CHASE: ART DECO STYLE FOR THE MASSES
By Barry L. Van Hook
(copyright 1997; 2001)
Chase Salt and Pepper Spheres Designed by Russell Wright
What we now call Art Deco or Moderne evolved in Europe during the early
20th century, becoming international in scope and influence.
By 1930 this new style was well established in the United States, profoundly
impacting American culture through deco-inspired designs in motion picture
sets, architecture, automobiles, art, and even household furnishings. American
manufacturers busily interpreted the new modernist style for domestic tastes.
Some of these products were outrageously "kitschy." However,
the wares of certain manufacturers were a significant cut above the norm.
Companies such as Frankart, Sunbeam, Revere, and Manning-Bowman practiced
good design sense and competence in quality manufacturing, creating products
for the masses that captured the spirit of the deco era. Perhaps the most
successful interpreter of the new style—in terms of both design and commercial
success—was the Chase Brass & Copper Company of Waterbury, Connecticut.
The Lazy-Boy Ash Tray Designed by Walter von Nessen
Chase Brass & Copper began life in 1876 as the Waterbury Manufacturing Company, producing thousands of goods for consumer and industrial markets. In 1929, the Chase Companies (as they were known by that time), were acquired by the Kennecott Copper Corporation, and in 1936 the company was renamed the Chase Brass & Copper Company. Throughout most of the company’s earlier life, production centered around consumer and industrial products including copper pipe, buttons, screening, and novelties. By 1930, however, the Chase Companies recognized the demand for low cost, quality housewares, particularly products reflecting the modern style of the period.
The later version of the Blue Moon Cocktail Shaker
There was no single reason behind the success of the Chase product line; rather, success stemmed from a combination of factors including effective marketing and promotion, well-designed products, and attention to manufacturing quality. The Chase product line was distributed through major department stores, gift shops, and jewelry stores across the country. Retailers were encouraged to establish small special departments, called "Chase Shops," within their stores. The Chase advertising department provided free plans for unique shelving and display units of varying sizes and designs that could be built on-site for as little as $25. It was claimed that these boutiques greatly enhanced store traffic and sales volume. Cities as geographically and culturally diverse as New York, Hollywood, Portland (Oregon), Cleveland, and Missoula, Montana, boasted Chase Shops. It is probably no coincidence that collectible Chase is often most plentiful in and around those cities where successful Chase shops were once located.
The earlier Chase Ice Bowl Designed by Russell Wright
The Chase line was also rather effectively promoted through endorsement. Emily Post, the Depression-era arbiter of correct social form, was a strong supporter of the line. In the mid-1930’s, she authored, and Chase widely distributed, a 24-page booklet entitled "How to Give Buffet Suppers" in which the products of Chase Brass & Copper were prominently featured. A more subtle form of endorsement occurred when Chase products were used as accents in Broadway plays, motion pictures, and even the advertising displays and media of other businesses (a situation, incidentally, that still occurs in current films). The Howell Chromsteel Company, a furniture manufacturer, used several pieces of Chase in their exhibit at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress. Additionally, the famous Bloomingdale’s Department Store used Chase to accent model rooms. The Sealex Linoleum brochure for 1937 featured a home bar liberally furnished with Chase bar and buffet ware.
Wright design, The
(aka The Beer Pitcher)
The Chase product line of the 1930’s also thrived commercially as a direct result of the company’s practice of hiring some of the better designers of that era. Names such as Walter von Nessen, Charles Arcularius, Russell Wright, Lurelle Guild, Rockwell Kent, and the team of Gerth & Gerth, all were commissioned by Chase at one time or another. In-house designers such as Harry Laylon contributed to the strength of Chase design. Although competitors occasionally used name designers, a strong case can be made that, across the entire product line, Chase demonstrated stronger design sense and execution than any competitor.
