20 Mar Chapter: Introduction
When one thinks of the 18th and 19th century artifacts of America’s past that collectors collect, it’s natural to assume that those things will have America as their origins … things such as quilts, needlework samplers, stoneware, portraits, folk art carvings, weather vanes, decoys, coin silver and advertising memorabilia. However, we should not be surprised to see a collector’s attention focused as well on things made in other than the United States before or after it secured its independence from Britain. There’s Staffordshire pottery, made necessarily in Staffordshire England, painted Scandinavian pantry and bride’s boxes, early German toys and Christmas ornaments, English and Dutch delft, Chinese export porcelain, and English flow blue dinnerware. It’s silly to approach things with ideological purity since such things were often made for the American market with American tastes in mind. Take historical Staffordshire dinnerware. Here the most sought after pieces (on this side of the Atlantic at least) were produced roughly between 1815 and 1835. Staffordshire potters had of course been in business long before that (the 17th century). However, while their early floral or Chinese motif transferware patterns morphed into scenes of the English countryside and historic buildings, after 1815 we also see a profusion of plates, platters, coffee and tea pots and tureens commemorating Washington, Franklin, Lafayette commiserating at some Founding Father’s tomb, and even (horrors) American independence itself. This isn’t to suggest that those who ran England’s pottery works suddenly developed a warmer feeling in their tummies toward a newly independent America than did Charles III. But they had a problem beginning around 1815 with exporting their wares across the Atlantic; namely the War of 1812 and a British army that wasn’t terribly nice when ‘visiting’ Washington D.C. (they burned it to the ground). Thus, to overcome American hostility they adorned a good share of their product with patriotic American themes in the hope, largely realized, of encouraging sales here. Markets do adjust and they often do so without regard to transient political sentiments.
If your taste, nevertheless, entails collecting something “strictly American” you might want to keep in mind that the various North American wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were hardly conducive to developing much of anything in the way of collectibles. King Phillip’s War (1675-76), for instance, saw upwards of 2,500 English colonists killed in New England, 52 towns attacked and twelve wholly destroyed. Less than thirty years later, to illustrate what life was like on the “frontier” we have the example of the “Deerfield Massacre” with 47 residents killed and 112 taken away as captives. It’s not just New England that experienced conflicts between colonists and Native Americans. In the Yamasee War of 1715-17, upwards of 8% of South Carolina’s white population was killed. Next comes the French and Indian War (1754-63) wherein some number north of 11,000 colonists were killed. Finally, there’s the Revolution itself where an estimated 7,000 Americans were killed on the battlefield plus another 17,000 from disease, approximately half of which occurred among prisoners of war. Through all of this we can only guess at how many farm tables, chests of various descriptions, tall case clocks and step back cupboards along with their contents went up in smoke.
Wars aside, when looking for wholly American collectibles of the era, we need keep in mind that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, if the United States produced a lot of anything, that anything was agricultural. As a measure of that, take what the US exported. The biggest item was raw cotton for England’s mills, followed by tobacco, wheat, corn and so on. Indeed, throughout the first half of the 19th century, agricultural exports accounted for roughly 80% of the value of anything we shipped abroad. Now while Americans were exporting stuff they grew, they were importing stuff other people made. It was manufactured goods that landed on our shores, with the biggest item being cotton fabric and other textiles along with just about everything else one might find at home or on the farm. Consider, for instance, the advertisement in Figure 1 taken from an 1801 Hartford newspaper. Typical of what one can find in any 18th or early 19th century American newspaper, the imported goods being advertised here are quite ordinary things — brass kettles, frying pans, shovels and so on. That’s not to say the colonists prior to 1776 and Americans thereafter didn’t make such things, but only that Britain made a lot more of them and often at a price that undercut any American manufacturer. Indeed, it wasn’t until sometime in the 1880s that America’s manufacturing output surpassed Britain’s.
Fig. 1: Hartford Newspaper, 1801
To put some meat on this discussion, consider pewter. If you’re seeking an early American motif to your decorating scheme, odds are you’re looking for some to fill the shelves of that pewter cupboard or wall hanging plate shelf. After all, the use of pewter plates in lieu of turned wooden ones in the 18th and early 19th centuries announced that you were a respectable member of the middle class and no longer a country bumpkin or itinerant nobody. But where did that pewter come from? Well, the tin mines of Cornwall gave Britain a virtual monopoly on the production of pewter not just in America but in Europe as a whole, so the odds are those early plates and chargers weren’t made in America but in England. We shouldn’t then be surprised to learn from Charles Montgomery’s A History of American Pewter (Praeger, 1973) that in the 1760s more than 300 tons of pewter was imported annually, “the equivalent of almost 1 million 8-inch pewter plates or 300,000 quart mugs or 250,000 quart tankards or 200,000 15-inch dishes”. Montgomery goes on to note that the Philadelphia merchant Daniel Wister placed three orders in 1763 to the London pewterer John Townsend of roughly 13,000 pieces each wherein one of those representative shipments included (by my calculation) 7,920 spoons of various sorts, 1,992 plates, 754 basins, 600 porringers, 168 tankards and 144 teapots. Since Philadelphia’s population was no more than 20,000 at the time, it’s safe to say that Wister’s imported wares found their way far and wide outside of his city. And Wister was but one of many such merchants throughout colonial America. So don’t be shocked when you finally find that sixteen or eighteen inch 18th century pewter charger you’ve been hunting for to grace your early American decor to see, when turning it over, that it bears a “LONDON” touchmark. In fact, if that charger measures eighteen inches, then with certainty it’s not American as there are no known American pewterers who made chargers larger than sixteen inches.
Now you might object to my argument that English pewter is unavoidable by citing the names of some of the better known American pewterers, such as Boardman, Danforth, Gleason, Austin, Bassett, Trask, Hamlin, Will and so on. It is true that America in the later part of the 18th and early 19th century developed some true artisans who created some uniquely American styles. This, though, was afforded by the fact that pewter has a low melting point relative to other metals, in which case worn out or damaged plates, spoons, porringers or tankards originally imported from England could be melted down to fashion new objects in America for the American market. Nevertheless, since not all imported pewter suffered the ravages of time and use, there’s a better than even chance that the pewter plate or tankard you found at the flea market came from England.
Of course, there might have been a few more 18th and early 19th century things to collect of a purely American origin if it hadn’t been for the British view of Colonial America as little more than a source of raw materials and a cash cow to be milked. With the passage of the Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660, which required in effect that the colonists trade only with England on English ships, and Parliament’s subsequent limits on what the colonists were allowed to manufacture in an attempt to protect Britain’s domestic industries, importing essential every-day things became a necessity. One shouldn’t, then, turn up one’s nose at delftware or early English porcelain.
Well, suppose you’re a stubborn sort whose decided to hell with all that European imported crap and that what suits your sophisticated taste is something that’s strictly American such as the porcelain pickled meats dish in Figure 2. Yup, it’s strictly American, and definitely 18th century; specifically from the South Philadelphia porcelain works of Bonnin and Morris, ca 1770. But you have a problem. First, as I recall, this dish or its equivalent sold at auction some thirty or forty years ago for something north of $1.5 million. Bet that would take a bite out of your collecting budget. And there’s a second problem. While Bonnin and Morris was ostensibly the first manufacturer of porcelain in the soon-to-be United States, it was also the last for the foreseeable future — they survived only three years and closed shop in 1773. The manufacture of porcelain was a fragile business on this side of the Atlantic (pun intended) when confronting competition from Europe in the 18th century, not to mention those radicals up in Boston about to cause no end of trouble.
Fig. 2: Bonnin & Morris pickled meats dish, ca 1770, Phil. Museum of Art
Ok, how about more modest things? Suppose you needed a mirror to see if your wig was on straight. Well here again, you’d most likely have paid some attention to the ads in the local paper to see what a nearby purveyor of mirrors had acquired in his most recent shipment from England. Seems that Pittsburgh’s PPG Industries wasn’t producing much in the way of mirrors back then … hell, there wasn’t even a Pittsburgh yet. And if you chose to grace your home with an 18th century tall case clock, there’s a good chance the works and dial came from England and that only the case could be labeled “American”. It should come as no surprise, then, that Ivor Hume’s classic A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1969) deals for the most part with objects made in England or the Continent — bottles, buttons, buckles, candle sticks, ceramics, coins, cutlery, firearms, locks and so on. But even if we surge ahead a hundred or more years to the last decade of the 19th century, toy collectors will universally recognize the names Lehmann and Marklin, both German, while antique doll collectors cannot escape the fact that their most prized possessions are likely to have originated in France or Germany. And if you’re decorating with late 19th century checkers game boards because of the color they add to a room, you best count the number of squares. If a board is 12 x 12, there’s a good chance it’s from Canada – an American checker board is 8 x 8 (compare Figures 10-16 and 10-18). Of course, with but a few twists of history Canada could have become a part of the US (if you’re Canadian, no need to shrink in horror at that thought … it didn’t happen, especially after you kicked America’s butt in the War of 1812). We also need to keep in mind that those post-Revolutionary Tories who fled north were in fact no less “American” than those who were glad to see them go.
