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The Romance Of Collecting AntiquesBy Edwin Valentine Mitchell
( Orginally published 1950 )
Collecting antiques, as we understand it today, is a relatively new thing. It began at the time of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of American independence in 1876. On May I 11th of that year the Centennial Exhibition was opened at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia by President Grant. The Emperor of Brazil was present and the exercises included the playing of the "Centennial March," composed by Richard Wagner, the singing of the "Centennial Hymn," written by John Greenleaf Whittier, and a cantata by Sidney Lanier. By the time the Exhibition closed in November, upwards of nine million people, or some six million more than were in the original thirteen colonies at the time of the Revolution, had visited it. It was an international affair, but the displays of American historical relics and the industrial exhibits showing our material progress stimulated national pride and awakened interest in the past.
There were local observances of the anniversary everywhere, and many towns which had never had their history written were inspired to have it done. This was fortunate from the point of view of the present-day collector, as it is to these parochial volumes that one must occasionally resort to find out about the makers of antiques. If, for example, you should acquire a grandfather clock by a maker who is merely listed in a catalogue of craftsmen, you may, by consulting the history of the town where he worked, sometimes learn particulars concerning him which add to the interest of owning one of his timepieces.
Recently a relative of mine became the owner of a tall clock with the name of Frederic Wingate of Augusta, Maine, etched on the dial. A fine example, it seemed worth while to try to find out something about the maker and an old history of Augusta yielded an interesting story. Briefly, Frederic Wingate migrated from Haverhill, Massachusetts, to Augusta in 1 804. He was then twenty-three years old, a full-fledged maker of brass-movement clocks just out of his apprenticeship. Clocks were not common in Maine then, and the arrival of one in a neighborhood was something of an event. People from all around came to see it.
A clockmaker named Nathaniel Hamlen had been making tall-case clocks with wooden movements in Augusta, some of which he sold without cases as wagson-the-wall, but brass clocks were rarely seen. General Henry Sewall bought one in Boston, which he hired Hamlen to set up. The room in which it was placed was so low that a hole had to be cut in the ceiling to receive the top ornaments. Afterward, says the Augusta historian, as clocks multiplied, it was not unusual when houses were built to provide a recess in the ceiling to accommodate their towering heads.
During his long career Wingate made many clocks for the settlers up and down the Kennebec River. His first sale was to Ezekiel Page. Page wanted a clock, but hesitated to order one, as he did not know how to take care of it. Wingate told Mr. Page that if he would buy a clock from him, he would call once a week to wind it and teach the family how to take care of it. Accordingly, the order was given and in due time the clock was installed in the Page home and Wingate commenced his weekly visits. These became more frequent when the young clockmaker began instructing Mr. Page's daughter Hannah in the mystery of caring for the clock. The clock kept perfect time, but the youth said that as it was his first one he liked to drop in often to see that it was running properly. Hannah began to look forward to his visits. She loved the clock and presently found that she loved its maker too. And on January 12, 1 806, the clockmaker and his pupil were married and lived together happily for nearly sixty years. She died on March 8, 1864, aged seventy-nine, and he survived her only a few months. He was eighty-three when he died, on November 1 6th of that same year. His first clock brought Frederic Wingate his wife, and in reviewing his long life and the many transactions and bargains he had entered into, he was fond of saying that the first one was the best he ever made.
In looking through old town histories one's curiosity is often aroused by coming across a paragraph like the following from the history of the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, a book written and published as a direct result of the Centennial.
Pliny Slocumb was one of the assessors in this town. He was a Freemason, belonged to the Sutton Lyceum, and was skilled in debate. He was an artist, an ornamental painter, and one of the fastest workmen to be found. His sleighs, chairs, cradles, settees, etc., were much sought after for their fanciful ornamentation. One of his sons, too, was an artist, and painted a panorama, with which he traveled. Mr. Slocumb gave some attention to fruit growing, and made choice wines, on which he realized a handsome profit.
Entries of that kind about an artist or craftsman often serve as clues to the workmanship of pieces found in a particular locality.
