Friday, October 31, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft and the Colonial Revival

Today’s Halloween-themed post is brought to you by guest blogger Joshua Beatty. Joshua is a historian of colonial America and a librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, and an aficionado of unspeakable eldritch horrors. You can read more of his writing here.

He was in the changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham, with its clustering gambrel roofs that sway and sag over attics where witches hid from the King’s men in the dark, olden years of the Province. Nor was any spot in that city more steeped in macabre memory than the gable room which harboured him – for it was this house and this room which had likewise harboured old Keziah Mason, whose flight from Salem Gaol at the last no one was ever able to explain.— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House”
H. P. Lovecraft in 1934
Today is Halloween, a day which we associate with ghosts and goblins and all manner of frightful things — including, yes, witches. Few have written so vividly about such horrors as H. P. Lovecraft. But what isn’t as well known is the common interest he shared with Alice Miner – that of America’s colonial era.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He lived in that city for most of his life, and he loved nothing more than the colonial buildings that in the early twentieth century still dominated much of the city. “I am above all scenic and architectural in my tastes” he explained to a friend. And with an exuberance he reserved for landscape and architecture, a Lovecraft stand-in returning after a long journey in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” described it thus:
At the high square where Broad, Weybosset, and Empire Streets join, he saw before and below him in the fire of sunset the pleasant, remembered houses and domes and steeples of the old town; and his head swam curiously as the vehicle rolled down to the terminal behind the Biltmore, bringing into view the great dome and soft, roof-pierced greenery of the ancient hill across the river, and the tall colonial spire of the First Baptist Church limned pink in the magic evening against the fresh springtime verdure of its precipitous background.

First Baptist Church, early 20th c.
Lovecraft did not confine his interest in colonial landscapes to Providence. He traveled widely up and down the eastern half of the North American continent, from Key West in the south all the way to Quebec City in the north and as far west as New Orleans and Cleveland. Lovecraft was constantly writing on these trips. Letters to friends and travelogues both contained detailed descriptions and histories and even sketches of the architecture he viewed. These writings culminated in a 75,000-word opus on a single city, “A Description of the Town of Quebeck in New-France, Lately added to his Britannick Majesty’s Dominions.”

That title, with its purposefully archaic grammar and spelling, reflects Lovecraft’s wish to insert himself into the times and places he so romanticized. Unsurprisingly, then, Lovecraft strongly approved of the efforts to restore colonial buildings that took place throughout the Colonial Revival period. On a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, he concluded “I must revisit Williamsburg when the restorations are compleat, perhaps two to five years hence. It will then form, without doubt, one of the most impressive evocations of the colonial past that America can display.”

Map of Arkham, Massachusetts, the fictional town where
Lovecraft set many of his tales
Lovecraft’s passion for colonial architecture would hardly be relevant to Halloween, were it not that those same colonial buildings were integral parts of his horror stories. Where the horror writers of the nineteenth century, from Shelley to Poe, used Gothic architecture to evoke an atmosphere of fear and gloom, Lovecraft used instead the familiar landscapes of his own New England.
The Crowninshield House in “The Thing on the Doorstep”
was modeled on this house in Salem.
One can’t read Lovecraft’s work without being shocked by his virulent racism. This racism was often symbolized in his work by architecture. The upright descendents of English settlers make their homes in stately colonial mansions or sturdy, well-kept farmhouses. In contrast, African-Americans, American Indians, or the “decayed branches” of white colonial families live in decrepit shacks or tenement houses.
The “Witch House” in Salem, home of Judge Jonathan
Corwin in the 17th century.

Yet the worst situation of all was when when a good colonial house was occupied by inferior peoples. In “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” the seventeenth-century building of the title has been rented to a motley collection of Italians, Poles, and even French-Canadians. When a college student with an old English colonial name, Walter Gilman, becomes fascinated by “the hushed Arkham whispers about Keziah’s persistent presence in the old house and the narrow streets,… about the childish cries heard near May-Eve, and Hallowmass” and takes a room, the tropes of horror fiction already suggest the ending.
Evans, Timothy H. “A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft.” Journal of Folklore Research 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 99–135.
Lovecraft, H. P. Collected Essays, Volume 4: Travel. Edited by S. T Joshi. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2005.

Guides to visiting places that appear in Lovecraft’s work (if you dare):

Friday, October 24, 2014

“In the Brave Days of Old”: Wallace Nutting’s Colonial America

“In the Brave Days of Old”
In the Miner Room on the third floor of the Alice, there are two photographs that look like they could have been taken in the Museum. One shows a woman descending an elegant staircase, and the other a woman stirring a pot over an open fire. Both photos are the work of Wallace Nutting, the man who perhaps did more than any other individual to popularize the Colonial Revival. Nutting’s vision of “Old America,” transmitted through historic homes, reproduction furniture, and most of all, photography, shaped the way Americans in the early 20th century envisioned the colonial past.
“The Elaborate Dinner”

Wallace Nutting was born in 1861 in Rockbottom, Massachusetts and enrolled at Harvard in 1883. During the summers he worked in hotels at various popular resorts in New England—Campobello Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket—that he would later return to as a photographer. After graduating from Harvard, he went on to Hartford Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in pulpits around New England.

