The Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages

formerly The Museums at Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY



Improving the Past: The Colonial Revival on Long Island


America's nostalgia for its colonial past is the focus of Improving the Past: The Colonial Revival on Long Island, opening May 12 and continuing through November 4, 2001 at The Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages. A pervasive cultural movement glorifying the nation's colonial heritage, the Colonial Revival has influenced art, architecture and the decorative arts, and impacted our understanding of history. Beginning with the movement's roots in the 1840s and continuing through the present, the exhibition looks at the Colonial Revival in the context of Long Island and features paintings, prints, textiles, furniture and other artifacts from such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and Winterthur Museum, as well as from the collection of The Long Island Museum. (left: Wainscot Chair sat on by George Washington in 1790, Huntington, c. 1720, Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del.)

"All societies selectively glorify certain aspects of their past while neglecting others. We're asking why that happened here on Long Island and exploring this story through some beautiful artifacts," notes exhibition curator Joshua Ruff.

A fluid and persistent stream in United States history, the Colonial Revival has helped people cope with the massive changes of modernization by providing a comforting sense of tradition. For many writers, artists, architects and other American tastemakers, the "colonial" conjures comfort and a sense of stability in the face of transition. Popular publications from the 1890s to the 1920s suggested that a "modern" home could reach the pinnacle of domestic ideals through colonial decorative touches. A look at such "colonialized" interiors on Long Island, including Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill, is one part of the exhibition. (right: Lemuel Maynard Wiles, Home Sweet Home, 1886, oil on canvas, Guild Hall, Inc. East Hampton, N. Y.)

In the early 20th century, advertisers found the appeal of "colonial" imagery - spinning wheels, historic furniture patterns, and heroic icons such as George Washington - central to the promotion and sale of products in a new consumer culture. Some companies directly encouraged this trend by marketing Colonial Revival pattern reproductions. Improving the Past considers several such businesses centered on Long Island, including the furniture-making Company of Master Craftsmen in Flushing (1926-1942) and the Alvin Silver Company of Sag Harbor (c.1900-1917).

The phenomenon of antique collecting gained momentum in the early 20th century as the nation's wealthy pursued early American decorative arts. Assembling some of their finest treasures, Improving the Past examines three collectors at the forefront of this trend in the 1920s and 1930s: Bertha Benkard of Oyster Bay, Emily de Forest of Cold Spring Harbor, and Henry Francis du Pont, whose Chestertown House in Southampton was a laboratory for ideas that would later come to fruition at his Winterthur Museum in Delaware. (left: Henry Mosler, Pilgrims' Grace, 1897, oil on canvas, Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Penn)

Architecture is an important expression of the Colonial Revival - both the antiquated structures that began to receive attention in the late 1800s and the neo-colonial buildings that simultaneously became a dominant form. Works depicting important Long Island historic sites, such as Edward Lamson Henry's Old Hook Mill, East Hampton and Childe Hassam's Guild Hall and Old Mulford House, illustrate the growing intrigue with vernacular buildings. Wealthy clients favored styles based on famous Colonial American structures such as Mount Vernon or Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Beginning in the 1940s, the architectural impact of the Colonial Revival architecture was widespread, as real estate developers met the tradition-conscious demands of clients throughout Long Island, from Stony Brook village's faux-Colonial shopping center to Levittown's hundreds of houses based on the Cape Cod cottage.

Improving the Past is organized by The Long Island Museum and curated by Joshua Ruff, the F. Henry Berlin History Curator at the museum. William Ayres, Director of Collections and Interpretation, is overall project director.

Following is selected text from the wall panels of the exhibition which discusses each section of the exhibition:


Improving the Past: The Colonial Revival on Long Island

Colonial Revival is a term coined to describe an essentially conservative movement in American culture that uses and adapts themes and motifs from the nation's Colonial past. Throughout its history, the Colonial Revival has informed American styles, shaped popular historical perspectives, and interpreted developments in the present to prescribe directions for the country's future. Although the movement had its roots in the Revolutionary War nostalgia of the early American republic, it gained momentum and flourished after the Civil War and the following periods of alternating industrial expansion and economic depressions-national strains that called for a sweeping nostalgic and patriotic cure.

In the effort to reach a consensus on the American past, to make it understandable and to apply to everyone, the complexity of early American history was reduced to a simple, linear explanation, a series of inspirational moral tableaux. This highly accessible version of the past provided a roadmap for negotiating the difficulties of modern life. Colonial heritage became intertwined with contemporary desires such as affordable housing, comfortable home furnishings, family stability, controlled immigration, compatible industrial development, and attractive landscapes. National, regional and local legends, organizations and commemorations, domestic and public architecture, and fine and decorative arts all exemplified the selective process.

