Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Safecracker Wanted!

Over the 4th of July weekend I went on a driving tour of central Oregon (Motto: "It doesn't rain here very often"). At the little town of Condon there is a very nice historical museum/complex where they have moved a number of old buildings - the old jail, a one-room schoolhouse, a barbershop - to the location of the old railroad depot. Which was bigger than you might expect, Condon was a big town in the 1850s and supplied a lot of ranchers and miners. In the depot building were some spaces set up as old rooms (a kitchen, a parlor, ...) and lots of random equipment, including a lovely old safe. This shows the exterior of the safe, but our guide apologized for not being able to show me the "very pretty" inside, because the door had been accidentally closed. And now it wouldn't open.

They were thinking that unlocking it should be easier because there was access to the mechanism from a hole burned in the door some time ago - "But they still didn't get into the safe then". So any safecrackers looking for a nice road trip might want to drift by Condon and find an appreciative audience.
From the decorative perspective this was a nice safe. I've not heard of the Wilshire Company, but they did a nice job on the front. It seems to be all done with aluminum bronze paint, no gold leaf, but it is a nice asymmetrical layout with good scrolls and stripes and both a landscape painting and some flowers (which spill over the stripes, giving an extra shot of depth). The "W.B.Wilshire & Co." has a split shade on the letters, I think done with a yellow glaze over the terra-cotta base color.

The owner's name, "S.B.Barker" was done by a different hand, probably in Portland (?) before delivery: the letters aren't as well formed (the "K" is just weird), the paint is ropy and stacked up (that may not show in the photo, but it was pretty strong in person), and the shade is on the right not the left side. But it was a professional job, he just may have had an awkward position to sit in or his paint was funky and he forgot his strainer. Note the period at the end of the name - up until about 1900 everything was considered to be a sentence, and a sentence always ends with a period. I have seen "XYZ Co." followed by a period (XYZ Co..) on old wall signs.

Another thing that can be seen in the close-ups (I boosted the contrast a bit) is some irregular haze/dirt that seems to follow the outer pinstripes, not so evident in the central rectangle. I'm wondering if, after they decorated the door, they put a clear varnish over the paint/stripes to protect them. Seems strange not to just clear-coat the whole thing, but hold that thought...
Because there was another building built on to the old depot, full of big farm equipment and waggons and such, and it had a safe too.

Another company I've not heard of: Ely-Norris of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. This dual timer cannonball (it's not really round, just rounded - can you call it a cannonball?) was a long way from home, but it kept the Gilliam County Bank's money secure for years. The little lettering inside the door says, "YALE automatic bolt operating device / DUPLEX No.3  / Patented June 23 1891 others pending". It has led a hard life, with rust on the exposed metal and some paint chips, but the door still swings easily and the timers may still work. Nobody wanted to close the door, with one safe already locked accidentally.

I liked the blue scrollies on the hinge, modeled with a second color of light blue, and the rakish way they had painted the front of the door at an angle.

And looking closely at the lettering around the opening, again we see a 'dirty' area that crudely covers the lettering and the striping. So again it looks like the lettering and striping was put on with bronze paint, and then a clear varnish was put over for protection. Looking carefully at the front door you can see some very brushy 'holidays' where the varnisher missed an area - pretty easy to do with a clear, unless the lighting is just right.

So if anybody out there has an idea about how to open that "pre-cracked" safe, I'm sure the people at the museum would be interested. I didn't get an e-mail address, their info (from Wikipedia) is:
Gilliam County Historical Society
Highway 19 at Burns Park
P.O. Box 377
Condon, Oregon, 97823
(503) 384-4233

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is anybody out there?

This blog is intended to be a forum for everyone who knows or cares about old safes and vaults. Admittedly I am only interested in the surface appearance - the lettering, striping and painting on the doors and sides - but if you know stuff about the locks or construction methods, feel free to comment.

From what I can tell, the real center of safe activity was Cincinnati, from about 1850 to 1950. The Victor, Mosler, and Hall companies were in or around Cincinnati, and I suspect there were a number of smaller makers too. Also in town was the Palm Decal Co, the world's largest decalomania company (at least the biggest for non-ceramic uses - ceramic transfers may have been a huge business).
I visited Cincinnati in spring of 2010 and looked in at their lovely re-purposed train station

which now houses the Cincinnati Historical Society Library. The Library has big collections from Palm Decal and Mosler Safe and smaller ones from Diebold & Victor. The files are mostly about the business, there are surprisingly few photos. Palm has a good set of decals, but they are mostly from the Remington account: guns and typewriter lettering, not the splashy ones I wanted to see. Palm did have some of the early (turn of the century) account books, hand written, and in the 1904 book I  found "Aug 16 / CW Coggins & Co Safes & Vaults, Baltimore / 500 pieces Gold with black edge A749" and "Aug 4 /  Hall Standard Safe / 7/8 and 12 in  A738" and "May 22  / 5500 pieces / Syracuse Safe Co, Syracuse N.Y. / 7 inch A700". I'm sure that more time going through the pages would bring up many more orders sold to safe companies. But there was no cross reference to tell what the designs were - the numbers do not match up with the catalogs.

The Mosler collection was more fun. Still not very many photos, especially older ones, but some catalogs which had retouched photos in them like this :

They even had a picture of a Victor safe; very strange - could it have been there because of the hole in the door?

But again nothing in color, nothing to show how spectacular the safes could be. Like this one, in a private home with a fresh coat of clear but nothing else changed from the original:

Now, what examples do other folk have?