Speaking of Canada, take a look at Figure 3a. If you collect country antiques I’m pretty sure something here would catch your eye … that applique and patchwork quilt perhaps or either of the two hooked rugs on the left side of the wall. Or if you need a table for your breakfast room, I’d bet that painted round hutch table would do the trick. But wait … if you intend to collect ONLY American antiques you might have a problem. You see, this picture is from an ad for the Bowmanville antiques show, and Bowmanville is in Ontario CANADA. So are these Canadian antiques, or American that somehow migrated across Lake Ontario? Frankly, who the hell knows. Oh, there may be a piece or two you can definitively attribute to one side of the lake or the other, but for the most part it will be impossible to tell. And yes, I’d love to get my hands on that quilt or either hooked rug, whereas for the table, sorry, but I have no room for it (but if I did …). Similarly, take a look at the two 19th century saltglaze stoneware crocks in Figure 3b. Which would you prefer adding to your collection? I don’t know about you, but if I were merely looking for decorative accessories and unconcerned about origins, it would be a tossup since neither crock appears to dominate the other. But now I’ll tell you that the crock on the left is from Ontario Canada while the other from Pennsylvania. Does that give you a definitive preference? So again, no reason here to get all snitty about whether a piece is American or has roots elsewhere.
Figure 3a: Ad for Bomanville 2018 Antiques Show
Figure 3b: Two Stoneware Crocks from Different Countries
Despite all the qualifications implied by the preceding discussion, my focus here will nevertheless be the collecting of American things – things made in America for Americans or made elsewhere but for the American market. Feel free to accuse me of provincialism, but my (and my wife’s) interest in things that can be labeled Americana derives in part because we’re American. But only in part. Were one to crash the abodes of the rich and famous in places like The Hamptons, Scarsdale, Palm Beach and Beverly Hills and find antiques, more than likely you’d not find anything American but rather French vases, Chinese pottery and porcelain, Dutch or English clocks and ceramics, Persian rugs, Belgian or Spanish tapestries, English paintings and furniture, Italian marble sculptures, and so on. Unsurprisingly, then, the relatively upscale auction house of Bonham’s in Los Angeles, responding to the market a recent general decorative arts auction hoped to serve (e.g., Beverly Hills, Santa Barbara, Bel Air, etc), offered nine furniture items that were American in origin as compared to a hundred and fifteen from England and the Continent.
So what explains our passion other than that we don’t live where you can’t see the homes from the road? Well, there are multiple reasons, but the most important is that we find America and the artifacts of its history decidedly unique. No, I’m not going to give you an argument in favor of “American exceptionalism” or go toe to toe with those who see our history only in terms of slavery, corrupt politicians, dead or displaced Native Americans and evil Robber Barons and who believe that only goodness and light emanate from the Marxist proclivities of Europe or Berkeley California. What I will argue is that the American colonies and later the United States, beginning in the 18th and proceeding thru the 19th century, developed both politically and economically in ways that were quite different from what occurred in England and Continental Europe – in ways reflected by the things Americana collectors collect today. Specifically, America, unlike Europe, developed a sizeable and stable middle class (more on what I mean by that shortly) along with an upwardly mobile working class. And a society whose economy caters to that portion of the population leaves footprints that are different from one in which it is only the wealthy who dictate the ebb and flow of economic forces. It’s the difference between a Monaco casino where a black tie and dinner jacket is a man’s expected attire versus a Las Vegas casino where the average gambler is more likely to be found wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
There are those, of course, who hold their noses at Las Vegas’ “gambling for the masses” just as there are those who think an antique isn’t worth owning unless it makes a home look like Louis XIV’s study or the Duke of Northumberland’s parlor. One of the arguments made here, however, is that there’s an elegance and subliminal sophistication to even the most primitive artifacts of America’s history, because they help tell the story of how an under-populated mosquito infested spot on the globe already populated by people who weren’t much interested in sharing a Thanksgiving dinner with some overly aggressive Bible-toting interlopers gave rise to an act of political institutional creativity unmatched in human history and led to a society whose economy ultimately surpassed all others. A Sevres vase and enameled snuff box tell us absolutely nothing about European history (other than that a few people had a LOT more money than everyone else). In contrast, the lowly apple peeler, Eli Terry’s wooden works clocks or the PC of the day – the sewing machine – tell us a great deal about America and even why the French today aren’t required to speak German (I’ll give France its due, with a nod to old Ben Franklin in talking it into bankruptcy in support of our Revolution. But if the people populating this swampy mosquito infested sinkhole hadn’t succeeded in their agenda … the pursuit of happiness … we might not have been around in 1944 to give France back to the French).
So before I begin this volume’s journey into the world of American antiques, let me flesh out what was unique about the American economy in the 18th and 19th centuries that gave rise to differences between what we are likely to see when entering an antiques shop specializing in Americana versus one focused on European treasures. I’ll begin with the following fact offered by Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel: “Americans achieved modern [physical] heights by the middle of the eighteenth century … [and] reached levels of life expectancy not attained by the general populations of England or even by the British peerage until the first quarter of the 20th century.” Fogel goes on to show how American’s caloric intake over and above what was needed for mere substance exceed that of Europe and England by a considerable amount.[i] Indeed, holding the image of the Puritans first Thanksgiving dinner in mind … corn, cranberries, turkey and, with the assistance of Native Americans who should have known better, venison – consider this description of Europe: “The standard meal of an 18th century German rural laborer was ‘gruel and mush’, a soupy combination of grains and lentils. This was typical fare for the rural population throughout Europe. In 1796 Richard Walker, a farm laborer, bell ringer, grave digger and barber living in the Northamptonshire parish of Roade with his wife, a lace maker, and their five children, spent half the family annual income of £26 8s. on bread. The bread was sometimes supplemented by a little bacon, the occasional potato, a small amount of cheese and washed down with beer, sugared tea and tiny quantities of milk. In the 18th century three quarters of all European foods were derived from plants, and even the fat in the diet was drawn predominantely from plant oils” (Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War, Penguin Books, 2011)
So now you’re probably asking what could possibly be the relevance of learning that Americans were taller, ate better and lived longer than their European counterparts to my fixation with American antiques or to the collecting of apple peelers, pantry boxes, weather vanes or country cupboards? What is the relevance of learning that American’s potential for being overweight didn’t necessarily begin with McDonalds and Twinkies, but was perhaps there from the start? To answer such questions let me add a few more facts. First, Americans in those centuries could, both in principle and practice, own something few Europeans of the age could dream of possessing: Land. Land was for sale in America – lots of it, a good share of which could be had quite cheaply (once one pushed aside a few pesky Native Americans). The relative availability of land draws a sharp distinction between Colonial America and Britain of that era. Owing in part to Britain’s 16th and 18th century enclosure laws, intended ostensibly to improve the production of wool and then food generally, the number of 18th century British freeholders – those eligible to vote via the possession of property – was but a small minority, with upwards of 90 percent of the rural population living as tenant farmers on short term leases. In New Hampshire, in contrast, upwards of 90 percent of white males over age 21 qualified as freeholders, in Connecticut percentages in the vicinity of 80 percent are the norm, in New York, despite the landed estates inherited from its Dutch past, estimates between 50 to 80 percent can be justified. Comparable numbers arise for Virginia, while in North Carolina and Georgia we see numbers ranging between 60 and 80 percent, depending on the political unit examined (Chilton Williamson, American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy 1760 – 1860. Princeton Univ. Press, 1960). Of course, there was variation in who qualified as a freeholder, but in one form or another it was someone who owned land, farmed and lived on it.
Now here’s the nice thing about living in a place with a thriving market for and viable property rights to land as opposed to a regime ruled by an absolute monarch or despot: If you owned land, you owned whatever you grew on it. And if you owned whatever you grew on it, then most likely you were a more productive farmer than your compatriots in Europe wherein the king, a landlord or the state had first claim to everything. With apologies to all the Marxists out there and their representatives in Congress, but that’s how it works and how it has always worked! It’s no mystery of climatology as to why, for instance, rain never seemed to fall and the sun never shined on Stalin’s collective farms as productively as it did on the small private adjacent plots of land Soviets were allowed in the countryside. In 18th and 19th century America, in contrast, you could take the surplus caloric intake Fogel speaks of, which itself was largely the product of the land you owned, and generate a surplus of labor that you could apply to grow or manufacture things you could sell or trade so as to upgrade the quality of you and your family’s existence.
