Antiques & Collectables - Mauchline Ware

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As if to illustrate just how fascinating and diverse the collecting bug is, I have selected objects that have a very dedicated following of a very specialist type of wood ware which ought to come under the heading of treen but, in point on fact, is collected by most people for what it is, a souvenir article.  Initially produced more than 150 years ago and probably with origins before this.


In other articles I have mentioned how certain items bear the name of the town, village, or city where the product was originally produced.  The item we are looking at today is no exception.


This particular collectors' item owes its origins to an inventive genius, James Sandy (1766-1819).    Sandy is generally acknowledged as being the inventor of the integral (or hidden) wooden hinge as applied to airtight snuffboxes and tea caddies.  Many products were hand painted whilst others were beautifully decorated in penwork. Alternatively items were transferred or printed with designs.  All received numerous coats of protective copal varnish; something common to all articles now referred to as Mauchline Ware.


William Crawford of Cumnock discovered how this amazing hinge was made.  The secret eventually spread to other Ayrshire locations, including Mauchline and it was from these beginnings that the vast range of products available to collectors was originally produced.


Snuff taking started to decline as the 19th century progressed and many box makers ceased production.  But W & A Smith saw the writing on the wall.  They realised that they had to diversify or they, too, would go out of business.  Clearly, a work force skilled at making snuffboxes and tea caddies could readily turn their hand to making other articles and this is exactly what they did.  Whilst their snuffbox making competitors were going out of business, W & A Smith of Mauchline were growing - and how they grew!


The items were made from the wood of the plane tree (sycamore) with just two finishes, tartan and transfer printed wares.  Price range was from 1 to 20 shillings (or 5p to £1.00).  At this time, these were by no means cheap souvenirs.


So huge is the range that a new collector might be wise specialising in needlework associated items: cotton reels, thread holders, silk winders, needle, scissors and thimble cases, crochet hooks wool winders and tape measures, pincushions and wheels, tatting shuttles and so on in many novelty forms.  Or you could specialise in calligraphy related items ranging from blotters to pen holders and include ink-wells and desk sets, rulers, some of which incorporate both a pencil and a rubber, perpetual calendars, bookmarks and letter openers.  Stamp boxes were made for stamps of either one, two or three denominations.


The early Tartan effects were produced by hand ruling.  Highly skilled artists were employed and the process was both time-consuming and costly.  Flat surfaces presented no problems but many Mauchline Ware items had curved surfaces, the ultimate challenge being the egg-shaped sewing etuis.


In transfer printed ware applied transfer prints were used as a decoration throughout most of the century or so of Mauchline Ware production.  This is the "true" souvenir ware and certainly the most collected finish.  Far more transfer-printed ware was produced than any other.


Prices vary enormously depending on rarity, condition, and the style of finish.  Tartan ware is, without doubt, the most costly - 50% to 100% more than some other finishes.


Needlework items are the most numerous group.  Well-known manufacturers who have worked in collaboration with Mauchline ware are J & P Coates, Clarks, Chadwicks and Medlock.  Very occasionally, you may find the manufacturer's name on the inside base of the box.  This normally adds a premium to the price of about 30% plus.


Always try to buy Mauchline ware in good condition.  Small damaged boxes, especially those which are paper covered, are extremely difficult to repair and although they maybe bought cheaply it may not be possible to put them back to their original condition.


Always try to keep the boxes away from severe heat, as the thin wood will crack very easily.  Likewise, keep those items that are padded inside, such as needlecases etc., away from damp as this will tend to moisten the old scotch glue that holds many of these things together to become soft and, eventually, the item will fall apart.


The invention and development of the hidden hinge box is, therefore, a vital part of our history.





© Mike Hicks

December 2002


My thanks to Liz Allport for the photographs