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Backgrounds And Traditions



All thinking Americans who have had a number of preceding generations on American soil are now beginning to ask themselves a few pertinent questions. What was the daily life of our ancestors like? What did they think and why? What effect have their ways of living and their thoughts had upon us? If you have been following the literature produced by our younger novelists, I think that you will find among some of them a tendency to piece out the picture of America's past by showing us the social conditions under which people lived. They have described the household outfittings, the arts and crafts, the costumes, and the trivial details in the lives of our forebears because they are so closely interwoven with their thoughts and aspirations. I mention one book as an example, the novel, "Drums," by James Boyd, for it carefully interprets just what the War of the Revolution meant to the average young man of that period.

We can study the home life and the arts and crafts of our American ancestors in a number of ways. One is by visiting the various museums where the prized relics of their everyday life are assembled. To the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City come both the serious student and the casual visitor, interested in seeing an authentic picture of the home life of the past.

Many are the specialized books on different aspects of early Americana, and the amateur may find difficulty in selecting what he will read first. A logical plan is to start with something that particularly interests him, as old glass, clocks, hooked rugs, wall papers, lamps, costumes or furniture. One thing will lead to another, and he will find himself following the subject of "antiques" in its various phases.

If he wishes fully to understand the backgrounds of the past, the amateur antiquarian should investigate the journal of the man or woman who really lived in pioneer days. The families, the fevers, the heartaches, and the bravery in facing the wilderness and the Indians are better realized when he reads the "History of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford. No other chronicle presents such an interesting account of early colonial life as judge Samuel Sewell's "Diary," while the "Diary of Sally Wister" and "A New England Girlhood" by Lucy Larcom picture the thoughts and the ways of living of girls of two different periods, sections of the country, and social classes.

In looking over old records we find that writers of the middle of the eighteenth century were constantly preaching economy and the protection of native industries. One of them said,

"When you incline to have new clothes, look well over the old ones, and see if you cannot shift with them another year, either by scouring, mending, or even patching, if necessary. Remember, a patch on your coat, and money in your pocket, are better and more creditable, than a writ on your back, and no money to take it off. And when you must buy clothes, let them, I beseech you, be of the produce of your own country; they will keep you as warm, and perhaps last as long,as the best piece of cloth manufactured in Great Britain."

"Every man can remember back one hundred years," an elderly man once told me.

When I evinced surprise at this statement, he smiled and explained.

"He remembers the incidents of his own life, and what his father and grandfather have told him, and often knows what his great-grandfather has related to them."

The stories told by old people have great value to the antiquarian. In "The Grandmothers," the Harper Prize Winning Novel for 1927, Glenway Wescott has brought out an important fact in this connection. He says, "For the memory of another is like a ship which one sees coming down a bay the hull and sails separating from the distance and from the outlying islands and capes charged with freight and cutting open the waves, addressing itself in increasingly clear outlines to the impatient eyes of the waterfront; which, before it reaches the shore, grows ghostly and sinks in the sea; and one has to wait for the tides to cast on the beach, fragment by fragment, the awaited cargo."

But patient waiting for this cargo will reveal valuable information of the past. The Folklore Committee of the New Hampshire State Federation of Women's Clubs recognizes the worth of such material and is busily promoting a project whereby local club committees are gathering stories from elderly people and are preserving them in writing. It is urging club women to mark their heirlooms of furniture, mirrors, glass, silhouettes, samplers, rugs, and other treasures with descriptive papers pasted or sewn on them in inconspicuous places.

Before we can fully understand old-time traditions we must know something of the types of people who settled along the Atlantic seaboard.

"But these forsooke a fruitful Land, stately Buildings, goodly Orchards, yea, deare Friends and neere Relations to go to a desart Wildernesse," Captain Edward Johnson quaintly proclaims.

Later, in 1788, an unknown writer under the name of Philanthropos laments the change of customs and desires of the people of his times from those of these first settlers.

"In the early settlements of the British colonies, most of the inhabitants were farmers," he says. "Their circumstances led them to be temperate and industrious friendly toward each other, and honest in common dealings. Their wants were consequently few; their pride was limited to a narrow sphere; and they had little occasion of expense. They were contented in a plain house with small windows; a bought coat was handed down from father to son; and the sweet belle of the parish stole the hearts of her neighbors, under the admirable dress of a grogram gown and a string of wax beads. The good clergymen led their flocks without much expense. If the common people could read the Bible and Bunyan's holy wars, they were sufficient adepts in divinity; and their principal need of arithmetic was to chalk, on the staircase or mantle tree, a day's labour or a pound of pork. The condition of the American states at this day affords a very different description. Every circumstance is wonderfully altered. The scene of ambition is opened genius is on the wing, and thousands of the independent Americans are remarkably anxious to vie with the gentry of Europe in the pleasures of government, equipage, and parade. The little village the cheap coat offices of captain and justice rough wagon pacing horse and breasted saddle and pillion no longer content them. Every state must have a bishop every town a lawyer and every parish two or three great surgeons and doctors. A dull Dutchman rides in his phaeton the judge's daughters wing in a coach and even poor cousin jenny, wife of an attorney, not worth two and six pence, sticks up her nose at black tea and brown sugar."

