Smalls are not only an economical area of collecting, but they bridge other areas of interest in material, period and theme.
If you settle on diminutive objects, there’s also the joy that everywhere you go — here or abroad — becomes an energising hunt for an old piece you can pop in your case and bring home.
Choose to collect corkscrews and you can dub yourself with the tipsy title of being a helixophile.
Corkscrews carry a whiff of the ‘ancient evenings and distant music’ during which they settled in other human hands.
Then as now, uncorking a good wine in good style presented a challenge, and it was a feat of engineering that seized the imagination of amateur designers and manufacturers in England, Holland and the Americas.
Corkscrews with their twisted ‘worm’ or helix, appeared in the late 17th century, and were intended to handle the tight cork in the bottle’s neck that superseded the loose stopper used in wine and alcohol bottles.
The design was taken directly from the field of sports and battle, where ‘worms’ were used to take unspent explosive charge from the barrel of a musket on a long pole.
The early examples of screws were straightforward T-shaped steel pulls, twisted into the cork, and you can still find beautiful Georgian examples with bone, wood and mother-of-pearl handles dating from the mid to late 1700s.
Pulling straight up, centering and muscle were really all you had. Not surprisingly this could lead to a gymnastic collapse over the dining table and good deal of inhospitable swearing by the guttering candlelight.
The first mechanical corkscrew patent we know about was given to a clergyman , oddly enough — the Rev Samuell Henshall with a parish in Oxford in 1775.
His pull had the extra detailing of a push mechanism intended to overcome the annoyance of pulling a worm straight up through a damp cork — helping to deftly dislodge the cork from its seal against the bottle.
It had a small button, which stopped the user from driving the screw too deep into the cork.
A quarter of a century later in 1802 Sir Edward Thomason introduced a male/female screw and thread style corkscrew, with a bell or cage to steady the operation over the neck of the bottle.
It’s easy to use with a simple clockwise turn and one long stroke rather than a yank and it’s a design which has remained largely unchanged to the present day.
Thomason’s factory operated for over 80 years introducing up to 100 designs. Look out for the stamp NE PLUS ULTRA (cannot be bettered) on a genuine example.
Other 19th century makers in England, Europe and the United States played around with double helixes, claws, side winders and clutches to grasp the bottle and ease the slide of the cork from the neck.
Some forms just pushed directly into the bottle with direct-pressure, and prongs could lift a cork out and allow the bottle to be resealed after tasting.
Lever corkscrews, single or doubles, again increase the elegance of the operation of removing a cork by reducing the amount of physical pressure needed, and the older ones d ate largely from around 1850-1900.
The angel, with its rack and pinion design and two levers arrived in the 1930s.
The levers rise as the worm goes into the bottle, and when confidently depressed, it delivers an elegant slide, and remains popular in bars, restaurants and homes the world over.
With side-winders, two pronged butlers’ friends, teeth and clutches, helixophiles are — how can I put this delicately — a bit- blokey in their interest in tiny mechanics.
Be prepared for some enthusiastic chat from other collectors on the intricate workings of lever arms and sliding frames, sweat made patina and the crucial importance of functionality.
Most collectors proudly used their pieces at the table, regarding modern pulls with utter contempt.
The Cotterill CS c.1842 is highly recommended by dedicated helixophiles uncorking their red and white beauties to an adoring audience.
Boot sales, second hand shops and the charity stores can all offer up unusual screws that have wound down the decades, and most, due to the robust materials afforded to most screws, are in perfect working order.
Look for a maker’s mark, as this adds value to the piece unless it has an especially good working mechanism.
Don’t over-clean old pieces before you have attempted to research their maker and date, as screws like firearms can be reduced in value with the removal of their precious patina.
There are several reputable high profile dealers online who have turned to retailing, in part, to feed their own lust for gaps in their collection, and to inform and steer newcomers in the right direction when buying and selling.
Excruciating detail from the gauge of the wire used for the work — to the solder used to join the edges of cages; silver marks and more — this is an intoxicating affordable area of collecting.