Follow the Stories | Chicago, Illinois (2004)
To Be Opened, or Not to Be Opened
A woman from Beach Park, Illinois, was recently fixing up the home her grandparents once owned when she discovered a box that was nearly too heavy to lift in the attic. She dragged the box downstairs and opened it to reveal a cabinet filled with old boxes and tins that still contained food such as sugar, cocoa and spices. The newspaper that wrapped the cabinet chronicled the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which meant the products were probably over 100 years old. When the owner lugged the cabinet and its once-edible contents to the Chicago stop of the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, she had a specific question she wanted answered.
As far as collectibility goes, what you want to do is empty the food
"Should I dump the food out?" she asked ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser Tim Luke, owner of TreasureQuest Auction Galleries in Jupiter, Florida. "I want to preserve this for my family." Tim's advice was clear to those who want to keep old food products or sell them on the collectibles market: Dump the food from tins and any cardboard boxes that have already been opened.
"As far as collectibility goes, what you want to do is empty the food," Tim said. "People aren't looking for Cream of Wheat that's 100 years old. What they want are the advertisements on the containers."
Food should be removed because it's an invitation to bugs that will eat through the containers to get to the food. Dry goods can also sponge moisture from the air, rotting the cardboard and providing a perfect environment for molds and mildews that can ruin the colorful lithographs common on tin and cardboard packaging of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of the damage moisture can cause, Tim recommends you not leave your products in moist places like basements. Likewise keep them out of sunlight — it can fade the labels and designs.
After dumping out the food from a cardboard box, Tim suggests you also vacuum it. "If you have a little Dustbuster, use it," he says. And with tin containers, wipe food residues from the interior with a clean rag. Make sure the cloth you use is dry because water can cause tin to oxidize and cause the lithograph to flake.
After food is removed from a box, insert cardboard strips inside to give it structural support. "You don't want too tight a fit," Tim warns, "because then it will burst at the seams."
The two exceptions to Tim's remove-the-food rule are collectible canned goods and sealed boxes that have never been opened. "Cans were meant to be sealed and were meant to last," Tim says. "As long as there are no minor punctures or areas in the can that would let air in or the contents out, you're fine." With unopened boxes, Tim recommends you keep an eye on them to make sure there's been no leakage — often evident in signs of contamination from bugs or microorganisms. If it is leaking, Tim recommends you discreetly make an opening in the box — the bottom is a good place — to remove the contents.
"Any good chef will tell you that cooking is about chemistry," Tim says. "Chemistry is good for cooking, but it's bad — very bad — for collectibles."
See the Chicago, Illinois (2004) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.
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