As a seller of antique documents, prints and items of silver, cut glass, china and wood, I focus very much on what these items tell us. Beyond the attractive print of birds or animals from the 1700s or a hand-colored engraving showing a scene of one’s hometown in the 1800s or a silver tea set or decorative miniature in china or metal, there exists a rich body of knowledge of the history of our country and its peoples and that of others. On occasions all it takes is a bit of curiosity and that curiosity may prove beneficial.
An antique piece or document or newspaper or advertisement may bring home the nature of what people felt or believed more efficiently than a lengthy history text. The social mores of every period and the similarities with and differences from today quickly come to mind in antique pieces.
A simple example. When attending the University of Virginia, my wife and I lived on Garth Road, an extension of Barracks Road. That name reflected the barracks that housed captured Hessian & British soldiers marched from Boston to Charlottesville after the Colonial victory at Saratoga New York. It represented almost a death march for some and many Hessians deserted into the German-speaking areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia. At war’s end, a number of the young soldiers had no desire to return to their homelands. They gravitated away from Charlottesville to the Shenandoah Valley, the northern part of which was populated by German-speaking immigrants living in towns such as Strasburg, Maurertown, Edinburg. Many homes constructed or their ornamented woodwork reflected the craftsmanship of these former prisoners. I would buy a home in Maurertown on the north fork of the Shenandoah River and, for its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the woodwork was deemed to have been crafted most likely by one of these former soldiers. A residence off Barracks Road at one point in my life and a house 20 years later decorated by those former prisoners. The history certainly enriched the perspective of this “antique” home.
Another example are vinaigrettes. Not salad dressing, but small boxes of base metal or silver with a cover and then a second interior box. In that box a piece of sponge or cloth resided and would be soaked with vinegar. In the 1600s and 1700s, these were worn to attempt to fight influenza or malaria. In the 1800s, they continued as a worn item but with perfumes so ladies could hold them to their noses as they moved through the very “smelly” portions of London, Paris or New York.
Different periods in art reflect political and social items as well. The palace of Versailles from the late 1600s led to other nation’s seeking the glory of constructing their own structures to show the absolute power of the monarch. However, the art in these sites was antithetical to the next generation of artists. The debate over classical versus romantic themes in art reflected not only the artists but the political movements leading to more central governments and then responding to the novel ideas of public interest and its role in governing. Also, the construction of such sites reflected and reinforced trade guilds that would later support the industrial revolution. In short, artists painted to please patrons and this included the patron’s or the artist’s political positions and goals, a truth going back several thousand years and continuing today.
Antique implements and even dining pieces reflect the high style and technical capacity of earlier generations. Antique documents denote behavior now decried or surprisingly shared. Of note, many magazines existed to advertise patent medicines. The magazines required “articles” to satisfy Post Office rules to get cheaper postal rates. Many authors got their starts writing articles or romance stories for these publications.
What does one do with this knowledge— well, first it can enrich your life to understand the world around you; second, one may appreciate how others addressed the challenges of their times; third, one can appreciate the craftmanship and how many needs of common people were met by artists, manufacturers and writers; fourth, some items and attitudes are humorous now because of how much progress has been made in frequently more positive directions.
In the end, purchasers should not be shy about asking questions.
Middleburg benefits in this area as its antique proprietors have deep knowledge of the pieces they offer and can provide interesting facts and features. You never know when those descriptions not only enrich your “purchase” but as well your understanding of the history, culture and mores of our past which invariably affect our present.
Alfred Pollard is the proprietor of ROSEMARY located at 16 S. Madison Street, Middleburg.