By Maxine Carter-Lome
The best definition of Americana that I have come across is, “material ephemera of the distant American past.” Many kinds of cultural artifacts fall within the definition of Americana. The things involved need not be ‘antique’ old or ‘primitive,’ but are usually associated with some quintessential element of the American experience.
In the antiques world, Americana is often used synonymously with American-made antique objects, which extends to folk art, primitives, the Arts & Crafts movement, textiles, art, ephemera, and advertising, among other categories. Folk art and handcraft; tools and weathervanes; serving ware and utensils; hand-built furniture; portraits, maps, and paper paraphernalia; mechanical devices, whether handmade or manufactured … anything that touched a deep chord of nostalgia or meaning can legitimately be considered Americana, and are valued for their authenticity, craftsmanship, ingenuity, and simplicity.
According to oldhouseonline.com, the word “Americana” was already in use by 1820. As early as the 1880s, collections of related items were auctioned under the title of Americana, a trend that continues at auction today. Its use has been common in some eras and rarer in others, and can also be applied to regional objects and the vernacular landscape. A tracking program (Ngram), charted by Google Books, shows that usage of this term first peaked between 1840 and 1860, dipped down with a small bump just after the American centennial in 1876, then soared again between 1920 and 1940. The first wave coincided with an era when America was just finding its identity as a nation. The second matches the peak popularity of the Colonial Revival in the 20th century.
The popularity of Americana at auction today and the rebranding of antique shows to represent a broader understanding and appreciation for distinctively American antiques, are all signs that Americana is now poised for a comeback in the second decade of the 21st century, two hundred years after the word first came into use to identify and brand artifacts of our uniquely American cultural heritage.
The revival of interest in folkways and handmade crafts in the last few decades has also ushered in a market for reproductions of Americana, in much the same way as the Colonial Revival Era in the first half of the 20th century created a cottage industry for American-made reproductions of furniture and decorative pieces with European undertones but completed with an American interpretation of the design. Many of the fine reproduction pieces made by craftsmen during the Colonial Revival Era for a rising middle class of immigrants to put their assimilation and refinement on display in their home are now turning 100 in this second decade of the 21st century, leading scholars and the market to view and value reproductions as “antiques” in their own right.
Many of the objects made—hand-crafted and by machine—during the Colonial Revival Era were works of art, not unlike the current Americana reproductions market. Many of these Americana-inspired objects and furnishings recreate or reinterpret rare or expensive forms that pre-date the Civil War: trade signs, painted furniture, game boards, miniature quilts, and many styles of pottery and basketry.
How we identify and assign items to the Americana umbrella has a lot to do with nostalgia and marketing. While historians and academics seek to define the word and aesthetic for the purposes of scholarship, show promoters, dealers, and auction houses are appropriating the word as a way to broaden the appeal and market for American-made objects celebrating our cultural heritage, authentic and contemporary. And it is paying off, with new attention and respect being paid to design simplicity, regional makers, patina, history, symbolism, ingenuity, authenticity, rarity/uniqueness, and of course, condition.
Americana collectors and buyers are turning to the corners of 19th/early-20th century barns, country auctions, and flea markets for the objects of everyday use that define our past, and to “Americana” shows, dealers, and auction houses for rare and best examples with historic significance.
In this issue we look at some of the more common examples of Americana for collectors such as crocks and pottery, flags and bunting, duck decoys, weathervanes, hooked rugs, and more. We also take a look at the great Americana collector Albert. B. Wells, whose extensive collection of ‘primitives’ and vision of how to share them for the appreciation and education of future generations, seeded Old Sturbridge Village, today one of the Country’s leading living history museums and research centers for Colonial New England life and times.
As we struggle to define who we are as a country in these divisive times, it is in our nature to look nostalgically to the symbols, objects, and ways of life that define past eras; a simpler time that we all connect with the best of American life. The term Americana offers us a framework and context for keeping and placing a value on our cultural heritage, but it is how an object makes us feel and connects us with our past that
reenforces and reawakens our interest in keeping the best of America alive and well in the objects we preserve and carry forward.
By Maxine Carter-Lome