In the early 1900s, however, Nutting began to suffer from neurasthenia--a disease peculiar to the Victorian era, characterized by fatigue, anxiety, and weakness, and thought to be caused by the stresses and strains of modern urban life. He left the church for good in 1904, and he and his wife, Mariet, purchased a derelict farm in Southbury, Connecticut. Nutting had been a dedicated amateur photographer since his college days, and photography was in fact often recommended as therapy for neurasthenia, because it combined artistic pursuit with healthful outdoor activity. He now turned to photography as a means of supplementing his income.
One of the many versions of “Cherry Blossoms”

The subjects of Nutting’s photos were almost exclusively rural, and rarely showed any indications of modernity. Pastoral fields of cows, country lanes, blossoming trees, and old barns were some of his favorite subjects. These scenes of an unspecified but clearly pre-industrial era were enormously appealing to middle-class urban dwellers.

Between 1905 and 1912, Nutting (with Mariet’s assistance) perfected a system for producing high-quality colored photographs on a large scale. The photos were printed using the platinotype process and then tinted with watercolors, following a model, by a carefully-trained staff of young women. Nutting produced his first catalog in around 1910; it depicted over 500 photos and noted that many more were available. Prices ranged from $1.25 for the smallest pieces (5” x 7”) up to $20.00 for the largest (20” x 40”)—well within the reach of most middle-class consumers.
A typical Nutting colonial vignette

While the outdoor views made up the bulk of the catalog, it was Nutting’s colonial interiors that were the most popular. By 1911 he was offering about 200 different interior scenes, which accounted for about a quarter of his total picture sales. Mariet Nutting had first suggested staging scenes with models—usually the young women who worked as colorists—to create “period vignettes.” 

Though Nutting was producing his photos in the age of the “new woman,” the suffragette, and the flapper, his pictures showed women in decidedly traditional roles. Either they were shown engaged in genteel leisure activities—reading, writing letters, drinking tea—or in productive (but still genteel) work—spinning, sewing, cooking. In a time when gender roles were rapidly changing, Nutting’s pictures offered a reassuring vision of the past.

In order to make sure that the settings in his photographs were authentic, Nutting began to collect furniture, rugs, costumes, and other items that could be used as props. Then, to ensure that he always had suitable backgrounds, he began to purchase the historic properties which eventually would become the Wallace Nutting Chain of Colonial Picture Houses. The five houses, purchased and restored between 1914 and 1916, included the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut; the Wentworth Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the Hazen Garrison House in Haverhill, Massachusetts; the Cutler-Bartlett House in Newburyport, Massachusetts; and the Ironmaster’s House in Saugus, Massachusetts. 

17th-century cupboard made by Wallace Nutting
As a financial investment, the houses never lived up to Nutting’s hopes, because their opening coincided with the first World War and the imposition of gasoline rationing, which severely curtailed tourism. But they did help solidify his reputation as an expert on historic architecture and furnishings. Nutting also started to manufacture his own line of reproduction furniture in 1917. He considered the colonial-inspired pieces produced by the big companies to be “humbug furniture,” while his own pieces were worthy of being called the “antiques of tomorrow.” Nutting’s furniture was authentic in appearance, though his workers did use modern construction techniques and machinery.

In addition to all his other ventures, Wallace Nutting was a prolific writer and lecturer. In the 1920s he began writing travel guides, the States Beautiful series, that took readers on virtual tours (illustrated with his own photographs, of course) of the states of the eastern seaboard. He also bolstered his reputation as a furniture expert with three books on the history of American furniture: American Windsors (1917), Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1924), and Furniture Treasury (3 volumes; 1928 and 1933). Alice owned all of these books on furniture.

Photo by Wallace Nutting taken in the parlor of the Webb House.
Note that the murals depict two of Nutting’s other properties,
the Hazen Garrison House and the Saugus Iron Works.
Although Nutting was convinced of the superiority of the past, he nonetheless was a very modern businessman. Nutting employed an advertising agency beginning in the early 1920s, which produced print campaigns for magazines like Antiques. These advertisements were carefully targeted at middle-class customerspeople who did not have their own family heirlooms that “came over on the Mayflower” but liked to think of themselves as people who should have such fine items. All of his ventures were carefully planned to work together: the historic homes provided settings for his photographs; the books educated consumers about the furniture; and the photographs generated interest in the historic properties and the furniture. 

Above all else, Wallace Nutting saw himself as an educator, one with a very specific moral lesson to impart about the values of rural, pre-industrial America. That this idea owed as much to his imagination as it did to reality was unimportant. Nutting’s vision, combined with shrewd business tactics, tapped into a vein of nostalgia about the past and made him the foremost popularizer of the Colonial Revival in the early 20th century.


Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta, Re-Creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).

Joyce P. Barendsen, “Wallace Nutting, an American Tastemaker: The Pictures and Beyond,” Winterthur Portfolio 18, no. 2/3 (July 1, 1983): 187–212.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Colonial Revival Heads West

In the years between the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, interest in and knowledge about early America had grown enormously. In fact, there were more examples of the Colonial Revival on display at the Columbian Exposition than had ever been brought together anywhere before. Moreover, this was the first time that the Colonial Revival had been exhibited extensively outside the eastern seaboard, meaning that for many native midwesterners, as well as foreign immigrants, this was their first exposure to the style.

