J.H. of Santa Barbara owns a handled copper or brass tray passed down to her from her grandmother, who arrived in Portland, Ore., in the 1890s from Odessa in the Ukraine. I can only speculate on why J.H.'s grandmother chose Portland as her home in the New World. Perhaps she was one of the young Jews who founded New Odessa, created in 1883 between Roseburg and Ashland, settling a utopian community called "Am Olam." This was a communal, socialist group dedicated to farming who ran from turmoil in the Old Country.
The community of 50 disbanded in 1892. Many moved to Portland and began a tradition of the city being a center for Jewish immigrants on the West Coast. Southwest Portland welcomed immigrants, becoming the central hub of the Jewish community.
In 1901, the United States office of "Industrial Removal" endeavored to locate immigrants to other cities besides overpopulated New York; around 1,000 immigrants came to Portland, joining J.H.'s grandmother, who brought this tray with her. This is the only object J.H. has from her grandmother.
Ironically, the man behind her grandmother's own relocation to the New World has his picture stamped as a hallmark on the underside of the tray. The hallmark represents Tsar Alexander III (1845-94). Upon assuming the throne in 1881, Alexander enacted new laws restricting Jewish movement, leading to pogroms and anti-Semitic propaganda. Two million Jews fled the Russian empire between 1881 and 1910, and half of these fled to the U.S. This mark could be a factory mark, but as it has the profile head typical of the era's hallmarks, I'm using it to date the piece.
The hallmark on J.H.'s tray is an example of a new system of marking semi-precious metals, called the "Kokoshnik" mark, instigated in 1896 by Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918). These marks show a head in profile (dates can be ascertained by a left or right profile). J.H.'s shows Nicholas' father, Alexander, wearing the traditional head covering of the peasant, a "Kokoshnik," thus giving the hallmark its name.
I can date the hallmark to at least 1908 because the profile faces right. Perhaps J.H.'s grandmother was given the tray as gift to her from Russia after she arrived in the 1890s. However, as this is a lowly piece of tableware, and as common objects like this have no central database for historic hallmarking, it is highly possible the tray is older. Because the tray is made of the least valuable metal, these "common metal" hallmarks were less regulated than gold or silver marks. Dating these common objects is more difficult as the specific date "touch" (the appraiser's name for a single element of a hallmark) was not required.
Brass utensils were a common object from the Old World. Yet historic brass or copper antique Judaica is not valued simply for the metal content (as is silver) but for the memories of the struggle they invoke. Bringing a valued piece from the "old" table to the "new" was part of the immigrant experience.
Jews seeking refuge from poverty and tyranny fled from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Along with the clothes on their back, many immigrants carried the family samovar or Shabbat candlesticks. In many cases, the lowly pieces that made it to the New World are all families have to remind them of the old "shtetls" (small Jewish towns) of Eastern Europe, a piece of a home never to be seen again. These villages were caught in the turmoil of the Russo-Japanese War, World War I and the Russian Revolution, not to mention the "ethnic cleansing" of the late 19th century. Many families in the New World treasure these lowly pieces as part of a family tradition. They do not have to be valuable to be a real treasure.
J.H.'s tray is the base for a long-gone samovar. Samovar trays were oval with handles. The matching samovar of brass would have been topped by a matching little brass teapot. The height of samovar production in Russia was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although they were often made of iron, brass or copper, the best of them were constructed of bronze and highly decorated. I wonder where J.H.'s grandmother's family samovar ended up, as well as the little teapot.
J.H.'s tray is not valuable price-wise, appraised at $75, but the story of its journey and the reasons for its journey are invaluable. Amazing that the hallmark's pictured image, and the tray's precious history, are intertwined. Happy Hanukkah, J.H.!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter