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    Auction Finds

    Patent date isn’t exactly the year an item was made

    Fridays at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources to help them determine the value of their items. From time to time, I get emails from readers mistakenly assuming that the year inscribed on an item is its production date. Today, I’m using a reader’s question to explain the meaning of full dates and years imprinted on vintage and antique items.

    Cover of Satatoga Vichy matchbook

    A cover on a Saratoga Vichy matchbook shows the year 1876. Photo from eBay.

    Question:

    I have a matchbook collection I obtained through a friend. It has one book in it dated 1876. Might I have something worth anything? Also it came with an old Boy Scouts card dated 1941. I just started this so any help would be greatly appreciated. The matchbook is a Saratoga Vichy mixer advertisement.

    Answer:

    I have written several blog posts and answered questions about matchbooks and match covers, and I usually direct readers to them. Most of the items are not worth much, but I always advise readers to check eBay to see if theirs are among the ones that someone actually wants to buy. In most cases, the matchbooks don’t sell well or at all.

    This time, though, I decided to check the Saratoga Vichy mixer matchbook on eBay. There was one listing, and the matchbook – still with its 15 matches whose stems were in the shape of water bottles – sold in January for $11.99.

    inside saratoga vichy matchbook

    Inside the Saratoga Vichy matchbook with its stylish matches resembling bottles.

    The reader did not send me a photo of his matchbook, but there were photos on the eBay listing. The cover advertised Saratoga Vichy premium mixer bottled in Saratoga Springs, NY. Across the top was this inscription:

    “Established 1876”

    The reader had apparently assumed that the 1876 was the year the matchbook was manufactured. It was not; I’m not sure what the date referred to. The company was actually founded in 1872 and bottled spring water, which it seemly also advertised for medicinal purposes.

    Most times, though, the confusion over manufacturing comes from patent dates, which merely mean that this was the month, day and year an item was patented and not when your particular product was made. Items were produced for years after a patent was acquired. We all are looking for that antique item that will bring us loads of money, so when we see a very early patent date, we are hoping that we’ve found our lottery winner. Well, at least I do.

    The first patent law in the United States was enacted in 1790, and it was around for three years. Congress changed the act in 1836 in a new bill. There are three types of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but most are in the utility category. You can search for patent numbers at both the patent office and via Google. Most patents are not renewable, and once one expires anyone can make the once-patented product.

    Singer puzzle box of attachments

    The Singer puzzle box of sewing attachments with the patent info at right.

    I come across items at auction all the time that have early patent dates imprinted on them, but I’ve learned to be cautious. I know that the year does not denote the precise date the item was manufactured. Googling, I did find on eBay one way to set a window for the manufacture of an item. The writer offered a list of patent dates, patent numbers, how long a patent lasts and instructions, while also noting that the process was not ironclad.

    I have a lovely wooden puzzle box of Singer sewing attachments with an inscribed patent date of February 19, 1889. The patent lasted for 17 years, so the box was likely made between 1889 and 1906 since most patents can’t be renewed.

    The reader’s matchbook was likely from around the 1940s like the Boy Scout card accompanying it. He can also determine the value of that card via eBay. Interestingly, the matchbook that sold on eBay seemed to have a patent number on the bottom edge. It looked to be a number from around 1932.

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