Hunting For Antique China
MY dearly loved friend, Charles Lamb, wrote, in his " Essays of Elia," " I have an almost feminine partiality for old china. When I go to see any great house, I inquire first for the china-closet, and next for the picture-gallery. I have no repugnance for those little lawless azure-tinted grotesques that, under the notion of men and women, float about uncircumscribed by any element, in that world before perspective -a china teacup." In that partiality for old china I humbly join, and it is of the search through New England for such dear old china loves, and of the gathered treasures of those happy china hunts, that I Write.
China hunting is a true " midsummer madness." When grass grows green and " daffodils begin to peer" my fancy lightly turns to thoughts of china. Hot waxes the fever as crawls up the summer sun ; fierce and fiercer rages the passion and the hunt, till autumn touches with her cold though glorious hand the trees and fields. Then doth my madness wane, and chase grow dull, and icy winter finds me sane and calm, till charming spring returns to witch me to "mine old tunes" once again. Thus is every china captive of that mad summer chase aglow to me with summer suns and beauty—not a dull lifeless clod of moulded painted clay, but a glorious idealized token of long warm halcyon days too quickly passed, of " yesterdays that look backward with a smile."
Were the possession of old or valuable specimens of porcelain and pottery, or even of happy memories of " days of joyance," the only good things which came from the long hours of country ranging and farm-house searching spent in our china quests, Philistines might perhaps scoff at the waste of time and energy; but much else that is good have I found. Insight into human nature, love of my native country, knowledge of her natural beauties, acquaintance with her old landmarks and historical localities, familiarity with her history, admiration of her noble military and naval heroes, and study of the ancient manners, customs, and traditions of her early inhabitants have all been fostered, strengthened, and indeed almost brought into existence by the search after and study of old china. How vague and dull were my school - day history-lesson memories of Perry, of Lawrence, of Decatur, until I saw their likenesses on some hideous Liverpool pitchers ! then I read eagerly every word of history, every old song and ballad about them. How small was my knowledge of old " table manners" and table furnishings until I discovered, through my china studies, how our ancestors ate and served their daily meals ! How little I knew of the shy romance and the deep-lying though sombre sentiment in New England country life, until it was revealed to me in the tradition of many a piece of old china. How entirely powerless was I to discover the story of human nature as told in the countenance until my inquiries after old china made me a second Lavater in regarding the possibilities of successful purchase in case the questioned one chanced to own any old porcelain heirlooms? How few of our noble wood and valley roads had I seen until I drove through them searching for old farm-houses that might contain some salvage of teacups or teapots ! And not only do we learn of America through our china hunts, but of England as well ; for nearly all of our old table-ware was English, and the history of the production of English china can be traced as easily in New England as in old England. Few of the more costly pieces came here, but humbler specimens show equally well the general progress of the manufacture.
Let me be just and honest in my tale; though all is ideal happiness in the hours of the china chase, the counting of the spoils 'is sometimes vastly disappointing. -
" As high as we have mounted in delight In our dejection do we sink as low."
There is no hobby of so uncertain gait, none other fancy in the pursuit of which one meets with so many rebuffs as in china collecting. I mean in real china collecting by individual search and pursuit, not in china buying at high prices at a fashionable china-shop. For such Croesus buyers, who know not the sweet nor the bitter of true china hunting, these pages are not written.
Sad, sad failures does your china hunter often make, but there is a blessed delight and pride when a long search is at last successful which rewards him and makes him, or rather her, forget the cruel blows of the past, and makes hope spring eternal in her breast, undying, and undimmed. Disappointments were few in early china-collecting days in America; friendly farm-wives then gladly brought out their precious and plentiful stores, and eagerly sold them for silver to buy a new cotton gown or a shell-comb, and attics and pantries were ransacked and depleted with delight. Now can the china hunter drive for days through the country, asking for old crockery at every house which is surmounted by a gambrel roof, has a great square chimney, or an old well-sweep, without even hearing of one old teapot ; and yet such is the power of china-love, she will start out again the next week, cheerful, hopeful, and undaunted, "to fresh woods and pastures new."
Nor will it always prove clear sailing should she discover the home of the sought-for treasure. She may learn from friendly and loquacious neighbors that " old Miss Halsey " or " John Slade's widder " has stores of old crockery in barrels in the attic, or on the top shelf of The pantry, or even " up over the woodshed," but she cannot obtain one glimpse of the hidden hoards—far less can she purchase them.
We have visited again and again one gray old farm-house in Massachusetts, a farm-house with moss-covered "lean-to," which we know contains enough old English pottery and porcelain to found a museum; but cajoleries, flatteries, persuasions, open demands; elaborate explanations, and assumptions of indignant and hurt astonishment at refusals—one and all are in vain ; not even one old plate have we ever seen. The farmer's wife greets us most cordially, gives us doughnuts and milk in summer, and apples and cider in the winter, maple-sugar in the spring, and hickory-nuts and butter-nuts in the fall, but in aggressively modern pitchers and dishes; and when we leave she urges us hospitably and warmly to " come again." We know well where her precious china is hidden. High up on either side of the great mantel-pieces in " living room " and " best room " are cupboards, so high that one would have to climb upon a chair to see into them ; and from the good wife's frequent and furtive glances—speaking though silent—at her locked cupboard-doors, we know well what treasures are stored therein.