The importance of land and its private ownership cannot be understated, especially when one takes into account that America throughout most of its history up until 1900 was a rural society. For example, although our history books tell the story of the American Revolution largely thru the lens of what happened in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, at the time fewer that 5 percent of the population lived in such urban centers (which then meant communities with a population in excess of 2,500). At the same time, though, I don’t want you to take this fact and imagine a society in which the vast majority of the population lived in the boonies wholly removed from the avenues of commerce. Take for instance the making of iron. As Sidney Ratner, James Soltow and Richard Sylla note “with the advantage of cheap fuel … and ores available close to the surface, the colonial iron industry expanded in the half century prior to the Revolution to meet the needs of the growing American economy. By 1775 the colonies had more blast furnaces and forges than did England and Wales, and they produced nearly one seventh of the world output of iron ” (p. 70, The Evolution of the American Economy, 1979, Basic Books). But it’s not this fact alone that is relevant here; it is that those forges and furnaces were widely scattered about in rural areas where water power was readily available. Rural American was, then, doing more than felling trees and planting corn; there was also a self-sufficient economic system of property owners that was very much a part of America’s economic development and the generation of wealth.
Now one shouldn’t take anything I’ve said thus far to mean that life in 18th or even 19th century America was some Jeffersonian pastoral paradise. It was hardly that, as any day laborer, sod-buster, housekeeper, merchant seaman or miner could tell you. Throughout the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries roads were terrible, public transportation at best hazardous, sanitation a word few people understood, diseases rampant and opportunities for a formal education spotty. But joe-sixpack (or whatever his 18th or 19th century manifestation might be called) was on average better off in America than in Europe, both physically and economically. People weren’t migrating East to West across the Atlantic because they liked dangerous ocean voyages nor did America’s birthrates soar past those in Europe because Europeans knew where the “off” switch was but Americans didn’t.
But now comes the big step with these tall, over-fed, land-owning (or squatting) Americans. People aren’t simply going to go about generating random things because they’ve eaten a few more pork ribs or ears of corn. They’re going to generate things other people want so they can trade their surplus for what they want and haven’t got. If you raise sheep to produce wool, the odds are you’ll leave the business of tanning leather to someone else and instead propose that you and the leather worker trade a share of your surpluses. In other words, that farmer or laborer, after putting his or her surplus caloric intake to work, became a consumer – surplus energy and labor, transformed to income and transformed in turn to buying or trading for such things as a few extra bolts of fabric to make a dress, shoes for the kids, a cast iron pot for the kitchen, or a more durable plow for the farm. This emerging economic activity yields markets, and a new set of roles for people with labels such as merchant, capitalist and entrepreneur. And it yields something else: A society that no longer divides easily into two categories – the haves and the have-nots, the landed gentry and the tenant farmer. You see, Marx screwed up big time. The American economy wasn’t divided into two classes, capitalists and workers, the holders of wealth and the proletariat with a sprinkling of bourgeoisie thrown into the mix. There was a third class that encompassed and overwhelmed the others – consumers. And consumers yield something that places like England, France and Germany held only in short supply — a middle class. In other words, as Ratner et al go on to note, “what was most distinctive about society in colonial America, viewed in perspective of the eighteenth century Western World, was its large proportion of middle class property owners, estimated by Jackson Turner Main to comprise ‘well over half of the white population’ in the 1770s (p. 76).”
To perhaps give some contemporary meaning to the notion of America as a society of consumers, we note that today when it seems as though there’s Starbuck’s on every corner (and sometimes two), there is in fact approximately one for every 24,000 people in the population. Slightly more pervasive are McDonald’s franchises where there’s one for every 22,000 Americans. Want to venture a guess now as to the density of clock makers in 19th century America? Well, in 1850 the United States, with a population of roughly 23 million, had over 1400 clock makers scattered about … or one for every 16,000 people. Looks like McDonald’s and Starbucks have a ways to go to catch up. Be that as it may, we know who was keeping all those clock makers busy — once again, the middle class.
Yet another manifestation of a viable and growing American middle class is the collectible category of butter prints – those 19th century hand carved pieces of maple, poplar or pine such as those illustrated in Figure 4 intended to impart an appealing pattern to an otherwise faceless block of butter. One might assume (as I did when first encountering them many many moons ago) that such prints sought to add a bit of flair to a dining table. That might be true in some instances. But more often than not butter prints served as a brand for those making and selling butter — commonly private farmers (chiefly in Pennsylvania … hence the Pennsylvania Dutch character of most prints … but New England as well) that produced more butter than their families could consume on their own. The extent of such prints as a collectible category of Americana, then, speaks to the prosperity of America’s 19th century agricultural sector and the ability of farmers to convert their ownership of land into something more than a source of mere existence; namely, a marketable product.
Now it’s true that such prints are not unknown in Europe. Indeed, they appeared there before they seem to have become the fashion on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately we (or at least I) have far less information as to their role in Europe’s economies relative to what we know about America. Nevertheless, there are reasons for hypothesizing that butter prints played a somewhat different role in America than they did in Europe. First, prints identifiable as European … especially those from Switzerland … are decidedly larger and more ornate and carefully crafted than the typical American example. The suggestion here, then, is that they were employed by decidedly commercial enterprises or employed to decorate the dining tables of the era’s well-to-do. The second major difference is that although one can see the British influence in early New England designs, and the Austrian, German and Swiss influence in Pennsylvania ones, one thing does not arise in European examples — lathe turned prints and molds. Until one approaches the 20th century, only fully hand crafted prints and molds characterize the European examples whereas in America, just as was the case with clocks, guns and sewing machines, mass production techniques render the butter print an item readily accessible to any and every farmer with a cow (or, more properly, every farmer’s wife since her domestic chores included making of butter for the specific purpose of participating in America’s expanding market economy).[ii]
Fig 4: 19th C American Butter Prints
Now I will confess that in making reference to the notion of a middle class, economists, demographers and historians have long argued over the definition of this idea. This isn’t surprising since the notion is an ad hoc one whose definition in terms of its material manifestations changes with time. We surely can’t say there was no middle class in 1780 because no one owned an iPad, a 60″ TV or a pop up toaster. Suffice it to say that by any definition, what existed in America in greater abundance than in Europe during most of the 18th and 19th centuries was a segment of the population that didn’t worry day to day about mere survival, that owned property of some sort – usually a bit of land and a residence on that land — and that had the opportunity to apply some portion of its labor to the production of a surplus over and above that required for survival and which could be directed at upgrading the quality of one’s existence along some dimension of personal happiness. Jefferson and the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia in 1776 didn’t toss the words “pursuit of happiness” into their much-debated document for the hell of it.
The preceding discussion, though, hardly negates the possibility that, owing to its greater population, England’s middle class was no less substantial than America’s, in which case the concept of a middle class offers little leverage in understanding differences between these two countries in terms of what they ultimately yielded as today’s collectibles and antiques. So to give our discussion a firmer analytic basis, let us turn to some numbers offered by the economic historians Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, who estimate that as early as 1774 average wages in America exceeded those of England and Wales, regardless of whether slaves are counted as whole persons (Unequal Gains, 2016. Princeton University Press). A sharp drop occurs in the numbers for 1800, owing to the economic dislocations occasioned by the Revolutionary War, but by 1840 and surely into 1860 America again overtakes the ostensibly dominant world power at the time. And not only were incomes on average higher in America, but income was also more equitably distributed. For all thirteen colonies, the part of the population who today are the whipping boy of politicians because of the share of wealth they control – the magical top 1% of the income distribution — is estimated to have controlled but 6.1% of household income, with New England being the most equitable region at 3.8% (so much for the argument that income inequality is the cause of revolution). With its landed estates and class based society, this compares with the top 1% in England in 1802 controlling 14.6%. of that country’s wealth. Indeed, if we define the middle class to be those in the 40% to 80% range of the income distribution, a bit more than forty percent of America’s population fell into this category in 1774 (52.5% in New England), while but 27.8% did so in England (by 1860 the US population had soared to 31 million while that of England to 18 million, and by this time the size of America’s middle class exceeded England’s by more than a factor of two: Again, according to Lindert and Williams, roughly 34.7 percent of the US population fell into our somewhat imprecise definition of the middle class, in which case 31 million times 0.347 equals approximately 11 million, whereas for England, 18 million times (a projected) 0.25 is approximately 4.5 million.
This, though, is only the tip of the iceberg in such comparisons since we’ve made no adjustment for absolute wage differentials or relative prices. Here we need to keep in mind that the range 40% to 80% in each country is calculated relative to overall incomes in that country. If everyone in one country’s middle class earns between $1 to $4 per month while the other’s middle class earns between $4 to $16, those are two distinctly different middle classes. And the disparity grows if the cost of living – the cost of the same basket of basic goods – is substantially greater in the first country than in the second. So what do we find when comparing America with England with these considerations in mind? Briefly, the long and short of it is that prior to the American Revolution America’s “middle class” was by virtually any measure or manipulation of the numbers better off financially than England’s and thereby provided a far more fertile field for the entrepreneur. This fact is brought home in part by the graph in Figure 5 offered by Lindert and Williamson, which shows that regardless of where you were on each country’s income distribution, those falling in the Xth percentile in the US earned more than those in the same percentile in England with the sole exception of the top 1% (which once again proves that it pays to be king or at least a lord, baron, count, duke or duchess). Moreover, notice that the income gap between Americans and English is greatest in precisely the 40 to 80 percent range we defined as ‘middle class’. Thus, it took someone in England’s 75th percentile to earn as much as someone in America’s 45th percentile, while someone in England’s 90th percentile (not quite ‘upper class’ but close) earned about as much as someone in America’s middle class percentile of roughly 65%. And while the data in this figure pertains only to the 18th century, a similar chart would apply throughout the 19th century.
