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See the best traditional artists in America
For those who read or want to write for the magazine
Given the overwhelmingly rural makeup
of early America, we sometimes forget
how sophisticated and worldly our
ancestors were, particularly those who
lived in or around port cities. Owning
imported objects spoke of their status.
Although a fair amount of what
we know about our colonial ancestors resides in the homes
and records of the wealthiest colonists, most aspired to
purchase foreign-made goods to decorate their homes,
and they shared news of the world at the colonial community
center we know as a tavern.
Several articles in this issue describe the type of fineries
America’s early settlers imported from abroad.
Decorative arts scholar Ware Petznick examines the
origin and development of what most of us would call
the chinoiserie style, although not all of it originated in
China. Thousands of years before the start of the Christian
calendar, the Japanese were producing the shiny lacquer
finish we associate with chinoiserie.
Properly called “japanning,” the term defines the
technique of applying multiple thin layers of lacquer on
objects to give them that durable, usually black, protective
coating. Some decorators added animal, floral, and figural
motifs built up through additional layers of gold dust and
lacquer, which gave “japanning” a second meaning as a
style of decorating.
Lacking the proper species of tree from which to
make Asian lacquer, Europeans devised their own formulas
and decorated myriad household objects, from tall
chests to tea caddies. In America, the tin boxes, coffeepots,
and trays with precisely painted floral motifs that
originated in New England in the early 1800s can rightfully
be called our unique contribution to japanning.
Our ancestors also bought a surprisingly varied
assortment of European-made bottles, coolers, decanters,
and stemware for storing and serving their favorite (and
also imported) wines. Especially elaborate is the montieth
bowl meant to cool and rinse glasses. While most colonists
drank wine only on special occasions or from the
tavern punch bowl, many of our Founding Fathers stocked
their homes—including the President’s House—with
imported wines and the requisite accoutrements for entertaining
frequent and important guests.
Tavern punch and assorted desserts on the holiday
table relied on another exotic import—citrus fruits—to
add sweetness and scurvy-stopping ascorbic acid to their
diet. Tracing the route of citrus to America, Robert Moss
writes that although some early Southerners grew and
sold oranges and lemons, most colonists continued to rely
on imports until Florida developed a viable citrus industry
in the 19th Century.
The storied Randolph family likely furnished their
plantation mansion in Henrico County, Virginia, with
costly furnishings and fine wines. But when mounting
debts forced them to sell the property a century later, they
left few clues about their lifestyle beyond the house itself.
Wilton, as the family called it, is a gem of Georgian
architecture and the only known home in Virginia in
which every room—even the twelve closets—is paneled
from floor to ceiling. When the Colonial Dames saved it
from ruin in 1933, they furnished it with antiques from
the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. That collection of
more than 1,400 objects showcases fine imports as well as
later American-made furnishings.
We invite you to savor the visual feast of decorative
arts in the following pages.