In Massachusetts And Connecticut
( Originally Published 1907 )
WE know of a dear old gentleman, the rector of a church in a neighborhood where a thinnish stream of association has enriched the soil with a mild growth of historical interest, who possesses a hand-saw and a love for the old. With this love for the old goes a generosity, whimsical as it is broad, which leads him to wish to share his treasures with all the world. And therein lies the utility of the saw!
Let there but be the felling of a tree under which some notability once passed or rested, and he will saw off graceful sections of the wood and mail them, each one carefully labeled, to a myriad of his friends (and every one who knows him is his friend), so that they may share with him in the possession of such a memento.
Let there be the tearing down of a building in which some man of note lived or made a speech or was married or did some other of the many things by which men of note render buildings of interest, and he will acquire sundry oaken beams, and indefatigably use his hand-saw, and elaborately label and mail, so that, again, the world may share with him in his treasure.
Once, so great were his enthusiasm and his generosity, he even sawed into little bits, and mailed, an old settle upon which a man of distinction had once sat! It was badly broken, he explained; too badly ever to be of use; and from his description it seems to have been one of those settles, with long, high, solid backs and fine carving, which, because of their protection against draughts, were long in common use in front of fireplaces, but were practically displaced, a little more than a century ago, by double-chairs and settees.
Some one may have represented to the kindly rector the iconoclastic sin of destroying old furniture even by a parson's saw, or he may never have found another piece which in his opinion defied repair; at any rate, that was the one time we have heard of in which his saw and his generosity were busy with more than beams and trees.
Necessarily, there is diversity as to what constitutes a valuable relic of the past, and how that relic should be treated. In a Connecticut town, one of the old residents proudly preserves and displays a pair of buckskin breeches worn by one of his for-bears in a Revolutionary skirmish within the borders of the State. The relic is not quite intact, the present possessor explaining that the circular hole was cut by himself, when a lad, to furnish forth a needful cover for his baseball-that is, what we should now call a baseball, although when he was a boy it was the ball used in one-old-cat or long-ball, or perhaps rounders.
Connecticut, at the present time, is one of the very best States for the satisfactory search for old furniture. It does not have so much as Pennsylvania; but among the smaller States it has probably the most. In early days, Massachusetts had more than any other State; but in Massachusetts the museums and the collectors have been more active than anywhere else, and there has been a consequent depletion of the total of possible acquisitions.
There are a great number of Colonial dwellings in existence in Connecticut. There are a host of houses, old and new, where Colonial articles are still to be found. And the frequency of intermarriage, in a considerable portion of the State, and the freedom of the descendants of the original population from outside influences, have served to strengthen the conservative spirit; and, a conservative spirit al-ways tending toward preservation, alike of things material and tangible as of principles and ideas, it is not to be wondered at that many homes and much furniture have been saved.
The first President, within a few months after his inauguration, took a trip through a considerable part of New England, driving with his carriage and four horses; and of Connecticut he wrote with curious de-tail, observing the absence of the very rich and the very poor, and noting that the general type of Connecticut house had a door in the middle and a stair-case facing the door, each house being from twenty to thirty feet in width and from thirty to fifty in length, exclusive, as he whimsically wrote, of "a back shed, which seems to be added as the family in-creases."
The State still possesses in a general way that ancient desideratum of neither poverty nor riches, although some of the wealth of New York has flowed over its borders and the advance of civilization has brought its inevitable accompaniment of poverty; but from Washington's rather dry description of the Connecticut houses their charm and proportions would scarcely be understood. Washington was raised amid the traditions of the finest Southern homes, vastly improved in appearance as they were by their setting in the midst of luxuriant estates and rich plantations, and the stony fields of Connecticut were bleak to his eyes and insensibly detracted from the aspect of the houses as well. And, too, he was in the humor, on that driving trip, to see things in dry and dubious light, for New England as a whole had not welcomed the new Constitution and Government-Governor Hancock of Massachusetts tried to snub him and Rhode Island had so acted that he refused to enter its borders-and his trip was itself but a politic effort, hesitatingly made, to secure harmony among the Thirteen. Had he seen and written of Connecticut at a happier time he would have been impressed by the alluring roads, the low-rounding hills, the loosely-piled stone walls separating field from field, and the white houses, charmingly built, gambrel roofed, primly porticoed, shaded by mighty trees.
And in loitering over these fascinating roads one comes to learn that there is not only much of the material, the actual, that has been preserved, but that there are also interesting survivals of the ways and the customs of the past.
For in many a town and hamlet the old cottage industries are carried on. And to find them is like finding, in English Westmoreland, women weaving linen as it was woven there by women of centuries ago.