The Colonial Revival reached different areas of the nation at different times, for different reasons. This exhibition examines how the Colonial past has been utilized to cope with the changing present on Long Island. Here, the movement was at its strongest from 1870 to 1950, when the area went from a collection of insular agricultural and maritime villages to a region recognized nationally for its vast country estates and for its suburban developments. But despite these rapid and drastic changes on Long Island, prevailing styles looked not to the futuristic principles of modernism but rather to an idealized past-a history of heroes, town-meeting democracy, hand craftsmanship, and seemingly simpler times. If Long Islanders could feel more strongly connected to at least some aspects of their supposed collective past, it seems, they could be comfortable abandoning others.

While enthusiasm for the Colonial past may seem more muted today than in the early twentieth century, we can still see the ongoing embrace of things "Colonial," from the furniture in our living rooms to neighborhood architecture. The Colonial Revival continues to inform and mediate the complex relationship between past and present.


The Past for Present's Sake: The Colonial Revival in America

All nations look to the past in order to deal with the present, and the United States is no exception. Faced with a series of dramatic changes by the 1850s-exploding urban and industrial growth, increased immigration, and an ever-expanding frontier - Americans began looking to their ancestors for inspiration and guidance. Long Island painter William Sidney Mount illustrated this trend with his Rev. Zachariah Greene and His Great-Grandchildren (1852), in which an old man ponders his heroic past as he gazes at the visage of George Washington, while his descendants, the embodiments of the nation's future, look toward him. Other signs that America was increasingly taking an active interest in its past, such as the restoration of Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, and his military headquarters at Newburgh, as well as the outcry over the destruction of John Hancock's Boston home, also occurred in the 1850s and early 1860s.

The Civil War pushed the nation closer toward a consuming passion for early Americana. To aid the war effort in 1863 and 1864, the United States Sanitary Commission sponsored fairs throughout the Northeast. One of the best attended events at these fairs was the New England Kitchen, filled with quintessential symbols of Colonial times, such as spinning wheels, "a tall clock sedately ticking in the corner," pewter, and old china. Facing the ravages of a bloody war, fairgoers could find comfort and reassurance from these idealizations and attempted reconstructions of days gone by.

But it was America's 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that propelled the Colonial Revival into its full-blown form. It would further surge after the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Americans could view historical displays and buildings modeled after Mount Vernon, Independence Hall, and the John Hancock House. American architects were important participants in the movement, often studying sketchbooks of picturesque old houses and old construction techniques. By the 1880s and the 1890s artists such as Edward Lamson Henry and F. Childe Hassam were also attempting to capture the spirit of the past in their work

Resistance to immigration and America's increasing ethnic diversity was another side of the Colonial Revival phenomenon. National organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution, which glorified the Revolutionary past and limited their membership according to traceable early American ancestry, were formed in the 1890s. While "foreigners" were barred from such organizations, they were at the same time condescendingly taught that embracing Colonial architecture and history could help them assimilate into American society.

In the early twentieth century, the nation was flooded with publications on interior decoration that promoted the Colonial style through antiques and a growing market of reproductions. The most prominent Colonial Revivalist was Wallace Nutting, a former Congregational minister who now brought his evangelic fervor to replicating early Americana. Nutting sold popular hand-tinted photographs of staged Colonial domestic scenes and reproduced early American furniture for a massive middle-class audience. By the 1920s, the Colonial Revival was thoroughly absorbed into contemporary American life, an idiom extending across all class and geographic lines.


Charting the Colonial Revival

1858 - Restoration of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, begins

1861 - Beginning of the American Civil War

1863 - New England Kitchen displays, Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair

1876 - Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, which hosted historical exhibits on early America

1891 - Alice Morse Earle publishes The Sabbath in Puritan New England, one of the most popular non-fiction books devoted to life in Colonial times

1892 - Ellis Island opens and becomes the port of entry to American immigrants

1893 - World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, which featured state exhibit buildings based on Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, and the John Hancock House in Boston

1903 - Architects McKim, Mead & White complete the James L. Breese House, modeled after Mount Vernon, in Southampton

1914 - World War I begins in Europe

1917 - Entrepreneur Wallace Nutting starts reproducing "furniture used by our ancestors"

1919 - Artist F. Childe Hassam moves to East Hampton, the source of many nostalgic works in the last years of his life

1924 - American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens

1926 - Wealthy collector Henry Francis du Pont completes his Colonial-modeled Chestertown House, Southampton

1932 - Colonial Williamsburg opens to the public in Virginia

1940 - Businessman Ward Melville and architect Richard Smythe begin renovating Stony Brook into a "Colonial village"

1947 - Levittown is completed, further solidifying the Colonial Cape Cod as a popular style for suburban houses


The Past Inside: The Colonial Revival and Domestic Life on Long Island

Once within, a hundred or more years fall away. . . . In all the Colonial treasure gathered to rehabilitate the place, there is nothing to mar the sentiment nor offend the taste.

