Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Evidence that Victoriana has worked its way into the American public consciousness can be found as close as your freshly decorated corner tavern. Drop in; observe the reproduction Tiffany lamps casting a multicolored glow on the newly minted tin ceiling, and the moose head over the bar. Or drive up to your neighborhood hamburger franchise - the one with the mansard roof and the blowups of nineteenth-century photographs. It's the kitsch end of the scale, but it's proof that the architecture and the decorative arts of Victorian America are vastly appealing right now.

Throughout the country, buildings like San Francisco's Cannery Row are recycled as shops, and urban restorations such as Brooklyn's brownstone revival flourish. Also booming is serious scholarship. In 1966 Columbia University began a master's degree program in historic preservation. Now more than forty universities offer degree programs in the field, and 180 others have at least one course allied to preservation. This information comes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Because of the relative youth of our country, most of what is being preserved and restored - especially west of the Mississippi - falls into the category called Victorian.

Until recently, all things Victorian were dismissed with more or less kindly contempt. When author John Maass published ‘The Gingerbread Age: A View of Victorian America’ in 1957 he was considered, at best, eccentric. Furthermore, he could list only a handful of books in his bibliography. Now there are thiousands of books and thousands of articles on the subject. Not to mention the several websites dedicated to the cause. The change in attitude is little more than three decades old, and its most dramatic manifestation is the phenomenal growth of The Victorian Society in America. In 1966, six people gathered in the New York City kitchen of Margot Gayle to found the society: they had been inspired to do so by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the renowned architectural historian, who was then president of The Victorian Society in Great Britain. "We never expected to attract more than thirty members, " Mrs. Gayle recalled, "just a precious little group trying to keep the richness of the past. Ye gods! Were we surprised at the vein of interest we tapped!" Indeed, membership in the society has now soared and has representatives in every state and in several foreign countries.

The word "Victorian" when applied to America is an anomaly, but we seem to be stuck with. Victoria was never our queen, yet her long reign - 1837 to 1901 - makes a handy bracket to encompass the explosion of styles, technology and decorative invention that took place during that time. According to John Maass, the word is partly suitable because the "Victorians" invented mass communication, "Victorian" became the first international style. "National differences were virtually erased," says Mr. Maass. "You have to be a real expert to look at an uncaptioned photo of a Victorian room and distinguish one in Australia from [a similarJ one in Russia."

However, sophisticated buyers are becoming experts, and seek out documented and signed nineteenth-century American furniture as master- works in their own right, the equal or near-equal of anything produced in England or on the Continent. During that period, fine American furniture was highly innovative. It is reflective of the background and attitudes of an expanding country. The upper-class buyers of the best furniture wanted things that were solid and sturdy, but they loved things that clicked, closed, slammed. Master cabinetmakers working in America include Joseph Meeks, Alexander Roux, Charles Baudouine and John Henry Belter. Belter's elaborate and elegant Rococo Revival furniture was extremely costly in its own day. Because it is composed of laminated rosewood sections, it is probably as strong as any furniture ever made, and pieces in good condition still can be confidently sat upon.

The bulk of American furniture was not produced for the wealthy, but for people in more modest circumstances, who were also fascinated with mechanical pieces. Patent folding rockers, like the twisted, turned, fringed and, some would say, tortured, products of George Hunzinger of New York, brought his family great prosperity. Even cheaper folding chairs, covered in machine-loomed tapestry and costing between two and seven dollars at mid-century, were manufactured by the thousands in New England. As the nation expanded, families often found themselves in cramped quarters; yet decorum had to be observed. If you had to sleep in the parlor, you did your best to conceal the fact. Dual-purpose and folding furniture found a ready market; sofas converted to tables, beds disappeared into cupboards and sometimes even folded up into something resembling an upright piano. Depending on our tolerance for the mores of another time, we can view these designs as expressions of great practicality or as extremes of nice nelly-ism.

The Victorian house that survives in the popular imagination - turreted, encrusted with bay windows and balconies, and surrounded by deep, shady porches - did offer cozy corners and morning rooms for privacy. But these houses, still standing on the Main Streets and Elm Streets of many small American towns, were enjoyed only by the well-to-do. City tenements and prairie sod houses, built in the same period, might crowd a dozen people in one or two rooms rather than provide a dozen rooms for one family; however, few of the latter survive and few of the former have any memorable style save Neo-Poverty.

Current interest in Victoriana is in many ways a reaction sparked by the mailing - or mauling – of America. The appalling similarity of shopping centers and the sterile seas of tract houses have given a nostalgic fillip to gingerbread. In addition, the slowdown in the building boom has had a serendipitous side effect for nineteenth-century buffs. City planners have come to accept the fact that, in a slow economy, recycling interesting older buildings not only pleases the environmentalists and aesthetes, but is economical as well. They are not so eager to tear down an old building and put up a glass cube when money is tight. "Recession is good for preservation," comments one architectural historian wryly.

The Jefferson Market is the first success story of a threatened Victorian building in New York City. It begun around Christmas of 1959, by just getting the city not to tear it down. When people were asked to sign petitions to save it, the response was mostly – and sadly - 'Why do you want to save that old pile?'" Happily the High Victorian Gothic brick pile was spared and restored; today, it houses the Greenwich Village branch of the New York Public Library.

Another preservation goal for many is to save that triumph of American technological ingenuity, the cast-iron building. The metal elements were shipped, set up and bolted together like pieces of a giant erector set to give instant classical dash to commercial facades in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1970, a specialized spin-off of The Victorian Society called The Friends of Cast-iron Architecture was formed. The group helped spotlight the area of New York called SoHo - a neighborhood in lower Manhattan of cast-iron warehouses and commercial buildings - as one of architectural interest. SoHo has since been designated a historic district of twenty-six blocks, and the area has undergone a renaissance. It is dotted with shops and restaurants; artists have converted the drafty commercial lofts into living and studio space. Today The Friends of Cast-iron Architecture numbers in the thousands nationally. Their efforts have preserved, to name just one treasure, the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware, built in 1871.

Restoration fever has prompted The Victorian Society to organize a series of frequently held seminars around the country, with experts speaking on such topics as planning for restoration, finding authentic or reproduction carpets and wallpaper, planting a Victorian garden, and stenciling and wood-finishing techniques. The Victorian Society in America has also expanded its offerings with true Victorian vim. For a nominal membership fee, you receive the quarterly magazine. Nineteenth Century, as well as yearly informational bulletins. You may also participate in a plethora of activities. The society sponsors summer schools in the United States and Great Britain, the latter in conjunction with The Victorian Society in Great Britain. In addition to the national organization, the society has several local chapters, from New York chapter to California.

The American Victorian bandwagon may have taken a while to crank up, but as dealer and auction gallery prices reflect, it's gathering momentum - and fast. Tiffany lamps at auction had been expected to fetch $70,000; a Gothic Revival hat rack may sell for more than $850. Most Antique Victorian Furniture dealers report that prices for fine furniture have been escalating by 5-10 percent a year for the past five years. Until recently, Victorian furniture may have been included in an Americana sale, but now it's recognized as an important part of the decorative arts in this country. Also, a new generation is looking at it with a fresh eye; it's considered appropriate to the way people live, especially to those who buy and renovate Victorian-era homes. Not only Americans are attracted. Additionally, this reflects a more knowledgeable buying public, one that soon won't be content to use 'Victorian' as an overall term but will assign works to their proper categories.