Inventing Antiques

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The Public Broadcasting System has a new hit on its hands for the first time in quite a while. It’s “Antiques Roadshow.” For those not familiar with it, the show rents an exhibition hall in a large city and invites people to bring in their family treasures and have them appraised by experts in everything from Hollywood memorabilia to fine furniture to antique toys. The most interesting items and appraisals get to be on the show.

The program works on many levels. The audience gets a free lesson in the science and art of appraising unique objects; it experiences an occasional dose of schadenfreude watching someone else’s priceless heirloom turn into worthless junk as the appraiser tells why it’s a fake; and it gets to enjoy a sense of cultural superiority over the free market’s bad taste (people would pay eighty-five hundred dollars for that thing ?).

But “Antiques Roadshow” is only the most visible tip of a very considerable—and rapidly growing—iceberg of commerce in antiques, collectibles, and memorabilia in this country. The exact size of this market, which stretches from flea markets to Sotheby’s, is unknown for the simple reason that so much of it is informal, conducted by barter, or effected with cash by people none too anxious to involve the government in the transaction. Yet there is no doubt that it totals well into the billions.

For most people the noun antique means “furniture.” But one of the most interesting aspects of “antiques” is just how new they are. No, I don’t mean fakes (which are frauds) or reproductions (which are honest copies). I mean the very concept of old things being valuable and desirable. To be sure, the rich have collected antiquities, objets d’art , and paintings since the Renaissance, when they were often displayed in a room called a “cabinet of curiosities” along with such items as shells, scientific instruments, and even exotic flowers.

But furniture (except for the sort found in palaces) and the other everyday objects of our ancestors’ lives did not fall into this category. Instead of becoming antique over the years, they simply became old, and the master’s furniture of one generation tended to become the servants’ furniture of the next as it grew worn or went out of style. As with so much of twentieth-century culture, antiques in the modern sense are a Victorian invention. Indeed, this meaning of the word came into use only about 1840.

There are two reasons for the sudden interest in the everyday objects of earlier eras at this time. The first is the iron law of fashion: If everyone can have it, it’s not fashionable. Because the Industrial Revolution made such things as china, glassware, wallpaper, and rugs easily available to the fast-rising middle class, these items no longer served so well as evidence of current prosperity. But quality old things, once consigned to the attic or the servants’ rooms, did.

The other reason is that the Industrial Revolution, which changed everyday life profoundly in just a few decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, also induced an intense nostalgia for “the good old days,” a phrase also coined in the 1840s. Nowhere was that truer than in this country, itself nearly as newly minted as the age. “We are so young a people,” the diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in 1854, “that we feel the want of nationality . . . [and] seize on and seal up every worthless reminiscence of our colonial and revolutionary times.” But while Victorian Americans cherished these relics of the past, as Strong implies, they often did not appreciate them for their inherent artistic worth, for they tended strongly to think of art as something that came from Europe. As late as 1889, during an exhibition of American silver in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Washington’s inauguration as President, Harper’s Weekly sniffed that while “the silver exhibit is by far the finest ever brought together in the United States,” the writer thought that “early American plate has bullion value, is curious, but has little artistic merit.”

One of the earliest manifestations of this American need for contact with a genuinely American past was at fairs, where relics of the past were often displayed. A “New England kitchen” was a big hit at a fair in Brooklyn in 1864. The far larger Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 also had a New England kitchen and a “Connecticut Cottage.” And while the Philadelphia fair is often said to mark the start of the craze in American antique furniture, it was only in the 188Os that what are now called “centennial pieces” began to be produced in quantity to satisfy a growing demand for furniture in the styles popular in the colonial era. This fashion in furniture (and architecture) is called Colonial Revival and has been very much with us ever since. Today centennial furniture, while nowhere near as valuable as the furniture it imitates, has itself acquired antique status, with prices to match.

At first little distinction was made between the new Colonial furniture and that which actually dated from the period. So badly executed, however, was much of this Colonial Revival furniture that it stimulated an interest in the originals, and no one was more influential in this movement than a man named Wallace Nutting.