Fig. 5: Income Distribution in the US vs UK, late 18th C
There’s little doubt, moreover, that were the data available, equivalent conclusions would be reached in comparisons with the likes of France, the German states and Europe generally. One manifestation of the differences in condition likely to be found in an economic comparison of Colonial and post-Colonial America versus the Continent concerns one specific Americana collectible – the supremely colorful hand drawn birth and baptismal certificates that are the hallmark of Pennsylvania German folk art, the fraktur (see Chapter 13 for examples). Taking their name from the Germanic lettering characteristic of the writing in them, it’s tempting to assume that this folk art form was but an import from Southern Germany and the German-speakers of France and Switzerland who emigrated to America in the 18th century. If so, we should expect to find comparable examples by scouring the antique shops of Europe. This is not, however, the case. Yes, the taste for color and style originated in Europe along with the lettering style, but the Continental expressions of this taste are largely confined to religious tracts (e.g., elaborately decorated bibles) or official documents (e.g., official grants of privilege) and thus, if owned by individuals as opposed to the church or state, were owned by the elite. The German speakers who came to American in the 18th century, though, were farmers and not members of any elite, whereby American fraktur were family possessions belonging to those who, because of their ownership of land, might reasonably be called middle class. The American fraktur, then, is strictly an American folk art form born of an agrarian but nevertheless emerging family centered middle class.
In fact, America’s middle class was even more advantaged than data such as that in Figure 4 suggest. Returning again to a comparison of America with Britain, owing to a variety of circumstances such as the relative proximity of food supplies, the typical American prior to the Revolution enjoyed approximately a 3 to 2 advantage over his British counterpart in purchasing power. That is, while the average Brit might be able to buy 2 units of what Lindert and Williamson term a bare-bones basket of goods, the average American could buy 3 units of that same basket. To see what this means notice from Figure 4 that those who fall in Britain’s 80th percentile – the upper bound of its middle class – earned on average approximately 55£/year. However, an annual income of 55£ would only buy 2/3rds in England what it would buy in pre-Revolutionary America, or the equivalent of approximately 37£/year here. In other words, when measured in terms of purchasing power, the “richest” of England’s middle class wouldn’t have even qualified to be members of America’s middle class, which was earning no less than 40£/year. Or, for another perspective, if 40£/year was what was required to be middle class in America, you needed 3/2 times 40 = 60£/year to have the equivalent standard of living in England, in which case your income moved you into the top 10% of England’s income distribution.
Admittedly, one needs to be careful with such numbers. Aside from being merely estimates based on a complex array of indicators, we do know that luxury goods such as those enjoyed by the higher end of Britain’s income distribution were less expensive in the UK than in the US. It certainly cost less to attend a symphony in London than it did in Pittsburgh (if only because Pittsburgh didn’t then have an orchestra), and if your taste was for a gold gilt decorated carriage to carry your lady to her afternoon tea, that carriage would have to be loaded from a Liverpool dock and thereafter shipped across the Atlantic. Indeed, since no country had yet equipped its merchant sailing fleet with a 150,000+ ton container ship so as to drive down the costs of transatlantic shipping, most luxury goods arrived on America’s shores with a somewhat higher price tag. Nevertheless, even if we upgrade the basket of goods being considered to what Lindert & Williamson label a respectable bundle –- a bundle that cost three times what their bare bones bundle cost but which remained within the reach of society’s middle class — “Americans still paid about 16 percent less than their social counterparts in Britain … So even for people who could afford [the more expensive bundle] … living was cheaper and real purchasing power was greater in America” (Lindert and Williamson, p. 74).
Anyone familiar with life in America in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries might have a hard time squaring these comparative numbers with whatever image they might have of England at the time. Those unfamiliar with the realities of history might see England in terms of glorious landed estates, and when imagining the countryside they might think of yeoman farmers heading off to the fields whistling happy tunes. If they thought of London itself they might imagine a neighborhood of neatly arranged town homes populated by the likes of My Fair Lady’s Professor Henry Higgins. Conversely, their view of America might be colored by images such as those in Figure 6 … the working class and immigrant slums of New York.
Fig. 6: The 19th Century Slums of New York
But lest we forget, America didn’t invent the urban slum. Look, for instance at the images in Figure 7. That’s not New York, but late 19th century London (note especially the shoeless children in the 2nd image).
Fig. 7: 19th Century Urban London
Keep in mind, moreover, that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1838, long before the advent of photography, so it seems that not much changed in London throughout the 19th century. Indeed, consider Thomas Fleming’s (The Perils of Peace, 2007, p. 83) description of London at the time of the American Revolution: “… in the East End, where the poor cluttered, filth and turmoil were everywhere. Well over half the population made less than 50 pounds a year — about 4 thousand dollars in modern money. Most lived in single rooms in substandard tenements that were so badly built, they frequently collapsed, crushing whole families in their beds. People survived from day to day, dependent on unpredictable employment as laborers on the docks or in the textile mills and other factories. Both men and women were frequently drunk on cheap gin that was available in ubiquitous dram shops for a few pennies a gulp. In contrast to the paved streets of the West End, mud overflowed the lanes of the East End, while the stench of raw sewage and unwashed human bodies filled the fetid air.”
In sharp contrast to this picture, consider the chest in Figure 8 (courtesy of David Scorsch). Made in Weymouth Massachusetts ca 1790 it is indeed an elegant piece with its serpentine front and wonderfully elevated legs. It certainly wouldn’t be uncommon to find a chest of comparable quality and design in the abodes of the British peerage or even, for that matter, in the homes of any of the well known participants in the American Revolution. I say that, though, with an important qualification. Such a chest if owned by the likes of a William Livingston or a Robert Morris, or anyone living in London’s West End would, most likely, be made of mahogany. Of course, owing to the wonderful supply or raw materials in America, a Livingston, a Morris or any of their even more modestly less prosperous peers might agree to having such a piece made of walnut or cherry. However, this particular chest is a softwood (most likely poplar) and thereafter painted with a red stain in imitation of mahogany. Thus, this wonderful example of American craftsmanship was not made for someone comparable to anyone living in London’s West End. At the same time it surely would not have been owned by anyone in that city’s East End (or for any tenant farmer living outside of London or any other British city). The chest, in other words, was made for someone of middle class means, quite possibly even a farmer or small shopkeeper, who if somehow magically transported to London, would find themselves out of place in either of London’s two halves. In other words, we have here an AMERICAN chest in capital letters made for the country’s burgeoning middle class.
Fig. 8: Ca 1790 Weymouth Mass. Painted Chest
We ought not linger, though, in the 18th century since, sadly, as much as I love finding artifacts of America’s colonial past, most of the goodies you’re likely to encounter at today’s flea markets or estate sales will have their origins in the 19th century. Not only weren’t there enough of “us” in the 18th century to produce much in the way of goodies, but insofar as we know, there was very little, to say the least, in the way of commercial mass manufacturing of things like apple peelers, saltgalze stoneware, weathervanes, pantry boxes and the like. Even those folk art painters widely pursued by collectors – Ammi Phillips, Erastus Salisbury Field, Samuel and Ruth Shute, Sheldon Peck, Jacob Maentel and William Matthew Prior, for example – worked in the 19th and not 18th century. So what happened to the US economy relative to Europe and the UK following the Revolution? Well, for starters, we know that the Revolutionary War years were a decided setback. While the violence and destruction then pales in comparison to France’s a decade or so later and surely can’t hold a candle to the Bolshevik rampage with civilization some 140 years hence, even the most muted revolution will play havoc with financial systems, property values and employment. Having upwards of a third of the white male population of military age actively participating in the conflict on one side or the other isn’t something that spurs consumerism or economic development. Nor is having the enemy occupying one major city after another (Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston) likely to yield much in the way of folk art collectibles. In the movie adaptation of the Broadway play 1776, when someone objected to offending the British Parliament in the list of proposed grievances, it was John Adams who jumped in to say “It’s a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend someone!” Well, revolutions do more than offend people. We’re not talking about today’s self-centered snowflake college students who demand their “safe spaces” lest they be “offended” by ideas with which they disagree. Equality may have increased during the Revolution, but only because if the Brits are going to trash, burn or occupy someone’s residence, it wouldn’t be a log cabin in the woods but instead the residence of the likes of a Hancock, a Livingston, a Wilson or a Morris.
