Furniture names often are confusing. A Martha Washington sewing table was made in the 1930s, more than 120 years after Mrs. Washington died, and in a style with no resemblance to the sewing tables of the 18th century. A Governor Winthrop desk had nothing to do with the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor who lived in the 17th century. It's a drop-front desk designed by Chippendale in the 18th century but named Winthrop by a furniture company in the 20th century. The Savonarola chair is another misnamed piece of furniture. The design comes from the ancient Roman X-shaped chair that was very popular in medieval Italy. It can be plain or carved, solid or made to fold. Some are inlaid with ivory or metal, and some have a cushioned seat. The chair was given the name Savonarola in the 19th century, after Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian priest in Florence from 1494 to 1498. He preached against the excesses of the people, predicted the Last Days and organized the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497. Mirrors, cosmetics, immoral sculptures, gaming tables, musical instruments, fine clothes and artwork were burned in a huge fire in the main square. When the Last Days didn't come, his followers revolted, he was excommunicated and then, in 1498, he was executed. None of this has anything to do with the X-shaped chair that was given his name. But even stranger, the chair is called a Dante chair in Italy and a Luther chair in Germany. The form is still popular. An example from the late 19th century could sell for $1,000; a chair made in the 1980s might bring $150.
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Q: I have a ceramic figural head that's wearing a World War II soldier's hat and has grooves like a Chia Pet. It has a "Robinson-Ransbottom" mark on the bottom. Can you tell me anything about it?
A: Robinson-Ransbottom Pottery Co. made two grass-growing heads in 1941. "Elmer the Doughboy" wore a soldier's hat, and "Barnacle Bill," a sailor's cap. Robinson-Ransbottom was in business in Roseville, Ohio, from 1900 to 2005. Its pottery was marked "R.R.P. Co., Roseville, O." The heads were sold with seeds for 59 cents each. Chia Pets were first made in San Francisco in 1982. The "grass" is chia (Salvia hispanica), which grows in Mexico. Elmer the Doughboy is worth about $35.
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Audubon bird charts
Q: I'm a retired elementary-school teacher. I used to spend time in the spring teaching about bird migration, so through the years I picked up four old Audubon bird charts. They were originally painted in watercolors by Louis Agassiz Fuertes for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. They're in very good condition because I laminated them years ago to protect them from the students' handling. Each one is 27 by 42 inches. What can you tell me about the artist and the charts?
A: Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) was an ornithologist and an artist who specialized in painting birds. Your charts were originally published in 1898, 1900, 1912 and 1924. The first two were published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the last two by Milton Bradley Co. Original 19th century prints of John James Audubon's portraits of single birds can sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Your charts are not as valuable, and the fact that you laminated them decreased their value even further. Still, a museum in your area might be interested in them.