The first antique collectors in the modern sense were New Englanders. One of the great pioneers was Dr. Irving W. Lyon of Hartford, Connecticut, whose book, The Colonial Furniture o f New England, published in 1891, is still one of the best books on the subject. He began in 1877 to collect furniture in and around Hartford, a region rich at that time in the carved oaken woodwork of the seventeenth century. There were then a few others quietly engaged in the same pursuit and the number of collectors gradually increased in other parts of New England.
There had been some public interest in the things of the past long before this, but it was confined chiefly to historical relics, and not much attention was given to old survivals as examples of American craftsmanship or expressions of folk art. There were museums with collections in the early years of the nineteenth century, mostly in seaport towns, the exhibits consisting principally of foreign curiosities fetched from far places by Yankee seafarers. Innkeepers and shopkeepers sometimes had collections to attract trade. James Russell Lowell has left a pleasant picture of the barbershop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he used to patronize in the days of his youth when that city was a village. It was like an old curiosity shop, and the boy who was to be shorn was invariably accompanied to the sacrifice by his friends, who were thus enabled to view the collection free.
The sunny little room, fronting south-west upon the Common, rang with canaries and Java sparrows, nor were the familiar notes of robin, thrush, and bobolink wanting. A large white cockatoo harangued vaguely, at intervals, in what we believed to be the Hottentot language.... The walls were covered with curious old Dutch prints, beaks of albatross and penguins, and whales' teeth fantastically engraved. There was Frederick the Great, with head drooping plottingly, and keen side-long glance from under the three-cornered hat. There hung Buonaparte, too, the long-haired, haggard general of Italy, his eyes sombre with prefigured destiny; and there was his island grave;-the dream and the fulfillment. Good store of sea-fights there was also; above all, Paul Jones in the Bonhomme Richard: the smoke rolling courteously to leeward, that we might see him dealing thunderous wreck to the two hostile vessels, each twice as large as his own, and the reality of the scene corroborated by streaks of red paint leaping from the mouth of every gun. Suspended over the fireplace, with the curlingtongs, were an Indian bow and arrows, and in the corners of the room stood New Zealand paddles and war-clubs, quaintly carved. The model of a ship in glass we variously estimated to be worth from a hundred to a thousand dollars.... Among these wonders, the only suspicious one was an Indian tomahawk, which had too much the peaceful look of a shinglinghatchet. Did any rarity enter the town, it gravitated naturally to these walls, to the very nail that waited to receive it, and where, the day after its accession, it seemed to have hung a lifetime.
Significant of the interest in antiques which began to flower shortly after the Centennial was the publication in 1881 of a long poem by Mary D. Brine called "Grandma's Attic Treasures." With its numerous wood engravings, it became a popular gift book which sold well for years. It tells of the new fad for antiques and how a couple of slick city dealers call at the old homestead and pay Grandma fifty dollars for the "rubbidge" in her attic and for furniture in other parts of the house. She is pleased to make the sale, because it enables her to buy a new bonnet and shawl and her husband to buy a new "cow-critter." She thinks the men are lunatics to buy her outmoded things, but presently she begins to miss some of her old possessions, particularly a small table, which the illustrations show to have been a gateleg. She goes to visit her granddaughter in the city, who has an elegant town house stuffed with Victorian atrocities. Amid the flowered carpets, the sculptured figures on marble pedestals, the potted plants in jardinieres, the ornate furniture, and the terrific chandeliers, Grandma spots a simple old table that looks out of place in such opulent surroundings. Examining it more closely, she discovers that it is her own dear old table. Her granddaughter explains that the new fashion is for old fashioned things, for antiques that are as old as the hills, and tells her further that she paid more than fifty dollars for the table. This, of course, makes Grandma very, very angry at the "cheatin', deceivin' creeturs" who bought her things, but she is glad to find her table again, and goes home rejoicing. It is a sentimental poem full of fake homespun features, but coming when it did it may have put some old ladies on their guard against the wiles of dealers and collectors.
