Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Relics of the Revolution: Collecting George Washington Memorabilia, 1876-1920

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

By the time Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee delivered his famous eulogy for George Washington, mere days after his December 14, 1799 death, Americans were already busy proving his statement true. Memorabilia celebrating Washington’s life and contributions was flooding the marketplace, artisans and amateurs were creating tributes to their fallen hero with pen and needle, and a wide variety of goods were elevated to relic status, gaining value and power because Washington had owned them, used them, or merely passed near them.

In the more than two hundred years since Washington’s death, this mania for all things George (and all of George’s things) has yet to abate. His face and name adorn countless products, places, and institutions, and a Washington pedigree remains one of the most desirable provenances an American object can have.

Studying Washington memorabilia (often known as “Washingtoniana”) as well as the history of its collection and collectors has allowed me to investigate a number of questions surrounding American identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, which Washington are people collecting? The victorious general? The noble statesman? The reluctant Cincinnatus, who stepped away from his beloved home to serve his even more beloved republic? Different collectors favored different visions of Washington, using his name and image to lend historical weight and an imprimateur to their own political, social, and personal agendas. As arguably the most important figure of the American Revolution, George Washington (or at least the Gilded Age’s vision of George Washington) played a crucial role in the Colonial Revival, a period of intense nostalgia for and lionization of the colonial past on the part of many white elites that reached its zenith in the years between the Centennial in 1876 and the beginning of World War I. Frustrated by industrialization, immigration, and other perceived threats to their cultural hegemony, many Americans began to recast the Colonial and early Federal period as the nation’s lost golden age – a period of prosperity and propriety that had been lost in a mechanized and increasingly foreign present.

A wide variety of “souvenir” or “commemorative” goods featuring Washington’s name and image were available shortly after Washington’s death, and such memorabilia has provided (and continues to provide) ample fodder for scholars. My own interest lies with objects that Washington owned (or at least was purported to have owned). Made sacred by their association with the great man, by the third quarter of the nineteenth century these home-grown American relics had become highly-sought-after collectibles. But how did they leave the hands of Washington’s family and friends and enter the marketplace? What kinds of changes did they undergo as they moved from priceless artifact to priced commodity, and what kinds of strategies did both buyers and sellers use to reconcile themselves to this transformation? The period of my study (approximately 1876 to 1920) was a formative one for the American antiques trade, and the case of Washingtoniana is an excellent example of the debates between historical importance and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating an antique object’s importance that were taking place during this era.*

My paper deals with two collectors – the father and son team of Luther (1841-1918) and De Lancey Kountze (1878-1946). Though they both collected Washingtoniana, they did so for very different reasons, creating a group of objects that says just as much about their search for their own identities as it does about their search for Washington’s. While Luther was attempting to establish an American pedigree for himself by buying Washington’s possessions, it was Washington’s service in the army which seems to have enthralled De Lancey, who saw in it parallels to his own experiences in France in World War I. My study of the Kountzes and their Washington collection demonstrates how the American colonial revival and the longstanding cult of the founding fathers influenced the ways in which upper-class, white American men intertwined historical memory, patriotism, and collecting with their own quests for personal and national identities.

*For more on this debate, see Briann Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), particularly the first two chapters.

Erin Eisenbarth, The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture

No comments:

Post a Comment