Things didn’t get much better when hostilities ended in 1783. The country was bankrupt, the various forms of domestic currency floating about were good for papering walls, the military was is near-revolt because the Continental Congress hadn’t seen fit to pay it, the British, in a huff, didn’t much like trading with us and our ally and presumed future trading partner, France, was about to sink into bloody chaos. George “I’m back on the farm” Washington, Jimmie “the nerd” Madison, Alexander “the adulterer” Hamilton, Gouverneur “lady’s man” Morris and Ben “the legend” Franklin didn’t establish their cabal to overthrow the Articles of Confederation because things were going swimmingly. So what happened after that, beginning with, say, 1800? Well, to make a long story short, things got a hell of a lot better (referring again to Lindert and Williamson’s research, the earnings share of the top 10% of the income distribution rose from 27.7% in 1774 to 34.5% in 1850 and to 36.0% on the eve of the Civil War in 1860). While West European growth rates between 1800 and 1860 varied between a high of 1.39% per year (Belgium) and 0.69% per year (United Kingdom), it equaled 1.48% in the original thirteen states and 1.42% overall for the United States despite a few bumps on the road. New England saw the most dramatic rate of increase, 1.94% or nearly twice that of Western Europe taken as a whole, and it was only the South at 0.90% that brought the national average down. The War of 1812 surely didn’t help, but things weren’t coasting along smoothly elsewhere either. France had made a mess of just about everything it touched with its revolution, and we on this side of the Atlantic forget that the war here was merely a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars convulsing the Continent and Great Britain with its estimated 5.5 million casualties (does the word Waterloo ring a bell?). Thus, if America’s “middle class advantage” took a hit during the Revolutionary War era, it regained that advantage quickly, at least in the part of the country that was soon to witness the industrial revolution.
It is, of course, tempting to assume that, with England emerging as the world’s leading power via its industrial revolution, and with France, despite its domestic turmoil, seemingly secure on its throne of culture and the arts, the United States in the first half of the 19th century was an economic backwater — an after-thought in the world of business, finance and commerce. However, as Ratner et al note, “international comparisons of national products can be made to indicate that the size of the American economy around 1840 was not very different from that of the two leading European nations … the national product per capita approached that of Great Britain and was somewhat greater than that of France.”[vii]. Moreover, as these authors go on to note, “these comparisons … are based on modern concepts of national product that exclude some economic activities that were important in earlier periods … [such as] a farmer’s investment of his own labor and farm materials … [and] handicraft manufacturing of products in the home.” If we take these things into consideration an argument can be made that America’s per capita product in 1840 in fact exceeded that of Great Britain as well as of France.
Income inequality increased somewhat between 1800 and 1860, but America remained far more egilatarian than the UK or Europe. It wasn’t a deluded Alexis de Tocqueville who, after touring the country in the 1830’s, wrote “Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions” (Democracy in America). De Tocqueville goes on to note that “I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed.” This equality of condition … America’s large, relatively prosperous and growing middle class … gives us, in turn, an opportunity to understand another important 19th century development that bears heavily on today’s American antiques and collectibles market; namely, the formal launching of the woman’s rights movement in America in 1848 at Seneca Falls.
To see what is anything but a self-evident connection between de Tocqueville and Seneca Falls, and to understand why those pesky women began to formally organize in 1848 as opposed to, say, 1800 or didn’t wait until 1900, consider what might seem but another disjuncture in my presentation, Figures 9a and 9b.
Fig. 9a: Hard Drive Cost per Gigabyte, 1980 – 2004 (from Matt Komorowski, http://www.mkomo.com/assets/hd-cost-graph.png)
Fig. 9b: Estimated Cost of Computing, Million Calculations/Second, 1850-2010 (from W.D. Nordhaus, “The Progress of Computing,” Yale Univ. and NBER report, August 2001)
Now admittedly talking about computers seems a profound non sequitur given that I’m not yet concerned with online auctions and the internet’s role in the hunt for antiques. But bear with me. To begin, I doubt if anyone familiar with the cost and capabilities of personal computers over the course of the last few decades would deem the above figures much of a surprise. In less than a lifetime we’ve gone from computer consoles costing thousands of dollars that might be labeled portable only because they didn’t require a furniture dolly to transport to chewing gum-sized memory sticks capable of storing the contents of a municipal library along with computers that fit in a purse with processing speeds that require the coining of new words to describe. I seriously doubt, then, whether anyone can object to calling all of this a revolution. Visionaries in the 1960s foresaw a ‘terminal’ in every home, all connected like their telephones to some centralized behemoth machine with spinning wheels and blinking lights; instead, we got a computer in every home with capabilities that exceed those of that imagined behemoth by factors of 10,000 or even 1,000,000. It’s tempting to think, then, that all of this as is not only revolutionary but also historically unprecedented. But is it? Consider Figures 10a and 10b. See any parallels with Figures 9a and 9b? Yup, seems as though what happened with computers is, in the words of that famous philosopher Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again. Except that now we’re talking about the costs of cotton fabric and transportation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Figure 10a is from Javier C Esteban “Factory Costs, Market Prices and Indian Calicos”, Economic History Review, 4, 1999, pp 747-55).
Fig. 10a: Cotton Textile Price Declines
Fig 10b: Transportation Costs in the US
So what does this all have to do with where we began this discussion — those women organizing in 1848 to cause trouble? Well, it’s actually quite simple. In the 1760s the British, seeking to dig themselves out of a financial hole and get the colonists to pay a share of the costs of pushing the French out of North America, imposed some taxes that only served to irritate those ungrateful and easily irritated colonists. The first step in the resulting protest was a self-imposed embargo on British imports, which, among other things, made importing cotton fabric from British mills a tad difficult. A rather bumpy road in relations between Britain and colonists lay ahead that further increased the difficulties with importing British goods, especially after some hotheads began shooting in and around Lexington and Concord. This disruption in commerce extended past when hostilities ended in 1783 owing to the now grumpy British policy of seizing American sailors they deemed British subjects, into 1807 when then President Jefferson imposed yet another embargo on British goods. This was followed shortly thereafter by some disagreeable events under the label The War of 1812. Embargoes intermixed with two wars have consequences, and one of them was a profound change in the role of women in the household. If one can’t import stuff, the solution is to make it yourself. And in that list of stuff perhaps nothing was more important than cloth and thread. Lowell, though, doesn’t open his textile mill until 1814, so before that it’s women who are tasked with keeping their families clothed and under a blanket. Thus, as reported in the census of 1810 upwards of 80 percent of American households possessed a spinning wheel with over half owning a loom (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun, Vintage Books, 2001). Now there may have been a member here and there of the male species engaged in clothmaking, but for the most part it was women who sat at the spinning wheel or tossed a shuttle back and forth to weave cloth and blankets (and if the household had an unmarried daughter or two, what better way to make her productive). In other words, between 1760 and 1820 a profound change occurred in North American households wherein women assumed the time consuming role of providing the family with clothing, bedding, blankets and the like, along with perhaps a bit of income by making and selling more of such goods than the family needed for itself. But then along comes the American industrial revolution beginning with New England’s textile mills (and a smoothing of relations between Britain and America) that combines the resulting steady decline in cost of cotton fabric with the decreased expense of transporting that fabric to market and into people’s homes. The need for the average housewife or unwed daughter to spin and weave therein drops drastically. It may be that making the actual garments has to wait until mass production of clothing itself (although as Figure 11 suggests, such manufacturing was well underway by 1860), but freedom from the spinning wheel and loom meant more leisure for women. [To this story we can add one other thing: Vulcanized rubber. If you’re wondering what the relevance of vulcanized rubber is, just remember what one can mass produce from it: Condoms! Thus, while both the birthrate and average number of children per household in America dropped in the first three decades of the 19th century by approximately 6 1/2 percent (55.0 to 51.4 and 7.0 to 6.55) , in the thirty years after 1830 those rates dropped by upwards of 20 percent (51.4 to 41.4 and 6.55 to 5.21). In other words, women also gained in leisure by having fewer pregnancies and fewer kid to attend to.]
Since we know that idle hands are the devil’s workplace, if we now add Morse’s telegraph alongside the spread of newspapers (which are also aided and abetted by lower transportation costs), everything taken together occasioned a perfect storm. The likes of an Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her leisure-filled compatriots could now envision making their cause a national one. Of course, none of this amounts to a hill of beans in a society in which women and their families live on the edge of subsistence and where their livelihoods and possessions can be usurped by a landlord or the state (and keep in mind that the first national suffragette organization in the UK had to wait some twenty one years after a similar organization formed in the US — 1871 versus 1850). But if society has a substantial and rapidly growing middle class, well, sorry guys but we then get what we got. Be that as it may, given the importance of cotton as a fabric throughout the 19th century and its many manifestations in an economy, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that a decline in its price along with the cost of getting it to market (along with condoms) should have an effect on society that parallels the effect computers have on us today.
