Category Archives: Military Folk Art
I’ve said it so many times in the past: it is paramount to making wise purchases that collectors research an item prior to handing over hard-earned finances to make a purchase. However, there are occasions within militaria collecting where the collector is stumped by what he or she might be looking at, yet still feel compelled to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire it.
Recently, a very dear friend and fellow collector presented me one of his most recent acquisitions and wanted to get my input as to the markings and what they might indicate. He was stumped by some of the heraldry and details but there were other engraved elements that showed the piece to be from World War I.
I spent several minutes examining what appeared to be a trench art matchbox. Clearly, the item shown is constructed from brass and was handmade. The brass plates were rolled out and soldered together to form an oblong can-shape with another piece cut and soldered into place at the top. A piece of wood was shaped and fastened to comprise the case’s bottom, and adhered with some sort of clear glue or shellac. Judging from the length of the box, the brass was an unrolled and flattened small arms casings, a very common resource used in trench art making.
On one side, the maker tooled a pattern and left a smooth shield motif with what appears to be a monogram of the initials, “MB.” At the surrounding corners of the shield are “1914”,” 15”, “16” and “17” which clearly indicates the first few years of World War I.
Etched into the opposing side of the matchbox is what appears to be a crescent or “C” with the opening pointed upward. Inside the crescent are two wings – one, at the bottom, pointing to the left with the top one pointing to the right. Connecting the two wing tips is a heavy line running diagonally, right to left from the top to the bottom. All three pieces appear to form the letter “Z.” Superimposed over the diagonal line is a small numeral two. Over the top of this “winged Z” is appears the year, “1917.” To the top right is a star with radiant beams extending outward to all directions providing a backdrop design. The top panel is etched simply etched with “Champagne”, surrounded by tooled pattern.
I knew that the piece was from WWI and was potentially French or British in origin (it could even be German) due to the dates of the piece, as the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917. Could the crescent indicate Arabic or Islamic participation? Could it be connected to the French Foreign Legion? Does “Champagne” refer to the battles that were fought in 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917?
Due to the sheer beauty of this piece, it has proven to be a very wise investment my friend made (at least in my opinion) regardless of his lack of certainty about it. This matchbox will be a fun and interesting research project. Perhaps one of you recognizes the emblems or has any ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
While reading a discussion on a militaria forum regarding a World War I veteran’s medal group (that at that time had recently been listed for sale by Bay State Militaria), I was reminded that so much in military collecting is out of reach for my budget. This particular collection of artifacts contained the Army officer’s decorations and medals which included the Distinguished Service Cross, Belgian Order of the Crown, Knights level, Belgian Croix de Guerre, three awards of the French Croix de Guerre, United States Silver Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Legion of Honor, Knights class and many other decorations. Not only was this group considerably out of my reach but I couldn’t even afford to purchase this soldier’s WWI Victory medal (which included ten clasps, documenting the battles he participated in) if it had been parted out. The group was listed for just under $6,800 and based upon the amount of history the buyer acquired (yes, it sold very shortly after it was listed), it was worth every penny.
The career of the veteran was not only significant during his time in uniform but in his work after he served. In reading his history-making accomplishments as noted, one could see why this grouping commanded such a high listing price:
- “This Officer was decorated while attached to the British during advanced Chemical Training in 1918. He then personally led the first American Chemical Weapons Attack in History as Company Commander of B Company, 1ST Gas and Flame Regiment.”
- “A very historic grouping with a famous painting of this Officer by Joseph Cummings Chase which is in itself a treasure. This portrait was one of 125 painted in France in 1918-19 by Joseph Cummings Chase. approximately 75 ended up in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is one of just a few known to be in Private Hands.”
This WWI Army officer’s (his name was not disclosed) group is purely museum quality as this officer also played a significant engineering role (during the interwar period) on New York’s George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel construction projects.
Meanwhile, back in the realm where I live (known to me simply as reality), my World War I collection consists of a few items that were affordable and have visual appeal. With my family serving in every American conflict dating back to the War for Independence, I try to locate objects that will display well and have some sort of connection to my family’s military heritage.
Two pieces that fit my criteria (as stated above) and met my budgetary constraints are these WWI-specific wool flannel pillow covers. As it turns out, their similar designs complement each other quite well and will look fantastic on my office wall.
Pillow covers were quite popular during World War II with most designs being simple silk-screened patterns or pictorials on silk material. Typically, these were gifts purchased by the service members and sent to family and sweethearts as reminders of the loved one away at war. During the war, these were mass-produced and can be acquired without severely crippling your collecting budget.
Commemorating a wide variety of subjects such as military branches of service, forts or military bases, ships or aircraft, pillow covers have been dated to the first few years of the twentieth century. The early examples tend to be constructed from a wool flannel with lettering and designs stitched to the face.
