IN past years any stray china-lover who wished to see and to learn had to search well to find any public collections, or even specimens of old china, in America. In town-halls, in the curiosity shops of eccentric old women, or in the " museums " of land-stranded old sailors, a few pieces might be seen—not saved nor shown because they were china, but because " Parson Board-man, who preached forty-nine years in this town, owned this tea-set; " or " this china was taken out of the cabin of an English frigate in 1813;" or "these mugs were used when George Washington passed through the town.' In this class of discursive and disjointed collections, though of course in a superior and highly honored way, might be placed the china of the Museum of the East India Marine Company in Salem, of whose arrangement Eleanor Putnam wrote, " it was as if each sea-captain had lounged in and hustled down his contribution in any convenient vacant space." In that old museum, as I re-member it a decade ago, elaborate models of Chinese junks and American merchant vessels bore on their miniature bowsprits strange additions to their rigging, and shadowed by their dusty hulls queer and varied trophies, queerer then than now—sharks' teeth, Turkish pipes, sandal-wood beads, Italian crucifixes, Peruvian pottery, and South Sea shells and savage weapons. Teak-wood furniture and miniature palanquins and pagodas sheltered many curious china treasures which I vaguely re-call, queer in name and shape—nests of egg-shell saki-cups and saki-bowls galore ; ink-stones of green celadon with their accompanying water-bottles and little cakes of gilded India-ink ; perfume flasks of painted Japanese wares ; bottles of purest porcelain for Oriental hair-oil, or, rather, hair-glue; pottery jars full of unpleasant-looking mouldy mysteries, which might be preserved fruit or might be mummies ; " plaster boxes " lettered in Chinese ; strange triangular bits of blue and white Persian porcelain "to clean out shoes with;" old Liverpool mugs taken from a wreck and wildly labelled " from Ceylon ; " and, chief of all, two vast soup-tureens of purest white Canton porcelain, duck-shaped, six feet in length from beak to tail by memory's measurement. In the ,cold light of re-cent and more mature inspection these two great East India birds of good cheer, like many another remembered object of the good old times, shrank to about half their ancient size; but are still impressive relics of the great days and great dinners of the old East India Marine Company, the dinners where, filled to the wings with some hot, well-peppered Indian broth, the twin tureens graced the board around which gathered all these old treasure-bringing and treasure-giving Salem mariners.
A recent visit to my dearly-loved and warmly-remembered old museum grieved my heart ; its charm was gone. Great, light, airy rooms have been added to the old building ; an arranger, a labeller, and a model cataloguer have ruthlessly invaded the dusty cases and weeded out the boxes of dried-up and shrivelled fruits, the skins of moth-eaten birds, and of seedy and disreputable fishes. The Chinese paper-fans and woven baskets, once rare enough to be carefully treasured in a museum, now seen in every dry-goods shop in the land, seem wholly to have disappeared. The iconoclasts have prosaically separated each old sea-captain's relics into parcels and placed them in wonderfully well-arranged and classified cases, labelled Madagascar, Alaska, Sumatra, or whatever the land of their early home may be. I suppose the shoe-cleaners and hair-oil bottles are there somewhere in their properly assigned places, but I did not search for them. I glanced at my old friends, the punch-bowls, and the great duck-tureens, but the old-time glamour, the " unstudied grace " of the museum was gone.
In many public buildings at the present day, among treasured colonial relics, may be seen fine specimens of old china. A neighbor of the East India Marine Company, the Essex Institute, has a small but interesting and well-labelled collection of old Salem china.
The Bostonian Society displays in its rooms in the old State House in Boston a number of old Liverpool pitchers and about twenty Staffordshire plates and platters with American designs, as well as some pieces of the china of John Hancock and a few other good Boston citizens.
In the rooms of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Locust Street, Philadelphia, may be seen a number of interesting pieces, including a set of Dresden cups and saucers, presented tc Benjamin Franklin by Madame Helvetius, of Auteuil, that extraordinary friend of Franklin's whose behavior so shocked Mrs. Adams. By the side of this Dresden set are the beautiful coffee-cups, teacups, saucers, teapot, creamer, bowl, and chocolate-pot presented to Mrs. Robert Morris, wife of the United States Minister of Finance, by Luzerne, the French Minister ; a cup and saucer said to have been used at the wedding of George Washington ; a punch-bowl made for the Society of the Cincinnati by order of Colonel Hampden ; several Washington pitchers ; a Perry pitcher, and an Erie Canal pitcher.
In the Deerfield Memorial Hall, in the rooms of the Connecticut Historical Society, of the various societies of antiquity, and local associations throughout New England, may be seen good pieces of old pottery and porcelain, often with an interesting and doubtless authentic story 'attached, but too frequently wildly and amazingly labelled as to place of manufacture and date.