In many a Connecticut cottage baskets are made, of splints, of ancient manner of manufacture and of ancient shape; so strong, these baskets, that the handles defy the hardest pulling. And we bought, one day, a quaint basket, of old-fashioned design, which the sweet-faced ancient woman who sold it said had been made "for carrying cakes to church socials." What a sermon lies in that text! The simplicity of. it all, the primitiveness, the nonrealization of anything out of the way or uncommon! Baskets of that shape had been so long made for the carrying of cakes to the social gatherings of the church that they were merely a matter of course, as from time immemorial.
We said, an "ancient" woman. And indeed that was what she was. Through the operation of some inscrutable law, one never finds young folk engaged in these old-fashioned occupations. And the aged have the aspect, the manner, the skill, of such as have been thus engaged for all their lives. Where did they hide, one wonders, when they were young?
What was it that turned their thoughts to the following of these ancient handicrafts, assuming the mantle as it dropped from those who were passing away? Whatever the explanation, the fact is always the same.
Wagon-loads of baskets leave the little villages and are peddled through the countryside for miles. Many an aged village worker makes ladders of wear-defying strength. Many an aged woman makes for sale the braided rug and the rug that is hooked-the essential feature of the latter art being the hooking of brightly colored rags through bagging.
Wonderful old counterpanes are made, of precisely the kind that were made in the first century of Connecticut history. By fine needlework, and a bewilderingly unlimited number of stitches, muslin is puffed over soft cotton into a white area of exquisite design. The women sit forever over the frames on which the counterpanes are spread. Watching a Connecticut housewife at work on such a piece, the thought irresistibly comes that, had Penelope happily had such a task during the journeyings of Ulysses, it would have kept her sufficiently engaged during even so lengthy an absence as his without having to undo any of the work at night. It is considered exceedingly modest, even in a region of modest prices, to charge four dollars for merely marking out, on the cotton, the pattern of a good counterpane.
Many an old man puts rush or splint seats in chairs; and a very pretty art it is, with much of curious skill and lore. Rushes, the old men will tell you, must be gathered only in June. And the difference between a bottom of rush and a bottom of flag, or cat-tail, is not always apparent from the upper surface, but, turning the chair upside down, is at once to be seen, the distinction lying in the matter of the strips being round or flat.
Connecticut is the home of the old "banjo" clock, as well as of the tall clock with wooden works, but these two industries have vanished with that of the wooden nutmeg.
It is in Connecticut that the weaving of rag car-pets continues to be an art. And in one little cottage, far from a railroad, where the rags must be sent by stage, if sent by any but the people round about, we discovered a weaver who will weave (and did weave for us) a pair of really beautiful silk rugs, two and a half yards in length, for three dollars!-the rags being supplied to him but he furnishing the warp and cutting and sewing the rags and hemming the ends.
In a State where so much of the old-time handicraft work is continued as a business, it is natural that there should be considerable continuance of the old-fashioned as ordinary household occupations. Old women may be seen, working out of doors, be-side great kettles of brass or of iron which are suspended between forked sticks over blazing fires, and busy with the mysteries of various dyes for carpeting or clothes; with logwood or butternut or indigo. Many a household makes its own soap; an admirable hard, dry product, compounded of fat and potash. Here and there is a household that still molds its own candles; and we learned of a woman, old and indigent, who still makes the primitive dip! The ancient method of scouring pots and pans with equisetum, the horse-tail, otherwise known as "Dutch rush" or "scouring rush," valuable from its granules of silica, has not been forgotten. And there are still Connecticut housewives who know how to bleach beeswax in the traditional way.
It is a pretty thing to see this. A kettle of yellow beeswax is warmed into fluidity and set upon a table. Beside it stands a bucket of cold spring water. The woman dips her hand in the water; then plunges the hand into the beeswax; withdrawing it quickly, it is covered with wax which, owing to the water, slips off like a glove. She hangs this glove of yellow wax on a line in the sunshine; she hangs another and another; the bright sun bleaches them gradually to a pure white; and then all are thrown into the kettle again, and melted down, and the product is white beeswax.
And, added to all these things, Connecticut is the home of the old-time County Fair. Here it is in its glory, in variety of little and big, from the great fair whose week shows an attendance of tens of thousands to the little and oftentimes more interesting ones where the exhibits are simple and the attendance can be estimated by hundreds.
There are fine old towns along the Sound, and toward Rhode Island, that hold much treasure of old furniture. New Haven is particularly rich in such possessions. And there are inland sections, and some in the direction of the New York line, away from the railroads, that go sleepily on as if not knowing that the twentieth century has come knocking at their doors. Here and there in the untouched portions of the State are villages which look precisely as they must have looked before the Revolution; and in such places the furniture seeker is optimistically cheerful whenever a fan-light swims into his ken.
