Making A Beginning
( Originally Published 1907 )
WITH ourselves, the kettle began it! Or was it the first pair of candlesticks ! Or the Shaker chair ! Rather, it would seem, on looking back upon the gradual inception of the plan, that it was the combined influence of the chair and the candlesticks and the kettle.
The kettle, a charming ebony-handled thing, squat, round, of captivating curves, the body of it made in two parts but with such skill that the brazed edge almost defies detection and there is thus the air of having been hammered out of a single sheet, came ancestrally, having crossed the ocean many decades ago.
The candlesticks caught the eye, one day, by a felicitous chance, on the window-ledge of a shop prosaically devoted to the buying and selling of scrap metal. They are nine and a quarter inches high and of excellent design. Indeed, after all these following years of quest and success, they stand honorably among our treasured acquisitions. Very dirty they were, those brasses, in that old-metal window, and the fragments of tallow dip candles were green in their sockets. They were indubitably old as well as graceful, and they were offered and purchased at the price of twenty cents apiece. To be sure, they needed burnishing, but that was but a small matter.
The chair was an acquisition still more delightful in the course of its coming. For there was a Shaker settlement near the city where we used to live, and it was a pleasure to visit there, so hospitable were the kindly aged folk, and amid such an aroma of sweetness did they lead their celibate lives.
We wondered at times, finding them so gently cordial to us, when we knew that the cold text of their religion taught them to be distrustful of people of the outside world and to hold but necessary communication with them, whether they hoped to draw us in as proselytes for their community, so sorely in need of younger blood; but if they ever cherished the hope that we should find inward and spiritual grace among them they assuredly gave no outward and visible sign that such was their thought. They were hospitable, in a simple, old-fashioned way, and we were welcome to enter their doors, to walk through their halls, with polished floors, covered with long strips of rag carpeting, and with everywhere an odor of herbs and of sanctity; we were welcome at their meals of bread and butter, and fried chicken, and jelly of apple and sauce of pear, when, in silence, the men ate at a long table at one side of the great dining-room and the women, as silent, at the other. Back to back they sat, with the broad space between; and one standing in the middle would have seen, on the one hand, a line of men's heads, bent over the table, a row of blue coats, with tails carefully parted on either side of the low-backed chairs, and, on the other side, a row of little muslin caps, and plain tippets and dresses of calico.
These people, self set apart from the world, showed us the inside corners of their warm hearts; and it seems, looking back upon it, as if the taste for the quaint and the old-fashioned, even then strong within us, was strengthened by knowing these folk, who seemed like veritable bits out of the past. They themselves realized that there was something in accord between us, and one of the oldest of the Sisters gave us her own particular chair which had been made specially for her, in her youth, when she taught sewing to the children whom they then had in their school.
It is a slender, narrow rocker, with slim, high back; impossible to rock, indeed, for the dear old lady had found it liable to tip over backward, or to threaten to tip, and so had had one of the Brothers saw off the rockers short and fasten on the stubby ends prohibitive bits of cork. The chair, charmingly proportioned, with low set arms, has nothing about it that is elaborate; the code of Shakerism allows nothing of display; but it is most carefully made, is splint-bottomed, with a curious variety of Roman-key design, and the ends of the arms and the tops of the side pieces end in delicately ovaled knobs.
The chair stands in a corner of our guest-room, holding in kindly remembrance the kindly folk, hundreds of miles from where we now are, by whom, long ago, we were made welcome guests.
And so, from the possession of these grew the idea of outfitting our home with the charming and stately furniture of the past, with the mahogany and the walnut, the brass and the china, of the olden time. Even with this beginning, the idea was slowly adopted, with much of hesitating dubiety as to the possibility of it all. For, until we had well begun, the plan seemed so impractical, so impracticable !
This sense of the ultimate futility of the attempt, even after a few delightful acquisitions, was strong within us because of our living in a city of the Middle West, where old-fashioned furniture is, necessarily, far less common than in the Eastern States, but even had we then lived in the East there would have been little encouragement shown us. To see the charming things of long ago is offered with generous freedom, alike in the superb collections of public organizations and in the fine old Colonial mansions, in various States, given into the charge of patriotic societies and filled by them with the furniture of the past. But the line between seeing and acquiring is clearly drawn. Those who show with opulent freedom will only suggest, for purchasing, to go directly and prosaically to the shops where things with claim to age are sold.
