Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Wallace Nutting's Revenge

With all the various retro revivals of home decor I've seen over the last few decades, I don't think I've seen anything in the way of what you might now call "Colonial Revival Revival" -- you know, a recreation of what the home magazines and decorating books of the 40s and 50s called "Early American". I'm not talking about an historic appreciation and scholarly interest in the furniture and crafts of the American Colonial period, or for that matter even the Colonial Revival architectural style (which seems to be mostly a matter of hodgepodge influence), but about the mass-market (even downmarket) suburban home decorating trend that encouraged you to pretend that your very own den was an exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg, if the exhibits at Colonial Williamsburg included television sets and folding metal snack trays with pictures of rooster weathervanes. Yes, when I was a child it was not surprising to find living rooms and family rooms in suburban New Jersey homes decorated with braided rugs, Windsor chairs, and -- G-d help me -- decorative spinning wheels. The fashion had actually faded considerably by the 60s, but it's not as if everybody completely redecorates their home every three years. In fact, the St. Louis Park childhood home of a local friend of mine was still decorated in this fashion when I saw it about 15 years ago (before his parents passed away), exactly as it had been furnished in the early 1950s, and beautifully maintained.

This style must have been enormously popular. I have many magazines and decorating guides for the homemaker from the 40s and 50s, and "Early American" is usually given the most prominent placement. If you have a chance to see an old Sears or Montgomery Wards catalog from that era, you'll see exactly what I mean. The influence is not inevitably without charm or taste, but I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to note that it's probably something of a collective decorating embarrassment, to realize how many homes were adorned in this fashion.

Surely this style, and its associated paraphernalia, is ripe for a camp revival? Isn't faux-Colonial the very definition of kitsch? I have even seen 50s-modern dishware shapes decorated with decals of charming colonial rooms, which is dizzying in a way. Hurricane lamps powered by electricity rather than whale oil, fireplace andirons repurposed as magazine racks -- why aren't these items going for astronomical prices at Sotheby's?

I started to think about this a while back when I found, at a flea market, my first piece of GeorgeandMarthabilia: A pair of vases (easily convertible to lamp bases), one with a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart's portait of George Washington and one with the matching portrait of Martha. The vases, just perfect for your Colonial decor, were 19th century in shape and mid-20th century in manufacture; again I use the word "dizzying". I bought them because they tickled my fancy, but in doing so it was as if the curtain lifted from my eyes and I saw GeorgeandMarthabilia everywhere. Within a few months I had purchased two mugs in this style (made in 1932 for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth), and then two espresso cups with matching sugar and creamer (made in the early 50s), and then a pair of salt and pepper shakers, and then I had to stop.

Rare is not the word to apply to these items, although my gosh if I'd continued along that path I could have become -- with an absolute minimum of effort -- one of those people with eccentric collections who get profiled on the evening news. Because pretty much any day on eBay you can find this stuff. Do you want to celebrate Thanksgiving in historically inaccurate homage? Just use this as your turkey platter:

Do you need to season the turkey breast at table? Try using these:

Do you want to recall that happy family trip to our nation's capitol? Put this on your mantle:

What would it take to have the premier collection of this stuff? Not much, I'm afraid. But there's something about all of this that tells a story -- a story of history, a story of faddishness, a story of the search for false nostalgia and an imagined past, a story of crass commercialism, a story of cheap stuff. And that, my friends, is the Story of America itself.

That story can be found right here, in this salt shaker shaped like a candle holder with hot wax dripping on the face of the father of our country. If the matching Martha had been included I would definitely have placed a bid.

Stick that feather in your hat and call it macaroni!
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