I noticed recently that there has been some improvement in auction prices for period-era furniture. There is still a long way to go for most pieces to approach the zenith of more than a decade ago, however. It started me thinking. Is there another “Colonial Revival” afoot?
Which brings us to the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin. He’s the man responsible for the preservation of that 300-acre, multi-museum, living history site known as Colonial Williamsburg. It was in 1926 that Goodwin feared the loss of the colonial buildings of Williamsburg, Virginia and enlisted the financial support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The rest, as they say, is history.
The 1876 Centennial exhibition launched an interest in furniture and things from the Colonial Era, though at the time they didn’t meet the “125 years old” criteria for antiques. The Daughters of the American Revolution was founded in 1890, adding fuel to the interest. Opinion leaders apparently were snapping up era furniture. We were once at an auction were some English Chippendale furniture was to be sold. To my surprise, the 1908 bill of sale was with the items, made out to John Dix, governor of New York in 1911-12.
Collecting antiques grew in popularity during the first decades of the 20th century with books on collecting, Wallace Nutting photographs of period homes and furnishings and, of course, the ability to hop in an automobile to “go antiquing.” The magazine Antiques launched in 1922 and Nutting’s two-volume book “Furniture Treasury” appeared in 1928.
Williamsburg, this granddaddy of living history museums, certainly helped to fuel the interest in colonial antiques and decades of colonial-inspired homes built in the 1930s-1950s. And when building a colonial inspired home, why not furnish it with Colonial-Era furniture? Many people did, with antiques or reproductions.
Today house museums and even major living history museums struggle to keep attendance up. There are a lot of theories for this, ranging from fewer school field trips to more “big ticket” family vacations on cruise ships or abroad, making domestic “destinations” less popular.
Recently the Wall Street Journal featured Colonial Williamsburg as a destination. Perhaps the hit musical “Hamilton” will also refocus attention on the Colonial Era. Hard to say, but if you have children or grandchildren who are looking for some furniture, now may just be the time to introduce them to antiques, before prices regain some momentum. They can buy a ladder back chair from a popular mall store for $199 (on sale) or an antique for perhaps a quarter of that!