Collecting tokens of Scotland's romantic age
In rooms being furnished by top American decorators and designers, it is increasingly evident that old Scottish souvenir woodenware is a highly favored collectible and an erudite accent.
A tartan-ware visiting-card case provides a sophisticated touch when placed on a table covered with an antique paisley shawl; a group of mellow transfer-ware boxes, placed on a desk along with writing tools of the same ware, becomes an intriguing focal point.
Alert collectors have been avidly accumulating this souvenir-ware for a number of years - especially collectors with a Scottish heritage who value and delight in the historical significance of the pieces.
Souvenir-ware, which is made of sycamore wood, includes tartan-ware and transfer-ware. Tartan-ware has a covering of varnished plaid paper representing various clans. Sometimes it bears sepia-toned pictorial paper appliques of theatrical personages.
Transfer-ware (generally called Mauchline after the town in which it and tartan-ware were made) is frequently decorated with copper-engraved transfers associated with landmarks in various countries.
Although Scotland has been known for its finely crafted woodenware since the 18th century, souvenir-ware was not made there until the 19th century. It was produced by several companies, most notably by the Smith family at Mauchline (Ayrshire). The Smiths traded at Mauchline as early as 1825, under the name W. & A. Smith (''W'' for William and ''A'' for Andrew - the brothers who formed this partnership).
Precisely crafted and boasting a well-varnished, glassy surface, early pieces are superior to some tartan pieces produced around the turn of the century. The tartan and Mauchline ware found today usually dates from about 1880 to the early 1900s. (Production ceased in 1939.)
Both tartan and Mauchline are an outgrowth of Scotland's romantic age of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns and of the arrival of rail travel, which brought visitors to Scotland. Queen Victoria made a rail trip with Prince Albert to Scotland, and their fondness for Scotland contributed heavily to the sale of souvenirs for travelers who enjoyed ''taking something home'' after a visit.
Some collectors dedicate themselves to acquiring only Mauchline with transfers of American landmarks; other collectors specialize in finding tartan pieces with a specific family tartan (the name of the tartan is stamped in gold on each piece).
Such collecting is not as limited as might be assumed, as both tartan and Mauchline were made in numerous forms. The items often had diverse and often useful purposes, from egg timers to cake baskets and miniature chests of drawers.
At antiques shows and shops, tartan and Mauchline pieces have become sophisticated items to acquire. Current prices of them reflect this status. Very few tartan articles are available for less than $50. And collectors and decorators vie for an item such as a tartan tea caddy in good condition.
It is, however, fairly easy to find Mauchline knickknack boxes, which seem to have been issued in flock quantity during earlier years. Harder-to-find Mauchline - a letter rack, or pieces of unusual shapes - is today dictating its own prices.
Because Scottish souvenir woodenware was made in quantity and in such diverse forms as to appeal to many, it is not difficult to understand why it is intriguing to collect. And when displayed on a desk, table, or chest of drawers, it brings pleasant thoughts of heather, moors, and the skirl of the bagpipe.