Treasures in Your Attic: Container Was Used to Conceal Jams, Condensed Milk

Dear Helaine and Joe: This piece is Bavarian. It bears the name “Mary S. Wilson,” the artist I presume. It is also marked “J H R” in a circle above “Hutschenreuther,” “Gelb” and “Bavaria.” I understand it was used to conceal a milk can or jam jar. Any idea of the current value?

Thank you,

T. B.

Dear T. B.: We looked up the mark and found it is very easy to misread the name of the town in which it was made — Selb, Bavaria, not “Gelb.” Selb is a small town located in far eastern Germany near the border with the Czech Republic.

Technically, Selb has a population of around 15,000 and is located in the district of Wunsiedel in Upper Franconia in the German state of Bavaria. From 1847 to 1857, Lorenz Hutschenreuther managed his father’s porcelain factory in Hohenberg (it is unclear exactly which Hohenberg this might have been since there are more than a dozen communities with this name in Germany), but in 1857 he established his own manufacturing facility in Selb.

Lorenz must have been very successful, because his company expanded several times before the beginning of World War II and again in the late 1960s. Today, the company is still producing a wide variety of objects, from hotel wares to fine figure groups and household porcelains.

The mark shown appears to have been in use until about 1920, and the decoration itself with the gold leaves and sprays of fruit and leaves was most popular around 1910. It should be emphasized that all Hutschenreuther did was produce the white porcelain “blank” and then exported it to the United States, where Mary S. Wilson did the china painting.

At the turn of the 20th century (and before), it was customary for women of some means to take up a hobby, and china painting was one of the most popular ones. (Every now and then china pieces decorated by a man will turn up.) And in some cases china painting became a cottage industry that earned the skilled decorators extra money.

Mary S. Wilson certainly had some skills, but her thematic material was based on designs seen all the time on American pieces. The container itself was indeed designed to make either a can of evaporated milk or a jam jar more attractive on a dining table. It should be mentioned that in the early 20th century when this piece was made, Mrs. Suzie Housewife did not want it known that she did not make her own jams and jellies — so she hid the store can or jar in a pretty container such as the one belonging to T. B.

Evaporated or condensed milk is said to have been the brain child of Gail Borden, who in 1852 was on a sea voyage with seasick cows that did not produce enough milk to keep an infant alive. He produced some of his evaporated milk in 1854 and patented the idea in 1857. But even though it was safer than regular milk and had a longer shelf life, it was not popular with the American public until the turn of the 20th century — and then the average American homemaker wanted to hide the can when it was on the table. The large round hole in the center of the bottom was there to facilitate the removal of the commercial can or jar for later storage.

This circa-1910 example should be valued in the $65 to $85 range for insurance purposes.