|Bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin, mid-19th century|
My friend Richard can restore any object in the universe. His particular talent lies in cars and furniture. He is very happy when you bring him an old piece; Victorian, perhaps, or early American.
He’ll walk around, shaking his head. “I think this chest was supposed to be painted. The wood is pine. Somebody stripped it and stained it to dress it up, but that’s wrong.
“The guy who made this – he went out to his barn one morning and said, ‘I’ll use these boards lying around, and those cotter-pin hinges.’
“It’s not meant to be fancy. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”
Driving away, he’s already got it, if you know what I mean.
Later, he’ll describe how the chest looked originally and the mistakes made by the person who tried to restore it a half-century later.
I can almost see my husband’s grandmother – her name was Marian – nodding her head and making that funny clucking sound, recalling something about its provenance and which room it graced in the family home on Church Street in Naugatuck, Connecticut.
Her father, a physician named Edwin Johnson, had an eye for antiques. Born in 1867, he grew up the son of a joiner. That’s a carpenter who builds decorative pieces like crown molding and balustrades. The construction of those items usually occurs in a workshop, but Edwin’s father must have been installing something when he fell off a roof and was injured badly.
The family had enough money to send Edwin to a private boarding school in Litchfield, Connecticut. Then he went off to study medicine at the University of Vermont. Sometime during the 1880s he married and was widowed; in 1890 he remarried to Cora Collins, an imperious young lady from Hillsborough, N.H.
“There were two villages, upper and lower,” Marian explained the first time we met. “The Collinses were from the upper village. And that (she pointed to a bureau) is the ‘Hillsborough dresser.’ I remember when it came down in a wagon from my grandparents’ house.” Cluck, cluck.
By the time Dr. Johnson died in 1930, he had amassed quite a collection of early American antiques. When his wife Cora died eight years later, three of their children – the eldest son, a black sheep, was excluded from everything – arranged a lottery so that the furnishings could be distributed as equitably as possible.
|The "Hillsborough dresser," early 19th century (detail)|
I like to contemplate the overbearing doctor, his life split almost evenly with 33 years in the nineteenth century and 30 years in the twentieth century, having such a strong affinity with furniture created well before he came into the world.
You see, by 1910 when he accelerated his purchases, the American furniture industry was well underway. Most Americans were happier with new furniture, with clean unblemished possessions. Also, new stuff demonstrated that the owner could afford it.
But there was a precedent for sticking with the past.
The Centennial International Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876, was the nation’s first official world’s fair. Many exciting things happened there, including a demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone and Sir Joseph Lister’s lecture about the importance of antiseptic surgery.
Among the exhibitions, the fair showed examples of American craftsmanship, namely furniture from workshops such as Duncan Phyfe’s in New York City; also pieces by Philadelphia, Boston, and Rhode Island cabinetmakers.
Not coincidentally, after 1876 Americans began to appreciate and value American material culture.
Dr. Johnson wasn’t looking for famous names, however. It turns out that his source, a grizzled Civil War veteran (is there any other kind?) who lived in rural Connecticut, liked old things and kept them in the hay loft of his barn. Once in a while the doctor would come by and purchase a few pieces.
“I’d like to give my daughter a dining room suite for her wedding,” he once told the man. “This drop-leaf table and those fiddle-back chairs. If you can find me three more chairs, I’ll buy the lot.”
A few years ago, Richard and I were driving around looking for interesting things. One store was a complete jumble, but Richard emerged from the way back hugging a grimy metal statue of Benjamin Franklin contemplating the universe.
“I’m going to refinish this. Maybe I’ll keep it and maybe I’ll sell it,” he announced. I heard no more about it until a few weeks later when Richard said there was a problem.
“Lana and Ben aren’t talking to each other.”
He was referring to a large oil painting of Lana Turner that hangs in his dining room. Beneath the portrait is an Empire pier table where the newly refurbished Franklin was supposed to reside.
But it just didn’t work. Richard has great style and he knew the truth.
Now Ben lives in our house. He speaks early American.