Fig. 11: Drygoods Store, Taunton Massachusetts ca 1860
Naturally, a second hit to the economy occurs with the Civil War – a hit that was most severely felt in the states of the Confederacy. Incomes rose in the North, albeit modestly and certainly not enough to offset the lost of wealth and income in the South. The net result was that by 1865 America again lost its advantage over the likes of the United Kingdom in terms of purchasing power. That loss, though, was temporary. During our Gilded Age with the likes of Carnegie, Fisk, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Gould and Huntington on the loose, per capita GDP rose for the next five or so decades, up to the outbreak of WWI, at an annual rate of 1.79%. This happened, moreover, despite the arrival of millions of poor, unskilled and under-educated from Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, only tiny Switzerland exceeded this rate (1.81%) while for Western Europe as a whole, per capita GDP rose at a more modest 1.22% per year: 1.56% for Denmark, 0.80% for the Netherlands, 0.93% for the UK, 1.15% for France and 1.51% for Germany (Lindert and Williamson, p. 170). America’s post-Civil War growth might not have been pretty, and a good deal of corruption accompanied it (go look up Credit Mobilier), but it led the country to regaining the economic ascendancy and consumption capabilities of its middle class.
One might assume that with post-bellum Robber Barons lighting cigars with $100 bills in their Newport and New York City mansions, America’s growth would be accompanied by an increase in the overall relative wealth of that forever besmirched 1%. Indeed it did, rising from approximately 10% of national income in 1870 to roughly 18% by 1910 when the shadow of Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting and an impending income tax began to cast its shadow across the likes of J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller. And while the advantage of UK’s top one percent declined over this period, it remained above America’s throughout – dropping from approximately 28% to some 22%. If one were to believe all the nasty things written about America’s super rich during this period and focus exclusively on the sweat shops, coal mines and factories of urban America, it might seem that there would be a hollowing out of the country’s middle class as the haves had more and the have-nots less. Surprise surprise folks, but there was more going on than miners going down into unsafe shafts, children putting in twelve hour workdays, and a bunch of foreigners arriving on our shores with funny names destined for an Ellis Island emasculation. As the frontier slowly closed and recalcitrant Native Americans banished, towns and cities began springing up like mushrooms in a rain soaked forest. In the forty years between 1870 and 1910, Denver’s population rose from 35,000 to 210,000; Salt Lake City went from 21,000 to 93,000; Los Angeles, still absent its congestion and smog, from 11,000 to 320,000; San Francisco from 149,000 to 417,000 and what was still largely an outpost in the desert, Phoenix, from 240 to 11,000. And while a state like Wyoming didn’t have much in the way of cities, the number of towns recorded in the 1870 decennial census numbered but 6, whereas by 1910 there were 44. Needless to say, with this growth came a consuming middle class whereby income inequality overall actually declined. Someone, after all, had to own, run and frequent the saloons, bordellos and dry goods shops pictured in Hollywood Westerns. The middle class was alive and well – a fact that Henry Ford was soon to capitalize on big time.
To perhaps appreciate America’s growth after the Civil War in a context closer to the subject of this volume, take a look at Figure 12 below, which reports the number of US patents issued for apple peelers (or parers as they were called at the time … see Figure 9-1a, Chapter 9, if you don’t know what they look like) for the years 1803 through 1913 (data courtesy of Don Thornton, Apple Parers, Off Beat Books, Sunnyvale, Calif., 1997). Clearly the decade of the 1880s was the golden age of apple peeler innovation. Thus, those who venture out to flea markets and antique shops in search of a functioning example shouldn’t be surprised if the ones they find are stamped with a patent date of that period. Moreover, if they’d been required to do so, those peelers would also include a “made in USA” stamp since I know of only one European manufacturer and it used American patents. But Figure 10 also tells us that there was an active and innovative American peeler market prior to the Civil War (eleven patents issued in 1856). And more surprising still, innovation didn’t discernibly slow during that war (sixteen patents issued between 1861 and 1864). Seems that while a good share of white males of military age were marching off to places like Chancellorsville, Antietam and Gettysburg, there were at least a few apple enthusiasts working on peelers. But think about this for a minute. Who buys a device whose sole purpose is the peeling of apples? Surely not John Jacob Astor’s wife – she’s got a staff and probably doesn’t even know what a kitchen looks like. And surely it isn’t the wife of some Irish, Italian, Ukrainian or Polish immigrant whose worldly possessions are wrapped in a blanket or any of the Chinese imported to help build our railroads. No, the ‘culprit’ once again is the middle class housewife (or her husband if he’s trying to make nice on their anniversary) doing what middle class housewives have always done when not organizing, as they did in 1848 to cause trouble for men: Today it’s a microwave oven or pre-lubricated floor mop whereas in 1870 she reduced her workload with an apple peeler along with, perhaps, a Bissell carpet sweeper and some easily cleaned yellowware mixing bowls. And if she still made clothes for the kids and old man rather than rely on store bought ones, she made them on her new-fangled Singer sewing machine.
Fig 12: US Patents Issued for Apple Parers (Peelers)
The story that emerges from all of this is that America was different. During the 19th century at least, America WAS the exceptional country! Despite the sometimes sterile nature of historical statistics, the difference our numbers and graphs portray is of a society giving rise to a middle class that both encouraged and was a product of the flowering of a mass consumer economy. Now to be honest, America didn’t ‘invent’ a consuming economy-driving middle class. That honor goes to the Dutch. Witold Rybczynski, in his Home: A Short History of an Idea (Penguin Books, NY, 1986) notes that the word “home” comes from the Dutch ham or hejm. It was the Netherlands in the 17th century that developed the idea of home as a private residence, enjoyed by a single family and divorced from the source of a family’s income. This was no accident. The Netherlands of the 1600s was surely Europe’s most egalitarian state. Having no natural resources that could feed an expropriating criminal class as in Russia today, no king or aristocracy as in France or Spain, no landless peasantry as in England, it did though have a burgeoning bourgeoisie of merchants, manufacturers and land owning farmers. In other words, the Dutch developed a middle class in which the private and privately owned residence was the centerpiece of a family’s existence. Such homes, though, aren’t dominated by Sevres vases, intricately woven tapestries, enameled snuff boxes or Dutch marquetry clocks. And with this idea of a landed middle class applied to America on even a grander scale, they also aren’t dominated by Philadelphia tea tables, Paul Revere silver bowls, Tiffany lamps or Duncan Phyfe sofa tables. The material relics of such a society are dominated by other things – apple peelers, coffee mills, Singer sewing machines, Sandwich glass oil lamps, patchwork cotton quilts, yellowware mixing bowls, woven coverlets, Connecticut mantle clocks, family portraits painted by self-taught itinerant artists, pewter (as opposed to silver) plates, a small rag or hooked rug before the fireplace, painted game boards and painted pantry boxes and firkins. These are the sorts of things that made sense to a middle class homeowner and, thus, are the things that typically constitute the inventory of today’s antique shops specializing in Americana.
As if to underscore this fact, consider the observation offered by the British historian Lord James Bryce when, after retracing de Tocqueville’s tour of America between 1869 and 1870, he wrote “In Europe, if an observer takes his eye off his own class … he will perceive that by far the greater number lead very laborious lives … In England the lot of the labourer has been hitherto a hard one, incessant field toil, with rheumatism at fifty and the work house at the end of the vista … in Connecticut and Massachusetts the operatives in many a manufacturing town lead a life far easier, far more brightened by intellectual culture and amusements, than that of the shopkeepers and clerks of England and France” (The American Commonwealth, 1888, vol II, pp. 557-8).
To see the profound economic power inherent in such a society, and the advantage America’s middle class gave to America’s entrepreneurs over their European counterparts consider Singer sewing machines. The company was a bit of a late-comer to the industry, opening its doors in 1851. But less than a decade later it was the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world. How did it do that (aside from stealing patents from others)? Those unfamiliar with the company’s history might assume that its founder, Isaac Singer, succeeded in the usual cut-throat manner by undercutting the prices of his competitors. After all, isn’t that how the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller drove their competition from the field and gained their monopolies a few decades later? In fact, Singer did precisely the opposite, boldly announcing that because his machines were better than the competition’s, they cost more. No, Singer’s company gained its dominance in another and truly revolutionary way: It allowed people to purchase its machines on credit (or, equivalently, to rent them, with payments going toward ultimate purchase). Now think about that for a minute. If your customers are living on the edge of financial oblivion, if their property could be seized any day by a landlord or the state and if they had to make do with a worn down knife to peel an apple, who in their right mind would loan them money or a machine? Not me and surely not Isaac “Ebenezer Scrooge” Singer. But if those customers were homeowners firmly ensconced in a stable middle class, with assets and income, then why not – especially if you can get them to commit to something that yields a substantial profit (I’ve also learned of another of Singer’s slick tricks to gaining market share and the marketing of his machines to the middle class. In many a village and town of the 19th century, mechanical as opposed to hand sewing was viewed with suspicion – unholy perhaps. So Singer would often give the wife of the minister of the local church a machine, free with no strings attached. Seeing her use such a device could only mean one thing to the proper ladies of the congregation: Sewing machines were decidedly NOT the work of the devil).
