Magic Lantern

Over the years, we’ve crossed paths with clients who have brought us many unusual and different pieces, such as spill vases, magic lanterns and signal cannons. These everyday household items from the past can be very intriguing and interesting to collectors and those who are curious about rare antiques.

A client recently brought in a purple and white streaked glass vase that belonged to her grandmother. We referred to it as a spill vase, which is a term she said she had only heard her grandmother use. 

A spill vase was used in the mid-19th century to hold rolled paper and skinny wood sticks used to transfer fire from the fireplace to candles, lamps or a gentleman’s cigar. It was usually kept on the mantel.

Another item of interest a client brought us was a 15-pound cast-iron cannon with cannonballs, fuses and black powder. It was owned by an older gentleman who said it had been in his family for over 175 years. To his surprise, it was a replica of a York Cannon from the American Revolutionary War and was known as a signal cannon. 

This type of cannon was used aboard ships and in battle to make salutes, warn of danger and signal when military action began. Companies made many replicas during the 1970s that were used for home décor or as cigarette lighters. If you ever find an original one, don’t be tempted to fire the thing, as it was known to have been a danger to fingers and thumbs.

We also came across a contraption known as a magic lantern. This item was invented in the 16th century and became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earlier device was made of tin or sheet iron and had a single adjustable scope with a kerosene lantern that reflected light through a glass-etched slide. People used it to project images on a wall. 

It was a marketing success, with many different mass-produced glass slides used in churches, theatres and schools. 

Many homes have antique items like a “sad iron,” a red-handled wooden kitchen utensil, a shopper’s scale, kerosene lamps or vintage furniture. Clients often ask us if those items are collectibles. Our answer is “yes” for everything since objects in the collecting world are constantly changing. 

If it is out of fashion today, wait long enough, and it will be back and worth big bucks again.

– Contact Tom Helms at or A-Z Appraisal & Estate Consultants; 5525 N. 12th St., Phoenix, AZ. 85014; email