Review by Kenneth L. Ames
Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in the Twentieth-Century New England

Briann G. Greenfield. Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-­Century New England. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. xii + 265 pp.; 31 bw illus., index. $26.95 pb.

Once upon a time, there was a graduate program in a small eastern state that prepared students for museum careers. Taking advantage of privileged access to one of the country’s most notable collections of Americana, each year instructors in the program initiated the new crop of students into the art and mystery of the study of historic objects, including familiarization with period styles, the nature of materials, construction techniques, and all the rest. Or nearly all the rest. Most instructors seemed content to confine their teaching to close examination of the objects. Only one or two thought it was also important to orient students to the marketplace, current prices, and major dealers. There was, however, notable precedent for this more encompassing approach. An earlier and much esteemed director of the program, Charles F. Montgomery, once a collector and dealer, later a curator, and finally a professor, had taken students on field trips to antiques shows, where they encountered firsthand the reigning hierarchies of value and the prevailing prices assigned thereto. Some few educators, then, have recognized that the study of American antiques cannot be separated from the marketplace. The entire enterprise is embedded in and shaped by an economic framework.

How money has mattered is a central theme of Briann Greenfield’s engaging and informative examination of the changing nature and fortunes of American antiques over the course of the twentieth century. Out of the Attic traces the shift in the appreciation of old objects from a system of valuation based on family ancestry and historical association to one governed by aesthetics and the preferences of elite collectors. Greenfield, trained at Brown and now associate professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, is primarily interested in cultural process. Although objects are central to her story at every stage, Greenfield treats them as somewhat interchangeable, at least for the purposes of her account. Therefore, readers looking for explicit commentary on particular furniture styles, forms, regions, or makers will not be rewarded. Instead, Greenfield offers a systemic analysis of the dynamic triangle trade connecting dealers, collectors, and museum folk. The topic is immense and, over the years, has involved literally thousands of players in one or another of these capacities and at every level of engagement, whether part-time or full-time, high-end or low. Anyone who has been a player, however small or peripheral, realizes that the American antiques phenomenon is enormous, highly complex, and in a constant state of flux. It has spread so widely across the American cultural landscape over the years and involved so many participants that a comprehensive account is simply not feasible. Greenfield, therefore, wisely decided to offer five case studies, each of which illuminates one part of the larger whole.

One background chapter and four case studies, to be more accurate. The first chapter is less a case study than a matter of setting the stage for what follows. Here Greenfield examines the uneven and never totally complete shift from associational values to aesthetic. Put simply, early on, colonial-era objects were valued as relics, as pieces of one or another true cross. Over time, the importance of historical connection declined and objects became increasingly understood as art. As a broad explanation of what took place, Greenfield’s description is accurate, but she recognizes that the matter has always been more complex and that aesthetics, narrowly defined, has never been the sole criterion shaping value.

Because the cultural and economic importance of antiques is socially constructed, value is what a quorum of significant players says it is—and is willing to pay. The shift from association to today’s reigning system of aesthetics has been a complicated, uneven, and sometimes contradictory process. So much so, in fact, that at one point Greenfield invokes the spirit of Kenneth Roberts, whose 1928 Antiquamania playfully exposed some of the muddled thinking about antiques prevalent when he wrote. The dogma of the day was that associations were no longer of prime importance—but there was one critical and necessary exception: objects had to be of American origin. Roberts’s instructive invented dialogue between Father and young Rudolph illustrates the confusion the former generated while on the one hand claiming that “sentiment and association have no market value” (p. 36) and on the other trying to explain why aesthetically inferior American Chippendale chairs were worth more than English examples. Young Rudolph did not have to be much of a philosopher to recognize the flaw in the argument. Indeed, the high valuation attached to objects of American origin only demonstrated that sentiment and association were still important but had shifted from the purely local or parochial, where they were once lodged, to the national, where they helped expand the American antiques phenomenon and allowed American antiques to become instruments in international cultural and political competition.

Although some schools of philosophy might argue to the contrary, aesthetics are largely culturally determined—and that means economically determined as well. For an informative exercise, peruse the early years of Antiques magazine and note well the sorts of objects that appear in both articles and advertisements. Then dip back into a few issues of the magazine every succeeding decade or so and observe the process of sorting, sifting, classifying—and ranking. One might expect that with the passage of time, the range of goods included would expand, but just the opposite took place, especially in the advertisements. The changing fortunes of various classes of antiques make for fascinating stories, but the most important tale of all may be the ways that big money has shaped and limited the canon of Americana. Out of the Attic provides a glimpse into some of that process.

