Cast-iron doorstops: form outweighs function

This Halloween Girl doorstop, one of four known original examples by Littco Products of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, fetched $24,500 in March 2016 at Bertoia Auctions. Provenance: Jeanne Bertoia private collection.  Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Figural cast-iron doorstops are highly collectible and a prized decorative element today but their original function, when made nearly a century ago, was to keep doors open in a house.

In the years before air-conditioning was common, doors were kept open to allow air to flow through a home, especially on hot summer days.

Made of metal, usually brass, often with a flat hollow back suited to propping up a door, doorstops were made in a wide variety of forms, with figural examples especially popular. Leading American manufacturers included Hubley, Bradley & Hubbard, Judd Manufacturing Co., Littco, and Spenser & Sons. Among figural doorstops, there was a veritable menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, birds, giraffes, elephants, lions, rabbits and penguins. Among people, storybook characters (for example, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty), as well as elves, clowns, gnomes and cartoon characters, were well represented. Rarer still are character studies of general people in everyday situations or in their professions, as well as historical figures, with well-known examples including Uncle Sam, the Charleston Dancers and Harlequin. Not politically correct today, Black Americana doorstops were made in the early 1900s and included Mammy, Little Black Sambo and Black Minstrel Dandy. Period cast-iron doorstops are highly coveted today, as they are a time capsule from the past and often scarce, because many were lost to the scrap-iron drives during World War II.

In November 2006, a Halloween Girl doorstop — a whimsical example of a little girl dressed in a Halloween costume — achieved a world auction record price of $72,800 during a Bertoia Auctions sale in Vineland, N.J. The doorstop (above) is one of only four known examples and was widely considered the best of the grouping, owing to its fine condition. It also retained its original Littco manufacturer’s label. Littco Products made doorstops in its Littlestown, Pennsylvania, foundry from 1916 to the early 1940s.

A Bradley & Hubbard Whistling Jim doorstop earned $19,000 at Bertoia Auctions from Jeanne Bertoia’s collection in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Jeanne Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions and her late husband, Bill, were avid doorstop collectors for years. An expert on cast-iron doorstops, Jeanne has written several influential books and numerous articles on the subject. She also amassed a renowned collection of her own, which her auction house dispersed in several auctions over the last few years. She had one of the Halloween Girl examples, which brought $24,500 in March 2016.

Speaking of their collectibility, she said she personally began collecting “because [we] just enjoyed the whimsy of them. They are colorful and they depict the times.” Doorstops were mostly made in the 1920s and reached their peak of production in the 1930s, she said.

Doorstop collectors run the gamut from collecting by manufacturer brand or doorstop type (flower baskets only) or a period (Art Deco), as far ranging as animals or as specific as those who just collect birds.

Besides serving as a piece of history, doorstops sometimes also expressed political themes. One of the best-known examples is an Uncle Sam doorstop, made in the 1920s, that had “For the Open Door” inscribed on the base, which likely spoke to the purpose of a doorstop as well as alluding to America’s “Open Door Policy” concerning trade with China, established in 1899 but controversially amended in the 1920s when isolationism took hold here.

The best-known example of an Uncle Sam doorstop fetched $18,000 in March 2016 at Bertoia Auctions from Jeanne Bertoia’s collection. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among the top brands that collectors covet is Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Co., established in Meriden, Connecticut, in the late 1800s. “The quality of Bradley & Hubbard doorstops is the finest,” said Bertoia. “They’re very highly detailed. Some collectors even seek out Bradley & Hubbard doorstops that have rubber knobs in back of the pieces to protect scratching against a door.”

Hubley is another company that is widely collected. “They had a vast array of varied doorstops from animals to people to cottages,” Bertoia said.

John Hubley founded his company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1894 and while their products (from doorstops to toys and more) were mass-produced, they were painted by hand, making each an individual piece of art.

A rare Hubley giraffe doorstop brought $12,000 in April 2018 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Bertoia noted there are also collectors who covet the Spenser Art Deco pieces, made by I.S. Spencer’s Sons, in Guilford, Connecticut., founded in 1851 by Israel Stowe Spencer. Their doorstops, she said, were quite tall and thin and often double-sided instead of having a plain flat back. Highly desirable are the animals, especially the birds. A two-sided Spencer swan doorstop, 7 ⅞ by 13½ inches, made $3,000 at Bertoia’s April 2018 auction. A two-sided rooster doorstop marked “Spencer,” one of a series of four large doorstops having a base designed as a wedge on both sides to slide under the door, 13 ⅜ by 10 ⅞ inches, sold for $2,000.

Also quite desirable among Art Deco doorstops is a series created for Hubley by British illustrator Anne Harriet Fish. Bertoia sold in April 2018 one of Fish’s Bathing Beauties doorstops and a Parlor Maid example for $1,600 each. Of the series featuring six different doorstops that also including a soldier-footman and the Charleston Dancers, she said Hubley commissioned Fish to design them in different sizes. There are six different Art Deco forms, beautiful bathing beauties under an umbrella. “That series is very desirable today,” she said, “There is a lot of crossover appeal today with that series because people who like Art Deco may want to collect just that series and may not be doorstop collectors per se …”

Asked which are some of the most sought-after forms of doorstops, Bertoia said there is no easy answer. “It really depends. There are collectors who love the flower baskets and there is such an array that someone would collect with every type of flower imaginable and that makes a nice collection in itself,” she said. “Flower baskets are more affordable area of doorstops and there are dogs, every breed you can think of … Dogs are usually full-figured animals and there is such a variety to choose from.”

A rare Whimsical Dog doorstop by A.M. Greenblatt Studios sold for $13,000 in November 2013 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“There are people who collect just birds, animals or just children,” she said. “There are so many areas to collect if you want to create a certain theme. Most collectors just buy anything they truly love.”

Doorstops are so collectible that there are many reproduction pieces on the market as well as what are called “fantasy doorstops.” The latter are doorstops of new design that are made to resemble antique doorstops that never existed. “There are doorstops made in Taiwan and obviously recognized [as fake], however there are other doorstops that can fool a novice collector,” Bertoia said. “The most common telltale signs are in the casting, If the casting is very grainy, almost like a sandpaper feel to it, it’s generally a later casting or a repro.”

Jeanne Bertoia with a prized Hubley Popeye doorstop. Image courtesy of Jeanne Bertoia

“The best advice I can give is to buy from a reputable source, be it a dealer or auction house,” Bertoia said.  “And you must buy what you love.”

Click to visit Bertoia Auctions online. Enjoy all of Bertoia’s past auction catalogs, complete with prices realized, on LiveAuctioneers.

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