At that china-hiding abode we often have concocted for us an old-time country drink, composed of water flavored with molasses and ginger, which was in Revolutionary times called "beveridge." Gallons of that vile fluid have I drunk with the hostess, hoping that the joys of the flowing bowl might loosen her tongue and unlock her cupboard doors, but I have risked my digestion in vain. Still I sit "smiling with millions of mischief in the heart," for life is short, and I am waiting, wickedly waiting; the farmer and his wife are old, very old, and when they depart from this life they cannot take their keys and crockery with them.
More complete and mortifying routs sometimes, though rarely, have befallen us. We were driving quietly along one day on the outskirts of the town, when we saw at the door of a shabby modern house, a vinegar faced woman, who sat energetically mixing chicken-dough in one of the most beautiful old blue and white Nankin bowls that ever was seen. As each blow of the heavy iron spoon came down on the precious antique, it struck an echoing and keener blow to our china-loving hearts, and we hastened to ask the owner of the bowl to sell it ere it was broken. Sell it ? not she. She didn't know where it came from, nor who had owned it—and she didn't care, but she wouldn't sell it for any money; and if a tin pan was just as good to mix the meal in, she would use this " old crockery thing" if she wanted to ; and she walked into the shabby house, and "slammed " the door before our abashed and sad faces. The thought of that bowl at the mercy of that fierce iron spoon has made us very unhappy ; scores of times have we driven past the house glancing furtively in, at the wood-shed, the hen-house, the kitchen door, ready almost to steal the poor prisoner if we found it unguarded ; but we do not dare attempt an honest rescue lest we suffer a still more ignominious and mortifying defeat.
Strange answers are sometimes made to our inquiries and requests ; strange objects presented to our china-searching eyes. In farm-houses, presided over by deaf old housewives we have had shown to us crackers for crockery, pitchforks for teapots, tubs for cups, and once, by some strange and incomprehensible twist of the poor deaf ears, or our own dull tongues, were cheerfully offered buckwheat flour when we asked to see a Washington pitcher. We also drove several miles at the sea-shore, in high spirits and with great expectations, to see some very old teapots, " all kinder basket work," and were confronted by a strange machine of seafaring appearance, which proved to be an eel-pot, and was truly an ancient one. Other kindly country souls, knowing well what we want, offer us as far more desirable and artistic treasures, faded samplers, worsted flowers, crocheted tidies, preserved wreaths, wax fruit, hair jewelry, and Parian busts, and look at us with commiseration when we cling to our strange idiosyncrasy—our preference for old china. Sometimes the kindly intention to guide and help us to our goal is evident and powerful enough, the desire to inform us is rampant, but power of expression is lacking, or even a modicum of memory; the narrow limits of country vocabulary are painful to witness and the expressions of its poverty are painful to hear, and suggestions only lead the speaker farther astray in his attempted descriptions. He is also color-blind, and has vague remembrance of size and nomenclature. .He can't describe the china, he can't date it, he can't name it, sometimes—though he vaguely remembers that he has seen it—he can't place it, he simply knows that somewhere he has seen something that he fancies may be somewhat like what we want ; and too often when we try to follow his vague and jejune clue, we go upon a " thankless arrant."
We once addressed to an old Yankee farmer, who had brought a load of apples into town, the stereotyped inquiry which we have asked, ah ! how many hundred times, and received this drawling answer, " No-o I donow as I know anyone as has got any old furnitoor or chayner she wants ter part with. My wife haint got any any-way. My Aunt Rebecca's got one curous old plate and I guess she'd sell it—she'd sell her teeth if anybody'd buy 'em an' pay enough ter suit her." We finally extracted from him (after much parrying of our direct questions) that, "she got it in Washington more'n fifty year ago," that " the folks set great store by it, and said it came from Mount Vernon and belonged to Marthy Washington," that it had the names of the States around it, " it was blue and perhaps green too, and it had stars sure and he guessed they were gilt." Now we had seen pieces of the Martha Washington tea-set, and we knew that it was decorated in blue and green with the names of the States in the links of a chain, and the initials M. W. in the centre in a great gilt star. We knew at once that Aunt Rebecca's plate must be one of that set. What a discovery !
To the benighted and narrow-lived souls who have never hunted for old china it may seem strange that we knew at once that it was one of those rare plates ; but I am sure every china hunter, whose path is always illumined by the brilliant possibilities which form such an encouragement in the pleasures of the china chase, will fully comprehend our confidence and anticipation. We figured our plate in all the loan collections, marked with our names in large letters as joint owners; we planned a velvet silver-bound box to safely hold our "heavenly jewel" after we had caught it; we even hesitatingly thought that we might make our joint will and leave it to the Mount
Vernon Association—and then we drove eighteen miles to secure it. I shall never forget the sickening disappointment I felt when I saw the Martha Washington plate. There were the names of the States ; and stars there were, but not a gilt one. And where were the touches of verdant color ? All was blue—deeply, darkly, vilely blue. At any other time we should have hailed the fine " States " plate which was shown us with keen delight, but now we could hardly speak or bear to look at it. At last, in sullen disparagement, we offered a dollar for it, had our offer accepted, carelessly took it, threw it an the carriage-seat and drove away. I reviled the farmer and his villainous memory and vocabulary, and would not look at the deep-dyed " States " impostor for a month, but when I heard that a collector had paid twenty dollars for a similar plate in New York, I unwrapped it and hung it on my dining-room wall, where it now shines a glowing bit of dark color, a joy forever.
Warned by many such dreary mistakes I am very shy of having china sent to me through any interest awakened by its description, and am equally 'shy of buying by proxy.
"Let every eye negotiate for itself, And trust no agent."
