Some Early Acquisitions
( Originally Published 1907 )
THE house altered into readiness, we prepared to furnish it. And it seemed that it would be an excellent thing to have each of the rooms furnished in a different style : one Heppelwhite, one Empire, one Chippendale, one Sheraton, and so on; or at least that the prevailing furniture in each room should be of the same style. But that would be impossible for us to carry out with anything like completeness. It could be done only with free expenditure of money and time unless there should be exceptional opportunities. But it was well to have such a scheme in mind as an ideal, to be adopted as far as possible whenever opportunity could be made.
In any case, no piece of furniture should be secured not proper in design and age, except in those few cases of indispensable need where a less desirable piece should be used until precisely the right thing could be found; and then we should promptly get rid of the offending substitute.
The floors were to be bare if they could not be correctly covered. Good hand-loom Oriental rugs of satisfactory vegetable dyes fit any date and go with any style of furniture; and this whether the rugs are old or of modern make. But the color scheme must always be kept in mind. Fur rugs and skins go admirably with Colonial furniture. Braided rugs are a charming survival of a past industry, and, especially if they are made with thoughtfulness as to size and color, are very effective in many a place. Rag-carpet rugs are also good, if of a predominant color to go with the color tone of the room. It is not always realized how much, in general effectiveness, depends on the color. For braided rugs, or rag-carpet rugs, there is always some weaver or braider to be found who will be delighted to have intelligent cooperation and who will carefully make just the kind of rug one wishes.
At the sides of the hall, midway in its length, and opposite the side recess in which is the stairway, are four fluted pilasters, from which spring arches, inclosing a square with groined and vaulted ceiling. From the centre of this vaulting we hung a chandelier which deserves its name; for it is for candles only, of which it holds the Colonial number of thirteen. It is painted buff, with black trimmings, and has oval reflectors and graceful sconces. It is of iron and tin, and is about three-quarters of a century old.
Just inside the door is a mirror with a mahogany frame, three feet and a half by one and a half, straight-topped, and with slightly projecting cornice. It is of the general type of mirror of from eighty to a hundred and twenty-five years ago, and is itself about a century old.
Until the sixteenth century, the woman who would hold up the mirror to Nature had to hold up one of metal, for glass mirrors did not come in until then, and they were introduced by the Venetians. In England glass mirrors were not made until a little more than two hundred years ago-the ever-delightful Pepys tells of a looking-glass sent to the wife of Charles the Second by the Queen of France-but, as glass mirrors were undoubtedly in use in America before the era of English manufacture, they must have been of Continental, and probably Italian, make.
Our mirror has the effective pineapple ornament, the emblem of hospitality, which makes it the more fitting for a piece of furniture beside the door. Be-low the pineapple, on either side, is the carved pillar, with twisted-rope design, ending at the bottom in a tassel.
There is a narrow strip of wood across the upper part of the. mirror, dividing the inclosed space into two parts. This division was introduced in early days from the impossibility of making single pieces of glass as large as was desired; it was long impossible to make a piece wider or longer than four feet; but even after the art of glass-making was better understood the practice was continued from the be-lief that the crosspiece was necessary to a proper appearance. It was from this reason that mirrors of the size and period of that in our hall are in two pieces.
The mirror was discovered in a barn, and was entirely without glass. It was thickly marked by flies; thickly, as only a thing can be which has long hung in a screenless, not neat, kitchen of the country. Probably the farm-hands had used it, for many years, as long as a broken piece of glass remained in the corner. Then, when that fragment disappeared, the mirror was thrown into the barn; saved from complete destruction by a dim idea of some time repairing it.
It cost us, misused and shattered as it was, precisely thirty-five cents!
Being of beautiful mahogany, although the beauty was hidden by dirt, it was easily cleaned and polished.
And this matter of misuse and discolor points out, what the collector early learns, that neither color nor previous condition of servitude prevents a piece from being desirable.
There is a curious point about this frame, common to numerous other old frames, and typical of the time when artisans had personal pride in each piece of work. The topmost band of the cornice of the frame is not, like all the rest of the frame, of mahogany. It is of rich-looking cherry. And the reason was long ago explained to us by an old cabinet-maker who had learned some of the secrets and ways of the past direct from old-time workers. Mahogany, beautiful as it is, would, in the opinion of some, be too dark for effectiveness at the top of a frame. There, brilliant relief was sought for, to bring out the color and design and lines of all. And in consequence a moulding of cherry was often used as the surmounting piece.
There being no glass in the mirror, it was necessary to remedy that defect, and two pieces of beveled glass were put in. Nor is this anachronistic, though many claim that beveling has no place in old-fashioned mirrors. It is curious how widespread is that idea. As a matter of fact, beveled glass was long ago made by the Venetians, and Venetian glass-makers were fetched to England, two hundred years ago, to teach this branch of the art, among others, to English workers.
Our mirror has the small rosettes on the upper corners, as was customary; but they are of wood, instead of, as some are, of brass. It does not have the drop-acorn ornaments, as do several old mirrors of the vicinity.
Many mirrors of the period reaching from the late seventeen-eighties to the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century are known as Constitution mirrors, and are surmounted by the eagle, which sprang into popularity on becoming our national bird. Many of these are beautiful specimens and for that reason have been freely reproduced; so freely that the collector must be specially on his guard or else he will acquire a replica instead of an original.
This particular mirror that we are describing has the square-lined top, without the eagle. There may have been, originally, in the upper section, some picture instead of glass. Numerous mirrors of that time were made with rudely pictured rural scenes or battle pieces.
Beneath the mirror stands a small, square, Heppelwhite table, with two drawers; a table that looks well in that location, and is also exceedingly useful, for a small brass salver stands on top and the drawers are convenient for gloves and other articles.
