Research on Antiques & Collectibles


Contributed by:

The fondness of the Pennsylvania Germans for ornamenting even the simplest of their handicrafts is proverbial, and the piercing or punching of the sheet tin used for household objects as a means of enhancing their beauty seems to have been particularly popular. True, pierced tin performed both a utilitarian and a decorative function in the familiar "Paul Revere" lantern, and in the more or less ubiquitous footwarmers, both of which tare of eastern seaboard rather than purely local provenance. But it remained for the Pennsylvania German craftsman to turn a merely convenient practice into something of an art.

Tinware, pierced or punched, seems to be almost entirely a nineteenth-century product. Such few dates as are found range from the 1830's to the 1860's, with more falling in the 1840's than at any other time. In a few instances the piercing of tin for ornamental purposes seems to have continued up to contemporary times. "Piercing” and "punching" are, of course, two different things. As the name implies, piercing denotes a complete perforation - a chisel making a slit, a nail a round hole. The rough surface created by the process is always on the outside of the object decorated. Punching, done with a hammer and nail or a hammer and a fine die, dents the surface of the tin but does not cut it. Punched objects were usually intended to hold liquids.

At once the most important and the most distinctive pierced tin object is the pie cupboard, or pie safe, the primary function of which was to provide storage space after the weekly or semi-weekly orgy of baking. It is curious to note that museums seem to have neglected this most characteristic - in function, design, and meticulous execution - of Pennsylvania German products. The cupboard is a simple, sturdy framework of pine, either pegged or nailed, with a hinged door or pair of doors constituting the entire front. Over this framework are tacked the perforated sheets of tin which provided circulation of air while the pies cooled, at the same time protecting them from insects or mice. The decoration may be an over-all one, as in the hanging cupboards, or may be executed in small identical panels in the stationary type.

The rare eagle motif is particularly sought by collectors; also desirable are the six-pointed geometric design sometimes erroneously referred to as a "hex" sign, and the five-pointed star. The free design of scrolls or arabesques is more usual. Large six-pointed figures were evidently laid out with a compass. In contrast, most smaller designs were probably done by following a pattern superimposed on the tin. Similar to the tin panels of the pie cupboard in details of fashioning are the colanders for shaping cottage cheese, into which was poured the scalded milk for draining and eventual solidifying. Heart-shaped strainers of this type - some of them obviously of recent manufacture - are still in use in the Pennsylvania German country. Some strainers have lids, others do not. Early examples are likely to be footed; both early and late ones may have convenient tabs or wire handles for ease in manipulation and for hanging. As is the case with pie cupboards, the actual perforation is done before the pieces are assembled and soldered. Designs are usually elementary, with stars and rayed concentric circles predominating. Nail punching makes a neater, more compact, and more attractive design here than chisel perforation because of the limited area for decoration. Other objects decorated by the Pennsylvania Germans in pierced tin were nutmeg graters, foot warmers, and "ash protectors"—the last in use for only a very brief time, since space heaters improved and changed so rapidly.

It is in punched tinware that a collector will find the most finely detailed work, with coffeepots the best specimens. The punching was done with great care - a single too-vigorous indentation would have ruined the entire undertaking. At the same time, it is doubtful that these capacious and attractive pots ever saw active duty; they belonged then, as they do now, to the category of things kept "just for fancy" or collectibles. Modest craftsmen that they usually were, the Pennsylvania Germans refrained from putting their mark on any but pieces that were obviously a matter of pride; it is significant, therefore, that of all punched tin objects, coffeepots alone are commonly identifiable by maker. Three names occur: J. Ketterer, M. Uebele, and W. Shade; but even these artisans did not, apparently, mark all their pieces. When the name does occur, it is die-stamped on the handle. Exterior evidence indicates that punched tin coffeepots, like the best sgraffito or slipware pottery, were made as special presentation pieces, possibly for brides. Frequently the initials of the recipient or of the owner appear, one on either side of the central motif. When the date is added, the 18 appears at one side on the reverse and the two remaining numerals on the other. Designs frequently use the profile tulip of fractur, of dower chests, and of ironware. The heart occurs infrequently, as do comet-shaped figures (the Chinese yin and yang symbols), conventionalized floral patterns, and stars - usually four-pointed. Other than in coffeepots, punchwork occurs only incidentally. Occasional cookie cutters have elementary punchwork designs, presumably for identification, and one specimen has an elaborately outlined F for the same purpose.

However, in New Mexico, what is popularly known as "old Spanish tin" did not exist in our Southwest. The first tin articles came, ready made, over the Santa Fe Trail during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. These, from records, seem to have been tin candle molds and tin-framed looking glass. As in other Spanish countries, candles had been made by dipping; but the molds must have found buyers - we find copies of them, countrywide from tin scraps pieced together. The looking glasses are mentioned in several contemporary accounts; they hung in churches as well as in private homes. In 1846, Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Emory spoke of "Yankee looking glasses without number" - all hanging so high that they could not be looked into!

After the military occupation of New Mexico by the United States in 1846 and the steady influx of emigrants from our eastern states, various staples in tin containers were freighted over the plains. When the tins were empty, they were salvaged for reworking by ingenious native artisans. To understand how desirable tin, as a material, was in the eyes of New Mexicans at that time, we must remember their perennial lack of metals. For more than two hundred years small tools, hardware, nails, and bolts were brought by caravan from Central Mexico by a long and dangerous route, and there were never enough to supply even the rudimentary needs of the northern frontier province. As a result, every scrap of worn-out metal was made to serve again and again. Local folk artists supplied secular and religious decorative pieces, ingeniously contrived from local materials, but they had nothing to satisfy the human fondness for sparkle and brilliance. Tin had this property, it was easily worked with blacksmithing tools, and it could be had for the taking from gringo trash heaps. Early New Mexico tin pieces have several distinguishing characteristics: very heavy tinning of soft pewter color, the presence of brand names and other commercial marks on the reverse, and the fact that each object was pieced together from assorted snips of tin cut without relation to the structure - the result of their having been made from cut-down containers instead of from new sheet tin.

