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Early American Craftsmen
The new way of displaying museum collections is not behind glass doors but in a reconstructed environment. Lower hall of the Colonial house containing the Pendleton Collection, Providence, R I
THE VOGUE OF AMERICANA
PATRIOTISM, when it leads to war and desolation, ceases, in my opinion, to be a virtue; but when it leads men and women to the revival and preservation of worthy traditions and institutions, and to the study of history, of folk literature and music and the industrial arts, it becomes a positive, constructive force for good in the onward march of civilization.
America is still young compared with Europe and Asia, but it is not so young that we are free from the danger of forgetting much that was worthy and memorable in the lives of our forefathers. In the midst of our modernism and commercialism we need an injection of that sort of patriotism and national pride which is born of ancestor worship and the backward glance. We need to cultivate a finer appreciation of our historic and artistic heritage.
Among American collectors and connoisseurs, both amateur and professional — enthusiastic custodians of a gentle cult — this spirit of patriotism has of late been growing. They have been turning their attention toward Americana.
The mild mania of the collector of antiques is insidious. It becomes a quest without an ultimate conclusion. One begins with blue Staffordshire plates and Hepplewhite chairs, passes on to the Jacobean walnut and Wedgwood stage, then to Elizabethan oak, and finally nothing satisfies but more or less fragmentary relics of the Italian, Spanish, French, or Flemish Renaissance.
But there is noticeable a reaction from all this. Beginning with the exhibition of American silverware in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1906 and the exhibits of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York in 1909, there has been awakened a new vogue for American antiquities of a hundred-odd years ago. The field is not without distinct interest. There is the furniture of Duncan Phyfe, the clocks of Eli Terry and Simon Willard, the silverware of Paul Revere and his contemporaries, the glassware of Baron Stiegel, Windsor chairs and samplers, and a host of other treasures as worthy of preservation as the cracked chests of Tudor England or the tattered altar cloths of Spain. It is a field that should prove more and more alluring to patriotic Americans as they begin to appreciate more fully the true artistic genius of their forefathers.
And with this new vogue of Americana has come an increasing interest in American Colonial and Revolutionary history and the establishment of a more vivid and human background for the stirring events of other days. For there is something distinctly human about the development of the industrial arts; they touch life at so many points and so intimately; and the students and collectors of Americana have been, unconsciously perhaps, reconstructing for us a more living picture of the men and manners of a former time, and history is made thereby a more vital thing. The collector has ceased to be absorbed entirely by the quest for a bargain and has become a delver after human facts.
Happily for the growth of this new interest, the leading art museums of the East and many of the smaller ones have, during the past ten years, been taking the matter seriously, and the private collector of Americana is granted the opportunity of studying his favorite branch under the most advantageous conditions.
Edwin Atlee Barber, Ph.D., Director of the Pennsylvania Museum at
Philadelphia, we are indebted for most of what we know of the history
of American ceramics and glassware. He began his studies and his
collecting twenty years ago, long before there was any special
interest in or appreciation for Americana, and he has written several
books on American ceramics and glassware which stand as
authoritative. The Pennsylvania Museum collection in this field is
the largest and most comprehensive in existence. There are something
like one hundred and fifty pieces of Pennsylvania-German
slip-decorated ware alone, while the entire collection of American
pottery and porcelain, covering the history of the art in this
country from the beginning, numbers over one thousand examples. The
collection of American glass, comprising about six hundred pieces, is
also the most representative in existence, and includes examples of
all periods beginning with the first American glass works established
at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1621.
A corner in one of the rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, containing the Bolles Collection and other Americana
Another noteworthy collection of American pottery is the Pitkin collection at the Wadsworth Athenæum in Hartford, Connecticut. It includes early earthenware from all of the New England States and New York, sgraffito and slip-decorated ware from Pennsylvania, Bennington ware, etc.