Pennsylvania State Building
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Colonial Revival were the state buildings. Of the 39 states represented at the Fair, 21 chose to erect colonial-style buildings. Most were loose adaptations of local colonial architecture, while four states chose to adapt or replicate historic structures. Pennsylvania based its building on Independence Hall, Massachusetts on John Hancock's house, New Jersey on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, and Virginia on Mount Vernon. 

In explaining the reasons behind Massachusetts’s choice of architectural style, the Board of Managers described its “air of aristocratic distinction and reserve and dignity” while still retaining “a homelike and comfortable appearance.” States wanted their buildings to impress visitors while also presenting a welcoming exterior to fairgoers. Colonial styles, because of their associations with a historic and patriotic period in America’s past, seemed especially appropriate for official buildings.

Massachusetts State Building

Except for Virginia’s building (the only one that was a true replica inside and out), none of the state buildings attempted to recreate an accurate colonial interior. The state buildings had to serve a variety of functions, and needed office space, meeting and reception rooms, and restrooms which could not be accommodated in a colonial floor plan. They did, however, include colonial furniture (some antique, but mostly reproduction), woodwork, and wall and window treatments.

Essex Institute exhibit

Most state buildings also housed exhibits of colonial artifacts, including furniture, textiles, ceramics, and portraits. For example, the Essex Institute of Salem contributed an exhibit for the Massachusetts State Building that included 41 pieces of furniture from the 16th through the early 19th centuries, pictures “showing well-known houses in Salem and representative of the various styles of architecture in use in Colonial and pre-Revolutionary times,” and 10 display cases crammed full of coins and paper currency, almanacs, pamphlets, newspapers, needlework, manuscripts (sermons, letters, account books), medals, snuffboxes, shoe buckles, and more. 

“Mother Southwick” and her assistants
On the Midway--the Fair’s entertainment district--visitors would find that Emma Southwick Brinton, proprietor of the New England Kitchen at the Philadelphia Centennial, had reproduced her popular restaurant and museum. “Ye Olde Tyme” kitchen still served traditional New England fare such as pork and beans, puddings, pumpkin pie, doughnuts, and flapjacks with molasses. While the exhibit didn’t make quite as much of a splash in Chicago as it had in Philadelphia--it had more colonial competition now--Brinton and her assistants were chosen to represent the United States in a souvenir photographic portfolio of “Midway Types.”

“The Ripe Fruit of Freedom”
Colonial-themed entertainment also included impresario Imre Kiralfy’s Grand Historical Spectacle, “America,” which “presented in music, dance, costume and scenery the story of the nation.” Then there were quirkier manifestations of the Colonial Revival, such as the three different replicas of the Liberty Bell--one made of wheat, oats, and barley; one made of citrus fruits; and one made of melted-down colonial relics. 

Virgina’s Mount Vernon
One of the most interesting aspects of the state buildings is the extent to which women were responsible for coordinating the exhibits. In many cases, the state simply turned the whole project over to a State Board of Lady Managers and left it to them to figure out how to get the job done. For example, the Virginia legislature appropriated only $25,000 for all aspects of the state’s participation in the Fair. The Virginia Board of World’s Fair Managers then appointed a special women's committee, charging them with the “patriotic duty” of raising funds to duplicate Mount Vernon in Chicago--which they did, very successfully. For the most part, the women on these boards had no formal experience in handling historical materials, but they nonetheless managed to persuade owners to lend items for exhibition and then took full responsibility for the safe packaging, shipping, display, and then return of every item on exhibit. The experience that the “lady managers” acquired at the Fair would later be put to use in museums and historical societies across the country.

The enormous size and location of the Columbian Exposition, and its massive attendance, were significant factors in the popularization of the Colonial Revival. The Fair received over 20 million visitors--more than twice as many as had visited the Centennial. Many of them were people who had had little or no exposure to the historical sites of the original thirteen colonies, and the novelty of the style attracted much attention. The wide variety of regional colonial architectural styles and colonial artifacts, gathered together in the heart of the midwest, helped to solidify the Colonial as the country’s national style. 

It seems quite likely that the World’s Fair was one of Alice Trainer’s first encounters with the Colonial Revival. Though it would be another ten years before she became a collector, the boom in research and publications about the colonial era that was triggered by the Fair would provide valuable resources when she began to gather items for her Colonial Collection.

The photos of the state buildings and the Liberty Bell are taken from the Field Museum Library’s flickr album.

The photo of the Essex Institute exhibit comes from the Report of the Massachusetts Board of World's Fair Managers.

The photo of Emma Southwick Brinton and her assistants is from the Smithsonian’s collection, and is reproduced in The Colonial Revival in America.

Much of the information in this piece is drawn from Susan Prendergast Schoelwer, “Curious Relics and Quaint Scenes: The Colonial Revival at Chicago’s Great Fair,” an essay in The Colonial Revival in America.