While the common designs of WWII (such as the more generic “Army” and “Navy” versions) will be plentiful and therefore inexpensive, the more ornate or specific they are, the price will be higher. With Navy ships of significance (such as the USS Arizona or Enterprise) expect to pay a premium.
While there are certainly traditional military items that folks collect such as uniform items and weapons, some people aren’t satisfied with the status quo of militaria collecting. It takes a person with a bit of a twisted perspective to seek out the strange or odd items or to possess the ability to see the contextual vantage point of the militaria collector.
Suppose that there are collectors who focus on field surgeon equipment from the Civil War era. A collection might include medicines and physician’s guides, but it could also include surgical implements. Aside from the traditional scalpel set, expect to see an array of macabre bone saws and tourniquets.
Another example of what some folks might deem as odd militaria could be a collection of named (meaning, engraved with the veteran’s name) Purple Heart medals awarded to service members who were killed in action (KIA). While this may also seem dark, most collectors of Purple Hearts (at least that I’ve encountered) see this as a way to preserve history and share the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Whenever I glimpse one of these medals, I am overwhelmed when I consider the price that was paid by an American.
One of the most bizarre items of militaria that I have personally seen was at the Indiana Military Museum located in Vincennes, Indiana. Among the wonderful displays is a group of items that belonged to soldier who served during the 1898 war with Spain.
It seems that he suffered a debilitating head wound when some stored ammunition exploded, emitting a destructive array of metal and wood debris. The result of the wounds sustained by Sergeant Gustave Baither was the traumatic loss of one of his eyes.
In my own collection, I have preserved an item that to the untrained eye would be indistinguishable as something pertaining to military use. However, this piece is a part of naval and seafarer tradition spanning centuries of sea-going service. Hand-made from a section of 1-1/2-inch fire hose, a piece of a broom handle, electrical heat-shrink tape and wrapped with braided shotline (used during Underway Replenishment), the shillelagh is a centerpiece of the equator crossing initiation ceremony known as Wog Day.
My shillelagh, made during my last sea deployment in 1989, was used to provide much-needed correction to the pollywogs (those who hadn’t crossed the equator) by applying gentle (ok… maybe not-so-gentle) swats to their posterior region as they crawl across the ship’s decks. Upon completion of that cruise, my shillelagh was tossed into my closet where it has remained, almost forgotten… that is until my kids wanted to learn about Navy traditions.
What unusual items are in your collections?
Within the realm of just about every collecting pastime exists undocumented glossaries packed with terms and phrases used to describe certain aspects of that particular genre. For those of us new to collecting, these terms can be some of the biggest obstacles to understanding the ins and outs of collecting, especially as we are trying to navigate our way to better understand specifics and details.
In some instances, terms can be rather self-explanatory (at least for people like me), but still may not make a whole lot of sense. Such is the case with “theater-made”, which seems to be bandied about rather freely.
As I launched into militaria collecting, I saw the term applied to a broad swath of army items, predominantly shoulder sleeve insignia (or patches) dating from World War I to present day. What astounded me was that these experts could spot not only that a particular piece was theater-made, but could tell you where in the world it was made. With certain pieces, a theater-made example could sell for considerably more than an American-made patch. The Australian-made 1st Marine Division patch comes to mind.
To a veteran of the U.S. Navy, theater-made items seem commonplace. During our six month-long deployments to the Western Pacific, our ships would visit ports in countries such as the Philippines and Hong Kong. During our three- and four-day stays, many of us would take what little money we saved and head out to the tailor and embroidery shops to order custom uniforms or uniform items from the local craftsmen. These special-order pieces add a unique and personal touch for uniforms worn out on liberty or to make us stand out in a positive manner during inspection. However, we never thought of these components as theater-made.
Aside from having items made for uniform-wear, armed forces personnel find unique methods for commemorating events, deployments and other aspects of their service. Having patches custom-made to wear on a utility or flight jacket (to document a deployment) was a common occurrence in the years that I served.
As some of the custom pieces are slightly more rudimentary in construction, forgers tend to leverage that to their advantage. When collectors begin to pursue what are being passed off as theater-made items, they must have some sort of education before pulling the trigger to protect themselves from being deceived. Learning how to discern the difference takes time in comparing known, genuine items against pieces that have far too many variances can be a lengthy educational process. One of the stumbling blocks that many inexperienced collectors do is to subordinate their judgement to that of experienced collectors, relegating their decision making to another person without allowing for knowledge transfer – not asking the questions in order to learn for themselves.
I am still learning how to tell the difference with patches from earlier eras (WWI, WWII and Vietnam) and seeing that there are a lot of very well-executed fakes (sometimes branded as “reproductions”) that fall onto the market with little or no description and a fair amount of deceptive language leaving the potential buyer to make a judgement call. With some patches trading hands for prices for several hundred dollars, con-artists are quick to take cues from the collectors and attempt to replicate (with faux aging) vintage items to sell to unsuspecting collectors.
Selected Research Resources: