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( Originally Published 1963 )
The books people read, the games they played, and the kind of pictures they hung on their walls are as important as the clothing they wore and the furniture they used, in reconstructing how they lived in years gone by. Many people nowadays like to acquire these and other minor appurtenances of daily living. A book, an aquatint, a greeting card, a toy, or stamps and coins can be interesting on their own account. Cachet is added-and the value increased-if the first owner was a celebrity or honored person.
There are tales-some true, others apocryphal-of letters written by historic persons a century or more ago or the stamp on an old envelope having been sold for a fabulous amount of money. Certainly it is smart to scan each letter in a ribbon-tied packet to be sure that no autographs of financial worth or contents of interest to historians or the public are thrown out with the love notes and report cards from schooldays.
The monetary rewards from the miscellaneous accumulation in most households will be modest. For the number of people who find a rare or valuable stamp or autograph, there are hundreds who turn up only routine correspondence, books, and the like that have little interest even for direct descendants. Still, it is always sensible to call in one or more antique as well as second-hand dealers. They may realize that what appears to you to be run-of-the-mill stuff has some attraction for certain collectors of memorabilia.
First, however, any item that looks promising should be set aside for the advice of a collector or expert in that field. Letters, books, coins, prints and pictures, the old cribbage or domino set, paper dolls, and the ship in a bottle may well entrance someone else and prove more valuable than you thought at first glance.
Generally recognized is the importance of costume and textile collections to designers and manufacturers. Equally valuable for researchers in many fields are city directories, telephone books, almanacs, and such books as a profusely illustrated history of a town or county. Libraries and museums, both cultural and industrial, may give welcome acceptance, if not payment, to offers of such things.
Every attic and many cupboards and chests have pictures of some kind, framed and unframed. Of course, there is always the chance that the frame may be more valuable than its contents. But that's all right, for no one can keep the likeness of every one of his ancestors. If you should gather together a nondescript lot of framed photographs taken during the last two or three decades, by all means destroy the photographs before you send the box of frames to the rummage or auction sale held by your church. Pictures of any kind that originated during the 1800's should be gone over more carefully.
A few American painters made their names famous during both the 1700's and 1800's. But in spite of the growing wealth of innumerable families during the 1800's, the majority could not afford to have portraits of their children or elders painted by important artists.
In the days before photographs and even after daguerreotypes and tintypes were accepted, an oil portrait was the thing to own. Most of these were done by journeymen artists, many of them little more than hacks.
Oil paintings must have been one of the status symbols of the Victorian era. Fully as popular as portraits were still lifes of fruit, flowers, and game birds. They adorned the living-room and dining-room walls of homes that were comfortable rather than wealthy.
Most of these still lifes were no more skillfully painted than many of the oil portraits. Yet the panel of pansies in a wide gold frame that hung over the sliding doors between two rooms, or the pheasant in oils in an equally rococo gilt frame on the dining-room wall, was extraordinarily natural-looking.
Landscapes painted to order by itinerant artists were usually less skillfully done than either still lifes or portraits. Some of them are pretty bad; others have a certain vigor or colorful quality that makes them deserve a second glance at least. All three types, either in oil or water color, are now classed as primitive or folk art. Thousands of such pictures were painted throughout the 1800's. Of them all, portraits probably are the most salable. Many an "ancestor" painting has been bought at auction and hung proudly in the home of its new owners.
Almost certain to be valuable-probably more so than large oil paintings -are miniatures. These are just that: small portraits painted on ovals Z to 4 inches high. The art of miniature painting is a fine and delicate one, and many museums display miniature portraits of Washington, Lafayette, and other statesmen.
Miniature portraits go back to the sixteenth century and probably earlier in Persia and India. They were produced in quantity in Europe and England starting in the early sixteenth century; notable artists in every country have produced them. They became popular in America among those who could afford them in the 1700's and continued to be very much so through the early 1800's. One of the first miniature painters in this country was John Watson. Other important ones were Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, Henry Bembridge in Charleston, John Ramage of New York City and Boston, and, later, Archibald and Alexander Robertson. Two of the finest miniaturists were Edward G. Malbone, born in Rhode Island, and Robert Field. Just possibly one of your ancestors was portrayed on a bit of ivory, if not by one of these painters then by a lesser-known artist.
Miniatures were painted in oil or water colors. Enamel ones are more rare. Gold, silver, copper, possibly pewter, ivory, glass, vellum, and heavy, thick paper of good quality were the materials used as background. Probably more miniatures were painted on ivory and vellum than on any other material, particularly during the late 1700's and early 1800's. Some miniatures were small enough to be fitted into a locket. Most of them had gold frames, and occasionally, if a family was wealthy enough, a frame was ornamented with pearls or other precious stones. Then again, a miniature with or without a frame was mounted in a velvet case.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, miniatures were not always hand painted. Instead they were photos colored and mounted on ivory. These may as well be kept for their sentimental value. Certainly they cannot be appraised highly and are not, at least at the present time, of interest to collectors of miniatures.
Popular in this country until 1850 or thereabouts were silhouettes. These were much less expensive than miniature paintings, although they were cut by many famous artists. Like miniatures, silhouettes have special charm.
A silhouette is a cutout portrait in profile, either a bust or a full-length figure. Two kinds were made. The hollow-cut had the head and figure cut away, leaving a white paper frame silhouetting a hole. This frame was mounted against black paper or cloth or possibly painted glass. The second and more usual type had the head or figure cut from black paper and then mounted on white or light background paper. Less commonly found are the black paper silhouettes mounted against an appropriately painted or lithographed background, with the cutout embellished with ink, water colors, or gilding.
Portrait silhouettes were most popular. In addition, flowers, eagles, and more conventional designs were cut out and mounted purely as decoration.
Most silhouettes were unsigned and were done by unknown artists. At that, they are quite good. Charles Willson Peale, the well-known artist, left behind some silhouettes as well as miniatures. Another name worth looking for is that of Augustin Edouart, a Frenchman who traveled throughout the United States in the 1840's and produced portrait silhouettes with sepia backgrounds.
Silhouettes, if not portraits in oil, were perhaps supplanted by daguerreotypes. The daguerreotype, named after Louis J. M. Daguerre, one of the two Frenchmen who perfected the process during the 1830's, was an early type of photograph. This process was practically pushed aside by the 1860's. A far cheaper method of making portraits called tintypes had been developed by that time.