Greenfield’s case studies center on New England or New Englanders. Like authors before her, she acknowledges that yet more attention to New England may be annoying to some. New England is not the center of America or the origin of all things great and good. But, also like others before her, Greenfield is attracted to the rich accumulation of materials, textual and artifactual, that enable a fuller account to be made of New England than of any other place. The fact is that several generations of New Englanders and New England sympathizers have loaded the documentary dice so that New England wins most of the time. With reservations noted, this book becomes yet another addition to the very long list of New England–centered antiques publications, and a fine one at that.

Greenfield’s case studies examine representative examples of the major classes of players taking part in the American antiques drama: dealers, collectors at both the middle level and the high end, and museum curators. In the first instance, Greenfield documents the important contributions of Jewish dealers to the trade, and in doing so makes an important contribution of her own. Dealers have been underrepresented in the literature on antiques, which has tended to valorize rich collectors but has taken the trade for granted. Not surprisingly, if the trade has been little spoken of, Jewish prominence within it has also gone largely unmentioned (if occasionally disparaged). Yet Jews have not only been numerous in the antiques business but have also occupied leading positions. In fact, the history of the American antiques phenomenon could not be truthfully written without recognizing Jewish dealers’ critical roles.

Part of the explanation for Jewish prominence in the antiques business revolves around the peculiar nature of the immigrant Jewish population at the turn of the twentieth century. Unlike many non-Jewish immigrants from rural areas of Europe, Jewish males often arrived in this country with competence in commerce or in a saleable trade. Determined to settle, succeed, and prosper, many Jews possessed a powerful work ethic, an eagerness to learn, and a willingness to seize opportunity. Although Greenfield makes no mention of it, classic outsider theory would argue that Jews’ relative distance from the larger American society and culture allowed them to become astute analysts of the tastes and customs of the dominant groups in their new country, knowledge they put to considerable market use.

The featured players in Greenfield’s account are familiar, Sack, Ginsburg, Levy, Liverant, and a few others. All came from relatively modest backgrounds and gradually rose within the trade, shaping it as they grew. Greenfield’s narrative, sprinkled with instructive anecdotes, describes the origins and early days of various firms and their evolving and expanding presence in the marketplace. Although she casts her net broadly and paints an inclusive picture of the trade during the first half of the twentieth century, Sack and Liverant receive the most attention. Or, more accurately, the Sacks and the Liverants, since both are extended family operations. Today the Sack firm is at a low ebb, but Liverant still goes on, now in its third generation, selling antiques from its distinctive headquarters “in a former Baptist meeting house” (p. 61) on South Main Street in Colchester, Connecticut.

The Sacks and Liverants have attracted considerable press notice over the years. They have also generated a fair amount of copy and visibility on their own. In his later years, Zeke Liverant cultivated something of a country character persona, sitting at the front of his shop, chatting amiably with visitors, offering old-timey witticisms about string too short to save and the like, and generally presenting himself as a living link with the early days of the antiques business. If visitors were local, odds are that he knew their house, had been inside it at some point in the past, and could describe it. And he may have even bought and sold some of its earlier contents somewhere along the line.

The Sacks were more assertive about self-promotion through publication, with their readily recognizable and prominent advertisements in Antiques, multiple printings of Fine Points of Furniture (the infamous “good, better, best” book), and luxury volumes illustrating objects sold by the firm. Because Greenfield’s focus is on careers rather than objects, she has nothing to say about Fine Points, which is unfortunate, since it is a vivid example of how a prominent dealer took a leading role in constructing the hierarchy of aesthetic-economic value that remains largely in place today. Initially published in 1950, Fine Points has gone through twenty-four printings, according to Albert Sack’s current website, and may compete with Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury for the honor being the most influential book in the field.[1]

As a codicil to her discussion of Jewish dealers, Greenfield offers a few pages on the business of repairs and reproductions. For many, Jews and others, the route into the antiques business had been through furniture repair. From repairing one might move into dealing or into the specialist terrain of restoration or, taking another tack altogether, into the domain of reproductions. The region around Hartford, Connecticut, often considered the cradle of the study of American furniture, was also home to an early manifestation of the furniture reproduction business. The firm of Nathan and then Harold Margolis dominated the Hartford market in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the great surprises for first-time attendees to Hartford-area auctions comes in witnessing the high prices Margolis pieces bring, often far in excess of what bidders are willing to offer for middling period originals. Part of the reason for its high valuation is that Margolis furniture is not only exceptionally well made but also of relatively recent manufacture and therefore sturdy and usable. But another piece of the explanation, documented in Eileen Pollack’s 2004 Cooper-Hewitt master’s thesis, is that goods by Margolis (and by the competing Fineberg firm) have powerful resonance with Hartford-area Jews, connecting them on the one hand to the broad current of American historical design and on the other to a significant local episode in the history of Jewish immigration, acculturation, and commercial success. In other words, while these objects are undeniably aesthetically pleasing, much of their appeal is, yet again, a matter of “sentiment and association.”

The next two chapters deal with two sets of museum builders, one very successful, the other less so. In the latter category we meet George and Jessie Gardner of Providence, Rhode Island. Their names may not be widely known today but that is not because they did not once seek fame and visibility. Greenfield describes the couple as avid collectors by the 1920s, passionately devoted to antiques and sharing a deep belief in their cultural significance. They found considerable personal satisfaction in assembling their collection of antiques and over time determined that they would do whatever was necessary to keep it intact after their deaths. Their solution was to build a museum to house it.

Greenfield suggests that the Gardners may have had the example of Pendleton House in mind as a possible model for their own venture. Charles L. Pendleton had given his collection of American antiques to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1904, and the school had built an impressive neo-Georgian building to house it. The Gardners looked not to RISD but to neighboring Brown University as their collaborator. The problem was that they were relatively small-time. Indeed, that is at least part of the reason for their inclusion in Out of the Attic. The big players typically get most of the press, but in concentrating only on them, we are likely to get a distorted view of the entire picture. Like the art world more generally, the antiques world can be fairly described as a “very dense cultural enterprise.”[2] It includes winners as well as losers, those who were able to realize their visions and those who had to settle for less. The Gardners viewed themselves as philanthropists and promoters of genteel culture, but they had only an upper-middle-class pocketbook. Achieving their goal became even more difficult when George had a stroke and could no longer participate in the project (he died in 1936) and then when the bottom fell out of the stock market in 1929 and the Gardners’ funds shriveled. What had seemed possible a few years before became a struggle at every step, with Jessie now assuming full responsibility for managing restoration of the apparently derelict 1806 building destined to house their collection. In the end, Jessie finally created Gardner House, but the effort required constant oversight and proved both exhausting and disappointing. As for the Gardners, in Greenfield’s account they come across as neither completely endearing nor villainous, but people of middling means reproducing the cultural values and prejudices of their age and class. Although Greenfield tells an engaging story, those wondering about specifically what the Gardners collected will have to look elsewhere. Greenfield tells us that the collection was not top tier, but it would be instructive today to know what, exactly, it contained. At present, Gardner House provides lodging for guests of Brown University, not quite what its originators had in mind when they first started dreaming of it in the 1920s.

The other museum makers had greater success, and there is no doubt about what their collection contained, for it is still in place to be seen. These are the Flynts, Henry and Helen, who reconstructed the now quaint and charming village of Deerfield in the so-called Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Deerfield is a real place with a real history. It long has been one of the most self-consciously historical villages of New England, with a deep tradition of antiquarian activity. George Sheldon and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association appear prominently in accounts of the early interest in the colonial American past. The full story of the Flynts is perhaps less well known. Greenfield performs a valuable service in presenting the major features of their story.

Unlike the Gardners, the Flynts were very rich. Their activities at Deerfield dramatically illustrate the shift from the local, antiquarian values of Sheldon and his kind to what Greenfield describes as “an aesthetically driven history based on the standards of a nationally based antique community” (p. 142). If local antiquarianism stressed the importance of place and of connections to a personal past, the Flynts’ vision all but erased the local specificities of the historical Deerfield as part of a larger agenda that enlisted American antiques in the service of combating the communist critique of American capitalism. Greenfield argues that the Flynts’ Deerfield is an artifact of the cold war. Hers is not an isolated or deviant opinion. The institution’s official narrative necessarily acknowledges as much, for Henry Flynt’s own writings are rich in rightist ideological pronouncements.[3] Although the logic is no clearer than Father’s when he tried to straighten out young Rudolph on the value of American Chippendale chairs, Henry Flynt believed that the exhibition of pre–Revolutionary War rich peoples’ furnishings would somehow reveal the superiority of the American way of life.

