Four Mysteries in Collecting American Antiques

Mysteries abound in the collecting of American antiques, and I need a detective – Nancy Drew, Rebus, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Bosch, Nora and Nick Charles, or Sam Spade will do just fine. Whether Nero Wolfe tending his orchids in his New York City brownstone (leaving the shoe leather to Archie), or Philip Marlowe in trouble once again with the dames, hopefully these famous gumshoes can shed light on some of the puzzles created by what we collectors do and the antiques we collect. 

Three of the mysteries are clearly psychological in origin, and one is based in etymology.

Let’s start with a cozy mystery, not a locked room murder mind you, but interesting just the same. Why do three items make up a collection? Not two mind you, not four or five, but three. I’ve surveyed the usual suspects and I am not convinced of their guilt. A collector might haphazardly purchase one or two pieces because of the look, the price, or other reasons. But if he owns three objects of the same genre, I am told that the collector is being intentional. 

He certainly could own three of something I respond and not consider it a collection. For a collection is not only dependent on the number of pieces, it also is psychological. My wife and I use painted firkins as wastebaskets. We have four. Yet I do not believe I collect painted firkins. I simply own a few of them. More than three pairs of shoes grace my closet, but I also do not consider them a collection either.

“Why not four or five?” I inquire. The Beatles have four members, and Dumas’ The Three Musketeers were not a trio (Aramis, Porthos, Athos, & D’Artagnon). There are Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (conquest, war, famine & death). “Because that is too many; three it is, because I said so,” another collector says, sounding like a 3-year-old to my ears. Three is the magic number – the holy trinity the Magi, the fates of Greek mythology (Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos), the witches in Macbeth, or the number of blind mice. 

In other words, three make a collection for the same reason that the television show was called, Three’s Company. Now that is convincing. Then there is the decorating rule of three. Odd numbers of objects make a more appealing, effective, and memorable display. The same guideline appears in photography, design, and even story telling. Neurologically it seems that three is the smallest number that we can use to form a distinguishable pattern. 

I conclude that “three is a collection” is a simple rule of thumb, repeated and believed because most in the American antique community agree with the statement – definition by consensus. Let’s see what Nick and Nora find out.

Next, I turn to a known fact in the collecting of American antiques. White is the rarest color for many genres. One sees white on clock faces, in a decorative scheme, but rarely as the primary furniture color. I was informed that Henry Knox of Maine, senior general of the Continental Army and later the US Army, had a set of white Windsor chairs, none surviving to the present. Charles Santore in his books, The Windsor Style in America, Volumes I and II, has a photo (Volume II, Plate XI) of a Windsor chair down-scraped to the original white with a wonderful patina. The chair looks great to me, but I am looking at it as a 21st century collector. Nancy Goyne Evans’ American Windsor Chairs (1996l p. 495) notes a later Windsor chair maker (1820s-1830s) with straw and light-colored paint for his rocking chairs in demand with white, among other colors, less called for. 

In American Painted Furniture:1790-1880, Schaffner and Klein (1997) picture three circa 1820 dressing or fancy worktables in white and a circa 1810-1830 New England armchair. A very attractive Pennsylvania banket chest, circa 1810, in the same book really pops in white with scribed geometric patterns in red and dark cobalt blue within divided panels. Consider that almost all the white furniture is Federal, post 1800.

Despite the great numbers of painted Windsor chairs and other furniture according to Schaffner and Klein paint was not available in cans ready for use until after the Civil War. It was handmade, not an easy chore. White paint was derived from “lead, chalk and zinc oxide” (p. 194). I was surprised to learn that the quintessential white New England church only entered the landscape in the Federal period.

I reached out to well-known dealers with decades of experience. Two themes emerged: (1) white as a color was associated with weddings, and (2) the alleged poor quality of white paint. David Schorsch told me, 

White is most typically associated with so-called bridal furniture of the Federal period to include beds, dressing table and Willard shelf, banjo and at least one lighthouse clock. It is also known on some Windsor chairs made in Salem and other locations circa 1790-1825.

Simon and Aaron Willard produced some gilt frame cases on banjo clocks painted entirely white that Foley states in Willard’s Patent Time Pieces are known as “brides’ clocks”’ But no conclusive evidence exists that they were ordered or produced as wedding presents.

The second dealer said.

The times that white has been used is often related or connected to a wedding. We see white paint decorated mirrors, which has a romantic inclination. Most wedding photographers still today choose to take pictures of the bride in her white (often) wedding dress, gazing into a mirror. We see Classical white frame mirrors, a tradition still followed today. There are ‘timepieces’ known today as banjo clocks that celebrate weddings with white painted cases. Federal sets of chairs, formal seating furniture are sometimes found painted white and are considered ‘wedding furniture’. Titanium white is a type of paint that was an improvement. This color is more stable, doesn’t tend to yellow, and was expensive, affordable to prominent families. It is my experience that white paint was accessible in England, not so much in the Colonies. Perhaps another reason for fewer examples of white painted furniture. 

A retired paint chemist wrote me the following, also arguing for the poor-quality of white paint hypothesis:

Before I retired, I was a paint chemist. The pigments for good white paint were not readily available in the 18th century. Calcium carbonate was common but did not produce a good white and made a chalky surface that was unpleasant. Inexpensive paints still use a high volume of Calcium Carbonate filler because it is cheap. White lead had the best hiding properties. Titanium Dioxide was expensive and replaced white lead as we learned the hazards of lead. These better white pigments were not available until the 19th century. 

