Saturday, September 3, 2011

Because it was there.

A few weeks ago, I ventured to a handful of Rhode Island antique stores with Sew 18th Century. I bought a number of items I plan on featuring here some time soon. That evening on the phone, I told Tyler that my antiquing adventures would be on hiatus through September. I didn't blow my bank account, but I knew I needed to focus my finances elsewhere as I transitioned back to school.

But who in their right mind would drive past the only antique shop within miles of Deerfield, MA? One 20-minute stroll around the place couldn't hurt, I thought to myself.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it looked like the co-op might be closed. But I soon discovered that only one half was closed and quickly zipped through the door in case the cashier was thinking about closing early. I did a thorough look through, perhaps more thorough than I would normally. I had landed some good finds the day before with my colleague, so I thought that perhaps my luck was still with me. Instead, I was surrounded by old baskets, tin lock boxes, and the dreaded "collectibles."

I had nearly given up when I noticed a treasure.

Trunk, New England, 1820-1850, purchased August 16, 2011, in Deerfield, MA, 13 3/4" H, 32 1/4" W, 13 3/4" D.

I made my way to the trunk, admiring its worn but still vibrant fancy painted finish at eye level.

Surely a first half of the nineteenth-century chest is priced accordingly (and therefore out of my already strained antiquing budget). On the tag, the dealer had noted the trunk's loose top. I flipped the tag over: "$125."

That's it?

I looked it over for a few minutes to be sure that it was, in fact, old, and inquired about the trunk at the register. I didn't even need to bargain, as the woman manning the register said that the dealer "usually does about 20%. So, that would be $100."

I can have a fancy painted trunk for $100 plus tax, I thought?

"It's early," she said, as she smelled my hesitation.

"Right," I responded.

"You can think about it and come back tomorrow," she suggested.

"I'll take it," I said quickly. "I don't live in the area, so I wouldn't be able to come back any time in the near future."

And with that, the woman and I carefully transferred the trunk into my car. As the cashier locked-up and drove away, I nestled the trunk snugly among blankets and enjoyed the odor of someone's musty attic on the drive back to Newport. As I drove, I couldn't help but cast an eye behind me every few minutes to admire the rich colors covering the trunk's surface.

And the dings and scratches.

OK, you might have noticed that the trunk is not in the best condition. But if you have read some other posts, you probably know by now that, for me, that is part of the charm. The paint is worn, spotted, and chipped. Part of the original front lock is missing. I think the back hinges are replacements. I'm not entirely positive that the handles on the sides are original (although I have seen similar examples with handles that look like those). And one of its bottom boards is not secured (but at least it's stored safely inside).

Similar 1800-1850 dome-top faux painted trunks are not uncommon. Several comparable examples I found that had been sold recently at auction were made of basswood or pine. Collectors and curators tend to link the form and the decoration to New England states, which makes sense given where I purchased the trunk. The fancy faux graining decoration on this trunk is one variation of many graining patterns available to consumers in the early Republic era, or about after the Revolution through the 1850s. In Neat and Tidy (1980), Nina Fletcher Little referred to the graining pattern on a trunk nearly identical to mine as a "seashell" motif (see Plate 8). In his catalogue American Fancy (2004), Sumpter Priddy included many examples of other fancy painting motifs that would have been available to nineteenth-century American consumers. Check out chapter 5, "Spirited Ornamentation," for similarly decorated objects and the tools craftsmen used to achieve such designs.

This fancy painted trunk embodies the "fancy" aesthetic found also in ceramics, textiles, and other media made and used in America between 1790 and 1840. (See the Milwaukee Art Museum's description of its 2004 exhibition for "American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840," for more images of the types of objects associated with this concept.) In the catalogue for American Fancy, Sumpter Priddy, the renowned antiques dealer and material culture scholar who curated the exhibition, defined the "fancy" state of mind and lifestyle as one that "possessed no single identity" but "was best identified by intangible means by the wide range of emotional responses it was able to elicit--delight, awe, surprise, and laughter" (xxv). Indeed, for me, when I laid my eyes on this trunk, I immediately thought of Priddy's book, a book that inspired me to make a career of interpreting objects. Priddy's catalogue was among the first non-antiquarian books (not that antiquarian books are useless; they serve important functions!) I had come across as an undergraduate that interpreted material culture using a variety of documentary sources. This trunk might not be in the best shape, but for me, it evokes my introduction to an interdisciplinary approach to studying objects.

While I was on the phone with Tyler that evening to confess the purchase, he asked me why I went into the antique shop after I had vowed to swear off antiquing for about six weeks. "Because it was there," I responded.

Don't you think it was worth it?

Further Reading

Little, Nina Fletcher. Neat and Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.

Priddy, Sumpter. American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts, 1790-1840. Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation, 2004.

A Few Places to See Fancy Decorative Arts and Furniture

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg

Shelburne Museum

The Winterthur Museum (And be sure to check out Winterthur's new blog, Winterthur Unreserved)


  1. What a lovely find! I also can't resist antique shops, fairs or fleamarkets. Any time I purchase something, I usually spend hours marvelling about the original owner and how much he/she admired it when it was new. I love the story of an item :)