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New England Antiques
Many of the things mentioned in the fore-going pages were part of our ancestors' equipment for living and reflected changes in their way of life and thought. In the development of furniture, for example, one can trace the rise in economic status of various sections of the community. Just as today new living conditions are altering the character of our furniture, so did social changes in the past bring modifications and new developments. Current trends may even be observed in the antiques market.
In our smaller modern homes, with fewer special purpose rooms, we cannot afford to use space uneconomically. There is no place today for certain furnishings made in the days of more spacious living, and hence we find such things gathering dust in the antique shops. Much as one might like to have one of the large old corner cupboards, with its pilasters, semi-domed top, and carved ornamental shell, which was an architectural feature of many of the homes of our ancestors, there is generally not room for one today. On the other hand, mirrors do not take up floor space. Everybody can use them, and even people with no feeling for antiques are prone to cling to old mirrors that come their way if they are not of overwhelming size. Consequently, it is frequently difficult to find good examples in the shops.
Sometimes new uses are found for old things and articles which have been neglected will suddenly be in demand. Perhaps a person sees in a friend's house an antique cradle used as a receptacle for wood beside the fireplace, and will want one for the same purpose. The idea spreads and a run on wooden cradles results. Or the discovery is made that one of the old leather fire buckets makes an excellent wastebasket, and the price of buckets soars. In the days of volunteer fire fighting every townsman was required to have one of these buckets, and to turn out with it when the alarm sounded. It was usually kept hanging in the hall near the front door, with a bed key in it for taking four-posters apart, and a sack or pillow case for saving small household articles from burning dwellings.
A quaint use to which old iron pots or caldrons used to be put was to paint one red or green, plant nasturtiums in it, and suspend it from a rustic tripod in the front yard. This old New England custom, which predated any general interest in antiques, seems to be dying out, as one sees far fewer now than formerly.
In colonial times people did not own stocks, bonds, and other securities. What wealth they possessed consisted of tangible property, real and personal, and the old wills and inventories of estates usually mentioned everything a person left down to the provisions on hand at the time of the testator's death. The inventories enumerated the contents of houses room by room, and while it is sometimes difficult to tell what some of the things listed in the very earliest ones were, one gets a good idea of what our ancestors had in the way of worldly goods. The following is a portion of the will of a well-to-do settler in the Kennebec River region of Maine just prior to the Revolution. In several ways it is an interesting and revealing document.
In the name of God amen this tenth day of September Anno Domini 1771 I Samuel Denny of Georgetown within the County of Lincoln in New England Esqr being weak in body but of sounde minde and memory through mercy do make this my larst will and testament in manner following viz in the first and chief plase I give and biqueath my pretious and Emortal soul into the hand of that Cod who gave it to me praying through the merits and Intersession of the glorious Redeemer I may Receive the sam again at the Resurrection of the just into Eternal Life and as to my temporal Intrest I give and dispose of the same after the following manner
Itum I give unto my loving wife Catherin Denny fower good milch cows one yoak of oxen yoak and chain ten sheep and the best bed underbed and bedstead together with an Equal share of all that belong to beds both of lining and wooling with the rest of my fether beds that may be in my hous at my deseace both for quantity and quality the looking glass with black frame tabel and smorl trunck in my Rome in the grate Rome and Elseware the chist of drawers the best tea table and that of my make 6 tea cups and sarsers i Tea Kittel shugar dish crempot all these of the best together with the best tongs shovel and belows three puter dishes six best Earthun plat fower best candlestcks the belmettel and brass scilit a pair of Iron dogs 2 flat Irons the boxiron and z heters warming pan toster the gret bibel a bras chafendishes one large and one smorl spinning wheale a puter basins 3 puter prongers 3 brkfas basins 3 wine glarsses z bekers z bowls all the provision that may be in the hous of meal pork bief flower butter chese talu candels molases shuger cofey tea rise spises chocolet corn and other grain together with all the woole yarn flax lining or wooling not made up sope tabellining all the tin ware all dairey vessels pails tubs and barels hay in barn i spade i how i ax the silver can 6 common puter plats as also what time I may have in Ebenezer Kelly by Indentur together with sute of curtains
The above mentioned artacels and Every of them I give unto my wife for hir to use or dispose of according unto hir own will and pleasure and not be accountable to any furthermore for and towards her comfortable support during hir natural Life I give the and Improvement of my now dwelling hous with all other buildings contiguous together with the land and marsh to the southward of the stone worl nere the meting-hous and the hither dam which Includ Lotts No 4,5,6,7 together with what Land I own on borld head and the marsh to the southward of Newtown bay and crick and night pasture for said cows and oxen in that pasture between the road and the marsh to be improved by hir living on the place and not by a tenant together with a Right to cut firewood on other of my land on Arrowsick Iland & that on the Easterd side of the country road & that for hir own fire only and to be burnt on the premises together with the use and improvement of tobias and Susanah two of my negroes she mainting them in sickness and health together with the crane hooks grate tongs shovel citchen table & clock all the Iron and holow ware & all the chairs together with the smorl bras Kittel and cofey mill with the sum of term pounds Lawful money to be paid out of my other Estate yearly and Every year during her natural life & to be paid quarterly if she chuise it that is 2:10:0 pounds per quarter the use of the pew the word ten is so made by me and figurs 2:10:0 pounds the nesary charge of repairing the premises from time to time to be done at the charge of other of my Estate.