I have learned also to listen with attention, not placing the slightest confidence in what I hear, and yet always to investigate with cheerfulness and alacrity. It is not, how ever, from elaborately detailed and willingly told stories that I have had knowledge of my richest " finds." I have learned to "take a hint "a maxim which should be eternally impressed on every china hunter. Learn to " grasp the skirt of happy chance; " let your motto be, " Semper paratus." Let no suggestion of old people or old house-furnishings, no glimpse of blue color or sprigged surface, even on a broken sherd of crockery by the wayside, no hint of distant and out-of-the-way farms, no prospect of country sales, of "New England dinners," no news of refurnishing old houses, no accounts of the death of old inhabitants fall on unheeding eye or ear. For myself, I never hear the words " old china " but my heart is moved, more than " with sound of a trumpet." I breathe the battle afar and hurry to the fray, to return at times victorious with dainty trophies of war, and sometimes, alas, empty-handed, with the hanging head of sore disappointment and defeat. Sometimes the scent is poor and broken and you must ferret out the way to the lair, even with much trouble and diligence you cannot always learn at once and definitely the lurking-place of the porcelain treasures ; you meet with reserve and a disinclination to reveal. Then comes stratagem to the fore. Learn to wheedle, to hint, to interrogate slyly, to blandly let the conversation drift—"muster all wiles with blandished parleys, feminine assaults, tongue batteries "—in short, vulg. dict., to "pump" and work that pump with judgment, with craft, and with thoroughness. Moments of quickly repented expansiveness come to all mortals in country and in town, and in those rare moments of telling all they know, even reticent and secretive country people will give you many a china clue to follow.
I have not found, as did the members of the China Hunters' Club, that country housekeepers would, as a rule, rather have money than china; my country people will not sell their china willingly—they prefer china to silver. Times have changed since 1876; a fancied knowledge, an exaggerated estimate of the value of old "crockery " now fills many a, country soul, and a high monetary value is also placed on family relics, on "storied urns" and on the power of association. I will confess that, as a last resort in times of direst stress, when you really cannot go without that Pilgrim plate, when you positively need it—if you take your money out and lay it on the table in full sight of the plate-owner, you wield a powerful lever to work the transfer; nor do I consider such a statement at all derogatory to the character of my New England neighbors, nor is the trait peculiar to them.
But do not make too aggressively prominent the money part of the transaction.. Be courteous and careful even to extremes in addressing your country people for purposes of china purchase. Never ask them to sell their china—sell is a most offensive and brutal word—ask them if they are "willing to part with it." Never hint, by word or deed, that you fancy they really need the money. Never disparage the desired articles, the shrewd country wives would see through your pretence at once—" Why, if it be so common-place, do you wish it ? " A base and deceitful, though clever, china hunter of my acquaintance declares that she has found it invariably to her advantage to say that the coveted article matched exactly, either in shape or decoration, something which she had at home. The staid country mind, liking to see things in " sets," always appeared to be most immoderately and unaccountably influenced to sell by this disingenuous assertion.
We have many times during the past five years crossed the trail of a collector who appears to have wholly depleted of china the old farm-houses of the Connecticut Valley. We have found, through comparing the accounts of his visits, that he has a little slyness too. He always desires to purchase his particular bit of china simply to form a link in a chain. He either has a specimen of the entire succession of production of a factory except the very piece the farm-wife has, or he has z perfect list of historical plates except the very plate she owns, or he has a choice bit of every known color of lustre except her special pitcher. The satisfaction of supplying the long missing link, and the value that link will give to a history the purchaser is going to write of such china, seem to prove a powerful lever to effect the transfer to his catenulate collection.
The men are, as a rule, always willing to sell china—when did man ever reverence the vessels of his household gods ? I always delight to ask a Yankee farmer, in field or road, whether he has any old crockery that he would be willing to part with. How he will skurry home " cross-lots," over the ploughed fields, or through the rows of growing corn, eager to pull out and sell his wife's pantry treasures ! Not that he can sell them if " Mother" isn't willing—in her realm she reigns supreme. Even in the midst of my sore disappointment I have thrilled with malicious satisfaction and delight to see the calm and authoritative way in which "Father" is turned out of the " butt'ry " when he tries to pull down from the shelf an old blue bowl or plate to sell.. " Mother" has kept her cinnamon-sticks and nutmegs for her apple-pies in that " Blue Dragon" bowl for forty years, and she isn't going to sell it now to please anyone. To hail the farmer in advance with china. questions is not, therefore, so underhanded and despicable a proceeding as might be thought, nor so dangerous to the family peace ; he really is a poor, uninfluential, unpowered vassal in kitchen and pantry, his advice is not asked, his word is not heeded, nor if he attempt to be at all bumptious will his presence be tolerated. I have found it to be an unvarying rule that the farmer is always willing and eager to sell] his wife's mother's china, while the wife is always openly disparaging, and cares little for his mother's china ; and when once the source of inheritance is discovered, the rule of action and plan of attack are plainly defined.
