Question: I am searching for information about an unusual item purchased by my great-grandfather at a pawn shop during the 1950s. It is a mechanical bird on a branch in a 12 1/2-inch high brass cage with embossed base. The bird sings when a wind-up lever on the cage is pressed. A fancy label pasted on the item's box reads, "Charles Bontems 72 Rue Clery, Paris." Your reply is appreciated. - B.E., Margate
Answer: Classified as an automaton - a device that automatically performs predetermined actions by reacting to set mechanisms - your singing bird is one example of a wide range of novelty items, dolls and other toys produced from 1848 to 1914, known as "The Golden Age of Automata."
Created by Swiss, Ger-man and French master craftsmen, caged singing birds automated by clockwork movement systems were offered in a variety of models ranging from a single painted bird perched on a twig in a small brass cage to several songbirds with applied genuine plumage within a large gilded or precious metal cage embellished with enameled porcelain panels.
The Parisian company that made your piece was founded by Blaise Bontems (1814-1893) in 1849. Fore-most among makers of mechanical birds and animals, Bontems was famed for the quality and realism of his birds' songs and won numerous gold medals at European exhibitions. Fol-lowing his death, the Bon-tems factory was headed by son Charles and later a grandson until it was ac-quired by the Swiss firm Reuge in 1960.
Sought after by private collectors and museums, Bontems songbirds in perfect overall and working condition are prized an-tiques. Prices realized during the past decade range from as high as $17,000 for an elaborate model through $900 to $1,300 for multiple-bird examples and $425 to $750 for single-birds.
Question: I will appreciate anything you can tell me about a 7- by 5-inch booklet found in a box of old postcards bought at a yard sale. Its scalloped border is decorated with comedy and tragedy masks, ribbons, flowers, musical instruments, an open book and sheet music. "The Cushman Club for Women of the Dramatic Profession s.w. cor 12th and Locust Sts. Philadelphia" is printed on its cover and information about housing accommodations appears on inside pages. - S.W., Seaville
Answer: The booklet you have described appears to be one of the advertising brochures produced for the first lodging facility owned by Philadelphia's Charlotte Cushman Club. Established in 1907 by Lydia Ellicott Morris and a group of friends, the club's name honors America's internationally acclaimed actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) who portrayed more than 180 stage characters - both women and men - during her career.
Purchased and managed by the group in order to provide a safe, comfortable club-type facility where traveling actresses performing in Philadelphia were afforded respectable, inexpensive, convenient lodging, the location was moved to 1010 Spruce St. in 1920 and later to 239 Camac St.
Period advertising touted the residence's "sunny tasteful rooms," light suppers and Friday afternoon teas as well as an in-house library and collection of rare theatre memorabilia. Your brochure will interest theater buffs and Cushman collectors who pay $18 to $25 for examples in very good condition.
Alyce Hand Benham is an antiques broker, appraiser and estate-liquidation specialist. Send questions to: Alyce Benham, Life section, The Press of Atlantic City, 1000 W. Washington Ave., Pleasantville, N.J. 08232. Email:
Letters may be used in future columns but cannot be answered individually, and photos cannot be returned.