The romance of New England antiques lies largely in the story behind them. When the China trade was inaugurated for New England by the return of the Grand Turk to Salem in 1787, with a rich cargo of oriental merchandise, and Yankee ships were going into service to all parts of the world, geography became the favorite study of many New Englanders. Jedediah Morse's Universal Geography was a best seller. It was doubtless this new interest, stimulated by the rapid growth of our maritime commerce, which led a Vermont farmer to make the first American spherical charts of the world.
This pioneer Yankee globe maker was James Wilson of Bradford, a small town on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River above Hanover, New Hampshire. Wilson was born in a log cabin in Francistown, New Hampshire, in 1763, and though he showed a decided bent for knowledge he was constrained by circumstances to devote himself to farming. In 1796 he bought a farm at Bradford which became his permanent home. When he was thirty-six Wilson saw a pair of English globes at Dartmouth College in the neighboring town of Hanover, and resolved to try his hand at making them.
He began with balls turned from blocks of wood which he covered with paper and finished off with all the lines and representations drawn upon them. This crude beginning was followed by a much better method. Covering the solid balls thickly with layers of paper pasted together, he cut the globes into hemispheres, removed the wooden molds, and joined the paper shells together, which he then finished so they were light and smooth.
But how were the spheres to be covered with maps as good as those of foreign make? Procuring copperplates of adequate size for his thirteen-inch globes, Wilson projected his maps on them in sections, tapering them like the degrees of longitude from the equator to the poles and engraving them with such accuracy that when they were cut apart and pasted on the spheres, the edges with their lines and even the different parts of the finest letters matched perfectly. This kind of designing and engraving was much more difficult than plain work, but except for a few lessons from Amos Doolittle of New Haven, the famous Connecticut engraver, Wilson was self-taught. Yet he succeeded in producing globes equal to any imported from abroad.
The story goes that in 18 14 he exhibited the first edition of his globes in Boston, where they caused quite a sensation among scientific persons, who perceived that these native productions were well and truly made. "Who is this James Wilson?" they asked. "Where is he?" Wilson, it was said, was reluctant to come forward because of his rustic garb and manners, but the Boston gentlemen knew how to prize his talents and were proud of the honor he had done his country. They encouraged him by the assurance that he would find a ready market for all the globes he could make.
For a short time Wilson continued to make globes in Bradford, but about 1815, in company with three of his sons, who seem to have inherited much of their father's taste and ingenuity, he opened a globe factory in Albany, New York, where terrestrial and celestial globes were made, the latter showing no less than 5000 stars. About 1826 a new edition was brought out, from freshly engraved plates, which marked a great advance over the earlier globes. The globes were made in three sizes-threeinch, nine-inch, and thirteen-inch. The largest size, mounted on a mahogany pedestal with compasses, sold for $46 and $55, the next smaller size for $40, and the smallest for $5. The business was a success, and after Wilson had reached his eighty-third year he constructed an excellent planetarium, engraving the large copperplate showing the signs of the zodiac, their degrees, etc., with his own hands. Wilson, who had three wives and fourteen children, died at Bradford in March 1855, in the ninety-second year of his age. If you happen to come across an old globe in an antique shop, it is worth while looking to see whether it was made by America's pioneer globe manufacturer.
Occasionally one finds hanging in an antique shop a string of magnificent old sleigh bells of the days of Currier and Ives. The story behind the making of these bells is an interesting one. Most of them came from the town of East Hampton, Connecticut, where all kinds of bells are still made, from small tea bells to large marine bells. There is now, of course, scarcely any demand for sleigh bells, but during the last century hundreds of thousands of them were made and shipped from the town in sugar barrels.
The business was started in 1818 by William Barton, who was born in Wintonbury, now Bloomfield, Connecticut, in 1762. His father was a gunsmith and during the Revolution the family lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but when the war was over they returned to Wintonbury. For several years, beginning in 17 90, William Barton worked in New York, making andirons and other brass articles. Then he returned to Connecticut to devote himself to the manufacture of sleigh bells.
Just why he should choose to settle in East Hampton is not clear, but it may have been because on the creek which is the outlet for Lake Pocotopaug there had long been a forge where iron pots, kettles, waffle irons, and coffee mills were made. East Hampton was then the east parish of the town of Chatham on the Connecticut River. The name of Chatham was later changed to Portland, because the quarries which supplied New York and other cities with structural brownstone were situated there. The quarries lay close to the river, which made it easy to load the stone on barges. There were long sheds to house the oxen used in hauling the stone. Spring hiring day, when the quarry owners chose the men to work for them during the coming season, was an important local event. The sleigh-bell factories in East Hampton found it more convenient to ship their barrels of bells from Middle Haddam, around the bend of the river below Portland.