Singer’s financing scheme, in turn, impacts today’s collector market in multiple ways. Indirectly, the wages and salaries paid to his employees added another pinch of salt to the stew that was America’s 19th century economy. But it also impacted today’s collector market directly. For reasons that escape me (largely because I’ve always felt that anyone who collects heavy cast iron things has to be a bit deranged), people collect sewing machines (and my opinion extends to those who collect typewriters, brass cash registers and cast iron cookware). Singer’s contribution to this area of collecting isn’t so much that people collect the company’s machines (they do if they’re the earliest models). Singer made a lot of machines and nearly all of them are indestructible so the mass merchandised models are about as common today as dog poop on the lawn. It’s the machines made by companies that never quite succeeded in competing with Singer that are collectible – American companies such as Wilcox & Gibbs, Wardwell, Hunt & Webster, National, Shaw & Clark, Eldredge, Foley & Williams, Standard, and perhaps its strongest competitor, White, along with various European manufactures and models such as Muller (Germany), Pfaff (Germany), Thimonnier (France), Hurtu (France), Soloman-Davis (UK), Bradbury (UK) and Ward (UK). Of the approximately 40-plus 19th century manufacturers of sewing machines I’ve been able to identify, six were German, three were French, one Swiss, one from Sweden and, reflecting a textile industry that lay at the core of its industrial revolution, eighteen from the UK. Singer, then, can hardly be said to have benefited from the absence of competition. But I’ll bet the only name that rings a bell is Singer itself, which tells you whose machines are likely to be collectible and whose less so. Having been given a leg up on his European competition by his ability to mass-market sewing machines to an American home-owning middle class following the innovation of buying on time, it was the machines made by Singer’s competitors that became collectible some 150 years hence, because Singer ensured that they didn’t make many of them.
Singer’s story is not unique. With a burgeoning mass-consuming middle class comes the entrepreneur. I’m not referring here to major industrialists but rather to the shop keeper and store owner servicing that middle class — the “mom & pop” retail outlet. And if you are one of them and relatively prosperous because business is good in the selling of mass manufactured brooms, apple peelers, farm plows, cast iron stoves, clocks and clothing, then what better way to upgrade your store than with a cash register, candy scale and perhaps even a typewriter to keep the books and write out new orders for merchandise. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that it was American companies the filled this demand in the 19th century (or even to some extent, invented the demand by the elegance of their product). Hence its American companies such as National Cash Register, Dayton Scales and Corona typewriters that dominate the manufacture of what a mom & pop shop owner might be looking for.
The story of Singer’s ascendancy and ultimate dominance of its industry as well as that of National, Dayton and Corona, can be told more generally. It’s no secret that the concept of interchangeable parts was not an American idea. Europeans in pursuit of more efficient ways to kill each other had long pursued this technology when it came to the manufacture of weapons. It’s also no secret that the industrial revolution took root first in England and arrived on American shores with a considerable time lag. Any list of critical inventions and inventors contributing to that revolution is dominated by British and Continental names: James Watt (Steam engine, UK), Richard Arkwright (spinning throstle, UK), Richard Roberts (weaving mule, UK), Thomas Bell (cylinder printing, UK), Joseph Jacquard (automated loom, France), Nicholas Robert (papermaking, France), Humphrey Davy (mining safety lamp, UK), Henry Bessemer (steel making, UK), Adolph von Baeyer (synthetic dye, Germany), Z.T. Gramme (electric dynamo, Belgium), and the list goes on. So why in the second half of the 19th century did the methods of mass manufacturing become known universally as The American System? Surely Europeans were not blind to the fact that, as Joel Mokyr (The Levers of Riches, NY, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990, p. 137) notes, “first firearms, then in clocks, pumps, locks, mechanical reapers, typewriters, sewing machines, and eventually engines and bicycles, interchangeable parts technology proved superior …”[xii]. But, as Mokyr goes on to say, interchangeability’s “… diffusion in Europe was slowed down by two factors: its inability to produce distinctive high-quality goods, which long kept consumers faithful to skilled artisans, and the resistance of labor …” (emphasis added). Underscoring this observation is this one, offered by an engineer in 1899 specifically concerned with the nature of technological innovation: “In America the tendency is to reduce all production to machine operations. In European countries, the tendency is to employ machinery as an assistant to production, and to rely on skillful hand labor to complete, and in some cases to produce outright, the highest grade of work. The consequence is that we find in America the highest skill and talent devoted to the production of machinery on which the article is made, and in Europe the highest skill devoted to the production of the article itself” ( H.F.L. Orcutt, “Machine Shop Management in Europe and America,” Engineering Magazine, 16, 1989). Now think about the implications of this observation in conjunction with the italicized part of Mokyr’s observation. It wasn’t the case that “consumers” in Europe somehow had better taste than “consumers” in America. Rather, it was that the European consumer fell into a different category of income than did a consumer in America: Consumers in Europe consisted largely of the upper reaches of the income distribution whereas it was a middle class that dominated that category in America. Thus, while your local land baron, lawyer, banker or entrepreneur wanted and could afford something unique and crafted by an artisan, what passed for Europe’s middle class was, to repeat myself, still compelled by its financial status to pare its apples with a knife. America’s middle class … larger and more prosperous on average … wasn’t in the market for the unique and artisan quality item any more than is today’s WalMart or Amazon.com customer. Instead they were eager to buy the latest in apple peelers, mass manufactured carpet sweepers, and Singer sewing machines and cared not a twit whether there were ten or ten million copies of whatever it was they were buying. In other words, the rise of The American System was driven by a domestic middle class consumer demand of a sort that was at best weak in Europe.
Now insofar as the American antiques my wife and I like to accumulate (which DO NOT include sewing machines, cash registers, typewriters, cast iron cookware or carpet sweepers!) nothing I’ve said means I’d pass up the opportunity to own a Philadelphia tea table or a Newport block front desk at the right price. I could, after all, add to my otherwise inconsequential wealth by selling them. And if told I’d have to commit a minor felony to secure an early 18th century carved Connecticut River Hadley Chest or a mid-19th century Mahantango Pennsylvania paint decorated one, I can’t preclude wondering first if I’d be required to return the piece and thereafter serve any prison time if convicted. But if I want to understand how the majority of Americans lived in the 18th and especially 19th centuries, I can’t focus on what only the well-to-do could afford. I am also painfully aware of the fact that there are a great many things once owned by people of modest means but which today command prices that would compel me to miss more than a few mortgage payments to own. What collector of Americana wouldn’t want a steer or cod fish weathervane with its original gold gilt surface, an early 19th century tavern trade sign, a collection of 18th and early 19th century Pennsylvania fraktur or a cigar store Indian in its original paint? What Americana collector wouldn’t love to stumble into an “its all gotta go” estate sale and find a collection of carvings by the itinerant (and generally drunk) wood carver Wilhelm Schimmel or New England paint decorated document boxes or Pennsylvania sgraffito redware. As much as I like to drool over the Americana offerings featured in Antiques magazine or lust for what’s advertised or written about every month in the Maine Antiques Digest, I know what I can and can’t afford or what I’m likely to find when hunting the flea markets and estate sales within commuting distance. Of course, none of this stops me from looking thru Stacy Hollander’s American Radiance or Monroe Fabian’s The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest for the umpteenth time even though it would be an event akin to what ostensibly happens at Lourdes for me to ever find anything akin to what’s pictured in either volume. But I appreciate the more ordinary things that emerged in abundance in America because there was an abundance of people eager to better their lives by making, trading and buying those things. Finding, collecting and dealing in the ‘ordinary’ – in a mass-manufactured 19th century weathervane, a single hand painted fraktur, a decent and undamaged needlework sampler, a blanket chest with an honest coat of robin’s egg blue paint, a turn of the century trade sign, an early 19th century candlebox, a schoolboy’s watercolor world map or an 1840s Jacquard coverlet with but one or two small moth holes — gives me a stronger connection to America’s past than does the rare tea table, highboy or piece of paint decorated furniture I am unlikely to see outside of a museum.
To illustrate what I mean about appreciating the “less than museum quality” piece, one of my favorite flea market finds is a needlework sampler dated 1831 by a Miss Susannah Savil born in 1820 in Quincy Massachusetts. As Figure 13 shows, Susannah’s work is a relatively simple one and thereby unlikely to be the cause of any excessive excitement when discovered. But notice that it was made by someone born in John Adams’ home town six years before his death. That, of course, sent me scurrying to genealogical websites to see what I could learn about Susannah, and what I learned was that if you drew a line between Adams’ birthplace (and his subsequent law office) and the home he built for his family (Peacefield), the Savil family farm fell plop dead across that line. So the Savils and possibly even little Susannah herself had to know the Adamses – if not John, then perhaps John Quincy. Probing further I also learned that Susannah’s great great great grandmother’s name was Hanna Adams. Hmmmmm … things are getting interesting. And indeed, more probing revealed that Hanna was the sister of John Adams’ father. So Susannah’s great great great grandmother was John Adams’ aunt. Admittedly, the connection here to the lawyer representing the British soldiers following the “Boston Massacre”, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States is a tad remote, but finding something with even that remote connection at the Pasadena Community College flea market does keep the internal batteries charged. And quite frankly, after this genealogical search and after hanging Susannah’s handiwork on my wall, I felt a closer connection to America’s past than I had before. And that was even after the document I found earlier at the Long Beach flea market signed by the judge who presided over the trial of those British soldiers.
