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The Quest For The Old And Beautiful (Part 1 Of 2)

I suppose there are plenty of people-good Americans-who can stand for the first time in the old market-place in Boston and read the inscriptions on Faneuil Hall or the Old State House without a hint of an inward thrill. The thought uppermost in their minds is that these famous old buildings look remarkably like 'their portraits on picture post-cards. But I have yet to find the American, however practical-minded, who can hold in his hand his great-great-grandmother's Betty lamp, or sit in his great-grandfather's Windsor chair, without some slight sentiment.



The presence of these old relics of bygone days, reminders of the intimate home life of our forefathers, creates for most of us a sort of atmosphere that can be more easily recognized than described. It is easier for us to picture the pouring of candles into their molds than the gathering of the minutemen at Concord. The crackling of the back-log on the old fire-dogs is clearer in our ears than the ringing words of Samuel Adams. And to associate, day by day, with the household belongings of a past generation is a heart-warming and a heart-softening thing. Their influence is subtle, but it makes for joy and a chastened pride. It is good for us to set up our tabernacle among them.

Malign us as you will, we are a home-loving people, and the things of the home we understand. Our patriotism centers itself about our homes, and our reverence for the past around the hearthstones of our forebears.

Also we are for the most part descended from Europeans, and there is born within us a respect for antiquity. We have no Rhenish castles here; no Roman roads undulate over our hilltops. The oldest we have is just coming of age, but we are glad of that, and do our homage. Old houses and old gardens we love, and we come honestly by our sentiment.Take a trip through the James River country and you will feel it. Or go with me some summer's day to one of the many old New England villages which still bask comfortably in the sunshine of yesterday. The main street, with its noble elms and maples, is so generous in width, so comfortably expansive, that one hardly recognizes it as a street. Here and there are low-roofed white cottages with brass knockers and green blinds, nestling behind their lilac bushes and hollyhocks. Down by the town pump stands the white meetinghouse, with its austere spire pointing uncompromisingly heavenward. I heard Mark Twain call the New England village church a wooden box with a toothpick at one end. He had become enamoured with the mellower architecture of English abbeys, and I thought the less of him for it.

In one of the dooryards is a little white-haired old lady, busy among her hardy perennials. We ask her if she will show us her old china, and she leads the way with a smile. We seat ourselves in her rushbottomed chairs, with their black and yellow paint worn off in places. On a round pie-crust table she sets forth her treasures-the pewter porringer with its many dents, the Toby jug, the Lowestoft, and the Old Blue. See how lovingly she handles them, brushing off the dust as tenderly as one would smooth the brow of a sleeping child.

Ridiculous little old woman! Living here alone, part and parcel of an age before steam heat was invented or electric lights even dreamt of. Faded little old lady, whose ancient lace belongs somehow with the old mahogany and Sheffield plate. I see you smile, but I can see it is not a smile of contempt or of pity. Your city home was made beautiful by the most up-to-date decorator you could afford. You spent hundreds of dollars on "color schemes" and "vistas." Your Mission den cost more than this woman ever had to spend. Then why do you covet the old candlesticks on the wooden mantel? Why does your palm itch for the possession of her one magnificent Wedgwood vase? It is because they are real. They mean something. They possess atmosphere which age alone can give to old houses and old gardens. They are rich in associations; the little lady is rich. And not one of her treasures can all your money buy.

But be not discouraged.There are fine old things still to be had, in the shops, and here and there about the older parts of the country. And if I should meet you a year hence I doubt not I shall be shaking hands with a Collector.

Hobbies unquestionably have their usefulness, and collecting is a harmless hobby, whether it be postagestamps or orchids, Old Masters or cigar-bands. Your collector is usually an amiable person, sometimes a bore, but more often interesting. Too much enthusiasm is better than too little. And the collecting of antiques begets something not unlike learning.

I have met collectors of Chinese porcelain or medieval armor whose vast knowledge and whose possession of a thousand bits of interesting information have awed me. But it is not with these that I have to do; they are beyond me. If this book is to have any value, it will be to the amateur collector, to the beginner who wants to start right and to know how to learn. Or perhaps the reader is simply the possessor of a few heirlooms that he would like to know more about. Perhaps if you poke about in the garret of the old home you will find something of value. That will be a start, and if you never become a collector, you may at least become the proud possessor of a few old things that will add distinction to your home.

And so I shall confine myself to a consideration of such things as formed a part of the home life and household equipment of our American forefathers, either before the Revolution or immediately after it. As most of these things were imported from England or other countries, the information must contain something of their foreign manufacture, but there will be no attempt to cover the entire subject of old English china or silverware, for example. There are good books to be had on any of these subjects, if one cares to delve deeper. In the space of this article I can hope only to touch upon the more important classes of so-called Colonial antiques, and to consider only the most important facts concerning them. The beginner is sure to ask the questions: "How can I know an old piece?" "What are the essential features of it?" "How can I avoid being swindled?" "What is my old clock or my high-boy worth?" It is such questions that I shall endeavor to answer as specifically as seems practicable.

It is difficult to give any general advice about collecting; it is so largely a matter of taste. If you really mean to become a collector, and not merely a possessor, it is wisest to choose a somewhat limited field. To collect everything Colonial means to acquire a hodge-podge, unless you mean to stock a town museum. Also it is discouraging. The more you get the more you find there is to be gotten, and the farther you seem to be from a constantly receding goal. Decide what interests you most, and then tackle a subdivision of it. If it is old china, try specializing on Wedgwood or Staffordshire. Or confine yourself to old mirrors or old clocks. In this way you may in time be able to assemble a collection that will really be worth while as a collection, in which completeness and continuity are always desiderata.

The day has gone by when a casual drive through the country will be likely to result in precious finds. The old villages have been scoured by collectors and dealers, and people who have antiques to sell nowadays have a pretty clear idea of their value. Still, this is the pleasantest way to collect. Old-china hunting is the most delightful of sports. There is more of a flavor of adventure about it than in taking a car to a shop. And of course there is always the hope of finding the thing the others have overlooked, and a bargain's a bargain the world over.

The other way is to buy at the shops, and this requires considerable caution, not to say knowledge, for the ways of the antique dealer are proverbially dark. There 's a vast deal of faking in the business, and it 's a dangerous venture for the uninitiated. There are, on the other hand, honest dealers, who will not call a reproduction genuine, but will ask a fair price for whatever they sell. If you can find one in whom you can have entire confidence, you are indeed fortunate.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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