The pioneer in the field of American furniture was Dr. Irving W. Lyon, author of "Colonial Furniture in New England," which was published in 1891. He gathered an excellent collection of American-made furniture found in New England, particularly about Hartford. When this collection was at last sold a large part of it was acquired by H. Eugene Bolles, Esq., of Boston, a contemporary collector of English and American furniture of the seventeenth century. Mr. Bolles also acquired the collection of Mr. Albert Hosmer, a Hartford cabinet-maker, and with these collections as a foundation he succeeded in getting together a splendid representation of the work of early American furniture makers before there was any great demand for it. In 1909 the Bolles collection was purchased by Mrs. Russell Sage and placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it is now on view. It is particularly strong in the finer American work of the Georgian period.
Another valuable and unique exhibit is the collection of Colonial furnishings gathered by Mr. Charles L. Pendleton of Providence and given by him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1904. Mr. Pendleton's aim was to furnish a house as an American gentleman of taste would have done toward the close of the eighteenth century. The house containing the collection was the gift of Mr. Stephen O. Metcalf and was built in accordance with the type of architecture prevalent in Providence at the time of the Revolution. The collection is strong in American-made furniture and represents the work of one hundred years, beginning with 1690.
The finest single collection of old American silverware in existence is that gathered by Hon. A. T. Clearwater of Kingston, New York, and placed on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Judge Clearwater began collecting American specimens after visiting the loan exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1906, and built up his collection rapidly. At present there are four hundred and thirty pieces on exhibition. of these two hundred and thirty-four are flatware of the eighteenth century, one hundred and forty-three are tankards, beakers, teapots, porringers, and other table utensils of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and fifty-three are specimens of early nineteenth century work. Judge Clearwater is constantly adding to the collection. About half of the eighteenth century pieces antedate 1750. There are specimens of the work of John Cony, Edward Winslow, John and Benjamin Burt, Andrew Tyler, Benjamin Wynkoop, and others, and a large number of pieces by Paul Revere.
There are smaller collections of Americana at the Essex Institute in Salem, the Concord Antiquarian Society, Memorial Hall at Deerfield, and a number of other places that are well worth visiting, while such private collections as Mr. Frederick W. Hunter's Stiegel glass, Mr. R. T. Haines Halsey's furniture and silver, and several others, have played an important part in the development of this new interest in Americana.
The Pendleton collection is typical of the new idea in museum exhibits — the authentic reconstruction of an old environment rather than the mere display of relics. Such reproductions of seventeenth and eighteenth century interiors as may be seen at Mt. Vernon, at several of Washington's headquarters, at the Van Cortlandt house and Jumel mansion in New York, Philipse Manor at Yonkers, and the Ropes house in Salem, have the effect of recalling the home atmosphere of other days and of re-forming the background against which the national and domestic drama of our forefathers was enacted.
Having attained this new vision of the home life of the Colonies, our collecting takes on a new color. Our piece of old silver becomes something more than an example of rare craftsmanship; in our Windsor chair we see something more than grace of line. They become more personal. The engraved silver beaker, when we have learned where and when it was made and for what it was used, calls up a picture of a little Dutch Reformed Church in old Manhattan and of the Knickerbockers who filled its pews. We handle the piece more reverently, studying the workmanship and design, and presently comes a vision of old Peter Van Dyck himself in his little shop, weighing out the precious metal or plying his graver's tool.
It is inevitable that the average person's interest should shift from the craft to the craftsman, from the object of worth or beauty to the man who fashioned it. True connoisseurs like Mr. Luke Vincent Lockwood — and they are all too few in this country — approach art from the other direction. To them the craft is the important matter and the craftsman secondary. But most of us must confess to a curiosity in human lives. We are interested in men more than in metals.
is why I have chosen to write about early American craftsmen rather
than to treat Americana as a subject for analysis and classification,
for division into periods and for grouping under heads. And I fancy
that the average person, not seeking to become an authority or an
expert, would learn no more about the growth of the industrial arts
in America or the classification of their products, from such a
scientific treatise, than from the more humanly interesting
contemplation of the lives and work of the patriotic Revere, the
struggling Phyfe, the flamboyant Stiegel, the industrious Willard.
And, after all, without craftsmen there would be no crafts.