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The Field In Philadelphia And Vicinity

( Originally Published 1907 )



FOR the lover of the old, the sign of ancient furniture always possesses a potential attraction, whether it be represented by the "Antichita" of a back street in Perugia, the "Anciens Meubles" of Tours, or the "Antiques" of Fourth Avenue or Pine Street.

On our own side of the water, antiques-of all things-are apt to run in fashions, although fashion is supposed to have nothing to do except with the things of to-day.

In the fashionable shops, fashion rules in the setting forth of the old! At one time no prominent establishment will dare be without its pair of stone lions; at another time, the old stone cistern-top of Italy, with grooves worn by the ropes of centuries, will be everywhere in view. One suspects that the ropes are sometimes of the twentieth century, but none the less, if there is a place to put it, one cannot be in the fashion without the stone well-curb! At another time, no sign of stone is to be seen, except on inquiry, and articles of wood arbitrarily rule. And, according to fashion, the ruling wooden furniture may be Dutch or French or our own Colonial.

But the real collector cares nothing for the passing fashion, and is therefore likely to be best pleased with the out-of-the-way shops where fashions are unknown. In Philadelphia, as in other large cities, these are tucked away in odd corners.

Not that the large shops are to be arbitrarily avoided. One may find there precisely the genuine bit he has been searching for. And in Philadelphia, on an average, prices are likely to range lower than in New York.

Philadelphia and its vicinity offer a fruitful field. A loan exhibition given in the Germantown quarter of the city, only a few years ago-it was in 1902-gave some indication of the prodigious number of old pieces still preserved. After all, it need not be wondered at. For in that section there is an imposing array of Colonial homes, and the entire city is a city of ancestry. Not only, therefore, did all the exhibits have a local habitation, but many were connected with historical names. There was profusion of old silver and pewter, of brass and china; there was profusion of swell-front chests, of pieces of inlay and marquetry, of pieces of oak and walnut and cherry and mahogany. Naturally, too, there were fine specimens of the Windsor chair, Philadelphia being the city in which that style of chair was first made in this country, not long after King George the First established its vogue in England.

One knows that the field must be broad in which there are such gleanings, and so the quest of old-time furniture thereabouts has the constant fascination of probable success.

When the breaking up of some old family, or the death of its last representative, brings about the dispersion of old furniture, and the goods are to be sold, it is not customary, as it is in New York, to hold the sale at a shop, but in the old house itself.

One such sale, and it was typical, was held not long ago in a house in the central part of what is known as Old Philadelphia, near Rittenhouse Square. An aged spinster, last of her line, had died, and strangers went tramping through the house that had sheltered her forefathers and then herself.

Even here, with the passing of the years, the mod-ern had crept in, but there was still much of the old, particularly in the sitting room, which, in accordance with ancient Philadelphia custom, was situated on the second floor of the extension, above the dining-room :-this situation of the sitting room of the old families giving that darkened effect to the houses, after nightfall, that so puzzles visitors from other cities.

There were book-cases, and tables, and chairs ; there was a rare dressing-glass, in old lacquer; there was a fire-screen, a tiny square of mahogany, which pushed up and down, adjustably, upon a slender spindle; and there was some of the rare Belleek ware, made in Ireland half a century ago; a tea service, cups and saucers and teapot and bowl, all of the distinguished Belleek shape, low, squat, and broad:-a kind of ware whose manufacture has been revived in Ireland, of late years, and is coming again upon the market.

In the numberless little trips which may be made in the vicinity of Philadelphia the impression of the existence of a great quantity of old-time material, in private houses and in shops, is confirmed.

At a town upon the Delaware, less than an hour by rail from the city, we found a curious little wistful-faced, droop-shouldered man; silent, rather; al-most shy, indeed. His shop seemed to have but little irit. A few candlesticks, a piece or two of mahogany, some china which, if one were disposed to be captious, might scoffingly be set down as modern reproduction.

At first the man was torpidly indifferent; but we knew of him by reputation and therefore knew that there was more to him and to his ancient furnishings than appeared upon the surface. But nothing had given a hint of what was really to come.

Slowly he thawed; slowly he perceived that he was talking to some one who appreciated and cared; and he led the way into a long and narrow room be-hind his little shop. It was full of treasures; and then he led the way upstairs, through his living rooms, and into apartments filled to overflowing with ancient things, where old cupboards and secretary drawers hid quantities of glass and genuine deep blue china.

Then down the street we went with him, and through a passageway, into a cold and drafty barn crowded full with antiquities.

In one of the dark corners stood, side by side, a high-boy and a chest-on-chest, names often used interchangeably, although, properly speaking, a cheston-chest comes practically to the ground, whereas a high-boy leaves sufficient space for cabriole legs.

This high-boy was one with its top constructed for the display of china, and in appearance it was not much later than the date at which high-boys first appeared; that is, about the beginning of the eighteenth century. The chest-on-chest was of a later date; naturally enough, as, although there were a few in use by 1750, they did not become at all common before the time of the Revolution.

Then there was an odd interlude. There was still more to show, he said, but he had promised to act as pall-bearer at a funeral and he hoped that we would excuse him for a while. He assumed black hat, black coat, and air of decent mournfulness, and we watched him go away. With an open trust much at variance with his initial and almost churlish torpidity, he offered to leave us in charge of one of his places, to look about, while he was away! But we did not wish to remain as guardians in his absence, and therefore interested ourselves in the task, that at first seemed hopeless, of finding an attractive lunch-eon : and found, after a while, a wonderful darky, in an unpromising looking place, who gave us delectable deviled crabs and other fruit of the sea.

