Before safes, furnishings offered secret compartments

Safes and banks were not easy to find in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s why so many types of secret compartments were made in furniture and decorative items.

Eighteenth-century desks often had “deed” boxes disguised as small columns on the inside near the drawers. The columns could be pulled forward and a hollow box hidden behind them could hold money and important papers, such as a land grant or a will. Sometimes a drawer was made that was shorter than normal. The empty space behind it could be used to hide small objects like coins or jewelry. Lamp bases were made with hollow bottoms that could hide things.

Today, you can find hollow cans that look exactly like real cans of cleanser or soup, but they have false bottoms to help hide valuables. There is even a fake stone made to store a house key outside.

One very unusual “safe” of the 1930s was a dual-purpose doorstop. The elaborate cast-metal piece was molded to show an art deco nude woman standing near a background of peacock feathers. The front of the doorstop is a door that opens on a hinge. Inside is space to hide valuables or liquor during Prohibition. The doorstop is marked “Infringements prosecuted, A.W. Reiser, Toledo, Ohio.” The company also made other cast-iron objects, including lamps and match holders. The design of some of their pieces suggests the company worked at least into the 1940s.

Q: I have an old wooden table with folding legs. The bottom is marked “Simplicity folding table, Pat. June 10, 1884, address all orders to W.E. Eldred patentee and manuf’r, 532 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY.” Can you give me some information about the table?

A: In 1883, William E. Eldred filed for a patent on a new way to open and close the legs of a folding table. The patent was granted June 10, 1884. Eldred apparently manufactured the tables, too.

We have seen these tables marketed as “folding tables” or “folding sewing tables.” Asking prices run from $65 to nearly $300.

Q: I have several figurines marked “Occupied Japan.” My father was stationed in Japan after World War II, and he brought them home. My favorite is a Japanese boy playing a squeezebox. Other figurines look Victorian, but they too are marked “Occupied Japan.” Please explain.

A: Anything marked “Occupied Japan” was made between 1945 and 1952, the years U.S. forces occupied Japan after World War II. Ceramic figurines were made in countless varieties. While there are lots of collectors who enjoy buying Occupied Japan (“OJ”) figurines, prices are not high. Most single figurines sell for $10 to $50.

Q: My antique silver sugar bowl is marked “EB” in a rectangle. I have done some research to identify the maker, but all I have figured out is that the bowl is probably American.

A: A famous New York City silversmith named Ephraim Brasher (1744-1810) marked his pieces “EB” inside a square or an oval. Brasher worked from about 1770 to 1801.

Have an expert in your area take a look at your sugar bowl. Brasher assayed gold for the U.S. Mint, produced copper coins for New York state and in 1778 made the coin now called the Brasher Doubloon. The coin inspired a Philip Marlowe detective mystery as well as a 1947 movie.

Q: I have several bulbs I found in attic fixtures in an old home. They have pointed tips on the glass. Is it safe to use them? They still light.

A: Serious collectors prefer bulbs that work, so don’t use your bulbs because they eventually will burn out. We also have been told that these old bulbs might cause interference on a TV set.

Ralph and Terry Kovel’s column is syndicated by King Features. Write to: Kovels, (Las Vegas Review-Journal), King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.

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