Antique · Learn With Me · Office and Writing · Vintage

Cleaning an Early 20th Century Stamp Box

So this little box is something I was given about 18 years back by a former lovahhh of mine whose family it had come from. At the time, I said something about polishing it up and my former gasped and told me ‘no way,’ and that the patina gave it charm. Because of that, I kept it this way for many years, but today I decided it was the day to find out how it looked shiny.

The first thing I did was search for the marking on the bottom, “GES GESCH”, figuring “Gesch” would be a maker name. (Spoiler: it was not the maker’s name.)

“Gesch”, as it turns out, is simply short for “gesetzlich geschutt“, meaning “legally protected” or “copyrighted” in German. Unfortunately, in searching for the word “gesch” alone, the results I was seeing included some less-than-savory WWII era items which were also stamped with the word, but after refining my search to “brass box ges gesch”, my results were way less creepy.

Since there were no other markings on the box, I couldn’t find a good way to narrow down who the maker was beyond that it was German and seeing that others like it existed.

The top rivets and the inner cubbies are so plainly similar to boxes with other top designs, I feel like it’s probably safe to say it’s an early 1900s Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts movement stamp box.

In case you don’t feel like skimming the Wiki article, it basically says that the Arts and Crafts movement was a pro-craftsmanship artsy products movement that was into blending simplicity and fable imagery. Neat!

With some identifying information gathered, I went on to look for cleaning tips. Some websites recommended cleaning brass with moderate acids from the pantry, like ketchup or a blend of vinegar, salt, and flour to make a paste. I thought that sounded reasonable to try and mixed some up and glopped it right on, thinking that metal was pretty tough and vinegar is a fairly mild acid, so it’d be no big deal. It said I should plan to leave the goop on 10 minutes, but I wanted to maybe keep some of the patina, so I figured I’d stick close by and watch it as it progressed, rather than set the timer and leave.

Holy crap.

It is a good thing I stayed there because I hadn’t so much as rinsed off my fingers and went to pull on the gloves like a good Safety Person when I saw the darkness had already melted off.

I right away felt the “oh crap,” feeling when I realised that the black patina had come off… and the metal had gone pink. Like coral, copper pink. I was looking at copper. And, right away, I realised my big mistake in not taking more time to research cleaning specifically antique brass, or the in depth stuff about cleaning. I had figured metal was metal was metal and now realised I didn’t even really know what brass was. Was it some kind of a thin plating over copper? Is it an alloy?

Like, shit. I should have done a little more reading first.

According to the intranetz and some forums (where people were getting really nerdy cool and talking about percentage concentrations in cleaning acids which I felt really crap for not reading before slinging vinegar on an antique,) I had most likely acided off the zinc from the brass and exposed copper so I would need to buff that down to bring back the brass. I also learned that cleaning brass was more complicated than “hey, you can throw some ketchup on it!!!1!”

For fixing the pink issue, there were recommendations of Brasso or Bar Keeper’s Friend. Since I had Bar Keeper’s Friend, I decided to try that with some super duper fine steel wool. What followed was not photographed because I was busy hunched over with a toothbrush and steel wool and my cleaning paste, watching and brushing and buffing like a hawk, rinsing frequently so I could stop the cleaning process and check for progress while I tried to not fuck it up again. Of course, I’d done a test patch first this time, and once I found it really was doing the trick, I was able to polish it up in about 10 or 15 minutes with minimal elbow grease.

The sun was going down by then, hence the change in lighting, but look at that bad boy. Mmmmm, hot dang. I felt like I’d captured myself some Dwemer loot, and this was especially pleasing because I desperately crave Dwemer loot. (Tho, now I have empathy for the folks who had to polish Tick Tock.)

I would pay to see Tick Tock on TikTok. (credit)

In the end, I was really glad to learn that this was a box for stamps, and that such a thing existed at all. I like to write letters, but have been keeping my stamps in my wallet like a boringface. I had never looked at the cubbies in this thing over all the years I’ve had it and thought “stamps?” but now I’m super stoked to load it up with stamps and start using it that way.

I mean, I already have a jewelry solution, and let’s face it, it’s not like this thing was holding many pieces as a jewelry box. This is much better.

The only problem is my desk is trashed with clutter at the moment from recent art projects and this thing is now so pretty that I feel like it deserves to be put out only once I’ve cleaned up my childish mess of dribbled glue and loose puffs of fine green foam. Time to tidy up!

At the recommendation of another website, I gave the box a very thin coating of mineral oil and buffed it in well to help with the shine and to protect the finish and it was looking choice as hell. I’m actually really, really glad that I polished it up. I do like patina and age on antiques and vintage things, personally, but you can really see what a beautiful item this was designed to be, all gleaming and golden. Super pretty.

In terms of modern household goods, I feel like this would be a pricey ass item if you saw it at a high end decor store, so I was lucky I got it for free. But I found some for sale on eBay if you want one for you! While ones that are still a bit shiny seem to range from $45-$125, I spotted a few with dark patinas like mine that were as low as $14. Hopefully there will be some good deals up whenever you’re looking!

In the end, I most definitely learned from all this that I will not be leaping into putting anything on any metal again until I’ve done a lot more initial research and I recommend the same to others. I think of metal as being pretty tough, but maybe with different kinds of metal, or metals of a certain age, it’s not worth the risk to do shoddy prelim research before applying acids and such and I’m glad I got lucky that I didn’t royally balls it up in the end.

For the ending of this entry, I’ll ask anyone who stops by to share if they still write letters by hand n…n If you’re here, say hello and lemme know!

XO,
Meander

4 thoughts on “Cleaning an Early 20th Century Stamp Box

  1. Oh wow this was so fun to read and see photos of. It got so shiny!! I also have never heard the word patina before this entry. Or I mean I probably have, probably in talking to you!, and just didn’t realize it! Lol Anyway that’s interesting to know about metals handling different acids very differently. I definitely don’t know how metals differ either in that way. I’m glad you were able to clean it up and can use it for actual stamps now! I do still write letters by hand. I have a pen pal who lives in England, so I write with her. 😊

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  2. This article was a delightful and most helpful find. My boyfriend stumbled this exact same box and me being the “I have to know everything about it” type especially if it looks interesting started to do some research. I stumbled across your article and I am so very glad I did. You took all the leg work out of what I typically would have done and helped me avoid making a ginormous mistake in cleaning it (I would have turned to my typical cleaner of vinegar& baking soda). I am sooo very glad I didn’t. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to research this beautiful box.

    And to answer your question, yes I do still hand write and mail letters. Sadly, I don’t have anyone to write to anymore since everyone has turned to the tech world. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love my technology and would be completely lost without it. However, certain things lose that “personal” touch ie thank you cards, most invitations, get well cards, sympathy cards etc when not hand written.

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    1. Hi, Kristal’s Mom, hope you and Kristal are doing well in all this mess that we’re going through! My reply is rather late (just pretend it arrived via snail mail.) I was hired into a very fast-paced full-time position and, like many, am not furloughed with lots of quarantine time on my hands. I was reminded to come back in and check on this blog.

      Some of my friends have taken up more letter writing. Maybe with the way things are so different right now, you might be able to convince a friend or family member to give it a try. We all need a couple extra things to make life feel a little happy and have little surprises now.

      Glad that you found something useful from this. I can’t say how much gratitude I’ve had for the blogs and such I’ve searched up when trying to find answers so I’m glad if I can contribute to that. Maybe if I can be a little more motivated, I have tons of other antiques and vintage items that need researching that can maybe be helpful to someone else as well : >

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