Look with Your Brain, as well as Your Eyes, to Avoid a Costly Mistaken Identity

Canvas for surgical wallets has been used for more than 100 years. And this style of wallet has been used for more than 200 years.

I was wandering around an antique mall in Tennessee one time a few years back and noticed some small tools and other oojahs in a display case. The attendant came over and pointed to several pocket kits and said, “I wouldn’t want to see a doctor coming at me with one of those!” I thought to myself, “Neither would I, since those are small pocket tool kits, not medical kits.” After he told me they were Civil War surgeon’s instruments I just smiled and moved on.

The “medical kit” did have a small saw, but also a hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, etc., making it a nice little 1930s or ’40s circa tool kid, worth about $40. When people are very sure of what they have, I hesitate to enlighten them and did not with this nice man. So, when you are out looking for antiques, be sure that you look with your eyes, your hands and especially your brain. The screwdriver should have been a dead giveaway, if nothing else.

There were pocket medical kits of folding leather holding scalpels, scissors and other small instruments in use from about the 17th century until now. Over the years, the folding “wallet” changed from fine-quality, silk-lined leather to leather on cardboard about 1870s to canvas and then plastic. I’ll have to ask a medic what they carry now. I have a small, folding canvas pocket kit from the 1940s with the inscription “pocket case MD USN” stenciled on it.

Most sugar nippers have sharp nipping edges, a knuckle guard, a simple spring and a clip closure.

I have had more than one person mistakenly identify the purpose of a sugar nipper. When a little boy asked his father what that (sugar nipper) was, he was told, “it was for cutting off fingers in the Civil War.” I don’t correct parents in front of their children unless they ask for confirmation; I then can send them in to the other room to look at all the medical instruments. Another fellow was explaining, “They used to castrate bulls with those”. Well, I would love to watch (safely behind a very stout fence) when someone tried that (with 911 on speed dial)! I did explain to that fellow and his audience those were sugar nippers and, even though the bull probably thought sweet thoughts about his bull-hood, they were not used in that fashion. Everyone had a good laugh, even the fellow with the “information.” Antique bull castration instruments look similar in outline, but the details are obviously different.

Veterinary castration devices have a similar profile to the sugar nipper but the similarity ends there.

Sugar nippers were used in this country during colonial times to nip off a piece of sugar from a large cone shaped hunk, and then ground in the mortar and pestle to be used in baking or beverages. They range in price from $100 to $350. There are reproductions, so examine carefully. If you own a sugar chest, used in the south to store sugar, then you should have sugar nippers to go inside. The better nippers have a decorated knuckle guard, as well as a decorated area around the pivot. The British used nippers longer that we did; they continued to produce sugar in hunks they called “loaves.” Usually, the later a nipper, it will be plainer as well. That seems to be true of most antiques.

I had a man tell me he threw away knives like the ones in an amputation kit I had for sale in my shop. He said he thought they were carving knives and didn’t want them! Arrgghh! They came in their own box too. I sold a set of Charrier amputation knives in their own box for $350, so that was an expensive mistake.

Nineteenth-century amputation knives superficially resemble carving knives since they are performing a similar task. They are usually straighter and narrower in the blade. Depending on condition and maker, three matching knives retail for $350.

Another man looked at my amputation sets at a Civil War show and told me—to educate me, I presume—that the saws in the sets were miter saws for cutting wood.

A 19th-century amputation saw has similarities to a carpenters miter saw. This one retails for about $300.

He would not believe they were medical. Here is a good question then: “How do you know they are medical and not carpenterial?” The medical saws are similar in shape but are not quite as heavy as carpenter saws and not as large. A typical, mid-19th-century amputation saw measures about 13 inches. And if the saw is in a case, examine it to see how it fits into the case. Is the fabric the same all through and is it faded and worn in appropriate areas? This will tell you if the saw is original to the box, it will still most likely be a medical saw if it almost fits in the box.

I frequently display little medical etuis with the lid open. It does have the silhouette of an old cigarette lighter, but the differences are obvious after the second glance.

More than once an open etui holding thumb lancets has been mistaken for a cigarette lighter. If it has the general outline of a lighter, it must be a lighter, even though it has four tortoise shell thumb lancets in it and no striker, etc.

Mistakes can be costly when collecting antiques, as well as in other endeavors. Remember to look with your mind as well as your eyes and hands when antiquing. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of the dealer. We don’t know everything, by any means, but we will be more than glad to help. Have fun!

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.

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