American Homes and Gardens, 1913, on the Home Sweet Home House, East Hampton

A central characteristic of the Colonial Revival was its tendency to idealize early American domestic life and household styles. Longstanding family and gender roles had proved vulnerable to the effects of industrialization and war; a traditionally furnished home offered its occupants at least the appearance of stability. As a result, objects such as spinning wheels, quilts, grandfather clocks, and old family chairs were transformed from dusty relics to integral parts of an old-fashioned-looking, but functionally modern, interior. Similar to many people in the rest of the country, Long Islanders by the 1890s were eagerly gathering and assembling previously discarded items-now risen in status to "antiques"-following the suggestions of such popular authors and respected decorating authorities as Clarence Cook and Alice Morse Earle.

Femininity was at the heart of this traditional domesticity, especially on Long Island, then in the midst of changing from a rural society to a middle-class residential culture. To many, women of the late nineteenth century represented the historical continuity of pre-industrial America, since many led home-centered lives as their mothers and grandmothers had before them. Evelina Mount captured this in her late-nineteenth-century painting of a Colonial tableau of a woman working in the Mount family homestead's kitchen. A photograph of a Southampton Colonial Society exhibit from 1900 pictures two generations of women in historical clothing surrounded by venerable objects that, the image infers, gave meaning to their lives and to the lives of their ancestors.

Meanwhile, American artists such as F. Childe Hassam and Henry Mosler found historic elements in Long Island domestic interiors worth capturing on their canvases. The source of their inspiration, East Hampton, with its wide main street and old elm trees was also the location of the paragon of nineteenth-century domestic virtue, the John Howard Payne House, or "Home Sweet Home." Payne's sentimental song of the same title had pulled at American heartstrings throughout the nineteenth century, and his former home was fittingly refurbished along Colonial Revival standards in the early 1900s. Another famous Long Islander, President Theodore Roosevelt, sought a traditional interior by fitting his Oyster Bay family home with Colonial Revival reproduction furniture. Famous or not, Long Islanders could steep themselves in the past without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.


Symbols of Taste and Refinement: Collecting Colonial Antiques on Long Island

I know of no institution that contains such specimens of early Americana as your beautiful home holds today.

Thomas B. Parker, Letter to Henry Francis du Pont, Southampton, Long Island, 1926

By the 1920s, many wealthy collectors in the United States were turning their devotions away from European antiques to those with an American origin. For example, both the Wells family, who would later establish Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, had begun to collect American folk art by the 1920s.

Nationally, the arrival of publications such as The Magazine Antiques in 1922 and the opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924 inspired collectors everywhere to seek out early American furniture, silver, ceramics, and the like. Treasures could be acquired by many means, as one collector related: "during my brief stay in New England I drove . . . in the oldest settled regions among the isolated farms, where I searched the forsaken corners of attics, cellars, and barns, with gratifying results."

Several nationally prominent collectors lived at least part of the year on Long Island and found the perfect settings for their acquisitions here. Emily Johnston de Forest filled her Colonial Revival country house "Wawapek," in Cold Spring Harbor, with colorful Pennsylvania German artifacts; many of which were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and became the basis of its Pennsylvania German galleries. Bertha King Benkard of Oyster Bay devoted special attention to New York furniture, and prime examples are now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. Henry Francis du Pont was the most prodigious collector of the three and his holdings would later form the basis of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Du Pont's Chestertown House, his Colonial Revival estate by the sea in Southampton, became an elaborate and striking stage for his fine collection of ceramics, early American textiles, and an impressive variety of furniture styles.


Selling Colonial: Marketing the Colonial Revival on Long Island

The 'William Penn' pattern is a design of old colonial style and the significance of the name was the fulfillment of a definite purpose. . .. Besides the sentiment of ancestral association, the 'William Penn' carries with it good taste. . . .

Alvin Silver Manufacturing Company trade catalog, 1905

By the early 1900s, the Colonial Revival had made its mark on the design and craftsmanship of many new products enjoyed by the public at large. Thanks to advances in distribution and advertising, a rapidly expanding consumer culture eagerly embraced mass-marketed Colonial styles and references. In 1890, food manufacturers Bennett and Sloan began selling canned foods with the brand names "Pilgrim" and "Old Homestead." Similarly, the furniture, silver, and interior decoration industries used flexible old-fashioned prototypes to produce new products.

On Long Island, the Company of Master Craftsmen (1925-1942), a subsidiary of W. & J. Sloane, made Colonial style furniture from their Georgian-cupolaed factory in Flushing. The company worked closely with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing, reproducing rare pieces from the collection to decorate the offices of the rich and powerful, including the president of the New York Stock Exchange.

Further east, the Alvin Silver Manufacturing Company arrived in Sag Harbor in 1895 from New Jersey, and began creating popular silverware based on historical patterns. Its flatware lines such as the "William Penn," "George Washington," and "Molly Stark" were advertised in national publications. But the company's profitable Colonial reproductions brought it in direct competition with the prominent Gorham Company of Providence, which purchased Alvin in 1928.

rev. 5/31/01

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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