With the exception of candleholders and molds, tin was used in New Mexico purely as an ornament. The lack of commonplace implements made of tin is even more surprising when we learn that iron or copper vessels were itemized as valuable properties in last wills and testaments, while dippers, mugs, bowls, and other kitchen trifles were made at home, whittled from wood, cow horns, or gourds. The profound religious devotion of the province offers an explanation: the silvery tin was reserved for the little pantheons of saints and holy persons then seen in every home as well as in the churches. A tin frame, or a ‘nicho’ (small glazed tin shrine), was made for an old family image, which might be a locally-made ‘santo’ or an engraving brought by a pilgrim from some Mexican shrine. In record time for those days, the enterprising N. Currier sent out a series of colored lithographs of religious subjects for the new Spanish Catholic market. Later on European clergymen who came after Archbishop Lamy to the diocese of Santa Fe, created in 1851, distributed inferior prints from France, Germany, and Benziger Brothers' Cincinnati press.

Candleholders, the functional form in which tin was used in New Mexico, were obviously a vast improvement over wooden ones. Shapes ranged from a single sconce of a tin scrap bent at a right angle and fitted to a socket, to ceiling chandeliers with a central lantern form and perhaps twelve candle sockets on curved straps. Like most of the tin pieces, these were not only much pieced but made from several different tins, as the original stamping and factory grooving of different parts of the same piece show. Later in the nineteenth century cut-out fins, floral and bird forms were soldered among the tiers of candelabra.

Among other useful and attractive innovations brought by the Anglos to New Mexico, such as fashions in dress and the distilling of spirits, were two items taken for granted by most of the population east of the Mississippi - window glass and wall paper. It is a matter of record that in 1846 the only building in the Territory with glazed windows was the Palace of the Governors. Yankee families who came to stay sent to St. Louis for window panes and rolls of wallpaper, to recreate in strange adobes the mid-Victorian parlors they had left behind. The earliest tin pieces contain heavy plate glass with air bubbles in it like the surviving original panes in the old Palace itself. The oldest wallpapers, which have been preserved in tin pieces but not on walls, are in William Morris neo-classic patterns. After these we find a sequence familiar to anyone who has seen old sample books, or our grandmothers' homes. Since tin was so often combined with glass and wallpaper by New Mexicans, we must give due consideration to all three materials in dating any example, as well as to the image which forms the central motif.

In recent years it has become a custom to paint happy designs on windows in New Mexico style interiors and to call the result "Spanish colonial painted glass," but if there was almost no glass before 1846 how can painting on glass be a "Spanish colonial" craft? In the course of twenty-five years of keeping notes on indigenous Spanish artifacts, I have noted only three examples of small wooden panels in which irregularly cut ovals of hand-blown glass were painstakingly inlaid, with a small tempera painting on paper of a religious image, more or less in the manner of the folk artists who made ‘santos’ under the glass. It is the glass in these three pieces which is remarkable, and the labor which went into its inlay indicates its rarity at that time. When scraps of window or picture glass did become available to tinsmiths, they adapted the process described above to tin pieces. A pattern of wavy lines and floral scrolls was painted on common paper, laid under a small clear glass panel, backed with tin or makeshift cardboard, and the whole was soldered together with a narrow tin rim. Since tinsmithing as a profession did not exist prior to Yankee influence, solder did not arrive in New Mexico as quickly as tin containers, so some of the first locally re-fashioned tin pieces were put together with pine rosin which is still visible. Multiple panels, each carefully sealed, were joined to make larger pieces. The painted inlays, which are usually more attractive to today's collectors, were not used as frequently as wallpaper.

One of the first designs for frames, which seems to have been copied from furniture in the Federal style, was a vertical rectangle with corner bosses and a pediment of the spread eagle or other motif. Later versions had small rosettes of tin, or curlicues, soldered around the rim. The repetition of simple geometric figures gave added sparkle to the tin, and was used with pleasing restraint. After the Civil War an amusing adaptation of the family portrait gallery frames, common in the East in the form of a heavy oval or polygonal wooden molding with multiple openings to show small photographs of many members of the family, was made of the same tin, glass, and wallpaper scraps, with a religious subject at the center.

After the railroad reached the Rio Grande in 1880, there were more commercial items and more variety in materials. Storekeepers offered oil paints for woodwork and wagons, and tin pieces were pointed up with gaudy colors rather thickly daubed on. Objects grew larger, and flying superstructures in flamboyant shapes were attached. Neither functional nor well made, these gaudy pieces have seldom survived intact. The earlier reservation of tin to the greater honor of religious images seems to have been forgotten, and an increasing supply of colored prints, magazine and catalogue covers, advertising and greeting cards, found its way into tin frames. When cheap copies of gilded plaster or dark wooden frames reached local stores, tin itself became demodé, except in distant villages where the old crafts persisted well into the present century.

To identify marks on Silver, Silverplate, Jewelry or Metal Ware and find prices for antique Silver Jewelry, please visit our service.