These are brief reviews of books recently sent to us. We have included ordering information for publishers that accept mail, phone, or on-line orders. For other publishers, your local bookstore or mail-order house is the place to look.
New Views of New England: Studies in Material and Visual Culture, 1680-1830, Martha J. McNamara and Georgia B. Barnhill, editors (The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, distributed by the University of Virginia Press, 2012, 279 pp., hardbound, $39.50).
Years ago my university history professor smiled when I asked about books in which we could read about more common people in history—how they ate, what they wore, how and why they moved around or stayed rooted, and such. He replied that those subjects were ripe for picking, having received scant attention. That situation is being remedied over the ensuing decades, and this book can be added to the large library of resources to fill out our mental excursions backward in time, in this instance into some of our first colonial settlements on this continent. It has been my pleasure to peruse these clearly presented essays about early New England.
The first essay, “The Archaeology of 1690: Status and Material Life on New England’s Northern Frontier” by Emerson W. Baker, is based on his analysis of 13 summers of digs. It contains a wealth of insight. For instance, the 40,000 artifacts of the Chadbournes in Salmon Falls (now in South Berwick, Maine) provide us with answers to how they created and maintained their drive to become gentry in a place dependent upon seafaring connections to England. War broke out and destroyed their first try at settlement, but we can read about interconnections and gain a better appreciation of the whole situation. Archaeology becomes, by extension, a foray into understanding the reasons for and the ways to sustain colonial expansion.
Likewise, each of these ten essays offers such depth of worthy findings, and they are well illustrated. A single additional example will have to suffice, but there could be dozens.
In Kevin Murphy’s essay, “Buildings, Landscapes, and the Representation of Authority on the Eastern Frontier,” we are treated to a thoughtful reanalysis of what, for me, is home territory. He discusses how “Maine’s elite of the Early National period were well aware of the influence that material things could wield in a bid for authority on the local level.” Murphy uses landscape and its representation by Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill (Maine) in a fresh way, intertwining it with Fisher’s work as a pastor, teacher, artist, and builder. Then Murphy further develops the relationship of architecture and its placement in a settlement or town to perceived authority. He talks about two judges’ houses built in that era in southern Maine and the house of Thomas Ruggles (a timber baron and judge) in a place farther Down East in Columbia Falls. He discusses Woodlawn in Ellsworth and Montpelier in Thomaston, the latter owned by General Henry Knox and his wife, Lucy. Each discussion is edifying.
In his summary Murphy writes: “They demonstrate just how important landscapes and buildings were to the struggles that characterized the eastern frontier of the Early National period. To this extent, the spatial turn in cultural studies and other disciplines provides a crucial justification for the focus on material things that art and architectural history have always maintained. At the same time, however, it demands that we rethink our understanding of space. As Foucault writes, ‘[W]e do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light; we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another….’ So it is with the eastern frontier. Relations between its inhabitants of varying class, social, religious, and political positions were played out in spaces that were punctuated with the material manifestations of their self-conceptions.”
I will not look at Fisher’s 1824 landscape of Blue Hill the same way again, and as I experience the living landscapes of the towns, I will add refreshed understanding to what I see. This is an example of how reading others’ studies can enlarge one’s own historical appreciation and interior vision.
Faked Out: Tales for Lovers of Antiques and Art by Arthur Cobin and Vivien Boniuk (Eyetooth Press, 2013, 321 pp., softbound, $24.95).
Fact or fiction? Real or fake? That’s what you’ll be asking as you read each short story in this collection by lifelong antiquers and New York City husband-and-wife dealers Arthur Cobin and Vivien Boniuk. The couple has been a staple on the show circuit for decades, and they have put their art and antiques expertise to good use by creating carefully crafted stories that end with a Twilight Zone twist.
The tales, filled with back-story gossip and dramatic intrigue, are reflective of the kinds of scandalous stories that make headlines in the daily blogs. What happens when a lawyer donates the wrong Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet—the real deal, not the paste copy—to a thrift shop? Who comes out ahead when one dealer gambles and tries to pull a fast one on another? And how does an L. & J.G. Stickley dining table end up playing Cupid?
Even when the plots are predictable, it is fun to read the detailed descriptions of the antiques, whose rarity will set your heart, and your feet, racing for the nearest thrift shop, show, or auction house. Cobin and Boniuk’s Duchess Arts & Antiques specializes in selling antique jewelry, historic medals, New York memorabilia, books, and art, and these stories showcase their vast in-depth knowledge.
In a bargaining business where making a killer find is what it’s all about, where else can you buy an entire museum-quality collection for only $24.95 ($9.99 on Kindle)?
