Review by Gilian Ford Shallcross
Early American Decorative Arts, 1620–1860: A Handbook for Interpreters

Rosemary Troy Krill with Pauline K. Eversmann. Early American Decorative Arts, 1620–1860: A Handbook for Interpreters. American Association for State and Local History Book Series. Walnut Creek, Cal.: AltaMira Press, 2001. xii + 299 pp.; numerous bw illus., index. $80.00; $39.95 pb.

This extremely useful book is based on Handbook for Winterthur Interpreters: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Winterthur Collection, a formidable, five-hundred-page document funded by a 1987 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Published in 1992, the Handbook is the most recent in a long line of collection guides written since Winterthur opened to the public as a museum in 1951. Designed specifically as a textbook for Winterthur docents-in-training, it is an interpretive guide rather than a source of specific information about the more than 85,000 objects in Winterthur’s decorative arts collections. It is an interesting and, to my mind, commendable reflection of a national trend toward more visitor-oriented interpretation in that, whereas earlier Winterthur docent textbooks were written solely by curators, the creation of the Handbook also involved staff members of Winterthur’s Education, Public Programs, and Visitor Service Division as well as various advisory committees and consultants.

The stated purpose of Early American Decorative Arts, 1620–1860: A Handbook for Interpreters is to “expand the benefits of the NEH grant to interpreters in many historic houses and museums by publishing the book more widely” (p. viii). Its authors, Rosemary Troy Krill and Pauline K. Eversmann, were, respectively, the Project Coordinator and Project Director for the Handbook. Both are museum educators employed at Winterthur.

Part One of the book is general in theme, examining ways in which decorative arts might be interpreted and providing social, economic, and cultural context. The evolution of interpretation from simply supplying object-specific information to offering insight and understanding as well—responding to the interests and questions of a range of visitors—is discussed, with reference to current techniques and theories. Although there is nothing particularly groundbreaking here, the concise compilation and summation should be useful even to those familiar with the material.

The chapters in this first section are carefully and thoughtfully organized and resist the temptation to overwhelm the reader with detail. The initial chapter, “Looking at Objects,” is designed to help visitors look closely through analysis of material, color, texture, line, ornament, scale, proportion, and volume. “Understanding Style” broadens the examination by asserting that stylistic comprehension requires more than memorizing a list of visual characteristics. Issues of society and culture in a given period play a role as well. There is considerable discussion of terminology, differentiating among current art historical names for styles (mannerist, early baroque), traditional ones (Jacobean, William and Mary) and those used by dealers and collectors. According to the book, different visitors are comfortable with different names for things and interpreters should use those that communicate most clearly to their audience. In my experience, terminology is best avoided altogether as much as possible, as visitors become focused on getting it right and have a hard time moving on to more salient matters. However, the authors do try to make sense of style names by explaining how each one gives different information about the period in which the style flourished (for example, federal and early classical revival).

The chapters titled “Making and Marketing Objects” and “Owning Objects” provide the kind of context that brings objects alive for visitors and is often limited in verbal and written discussions of decorative arts for a general audience (although this is less true now than a decade ago). Issues outlined include trade, settlement patterns, occupations and incomes, merchants and payments, production of goods, labor, population, industrialization, transportation, families, education, and religion. 

Each chapter has an extensive bibliography. For example, “Owning Objects” (a ten-page essay) offers ninety-six bibliographic references and “Making and Marketing Objects” fifty-two. Although undeniably valuable, these bibliographies might seem overwhelming to many interpreters. Prioritization—beginning with a list of the five or six most cogent works—would have been more helpful and created less anxiety in docents at the less-specialized venues than Winterthur that the book purports to serve. 

Part Two comprises eighteen chapters focusing on different types of decorative arts objects—six chapters on high-style furniture (organized chronologically), and one each on Windsor furniture, clocks, ceramics, glass, silver, pewter, iron and copper, paintings, prints, textiles, needlework, and floor coverings. Each chapter follows the same format, structured according to the sections laid out in Part One. Although written for the novice student, the chapters are given added usefulness by the inclusion of footnotes and a bibliography that is prioritized (as those in Part One might profitably have been) into “Standard Sources” and “Additional Sources.”

A characteristic example of the sections in Part Two is “Furniture in the Federal or Early Classical Revival Style” (pp. 99–126). It begins with a reassuring catalogue of stylistic characteristics—the all-important foundation that every docent looks for. The next section, “Thinking about the Federal Style,” is typically brief, clear, and thorough, demonstrating the qualities of discipline and rigorous editing that are the hallmarks of this book. Discussed in only three pages are classicism, neoclassicism, the contributions of Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton, how the style made its way to the United States, major makers in this country, the decreased importance of regional differences, and more. I could not think of an essential point that was not touched on. 

“Making and Marketing Federal Furniture” explains cabinetmaking techniques, evolution from craft to industry, the publication of price books, the period’s increase in consumption and decrease in British mercantilism, venture cargo, and the relationship between craftsman and customer and between master and journeyman. The final section, “Living with Federal Furniture,” explores the what and why of the new forms and domestic spaces that evolved in the federal period. 

Even within the restraints imposed by the enormous amount of material covered, one almost never gets the sense of “this is the fact, believe it.” Instead, statements are footnoted and backed up with evidence—quotes from journal entries and inventories, a close look at a pattern book, description of a particular shop, or the history of an individual piece, etc. This approach not only gives the “fact” additional credence but also enlivens it. In such a careful and thorough volume, the absence of a glossary is surprising. Most terms are defined within the text, but often only once. This somewhat undermines one of the great virtues of the book, which is that every chapter is an individual entity that can be used effectively on its own. Providing definitions within the text sometimes makes for awkward passages, and the information might better have been given in a glossary. This sentence is an example: “Steamed or bent wood in fancy chairs and lamination (pieces of wood glued together in a like-grain direction for flexibility and alternating grain for strengthening rounded corners of tables) to construct the curves on federal-style furniture were two new techniques that were widely employed” (p. 105). Line drawings of furniture with the different parts identified would also have been useful.

On a more general level, the authors might have evaluated more closely the differences in requirements, expectations, and even psychological makeup between docents at Winterthur and those at less specialized institutions. The book is a superb work of reference, but as a self-described “handbook for interpreters,” it might well feel intimidating and overly demanding for docents at historic houses and art museums. For a handbook, there is too little filtering of information, establishment of hierarchies, and guidance. 

However, the virtues of this volume far outweigh its few limitations. The format is no-nonsense and serviceable; illustrations are minimal but carefully chosen to make a point and captioned with additional material. Current scholarship is effectively summarized and synthesized. The writing is clear, matter-of-fact, and not condescending. There is no fluff; every sentence, shaped for lucidity, has something to say and builds informatively on the one that precedes it. And, as mentioned before, each chapter stands alone, making it an easily accessible source of reference. 

The amount of well-ordered and well-written information in this slim book is remarkable. Although it may not comfortably serve as a handbook for docents beyond Winterthur, it is unquestionably an invaluable reference work for everyone that lectures on or writes about American decorative arts in a museum setting. 

Gilian Ford Shallcross
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

American Furniture 2001