Many rich private collections exist. Vast stores of old colonial treasures are preserved in private houses in our Eastern States. The Washington pieces of pottery and. porcelain in the Huntington Collection are far outdone in beauty and in rarity by many private collections, such, for instance, as that of Miss Powel, in Newport of Mrs. Russell, in Cambridge; while the varied collection of old china at the house of the Washington Association of New Jersey, with the exception of the historical interest which attaches to it through the story of various past owners of renown, and excepting, of course, the rare and beautiful punch-bowls, is equalled and excelled in many a New England home. In Hartford the collections of Mr. Trumbull, of Dr. Lyon, would make envious any English china-buyer. In Albany, in Philadelphia, in Worcester and Providence, in New Haven and Washington, in New York and Brooklyn, many a closet and room full of well - preserved colonial china show the good taste and careful judgment of loving owners. In Boston the collection of Mr. Wales is of unbounded interest and value.
There is but one public collection in America which I have seen that is of positive and unfailing worth to the American china-collector—the Trumbull-Prime Collection. I mean for the china-collector for whom these pages are written, the gatherer of household wares of colonial times and of the early part of this century. It is much deplored by residents of New York that this beautiful and instructive collection has not found a home on shelves neighboring the Avery Collection of Oriental porcelains in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it has been placed where it will serve a nobler purpose than contributing to the pleasure or profit even of china-lover or china-collector—where it will instruct the china-maker. In the spacious cabinets of the beautiful art building of Princeton College, it is near the great china factories of Trenton ; and may the owners of those factories soon learn the lesson of beauty and variety of form, color, and paste, that is so plainly shown in the china treasures gathered by Mr. and Mrs. Prime.
It has been easy for anyone, for everyone, who had any idea or knowledge of old china, tc form a collection of china in America. Of course, the value of the accretion was variable, not so much resulting from the length of the purse of the gatherer as from his judgment and care in buying. It is still possible to obtain such a collection. The old china is not yet all discovered and culled from country towns. One china-hunter found in Northampton, that besearched city, in a summer week in 1891—found and bought and bore away in triumph—a large States pitcher, a Boston State House pitcher, a Trenton Falls plate, a Capitol plate, two State House plates, several pieces bearing the design of McDonough's victory, a dozen or more plates with English views, two helmet-pitchers, several pepper-pots, and, in addition to the " treasures of clay," a tall clock and four harp-backed chairs that once were Jonathan Edwards's, a Chippendale table, and various trophies of pewter and brass. Dealers might have visited these Northampton folk in vain, but this beguiling china-hunter bore away his cartload of old furniture and crockery for a sum total as small as in days of yore.
It is for such slow and careful collectors that these pages are written, for the collectors who having read and studied all the foreign text-books and histories and manuals of pottery and porcelain still know very little of the china within their gates, the china to be gathered in America. The number of such china hunters is steadily crescent. In Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, china collections are being formed ; and many of the finest specimens of American historical china that have been offered for sale in New York and Boston "antique shops" during the past year have been purchased and sent to California.
It is a matter of course that this old china should show to its best advantage in an old-fashioned house, or in a new house built in " American colonial" style of architecture. But whatever the house may be in which all these loved china waifs are assembled and cherished, it should not conceal them, as in Charles Lamb's "great house," in a china-closet. A suitable resting-place for the old pieces is in the sheltering home in which it passed its early days—in a corner cupboard. This was in olden times called a "beaufatt, or " bofet," or "beaufet," or " bofate," or as Cowper wrote of it
"This china that decks the alcove
A corner cupboard seems to be, like all old-fashioned furniture, well adapted for the express purpose for which it was made. It is not a modern pattern combination china-closet, washstand, and refrigerator all in one, but for the simple purpose of china-holding and china showing it is perfect. The old china never looks prettier (except when on the table) than in its wonted home —a corner cupboard or beaufet. The narrow scalloped or crenated shelves with their wider rounded projections at the extreme back seem expressly shaped to show each piece to its best advantage. Even the Gothic small paned glass door, when present, does not hide the dainty pieces. The apse-shaped, shell-fluted top with its pillared frame and carved sunbursts, and its surmounting brass eagles or balls, seems a fitting roof to shelter the fragile in gatherings.
The old china seems always to look better and more at home in an old-time setting. On page 44 is shown a shallow dresser, an adaptation of an old kitchen fashion, with narrow ledges of shelves hung with old pew-ter porringers, which proves also a delightful way to show to plain view the rows of blue and white plates, especially the dainty gems of "cup plates," which are so treasured and loved by the china-hunter that there never seems to be any spot altogether worthy to hold and display them quite as they ought to be shown. Of course, large articles-what were called in olden times " hollow-ware "—cannot be placed on a dresser; tiny pepper-pots, salt-cellars, tea-caddies, very small creamers, and plates and platters set on edge must form the dresser's only burden.