This, the first collection by Cobin and Boniuk, was inspired by one of their bicycling/buying trips to London, where they discovered in a used book stall two tomes that were to become their treasures: Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and Jeffrey Archer’s Twelve Red Herrings. The stories in them about the antiques trade—Dahl’s “Parson’s Pleasure” and Archer’s “Cheap at Half the Price”—were what compelled Cobin and Boniuk to put pen to paper. That first U.K. trip 24 years ago led to these 24 stories.
Whether they are writing about the elderly gentleman who tracks down his long-lost silver bunny baby cup or the woman whose lucky charm medal made her feel lucky to be alive, they capture the drama and emotion of the art and antiques world by painting protagonists who are as real as the dealers, pickers, auctioneers, and customers who make this business such an exacting and exciting pursuit.
The anthology is a fast read, and as all collectors know, you can’t have too much of a good thing. I hope that we won’t have long to wait. Cobin and Boniuk have plotted out a dozen more stories for a sequel.
Faked Out, which is as addictive as collecting, should come with a reader-beware warning. The characters may be fictional, but you may recognize yourself in some of them. Depending on the tale, that may be a good or a bad thing.
Nancy A. Ruhling
Colt Factory Engravers of the Nineteenth Century: Understanding Their Careers and Identifying Their Work by Herbert G. Houze (Mowbray Publishing, 2012, 192 pp., hardbound, $59.99 plus S/H from Mowbray Publishing, [www.gunandswordcollector.com] or  999-4697).
This book records the engravers who were employed by Samuel Colt and, later, Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. The author acknowledges R.L. Wilson’s original research, which was published between 1961 and 2001 in various books on Colt firearms. Houze’s record, which draws on research in the Colt archives at the Connecticut Historical Society and at the Connecticut State Library, will provide “greater context for the diversity of Colt’s workmen.”
Thirty-eight engravers are featured; some are familiar, and some may be new to readers. As the author states, “The interpretation and presentation of history is always fluid. Long-held beliefs and seemingly unassailable facts frequently are disproved by new research.”
Houze discusses what is known of each engraver’s working years and includes documentary evidence, such as city directory information, letters, advertisements, ledger pages, news reports, and such. Large photographs highlight examples of each engraver’s work on firearms made in the shops where the engraver was known to have worked. A brief introduction discusses the engraving trade (it was not considered an art) and the three types of engraving done on Colt firearms with pictured examples.
Five appendices cover the following: engravers who had previously been identified as Colt engravers; engravers found in Hartford, Connecticut, city directories from 1850 to 1870 who don’t list specialties or business addresses; 19th-century newspaper references to engraved Colt firearms; a discussion of the influence of Gustave Ernst’s patterns and a reprinting of a few of them; and a brief biography of Charles L.H. Muller, who sculpted cast metal pistol grips for Schuyler, Hartley, & Graham.
There are extensive endnotes. We noted a few typos throughout the book, but it is still a valuable reference for collectors of Colt firearms.
Abraham Lincoln: Beyond the American Icon by Fred Reed (Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2013, 447 pp., hardbound, $29.95).
Abraham Lincoln seems to be everywhere, and this book shows it. It comes on the heels of Fred Reed’s last work, Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness, published in 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. In this volume, Reed continues to examine Lincoln imagery in American culture and around the world. He creates a “perspective of Lincoln from a new angle…as he was regarded by the American public in his time, followed by his legacy since 1865.”
In the first chapter Reed tells how Lincoln utilized photography and the mass media for his political career. There are about 130 legitimate photographs of Lincoln, as well as paintings, busts, and sketches made of him from life. These are the images we use today in making Lincoln an icon and now, Reed claims, an idiom. Reed writes, “Increasingly…we commemorate Lincoln no longer for his extraordinariness, but for his sameness to ourselves…[he] is not only a mere mortal, but a mundane one at that! We no longer revere Lincoln as we relate to him.”
Reed states that it is not his intention to become the “Lincoln police,” despite his discussion of the more “illegible” uses of Lincoln’s image, where it is disconnected from the real person. Reed simply observes how the Lincoln image has been used. In the introduction he writes, “Lincoln’s persona has become an empty suit to be filled with all kinds of perversions.” His observations don’t leave out the unsavory usage of Lincoln imagery. This is an inclusive study. Reed states that “our understanding of his legacy [has] undergone an evolution.”
The book is divided into date segmented chapters. Each chapter records in a time line the history of how Lincoln’s image was used, celebrated, or displayed publicly. The author owns more than 4000 Lincoln collectibles. What’s pictured here comes from his and others’ collections and encompasses photographs, ephemera, patches, coins, comic books, books, illustrations, bronzes, magazine covers, and more. The Lincoln image and name appear on monuments, currency, stamps, postcards, trading cards, illustrations, engravings, movie stills, and buildings, and the list goes on. This book is a treasure-trove of Lincoln imagery, history, collectibles, and culture and a thoughtful commentary on the undying Lincoln image in the active American imagination.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest