Boston — Whenever I took at an old blanket chest or neatly stitched sampler or gaily patterned hooked rug, I'm apt to wonder about their origins. Who hammered in the square nails and dovetailed the boards together? Who spent evenings in front of the fire hooking rags into durable designs? Who learned her ABCs by embroidering them into a homespun square?
American country antiques inspire that sort of musing because they, more than their formal city cousins, are intimate links with the ways past generations lived and worked. Unlike other antiques, they were often made by the same people who used them.
What is a country antique? The definition of an antique as an item of at least 100 years of age doesn't always apply here, as country styles did not change as rapidly as city styles did. Some fine plank-seat chairs, splint baskets, hooked rugs, and quilts were (and are) still being fashioned in the 20 th century.
Those items made in the 18th and first half of the 19th century are especially pleasing to modern eyes and are commanding prices that would have astounded the farmers who first owned them. American country furniture made before the Victorian era has a simplicity of line and purity of form that look and function well even in the most contemporary of homes.
The recent boom in folk art has also triggered a new appreciation of country antiques. While wealthy collectors and museums are snapping up good primitive paintings for four and five figures, the rest of us can possess more affordable folk art in a myriad of other forms. A simple stoneware pickle crock adorned with a blue flower, painted sewing boxes, a hooked rugh with a cat's face, a rag doll that a parent made for a child, a patchwork quilt -- they were all crafted by now-anonymous, untrained folk who left behind small works of art.
Although many early items are expensive, with some knowledge and a lot of time spent in country auctions, flea markets, and shops it is possible to decorate a house or apartment at moderate prices. Not only does this diligent searching uncover bargains, but if fosters familiarity with the subject -- a necessity now when almost everything is being reproduced.
When in doubt about age, look for signs of wear and tear such as wood with a worn, smooth surface or faded paint. Country antiques were built for practicality, and they were used. Not only are minor blemishes signs of authenticity, but sometimes, if they were made long ago, they are an integral part.
Many old country cupboards have mouseholes of corresponding vintage, and their owners wouldn't have it any other way. A recent advertisement in a trade paper featured a fine old pewter cupboard with a larger than average gouge out of the base which, the ad proudly proclaimed, was made by a 19-th century porcupine that crept into the farmhouse kitchen in search of a meal.
When searching for furniture, it is invaluable to have at least an elemental knowledged of early carpentry. Before 1850 most nails had square heads, drawers were usually dovetailed (board edges were cut out to fit into each other), and some furniture parts were joined together by pegs. Beyond that, there is a wonderfully crude, handcrafted look found in country antiques that cannot be duplicated by modern machinery.
What is more difficult to discern is whether a piece has been "made up" or "cut down," both of which damage its value. "Made up" furniture comprises parts from two or more items to form a third -- a base from one table is joined with the top of another, for example. A "cut down" piece is something that has been altered to form something else -- such as the posters of a four-poster bed being sawed off to from a standard bed. It is important to study each item thoroughly. Turn it upside down, check the back, take out drawers, examine everything.
Along with the new appreciation of country furnishings has come an appreciation for their orginal finishes. Not long ago it was the fashion to strip furniture down to the bare wood and then apply a coat of varnish. Now collectors look for furniture still in its original paint -- a mellowed barn red and a surprisingly bright blue-green being the most common. A piece in the old paint can be worth two or three times as much as one that has been stripped and refinished.
As fun as it is to hunt for good country items, decorating with them is even more so. The first and only rule is, don't be afraid of putting them to work. Because they were built for practicality, many old furnishings have more years of use left in them than those produced during our era of planned obsolescence. Ironically, country antiques can work especially well in city apartments with little storage space. Cupboards with shelves inside make handy bookcases, as well as serving their traditional purposes of displaying or storing china, kitchenware, and canned goods. Chests and blanket chests are attractive, providing ample storage, especially those with drawers underneath.
From the very beginning, American country tables were made with space saving in mind. The Pilgrims supped on trestle tables, the tops of which were one long board, which could be completely dismantled after each meal; they, like modern city-dwellers, had to make several uses out of one room. Not long after, the drop-leaf table came into being and has remained indispensable ever since. A pleasing addition to any kitchen is a round pine drop-leaf from the mid-19th century paired with a couple of plank-seat country chairs with spindle backs.
Old baskets, with their fine hand-woven splints and mellow color, can be used in countless ways. Plants and dried arrangements look at home in them. Large, sturdy baskets can handle kindling, firewood, magazines, or laundry. Even the monthly bills don't look so bad when inside a little splint basket with a hand-carved handle. For pure decoration, baskets look great almost everywhere -- from perched on the floor to hanging from a ceiling beam.
Hooked rugs have come into their own recently. They were an ingenious form of early recycling in which old scraps of cloth were hooked onto a burlap or homespun backing in pictorial or abstract designs. Some early rugs with outstanding designs have gone on the auction block at Sotheby Parke Bernet to bring prices from $300 to $3,400, and no doubt are now hanging on walls rather than lying underfoot. But good examples at country auctions and in shops can still in found in the $25-to-$75 range and still serve well in their traditional place. Braided rugs, old ones, are nearly always made with durable, colorful 100 percent wool, and are good buys as well.
The list of ways to use country antiques is as varied as the types of country antiques. Grains, beans, and pasta look colorful and inviting stored in old canning jars or milk bottles. An old wooden salad bowl, especially one that is oblong, can be heaped with fruit as a centerpiece for the kitchen table. Samplers, quilts, tin or porcelain advertising signs, and even old wooden checkboards can be hung on walls as though they were paintings.
However they are used and enjoyed, country antiques are pieces of the past marvelously at home with the present.