Celebrating the exotic and the ordinary

I first encountered the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. Wanting to learn more about the material world of seventeenth-century New England, I signed up for an architectural tour led by Abbott Lowell Cummings. It must have been in the fall. I remember it as one of those blue-sky days that we sometimes get in New England just after the leaves have fallen. Leaving Interstate 95, we drove down the long main street of Newbury, Massachusetts, toward the ancient cemetery and the nearby Coffin House, its name a memorial not to death but to the sober and hardworking family that built and added on to it for generations (see Figs. 4, 6). Though the Coffin House has charm in abundance, it was not the house itself that entranced me. It was the trek up the narrow stairs to the attic. Following the beam of Cummings's flashlight, I discovered a world hidden in joints and rafters.

I grew up in an Idaho town founded in 1903. The old houses of my childhood were not antiques: they were simply out of date. Nobody had yet discovered romance in tin-topped cupboards or faded linoleum. If eastern Idaho had antiquities, they were hidden beneath potato fields, sagebrush, and outcroppings of lava. When I came to Massachusetts in 1960, I encountered a less spacious but more mysterious world. Drawn in by the remoteness of the colonial past and by the practicality of working with documents close at hand, I became a historian of early New England and eventually a historian interested not only in the colonial period but in its reinvention by nineteenth-century New Englanders.

To me, Historic New England will always be the "Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities." I understand why the trustees decided to change the name. To a younger generation of New Englanders, the original name may have seemed fuddy-duddy, and as a staff member told me, the acronym SPNEA (pronounced spin-ay-uh) sounded like a disease. But to my mind the old label wonderfully captures the society's origins and its mission. I like the old-fashioned sound of the word antiquities and the associations that swirl around it. In nineteenth-century usage, it not only meant artifacts but manners and customs. Hence the interest SPNEA's founder, William Sumner Appleton (1874-1974), displayed in relics that exemplified lost ways of doing things. He was interested not only in fine houses and high-end furniture, but in crumbling outbuildings and battered pewter. And he wanted to know how things were made. That was the passion I picked up from the tour with Abbott Cummings, a sense that the past could be recovered through the hand of the craftsman.

Assembled over more than a century, Historic New England's collections combine the exotic and the ordinary in unexpected ways, though perhaps what is more remarkable is the way the first collectors saw the exotic in the ordinary. Because the headquarters of Appleton's society was in a city that modestly called itself "the hub of the universe," it is not surprising to find in Historic New England's collections antiques that are not only beautiful in their own right but embellished with patriotism and piety. Thus a paper label glued to the side of a pullout drawer on an eighteenth-century desk tells the story of an ancestor returning to his home in Boston after the evacuation of the British (Figs. 7, 7a). Reverence for first settlers and for those who fought in the American Revolution is expected, but it is often the mysterious survival of the artifact that gets the emphasis. In the hands of nineteenth-century antiquarians, happenstance survivals became sacred. Plymouth may have its rock, or what is left of it, but Historic New England has two chunks of worm-pocked bread that supposedly came over with the Puritans in 1630 and that are now encased like the toe bones of a saint in their own mahogany box (Fig. 5).

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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