It may be argued that it is neither very courteous nor very kind to walk into a stranger's house and ask him to sell you his household goods and chattels. To such argument may be offered the reply that one can hardly judge a farm home by the same rule as one does a city home. The visit of a stranger is regarded with widely different eyes ; it is a pleasure, a treat, to most farm-wives to receive such a visit, and the farmer will come plodding home from the distant fields, in order not to lose the chat with the stranger and the pleasant diversion. Who would attempt to enter and to lodge over night in a stranger's house in the city ? A police-station or a lunatic asylum would probably quickly shelter your intruding head. There is hardly a farm-house where such a suggestion would be unwelcome or resented, provided you look not like a bandit or horse-thief. Then, too, farmers and even farm-wives do not generally regard their old furniture and furnishings with quite the same feeling that we do ours. The old blue Staffordshire ware they consider almost worthless, and are often glad to sell it for ready cash ; but their lilac-sprigged china, a wedding-gift or a purchase with their few hard-earned dollars, they often value and cherish as we do Sevres. A farmer handles very little money-his wife still less, and ofttimes the money paid by china hunters is a godsend in country homes. Much good is done, much comfort conferred by exchanging money for crockery. Carpers say : " But you do not pay city prices." Sometimes, alas, we do, fired by our china mania, " the insane root that takes the reason prisoner," though we never should. The farmer does not pay city rents, he has not the risk and expense of transfer to. the city, he pays no salesman. If he could sell all his farm products as easily, profit ably, and safely as he sells his china,, lucky would he be. Sometimes the discovery that the " old blue pie-plates" are of any value is a delight and a surprise to him, but he sees at once that when they are worth so much he cannot afford to keep them. Hence he is far from being offended at the easy means of sale offered to him.
One piece of advice I give to china hunters—advice, the wisdom and advantage of which I have learned at the cost of much unpleasant and disappointing experience. Do not hurry prospective china sellers : bustling city ways annoy them, fluster them, and worry them, and in sheer bewilderment they say " No " to get rid of you.
Be tentative and gentle in your approach. Do not—as we did—rush in upon a deaf and timid old lady and frighten her, by the bouncing and bustling inquiries we made, into vehement denials of china-possession and simultaneous refusals to sell anything. This dear old " Aunt Dolly " lived -in the sole new house in a village of old colonial dwellings, and we rather contemptuously thought to pass by the brand-new French roofed intruder, but decided " just to ask "—and " just to ask " and receive a frightened negative answer was all we did do, and we left with self-important assurance, to hunt elsewhere.. A tin-peddler (a "china runner" perhaps in disguise), with quieter voice and more truly well-bred manners, carried off her rare treasures about a week later—a canopy-topped mirror with Washington and Franklin mirror-knobs, a Boston State House" pitcher, four " Valentine plates having Wilkie's design, half a dozen Staffordshire plates with the "cottage" pat-tern, and two Wedgwood teapots ; and Aunt Dolly took as payment two shining new tin milk-pans and a cheap wringing-machine that wouldn't wring. We knew her well in after years when it was too late, and she confessed to us that at our first meeting we talked so fast, and talked together, and " hollered so she couldn't hear," and that she did not understand what we meant or what we wanted, and said " No " to obtain peace.
And oh ! what an enviable advantage the ubiquitous tin-peddler, that " licensed vagrom," has over every convention-trammelled china hunter! What a delight, what a dream it would be to go a-china hunting with a tin-peddler's cart; what lonely out-of-the-way roads and by-lanes I would take, careless where I went, since wherever I wandered I should be welcome. How I would sit on my lofty seat and view the lovely country o'er, in the " sessions of sweet, silent thought," with my strong and willing and safe horse to pull me up hill and down dale; with my stock of shining tin-ware, my brooms and notions and gaily painted pails, all ready for advantageous exchange with my big, red, roomy wagon, in whose mysterious cavernous interior I could store in safety unwieldy china treasures, such as tureens and bowls and pitchers ; with my air of ready assurance, of intimate familiarity with the family, my jovial raillery, my opportunities of kitchen and pantry investigation, my anxious health inquiries and profound medical advice, backed up by bottles of patent medicines which I should sell at half-price to curry favor and china ; or, better still, exchange, giving a bottle of liniment for a " Landing of Lafayette," or a box of pills for a Pilgrim plate—oh ! next to being a gipsy living under the greenwood tree, who would not be a Yankee tin-peddler a-china hunting ? But perhaps the farm-wife might wish me to take in exchange for my wares, eggs, or butter, or rolls of wool—what should I do with a pail of butter in summer-time on a tin-peddler's cart ? Or, worse still, old rags—just fancy it —instead of old china! I should then answer her with an air of deep and sombre mystery : " Madam, I would gladly take your _readily exchangeable merchandise an' I could ; the old rags are particularly desirable and attractive, but I have sworn a vow—I have a secret which I cannot now divulge—it must be crockery or naught, especially dark blue crockery with American designs, else I and my glittering and uncommonly cheap wares must pass wearily on, homeless, chinaless, a wanderer on the face of the earth." Alack-a-day ! such happy peaceful joys are forbidden to me, not because of lack of inclination or capacity, but—thrice bitter thought—because I am a woman. Tin-peddlering is not for me, it is not " woman's sphere." Perhaps when I am old, too old to clamber up and proudly sit on that exalted driver's seat (though never too old to go china hunting), perhaps when women have crowded into every other profession, calling, and business in the land, some happy, bold feminine soul will taste the pleasures of "advanced life for women," the pleasures forbidden to me, and dare to go tin-peddlering, though there will then be no old china left in the country to buy.