Actually, however, there were not many collectors or dealers during the horse-and-buggy age. There was a definite interest in antiques, and they were plentiful and cheap, but the demand for them was limited. This continued for almost two decades of the present century. Then in 1 q 18, following World War I, there was a sudden upsurgence of interest. In the twinkling twenties new shops sprang up everywhere, in town and country. Business boomed and prices soared. The magazine Antiques, the first publication of its kind, made its appearance in Boston. In 1924 the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum was opened with its period rooms, including a number of New England interiors. In 1928 the first antique show was held in New York.
Collecting antiques conferred distinction on the collector. The ownership of old things became a test of social acceptance. An antique might be useful or interesting on account of its historical associations, but it was also admired for its beauty, and that beauty was measured largely by its cost. One heard on all sides such remarks as "It's a beautiful example, isn't it? I gave three hundred and fifty for it," or "It's worth a thousand, but I only paid five hundred." To the true collector a thing is beautiful or not regardless of its price. It was a situation which must have interested Thorstein Veblen, as it was a perfect example of his economic theory of conspicuous waste. He died in 1929 just as the financial world came tumbling about our ears, wiping out a myriad of collectors.
Since World War II there has been another upswing, and the interest in antiques is now greater than ever before, but it is a more intelligent interest. The average collector of today is far better informed than the amateur connoisseur of the Harding and Coolidge era. The attendance figures at museums, galleries, and sale rooms are evidence of the keen interest taken by collectors. It is only necessary to look over the books about antiques which have been published during the last twenty-five years to see how much knowledge has been gained. Almost every branch of collecting has its own special literature. Collectors with the same interests meet to exchange information. It is no longer enough that an object is merely old. The present-day collector wants to know when, where, how, and by whom it was made. Its historical associations fascinate him. His imagination is stirred and he realizes that it is what he sees behind an object that counts as much as anything.
Dislike of the present is one of the reasons given for this interest in things of the past. Collecting antiques is alleged to be a form of escapism. Every antique, of course, is escapist in the sense that it summons you away from this world to one of its own. But people are by nature collectors. Most of us find it impossible not to acquire more than we need of certain things. There is hardly a man who has not a secret accumulation of ties or other articles. The urge to collect is so strong as to amount practically to a human instinct. Almost everyone begins in early youth, perhaps with marbles or postage stamps or birds' nests, passing from these to other forms of collecting as his tastes and interests change.
"Who are the most avid collectors of antiques-men or women?" I recently asked a dealer.
"The women usually begin it," he said, "but once the husbands are bitten by the bug they get the disease worse than their wives."
People collect the oddest things. One can understand a person collecting bottles, but one man who has a great array prizes them for their contents. He is a collector of rivers and has samples of the waters of the world's most famous streams carefully bottled and arranged alphabetically, from the Amazon to the Zambezi.
A more colorful collection which I have seen consists of hundreds of miniature bottles of liquor. Ranged in rows on specially built shelves, the bottles, with their divers shapes and different-colored liquids and labels, give the illusion of a stained-glass window. A person addicted to following a color scheme in his drinking could find here the appropriate hue for any mood.
The passion for collecting has been extended to all kinds of common and uncommon things. I have known New Englanders who have collected hourglasses, shaving mugs, tavern signs, compasses, fans, sets of chessmen, pistols, pipes, iron trivets, door knockers, weathervanes, bellows, caddy spoons, glass hats, china cats, dolls, telescopes, mirrors, pictures of Adam and Eve, bookplates, clocks, flasks, cologne bottles, inkstands, china and glass slippers and boots, little silver and enamel boxes, silhouettes, miniature books, paper weights, ivory and tortoise-shell paper cutters, snuffboxes, bells, butter molds, ship models, music boxes, buttons, and numerous other odds and ends which belonged to our ancestors.
At one time collecting pitchers was popular with women, one acquaintance of the writer having more than a hundred, some of them very beautiful, others grotesque, and still others unspeakably ugly. The collection was ruined when a shelf in the same cupboard collapsed under the weight of a large, heavy cut-glass punch bowl and came crashing down on the pitchers.
Yachtsmen, anglers, golfers, and others often collect things related to the sport in which they are interested. Doctors and lawyers frequently do the same according to their professions. Old books and prints dealing with a particular sport or profession are always worth collecting.
