The Story of Brass

Mellow Yellow

By J M Poole

My particular association with brass objects goes back to my childhood when horse brasses were very popular in farming households, and as in my best friends house the fire place was surrounded with brass objects. Brass bellows and coal scuttles were popular at a time when most homes had an open fire, I remember well a large brass fender at my granny's. A brass monkey paperweight was a source of fascination as a child with the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' actions of the monkeys a reminder of a strict Catholic upbringing. Nowadays a lovely elephant from India and a cocktail-stick holder in the shape of a cat from Egypt are my own brass souvenirs. This is not strange considering that both these countries have a strong history of brass making. Indian brass is renowned the world over with most objects coming from Pembarti, a small village in Andhra Pradesh known for its brass work. Sheets of brass are transformed into marvellous objects of art, all done by hand. Apart from sheet work, the craftsmen of Pembarti are proficient in another skill - that of lost wax casting. This ancient art is found all over the world, but India has an unbroken tradition since very early times as witnessed by the exquisite figurines found in excavations of the Indus valley. Egypt contains vast copper mines (a constituent of brass) where the metal was extracted under dreadful conditions. A slag heap in the Sinai desert has been estimated to contain 100,000 tons of dross which would have meant a yield of about 5,500 tons of copper.
There is some evidence for 'Natural Brass' - Pliny implied that brass (aurichalcum) had once been produced naturally from a special ore found on Cyprus, but that source has since been exhausted. Early brass was probably made while attempting to make bronze which has been around since 5-6,000 BC. Tin (the raw material in bronze) and zinc ore deposits are sometimes found together, and the two materials have similar properties. Early copper-zinc alloys are known in small numbers from 3rd millennium BC sites in the Aegean, Iraq and Georgia and from 2nd millennium BC in West India, Iran and Palestine. However isolated examples are known from China as early as the 5th Millennium BC. By about 20BC-20AD metalworkers around the Mediterranean Sea were able to make brass coins. Calamine brass was this first type of brass produced by an alloying technique using calamine (a mineral ore) directly rather than first refining it to metallic zinc. Early Metallurgists used a difficult smelting process of heating a mixture of copper and calamine to a high temperature for several hours allowing the zinc vapour to distil from the ores and permeate the metallic copper. This made it difficult to accurately produce the desired final proportion of copper to zinc. This process is known as cementation. There is good archaeological evidence for this process as the crucibles used in the production have been found on Roman sites in Germany, France and Britain. They vary from the size of an acorn to much larger vessels but all have elevated levels of zinc in the interior and are lidded, many having small holes in the lids to release pressure or to add additional zinc. Calamine takes its name from La Calamine in Belgium which was the source of much medieval brass in Northern Europe. Brass production was introduced to England in 1587 when a licence was obtained to build a brass works at Isleworth. After the passing of the 'Mining Royal Act' in 1689 further works were built near Bristol and then Birmingham. In his Presidential address delivered to the Birmingham Metallurgical society, Oct 27th 1960, L.G. Beresford B.Sc., F.I.M. said "Brass can be defined in 3 ways. Universal as applied to the alloys of copper and zinc, parochial in the sense of 'where there's muck, there's brass' and national in its meaning of impudence". There is a comprehensive history of British brass making at the website ''.
More recently speltering has replaced cementation. It seems to have developed on the Indian subcontinent with detailed description of the process surviving from AD1000. Superior brass is made using this technique. The colour of brass varies from a dark reddish brown to a light silvery yellow depending on the amount of zinc present. The more zinc the lighter the colour. Brass is stronger and harder than copper but not as strong or hard as steel. It is easy to form into various shapes, a good conductor of heat and generally resistant to corrosion from salt water. Because of these properties brass is used to make pipes, screws, radiators, musical instruments, and shipping instruments.
Ok, let’s get down to "brass tacks", this being Cockney rhyming slang for "the facts". The origin of the phrase is likely to be a reference to the two brass tacks on a shopkeeper's counter for measuring a yard of material.
A small example of the many different sorts of brass:
Nordic Gold, which is used in 10, 20, and 50 cent euro coins, contains 89% copper, 5% aluminium, 5% zinc and 1% tin.
Alpha brass, with less than 35% zinc is malleable and can be worked cold and is used for pressing and forging.
Beta brass, with 45%-50% zinc content can only be worked hot and is harder and stronger and suitable for casting.

