Up until the late 19th century Americans had the most regard for things not American, particularly when it came to furnishing their homes. Those who could afford them bought English and French antiques, relegating old furniture produced in their own country to attics, junkyards, and barns.
But with the observance of the nation's centennial came an awareness that American antiques, especially those connected with a famous historical figure, could have some value of their own. Not long afterward, a handful of collectors took on the unheard of notion that they could be beautiful as well.
In "The Antiquers," Elizabeth Stillinger chronicles the careers of some of those pioneer collectors in a way that should prove of interest to modern-day haunters of antique shops and flea markets. Many of those early collectors, her book reveals, were as unique as what they collected.
One of the earliest and most unconventional was Cummings Davis of Concord, Mass. a town where ground-breaking thought and action in other matters was already thriving. Mr. Davis earned his living by selling soft drinks and candy in his Refreshment Depot Saloon and by delivering newspapers. His paper route brought him in contact with old Concord households, form which he was able to purchase 17th- and 18th- century furniture moldering away in attics and barns.
Motivated by an interest in his Concord ancestors, Mr. Davis assembled a remarkable collection. Dressed in 18th-century garb, he received visitors wishing to view the furniture he housed in the old Concord courthouse.
As the years went by, he was no longer alone in his enthusiasm for Concord antiques; in 1886 his relics, including a lantern reportedly used to signal Paul Revere, became the nucleus of the newly formed Concord Antiquarian Society.
Davis and most other early collectors of American antiques found them desirable for their historical value alone. But by the turn of the century a new group of enthusiasts began to view them as art. The fruits of their efforts , the collections of such men as Eugene Bolles and George Shepherd Palmer, brought, for the first time, the American decorative arts to American museums. Most notable was the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924, resplendent with its 16 period rooms and displays encompassing all the regional variations.
In what is perhaps the book's most interesting section, the author details the collecting mania that obsessed certain wealthy Americans during the 1920s. Drained by the tragedy of World War I, the nation withdrew from European concerns and plunged headlong into a glorification of all things American. More people collected Americana than ever before.
Most rich collectors followed the path of Henry du Pont, who bought only the choicest, most formal pieces, using them to create lavish period rooms at his Winterthur Museum. To look at their sumptuous decor is to believe that all early Americans lived in exquisitely wallpapered rooms filled with high style Chippendale and Queen Anne furniture.
Taking exception to this was Henry Ford, who sought to depicit a less grandiose past at his Greenfield Village. By bringing a humbler group of buildings, furniture, and utensils together at his village-museum, he presented the world of the ordinary citizen.
On the whole, "The Antiquers" provides a good overview of how a nation came to acknowledge the value of what it had produced in the past. Those who pioneered that acknowledgement, it turns ou t, are a remarkable part of American history themselves.