An American history lesson at the auction

American history can be found anywhere from museums to the old building around the block. I just happened to find an interesting source at an auction, not as a buyer or seller but as a student.
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I recently had the opportunity to pre-preview the inventory of a local auction in the small town where I live. This auction certainly won’t make the pages of the national trade press either for the uniqueness of the inventory or for the prices achieved but it was impressive in another way. I realized as I walked down the aisles mentally tabulating each piece by date and style (a habit I can’t break) that any history class would benefit from such a stroll whether they were interested in furniture or not. Right there in a single room in a nondescript local auction were examples of pieces that were made during some major periods of American history.

The people who initially used these items lived through the historic times whether they realized and appreciated it (or regretted it) or not. And here was an opportunity to see a relatively broad array of these original pieces in reasonably good working condition. Here are some highlights (historically) of the inventory.

Federal/Empire transitional chest.

Federal/Empire transitional chest.Photos courtesy of Fred Taylor

Federal/Empire transitional chest: Here was a chest of drawers made of solid cherry with tiger maple drawers on its way from being a Federal chest to its more formidable Empire form, circa 1815-1820. The second War of Independence, the War of 1812, had just concluded but the peace treaty was still unsigned when this cabinet found its first home. Maine had just become a free state to counterbalance the impending admission of a slave state, Missouri, and James Monroe was re-elected President (with no opposition!) despite the Panic of 1819.

 Country Federal work table.

Country Federal work table.

Country Federal work table, 1840: This simple stand with cherry legs and top and mahogany veneer drawer was made in the Federal style but by a competent woodworker who was not too familiar with the fine points. It was sturdy enough for country duty and the leaf that would not drop all the way because of shrinkage in the top attests to its age. Around the time this table was made William Henry Harrison was elected president and promptly died from the effort, to be succeeded by John Tyler who subsequently survived an impeachment effort. Not much later Florida and Texas joined the Union, sparking the Mexican War.

 Renaissance Revival chair.

Renaissance Revival chair.

Renaissance Revival chair, 1875: This mechanical-looking example of the great revival of Italian architectural style was the successor to the flowery Rococo Revival of the Civil War period. After the War in the prosperity of the 1870s, America celebrated the 100th birthday of the country at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and this was the premier style of the Exposition, the introduction to the Gilded Age of American history in the late nineteenth century.

Eastlake folding rocker, 1885: Charles Locke Eastlake was an English designer who was a leader in the rebellion against Victorian excesses. He published his influential book Hints on Household Taste in England in 1868 and in the U.S. in the early 1870s. Even though Eastlake never actually designed a single piece of furniture, his name is attached to one of America’s most produced styles. Multiple patents were issued in the 1870s and 1880s for folding chairs, and folding rockers were almost the ultimate technical furniture achievement of the period.

Parlor set, 1900: While parlor sets of the mid nineteenth century had included seven or more pieces, by the end of the century they were down to usually three pieces. This was the period of the great catalog mail order houses like Sears and Montgomery Ward and much of America’s furniture was shipped by rail so some contraction was required. William McKinley was president and the Spanish-American War had just been concluded. McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and was succeeded by Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt.

Cabinet bed, 1902: This folding cabinet bed was illustrated in the 1902 Sears catalog. This was the year of the first college football bowl game, the Rose Bowl between Stanford and Michigan and the first movie theater in the country opened in Los Angeles.

 Hoosier style cabinet, 1910.

Hoosier style cabinet, 1910.

Hoosier style cabinet, 1910: This was the successor to the possum belly baker’s cabinet of the late nineteenth century. This one, the “Ideal,” was made by the Vincennes Furniture Mfg. Co. of Vincennes, Indiana, around 1910. This year the Boy Scouts of America was founded and the following year both the air conditioner and the electric automobile starter were invented. Soon Arizona would be a state and the Panama Canal would open.

Oak hall tree, 1915: One of the last vestiges of the Golden Oak era of American furniture this massive oak hall tree was made just after World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. Woodrow Wilson was elected president the next year, 1916 and Albert Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity.

Edison Amberola, 1918: While most music boxes had turned to shellac disks by 1909 Edison clung to his cylinder players and introduced the four minute version called the “Amberol.” His new internal horn player, introduced in 1911, was called the “Amberola.” Shown is an Amberola 30, introduced in 1915 and made as late as 1925. This was the “Jazz Age” and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald was the icon of the period. It was a pleasant interlude before the market crash of 1929.

Priscilla, 1930: After the market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression a lot of attention was turned to homemade clothing. The home tailor’s helper was the portable sewing basket called the “Priscilla” named after an early century sewing machine and it publication “The Modern Priscilla.” Unemployment was 25 percent and the average annual salary was $1,368. The “Dust Bowl” had devastated the agricultural community of the Midwest starting a westward migration. Herbert Hoover would soon be displaced by Franklin Roosevelt.

American history can be found anywhere from museums to the old building around the block. I just happened to find an interesting source at an auction, not as a buyer or seller but as a student.

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