Wednesday, April 17, 2024

What the Widow Nolen Left Behind, Part 2


W. W. Nolen, 1910
(Harvard University Archives)

From his third-floor window, William Whiting Nolen watched the twentieth century arrive at Harvard University. Perhaps his dogs sat at his feet. Perhaps he rose from his chair and crossed the room to pour more whiskey into his glass.

W. W. Nolen was as necessary to Progressive-era Harvard as the Johnston Gate on Peabody Street. The comparison is apt because Nolen, too, offered entrée to the university.

In 1891, 30-year old Nolen opened his tutoring business, through which thousands of students would pass. Thanks to his formula of filched notes and exams combined with lectures distilled to the minimum of essential facts, he could almost guarantee a young man admission and graduation from Harvard.

“He hands it to you in one exquisite, highly concentrated pill of information,” said a grateful recipient.

By 1910, getting tutored by Nolen had become a rite of passage for so many Harvard students that he expanded his operation and kept raking it in—$20,000 annually, it was rumored. At the time of his death in 1923, Nolen employed more than 50 tutors. Arguably, he launched the multi-million dollar tutoring industry.

He was also an obsessive antiquarian.

Visitors to Nolen’s apartment might have noticed that he accumulated books, art, and furniture. They probably did not realize that the books and prints were old and rare, and the furnishings, including valuable clocks, had been created by early American cabinetmakers and horologists whose names are still invoked with reverence.   

The habit of collecting went back to Nolen’s Philadelphia boyhood when he started a stamp collection. The family lived in a brick house at 714 Pine Street, built in 1800. The inhabitants included father Charles, importer of oils (olive, cod liver, and castor), mother Abby, and aunts Kate, Sophia, and Caroline.

W. W. Nolen was an only child. When his father died in 1908, he became the beneficiary of a $5,000 insurance policy and inherited railroad and electric company stock, a houseful of mahogany furniture, profuse china and glass, and a white agateware bedpan.

Around that time, Nolen began to attend auctions regularly. His interests ranged widely: announcements of Napoleon’s death, sheet music, chintz panels woven with battle scenes, ladies’ fans, ship models . . .  


Among Nolen’s greatest treasures were George Washington’s silver camp cup, William Penn’s chair, Paul Revere’s dressing case, and his own stamp collection.

Unsurprisingly, the Nolen estate, appraised at $286,804, contained so much stuff that the deceased’s possessions were auctioned in four parts. Anderson Galleries in New York City handled the sales:

-Early American and Anglo-American Furniture and Objects of Art (1,037 objects),

-Washingtoniana and a Most Important Collection of Early American Silver, American Furniture of the 17th, 19th, and 19th Centuries (902 objects),

-18th and 19th Century American Furniture, Blue and White Staffordshire, Lustre Ware, Wedgwood, Lowestoft (516 objects),

-Rare American Lithographs, largely Currier & Ives (983 prints)  

Nolen’s 10,000-volume library was auctioned in Boston, December 5-8, 1923, a week without rain or snow. Had he still been alive, Nolen would have undertaken his daily walk along the Charles in a light coat and hat.

Perhaps in contrition, Nolen left his Lincolniana to Harvard.

Putting aside the documents and objets associated with famous people, Nolen’s possessions would not now reap the profits they garnered in 1923. Today it is a challenge to give away old silver, china, and crystal, and “brown furniture” is consigned to the attic.

That’s why Nolen’s estate came to auction at a perfect moment.

The furniture manufacturing industry had started in Grand Rapids, MI and High Point, NC during the 1880s. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was flourishing and many Americans preferred to fill their homes with new things.

Yet while manufactured décor became fashionable, a passion for Americana surged through the nation during the 1920s. Many wealthy collectors—both aristocrats and newly minted millionaires—pounced on the very antiques that Nolen acquired over the years.   

Thus Nolen’s collections were dispersed among the generations he helped through Harvard.


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