Human nature is the same all the world over, is it not?

"The northern colonists represented in general the middle class of English society, the trades-people rather than the gentle-folk," Katharine Lee Bates tells us. "Their memories were not of Tudor mansions embowered in park and beech groves, but of marketplace, mill, smithy, and all the busy life of a Lancashire or Yorkshire town."

Again she speaks of the life of the fifty New England villages "dotting the wilderness like candles in the dark."

"Rude enough at first sight were those primitive towns clusters of log cabins and frame buildings of the plainest sort gathered about the square, belfry topped meeting house. But the interior of these simple abodes testified to decent, provident goodmen and dames, who had shipped, from their well-to-do homes across the sea, store of linens and woolens, oaken chests, cunningly 'wrought' and panelled, brass candlesticks, clawfooted tables, spinning-wheels, and even, now and then, the new luxury of a chair, massive, polished, richly carven, with queer triangular seat-solid, self-respecting furniture that outwears the century."

There was a lack of skilled craftsmen among these pioneers, but, by necessity, they began to make in native woods the furniture they needed, copying their designs from the ponderous oaken pieces of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

Although many from the working-class settled in the southern states, a large proportion of the population was there composed of members of the English noble class who clung to their traditions and ways of living. Thus developed a country gentry, living upon large estates or plantations, who led a life of luxury and carried on an import trade with the mother country.

Lucy Lockwood Hazard tells us that the restoration of the Stuarts in Old England was reflected in a Cavalier aristocracy across the sea. "Land grants multiplied in size until it is said that the average well-to-do Virginian at the opening of the eighteenth century owned as much as three thousand acres. Slavery spread in direct ratio to the extension of land grants; the type of society was determined by the feudal character of the large slaveholding estate."

Here, along the river banks of Virginia and the Carolinas, developed the earliest attempts at formal architecture, and here, in the spacious rooms of the dwellings were placed the pieces of choice furniture, designed by master craftsmen, and imported from France and England.

The Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam and the German settlers of certain parts of Pennsylvania also brought their methods of living and their knowledge of arts and crafts to the localities where they settled. Some of the early houses built in northern New Jersey show what can be accomplished when the artisan makes use of the materials at hand. Local red sandstone, in both the rough and surfaced states, was employed in constructing buildings, following the general structural forms of the early Dutch settlers.

For convenience in classifying early Americana, it is customary to divide the time covered into periods. Roughly speaking, we call the years between the settlement of Jamestown and the year 1727 the Early Period, the years covering the reigns of the three Georges in England the Middle Period, and the time between 1776 and 1814 the Late Period. It must be remembered, however, that this definition is extremely elastic, and that one period frequently overlaps another. The first part of the Early Period was influenced by the traditions of Jacobean England, while the latter part was dominated by "Queen Anne" characteristics. The Middle Period was known in England as the Georgian Period, while the last years of the Late Period are often called the Empire Period.

During the first part of the eighteenth century a new influence was felt in Europe and England which, in turn, left its mark upon American decoration and furnishings. New trade routes were opened up with the East, and the rich embroideries and fabrics, the rare porcelains, the priceless lacquers, and the painted papers of the Orient were introduced into the western world.

This century brought increasing wealth to the colonies and more luxuries from Europe and England came across the sea. English craftsmen, too, saw a new opening for them and came to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, bringing the traditions of the great artisans of the times.

The War of the Revolution stopped the activities of American craftsmen for some years, but the years following found the republic fully alive to her new national and civic consciousness which made its imprint upon decoration and architecture. Of this I shall speak later. The handmade object, distinguished by its sincerity in craftsmanship, began to be superseded by the machine-turned object at the end of the first fourth of the nineteenth century. With it passed the beauty and simplicity of early American art.

"Was it, could it be, the blight of Napoleon's Empire that ruined the art of America as of all Europe?" asks Edward Stratton Holloway. "Or was it the introduction of machinery? Or was it failure of the sense of beauty in the eye of man? This I do not know. Certain it is that in man's soul it did not fade, for the other arts persisted still; but the flame of inspiration that for four hundred years had produced beauty in the household died, never since to be relighted."



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