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.

“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.