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Collecting Vintage Doorstops

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 16 October/November 1993

Once the passion of a few knowledgeable collectors, cast-iron doorstops are coming into their own as American folk art. Doorstops originated in the eighteenth century in England, where they were called doorporters. They were made of brass, pewter, stoneware, or glass and incorporated a handle for easy lifting. American cast-iron doorstops developed in the 1820s, at the same time as cast-iron buildings. After the Civil War, cast-iron home and garden ornaments became symbols of upper-class affluence in a craze known as "ferromania," according to Marilyn Hamburger and Beverly S. Lloyd in their guide "Collecting Figural Doorstops" (A. S. Barnes).

At their peak popularity in the twenties and thirties, they cost as little as fifty cents and as much as $2. You could buy them through the Sears catalog. But when World War II broke out, scrap iron was melted down for the war effort, and the doorstop craze was all but extinguished.

Doorstops were used winter and summer in the days before central heating or air conditioning. They range in size from just under six inches tall, for lighter inside doors, to eighteen inches, for outside doors. But beyond function, the cast-iron pieces are highly decorative, an exuberant, imaginative chronicle of their times. The beginning of trade between Japan and the West in the 1850s inspired a flood of doorstops patterned after Buddhas and geishas. For collectors of southern Americana, footloose Huck Finn-type characters abound. A series of nineteenth-century British doorstops depicts Shakespeare's house at Stratford-on-Avon; their American cousins pay homage to log cabins and Cape Cod cottages.

Most foundries coated their door-stops after casting with a white, red, or black lacquer finish. Before being sold, the doorstops would be subcontracted to local women for painting as they saw fit. By the twentieth century, foundries began to specify colors for each design, although the pieces continued to be painted by hand. Still later, doorstops were spray-painted on an assembly line.

Most foundries coated their door-stops after casting with a white, red, or black lacquer finish. Before being sold, the doorstops would be subcontracted to local women for painting as they saw fit. By the twentieth century, foundries began to specify colors for each design, although the pieces continued to be painted by hand. Still later, doorstops were spray-painted on an assembly line.

Today the most fertile hunting grounds for doorstops are midpriced antiques fairs on the East Coast, near the old foundries. Prices range from $100 to $600, depending on a piece's rarity and condition. Collectors look for silky-smooth precision casting with a high degree of relief and bright, original colors. Flower and animal shapes are plentiful, while cottages are a bit harder to find. Ironically, human figures, not much in demand when first produced, are now the most valuable, according to Jeanne Bertoia, a Vineland, New Jersey, dealer and author of "Doorstops: Identification and Values" (Collector Books). At the top of the line, Bertoia says, are a sheet-clad Halloween Girl, Whistling Jim, and Uncle Sam. Each can command $2,000 to $4,000.