The Aristocrat Ashtray
Although Chase products were relatively inexpensive, they were far from cheaply made. Products bearing the distinctive Chase centaur logo were usually made of copper, brass, bronze, or chromium plating over brass or copper. Unlike some of their contemporaries, who routinely chrome plated ferrous metals such as steel, Chase plated only over more costly, rust-proof brass or copper. Moisture and other contaminants that might penetrate the microscopic pores in the plating could not form sub-surface rust; therefore, bubbling, pitting, and flaking of the chromium outer layer was avoided. The materials used to fashion handles or bases included walnut, bakelite, or catalin. Some glassware was included in the Chase product line, usually in clear or cobalt blue colors. It is thought that Chase purchased glass from the leading manufacturers of the era, such as Libbey, but actual sourcing of glassware has yet to be confirmed among Chase collectors.
The Continental Coffee Pot
by Walter von Nessen
(with somewhat-rare white hardware)
The Chase consumer products line of the 1930’s appears to have been segmented into four somewhat distinct categories. One category consisted of lamps, candlesticks, and other accessories executed in a style we might generically entitle Early American or Colonial. A second segment consisted of products designed in a nautical theme. Neither is unusual considering Chase’s New England roots. A third segment, novelties if you will, came about as close as one could get to "Kitsch." Although not particularly numerous, considering the volume of the Chase line, several such items were produced.
Chase shipping barrel
from the 1950's
Yes, this kind of stuff is also collectable!!
Of these first three categories, only certain of the novelty products are highly prized among contemporary Chase collectors. Most notable among the novelty line was the Pelican Ash Receiver, which could be purchased in either a table top or floor stand version. Standing just over 5 inches tall and 7 inches long, the bird received ashes in its bill, which then could be tipped upward so the ashes fell into the body. The Pelican Ash Receiver can be expected to retail for $100 and up, depending upon condition and version.
More von Nessen design The uneven Taurex Candlesticks
In general, the colonial and nautical pieces do not seem to elicit the same interest, probably due to the individual and collective taste of most Chase fanciers. It was, however, the Modernist-inspired fourth segment of the Chase product line where the company commissioned its outside design talent and expended most of its manufacturing, marketing, and promotional efforts during the 1930’s. It is this segment that arouses the zeal of the serious Chase collector and where asking prices can range upwards of $1500 for a single rare and desirable piece.
Skyways Salt & Pepper shakers
white plastic bases
A version produced as a souvenir for the 1939 World's Fair
had blue and orange plastic bases
In any area of collectibles, certain items are more readily available than others. Several pieces of Chase fall into this classification, and among the most common is the Candy Dish. The Chase Candy Dish measures 3 1/8 inches high and 7 inches in diameter and was available in a variety of finishes. Consisting of a lid, a glass liner (usually divided into three sections), and a flanged bottom, the candy dish carried either a plastic or metal knob shaped like a cluster of fruit. A second common piece is the Cocktail Ball, a 3 3/8 inch chromed and perforated sphere on a maroon rubber base. Cocktail toothpicks were inserted in the perforations, holding little weenies or other hors d’oeurves. This piece is often found on a 6 3/8 inch plain chromed saucer, the Olympia Saucer. Finally, one is also likely to run across the Gaiety Cocktail Shaker. This chrome-plated bar accessory stands 11 ½ inches tall and is usually decorated with five black horizontal bands, although other colors were available.
Rare & Wonderful Chase Planet Lamps
At the other end of the spectrum are those rare and desirable pieces that cause Chase collectors to inflict serious damage to their checking accounts. Perhaps the most sought-after item is the Diplomat Coffee Set designed in the early 1930’s by Walter von Nessen. Available in either copper or chromium with black or white plastic handles and knobs, this service consisted of carafe, creamer, sugar bowl, and tray. The three basic service pieces are vertically fluted, and the handles on the carafe and creamer jut outward horizontally from the bodies. The Diplomat set accented several cinema and stage sets, including the Broadway production of "Design for Living." The copper version earned for von Nessen an Award of Merit from the National Alliance of Art and Industry. The tray to the set is the most difficult item to obtain, particularly in chromium. Although Chase continued to produce a three-piece chrome Diplomat service through 1941, only the copper tray was offered after 1938 or 1939. A complete Diplomat set, including tray, might sell for over $600.
