In Virginia And Delaware
( Originally Published 1907 )
IT was eighty-seven years ago that Sydney Smith penned his famous gibe upon all American books and statuary and plays and pictures; though why he should have been so sweeping is not altogether apparent, for in the very year that he wrote his gibe there died an American painter, Benjamin West, a native of Pennsylvania, who had been honored with membership in the academies of Florence, Bologna and Parma and had been president of the Royal Academy.
At least the witty Englishman said nothing in criticism of American furniture; although he probably did not know that there had been many an American cabinet-maker who had done fine and artistic work. Nor was all the work merely copies of forms from abroad, for the American alertness and originality of spirit caused the adaptation and alteration of English, Dutch and French forms, and even their improvement, as with the shapes of Empire when that style was declining in Europe.
In both the North and the South a great proportion of the furniture was made by native cabinet-makers, even before the Revolution; and after the war importation still more decreased.
In the South, however, the proportion of native-made furniture was never so great as in the North, and therefore in the South there is more probability of finding specimens of English, Dutch or French manufacture, more likelihood of picking up an English Chippendale or Sheraton or a French Empire instead of one of American make.
The lists of cabinet-makers cif a century or more ago in the different cities do no at first sight, seem to bear out the idea of a distinct difference in the two sections of the country in the matter of furniture making, for comparison of the number of Charleston cabinet-makers with those of Boston, or those of New York with those of Baltimore, does not exhibit any marked unlikeness. But the shops in the Northern cities averaged a larger size, or at least more of an annual output; and, more important than this, there were great numbers of makers of furniture scattered through a host of little towns and villages in New York and Pennsylvania and New England, whereas in the South there were comparatively few outside of the larger places.
There was some degree of importation into Virginia and the Carolinas, from the other side of Mason and Dixon's line, but this was never extremely popular; if furniture was to be imported it might as well be imported from Europe; the sense of close and personal and friendly connection with England endured in the South much longer than in the North.
A narrow and uncompromising critic, writing two hundred years ago of his impressions of Virginia, and not understanding that a region of plantations could not fairly be expected to manufacture as much as other parts of the country, complained bitterly of the Virginians that "though their country be overrun with wood, yet they have all their wooden ware from England-their cabinets, chairs, tables, stools, chests." Less of it remains than might be expected from the splendid furnishings recorded of some of the great houses. But those were the exceptions, and as an offset many a house went bare enough. After all, the greatest amount of old furniture, as a total, in the Northern States and Colonies, was in the homes of the middle class; a class which, practically, did not exist in the South.
That Washington, at Mount Vernon, had chairs alone that were valued at nearly seven hundred dollars, does not imply that Virginia was filled to over-flowing with fine chairs.
And there is a grim reason why much of the splendid furniture that once existed in the South has disappeared-that is, the ravages of two wars. In this respect almost all of the South was more or less affected.
In Northern Georgia, along the line of Federal advance, it may almost be said that scarcely a house of importance was left standing, and, "They do say," observed the late Henry Grady of Atlanta, at a banquet, as he turned to General Sherman, "that you were rather careless with fir.!"
In the vicinity of Harper's Ferry, where old houses were allowed to remain they were mostly stripped of old furniture; and the region where Grant and Lee struggled was sadly devastated.
Now and then a piece escaped destruction by a curious chance. A family in Charleston proudly preserves a fine bookcase whose drawers are not the original ones-those having been destroyed by the British, who used them as horse-troughs!
Naturally, in the War of the Revolution the North also suffered; and an angry letter from Hancock, he of the great signature, voices his lament that British officers, using his house, had "defaced and removed" his carpets! "And I must submit," he bitterly concludes. One wonders what he would have done and said if his house had been burned, as were those along the coast of Long Island Sound, in the foray of Arnold, or those of the lower part of New York City during the British occupation.
And the South, lamenting with justice the destruction by fire in the wars, at least escaped one experience of old Marblehead, where, one wild winter in the middle of the Revolutionary War, snow fell so deeply that the people were unable to obtain wood and were forced to burn even chests of drawers and other furniture.
But in the South, in spite of the extirpatory experiences of war added to the usual wear and tear of time, there are great numbers of fine pieces still to be found. Even the most fortunate collector must not hope to come upon some piece of the seventeenth century, as he may still hope to do in New England; but he may find wide variety and richness of beauty.
And one must not confine his search only to houses of age or pretension. As with the man with the heirlooms in the cabin near the battlefield, there are things to be found in shabby places, the original houses having been destroyed; and in many a negro cabin there may be found some broken, almost worn-out, but still beautiful, specimen of attractive old furniture.
This came about with perfect naturalness. A piece of furniture past its usefulness, ready to be replaced by a new piece, would no: be made into kind-ling, would not be put away in corner of the barn. It would be passed ahead to favored slaves, just as coats and dresses were tossed to them. Most of the furniture so given away has been completely worn out and destroyed; but enough remains to be a highly desirable object of search. And, besides what was given to the colored folk in the days of prosperity, they gathered and took to their huts many a piece when the mansions were looted and destroyed. Negroes are apt to be careless in breaking and handling furniture in their own homes, but at the same time they have a curious instinct for pre-serving things, even when broken, hence the value of this hint in regard to their possession of ancient pieces.