The finding of old-fashioned things possesses somewhat of the erraticalness of wireless telegraphy. A piece of old furniture may be discovered in the locality where one would most naturally look for it, or, like a wireless message, it may be picked up quite unexpectedly, at a distance from any point where it logically belongs.
But in spite of delightfully erratic chances which so often put things in the path of the collector in unanticipated places, the most natural neighborhoods for finding ancient treasures are those where the things were commonly made and used by everyone; and it is for this reason that Connecticut and Massachusetts are so well worthy of close scrutiny.
In an old Massachusetts house there was recently a quantity of old furniture, and an acquaintance of ours determined to acquire it.
"But the owner is worth half a million dollars!" came a neighbor's alarmed warning.
"That so'? But I don't want his money-I just want his furniture'." And he got what he wanted.
There is unbounded wealth of old furniture in Massachusetts. As a Colony, and as a State in the early days of the Republic, it contained more pieces, in quantity, than any other. But the field has been worked with a zeal commensurate with the value and with the vast number of potential prizes, and the summer colonists have vied with collectors in carrying the quest into almost every corner. And yet, so much existed here that it has been impossible for collectors, museums and summer colonists, indefatigable though they have been, to find and appropriate all that is capable of being acquired. It is still an admirable field.
Some years ago, in the ancient town which is of greater historical interest than any other in the State except Boston, we met an aged man who was custodian, in his own house, of the local museum. Most of the pieces belonged to him personally and numerous others had been loaned to him, for at his death the town was to become the owner and custodian. His mind had begun to grow a little dim, but the passion for collecting, that had been his one passion since his youth, was still as strong as ever. Moving gently toward the close of a long life, his fading eyes looked lovingly over the treasures he had amassed. No miser ever felt keener delight in counting gold. And yet, he was no miser. Under no consideration would he sell to anyone; but it was from him that there came to us as a gift, the cup of Major Buttrick.
In every part of his large house there was a massing of all varieties of household belongings. There were corner-cupboards, some made to stand detached, others which had been built into the walls of old houses. China filled the cupboards, and in one was what many consider the finest lot of Lowestoft in the United States.
He did not, indeed, realize the full value of every-thing. It was enough for him to collect the old; it was for others to divide and sub-divide into grades of interest. It was a town legend that, regarding this very Lowestoft, some one commented with a cry of surprise upon what it was. "What a lot of Lowestoft!"
Whereupon he responded, with a look of high displeasure, that it was not "low stuff" ; it had been Mrs. So-and-so's "very best china"!
Beginning to collect, in an old neighborhood, long before the general era of furniture collecting, he was able to gather numerous specimens of the earliest forms. For example, he had some of the earliest bureaus, or low chests of drawers, of which scarcely any are known of as existing previous to 17s0, as be-fore that time armoires and chests and tall cupboards were used. The bureaus became so rapidly popular that many were in service by the time of the Revolution, and a vast number by 1800, many having clawand-ball feet, and fluted columns at the sides, and charming serpentine fronts, and perhaps even panels of satin-wood set in the midst of the mahogany. This style of furniture, as well as others, could be studied in his collection, and he loved to speak of points which to him seemed important. One might smile at some of his classifications, but no one could smile at his ability to find and secure precious things.
That he freely offered us the privilege of sleeping in a room that was so crowded with antiques that there was scarcely space to move, and of sleeping there in a Jacobean four-poster which he believed had come over in one of the trips of the Mayflower, was the crowning proof of his love for fellow collectors-but the room and the bed were of so extraordinary a mustiness that we declined the privilege.
Another Massachusetts town, Salem, is dear to memory, not only from its treasures of the past but from being the place where, Westerners that we at that time were, we first saw a grandfather's clock ticking away, in a private house, in the very corner in which it had ticked through the Revolution.
In another old house, locally known as that of Roger Williams, were some Windsor chairs of particularly fine proportions, weather-beaten out of all color and so worn on their "saddle-seats" that the tops of the front legs were in sight; and these chairs remain with the clock, in our memory, because of their having been the first of that design which we actually handled.
In a corner of this old town, we secured two very fine old sugar bowls for the sum of twenty-five cents apiece; and these two bowls are among the prized smaller pieces of our belongings.
Among the beautiful Berkshire Hills one's first feeling is that there can be nothing left to find in a region so dotted with summer homes. One is tempted to give over, for once, all thought of acquiring ancient things, and to resign oneself to the fascination of a peculiarly charming hill country.
