The remaining models were offered for sale, but interest was low. P T Barnum bought some for a proposed museum in Manhattan and a few went to regional museums. This only reduced the number by 2,000 and Government funds appreciated by less than $65.
The rest, poorly packed and protected, began a sad tour of various storage sites. For a time they rested in the cellars of the House of Representatives, stopped off for a few years in a deserted section of the District of Columbia Workhouse, and finally came to rest in an abandoned livery stable where they rotted away until 1925.
That year, following a series of embarrassing questions in Congress, another attempt was made to find a buyer.
Up stepped Sir Henry Wellcome, the English drug baron, who bought the entire collection — for an undisclosed sum — with the intention of opening a museum. The models were moved to a company warehouse in Tuckahoe, Wyoming.
Wellcome, a great philanthropist, first offered the Smithsonian the chance to take anything from the collection.
The Proof Is In The Label
WITH THE various dispersals of patent models over the years, it’s not surprising that there are still quite a few around.
On a recent three-week trip to the USA I saw over 20 authenticated models for sale at various antique outlets.
I say authenticated because this is vitally important. American antique dealers have a “system” for describing mechanical antiques. It goes something like this:
1. If it’s small, it’s a “tradesman’s sample”.
2. If it’s broken, it’s a “primitive”.
3. If it’s incomplete it’s a “prototype”.
4. If it’s small, broken and incomplete, it’s a “patent model”.
There is only one authentication for a true patent model and that is the original pink-ribboned tag that was affixed to it when the invention was accepted in the Patent Office.
Lack of such a label means, at best, that the model might be from the original patent collection.
Sure, a lot of labels went missing over the years and, when Gilbert and Peterssen sold such models, they included authentication notes that the item had come from the Patent Office collection.
Better than nothing, but not the real thing.
Fortunately, the head of textiles at the Smithsonian at the time was Frederick Lewton, a man greatly into the history of the sewing machine. He pulls out 700 machines but many remained for records of what is in which crate have in some cases disappeared. Again heirs of inventors are given the chance to claim models.
Wellcome died in 1936, his dream of a museum unrealised and his trustees offer the models for sale yet again. They are bought by a syndicate fronted by Broadway producer Crosby Gaige who aims to display them in the Rockefeller Center in New York.
He does show a small number but also sells of 700 to the organisers of the New York World’s Fair. Another 900 are bought by the University of Texas. The World’s Fair models are eventually re-sold to a Tuncliffe Fox who donated them to the Hagley Foundation in Wilmington, Delaware, where they remain today.
In 1940 Gaige sells out to a group of entrepreneurs calling itself “American Patent Models, Inc.” A complete floor of a skyscraper office building is rented and the long job of unpacking the models begun.
Various models go on display at department stores as a teaser for the museum that the syndicate is planning to open in New York City.
Laudable though the intention might be, the group runs short of funds and pressured by the skyscraper owners for rent, moved the collection to the Neptune Storage Company in New Rochelle. Problem was that there wasn’t enough money for this either and in 1941 the group is declared bankrupt.
At the public sale a Garrison, New York, auctioneer O Rundle Gilbert went for broke and bought the entire collection virtually sight unseen for by now most crates were unmarked and many records had been lost.
Gilbert paid $2,000 — sounds cheap even by 1941 standards until you add in the $11,000 storage charge owed to Neptune that came with the deal.
The big unpacking job started but soon Gilbert realised the enormity of the task and decided to sell off the first few hundred out of the crates to help pay for cataloguing those that remain. The models were sold at an auction organised by the Architectural League of New York.