Though I have never been china hunting with a tin-peddler I have been on the trail with a Yankee china dealer, and his unique method of management was delightful. He worked upon the most secretive, the most furtive plan. He never would have shared with us his coverts nor taken us to his haunts, save for this reason : he had run down a noble prey, an entire set of fine old English ware, and to his dismay the owner refused to let him enter the house. Again and again had he. essayed to come to some terms, even to see the china, but with-out success. He felt sure, however, that if any woman asked she would not plead in vain, hence his divulgement as a favor to us. We made several stops at farm-houses on the road to our goal, and his way of carrying on his business of china buying deserves to be told as a matter of interest and instruction to amateur china hunters, for he was a professional, a star. He never, by any chance, told the truth about himself, and above all never gave his correct name and place of residence, nor drove away from the house in the way he really intended to go. He represented himself as an adopted son, this seeming to be more mysterious than ordinary family conditions; never gave twice alike the name of his adopted father, but had a series of noble parents, the most prominent and influential men in the country around. The reasons he assigned for wishing to buy the china were so ingenious and so novel that we listened to him in de-light and amazement, and with keen anticipation as to what he would next invent ; the glamour of romance was added to the delightful madness of china hunting. He was at one farm-house a tender-hearted, indulgent--husband, whose delicate invalid of a wife had expressed a wish for a set of old china and he was willing to spend days of search in order to satisfy her whim. It is need-less to add that he was a bachelor. At another time his adopted father was losing his mind and would eat off nothing but old-fashioned china; hence he was hunting to find a set to carry dutifully home. Again he was fitting out a missionary-box for the Western wilds, and wanted to buy a little old-fashioned crockery to send out to the minister to remind him of his New England home. At the next door he assumed an air of solemnity and dignity and announced that he was founding a museum, and was forming a collection of old New England house-furnishings as a nucleus. At another place he swelled with paternal kindliness, and wanted to get a few plates to give to his three little children to show them the kind of crockery he used to eat from at his grandfather's. Once he boldly announced that he was a china manufacturer and was- dissatisfied with the quality of his ware and wanted some old china to grind up and thus learn the correct ingredients. Then he was collecting china for the Columbian Exhibition. At another door his wife turned into an accomplished china-painter who wanted these plates for patterns. He curried warm favor and won much china at one house by stating that his mother's china set had been badly broken by her daughter-in-law and he wished to replace the broken pieces. An aged couple who were living with their son and his wife were easy victims to this specious invention. He bargained for hay, for potatoes, for. a whole farm ; we seemed at one time in imminent danger of being forced to buy a cow and to depart leading her behind the wagon. Let me be just to this inventive soul ; his dishonesty lay in words only. , He paid good prices for all the china he bought, neither undervalued nor disparaged it ; and showed a thoughtful kindliness toward the dwellers in every house he visited. After a prolonged stay within one shabby kitchen he appeared with two little copper lustre saucers which he rather shamefacedly acknowl-'edged having paid two dollars for. We extracted from him that he had found a bed-ridden old woman alone, shivering, thirsty ; that he had built a fire for her, pumped water, and paid for her only pieces of old china double their value because he pitied her so.
We suggested at one house that he should say plainly that he was a dealer and wanted to buy the china to sell. He scorned our dull, commonplace suggestion, and said it wouldn't be any fun, and that they wouldn't let him within their doors. " Half the places I go to anyway they look out the window afore they answer me to see if I aint got a sewing-machine in the wagon, and if they don't see any, then they think I must have a cyclopedy." China hunting was to him the romance of his life, his tournament, his battle= field. He told us of several narrow escapes he had had from detection, and exposure of his fables. In addition to vending old china, he sold old junk and farming tools ; and thrice farmers of whom he had bought china recognized him within his own doors. But with the active imagination of a Dumas, he had an instant explanation. He had either just gone into the business, or else they were mistaken: he had a twin brother who had been adopted, etc. He developed to us a plan of action which we were to pursue at the special farm-house that contained the set of china. He would stop at the foot of the hill and lurk out of sight while we climbed to the door. Then we were to represent ourselves as relatives of the Republican candidate for Governor, as it was within a week of election and the farmer was a Republican. We were to tell little anecdotes of the candidate's private life, to hint that it was to please the Governor-elect that we wished this china, and that it would be used in the gubernatorial mansion in Boston. He told us exactly how we were , to work up the conversation and lead up to the purchase, what to pay and what to offer at first. All was well and carefully arranged when a dire suspicion seized him that Farmer Rice was a Democrat after all. This depressed him much, and he decided to sound a neighbor on this important point ere we committed ourselves within doors. His conversation with the guileless neighbor held us spellbound, he represented himself as a political census taker and hinted darkly that we were to be the candidates for high offices on the Woman's Rights ticket at the next election. He found that farmer Rice was a bitter Democrat. This was a sharp blow, for neither he nor we knew one thing about the private life of the Democratic candidate—not even where he lived, nor indeed on our part one thing about politics anyway. Nothing daunted, he searched a newspaper which he chanced to have, and invented an imaginary home for the Democratic Governor, which would doubt-less have answered every purpose, with the strong points on Free Trade and Protection which he drilled into us. We very prosaically, however, preferred our old honest plan, and whether because of our suspicious appearance on foot at such a great distance from any village, or because we made an extremely inauspicious entrance, awakening a very deaf old lady from a very sound nap, we could not buy the china either, but we saw it, a whole chest full, and the sight was well worth the long journey.
Thus it may be seen that china hunting, like many another hobby, is not a wholly ennobling pursuit. Strange and petty meannesses develop, in you, envious longings, you have "an itching palm," you learn to be secretive and dissembling, "to smile and smile and be a villain." You learn to hide your trail, to refuse to give information to other sportsmen, to conceal the location of your hunting-grounds, to employ any wile to gain attention and entrance. Two worthy young men, without a fault, save an overweening and idolatrous love for old china, can attribute their fall from the paths of honesty and truthfulness to china hunting. Searching one day in a country town, one of these china hunters descended from the carriage and pounded the knocker of a fine but some-what dilapidated country mansion. A pompous and repelling old gentleman of extreme deafness and reticence opened the door. What was the amazement and mortification of the waiting friend in the carriage to hear the bold intruder roar in his loudest and most persuasive voice, "I have come to see whether you have any old china, or know of anyone who has old china to sell," and as the door was about to be slammed, he added, " My friend, the late Judge V------, of Worcester, told me that if anyone in the country knew of old china and relics it was you."