And yet it was in the very heart of the Berkshires that we discovered the old mirror as the cupboard door of the tool shed!
We stayed for some time in one of the many old houses, which, in New Jersey, are invariably termed "Washington's Headquarters," but which in all the other Twelve, including Massachusetts, are usually and modestly set down as "houses where Washing-ton slept." A comfortable, gable-roofed house, this, now used as an inn, with a monster chimney in the very heart of it, opening with hospitable fireplaces into various rooms; and, even if it may not have been drowsed into fame by our first President (and, after all allowances for the necessity of his having to sleep somewhere for the many nights of his lifetime, a too ready credulity of sleeping tales would make him out as a descendant of all Seven of the Sleepers), it has at least been slept in by a more recent President, and from its felicitous location upon a hillside it looks out upon a winding road, a delightful little stream, and a scene of radiant charm. And in this old house, among other reminders of the past, were a four-poster, two sets of andirons, three fine mirrors, one Empire and two of them Constitution, and wealth of blue dishes!
Again showing, all this, that everywhere, even in those regions where one would least expect antiquities to remain, they are still to be found. And, as always, where they are to be found, there are constantly recurrent chances to obtain them.
But at least in Boston, one is liable faintheartedly to think, there can be nothing obtainable. There are, however, antique shops in Boston, with good and bad, genuine and imitation. And there are many private houses in which are great numbers of desirable articles; and always, from time to time, there are such changes of ownership, such dying out of families, such dispersion of goods from one reason or another, as to give the watchful collector opportunities.
And there is still a distinctly ancient quarter of Boston; a neighborhood where old houses nod sleepily toward one another across narrow ways, where many a "bull's eye" of the primitive glass-makers is to be seen, and where, although most of the old-time furniture and fittings have been removed, leaving the habitations to the occupancy of folk who are not precisely to be deemed descendants of Alden and Priscilla, there are still some things to be found.
In one of the oldest houses, now occupied by Russian Jews, we came upon a superbly beautiful shell-top corner-cupboard, but so built into the wall as to involve very considerable expense in removal, even were permission to be gained and the piece purchased. We found the room used as a kitchen by the thronging inhabitants of the building, and the cupboard was a sad and unclean wreck; yet it showed, again, that hope should spring eternal in the collector's breast.
Of all the States, Massachusetts is the one in which the study of old.furniture from examples can most satisfactorily be pursued.
Not only in Boston are there fine collections to be seen; furniture in museums and in place in historical buildings; but other towns also have splendid accumulations. There is the fascinating display of the Essex Institute, at Salem; there is the old furniture gathered at Concord; there is the collection at ancient Plymouth, where, in spite of poetical declamation, the breaking waves did not dash high nor is the coast rock-bound; and there are the valuable collections of Worcester, Deerfield, and other places.
One may study the cabriole legs and shell ornamentation that were new and fashionable in the time of Queen Anne-new, in a sense only, for the bandy-leg first came from China, in the ships of Dutch traders. One may study old chairs, and begin to realize the general truth of the saying that the heavier the underbracing the greater the age! One may see, too, that chairs were not at all common until the Cromwellian era and the feeling of equality that came in with his Commonwealth; for, before that, stools and forms were usual for all except the head of the house. One may find original old chairs in Spanish leather-a type frequently counterfeited nowadays, with convincing display of disrepair and raggedness. And in collections such as these may be seen early upholstered chairs-upholstery having come originally from Venice, the city of wealth and luxury-and, by contrast, early English and American chairs with solid splats, and then the earlier simple splats preceding the beautiful ones of Chippendale.
Brass handles, too, may profitably be studied in these collections, if the collector has passed the first stages of what has to be learned; but, interesting though this branch is, and often valuable in fixing an otherwise doubtful date, it is so involved by the frequent use of old handles on new pieces and new handles upon old pieces that deductions are liable to confuse rather than enlighten.
So much, in collections like those of Massachusetts, tells of history as well as age; so much is connected with people whose names are household words; that the pleasure of examination and study is greatly enhanced.
The collector will not find things labelled Jacobean or Elizabethan, Adam or Heppelwhite, Chippendale or Sheraton. Such distinctions he must learn elsewhere. But he will learn the most valuable secrets of all; he will learn, by comparison of dates, what shapes go with certain periods, and what shapes lap over from one period to another; and he will train his eye.
And, supplementary to what may be learned in important collections, there are books, like the edition of "Cranford" which is illustrated by Hugh Thomson and the edition of "Elia" illustrated by Charles E. Brock, which set one back into the very atmosphere of the past, for the pictures are made from sympathy and full knowledge, and show old-fashioned rooms just as they were really furnished and lived in, and the characters costumed in the old-time way.