All in all, identifying a mill is a lot like identifying a bird, insect, or flower. Various combinations of shape, pattern, and size hopefully lead one to the correct identity. The field guide? The MacMillan Index of Antique Coffee Mills.
A recent addition to my coffee mill collection gave me the chance to put my brain to work. A few things immediately stand out. It is made of wood and is taller than it is wide with dovetailing at the corners. The handle is on the left side. The grinding handle has a wooden knob and a wing nut on the central shaft. The drawer that collects the grounds has a wooden knob, as well. A small metal panel (with signs of japanning) slides counterclockwise to allow access to the hopper on the top front right corner.
So, with all those seemingly disconnected clues, where does one begin?
Read the label.
If you compare my close-up of the label with the original mill photo, you can see that maybe 20% of the label is left. Oh, but there is some key info in the tattered mess. The large letter "P" is obvious. A small tidbit of a second letter is also apparent. Notice that is appears to have a pointed top with a slanted left side. The only letter in the alphabet that looks like that (assuming the entire word is written in the same font) is the letter "A". Notice, too, the "P" is the largest visible letter on the label. Also, if one assumes uniform spacing between letters, the name on the mill has to be a short one vs. a long one. If it was a longer name, the "P" would have to be more to the left to make room on the right, yes? That is just good ole fashioned advertising: make your name the biggest word on the label.
So what coffee mill manufacturer has a short name starting with "PA..."?
Parker. No doubt about it.
The following six letters can be seen on the second line: I-M-P-R-O-V. The vertical stem of a seventh letter is apparent, as well. If it is an "E", the word would clearly "Improved" or something of the sort.
The third line clearly starts with an "O" and what might be an "N". Not much to go on. We'll come back to that.
So, using the MacMillan Index, the Parker section starts on page 571. (Really. Remember, this is a book with over 1000 pages.) It should be a simple matter of page turning to find the match. But there was no match. A double check and a triple check turned up nothing. No exact matches.
So, what is close? With a ruler, I measured it out at 6 3/4" x 6 3/4" x 8 1/2". A perfect match for the No. 555 mill (pictured on left and taken from the Index). At least the size is anyway...
Lots of good matches here. The kink in the grinding handle with the wingnut and wooden knob. Check. A handle on left side. Check. The drawer with the wooden pull knob. Check. Dovetailing. Check. Remember the "O-N..." thing? Read the label here. It says "One Pound Mill" right on it. Check! The hopper access is a screw lid on the top front right corner.
Damn. I don't have a screw lid. I have a small panel that slides. So close, but it is not quite there. Also, the dovetailing is different. Mine has fewer "tails." For that matter, the label is different, too. There is no way, in a million years, one can turn what is left of my label to the label shown in the original advertisement.
Well, according to the Index, the seven different types of the "Victor" Wood Canister Mills were made from the late 1870's to the late 1920's, but the label design changed. Aha.
Remember that second line on the label that suggested "Improved"? I think what I have is an improved model (ie: later model) of the No. 555 mill. What was improved? The hopper access. My sliding panel won't come off. How long would it be before someone lost the the screw lid on the earlier models? The more parts that come off the mill, the better the chance they get lost. That is why is can be such a treat to find a mill with all its original parts. Things get lost (lids drawers, or wingnuts) or broken (knobs) and then replaced. What if the manufacturer did a version 2.0, so to speak, to fix a design flaw based on the user's repeated problems? Or, what if it was simply easier for them to make a slide lid instead of a screw lid?
I took a few minutes and did some checking online and found a guy who had the exact same mill. He was also a bit puzzled, but he came to the same conclusion. His is in much better shape, but someone refinished the wood. I am pretty sure that impacts the price of it as a collectible in a negative way. His metal is still nicely jappaned, too, but I still have parts of the label. So, whose is worth more? I have no idea. Knowing a bit about mills, I would think I could easily get $50 for it. Maybe twice that? I can't be sure. I hope to find out soon.
What did I pay for it? $20.o0 at a garage sale.
Saturday Night Addendum: I checked one of my coffee references. Apparently, the Parker No. 555 mill can go for prices ranging from $150 to $220. The upper part of the range would be for those that in good condition while the low range would be those in conditions that are less appealing. How common (or uncommon) a mill is would impact these figures too. So, assuming the low end of $150, my $20 purchase could be unloaded with a profit of over 700%. Ya gotta like that!
Now, if only my retirement funds would do that.......