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Out of the Attic

Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England

Briann G. Greenfield

Publication Year: 2009

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

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

While my own collection of antiques is sparse, writing this book has provided me with other kinds of treasures: the friendships, exchange of ideas, and fellowship of academic work. I would like to single out those who read and commented on parts of the manuscript in its many different forms and guises, including Tom Denenberg, Rob Emlen,...

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Introduction - Inventing Antiques

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pp. 1-15

When the architect Charles F. McKim redesigned the White House in 1902, he outfitted it with a mixture of revival furniture, inspired by early American and French Empire styles. But in 1925 First Lady Grace Goodhue Coolidge challenged McKim’s design. While McKim believed it was enough to reference the past with modern furniture manufactured...

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Chapter 1 - Priceless and Price: The Antiquing of New England

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pp. 17-55

In an archive in Delaware sit two inventory lists from a New Haven antique dealer named O. C. Hill. The first, dated 1902, is a handwritten list of each object in the shop and its estimated value. The descriptions are exceptionally brief. Entries such as “highboy,” “tall clock,” or “mahogany table” are the norm, but when Hill found it necessary to elaborate, the information he added took the form of specific associations.

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Chapter 2 - The Jewish Dealer: Antiques, Acculturation, and Aesthetics

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pp. 57-89

Israel Sack arrived at Ellis Island in 1903. He was barely twenty years old at the time, but his life was already marked by a willingness to reinvent tradition. Born to a fairly prosperous Jewish family in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania), he studied the Bible and the Talmud and prepared to become a merchant like his father. But he also grew...

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Chapter 3 - Jessie Barker Gardner and George Gardner: Making a Collection Permanent

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pp. 91-129

George Gardner and his wife, Jessie Barker Gardner, were early twentieth-century antique collectors in Providence, Rhode Island. George was a surgeon, Jessie the descendent of an old New England family. The pair spent their adult lives in a middle-class neighborhood of Providence. They knew the famous Pendleton collection of American decorative...

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Chapter 4 - Highboys and High Culture: Adopting an American Aesthetic in Deerfield, Massachusetts

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pp. 131-166

In 1959 Henry Flynt, a New York lawyer and antique collector, wrote the editor of the Saturday Evening Post about an antique collecting and historic preservation project he was conducting in the small town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. “As a reader of your valued publication I deeply appreciate your stalwart efforts to stem the tide of softness in our...

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Chapter 5 - Exhibiting the Ordinary: History Making at the Smithsonian

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pp. 167-204

In a 1951 New York Times article, Israel Sack warned potential collectors against buying so-called country antiques, pieces made by early American craftsmen who, because of their rural origins, lacked the design sophistication of their more cosmopolitan urban counterparts. “You can’t judge a country by its backwoods,” he was quoted as say-...

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Epilogue: The End of the Antique?

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pp. 205-213

On January 31, 2002, the antique firm of Israel Sack, Inc., closed its doors. After Israel Sack died in May 1959, his sons, Harold, Albert, and Robert, had continued the family tradition, joined by Albert’s son Donald in 1968. Certainly the decision to close the firm was influenced by the brothers’ advancing age. (The oldest brother, Harold, had died in...


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pp. 215-251

Index and About the Author

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pp. 253-266

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760987
E-ISBN-10: 1613760981
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497108
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497102

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 31 illus.
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794701581
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Out of the Attic

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Subject Headings

  • New England -- Antiquities -- Collectors and collecting -- History -- 20th century.
  • House furnishings -- New England -- Marketing -- Case studies.
  • Antiques business -- New England -- History -- 20th century.
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