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Out of the Attic

Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in TwentiethCentury New England

Briann G. Greenfield
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Out of the Attic
    Book Description:

    In this era of Antiques Roadshow and eBay, it is hard to imagine a time when Americans did not treasure the home furnishings of elite early American families. But as this book demonstrates, antiquing—particularly the practice of valuing old things for their aesthetic qualities—is a relatively recent invention whose origins can be found in the early years of the twentieth century. Although nineteenthcentury Americans did appreciate heirlooms, they saw them as memory markers, tangible representations of honored ancestors or local history. In Out of the Attic, Briann G. Greenfield traces the transformation of antiques from family keepsakes to valuable artistic objects, examining the role of collectors, dealers, and museum makers in the construction of a new tradition based on the aesthetic qualities of early American furnishings. While recognizing the significance of antiques as symbols of an enduring American culture, Greenfield also delves behind popular rhetoric to examine the development of a retail structure specifically designed to facilitate the buying and selling of old wares. With antique shops proliferating all over New England, pickers going doortodoor in search of “finds,” and forgers taking illicit advantage of growing demand, antique owners and collectors found themselves trying to navigate a retail market characterized by escalating prices and high stakes purchases. In this sense, antiques functioned as more than remnants of a treasured past; they became modern consumer goods. The book is divided into a series of case studies, each intended to illuminate some aspect of “the dynamic of consumer history.” One chapter examines the role of Jewish dealers in promoting American antiques; another profiles Jessie Baker Gardner, a smalltime collector and wouldbe museum maker from Providence, Rhode Island. Greenfield also looks at the institutionalization of antiques, with chapters focusing on Henry Flynt of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who embraced the “aestheticization of antiques” in the 1940s and 1950s, and on Smithsonian curator C. Malcolm Watkins, who challenged the decorative art market during the 1950s and 1960s by purchasing old tools and crude furniture for the nation’s museum.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-098-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction Inventing Antiques
    (pp. 1-16)

    When the architect Charles F. McKim redesigned the White House in 1902, he outfitted it with a mixture of revival furniture, inspired by early American and French Empire styles. But in 1925 First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge challenged McKim’s design. While McKim believed it was enough to reference the past with modern furniture manufactured in period styles, Grace Coolidge wanted to refurnish several rooms with actual early American pieces from the period of the mansion’s construction. Congress had appropriated only $50,000 for White House projects, and most of that money was allocated for repairs to the elevator and other mechanical...

  6. 1 Priceless and Price The Antiquing of New England
    (pp. 17-56)

    In an archive in Delaware sit two inventory lists from a New Haven antique dealer named O. C. Hill. The first, dated 1902, is a hand-written list of each object in the shop and its estimated value. The descriptions are exceptionally brief. Entries such as “highboy,” “tall clock,” or “mahogany table” are the norm, but when Hill found it necessary to elaborate, the information he added took the form of specific associations. The most detailed of these goes to a “historical chair, one of the first six that the first minister that preached in Litchfield used.” The list dated 1909,...

  7. 2 The Jewish Dealer Antiques, Acculturation, and Aesthetics
    (pp. 57-90)

    Israel Sack arrived at Ellis Island in 1903. He was barely twenty years old at the time, but his life was already marked by a willingness to reinvent tradition. Born to a fairly prosperous Jewish family in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania), he studied the Bible and the Talmud and prepared to become a merchant like his father. But he also grew up under the oppressive rule of Russia’s Czar Nicholas. Eager to break free and avoid the draft, he apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker at age fourteen. The work compromised his family’s social status, but Sack reasoned that tools...

  8. 3 Jessie Barker Gardner and George Gardner Making a Collection Permanent
    (pp. 91-130)

    George Gardner and his wife, Jessie Barker Gardner, were early twentieth-century antique collectors in Providence, Rhode Island. George was a surgeon, Jessie the descendent of an old New England family. The pair spent their adult lives in a middle-class neighborhood of Providence. They knew the famous Pendleton collection of American decorative arts at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, and they traveled to New York to see the American Wing and the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of nineteen period rooms opened to the public in 1929. They readAntiquesand theAntiquarian. They consulted collecting manuals and decorative arts literature....

  9. 4 Highboys and High Culture Adopting an American Aesthetic in Deerfield, Massachusetts
    (pp. 131-166)

    In 1959 Henry Flynt, a New York lawyer and antique collector, wrote the editor of theSaturday Evening Postabout an antique collecting and historic preservation project he was conducting in the small town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. “As a reader of your valued publication I deeply appreciate your stalwart efforts to stem the tide of softness in our national character and to bolster our citizen’s morale and your thinking along the lines of our American heritage. I therefore have the temerity to send you a few pages I have written about Deerfield, Massachusetts for I feel the story that this...

  10. 5 Exhibiting the Ordinary History Making at the Smithsonian
    (pp. 167-204)

    In a 1951New York Timesarticle, Israel Sack warned potential collectors against buying so-called country antiques, pieces made by early American craftsmen who, because of their rural origins, lacked the design sophistication of their more cosmopolitan urban counterparts. “You can’t judge a country by its backwoods,” he was quoted as saying.¹ Sack’s advice was typical of the dominant mode of collecting that valued antiques as aesthetic expressions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century period styles. But not everyone was listening. In the nation’s capital, C. Malcolm Watkins (figure 24), a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum, was busily constructing...

  11. Epilogue The End of the Antique?
    (pp. 205-214)

    On January 31, 2002, the antique firm of Israel Sack, Inc., closed its doors. After Israel Sack died in May 1959, his sons, Harold, Albert, and Robert, had continued the family tradition, joined by Albert’s son Donald in 1968. Certainly the decision to close the firm was influenced by the brothers’ advancing age. (The oldest brother, Harold, had died in 2000; Albert was in his eighties and Robert in his seventies.)¹ But the demise of Israel Sack, Inc., a firm that had been a leader in the collecting community for most of the twentieth century, also raises larger questions about...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 215-252)
  13. Index
    (pp. 253-265)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 266-267)