The question of pictures came next. They must harmonize. with the hall and with the furniture of the olden time, and they must look well.
More pictures were used in the past than is generally supposed. Many an ancient house had tapestry, many a house had pictured wallpaper; but, on the other hand, paintings have been in high repute for centuries, and great numbers were made; the family portrait was an institution; and many prints and engravings and etchings were highly esteemed and commonly owned in the eighteenth century.
Thomas Jefferson had, at Monticello, one hundred and twenty pictures of one kind or another, some of them being copies of the great masters. Washington also possessed a large number of pictures, their total value being inventoried at a little over two thousand dollars. Other men of Colonial times had similarly large numbers of pictures, and many are therefore still to be found.
Unless, however, one has sufficient wealth to buy the work of the great painters of the past, he may not care to have only such pictures as ornamented the walls of, say, the eighteenth century. But one may find good etchings, or other pictures, made at the present day, which represent subjects of the past, or he may find pictures whose date is immaterial through being such as are of any time and all time.
For this old hall we were fortunately able to supply a series of prints representing scenes and cities of the Napoleonic wars, these being steel engravings made in the long ago, printed in colors, and acquired by bequest instead of quest, after long possession by older hands.
Then, to complete, there are a few other old-time prints-one of them of particular interest for this building, with its association with Washington Irving, as it is of Aston Hall, the original of the hospitable old English house which Irving describes under the name of Bracebridge.
The Napoleonic series and the others being all of a size, all framed alike in black passe-partout, all accurately spaced and all put at the same height, serve to accent the general effect of the hall, both as to design and age.
On one side was placed the wooden-works, seven-day, grandfather's clock. There are some old grandfather's clocks that have chimes for the playing of airs, others that mark the tides, the phases of the moon, and not only the hours but the day and the month; so that a simple tall clock, without such things, is not the greatest prize possible. But it being unexceptionable so far as it goes, we deemed it best to secure it when we had the opportunity, for it does not prevent our some day getting a more elaborate one. Meanwhile, the sober ticking, as of a Time that marches instead of flies, is an agreeable sound. To awake in the night and hear it gives an impression as if everything is going on as it ought. And it is pleasant, returning after an absence of a few days and opening the house, to hear it sonorously tick out a welcome.
It is natural to think of the grandfather's clock as being of an older type than the clock which has neither long pendulum nor long case. But that is a mistake. Grandfather's clocks did not come in till some time after this country began to be settled, and before they appeared there were in use here both clocks with weights and clocks with spiral springs. The pendulum dates back only some two hundred and fifty years; before that time a balance control was used. And not until after the day of long pendulums did the day of long clock-cases come, and then it came by evolution, because they were needed. At first the long pendulums were used on the old "wag-at-the-walls," as they were termed, and to protect the pendulums, which were frequently stopped or broken, the making of tall cases began. There were few grandfather's clocks before the be-ginning of the eighteenth century.
With clocks which, like ours, have the weight cords running over narrow-grooved pulleys, there is likely to be difficulty in finding strong enough cord. The chains, used on many clocks, cannot be used on these. After our weights once came down with a great crashing in the middle of the night we set about finding the right cord, and did so, at length, in a fishing-tackle shop where there was line specially made for the holding of tarpon or some other wild creature of the seas.
The cost of the clock, twelve dollars, was very low, even for one so simple as this. For the elaborate ones, it is not to be wondered that high prices are often asked, when we consider some of the prices of the past. None were low; and an advertisement in a New York paper of 1816 tells of a tall clock with musical attachments which was to be had for thirteen hundred dollars! And a New York advertisement of some fifteen years earlier arouses wondering interest, for it is of a clock, declared to have been the property of Louis the Sixteenth, which, although it had cost five thousand livres, could be purchased for five hundred dollars! Was it genuine? one wonders. Or had some dealer even then acquired the reprehensible habit of misrepresentation? And what became of it in the century that has since passed?
A few chairs are all that the hall needs; and one of them, simple though it is, is of a great deal of character. It is of ash, without arms, is rush-bottomed, and has four slats across the back. The slats are carefully graduated in width for the sake of effect, the narrowest being at the bottom. The side-posts stand absolutely perpendicular, from top to bottom, with an odd primness of effect, but the four slats are on a light and swaying bend both upward and back-ward. This chair was made nearly a hundred years ago, in a little Pennsylvania town, and stood for forty years as the entry-chair in the hall of a Pennsylvania lawyer. There are also chairs of this type that are made with five slats instead of four, but they are much more rarely found.
A chest stands near one end of the hall, a low chest of black leather studded with brass nails, iron handled and lined with old blue paper. It is a century old, was made at Galashiels in Scotland, and traveled to India and back in the possession of a British officer who served in the old wars there ; afterward it came to America.
In the early days, chests were of great importance as part of the furniture of a house, being used for the storage of linen and silver. One may still hope to find a fine chest of oak or dark walnut with some-what of ornamentation, or even a carved and painted old chest of English make. It would be unlikely, now, to find one of the corniced marquetry chests of the early Dutch, but even that need not be looked upon as altogether impossible.
At the farther end of the long hall is the door opening into the room with the big fireplace, and upon this door is placed an ancient iron knocker, acquired through the chance of happening to pass by an old house in the heart of London, literally under the shadow of Westminster, as the old house was being demolished. The demolition had reached the first floor; in half an hour the door would have been thrown down; but the offer of a shilling promptly secured the knocker, with bolts and all complete.
It is seldom that one can find an article actually in place, in that sense; but it is always highly satisfactory to find old furniture in use in the house that has long held it; or, what is even better, for the pieces are likely to be better preserved, in the very house where they were long used, but in the garret.
And one of the ways of securing things at the house for which they were originally bought or made is to attend a good country auction.