Charles Duval, who works at Little Rock’s Fabulous Finds Antiques, was looking for something small to collect, when his friends found a cat-shaped tape measure at an antique store. Charles had never seen anything like it before, “as whimsical or unique,” he says, so he bought it. The next week, he bought another one. And he is still collecting them nearly 40 years later. “I’m known for it,” he says with a smile.
Charles owns more than 1,250 antique tape measures. There are cats, dogs, birds, boats, people, hats, cars—“almost any shape you could imagine,” he explains. They’re made from brass, tortoise shell, ivory, sterling silver, celluloid, wood, metal, rubber, and, in the case of one miniature charm variation, even gold. Some also have moveable parts, such as a windmill, clock or the brass, spinning carousel that Charles discovered at an antique show in Kansas City. “It’s my favorite,” he says, noting its rarity. Meant to be used and not simply displayed, interactive varieties in good working order are very unusual today.
What makes the tape measures especially intriguing, though, is that each says something about the time and place in which it was made. Because sewing was commonplace, they were an effective means of advertising. One is called “Bundles for Britain,” for example, promoting the shipping of relief supplies to post-war Britain, while others were fashioned in support of political campaigns. Likewise, a clever figural of silent film star Charlie Chaplin, whose mustache is pulled to reveal the tape, also speaks to its bygone era.
Still others served as a means of self-expression and merriment for the women who used them while sewing. These little “whimsies,” as Charles refers to them, introduced humor into the everyday lives of primarily upper-class women, beginning in the Victorian era, whose main occupations included sewing, reading and receiving guests. The delicate nature of the ladies of the time might partially explain the reason that many tape measures have survived. “I often wonder where the tape measures came from, who owned them, where they’ve been,” says Charles.
Charles has found most of his treasures in the urban areas of Illinois and Wisconsin, or on his travels to England. And while they were produced around the globe, including the United States, he explains that a distinguishing feature of European variations—including Germany, England, France and Austria—is the level of detail, from intricate filigree to the artistry of the painting. “You can also determine its country of origin,” Charles says, “by whether it features a metric measure.” Otherwise, many remain unmarked and undated. A figural pig made in the United States in 1889 is one of Charles’ oldest, though many appear to have been made earlier than that.
No matter how expansive his collection, Charles doesn’t have plans of slowing down any time soon. He’s always on the lookout for more. “I used to have a couple of friends who collected them, but they sold their collections,” he says, “to me.”
Chintz ware has roots in the 17th century, when English artisans were inspired to hand paint their ceramics with the floral patterns seen on fabric imported from India. But it wasn’t until the late 1920s, when the lithographic transfer method developed and allowed for tighter, more detailed patterns, that today’s collectible chintz ware burst onto the scene. Royal Winton, known as the premier producer of chintz china, launched its first pattern, “Marguerite,” in 1928. And its wide success was followed in the coming decades by more than 60 Royal Winton patterns, as well as a slew of chintz ware-producing companies.
Little Rock collector Jeanne Spencer’s first and most treasured chintz ware is a Royal Winton cup and saucer set purchased at a Dallas antique shop in the mid-1980s. Jeanne, who had first learned of chintz ware during classes in design school, has since amassed an impressive 460 pieces. “My mother surprised me with my first chintz ware, which I had discovered and regretted not buying, as a Christmas gift,” she remembers. After that, Jeanne was hooked, and began visiting antique shops and malls on a quest to expand her collection, which now includes stacking tea pots, toast racks, salt and pepper shakers, dishes, mustard pots and much more.
In the beginning, Jeanne purchased all the chintz, chipped or not, that she could find, with the caveat that it had been made in England. While she eventually gave way to collecting a smattering of pieces from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Japan, she prefers the warm ivory background of the English variety to the cooler white of other types. The contrast of a black backdrop also appeals to Jeanne, though one of her favorites is Lord Nelson Pottery’s “Rose Time” pattern, featuring bright pink and yellow roses on a creamy backdrop. “The word ‘cheery’ is often associated with chintz,” Jeanne notes. “It was intended to be used by common working people to brighten their gray days and bring happiness and joy into their everyday lives.”
Because the value of chintz ware has increased exponentially, Jeanne chooses to display her collection throughout her home, in cabinets and on walls, rather than use it on an everyday basis. She is also very careful to distinguish between the more collectible old chintz ware, produced between the 1920s and 1960s, and the less valuable look-alike versions produced today. “The new is very shiny, whereas the old has a dull finish,” she describes. “The newer prints also lack the detail.”
But certain occasions call for something special. Jeanne has been known to set a formal tea table with chintz teapots tied with satin ribbons, as well as a variety of cake plates and demitasse cups adorned with doilies and nosegays. And this beautiful combination is a reminder of the reason that Jeanne started her collection in the first place. “I saw that several pieces had different patterns but seemed to work together,” she remembers. “What I like most is that the pieces are different but, at the same time, alike.”
Reggie Marshall, co-owner of the antique store Marshall Clements in Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood, became passionate for garden ware when he was a college student in search of affordable ways to spruce up his first apartment. As it turned out, it was a unique means of giving the interior of his space character as well. Marshall later began collecting older styles, and when he opened his store in the early 1980s, he saw a void for outdoor antiques that he wanted to fill. “You couldn’t find it many places back then,” he says. “But there’s a craze for it today, because people are willing to accept the fragility of an antique in order to have something distinctive.”
Rather than searching in local garden centers, Marshall, accompanied by co-owner Jim Clements, now travels to Europe and Asia for outdoor products. Via planes, trains and automobiles, they look high and low, scouring markets throughout France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and beyond, for items that meet their criteria. Topping their list of requirements, each purchase must have a distinct appearance, whether in patina, color or scale. It must also be multi-functional. This is evident in the vivid yellow settee and green bistro set they found in France, which “could be placed in a bedroom sitting area,” Marshall says. It’s also seen in their preference for architectural elements, including wrought iron from Hungary, which can be sized to mount on a wall or used to liven up the exterior of a home that has a plain façade.
Inevitably, there are always those objects that Marshall can’t resist snatching up for his own collection. “I like larger things and fewer of them,” he explains. “I also like to play with scale.” That’s what he did recently when he moved into a home with less square footage. To create more living space, he designed a formal backyard with areas divided like rooms, filled it with plenty of antique seating, and then created the illusion of depth with a garden path that narrows towards a large antique statue. “It draws your eye outward,” he explains. To complement the larger elements, he threw in some interesting accessories as a finishing touch. “Always look for things that are flexible,” he advises. “Like cement urns that could be clumped together on a kitchen counter or in a bathroom.”
But if this outdoor antique connoisseur had to give just one piece of advice, it would be to think outside the box, like the time he fell in love with a stone cherub on the face of a crumbling chateau near Lyon, France. Although uncertain where it would go, he couldn’t leave without it—and it’s now happily ensconced in Marshall’s garden. “If I love something enough,” Marshall laughs, “I always find a way to make it work.”
When Homer Laughlin China Co. introduced Fiesta ware in 1936 it became an instant success. Not only did the dinnerware possess bold hues at a time when home design was experiencing big jolts in color, its simple design and streamlined shape made it a compatible option for adding to existing china collections. It also allowed for mixing and matching pieces rather than purchasing entire sets, and most importantly, it was durable. Combine all of this with affordable prices, and Depression-era women and their families simply couldn’t get enough….