Doctors used to delight in decorating the walls of their waiting rooms with gruesome medical prints, a favorite one being Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson." Less disturbing was the Rogers' Group called "Going for the Doctor," which I remember standing on a marble-top walnut table in the bay window of the parlor of the doctor I used to go to in my youth. My present physician has a collection of old china teapots, including a pictorial one of the Boston Tea Party.
Doctors have always had unusual opportunities to pick up antiques because they get into people's houses, and in the past some members of the profession have assembled notable collections acquired mostly from their patients. Perhaps an old lady worried by the size of the medical bill she is running up will be told by her doctor to think nothing of it, as he will be glad to accept a certain old table or chair or mirror he has happened to notice in payment, and the patient gratefully accepts his offer. It is not suggested that such transactions are unfair or that the doctor takes advantage of his patient; but one is bound to observe that there have been cases in which the doctor has found himself in possession of a rare piece worth many times the amount of his bill. One doctor I knew did not even bother to bargain with a patient. He simply walked off with anything he saw that struck his fancy. If the matter was mentioned later, he laughed it off, or explained that he had merely borrowed the heirloom to photograph it and had forgotten to return it. But seldom did the patient get his property back.
Everybody knows the type of collector who is concerned with only one kind of antique and fills his house with examples of it. The best illustration is the clock collector, to whom there is no music like the slow and stately ticking of a company of ancient clocks. He knows the voice of each as first one and then another begins to strike the hour. But the majority of persons who are interested in antiques do not concentrate on any one thing; they have tastes that cover a wide field. Some, of course, are quite indiscriminate, but many more look for representative pieces which fit into their homes, and are never afraid to weed out as they discover new and better things. If they are looking for a table, a mirror, or an occasional chair to complete the furnishing of a room, they are always delighted when in the course of their search they come across an unusual piece of old glass, silver, or pewter. Naturally there are many collectors whose buying is drastically restricted by the size of their wallets. Every purchase has to be carefully considered, quite possibly even made at some personal sacrifice; but this makes for wise discrimination and adds to the pleasure of possession.
There is a distinction between being a collector and the owner of a collection. Years ago Edith Wharton wrote a story about a man in whom the collecting instinct was deeply implanted. There was a certain collection, the property of a man incapable of appreciating it fully, which he longed to possess, but he lacked the money to buy it. At length, the poor connoisseur found himself relatively rich. But acquisition of the collection failed to bring him the satisfaction he had anticipated and presently it was put up for sale and dispersed. Then the dealers began to notice that he was quietly buying back various items wherever he could find them. This continued over the years until in the end we see the collector a poor man again, but happy in the possession of his antiques. By buying the collection in one swoop he deprived himself of the pleasures of the chase. He could not gloat over the quarry. Pride of discovery is as dominant an emotion of the true collector as pride of possession.
There are many people, of course, who have no use for antiques. They dislike the idea of putting old wine in new bottles, so to speak, and will have none of it around. Excessive love of antiques they consider a species of intellectual idol worship, and the fashion for old things a contradiction of the age in which we live. Their own fixation is for strictly modern furniture, and as members of a cult they are intolerant of anything else. Yet the style which they admire was anticipated a century or more ago by the craftsmen in the Shaker communities of New England and elsewhere, who created furniture as plain, severe, and functional as any to be seen today. And it was not machine-made or massproduced either.
Our ancestors were really fortunate. They lived among things which were made for them by hand by master craftsmen who were not hurried but could work carefully, putting their souls into the task. In whatever medium they worked, the New England craftsmen were never unduly ambitious. Their productions were largely simple and natural, restrained in manner and taste. The straightforwardness and honesty of their workmanship, its grace and excellence, gives pleasure today to owners of their work.
New England is the oldest civilized section of the United States. Its people were the first to establish themselves permanently. Because it is an old place where people have lived a long time, it naturally has a strong attraction for people interested in the past. To the collector of antiques it holds a special appeal as a region from which many characteristically American things have come and where many treasures of the old days may still be found.