Reviews / Comptes rendus - Kenneth L. Ames and Gerald W.R. Ward, eds., Decorative Arts and Household Furnishing in America, 1650-1920: An Annotated Bibliography

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Kenneth L. Ames and Gerald W.R. Ward, eds., Decorative Arts and Household Furnishing in America, 1650-1920: An Annotated Bibliography

Scott Robson
Nova Scotia Museum
Kenneth L. Ames and Gerald W. R. Ward, editors. Decorative Arts and Household Furnishings in America, 1650-1920: An Annotated Bibliography. Winterthur, Delaware: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1989. Distributed by The University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. 392 pp. Cloth US $60, ISBN 0-912724-19-6.

1 Here is an entire library at your disposal, in a single volume, a library of the best books on a wide range of subjects related to the study of material culture in America, a library to serve specialists related to the study of material culture in America, a library to serve specialists or generalists in a good portion of the museum community, in large or small institutions. It should also reach a wider public through the reference services of general interest libraries.

2 Twenty-two experts have read thousands of books and articles to select those presented here — there must be over 1300 titles. This is the museum curator's "wish-list." Each contributor could have written, "If you can get only x-number of books on this subject, these are the ones I have found most useful." While it is of course an imaginary library (in that none of our libraries will contain all the titles), it is also almost a reality. Supplied with title, author's name and other details (and a very good idea of the content), an enquirer can gain access to any work — if a book cannot be bought, it could be borrowed.

3 When I visit a new city, I like to explore the systems and holdings of major libraries, usually by checking a familiar subject. Readers of this book will surely do the same, beginning with known tides, finding some not previously encountered, and moving on to related fields.

4 In this book, this "library," you may begin by reading the summary of a familiar work, to judge whether the annotation captures the important aspects of the text in a few sentences. Once drawn in, you may find it hard to stop. It is the annotations for every title which make this such a useful tool. Although commentaries are written in rather detached professional style, the contributor of each essay and book list is there to take you by the arm and walk with you, to point out major landmarks and important mileposts (and to indicate some pitfalls) among their favourite books. This is rather like the luxury of viewing an exhibition with its curator, a treat of working in the museum field that I treasure. The enthusiasm of discovery, observation, comparison, research, evaluation and presentation is infectious and energizing. You may view the exhibition or books by yourself, of course, but you also have the benefit of untold hours of work by a dedicated researcher/reader.

5 This bibliography follows on The Arts in Early American History by Walter Muir Whitehill, Wendell D. Garrett and Jane N. Garrett, published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, at Williamsburg, Virginia (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), Arts in America, edited by Bernard Karpel (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), and others.

6 The essay by Kenneth L. Ames is not only an introduction to the whole project and to the chapters by the contributors, but also to the state of publishing in the field of material culture, with his observations on changes in scholarship in recent years. Some fields have grown rapidly while others have not seen benefit of renewed interest, study and reconsideration. The editor explains the intent of the project, in part:

This bibliography provides access and orientation to the study of household furnishings used in the United States from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. It is designed for use by the general public, collectors, college and university students at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels, the scholarly community, and librarians and other staff at a variety of cultural institutions. Users willfindthis volume simultaneously records the most prominent scholarship on historic household furnishings and offers opportunities for critical reflection on that scholarship ... This is essentially a bibliography of the material culture of domestic life. The emphasis is on goods used within American homes.

Ames then describes the limitations that were necessary in order to make the project manageable. In any such effort, it would not be possible to include all topics. For instance, titles relating to the fine arts or to native peoples are well documented elsewhere. While a familiar book or special subject may not appear, there is certainly more than adequate compensation.

7 Each of the 21 chapters is introduced by a short essay which analyses the entries and places them in various contexts, a very readable preparation to the field of study. Many contributors are curators, assistant curators, or registrars at major museums; others are university professors; a few are independent scholars with experience in a special subject area. Some are also authors of major works themselves, so their introductory comments were developed from extensive experience indeed.

8 The chapters are arranged, as is most writing in the field, by material or by function:

References and Surveys
"Basic References and Guides to Research," Neville Thompson
"Surveys," Kenneth L. Ames and Barbara G. Carson
"Domestic Architecture," David Schuyler
"American Furniture to 1820," Barbara McLean Ward and Gerald W. R. Ward
"American Furniture, 1820-1920," Kenneth L. Ames
"American Silver and Gold," Barbara McLean Ward and Gerald W. R. Ward
"Pewter and Britannia Metal," Barbara McLean Ward
"Brass, Copper, Iron, and Tin," Deborah A. Federhen
Ceramics and Glass
"American Ceramics," Ellen Paul Denker
"Continental and Oriental Ceramics in America," Ellen Paul Denker
"English Ceramics in America," George L. Miller and Ann Smart Martin
"American Glass," Kirk Nelson
"Floor Coverings," Rodris Roth
"Needlework," Susan Burrows Swan
"Quilts," Susan Roach-Lankford
"Textiles," Adrienne D. Hood
"Clocks and Watches," Thomas S. Michie
Household Activities and Systems
"Kitchen Artifacts and Housework," Donna R. Braden
"Plumbing, Heating, and Lighting," Ulysses Grant Dietz
Artisans and Culture
"Craftsmen," Edward S. Cooke, Jr.
"The Arts and Crafts Movement in America," Cheryl A. Robertson, with contributions by Thomas Beckman and Robert L. Edwards

9 These chapters present not only the latest published scholarship, but also the older foundation stones for our "library." Even such a fine bibliography will inevitably drop behind the times, but with the titles of so many standard reference works (some "the bible" on the subject), this book should serve for many years. It should also guide us to improve our own libraries, whether specialized or general.

10 You may find a few slightly inaccurate tides or dates. With such an ambitious project, such slips are almost assured. It may also be that editions we see here in Canada are different from those listed. Ames points out that "references to Canadian and Mexican materials are deliberately limited." Even so, some excellent Canadian material is listed along with the best in the American field; some of my favourite titles do appear.

11 There is an index to all tides and authors of works listed. Unfortunately there is no index by subject keywords (a massive undertaking since many works deal with a magnitude of subjects and terms), but as the chapters are divided along general subject areas, material can be located in the most likely place; in some cases, a title appears in more than one section.

12 As a museum generalist, I welcome this compilation by specialists. We often naturally, and appropriately, turn to the United States for this sort of information. It cannot be called a shortcoming of this bibliography that Canadian tides are limited, or that British or French titles do not appear. Given such a wealth of American resource material, we should now be pressed to examine our own resources more, promoting the published research on Canadian subjects to the Canadian museum community. We could benefit from a parallel listing of Canadian titles, slight though that might be in many subject areas. However, any researcher here would be well advised to begin with a chapter of the bibliography, then to search for what is available in the Canadian field, the British, and (especially for eighteenth-century work) the French.