling down. Such belts were usually reserved for special events. Family events and such. Weddings, dinners, anniversaries and so-forth. Made by hand by Peranakan jewelers, these belts were works of art to be treasured and used only on rare occasions.

Here are some examples of Sarong Kebaya, which I photographed during a trip to the Penang Peranakan Museum:

The silver dress-belts would wrap around the top of the Sarong to hold it up and stop it from unwrapping accidentally.

Traditional Sarong-Kebaya. Photograph taken at the Penang Peranakan Museum.

This is probably why grandma’s two belts have survived for so long, despite the family fortunes and the trials and tribulations that attended them, because they were stored away and only brought out on extremely significant occasions.

And here they are: First up is the older belt. This one is of a more traditional, segmented design, with dozens of little silver pieces linked together by dozens of tiny silver rings. Each link has a small flower stamped into the silver. The whole thing is 35 inches long. The oval-shaped buckle is removable. If you were a rich Peranakan nyonya, then you would probably have multiple belts like this. Then you could chop and change and swap belts and buckles around, contrasing silver with gold, and favourite belts with favourite buckles and so-forth.

Solid silver Peranakan nyonya belt. Probably from my great-grandmother’s (ca. 1875-1970) time. This belt is the older one, and probably dates to the late Victorian era or early 1900s, ca. 1890-1920. I’ve seen Peranakan belts of similar style dated between the 1880s-1920s.

The (removable) buckle or clasp depicts a tiger and a monkey either side of a lotus bud. Above them is a butterfly, and surrounding them on all sides are lotus flowers, water and leaves.

Closeup of the links and details, showing the rings and panels, and the little silver flowers

The second belt dates to the 1930s. It’s comprised of silver chain, and a 1 Guilder coin (that’s Dutch, in case anyone’s wondering), from 1929. The coin itself is 75% silver, so the chain would also be silver. There are examples of Peranakan belts which are made entirely out of silver coins, taken from British or Dutch currency. As money the coins were then obviously useless, but the Peranakan wanted the silver value of the coins, not the face-value stamped upon them or what they could potentially buy with the coins themselves.

Silver guilder coin with a rod of silver (coiled into a setting) soldered onto the face of the coin. Silver chain is then run through the coin to make up the rest of the belt.

This belt is of course, adjustable, just like the other one, but it works in a different way…

The whole length of the belt

This belt has segments of chain connected with rings and the end of the belt has an S-hook on it. Adjusting the belt’s length is a matter of hooking the S-clasp onto one of the three belt-rings, to get the closest possible length to what is ideal. The belt is then wrapped around, and the coin clasp or ‘weight’ is slipped through the chain, looping around and holding everything together purely by gravity.

How They Survived?

Your guess is as good as mine!

These belts, at least 80 or 90 years old, lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese Invasion in 1942 and all kinds of other family hardships.

They were originally my great-grandmother’s. Then my grandmother’s. Then they passed down to my aunt. She had no interest in them at all, so when my father asked for them, she handed them over. That was a few years ago. But how did I come to own them? Read on…

The Finding of the Belts of Power…

A few years ago, I went back to Malaya for a family wedding. While I was there, we visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, where I saw this belt on display:

Solid gold antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

Walking a little further on, I came across this:

Solid silver antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

My father grabbed me by the arm and pointed at it, and said:

“Did you know that grandma has a belt like that?”

I was dumbstruck.

WHAT!? WHERE!? HOW!?…WHY!?

You have to understand that in our family, almost nothing of intrinsic value has survived. All our heirlooms have been lost. Grandpa’s steamer-trunk, grandpa’s pocket-knife, grandpa’s hand-engraved ivory chopsticks, grandpa’s Chinese encyclopedia from the 1920s. And almost all of grandma’s jewelry. All gone! The very notion that there was something THIS significant, THIS rare and THIS valuable still in family hands shocked me!

Then my father told me how he had retrieved the belts from his sister during a previous trip and that he’d taken them home! He knew she wouldn’t value them or look after them, and so had rescued them from her and brought them back with him. It took a lot of pleading, but I finally managed to get it out of his hands so that the belts could finally rest with a person who would take proper care of them, and cherish them, love them, and realise their rarity, and historical, cultural and familial significance.

Grandma’s belts, along with other documents detailing her life.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Antiques

 

“High Class Hand Safe” – Vintage steel-construction strongbox (Ca. 1930)


Here’s something you don’t see every day.

“High Class Hand Safe”

This beast is the “High Class Hand Safe”, although it don’t look that high class, and it sure as hell ain’t a safe!

I bought this at the local flea-market after managing to knock down the price from the seller who didn’t want to have to lug it all the way home again. This charming object is a solid steel, Japanese-made cashbox. Prewar, ca 1920-1930. It’s extremely solid and very strong. To unlock it, you need the key and the combination. It comes with space for banknotes, cheques, papers and cash. And two keys. One to unlock the box, and one to wind up the alarm-bells inside!

The box is extremely rugged and dare I say it, bomb-proof. The clockwork bell-alarm inside the box comes with two settings:

Setting #1: The bell rings whenever the box is unlocked. And that’s all it does.
Setting #2: The bell rings whenever the box is unlocked. Or, whenever the box is moved! So if you try and pick it up and run away with it, the alarm goes off, and it is LOUD! Kinda handy feature if I ever take this to an antiques fair and someone tries to steal the money I made from selling my bric-a-brac! Hahahaha!!

It’s an absolute charmer and certainly very cute. I’ve seen a similar one which belonged to a family friend, but they’re not as uncommon as the seller would have one believe. Although I have seen them in better, and in much worse condition than this, online.

Dad’s always wanted a safe – one of those huge old antique things which you could hide a dead body inside. Well it ain’t a safe, but it sure as hell is a strongbox. Without a key or some way to pick the lock, you couldn’t open this thing. And even then, you still need the combination (which thankfully, I do have!)

Maybe this’ll do until someone dies and leaves us a safe to inherit.

Curiouser and curiouser…here’s an identical strongbox owned by a family friend. I photographed this back in May, when I was visiting Penang, Malaysia:

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2014 in Antiques

 
 
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