One of our tilting-tables, a real beauty, came from a negro home in Virginia; it was in sad shape, but capable of repair.
And from a cabin in Virginia there came one of the very finest sideboards that we have ever seen; much like, in general design, the beautiful one in the collection at Stenton.
It is of mahogany, of Sheraton type, and has felicitous recesses and charming curves and manifold drawers.
It was discovered in its sordid condition and environment by a friendly acquaintance of ours, in whom age had not withered enthusiasm. He purchased it for two dollars-two dollars!-and sent it to his home in the North.
It was a melancholy wreck. One of the delicate fluted legs was broken off and lost. Much of the sideboard was a smear of molasses and bacon and grease. The deep receptacles for wine bottles had long been used as bins for corn meal and brown sugar, and had been cut and slivered by scoops and spoons. There was ruin and uncleanliness. It required elaborate repairing and entire polishing. But when the repairing and polishing were done the side-board was a beauty!
The fortunate finder was old. Knowing that we wished to possess just such a sideboard as this, he said that it should come to us at his death. We did not know him intimately; there was but the friendly tie of fellow-collectors. So there was no thought of taking it as a gift. And, indeed, there were relatives in regard to whom he wished to present a clear front financially. So he told intended executor the very reasonable sum that was to be paid by us for the sideboard upon his death.
Meanwhile we came to know, and to smile at, the whimsy of certain friends of ours who, waiting for the death of a distant relative who was to bequeath them her library, took unto themselves no books whatever, although, their relative being but fifty years of age, they passed by many a need and many a chance.
But it did not occur to us that we were leaning upon a still more fragile reed. Sideboards flashed before our vision, desirable sideboards, Heppelwhite, Empire and nondescript, which we might have had for the metaphorical song; but we would none of them, waiting as we were for the still more beautiful one! But we learned never to put off till tomorrow what can be bought today.
We went abroad; in our absence the intended executor died; our kindly acquaintance himself then died; there was no written memorandum of his intention; and, one of his distant relatives becoming executor, took such a fancy to the sideboard that he bought it in for himself!
And so, we who had so well learned the necessity of acting when a bargain offers, had not only, through no fault of ours, lost that most desirable sideboard, but, distinctly through our own fault, had let slip opportunities to obtain something nearly as good.
Although there is general harmony of style in the furniture of the North and the South, there are at the same time some interesting differences. New Orleans, though not so rich in the old as would be expected from its history and from the extent of its old French Quarter, still shows more of the furniture of Louis Quinze and Louis Seize than does any other part of the country. In the South there are more couch-chairs than in the North; the chaise-longue of the French, long and narrow, with a piece like a chair-back at one end. In the South, too, there are more 9f what are known as double-chairs, a self-descriptive name. In Virginia and Maryland one may sometimes find an Empire sideboard.with a mirror at the back. There are more corner-cupboards in the South with glass in the front of the lower half of the cupboard, than in the North; although it is not customary with Southerners to term them corner-cupboards, but beaufaits or buffets; bofat being a customary local pronunciation in Virginia. The dinner-wagon, too, may be considered a Southern institution and name, it being a double-decker side-table.
In a Virginia house, in the lower Shenandoah region, we came across an old lustre pitcher of unusual size. It held at least a quart and a pint, instead of being of the small capacity of most of the pitchers of this ware. The owner, an old man living solitary there, was glad to sell it for a dollar.
But, noticing something in the bottom, beneath the accumulated dust of years, one of us took it out and handed it to him. It was a piece of linen lace and a pair of knitting needles.
A change came over the old man's face. He spoke in a low voice, with a sort of awe. "This is what my wife was working on when". And as he turned the pieces over, and looked at them and at the pitcher in which they had so long been hidden, his mind was busy with the past. It was clear, too, that he would be heartbroken at losing, now, that old pitcher which his wife had used fur that final putting away: a putting away which was to have been but for an hour or two! He did not ask that we consider the sale unmade; but when the pitcher was offered to him again he eagerly grasped it, with a grievous sort of joy.
It was also not far from the Shenandoah, ravaged as the entire region was by war, that we discovered half a dozen old blue sugar-bowls, in a row upon a window sill. And each bowl had a hole in its bottom! No; nothing to do with war or soldiers-it was only that the owner had made them into flowerpots!
In the ever delightful Old Dominion, there are many fascinating and romantic houses which have withstood time and war. Some of them are shattered, unrestored, still in disrepair, waiting for hap-pier days; as, one of the most famous old mansions, with wainscoting and wine cellars and broad stair-cases and oak floors and many-paned windows, where the present occupants have a tin bath-tub suspended by rope and pulley from the ceiling of the hall. The explanation is divertingly simple. It is because of leaky roof and rains! During a long storm, that tub is likely to be more than once filled, and each time, as the water reaches the running over point, it is lowered and emptied and drawn up again -and all without a particle of embarrassment on the part of any one, but as if the whole world were in the habit of thus treating leaks!
