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( Originally Published 1940 )
These factors raise the whole issue of "antiques," what they are and wherein their values lie. The antique cannot be dismissed as a relic of past times appraised, as is often done, in terms of scarcity value.
The objects discussed and illustrated in the following pages are antiques of varying scarcity value. But our interest lies, so to speak, in first causes. We are concerned with why these things were made, who made them, and how it was done. We want the story of American objects before they acquired the external aura of antiquity. The collector often looks at the object with eyes that see nothing of its functions. It is hard to associate an object of display with a vital, simple utility which it may once have had. In a manner of speaking, the beauty of many antique objects must be regarded, historically, as a by-product of necessity.
In modern design a great point is made of "functionalism." The term is much abused and a certain angularity is sometimes called "functional" when it basically fails to fulfill the actual purpose of the object to which it is applied, whether this be a chair or a building. Our functionalism is frequently selfconscious and consequently false. Functionalism, as a luxury of swanky design, is a contradiction.
Most of the antiques from our very early Colonial period are truly functional. The term certainly never entered the minds of our Colonial craftsmen, but the factor of design for use was paramount. When we see a chair with a hinged back that will swing down and form a table this is Colonial functionalism, springing from a really urgent necessity to conserve space and materials and time. When we see a pottery bottle, in the form of a large ring, worn by the mower over his arm as he works in the fields, we are seeing a primary example of how to solve a problem in the simplest way. To view either of these objects, or countless others like them, in museums or private collections, without taking into account this measure of ingenuity-in-utility, is to have no real appraisal of them.
The conception of antiques as living documents of history, indisputably authentic, and eloquent in their tangible presence, is not new. It needs emphasis and stress. If we think too exclu sively of antiques as they are we are led into cycles of antique reproduction, rather than genuine contemporary creativeness. At the same time, no very valid new creation springs out of the mere avoidance of what has been done before. These two failings; imitations of the past and forced strivings after the new, are only too evident in much of the furniture that is made today. We must familiarize ourselves with antiques as they were, viewing them as much as possible in the perspective of their own period, seeing them as a "gleam in their maker's eye." It is doing this that we imply, in the point made a few moments ago, that the products of our early craftsmen are genuine, incontrovertible documents of history: the epitome of Americana. It is not the beauty or rarity of these antique objects which primarily makes their historical-record value, for indeed some of them are not intrinsically beautiful and not all them are rare. It is their use, and so to speak, their personal histories, that constitute their chief investment-for-posterity value. To this their beauty is a generous dividend.