The Diplomat Coffee Server Still another von Nessen design
Rockwell Kent, the noted graphic designer and illustrator, also contributed his talents to Chase Brass & Copper, and his efforts resulted in three pieces that are quite rare and desirable. Kent designed a decorative placque depicting the god Bacchus as a child carrying a harvest of grapes on his left shoulder. This placque was reproduced on a cigarette box, a wine bottle stand, and a wine cooler. The cigarette box, executed in bronze, had two compartments and was lined with cedar. The wine bottle stand, which functioned to keep dripping bottles from staining a table cloth, was available in chrome or a brass/copper combination. It was 4 ½ inches in diameter and 2 inches high. The wine cooler was also produced in chrome or brass/copper and measured 9 ¼ inches high with an 8 ½ inch diameter at the top. Among the Rockwell Kent pieces, the wine cooler is much more commonly seen, and is usually obtainable for $300 - $500. Cigarette boxes are much rarer on the market; even avid Chase collectors may not have seen one in person. Consequently, the cigarette box is often priced from $1000 to $1500.
The Constellation Lamp Another nifty, but rare, Chase lamp
Between these two extremes—the common and the rare—are many, many examples of Chase workmanship and design. The 1938 Chase catalog included well over 200 individual pieces and sets, and from 1930 until the beginning of the war, the product line changed considerably with new pieces being added as slow-moving items were dropped. In addition, Chase often produced uncataloged items, such as special pieces for world’s fairs.
The line of Chase specialties ended with the entry of the United States into World War II, when the company converted its production facilities to war-related materiele. After the war ended, Chase decided not to re-enter the consumer market, thus ending the Chase art deco era.
The Bubble Flower holder Not all Chase was chrome!
Several potential reference sources are suggested for anyone wishing additional information on the products of the Chase Brass & Copper Company. In 1978, a Connecticut antique dealer, Gladys Koch, reprinted the 1937 catalog. Unfortunately, this has been out-of-print for several years; try your library and good luck! In 1988, however, the late Richard J. Kilbride published Art Deco Chrome: The Chase Era, followed in 1992 by Art Deco Chrome Book 2: Industrial Design in the Chase Era. The 1988 volume contains the entire 1941 Chase catalog in addition to a significant amount of historical information and a price guide. The second book primarily included illustrations of items not in the first book. Additional historical data and a new price guide was added.
In more recent years, two prolific authors of books on antiques and collectibles, Donald-Brian Johnson and Leslie Pina, have produced four absolutely necessary additions to any serious Chase collector's library. The four titles, all published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., are:
Chase Catalogs: 1934 and 1935, February, 1999
Chase Complete: Deco Specialities of the Chase Brass and Copper Co., April, 1999
1930's Lighting: Deco and Traditional by Chase, June, 2000
Chase Era: 1933 and 1942 Catalogs of the Chase Brass and Copper Co., January 2001
Finally, although not limited solely to Chase products, Schiffer Publishing also issued the excellent Art Deco Chrome, by Jim Linz in February, 1999. However Chase products are prominently featured.
A complete Chase library would include all the above references; of course the collector would likely find his or her bank account significantly lightened. If a single reference were to be recommended for the collector wishing maximum knowledge about Chase, it would have to be Chase Complete: Deco Specialities of the Chase Brass and Copper Co., 1999. This reference contains hundred of color photos, excellent editorial material, a cross reference listing by year of production, and a price guide.
The Pretzel Man! He also holds bagels
For the individual considering the collecting of Chase, a few words of advice might be appropriate. First, don’t depend AT ALL on the price guides in either Kilbride book! Both include pricing data that that is very dated, and the guide in the second book was generally viewed within the field as being wildly unrealistic in far too many instances. For reliable, relatively current price information, see the latest version of Schroeder’s Antique Guide or the results of on-line auctions such as eBay. Second, the distinctive centaur logo is impressed on most—but not all—pieces of Chase. It is usually located on the bottom, but sometimes may be found on the side or even on rivets, depending on the nature of the design. Finally, Chase produced scores of products that are not identified in any current reference. Previously unknown pieces seem to emerge on a regular basis . . . and this goes a long way toward explaining why collecting Chase is so exciting!
***Photo scans courtesy of Steven Caiati,
New Era Antiques***