So we know that brass has been made for a long time and there are many brass antiquities to be found in museums all over the world to prove it, but it is brass antiques that we are interested in, 17thC brass candlesticks are definitely worth looking out for, an English trumpet style with a wide dome base and sausage turned shaft can fetch up to £3,000. A lovely Art Deco miniature elephant paperweight in brass sold on eBay recently for £100 - how nice would it be to have a boxful of those!! Now both Art Nouveau with its floral and organic motifs and Art Deco's architectural and industrial designs lend themselves nicely to brass work, and you can find decorative items for your house such as gorgeous desk/table lamps and brass beds in both these styles. Tiffany is one of the names you should look out for, although how to tell an original Tiffany lamp takes time to learn: you have to consider the pattern, how the glass looks, how the lamp is constructed, the casting of the all important base, as well as its finish. If you want one of these it would be worth buying a non-working model and having it restored. Another name to look out for is JS & S Joseph Sankey who was a big producer of what he called "Art Metalware". Sankey operated around the turn of the 20th century and the firm used 3 trademarks; the sphinx, the figure of Neptune and the letter S in a diamond pattern, but the commonest form of marking seems to have been variations of the letters JS & S or JS & SB. It is possible the B stands for Bilston, Wolverhampton, where the firm was located. Their hot water jugs were very popular and there are plenty about. They came in 4 different finishes in a range of metals in at least 5 different sizes - you can see why they are collectable!! They have a whole range of designs for the home from chamber candlesticks to tea caddies, so look out for these in hammered, art nouveau, lizard skin and plain finishes. Check out for more info.
As with all good quality items reproductions are common, often using lost wax casting to achieve the finest detail. Antique brassware is a beautiful shade of golden yellow; it never turns red when it becomes tarnished as do newer pieces. It has a soft patina, as does old silver, which acquires beauty with age. So let’s keep a sense of style, design and quality when choosing brass pieces to start or add to our collection.
People love instruments whether they are for measuring, weighing, calculating or indeed for making music. Weights have been fashioned in the shape of animals from brass for millennia and in more recent times many devices have been designed to aid calculations in shipping and farming, astronomy and time keeping etc. For example the chondrometer was invented for weighing grain. This device has a bucket which holds an exact amount of grain which is calculated by moving the weight slider. There are any amount of accoutrements in regular, lacquered and gilt brass such as microscopes, kaleidoscopes, telescopes, theodolites, barographs, sundials and magic lanterns to mention but a few. These make interesting pieces in the modern home where often a minimalist style is juxtaposed with items from our past.
Other areas of interest are brass beds, bells and horse brass. Brass beds can look enchanting in the right setting - they definitely have an old world charm about them - and they take up very little room compared with conventional beds. There are many companies that supply already restored beds or they will clean, polish and lacquer your old one which has been lying in the shed for years and turn it into an heirloom for future generations. Along with brass wall lights and sconces they can turn an ordinary bedroom into something special.
Ships bells and all shipping instruments (where brass is the metal of choice due to its non corrosive qualities) are very collectable. The final word goes to horse brass which has a society all to itself - The National Horse Brass Society of England - was formed "to cater for persons interested in harness decorations for the heavy horse". Go to their website to read a very interesting article on fake brass pieces which contains excellent information for anyone thinking of buying brass items of any kind.

J M Poole 28/02/11

The copyright on this document is the property of J M Poole and Antiques United ©
Created at: 2011-03-06 17:32:36
Updated at: 2011-03-06 17:34:07