Does the poor-quality hypothesis hold? After all, white was used when tinted to produce many other colors. 

            I spoke with a furniture curator at Colonial Williamsburg who did not know the mystery’s answer. She stated some French furniture in their collection had white paint. I also consulted with a specialist in Colonial Williamsburg’s furniture conservation laboratory. He refuted the poor quality of white telling me that other lead-based hues broke down similarly to white. He commented that some Eastern Shore (Virginia, Maryland) “built in” furniture on occasion (it is still rare) can be found in white. He concluded that lack of white furniture was a matter of style. White simply did not have the “bling” of other colors.

Does the “drab surroundings” hypothesis merit our consideration? More than one collector and dealer believed that the reason white is rare is because people lived in drab, ill-lit settings and wanted color in their lives (other than white). Yet when you see the painted walls, floor coverings, wallpaper, and other uses of color the upper classes lived with long ago, they had color galore. And white is a “clean” color. Yes, it shows the scuff marks and dirt more than robin’s egg blue or red, but it is bright, and the item is easily painted after a. year or two. Someone else tells me it was expensive. But so much more expensive than salmon, red, yellow, black, red, blue, or green? Because of how it was made did it wear more than other colors? Yet another person wondered if it was stripped from furniture more than other colors.

Would not white furniture or other genres set off nicely from the brown furniture, yellow chairs, or red blanket chests? It would. Yet white as a primary color is rarer than rare and causes the value of such objects in today’s market to soar in price. I await the report of one of Sam Adams’ (of revolutionary war fame) spies and troublemakers to provide me with an answer. Perhaps we may conclude that the primary reason that white is rare is simply because it was never in vogue, never au courant if you will.

A third mystery is the etymology of the term “loper.” Yes, I know, someone who lopes. Lopers are the supports or brackets one pulls out when the lid on a dropfront desk is lowered. My own detective, my elder son Nathaniel, pointed out that Dictionary.com contains the word “loper” stating, “also called draw runner, draw slip. Furniture. Either of the two runners coming forward to support a hinged leaf, as the slant front of a desk.” Anyone who collects knows when someone forgot to use them as. you see replaced hinges because the lid tore off. 

To learn more about the basis of the term, I tried the Oxford English Dictionary, and a dusty 1876 edition of Webster’s dictionary from the basement of my local library. One wonders the last time it had been touched, Google and the Internet. I posted on a Facebook group, Americana Hub, and received some illumination from the latter.

A collector thought that “in the first quarter 19th century it referred to a machine for making rope. I’ve looked but don’t see 19th century or earlier references to the term as a component in cabinetry. It is sometimes called a ‘draw bar’ though. Puzzling,” he said.

Another person commented that the etymology of “interloper” has some clues. Middle Dutch lopen: to run. So… “runners”? I continued my search. One expert told me that “when I was first in the field in the late 1960s the term was not in use. She wondered if it came into use in the late 1970s as furniture lingo?” and suggested I contact another respected expert in the field, Robert Trent. Mr. Trent said, 

William and Mary period are the earliest such supports, my assumption is that loper meant somebody running, hence the slides or supports were thought to run out. Sometimes seen mis-spelled as ‘looper.’ The term “appears in period bills and account books. 

The term then has been in use for quite some time. I wonder if it did not originate in the area that we now call New York City? 

The colony of New Netherland was established by the Dutch West India Company in 1624 and grew to encompass all of present-day New York City and parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A successful Dutch settlement in the colony grew up on the southern tip of Manhattan Island and was christened New Amsterdam. (History.com, August.18, 2021)

I shall hire Adjutant-Detective Henk Grijpstra and Detective-Sergeant Rinus de Gier from the Amsterdam Municipal police to investigate the loper mystery. Someone Dutch may be needed.

            Our last mystery of collecting (for now) returns us to collector psychology, this time as a show opens. I have talked with fellow collectors many times about their strategies to maximize the chance they will find a treasure. Some tell me they go directly to the booth or two of dealers who are most likely to have an item in which they are interested. That makes sense to me, a rational decision. Putting these collectors aside, it is then that the mystery unfolds. 

Some collectors make a bee line for the aisle furthest from the entryway. Since most people go the other way, they go to the least crowded group of booths (a relative term at a show with a long line). To wit: a friend arrived at a show that had just opened with almost 400 people in line. It took him only 12 minutes to\ enter the show (a lifetime to some collectors). Another collector chimes in and says one should never go first to the center aisle. He gives no compelling reason but has strong feelings about this. Other collectors go to the right-hand aisle first, the one closest to the show’s entrance. They want to ensure they see objects before others who went in different directions.

Three things stand out to me. First, many collectors are strongly wedded to their strategy for finding something at a show and not being beaten to it by someone else. Secondly, every collector knows that once she pauses to look at something in a dealer’s booth, 75 people pass her by in those few moments. A third idea strikes me: What is the point? There is no strategy that is best for any one collector. The behavior is superstitious. By that I mean that collectors believe what they do because once or twice the direction they went was rewarded or punished, but the direction each chooses really has nothing to do with his success in being first to the holy grail. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes can send his Baker Street irregulars to several shows, have them employ different strategies, and solve the mystery – does any game plan work best?

There you have it. Four mysteries out of many (I am sure). Does that make them a collection of mysteries? I do not know but I feel better for having shared these with you. You’ll have to excuse me. I see Bogart, I mean Philip Marlowe at the door. Time to learn which of the mysteries he’s solved.

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