And that puts the buildings and the collections into a larger cultural and political context. Like the Gardners, the Flynts reenacted the values and prejudices of their class. Unlike the Gardners, however, they had the money to give their political agenda physical form. The Deerfield that Henry Flynt manufactured promoted nationalism (and exclusivism), celebrated the origins of America’s professional classes, to which he belonged, and argued, through both display of artifacts and supporting publications, that elegant homes and fine antiques were proof of American cultural superiority. George Sheldon liked ordinary objects with stories. Henry and Helen Flynt liked elegant, expensive goods that conformed, whenever possible, to Sack’s “better” and “best” categories.[4] Sheldon honored objects with local associations and cared little for aesthetics or condition. The Flints bought what they thought was beautiful, even if there was little evidence such objects had been owned in Deerfield. Their intention was less to learn from the eighteenth century than to present it as an age of cultural refinement and taste. Indeed it was, but only for some. In the end, the story of the Flynts’ Deerfield is a tale of gentrification with a political agenda. Today’s Deerfield is, in fact, historically accurate, but it is an artifact of a much more recent period than many visitors assume.

Greenfield’s last vignette examines the Smithsonian Institution in its various organizational phases and the role of New Englander C. Malcolm Watkins in assembling a material record of America’s past at the national museum. Here again, class and money play critical roles. Although the Smithsonian has high name recognition, for many decades its actual achievements in the realm of representing history were fairly meager. The history wing of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History, entered an extended period of energy, imagination, and accomplishment by the 1970s. Before then, however, the historical division of the institution was decidedly underpowered, with small staff, limited funds, and a hodgepodge of collections that rendered making any coherent national historical statement difficult in the extreme.

While the story of the Flynts at Deerfield illustrates the mischief that can happen when people have money, the story at the Smithsonian is just the opposite. Without money, Watkins and other curators in similar positions became necessarily dependent on donors, an arrangement with its own set of problems and mandatory negotiations and compromises. Greenfield explores at some length Watkins’s relationship with collector-donor Edna Greenwood of Massachusetts and the ways the two worked in a generally happy collaboration to extend the Smithsonian’s holdings of early American artifacts. Greenwood was not as wealthy as the Flynts and in any case had interests that reached far beyond the merely elegant. She collected household and preindustrial artifacts in nearly all available categories, providing Watkins with collections that made it possible to evoke a fuller and more egalitarian picture of Americans’ past. Watkins would have little sympathy with the Flynts’ transformation of Deerfield. His preference was for an inclusive history rather than an elitist one; commonplace objects admirably served his purposes. Nonetheless, because of his own New England background, his familiarity with the material culture of the region, and his network of collectors there, Greenwood among them, Watkins ultimately helped to perpetuate the dominance of New England in the narrative of colonial American material life.

In a short epilogue, Greenfield wonders about the future of antiquing. She is not alone. Prophecy is a dubious business, but recent history suggests that all is not well in the antiques world, certainly not as well as it was a short decade ago. Somewhere circa 2001, the antiques business took a few body punches; the business has been reeling ever since. Not all dealers feel the pain, but a number are struggling, many so-called hobby dealers have dropped out, long-established shows fold or open with fewer exhibitors, and attendance at them is generally down. All cultural behaviors are artifacts, of course, and few artifacts have eternal appeal or continue to function forever at the same level of intensity.

Furthermore, the young people who are supposed to replace the current collectors as they die off are nowhere to be seen. If David Brooks is correct in the picture he paints of how the affluent young spend their money, such folk are not much interested in antiques.[5] Objects that speak to rugged and vigorous outdoor activity, such as trail bikes and sporting gear, attract their attention, as do expensively updated kitchens and bathrooms. And there are always artisan guitars to buy. The crystal ball remains cloudy on the future of antiques.

In the meantime, the business hangs on, established dealers are still selling, and wonderful things continue to appear on the market. Museums are not dead and people still visit historic houses. So it is not over yet. If this is no longer the golden age of antiques, it is nonetheless a phase of a complex cultural enterprise that is well over a century old and has a fascinating history. Briann Greenfield, a talented storyteller, has drawn a few instructive strands from the larger fabric and written about them in graceful and accessible prose. Her recognition of the importance of the marketplace and the power of money help demythologize a phenomenon sometimes viewed too innocently. As is so often the case, truth is more interesting than fiction, perhaps especially when fiction actually is the truth.

Kenneth L. Ames
Bard Graduate Center

American Furniture 2010

  • [1]

    An expanded successor volume, The New Fine Points, appeared in 1993.

  • [2]

    Michael D. Hall, Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself (London: Scala Publishers, 2009), p. 17.

  • [3]

    See, for instance, Amanda E. Lange, Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600–1800 (Deerfield, Mass.: Historic Deerfield, 2001), p. 7.

  • [4]

    The furniture collection is well documented in Dean A. Fales Jr., The Furniture of Historic Deerfield (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976).

  • [5]

    David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).