The way that proud and shy old man rose to that transparent bait was wonderful to behold. He ushered in the young deceiver, with Chesterfieldian bows of welcome. The " late Judge V--" had been a man well known and honored throughout the county, though he knew so little and thought so little of china that he might have dined off pewter and never known it—but he was dead, and could never be brought up as a refuting witness, which was a great point. The lonely watcher in the carriage sat shamefacedly waiting, cringing at the thought of his companion's wickedness. He listened to the loud roars into the deaf old ears as the twain walked from room to room while " glozed the tempter," and the specious sounds were wafted out on the summer air; he thought of possible treasures within, he listened and wondered and yielded —such is the contaminating of wicked example—walked into the house, and added to the lie tenfold. As a result of their duplicity, and since the flattered one was a widower with no woman to say nay, they captured and brought away four Millennium plates, two Wedgwood pickle-leaves, a silver-lustre teapot, and a glorious great flip-mug. But " things ill-got had ever bad success ; " as they lifted the large and knobby newspaper parcel from the carriage, it slipped from their contaminating grasp, and all the pieces were broken save the flip-mug, which, being specially protected, escaped. Though warned by this plain rebuke, they persevere ; and so hardened are they now become in their base habits of deception, that they have worked that " late Judge V—" scheme, with some slight variations, in a score of country homes. They always tell that abominable falsehood whenever they have a man to deal with, not only adding deception to deceit, but showing a most despicable lack of originality—a most damnable iteration."
They cringingly allege their intention to change the name of the imaginary recommender as soon as any one of sufficient note and widespread fame in the county dies, and thus through his death becomes eligible to the position in the fable. I only wish the wraith of the late Judge V—, a man of portentous ugliness in real life, such abnormal ugliness that the thought of the sight of his dematerialized ghost is really appalling—I only wish his indignant wraith would appear before them at the lintel of the door, at the portal of some china-besieged house, and demand, in the loud roars which characterized him in his lifetime, the meaning of this unwarrantable and presumptuous use of his name.
In the meantime, unchecked and undiscovered, this simple and transparent scheme invariably works to a charm—how proud the man always is to learn that the late Judge V— recommended him as a connoisseur of anything ! he hastens to sell his china, if his wife be willing and, have any to sell, and he manages to think of someone else who will probably sell, should he chance to have none himself. The flip-mug has been filled many a time to the old-time toast, " Success to Trade"—and yet the base china hunters are really honest fellows enough in every-day life. Alas ! that greed for things so beautiful should so deform the soul !
Such duplicity is, however, rare. I tell of it only to express my abhorrence, my condemnation. Dissimulation is seldom necessary. You are sometimes falsely accused of it when your motives are as open as the light of day. After telling with exact truth precisely what I intended to do with some pieces of china, I was answered, with an angry toss of the head, " Why didn't ye tell me first-off ye didn't want me to know."
We are sometimes, in our china hunts, brought into close contact with baser crimes than falsehood and duplicity. We have a number of daintily-shaped pieces of sprigged china, with a graceful ribbon border, which are known to us by the name of " Beach ware," but which would be generally and more correctly called " cottage china." These six-legged teapots and cream-jugs of " Beach ware" received their descriptive and pretty title from the simple folk of whom they were bought, not from the name of their maker nor from their place of manufacture. " Beach ware" was found in crates or boxes along the beach on the shores of Barnegat Bay at the beginning of this century. It was part of the cargo of a great English ship laden with china, which was lured to destruction and robbed by a notorious family of Barnegat "wreckers," one of whose members died not many years ago at the age of ninety years, having served in his youth a well-deserved term of twenty years' imprisonment in State Prison, the sentence received at his trial for cruel robbery and murder through "wrecking."
At that time, though vessels and their cargoes were insured, the underwriters frequently did not make their appearance down the coast at the scene of the wreck for many days and even weeks after the ship broke up or came ashore. And when the tardy officials did arrive, Barnegat natives, even from far inland—honest men and knavish rogues alike—had always managed to capture everything of value that came ashore or could be taken from the vessel. In order to conceal their stolen salvage, indestructible merchandise or articles that were not affected by the action of the soil and water were frequently buried until after the baffled insurance company and the ship's owners had left the scene. The arrest and sentence of the leader of this gang of wreckers caused much apprehension and excitement in every Barnegat home, and much fine china was pounded up or thrown into the water, as well as buried, lest its presence seem proof of complicity in the convict's guilt. Our pieces of " Beach ware" remained underground for years—it is said until the wicked old convict served out his term in prison, since he alone could find the spot where he' had buried it. The green-ribboned and pink-sprigged teapots and teacups look too innocent to have known aught of such wickedness and violence, but bear no more guileless face than did the patriarchal old wrecker in the peaceful prosperous days of his later years when he unblushingly and unwincingly sold to us this " Beach ware," of which his gossiping neighbors had told to us the tale.
Shall I have the dire name of " fence" applied to me when it is told that I am the receiver of stolen goods ?