But it was no part of our scheme to obtain our treasure prosaically or from sources open to any degree of doubt. From the very first we experienced, with the joy of having, the concomitant joy of getting. With our earliest acquisitions, the Shaker chair, the candlesticks and the kettle, there was the tang of some delightful association and the charm of the personal touch, and we were resolved, having delightfully begun, not to be content with methods and results less interesting.
And here, first, is the fact which, little appreciated, lies at the bottom of it all. There is, as yet, no essential scantiness of supply of the delightful and desirable old! There is just enough of scantiness to render the quest alluring.
And it would be strange if there were any prohibitive scantiness. A century ago there were in existence millions of pieces of furniture of the shapes that are now held in admiration. Things that are now the possessions of a few were then the common possession of all. In one single year, near the opening of the century just past, the shop of a single Connecticut maker turned out the movements for three thousand tall clocks. Other things were made in numbers proportionate-tables, chairs, bureaus, andirons, candlesticks. So many were the mechanics engaged in the manufacture of furniture, that the trade came to be in some degree specialized, and there were men engaged in nothing but the construction of Windsor chairs !
All of these millions of articles were not destroyed, all were not worn out and thrown away or turned over to museums. An enormous total is still in existence; great numbers of pieces may be sought out and secured by the collector of today.
Realizing this-and how few realize it!-it is but a matter of learning where to seek with the greatest prospect of finding.
Although it is in the East that far the greatest number remain in existence, we found that in the Middle West there came many a fine specimen by ox-cart from Connecticut to the shores of Lake Erie; many were flat-boated down the Ohio in the early days of settlement or trailed through Cumberland Gap by the pioneers of Kentucky; and, farther South, many a piece went westward from the Carolinas, or, entering the Mississippi, remained at some point along the river's banks. Although the bulk of furniture remained in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, or elsewhere near the coast, the early folk of Cleve-land and Louisville and St. Louis, of Pittsburg, Cincinnati and New Orleans, were not without old treasures. In what was deemed the backwoods there were houses of log or hewed timber in which family silver alternated with gourds, and in which fine mahogany stood on puncheon floors. And, in the West as in the East, during the period that the taste prevailed-the taste which has so strongly revived-additional furniture was made, on the graceful lines of the old, by local cabinet-makers. And outside of the known lines of travel and of settlement, many a piece of fine design has wandered erratically to some most unexpected spot and is waiting to be discovered and appropriated.
Theoretically, there is no reason, except the powerful one that the old was all hand-made, why the furniture of today is not fully as beautiful as that of the past. But it is not, any more than the churches of today equal the ancient cathedrals. In such cases it is matter of fact, not of theory. The graceful lines and proportions, in furniture, are mainly of a bygone era, save in the cases of successful imitation. And, in addition to the actual grace, the actual beauty, there is the charm of association with an interesting past. The tender grace of a day that is dead lingers about the stately fireirons of the time of Washington or the beautiful chair which was used in a house of Revolutionary fame. The charm once felt, it never disappears.
There are so many directions in which one may profitably go, in the search of the old, that it must needs be matter for needful planning. By a judicious distribution of vacation trips many a point can be touched. By those of greater leisure there can be any degree of expeditionary meanderings. Often a business trip takes one to a place where a longed-for treasure may be secured.
The.. quest will be likely to last over years. But it is such an enjoyable quest, in its experiences as well as in its rewards, that one does not wish it to be shorter. Old-time acquisitions can never be very greatly prized if, with a full pocketbook, a visit is made to a dealer and instructions given to outfit the house. It is the personal touch which comes from the personal finding, it is the definite association, it is the knowledge that one knows precisely what, in each case, one is getting, it is the personal adventure, and oftentimes the personal history, that give value, in addition to the value the find has intrinsically.
With patience and attention, with watchfulness and an everready preparedness to take advantage when opportunity offers, the search for the furniture of our forefathers is as easy as it is full of delight and of surprises.
But, first, some misconceptions must be put away.
In America no one, no matter how wealthy, can fill his house with genuine pieces of the seventeenth century, for the museums and a few old families have almost every piece. Few, no matter how wealthy, can fill their houses with pieces of a period anterior to the Revolution. And it is because of these facts, which are well known, that the gathering of furniture of the olden time is looked upon as an insuperable task.
Fortunately, it was not until more than a quarter of a century after the close of the Revolution that the commonizing change in the making of furniture came. The triumph of the styles of Heppelwhite and of Sheraton came late in the eighteenth century. The triumphant beauty of the early Empire came, as the name denotes, early in the nineteenth.
