A Bullish Look at Bull Collectibles

By Robert Reed
Bull 1Historians will tell you that the bull was a sign of good economic news even back in the 18th century. The unanswered question really is why it was so.

Dealers on the London Stock Exchange were called bulls if they though the value of stocks and bonds would be rising. They believed stocks and bonds they had immediately acquired would eventually climb to a higher price in the future.

One theory is the bull was selected as a term for a positive market because of the typical upward tossing of its horns. Another thought was that the bull-represented strength and power moving forward seemingly unrestrained.

At any rate a fondness for the bull symbol soon spread to Colonial America. The familiar bull became a standard for trade and tavern signs during the latter part of the 18th century. While many potential customers were not educated enough to read, they certainly could understand the meaning of such signs.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has a tavern sign depicting a bull, which was likely, crafted in the 1790s. It marked the operation of Captain Aaron Bissell’s friendly tavern. Gallery experts suggest the choice of a bull’ s head, “probably reflected his pride in the successful endeavors of the family through the years.” Later a name was added when the place changed ownership.

Laws in much of Colonial America at the time required that establishments offering food and lodging to provide a public sign, and there are indications that the bull was used in a number of places.

At the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Colonial Williamsburg there are carved wooden toys depicting bulls, cows, and other animals. The figures were likely crafted and painted by skilled but untrained folk artists around the 1850s and range from six to 10 inches in length. Later in the century a few folk artists, such as Wilhelm Scheme scratched out a meager living hand-carving animals from wood. Scheme mostly made birds and dogs, but on occasion he also crafted farm animals including cows and bulls which he sold in his wanderings for a few cents or traded them for food and drink.

Back in England potters of the latter 19th century sometimes fashion striking ceramic figures of bulls and applied delicate paints and completed the works with fine glazes. Today some of the works of Wedgwood potters and other British craftsmen of that period are highly prized.

Bull 2From the 1870s through the 1890s and perhaps even longer, the bull became a major symbol on American weathervanes.

To those who may wonder why the popularity of a bull’ s image on the equally popular weathervane, an explanation is offered by William Ketchum Jr. in the book All American Folk Arts and Crafts:

“A simple board swinging freely in the wind would have been sufficient, but few farmers were content with that. The farmer carved his weathervane from wood or shaped it from metal or purchased as an elaborate vane as he could afford. The shape of the weathervane the farmer made or bought was often related to the type of farm he ran. Most farm families had a few cows, and the cow, steer, or bull was a frequently seen type of weathervane.”

Homemade weathervanes were typical made of wood or sheet iron and then painted in bright colors. As a rule they did not withstand the elements of harsh weather as well as the store-bought versions and were subject to frequent repairs.

Farmers could on the other hand, purchase factory made weathervanes depicting a cow or bull. The cost was $20 to $40, which was a very substantial sum down on the farm in the latter 19th century. More elaborate over-sized bull weathervanes – some up to four feet wide – made in the New York factories of J. W. Finke of E. G. Washburn with shining gilded metal trimmings might well sell for twice the regular amount.

From a commercial product standpoint the most famous bull of the 19th century was one that sold smoking tobacco to millions.

During the Civil War enterprising John Ruffin Green of Durham’s Station, North Carolina began selling “bright tobacco” to soldiers and others. The product was packages in small cloth bags, and by 1868 the image of a bull became a part of the packaging and the tobacco’s name fully became Bull Durham.

Dr. Gerald Petrone, author of the book Tobacco Advertising, The Great Seduction suggests Green may have copied the idea from a British trademark for mustard. Others offer it was simply a masculine image designed to appeal to a rugged male market.

Regardless, “the popularity of the bull gave impetus to the growing national trend for smoking tobacco and using hand-rolled cigarettes,” concludes Dr. Petrone.
By the 1880s Green’s massive efforts at promotion and marketing had paid off. The workforce had grown from 10 in 1865 to more than 800 in 1885. Bull Durham, with its bull image on everything from posters to watch fobs, was the world’s best-selling tobacco.

Bull Durham continued to be a popular selling product well into the 20th century. Today collectors remain fascinated with the wealth of advertising memorabilia once offered in the name of Bull Durham from trade cards to trolley signs.

Bull 3Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century the bull image was again a popular symbol of American farms, this time as a windmill weight. Firms like the Fairbury Windmill Weight Company and the Simpson Windmill and Machine Company, both located in Nebraska, made great numbers of bull-image cast-iron weights. Typically they were painted bright red or silver and mounted on a rectangular base. They often ranged in size from 18 to 24 inches, not counting the base.

The bull left the farm for the carnival midway in the years that followed.
Supply catalogs of the 1930s and 1940s offered the likes of chalkware and plush “jumbo comical bulls” in bright colors. The plaster images could be standing or seated and be nine to 12 inches in length. Cloth stuff bulls were slightly larger, around 15 inches with black or orange colored bodies.

In 1949 the Heisey Glass Company issued a four-inch tall, seven-inch long crystal glass bull. Production of the glass bull continued over the next few years. The clear-looking glass item was marked underneath near the base. Elsewhere in the early 1950s, American Bisque produced a friendly looking bull cookie jar. The unmarked bull, in two different versions, was part of the company’s Hands-in-the-Pocket series that included other animals as well.

Bull 4 (use this)Breyer Animal Creations began operations in the 1950s by producing and marketing toy versions of Western horses. Eventually the unique operation expanded to include dogs, cats, and farm animals such as the bull. Over the next few decades bull issues included the Black Angus, Polled Hereford, and the Texas Longhorn Bull.

Today many forms of bulls of the past remain attractive and collectible.
That original Heisey Glass Company bull of the late 1940 and early 1950s may well command a price of more than $2,000 presently. As noted in the comprehensive volume Glass Animals by Dick and Pat Spencer, a lavender ice colored version was issued by Heisey Collectors of America many years later as a limited edition tribute to the original piece.

Meanwhile original bull weathervanes that have survived the ages in proud condition can bring $3,000 or more at leading auction houses today proving the bull is back with collectors. If indeed it was ever gone.

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