The best piece of Wedgwood jasper ware that I own was bought from an old Englishman of mild appearance and junk proclivities. A second visit to his den found it closed. A friendly plumber in the adjacent shop explained with effusion that the junk-man was a wretched old thief, and no one but thieves sold to him or bought of him (I winced at the accusation) that " he broke into a museyum in England and stole a lot of china and brought it over here to sell, and had kep' stealin' ever sense," and he (the plumber) was "glad the perlice had chased him out, for he was a disgrace to the neighborhood." Was, not my pretty Flaxman-designed piece of Wedgwood stolen from that English collection ?
A beautiful cup and saucer of old Worcester in the " Japan taste," rich without and within in red and gold and blue, has long been regarded by me with intense suspicion of my honest and legal right to its possession. It was sold to me with the assurance that it had belonged to Lucien Bonaparte ; I did not doubt that part of the story, for I had seen its sister in the possession of a family who I knew inherited it through a gift of that Bonaparte. But how should my cup and saucer have been offered for sale to anyone ? By a curious chain of circumstances, too tedious to repeat, I discovered that the pretty cup and saucer had been stolen by a servant, and sold long ago to an old merchant in New York, who should have and doubtless did know better, but who loved old china. Shall I tell his name ? Shall I hunt up the lawful heir and owner of my Worcester teacup ?
Only one possibility mars the pleasure of a day's china hunt—the necessity of obtaining a midday meal " upon the road," in any chance farm-house you may be within at high noon. The old hunter fights shy of such repasts by carrying her lunch with her, but when a drive of several days is taken this course is not very attractive or possible. She must then succumb to fate, accept the hospitality which is invariably and cordially offered to her, and eat, or, at least, try to eat. I think June is the most trying month for such ventures. Spring vegetables are unknown in the land of their supposed birth. Fruits and berries are not ripe. You are given a mysterious repast, flavored throughout with sour milk and smelling of sour milk, which reaches its highest and sourest point in the bread. I always plead dyspepsia and cling to a milk diet, thus eliciting much sympathy, and hygienic and medical advice. Doubtless in late fall or in winter, country fare might be more endurable, but, with keen and most vivid fancy, I cannot imagine going china hunting in the country in the winter time. Even glorious sleighing or the promise of vast treasure trove could not englamour it with an enticing charm. Think of shivering over snow-blocked roads under leaden skies, through dreary, wind-wailing naked woods, struggling up icy, snow-swept, and blast-beaten hills to that lonely hill-top home, a New England farm-house ! Hope would perish on the road. Think of entering that drear abode; of sitting, while you unfolded your wishes and went through the stereotyped china questions with the stereotyped china smile, with bursting veins and flushed face, in a stuffy, torrid, unaired room, in front of a red-hot, air-tight stove, for there are no glorious open wood fires nowadays in the great chimneys of country houses in New England. Think of going from that super-heated, stifling atmosphere to a frigid pantry or icy best room to look at china ! How the congealed plates would clatter in your trembling stiffened fingers ; how you would hurry through the repelling ordeal; never, as in summer, climbing upon chairs to peer on upper shelves, never exploring in old window-seats, never lingering to examine separately and lovingly each plate in a great pile. Above all, think of ransacking a farm-house garret, " in cobwebbed corners, dusty and dim, with the thermometer below zero-it is beyond my power of fancy to fathom such a scene. A fellow china hunter tells me a tale of a lonely drive and Arctic exploration, and of riding gayly home therefrom in the winter twilight, warming the cockles of her heart with four Baltimore & Ohio plates pressed closely to her side, with two Lafayette pepper-boxes and half a dozen Lowestoft custard-cups packed snugly in her muff, and with a Pennsylvania Hospital platter in the fur robe at her feet. I never believed her; it could not be true. China does not grow in winter, 'tis a fair summer flower, and must be gathered under summer suns.
But to what out-of-the-way, simple, rustic scenes has our china hunting led us through the long summer days, scenes to be painted by Miss Wilkins or Mrs.. Slosson. To country auctions—not the ill-ventilated, Hebrew-jostled, bawling arenas of city life, but auctions in country villages, on old farms, where the auctioneer, if the day be warm, stands outside the house on a door taken from its hinges and laid across two barrels on the green, or among the beds of flowering phlox and marigolds ; where the lots for sale, unnumbered, uncatalogued, and unclassified are handed out, a heterogeneous company, to the presiding seller through the Open windows behind him ; where every small parcel of value is neatly tied up and labelled with the names of past owners—Aunt Hepsy, Mrs. Catey Doten, Old Job Greening; where every queer-gowned and queer-coated neighbor for miles around has driven over in every kind of vehicle to look at, if not to buy, the scattering house treasures. At these country auctions, china and ancient underclothes, or pewter porringers with feather pillows, may form a single " lot," and you must buy all or none. If you purchase you pay your money at once to the auctioneer, with much friendly change-making by hard-fisted old farmers on either hand ; the china is delivered to your eager hands, the under-clothes are thrown to you or at you by the auctioneer over the heads of the audience ; the hay-rakes, or churns, or quilting-frames, or whatever addenda may have been tacked to your porcelain, are brought around and piled in a little heap by the side of your chair, or if you have "backed up" your country wagon, are placed therein. I once bought six large bundles of neatly labelled pieces of woollen cloth, pieces of all the old petticoats and breeches and greatcoats that had been worn in that house for forty years, just to get one India china plate. A rugmaking—or I should say, " mat-braiding "—dame at my left, seeing my dismay at my unsought treasures and noting my love of china, offered to give me a modern match-box for the tidy bundle of pieces, which kindly exchange I gladly accepted as being less cumbersome, if not more beautiful.
