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Tonics, cures a curiosity from bygone days

Deceptive advertising has been a problem for centuries. The "cures" of Victorian times were promoted with posters, trade cards, almanacs, recipe books, calendars and other testimonials.

One of the prominent makers of cures, remedies and hair and skin products was James C. Ayer & Co. From 1838 to 1841, Ayer worked in an apothecary shop in Connecticut. He learned the business and studied the Harvard College suggested curriculum for chemistry. He also studied medicine with a doctor. He bought the drugstore, sold his own remedies and eventually owned multiple stores, factories and other investments that made him a wealthy man. He died in 1878.

The business stayed in his family eight years, and then was sold to Sterling Products. One of his famous products was Ayer's Hair Vigor. It was advertised as a "coloring and dressing" for hair that prevents and cures hair loss and "restores gray hair to its natural vitality and color." Restoring was really dying, but this was just a tiny exaggeration compared with the claims for other Ayer's products. One said it restored your health after a malaria attack. Another promised a "youthful appearance." The colorful Ayer's bottles, posters and printed material with unusual graphics are popular with today's collectors.

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Q: In 1980 I paid $500 for a hand-carved and inlaid coffee table that was a floor sample in an interior design company's Cincinnati showroom. The name "John Widdicomb" is stamped on the underside of the tabletop. Can you tell me what the table's market value is today?

A: John Widdicomb Co. was in business in Grand Rapids, Mich., from 1897 until 2002, when the company closed and its name was sold to L. & J.G. Stickley Inc. of Manlius. Stickley now sells a "John Widdicomb Collection" of traditional pieces. John Widdicomb Co. was known for its high-end designs.. The simple mark "John Widdicomb" was used from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s. If your table is in good shape, it could sell for $500 or more.

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Q: I buy junk jewelry from thrift stores and usually take pieces apart to make my own designs. I don't want to take something apart that's valuable. How do I know if a piece is valuable?

A: What you find in a thrift store may indeed be junk. But it also could be vintage costume jewelry. First get a magnifying glass and check out the backs and clasps of any jewelry you find. Any piece with a mark should not be taken apart, at least not until you check who made it. Once you can make out the mark, check the Internet or books on costume jewelry to learn who used the mark. The Kovels have written two special reports on identifying good costume jewelry. They are available via the Store link at Kovels.com. Costume jewelry is very popular today, so you want to take care of any good pieces you find.

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