Another old-fashioned resting-place for china may be adopted in modern times for the sustentation of any broken-nosed, handleless, nicked, cracked, or scorched treasure, "the broken .teacups wisely kept for show," which no true china-hunter will despise, but which will not bear the too close examination of scoffers, and to which distance lends a haze of enchantment and veil of perfection. I mean a "crown of steps," or "shelf of steps," or "china steps," as they were variously called. One is here shown, but as they are so rare nowadays perhaps the term needs some explanation. On top of a high chest of drawers, a "high-boy," was placed in olden times a three-tiered, graduated platform of " steps " to hold and display china. The lower tier of the platform was about eight or ten inches shorter and five inches shallower than the top of the " high-boy." This left free a shelf of about five inches wide upon the sides and front of the top; the tier was four or five inches high. The second tier, or step, was made shorter and narrower in the same proportion, thus leaving a second ridge or shelf. The top tier, or platform, was smaller still. Thus when the china was arranged around the three sides of the "crown of steps" it made a pretty pyramid of pitchers and teapots and jars, and each piece could be plainly seen. Rather high up in the air they were, perhaps, for purposes of close examination or for freeing from dust, but safe from danger of breaking. Very rarely an old " high-boy " will now be seen with a fixed or permanent "crown of steps," but usually this set of china-shelves was separate, and frequently was only made of stained wood. Such were probably the " Steps for China Ware of Abraham Blish, of Boston, in 1735, which were worth only two shillings. Such also were "the steps & some small China thereon" of John Proctor in 1756, since they were worth only five shillings and fourpence. Another inventory has this item : " I Japan Chest Draws and Steps for China."
On such a "shelf of steps" the china is " out of the way;' and for the same virtue I like to hang china on the wall—pitcher, jugs, cups, as well as plates—they are so safe and yet so plainly visible in that position. Then you can do away with " the dozen little teetery tables " that litter and obstruct our rooms and make man's life a burden. There is a certain restfulness in the spacious parlors of some old houses that I know, a sense of room in which to move, of liberal elegance, of substantial good taste, that is owing largely to the absence of small littering chairs and tables. Everything is upon the walls that can be hung or placed there ; decoration is profuse, but not in the way. I would rather keep china anywhere than upon a table. Perhaps the upsetting of a tea-table, with its burden of eighteen teapots, and the utter annihilation of teapots and depression of spirits that resulted, may have conduced to this feeling. For the purpose of hanging plates upon the wall come various little wire frames or holders; but when you have fifty or one hundred plates in your dining room, even these cheap holders are quite an expense. Mr. Prime gives in his book an illustration and the details of the manner of making a wire frame or holder by which to' hang plates on the wall. This invention of his is very ingenious and very good; many a one have I in my home ; but it requires for its manufacture a wire-workman or a tinker, either amateur or professional, and tools of various kinds, and a neatly made spiral cylinder of wire. This places the possibility of manufacturing Mr. Prime's holder quite out of the reach of the average woman. I, too, have invented a holder, and it can be made by any woman, since she need employ but one tool—her own distinctive instrument—a pair of scissors. The materials, too, are peculiarly feminine—picture-wire or strong twine, and dress-hooks. I will say for the benefit of the masculine china-hunter who may read these pages that both white and black dress-hooks can be purchased for a few cents a dozen, and of various sizes, from the heavy cloak hooks, which are strong enough to hold a thick Delft plaque, to the tiny hooks that are sufficient to sustain a fragile saucer. And the process of manufacture of my plate-holder is so simple! You use your tool but once—to cut off the length of wire. Then place four of the dress-hooks at equal distances around the rim of the plate, slipping them firmly over the edge. String your wire on the back of the plate through the two loops at the end of each of the four hooks and draw it tight. Twist the ends of the wire firmly and neatly together, make a little wire loop by which to hang it, and your plate-holder is done. A man may use a pair of " cut-nippers " to cut the wire, and a pair of pincers to twist it if he so will; but a pair of scissors is all that is really necessary, and will answer every purpose, though the usage is not thoroughly conducive to the welfare of the scissors. I will not say that this holder is better than Mr. Prime's, though I point with pride to the facility and simplicity of its construction ; but I think 1 can boast that it is cheaper.
The dark blue Staffordshire plates especially should be thus hung on the wall, where they form so rich a point of color that they put to shame all the thin water-colors and pale French china in their vicinity, and make us fully appreciate Oscar Wilde's sigh of " trying to live up to his blue and white china."
But let me no longer dwell on the charms of our widely gathered possessions, lest it be said of me as was of Horace Walpole
" China's the passion of his soul,
but end with the assurance that I fully concur in the words of a well-known English collector : China-collecting is not a mere fancy—it is a complete education."
( Originally Published Early 1900's )