Seamless Transition

Michael Diaz-Griffith Curious Objects, Furniture & Decorative Arts

Fig. 1. A view of the kitchen in Samuel Snider’s 1820s–1830s Cape-style cottage in Wiscasset, Maine. Antique cutting boards, Victorian wire fly covers, and other useful antique objects decorate the space. The framed drawing of a tureen was bought as-is, since Sam liked the over-the-top gilt frame. All photographs © Brian W. Ferry, courtesy of Monacelli, New York.

In another time, in another place, a young person in search of a new life might have boarded a ship to a distant land. Sailing into a strange port beneath an earth-straddling colossus, such a person might have looked up, inhaled the scent of unknown spices, and felt the terror and thrill of an entirely new life awaiting them on the approaching shore.

Fig. 2. Sam in his shop, Samuel Snider Antiques, on Water Street in Wiscasset. The generously scaled Queen Anne armchair next to him has Spanish feet, a later green-painted surface, and loads of charm.

Today, in New York City, a young person in search of a new life might pack up their car and point it toward Maine. Driving into that strange state beneath a vault of pines, such a person might look up, inhale the sharp scent of the North, and feel the terror and thrill of an entirely new life awaiting them at the end of the highway.

Samuel Snider is just such a person. During the Covid-19 pandemic he gave up his Manhattan apartment, his fashion business, and his cosmopolitan métier and set off for a new life in the Maine woods. He had some advantages over the ancient traveler. Having spent a number of childhood summers in Vacationland, he was well acquainted with the state’s special strangeness, not to mention its hard, cold beauty. He was acquainted, too, with the local inhabitants: antiques dealers. These soon became his mentors. Today, instead of hustling in Babylon, Sam continues the great tradition of collecting—and dealing—that some have feared gone from this world.

News of Sam’s existence reached me through one of his mentors, who is also a mentor of mine.

“There’s a new antiques dealer in Maine,” the veteran dealer reported, as if a creature thought to be extinct had been spotted in the wild. Perhaps it had. “He’s young.” The word rang out, italicized, in the air, before an even more dramatic pronouncement was made: “He loves Americana.”

By this point I had been tracking the young collectors who I call New Antiquarians for years, and many of them (including myself) favored American art and material culture, which was undergoing a re-evaluation: the manifold contributions of Black craftspeople were finally being recognized, and a fresh cycle of appreciation had begun for Shaker material, produced with unusually exacting rigor in a rational manner that could be seen, ahistorically but compellingly, as proto-modernist. Strange and colorful examples of folk art were beginning to filter into Instagram feeds. Few new dealers had emerged in the field, however, and none were precisely young.

Fig. 3. This theorem-painted velvet cat from France or Germany has been amusing viewers since the nineteenth century.
Fig. 4. A symmetrical vignette highlights a silk-on-linen sampler wrought by Polly Alexander of Dunbarton, New Hampshire, in 1818. It is mounted in a nineteenth-century gilt frame sourced from Amy Finkel, an expert in American samplers well-known to readers of this magazine.
Fig. 5. Sam’s commitment to a sustained practice of serial collecting is evident in his impressive collection of mocha ware and feather-edge Leeds creamware. Both types of pottery are perennially popular among Americana enthusiasts, and with their fresh, charming appeal on display in this nineteenth-century New England step-back cupboard, you can see why.

If you saw the clothing line that Sam produced in his city days, these words would not be needed. Reminiscent of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century workwear, his garments—stitched from unbleached linen, with curved hems and roomy work pockets—were a sartorial cri de coeur for simplicity, functionality, and a primitive kind of refinement. It is easy to understand why, in an era that favored streetwear and ribald eclecticism, he abandoned the business. It is equally easy to see why country furniture, antique tools, organic forms, and homespun textiles appeal to Sam, whose soul recognizes, and therefore demands as a requirement, the beauty of integrity. Why design anew and create waste when so many things of integrity exist already? Such questions emerge naturally in the clearing of a new life. Happily they do not need to be answered, only acted upon.

With the encouragement of his mentors, Sam acted. His home and shop, pictured here, follow loyally—which is to say, radically—in the New England tradition of collecting and displaying antiques, and Sam loyally—which is to say, radically—attends the regional antiques shows and country auctions his elders have frequented for decades. Recently we discussed the concessions at these events. Chili dogs and chowder, we agreed, are not millennial staples. While we may abstain from consuming them, however, we enjoy watching our mentors enjoy their naughty treats. Someday the food will suit us better, but something will be lost in the change.

 Fig. 6. Fitting within a hair’s breadth of the ceiling beam in Sam’s bedroom is an untouched Maine pencil-post bed, circa 1830, with its original testers. Unusually, the netting is period. A nineteenth-century watercolor theorem hangs on the wall behind the bed, bestowing sweet dreams, and the antique log cabin quilt is in active use. Indeed, everything you see here is equally old, fresh-looking, and usable. Do not let anyone tell you that antiques are not for today.
Fig. 7. Within his collecting practice Sam favors humble objects, including schoolgirl samplers and other forms of women’s work, rather than focusing on acknowledged masterpieces of design such as weathervanes. This New England schoolgirl watercolor from the 1830s hails from the collection of Robert Bishop, director of the American Folk Art Museum from 1977 to 1991, whose life was cut short by AIDS.
Fig. 8. For all the fuss over mixing antiques with modern and contemporary material, the purism of a period room remains peculiarly compelling. Imagine this one illumined only by candles and the spirit of youth. What could be more opulent? The textile mounted on the wall is an appliqué wool and velvet table rug from the 1830s. Every stick of furniture was produced in New England between 1800 and 1820.
Fig. 9. A view of Sam’s antiques shop, which appears exactly as such a shop might have appeared fifty or even one hundred years ago.
Fig. 10. Three velvet strawberry emeries—pincushions filled with sand or ground pottery, which keeps needles sharp—rest on a Leeds creamware platter encircled by pretty painted decoration. These emeries once were functional objects. Now they are diminutive sculptures.

As antiques dealers know: for one thing lost, another is gained, though never in quite the same form. Sam knows this, and, knowing his own mind, he is not shy about bringing new life to an old trade. He prefers material from the first quarter of the nineteenth century—a bit “late,” believe it or not, in the context of early American furniture and folk art. And while I doubt he prefers social media to hooked rugs, pincushions, rocks, and moss, he does his duty as a young dealer and promotes his wares—and the practice of collecting—online, conducting quilt-washing tutorials and AMA (Ask Me Anything) question-and-answer sessions with candor and quiet verve.

Today, anywhere in the country, a young person in search of a new life might pack up their car and point it toward the source of those videos. Samuel Snider will be there, ready to receive the next generation of collectors just as he was received, and helped into a new life, not long ago.

This article is excerpted and adapted from The New Antiquarians: At Home with Young Collectors, published by Monacelli (June 2023).