School-made easel has colorful story

By Terry Maurer, What's it Worth February 26, 2012 

Q. This adjustable art easel was rescued from a teacher's Normal School, established in 1896. There was a fire in 1910. The easel shows indications of fire, so I would assume the easel was in use between those dates. On the back is a small brass plaque that states: Made by the Washburn Shops of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Worcester, Mass. A few years ago, I wrote to the institute, which still exists, but did not receive a reply. Thank you for any information you can provide. -- Ardean in Kennewick

A. This is a nice piece of specialized antique furniture. We agree with your assessment that it went through a fire. The date of 1910 makes it more than 100 years old and, using our definition of the word, an antique piece. This easel has a working surface that is 24 by 21 inches and it stands 39 inches high.

It may be interesting to know a little history of Worcester Polytechnic. Established in 1865, just at the end of the Civil War, the founding mission was to "Create and convey the latest science and engineering knowledge in ways most beneficial to society."

Today, Worcester offers bachelor's and master's degrees in a number of fields and doctoral degrees to its 5,000 students. Outstanding alums include Robert Goddard, the "Father of Modern Rocketry."

About the time the Polytechnic was founded, a local man named Ichabod Washburn owned the world's largest wire-making operation. He agreed to put up the campus' second building.

The Washburn Shops originally were a working manufacturing plant where students made products for sale under the tutelage of professional mechanics. Now, it is the oldest building in the nation used continuously for engineering education.

In the late 19th century, about when the easel was made and likely sold to the Normal School, it would have had a retail price of $5 to $10.

In today's market, as an unusual piece of furniture with an interesting history, the value is more like $250 to $400. The photographs indicate it is in generally good condition; we would recommend no extensive cleaning or alterations. If it looks a little like a survivor of that fire, so be it. Sanding and a refinish would diminish the value.

Q. This little brass or bronze ashtray has been in my family for many years-- at least three generations or more. Can you tell me anything about it? -- Lois in Spokane

A. The style is Art Nouveau, which means "new art," in French. Popular from about 1890 to 1910, the style influenced fashion, art, furniture -- and even dance.

While it was most popular as a design motif in France, there was also a strong German school, where it was called "Jungenstil" or "Youth Style." There were a few proponents of Art Nouveau in America; including Louis Comfort Tiffany. But, it never caught on here as it did in Europe.

Characterized by flowing lines, Art Nouveau is viewed today as an important transition period leading to modern art.

We do not see very many examples on the market here in the Northwest. Art Nouveau was always a "big city" style, most popular in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and New York. The few examples that do turn up usually can be traced back to a family member who once lived in a metropolitan area.

About 5 inches high, this little piece could be used today as a candy or nut serving dish, assuming all the smokers have been banished from the house.

Value is between $75 and $125.

-- Terry Maurer, a Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to

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