April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
AMERICAN DESIGN II THEY COMBINED BEAUTY AND UTILITY IN ORDINARY OBJECTS
We observed in the February issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE that the compilation of the Index of American Design was a singularly happy byproduct of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It was but one facet of a public-works program initiated to provide employment for thousands of idle people. The inclusion of art projects, along with more immediately practical undertakings such as road building and other public construction, was a big departure in a country where art patronage by the government was virtually unheard of, and all but anathema. In different areas of the program, artists of varying talents were covering the walls of public buildings with murals celebrating American history and local customs, often with strong overtones of social criticism. The Index required talents of a different order: strict objectivity, precise drawing, faithful rendering of material, color, and texture—peculiar talents that in many cases had to be developed during the course of the project. At their best these meticulous renderings have the same quality of almost magical realism that enchants us in the works of William Harnett and other trompe l’oeil painters of the nineteenth century. They offer more than that; they provide an invaluable record of design and craftsmanship that was an important legacy to the mass-production technology of our own day. As in the earlier installment of selections from the Index, the illustrations in these pages are from Clarence P. Hornung’s Treasury of American Design and were made available by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., publisher of that forthcoming two-volume work.
By the time America’s entry into World War H brought an end to the project, the Index included renderings of more than seventeen thousand objects, ranging from examples of relatively untutored but ingenious workmanship to the finest specimens by the most skilled craftsmen. It also recorded the domestic arts of the housewife and the rudimentary beginnings of large-scale industrial production. Before the program was terminated, the work had unfortunately not been completed in any state where it had been undertaken, and in some areas it had hardly been started. Even so, the Index is vast and remains an incomparable national artistic treasury.
There were no apparent limits to the ingenuity of American women who, by choice or necessity, made not only clothing for their families but quilts, coverlets, and carpets for their homes. “Mother herself cut flags [rushes] in the marshy places,” wrote one lady born in Connecticut in 1824, “and having colored linen yarns … wove some homemade matting. This was for the best room.” It took Zeruah Guernsey Caswell of Castleton, Vermont, several years to embroider the wool carpet, shown opposite, which she completed in 1835. Her handwork, more than twelve feet square, was made from wool sheared from the family sheep, then spun, dyed, and woven at home; each of its separate elements had an individual rich and colorful design. Bedquilts of patchwork were a distinctively American development. Originally, while textiles remained a precious commodity, they were contrived to utilize zealously hoarded scraps of cloth. By the nineteenth century, creative designing with the applied elements, often in complex patterns, had become an end in itself.
Until the advent of machine-made mass-produced merchandise, early American furniture showed pronounced regional variations in design, within the general styles that prevailed everywhere in the English-speaking world. A Queen Anne highboy made in New England differed remarkably from counterparts made in New York and Philadelphia; several generations later a secretary designed in Baltimore posed a sharp contrast to equivalent forms made elsewhere in the new republic. Outside tashionable precincts, in those “backwood Utopias” organized by the Shakers, the Separatists Society of Zoar, and other early communitarian groups, cabinetmakers’ designs were largely dictated by simple utilitarianism.
No more completely comfortable chair has ever been designed than the upholstered wing chair, appropriately known to its contemporaries when it evolved in the late seventeenth century as the “easy” chair. From that day to the present, seating comfort has had to contend with the sometimes contrary and uncomfortable dictates of fashion.
The American Windsor chair, a lighter and more graceful form than its English counterpart, became one of the most popular articles of Colonial and Federal furniture. Benjamin Franklin owned two dozen, Jefferson ordered four dozen for Monticello, and in 1796 Washington bought twenty-seven (at $1.78 each) for the porch of Mount Vernon. Ladder-back chairs, of more venerable ancestry, also enjoyed widespread use and, like the Windsors, are still produced in modified forms. Chairs of simple design were readily mass-produced. In a single day’s sailing from Baltimore in 1827 twelve thousand chairs of all kinds were sent to points beyond the Horn.
Stoneware, made of finer clays than ordinary earthenware and kiln-fired at higher temperatures, was favored for utility wares in early America. Its hard body required “no other glazing … than what is produced by a little common salt strewed over the ware,” thus eliminating the menace of poisons attributed to the lead glazes of common pottery. Glass could be safely used for any practical purpose and could be blown, moulded, and pressed into colorful forms of unlimited and delightful variety.
Playthings have become so necessary a part of American life,” remarked one economist during the depression of the early iSgo’s, “that the trade in them has suffered the least of all by the hard times. Playthings are a luxury; but, even if there is retrenchment in the family, the children have to be amused as much as ever.” In 1808 another reporter noted that “iron banks … decoy poor, defenseless little children into dropping their hard-beggedfor pennies therein to see them work.” Significantly, savings and loan associations were springing up everywhere in the nation.
In the decades following the Revolution, American clockmakers de‘eloped a variety of distinctive and moderately priced models that won worldwide markets—even “to the ports of China.” By 1841, it was estimated, Connecticut alone was producing a half million clocks or more a year. Through highly mechanized production methods, a common shelf-clock case was made at a cost of less than fifty cents; the works were put together with massproduced interchangeable parts.