Inventing Antiques

“Not all the old is good,” said Nutting, “but all the new is bad.”

Nutting was born in Rockbottom, Maine, in 1861, and the village’s curious name is not a bad indication of the economic circumstances of his youth. His father died while serving in the Union army, and Wallace grew up on an uncle’s farm. He dropped out of high school when only fifteen and held a series of odd jobs. His mother wanted him to be a minister, and he finally completed his education at the Union Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Congregational Church in 1888.

He served as a minister for the next sixteen years before retiring because of ill health. During those years he had developed a hobby of photographing outdoor scenes. After his retirement he began to be much more systematic in his photography, traveling around New England by train and bicycle. He became a highly skilled cameraman, working with the fine-grained platinum process, and his photographs, many hand-tinted, began to sell. At its height Nutting’s business in nostalgia photos employed more than a hundred people and grossed as much as a thousand dollars a day.

In 1912 he moved his headquarters to Framingham Center, Massachusetts. At this time he purchased four colonial-era houses—in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts; and Wethersfield, Connecticut—and restored them to their eighteenth-century appearance. A few years later he bought an old ironworks in Saugus, Massachusetts, and restored much of that as well, using it to reproduce Colonial hardware.

Nutting used these houses for his interior photographs, and he began collecting American antiques on a massive scale in order to furnish them. Although by this time he was a prosperous man, he was able to purchase so widely because American antiques were then available everywhere at prices that would break the heart of any “Antiques Roadshow” viewer.

In 1917 he began to reproduce American antiques, using items from his collection as models, and sold them widely to a fast-growing market, as the overstuffed, densely furnished Victorian look went out of style and the spare and open look of Colonial Revival became more and more fashionable. It was to a large extent Nutting who was responsible for that seeming oxymoron “the authentic reproduction,” authentic in the sense that it faithfully reproduced the original. Nutting made no secret of his philosophy: “Copy and avoid bad taste,” he said. “Not all the old is good but all the new is bad.”

In 1923 Nutting decided to sell his enterprises and retire, devoting himself to his personal collection of American antique furniture, especially the rarest of American antiques, those of the seventeenth century. His second retirement did not last long. Unhappy with how his company was being run, he sold his collection the next year to J. P. Morgan, Jr., in order to have the funds to reacquire it. Morgan paid him ninety thousand dollars. That is something like a million dollars in today’s money, but only a tiny fraction of what the collection would now bring at auction. Morgan donated the entire trove to the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, where it remains today, by orders of magnitude the finest collection of seventeenth-century furniture in the country.

Besides collecting, photographing, and reproducing antique American furniture, Wallace Nutting wrote extensively about it. His masterpiece is the three-volume Furniture Treasury (published from 1928 to 1933), containing more than five thousand photographs, mostly taken by himself, of early American furniture. While many mistakes have been found in it as scholarship in the field has advanced, Furniture Treasury remains indispensable to the serious collector even seventy-one years after its publication, and it is still in print. Indeed, in the American antiques business it is simply known as “Nutting.” That, when you think about it, is no small compliment to the minister who did so much to establish the American antiques trade as a major business.