Surely the summer sunlight never flickered down on a more typical New England scene than a country auction. Sad are the faces around, quiet reigns; no one smiles, no one jests as the hoarse-voiced auctioneer holds up, ex-plains, and extols some very mirth-provoking "lots." This breaking up and disbanding of a home has no droll side to country minds. The last country auction I at-tended was at an old house in Rutland. At it were sold the effects of an ancient lady of ninety years, who had just died. Her nephew, a lively lad of eighty, carried away by the excitement of the sale, or by the sight of so much ready money, recklessly handed out to the auctioneer, as he stood under the dusty lilac bushes, a large number of articles of furniture and tableware which had been temporarily stored in the house by the old lady's house-keeper, an equally ancient matron. The unconscious theft was discovered late in the afternoon, just as we were about to drive off, and the old man, overcome with horror at his unwitting crime, or dread of the results of its discovery, tearfully forced us to disgorge half a dozen McDonough's Victory plates and several mugs and pitchers which we, had eagerly purchased and gleefully packed away. He " comforted us with apples," however, pressing upon us a peck of red-streaked, spicy Sapsons to console us for our evident disappointment—and our sorrow that we had not sensibly and cannily departed at an earlier hour.
But do not fancy that every gathering of country wagons in country door-yards, every row 9f patient horses hitched at barn doors and along the fence, denotes an auction within the doors of the farm-house. Draw no such rash conclusion, and make no hasty and unheralded entrance within, else you may find yourself, with china smiles on your lips and china inquiries on your tongue, an impetuous and mortified intruder at the saddest of all sad scenes, a country funeral. I cannot resist telling that, after one such impertinent intrusion on that solemn function, we returned in a few hours, when on our way home, to apologize and explain our infelicitous and uninvited entrance at so unfitting a time. When we stated that we were hunting for old-fashioned china, a gleam of comprehension entered the faces of the two elderly women who sat rocking by the fireside in the lonely kitchen, and as a result a china-closet was raided, and we bought a number of pieces of unusually fine Canton and Lowestoft china. At the time of purchase, we innocently fancied that we gained this treasure honestly from the new-made heirs, but have since then had harassing suspicions that the china was sold to us by temporary care-takers who remained to"redd the house," while the mourning relatives had driven to the country grave-yard, and who thus snatched from the jaws of death a most dishonest penny.
Nor can you be over-confident that all auctions held in the country are true country auctions. The ways of antique men " are past finding out. A sale of the household furnishings of an old farm-house in the heart of the White Mountains, attracted a vast number of summer travellers, and brought forth purchase sums that bewildered the farm residents for miles around. Ere the sun went down on the day of the sale, a thrifty dealer who happened to be present had had a conference with the farm-wife, and as a result it was announced that she had a reserve stock of furniture and china in her garret, which would be sold the following week. Back to town sped the dealer, packed up a vast collection of unsalable debris which he chanced to have on hand, and an " as-sorted lot" of modern willow pattern ware, freshly imported Canton china, new copper lustre and painted tea-sets, with a sparse sprinkling of old pieces. He sent the entire lot by rail to the New Hampshire town ; conveyed it by dead of night to the farm-house ; placed the crockery in the cupboards, the brand-new brass candlesticks on the mantels, and the flimsy new andirons in the old fireplaces, arranged all the furniture in judicious shadow, and had a successful auction of " rare old colonial furniture and family china."
A famous starting-point, or rather rallying-point, on a china hunt is the district school. Driving along the quiet country road, you-chance, in some barren and unlovely spot, often at some lonely cross-roads, upon a small unshaded, single-storied building, whose general ugliness and the beaten earth of whose door-yard tell to you its purpose and character without the proof of the high-pitched and precise chorus of monotonous threesyllabled words that vibrates shrilly out through the open window. Hitch your steed to a tree, a fence, by the roadside, and enter one of the twin portals of the abode of learning, passing by the low-hanging rows of ragged straw hats, gingham sun-bonnets, and chip " Shakers," over the "warping floor," in front of the "battered seats, with jack-knife's carved initial." " Teacher " is glad to see you, the children are gladder still. She sends, a grinning barefooted boy out to draw a pail of fresh well-water. You are asked, as a distinguished visitor, to address the scholars. If you are a man, and thus of course an orator, you do so with fluent tongue. If you are a woman, and thus tongue-tied in public, you can ask for " recess " to be given, and make your address informally to each little freckled face. You are, of course, anxious to refurnish a house like the one in which you lived when you attended the village school in the days of your youth. Do the children know of any old blue china plates with trees and houses on them ? Have their mothers or grandmothers any pitchers with pictures of soldiers, or sailors, or ships ? Of course the children know ; they know everything—far more than grown people. You soon have an exact ceramic report from every house in town whose little sons and daughters are in (he school, and of the homes of all their neighbors too. You have extracted an unbiassed account from a set of little ready-tongued and keen-eyed spies, whose penetration is acute, and whose memory is active. If you can draw you can quickly show the children with chalk and blackboard the kind of china you wish, and can depart with a long list of houses which will repay you to visit.
But why do I longer tell the story of the chase, or vainly try to give advice and rules for china-finding ? I can only " pay you my penny of observation," knowing well that " Gutta fortunae prae dolio sapientiae. Nor can I fitly paint the pleasures. nor tell the pains of the search, more than I could mould and shape the treasures it has brought to my home. Nor can I hope to fire in other veins the fever that burns in mine ; I must be content to say with Olivia, "Tis a most extracting frenzy of mine own."
( Originally Published Early 1900's )