In the vicinity of old Smithfield, that little town famous for its hams and its church by Sir Christopher Wren, there are many thing; to be found. And, indeed, the whole region round about Williamsburg, the early capital of the Commonwealth, repays a search. It is fitting that in a town where there is a "Palace Green," and a "Duke of Gloucester Street," there should still be some of the fine old houses; it is fortunate that this ancient Colonial region was not so greatly harried and burned in the Civil War. And a most slender-legged Heppelwhite card-table (one of a pair), with charming curves, discovered upon the side porch of a house, with a water bucket set upon it, shows that here, as in so many places, it is a matter of keeping ever on the alert.
It was from a negro cabin hereabouts that we se-cured a good brass candlestick.
"But is n't there a pair of them?"
"Yes, suh," the young negro woman drawled, "but it 's in the pickle barrel."
"Lost, you mean?"
"No, suh; gran'ma' s a powerful han' at makin' pickles; they ain't nobody makes 'em as green!" she said proudly. "An' she greens 'em by keepin' the can'lestick in among 'em, suh!"
Delaware, it would almost seem, is too small a State to consider very specially; but it is temptingly easy of access from some of the large cities, and its very smallness has preserved it from too close an examination by collectors. The entire State gives the impression of being one long sloping bank, rising easily from the water and dotted with houses, many of them old.
Not every one, however, can hope to be so fortunate there as a friend, a Western man, who went into Delaware distinctly on a search for the old, and picked up a set of eight beautiful Sheraton chairs, two of them armchairs, for a dollar and a quarter each!
This friend, a professional man in active practice in a Western city, has an admirable method of procedure. He takes a trip every year or so into some old-furniture region, carefully choosing the most promising place. Some little time before he goes he has a newspaper of that neighborhood, usually the principal newspaper of a county seat, insert a notice that he wishes to procure an old table, a chest of drawers, a sideboard, or whatever he most desires. Answers to his advertisement are to be addressed to his initials, in care of the newspaper, so that those who reply will have no .idea that he is a man out of the West, for that would materially increase the prices, human nature being what it is.
He goes to the town; he inquires for his letters at the newspaper office. The editor is almost always glad to gossip with him about furniture in the vicinity, feeling that he has been taken into his confidence. He goes to see those whose answers promise well; and, with all this as a foundation, he is likely to find precisely what he is looking for, and at least gains a wide knowledge of the furniture of that particular countryside.
Delaware is not among the most beautiful of the States; but there hangs about it an all-pervasive odor of peaches, and the thought brings up the memory of the sight of endless lines of heaping peach baskets, set out in the market centres to which the peach growers resort.
We feel warm and cordial toward the little State, for it has been good to us, in furniture, out of all proportion to its size, even though we did not have our friend's luck in finding Sheraton chairs.
We gathered a charming pair of candlesticks, of brass, small, and with fluted pillars, for but thirty cents each. And a candle-stand, of mahogany, of exquisitely dainty shape-wanting one foot out of three, but that was a small matter-cost but half a dollar. It is always a pleasure to find a "bargain," if you do not have to feel that you have "beaten down," but that the seller is as pleased as yourself with the price.
We remember, too, besides various old houses of the State, a shop surely unique-an auction shop whose proprietor is of spiritual kin to the old furniture men of Pennsylvania and New York of whom we have already told;-an auction shop which is a succession of warerooms of old furniture; not, all of it, old in the sense of being Colonial or Empire, but where, in this room or that, you come upon some real treasure which the proprietor has gathered in and which he is in no hurry to sell. Through one room after another, one wanders back through the unpretentious establishment, and must surely come away with something desirable. For our part, we secured a mahogany low-boy, inlaid with satin-wood. It is a straight-legged Heppelwhite, with two drawers at either side and one across the top, and an arching opening for the knees. It was a wreck, as is usual with the pieces of this type of dealer.
And we have, too, from Delaware, a corner wash-stand, a dainty Sheraton; and in Delaware we also secured an old-time washbowl to fit the opening in the stand.
Throughout much of the South it is possible to pursue a line of collecting which admirably supplements that of old furniture; in a broad sense it is really furniture.
In many a little village, and in many an isolated mountain home, the old-time art of making patch-work coverlets is remembered and practised. Some may be found that are generations old; others are new, but made in precisely the old-time way, and after the same patterns.
Many are in gorgeous colors, in glowing yellows and greens and purples; and, being a matter of housewifely pride, they are often thrown with ostentatious carelessness over the "gallery rail" so that their glory may be seen.
At a little inn at King's Mountain, not far from the famous battlefield, the bed of state had upon it precisely nineteen coverlets! There was no thought that any mortal could or would sleep beneath such a padded mountain. But it was the most natural method of display, and an admirable talent and an admirable display it was. Each quilt had its name. There were the Western Star, the Rose of the Carolinas, the Log Cabin, the Virginia Gentleman, the Fruit Basket, the Lily of the Valley-in short, there were just as many special names as there were designs. We wonder how many have been added since we were there!