SPY COINS AND DITTY BOXES (October 29/99)

“Take a look at this,” the collector said, handing me a large penny. “See anything unusual about it?”

“That’s an 1856 Napolean 111 large penny,” the collector said when I shook my head and handed the coin back. “There were a lot of them minted, up until 1891 I think. They’re fairly common when it comes to collecting but this one is different.”

The collector palmed the penny and pressed down on it with his thumb. The top of the penny slid aside to reveal a tiny compartment. “It’s a spy coin,” the collector said. “French espionage agents carried them to pass messages back and forth. Write a note on a slip of paper, place it in the penny, and pass it to someone in a saloon. Who would know what had just happened?”

I was in the collector’s Kings County residence – he prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons – when he showed me the spy coin. I looked at it again; the coin was so finely machined I couldn’t tell that it came apart. Amazing! And this did this with 19th-century technology.

The collector put the coin away and handed me a small pine box that fit easily in the palm of my hand; the box was designed to look like a miniature book and there was some sort of pattern etched on its cover.

“This is dated 1910 or thereabouts and it was carved out a single block of wood. It has a sliding cover,” the collector said, demonstrating that the cover did indeed slide open. “Can you guess what it was used for?”

When I said that I was stumped again, the collector explained that it was a spruce gum box from the South Shore. Spruce gum was a backcountry treat a few generations ago – ask your grandparents – and when people collected it in the woods, they saved it in boxes that would easily fit into coat or trousers pocket. The boxes were made by hand and were finely crafted. The better-made boxes are rare today and are sought after by collectors.

I was handed another small wood box; this one was oval-shaped with a fitted cover that had some sort of design carved in it. “This is black ash and it was made entirely by hand,” the collector said. “It’s a ditty box.”

“I’ve never heard of them,” I said and the collector enlightened me.

Like spruce gum boxes, the ditty box was used to collect things; our great-grandparents placed them around the house, usually in kitchens and bedrooms, where they were used as catch-alls. Great-granny stored needles, thread, buttons, and so on in her ditty box, while great-grampy probably used his as a holder for anything that might take out of his pockets at the end of a working day.

Ditty boxes, especially all-wood, handcrafted specimens from the late 19th century are collectables. The better, more valuable ditty boxes often have designs carved into them with covers so precisely fitted you’d swear our great-grandpappys had laser technology.

“Micmac baskets are collectables,” said the collector, showing me one over a century old. “This was discovered in a basement in Wolfville,” he said, pointing out the designs on the basket made from porcupine quills.

“There’s a lot of history in your collection,” I said.

“Especially in this,” the collector said. He handed me a small bottle marked Seavey’s East India Liniment. A testimonial dated the bottle to the year 1888. The bottle may have been made right here in Kings County. According to the collector, there was once a bottle manufacturer operating on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, either at Hall’s Harbour or Scot’s Bay.

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