But, in spite of this, the term "Colonial" is attached to all of the furniture of the early times and the early shapes. It has come to be so generally employed, and is a term in itself so suggestive and so sonorous, that it would be invidious indeed to strive to limit its use with chilly literalness.
Nor must all of "Colonial furniture" needs be of mahogany. There is no such narrowing limitation. Mahogany is the most beautiful of all wood for this purpose, yet many of the finest old shapes are of walnut or hickory or cherry or oak or ash. The greater part of the finest old French furniture, too, was not of mahogany.
With the furniture of the past there should go the brass and the iron, the silver and the pewter, of the corresponding time. Certain prints and silver and porcelain from the other side of the Atlantic, if they harmonize in design and period, are acquisitions. In short, in the gathering of "Colonial furniture," of furniture of the past, think of no restriction but that of unbeautiful shape, no limitation but that of unattractiveness. One thing after another should be so chosen as to be a lesson in good taste.
And so, with these preliminary suggestions as to the limitations which broaden the possibilities of the quest, we shall return to the narrative of our own getting, as in no better way can we illustrate the methods and the potentialities.
The love for the antique grows by what it feeds on. Deep within our hearts lay that love, ready for development and growth.
And Fate was very complaisant in those early days of our gathering. It is likely enough that, had there then been numerous disappointments, our ardor would have been chilled. But, as encouragement at the commencement, and marking the ever existent possibility of finding prizes in unexpected places, we secured a distinguished pair of brass and-irons at a place where it would have been deemed absolutely impossible to get them.
That impracticable place was Blennerhassett Is-land! For almost every particle of the furnishings of that stately mansion which made the island famous was lost in the fire and looting which followed the failure of Burr to carve for himself, out of the West, an empire that was to wax strong among the nations of the earth. Now but the barest vestiges of the foundations of the mansion are to be seen. And as for the furniture and the smaller belongings of the scholar and gentleman who cast in his fortune with the would-be Napoleon, the island was long ago swept clear of any trace of them.
And yet, when we went there, we found a treasure out of the past ! And it was not something offered, by an island resident, as having belonged to Blennerhassett or as having been used by Burr.
There had been a heavy flood in the Ohio; one of those floods which come every dozen years or so, when the stream swells to mighty volume and over-flows vast stretches of land and sweeps away fences and houses and barns.
In walking about the little island, with a man who had long lived there and who was well acquainted with the outlines of the great, semi-circular house, with the site of the old-time landing place, with the curious local history, he remarked that Blennerhassett had not chosen most wisely from the standpoint of one who wished to use the island for residence purposes only, because, rich as it is as farm land, and superbly located as it is in the midst of the bending stream, it becomes periodically untenable.
Then, thus reminded, he went on to tell how, driven to the mainland by the last flood, he watched the water's steady rise during the day, and next morning, looking across at his submerged island from his West Virginia refuge, he saw that a dwelling-house had stranded there. In the course of the day he was able, with a companion, to row over to it. No one was within. But the furniture was in place, just as the fleeing family had left it; and the two men put into their boat this pair of acorn-top and-irons, which they lifted from the hearth, and a little round-topped hair trunk which was standing in a corner.
Another morning came ; but the river had risen afresh in the night, and had picked up the stranded house and carried it away. They opened the trunk, but there was nothing in it to give the slightest hint as to where the house had floated from. It might have floated a hundred miles or more. A mystery it had come, and had but touched there for a few hours on its way to the oblivion into which it disappeared.
The man, although impressed by the strangeness of it all, clearly set no particular value on what he had found; his "plunder," as he called it. He showed the andirons, and we admired them.
"Shouldn't you like to trade those for a hammock?"
It was certainly a curious thing for two travelers to have, and, in truth, it was an odd chance that it happened to be in our possession at the psychic moment. We had left it on the mainland while we rowed over to the island, and it had seen a summer's use.
The unexpectedness of a hammock appealed to him.
"Yes; if I like the looks of it," he said.
He liked it, and the precious andirons became ours.
Now, when one can go to the place where, a century ago, every vestige of movable interest vanished, and find the very floods work in his behalf to carry to his feet a pair of brass andirons, with a strange association of romantic Blennerhassett and a haunting history full of possibilities-for the andirons are of a design such as those which came across the mountains in the earliest days of Western settlement, and the house which held them came floating out of vagueness only to vanish into misty vagueness again-anything is possible.
These andirons came shortly after the Shaker chair, and had strong influence in confirming us in the thought of realizing our dream of charming potentialities.
Our Lares and Penates were to be of mahogany and brass !