Figure 13: Susannah Savil’s 1831 Quincy Mass. Sampler
It might be that owning a pair of Sevres vases or a Dutch Bombay secretary with a nice provenance would give me an equivalent sense of satisfaction were I to try to imagine myself a descendant of the Duke and Duchess of whatever. Alas, the entry for ‘occupation’ in my grandfather’s 1907 Tsarist passport reads peasant. Thus, it’s the more ordinary things and the story of our search for them that is the subject of this volume. But suppose that passport instead read something such as Grand Poobah? Would I then have reason to think I’d have a better understanding of America by collecting the best of the best – only those things found at a Sotheby’s Americana auction or for sale at the New York City’s Antiques Pier Show? I think not. There is a tendency when attempting to understand history to do so in terms of the self-evident movers and shakers of the time – for understanding, say, the American Revolution by focusing on the actions of a Washington, an Adams, a Paine, a Jefferson or a Franklin. But there is also something to be gained by reading the diary of Joseph Plumb Martin, who served as a Private (rising ultimately to the rank of Sargent) in the Continental Army from beginning to end. Not only can we not understand the American Revolution without an understanding of the things that motivated the likes of a Joseph Plumb Martin, but it’s only thru him and his peers that we can know what life was like for the average American of the period and what might have motivated them to be either a patriot or Tory (or both from time to time). Just as it would be silly to undervalue Washington’s qualities as a leader in keeping an army on the field in the winter of 1777-78 “without shadow of a blanket”, absent the commitment and sacrifice of the Joseph Plumb Martins, who in fact experienced Valley Forge, we’d probably know of the likes of Washington today as simply one of a motley crew of radical nut-case revolutionaries who were ultimately imprisoned and hung for treason by the man who saved the British Empire, Lord North (aided, of course, by what the history books would then tell us were two brilliant and victorious military strategists, Lord Cornwallis and General Henry Clinton). Thus, as much as I would love to own something that might have sat on the fireplace mantle in Mt. Vernon, acquiring the sorts of things that characterized the life of a lowly private in our Continental Army gives me no less of a thrill.
So what is the plan of this volume? Frankly, it’s a schizophrenic one. One theme is to simply recount experiences with collecting over the past forty or so years – discoveries, missed opportunities, mistakes, evolving tastes, interesting characters and lessons learned. A second intermixed theme is to provide some advice about how to approach the search for treasures – the pitfalls of auctions, the opportunities for finding under-priced gems by scouring antique shops or flea markets and the agonies and joys of traveling the estate sale route. In addition, then, to providing a window into the mind of someone who by accident became a somewhat undisciplined and often indiscriminate collector Americana, the first eight chapters also seek to provide some guidance to the novice collector about what to expect when you begin collecting, the frustrations of owning a shop and some guidance as to the character of antiques generally. This last theme is more explicit in chapters 9 thru 13, which focus on specific categories of antiques – quilts, samplers, painted furniture, pantry boxes, stoneware, early lighting, portrait paintings, country furniture and so on (although Chapter 13 is more a grab bag of categories than anything else). But in all of this the reader should be warned that I’m hardly an expert in any one of these categories. I know enough to keep myself out of trouble, although from time to time the converse is also true: I know enough to get into trouble. I’m like the occasional skier who, after having graduated from the beginner to the intermediate slope, can’t resist taking a shot at the one marked by a skull and crossbones, often with the inevitable consequences. This is not, in short, a volume for the advanced collector or for a collector with a specific focus.
It should go without saying, in fact, that collectors at any level of sophistication can and should rely on published works that go far beyond anything I can provide. How, for instance, can I compete with Safford and Bishop’s 309 page volume on quilts and coverlets, Anderson’s 247 page volume that among other things proposes a comprehensive listing of all known coverlet weavers, Corinne and Russell Earnst’s 192 page book on Pennsylvania Fraktur, Thorton’s 233 page book on apple parers, Franklin’s 887 page (yikes!) volume on kitchen collectibles, Betty Ring’s 2-volume 568 page treatise on samplers, Steven and Carol Huber’s 174 page book on the same subject, Bishop and Coblentz’s or Steve Miller’s volumes on weathervanes (285 pages total)? Ketchum’s 164 page volume on American stoneware might be a good place to start on that subject, but after that you could go further with volumes devoted exclusively to Pennsylvania stoneware, New England redware, Southern stoneware, and so on. Distin and Bishop’s 351 page volume on American clocks is a good starting point as any on that subject, but you’ll want to read further if you’re interested in Connecticut clocks, Pennsylvania clocks, Massachusetts clocks, mantle clocks, tall case clocks. Then there’s Coffin’s 226 page book on American country tinware, Kindig’s 248 page book on butter prints and molds, and Montgomery’s 246 page volume on the history of American pewter.[iii]. And trust me, this list doesn’t scratch the surface – not even a smudge. One can find entire volumes devoted to the works of individual artists, furniture crafters, categories of quilts and regional characteristics of just about anything. The wife of an ex-colleague of mine, as part of her collecting 19th century Texas stoneware, has traveled the state visiting the sites of abandoned kilns, digging thru the dirt much like someone studying Mayan ruins or million year old bones in Africa so that she can examine shards of pottery and identify the precise origins of pieces in her collection. How can this volume compete with her expertise? In fact, pick an object or some category of collectible and I’ll guarantee there are those whose knowledge about that object … the history of its manufacture, the variations in it that determine value, and so on … would qualify them for a PhD on the subject (and in many cases advanced degrees have been awarded to developers of such expertise). It truly is the case that, in the field of Americana at least, the more one learns, the more one comes to appreciate how little one actually know and how much others know that you don’t.
This volume is limited by one other thing. Because my collecting has been somewhat scattershot, I’ve not developed a collection of anything that ventures in any sophisticated way into any specific genre of Americana. For the most part I’ve ventured into the various sources of antiques … flea markets, estate sales, auctions and antique shops … not with any specific focus in mind. I’ll buy it, whatever it might be, if at the moment it appeals to me or if I think I can make a buck selling it. Given this unfocused and somewhat dyslectic approach I haven’t thereby collected the best of the best. My collection of samplers is at best average, as are the portraits, fraktur, stoneware, quilts and so on that I’ve had the opportunity to photograph. With but a handful of exceptions, then, the objects photographed in the chapters that follow are not of a sort that one expects to find at, say, an Americana auction at Southby’s, Pook & Pook or Cowen’s, or featured in a booth at a New York City or Philadelphia antiques show. It’s a truly rare day when one finds something at an estate sale or flea market that meets the standards set at such venues. So if you can, set your sights low if you choose to venture forth into this volume, since my goal is indeed a modest one: To introduce the novice to the fun and excitement of discovery – a process of discovery of the more modest artifacts of our past and that as much as anything, takes us to the origins of a country that truly is unique.
[i] The table below from Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 – 2100 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004) reports the caloric intake of individuals over and above what is required for subsistence – surplus intake that can be converted into productive energy, i.e., labor.
Table: Daily Energy Available for Work (Caloric Surplus)
|England + Wales||720||812||858||1014|
[ii] A final bit of weight is lent our hypothesis by noting that “estimates place the volume of dairy exports to Britain at four million pounds in 1850 and twenty three million by 1860” (Jennifer L. Putnam, “Making an Impression: Butter Prints, the Butter Market, and Rural Women in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Pennsylvania” Madison Historical Review, v14, 2017). It was the women of modest privately owned Pennsylvania farms who needed a brand label for their product more than anyone else.
[iii] The precise citations here are Carleton Safford and Robert Bishop, America’s Quilts and Coverlets, E.P. Dutton, NY, 1980; Clarita Anderson, American Coverlets and their Weavers, Ohio Univ. Press, Athens, 2002; Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery (2 vols), Knopf, NY, 1993; Corrine and Russel Earnst, Fraktur: Folk Art & Family, Schiffer Pub., Penna, 1999; Stephen & Carol Huber, Samplers: How to Compare Values, Octopus Pub, London, 2002; Don Thornton, Apple Parers, Off Beat Books, Sunnyvale (Calif.) 1997; Linda Franklin, 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, Krause pub., Iola (Wisconsin), 2003; Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz, A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs, Bonanza Books, NY, 1984; Steve Miller, The Art of the Weathervane, Schiffer Pub., Atglen (Penna), 1984. William C. Ketchum, Jr. American Stoneware. H. Holt & Co, N.Y. 1991. William H. Distin & Robert Bishop. The American Clock. Bonanza Books, NY. 1976. Margaret Coffin. The History and Folklore of American Country Tinware 1700-1900. Galahad Books, NY. 1968. Paul E. Kindig, Butter Prints and Molds, Schiffer, Pennsylvania, 1986. Charles F. Montgomery. A History of American Pewter. Praeger Pub., NY. 1973.