William Barton was not the first person to make sleigh bells, but he was the first to cast them in one piece. It had been the practice to make them in two pieces and then, after adding the core, to solder the halves together. Barton embedded the metal pellet in the sand when he made the mold. Sleigh bells were then made of pure bell metal, the chief ingredients of which are tin and copper. Later they were stamped out of steel or brass. This was a cheaper and speedier way of producing them, but the stamped bells were never so good as the others. They had neither the tone nor the volume of those made from genuine bell metal. The difference is immediately apparent if you jingle a string of cast bells and then one of stamped bells. The sound of the former is richer and mellower and carries much farther than the sound of the latter.
It was a propitious time to go into the sleigh-bell business, as the construction of turnpikes and the improvement of roads was causing a great increase in the volume of highway traffic. People were just beginning to drive for pleasure. It began with sleighs because they were cheaper than carriages, but presently there were light vehicles of all kinds on the roads, displacing many of the slow, heavy sledges and ponderous wagons that had been in universal use. The mania for speed was beginning to take hold. The coming of the railroads stimulated the desire for faster travel.
After William Barton had been making sleigh bells in East Hampton for nearly a decade, he migrated to Cairo, New York. He remained there several years, but eventually returned to East Hampton, where he died in 1849, leaving a number of descendants who continued the business in Connecticut. But the most successful of the half-dozen sleigh-bell factories in the town was founded by one of Barton's apprentices, William Bevin. He began making sleigh bells on his own account about 1830, later taking his three brothers into partnership. Members of the family are still carrying on the bell business in East Hampton, and it was by visiting the old foundry and talking with those who now operate it that I learned about the sleigh-bell industry.
Twenty different sizes of bells were made in a variety of styles and finishes. The common bells measured from seven eighths of an inch in diameter to three and three quarters inches. The so-called single-throated bell had only one slit to let out the sound, a double-throated bell two slits crossing each other. The bells were tied together in bunches of a dozen and sold by the pound as loose bells, or they were riveted or wired to harness straps which were priced according to the number and quality of the bells used. Sometimes all the bells were the same size, sometimes of different sizes. Anywhere from a dozen to five dozen bells might be used, depend ing on whether they were large or small, and the price ranged all the way from a dollar to eighteen dollars for a set. Some of the bells were plated with silver or gold, others with nickel or brass; but the bulk of them received only a simple polishing, or were given a silverwhite finish. William Barton used to polish his bells by rolling them in a barrel.
Then there were chimes, which were open-mouthed, cup-shaped bells set in metal frames ready to be attached to the shafts or the pole of a sleigh. Chimes were also made to be fastened to the hames of the horses' collars or to the saddles. They were like Russian saddle chimes and were called by that name. The best chimes, which often came in elaborate sets, were tuned. They were better suited to smart city turnouts than to the more plebeian species of sleighs.
Many of the New England winter scenes which were used as subjects of Currier and Ives prints were from paintings by George Henry Durrie (1820-1863) Of New Haven, Connecticut. Durrie's specialty was snow pictures. Once he made a trip South, thinking the people there would buy his paintings of snowbound New England, possibly on the theory that it was a cooling experience to look at winter scenes in a warm climate. But he was mistaken; the Southerners wanted none of the Connecticut Yankee's work. Yet Durrie's rural landscapes with their bare trees, snow, and chimney smoke rising in the frosty air from the old homestead-with its barns, sheds, and outbuildings shown in detail-were very popular in the Currier and Ives reproductions. The bestknown is his "Home for Thanksgiving." This and other Durrie items, sometimes even an occasional original painting, turn up in old-print and antique shops and are quite valuable. He was an able painter, and it is felt that if he had not died at the relatively early age of fortythree, he would have developed into an American artist of great prominence.
On the Connecticut River just above Middletown, Connecticut, and only a few miles from East Hampton of sleigh-bell fame, is a town with the extremely puritanical name of Cromwell. One day two antique dealers from Hartford who were out looking for things to buy came to an old factory near the river in Cromwell. They had no idea what was made there, but looking at the ancient building they became curious, and seeing an old bell on top of the factory, went in and offered to buy it. They were told that it was not for sale, but in talking with the people in the factory they discovered it was the place where many of the cast-iron mechanical toy banks of half a century ago were made. These banks, of course, are in great demand today, some of them selling for more than one hundred dollars apiece. There were none left for sale in the Cromwell factory, but the dealers found there were a good many of the old illustrated catalogues still on hand, showing the different styles of banks which had been made there, and these they bought for next to nothing. It was a good day's work, as they easily and quickly sold the lot for ten dollars apiece.
It would be impossible to cover all the miscellaneous antiques which may be found in New England. There is a lively trade in them and though they grow scarcer all the time, there are still treasures to be found. One sees the past at its best, and also sometimes at its worst, in the antique shops, but always they are places of warmth and feeling and even entertainment, where history and romance linger pleasantly.