Then back from the funeral came the dealer; but not until he was out of his black clothes and their concomitant mournfulness was he himself again.

This time he led us to a boathouse, with a shaky floor, where through great ragged holes we could see the Delaware coursing beneath. Here were gathered many additional pieces of the old and valuable. Once, in New York, we came upon a corner-cupboard holding up a roof which had settled down upon it; once in New Jersey, we looked at a chest of drawers, with a serpentine front, which stood in a corner where the floor was dangerously sinking; and here, on the Delaware, were pieces of furniture which threatened to fall into the river if we should step across the shaky floor to reach them.

There were chairs needing faith as well as works to restore them, there were candlestands which, reversing nature's law, could maintain a balance only when standing on their heads. Everything was as he had obtained it; nothing had been repaired, nothing restored. But in spite of a glad willingness to show his wares to those who would appreciate, it was clear enough that his personal desire, apart from needful considerations of prosaic dollars, was to hoard and not to sell.

In truth, this man and his establishment were curiously, in character, like the old collector and his rambling warerooms on Long Island; and since doctors are a class by themselves, and lawyers and business men and mechanics, why should there not be distinctive traits about a class who handle and sell the old for the love of it!

If one is to consider all of Pennsylvania as being in the vicinity of Philadelphia, it opens a wide field. The line of southern counties is rich in articles of the early time, and one may go as far as Westmoreland County and the Ligonier valley, where the stone houses, stone chimneyed, give a not misleading promise of early treasures, or even so far as that region of homely and delightful romance, Mrs. Deland's "Old Chester." One may explore the south and west of Pennsylvania with deep pleasure in the exploration and with satisfaction in results; but it is not positively needful that one should go so far; there is much to be had within easy distance of Philadelphia.

We wandered at random, one autumn day, through a charming inland town, some twenty-five miles from the city. Old trees shaded the old houses and old-fashioned flowers bloomed in the old gardens.

We turned a corner, rounding a large and comfortable house, and saw, standing within a porch of generous proportions at the side, a thin and fluttery elderly little Quakeress.

She was talking with a townsman, who was halting with reluctant feet, looking back longingly at a bundle of magazines which he had just set down, and trying to overcome his cautious frugality.

"Thee may take them or leave them, just as thee chooses," said the little Quaker lady, bringing the incident to a close with a mild peremptoriness under which the man went shamefacedly away.

It was evident that at this house, although there was no sign or announcement, something was being sold. If one thing, why not another? And it was a charming house, with charming possibilities.

And so one of us stepped inside, and the Quakeress stood smiling a greeting from the top of the few steps.

"Can you tell me if any one in this town has a claw-footed sofa, and would be willing to part with it?"

"We have one here, and are willing to sell it to thee," was the reply.

She asked us in, and called her husband.

And we saw, directly facing us, set in front of a closed fireplace, precisely such a sofa as we were in search of. In every particular it answered the requirements which we had in mind. It was eight feet long, inside measurement. It was done in dark leather, however, rather worn by years of use, instead of its original covering. It was a thing of perfect lines and curves. It had claw feet, and above them were elaborately broad and spreading wings. Each arm was in a superb double curve, and the faces of the arms were beautifully carved in acanthus leaves, with the carving narrowing and broadening to follow the changing line of the wood. The back was elaborately carved from end to end, with a charming interrupted roll in the middle. At each end, under the lower curve of the arm, was a space for one of the old-fashioned hard cylinder pillows-a fashion of much older date than this sofa, but revived a century ago-but we discarded the pillows as the sofa was finer and in better proportion without them.

This sofa had been used by the two Quakers for thirty years, and before that had been in possession of the one from whom they obtained it for some forty-odd years; tracing back the pedigree, thus, to 1830. Previous to 1830 there is no record of it; but it could scarcely have been much more than twenty years old at that time, as it is of early Empire style.

The Quakers showed us through their house; they had decided to sell what they had, and give up housekeeping, although they had been housekeeping all their married life. We went from room to room, and up waxed stairs, and saw old-time bits at every turn; on every side. And_ again we thought, what quantities of old furniture still exist, when this house, found so entirely by lucky fortune, was but one out of many.

The sofa was not the only article that was obtained from them. We secured a high-boy, well over the century mark in age, and worthy of its name, it being more than six feet high. It is of walnut, with wealth of drawers graduated in size. Bandy-legged it is, and has web feet; web as distinguished from claw, the rib of the toes being indicated instead of completely carved; a style often used on fine old pieces from their being considered less breakable than the claw-and-ball.

And now, here is the strangest part of a strange story. The two Quakers sold scarcely anything be-sides what they sold to us. Ready to dispose of their old treasures as they were, they were ready for a short time only. Whatever had turned them in that direction was so soon and so completely altered as to cause them to decide to keep their home and all their household goods, after all. Surely an old-furniture providence watches over the ardent collector.

They felt no regret for having sold to us; at least, if they did they stoutly maintained to the contrary, and they wished nothing undone that had been done. Only no more was to be sold, whether to ourselves or to any one else.

And we found that we had made two delightful friends, of tastes congenial; friends whom it is a pleasure to meet and to hear from. "We were sorry to have missed you the other afternoon"-in such wise writes the old gentleman. "Come again; come again on the first day of the week. For in the Friends' calendar the first day of the week is consecrated to the social amenities."

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