Past Masters

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Prior to the centennial celebrations of 1876, there had been little interest anywhere in early American art and antiques. The taste for handcrafted furniture, in particular, had been all but eclipsed by the popularity of the machine-made pieces that were mass-produced after the Industrial Revolution. In addition, Americans still tended to look overseas for culture, and American furniture was thought to be primitive, inferior to more developed English and French forms. The unskilled colonial cabinetmakers, so the reasoning went, were incapable of producing fine furniture; thus any fine Chippendale and Queen Anne pieces, such as those found in the homes of the Boston aristocracy, had to have been made abroad.

Local centennial celebrations often included exhibits of objects of local historical interest—a piece of silver, the jacket of a famous patriot, perhaps an oak chair or table—but there were few extensive exhibits showing techniques of American craftsmanship: too little was known about the subject. Nonetheless, the celebrations themselves awakened national pride, which soon translated into an interest in American art and antiques. In the following decades a few adventurous souls would begin collecting Americana, especially china.

Misconceptions about the origins of American furniture prevailed at least until 1891, when Dr. Irving W. Lyon’s book, The Colonial Furniture of New England , proved that the early oak pieces found in New England had been made there and not abroad. A decade later Luke Vincent Lockwood’s Colonial Furniture in America classified the major forms up to the early part of the nineteenth century, detailing the development of the styles and providing a handbook for collectors. Once and for all the myth that much of America’s antique furniture had been made elsewhere was laid to rest.

 

These early collectors still tended, however, to value American antiques more for their link with the past than for their intrinsic beauty. And that link came to assume a social significance. As Elizabeth Stillinger puts it in her book The Antiques , such heirlooms served “to establish that one’s family had been in America long enough to have handed them down,” thus distinguishing one from the immigrants of the early 190Os. Appreciation of the furniture’s design, construction, and detailing was meanwhile only beginning to be seen among the most discerning collectors.

Curiously it was one of those new immigrants who first came upon these American antiques and on very short acquaintance recognized them as works of art. By all accounts Israel Sack was instantly taken by the superbly made New England pieces that were brought into Stephenson’s shop for repair. “The form, the durability, the elegant simplicity—the very nature of the pieces—this was what he loved,” says Harold. Albert, who is four years younger than Harold, adds, “He saw not what we’ve learned in books today. A piece that we now know to be a Massachusetts piece he might have called a Goddard piece. But he knew it was unique to America, he knew it was finely made and genuine, and he knew that, in its understated way, it was beautiful.”

Once Sack was asked how he could tell the difference between English and American antique furniture. “It’s easy,” he replied. “By the accent.” English furniture, made primarily for the aristocracy, emphasized detail—carving and ornamentation—over form. American furniture, on the other hand, although made for people of means, was intended for a simpler life and focused attention on line and form. American pieces were often marked by elegant proportions and endless variations on standard patterns.

During a recession in 1905 Israel Sack was temporarily laid off by Stephenson. Realizing that he could do at least as well on his own as working for someone else, he opened a furniture-repair shop on Charles Street with a capital of thirty dollars. Very soon thereafter he began, timidly at first, to buy pieces of American furniture, repair them, and resell them at a small profit.

By fortunate accident he happened to be situated right in the hub of interest in American antiques. At the time, most collectors came from New England, where early pieces were plentiful and where interest in history and genealogy had a long tradition. To serve their needs, a loose network of dealers and scouts had arisen in Boston, the financial capital of New England.

The scouts, or pickers, as they were called, would take a horse and buggy into the countryside and knock on the doors of farmhouses in search of old furniture. Many pieces had long since been relegated to barn or attic, so prices were low and people were often happy to get rid of what appeared to be junk. The pickers would bring their haul back to their garrets on Lowell Street in Boston, and dealers and a few collectors would come by to see what had turned up. Much of the furniture was just a cut above rubbish; occasionally a choice piece or two would appear.