Journal

Snow Snakes

07.22.2013

One of the more intriguing artifacts of northern Native Americans sports and game culture is a long wooden rod called a snow snake.  It is the only implement needed for the game of snow snakes, which has been played by Native men and boys for hundreds of years, and is still played in winter tournaments on some reservations.  Snow snakes are also beautiful sculptural objects – an 8’ long snow snake over a double door in our house always catches the eye of first-time visitors who also love to hold it and imagine how its smooth surface glides across the snow.

The techniques and rules of the game of snow snakes varied among tribes stretching across the vast regions of the country where there are snowy, frozen winters.  The shape of snow snakes also varied by region, with some being short and broad, while others, like the Iroquoian snakes we present here, being long and narrow.  (See Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Culin, a 1993 University of Nebraska Press reprint of an ethnographic tome originally published in 1907.)

 

two snow snakes

 

The object of the game is for players to see how far they can slide a snake across the snow, usually within a trough that has been built up and then grooved by dragging a log along its length. Players stand back then take several steps towards the beginning of the track – similar to a javelin thrower – while trying to maintain balance on slippery ground. They then throw or toss the snow snake into the track with an underhand motion (although Penobscots used an overhand toss when the snow was soft).  The challenge is to power the snake to slide a long distance without using so much force that it jumps the track and gets buried in the sidelines.

Experienced elders have attested to the difficulty of playing the game well, saying that the most successful players are those who began throwing as children. Recently, snakes thrown by the most skillful players have been recorded as traveling more than one mile in less than three minutes, at speeds clocked at 108 miles per hour in the first mile.

Teams of men play the game using the same track, and in some versions will stand their snake upright into the snow after a throw to mark the farthest point it reached. After a winner of each throw is declared, boys are sent to retrieve the snakes.  There are many variations of the methods and rules of the game (e.g., the number of men per team, how points are accumulated, and how many points constitute a win for a team), as well as variations in track design (e.g., tapering wall height, moguls, and drifts of powdered snow that the snake has to break through).

Some ceremonial aspects of the game have been documented as well.  In the 1940 book Penobscot Man, the anthropologist Frank Speck recounts chants and songs that Penobscots used to accompany a throw, with lyrics such as “Go quickly, my little snow snake, and catch the old woman (or the name of the opponent’s leading stick),” and incantations to the totem inscribed on one’s own snow snake such as:  “Frog, rush ahead and kill them.”

Just as with any piece of sports equipment, a snow snake is designed to maximize the chance of accomplishing the game’s objective.  An Iroquois snow snake is a long piece of wood – 6’ to 8’ – which typically started as a 1” block riven along the grain of a hardwood log such as maple, hickory or birch, and then carved and shaped into the form of an elongated snake with a slightly bulbous tip. The back end of the stick has a notch where the guiding index finger is placed during a throw, and the tip usually has an inlay of pewter.

snow snake pewter tips

The snakes are sanded and polished, sometimes decorated, and then coated with wax (or “medicine” as one Seneca snow snake maker calls it), the composition of which varies depending on snow conditions, and which is often made from secret recipes that are passed down through families.

The two snow snakes we are offering were acquired on the Cattaraugus Seneca Indian reservation and are signed by their owners.  The writing on the snakes is comprised of stippled dots incised with a sharp implement.  One snake is signed “Kelly Lay,” a Seneca Indian who lived at Cattaraugus from 1877-1940.

signed snow snake

The 1940 U.S. Census shows that he was the head of a household that included eight other people – his wife, five children, and two extended family members.  His snake is dated 1900 when he would have been 23 years old.  It also says “Newtown” which is a community within the reservation.

Newtown on snow snake

This snow snake also has two old repairs, a groove on the underside of the head that is colored with red pigment, and a pronounced notch on the back tip.

anow snake pigment

snow snake back end

The second snow snake bears the name “Boston Jim,” which is also written in stippled lettering.

Boston Jim snow snake

This was presumably the nickname of a Seneca man who had moved to or came from Boston, NY, a community that is less than 30 miles northeast of the Cattaraugus reserve.  This snake has some additional decoration – three red pigment dots and some line drawings, which might represent the owner’s totem or some other good luck spirit.

snow snake decoration

snow snake totem drawing

It also looks as though it was notched on the back tip, but the notch is smoothed somewhat with wear.

snow snake back end

Both snow snakes have protective pewter tips and bulbous heads.  A Chippewa man describing playing snow snakes as a child in 1928 explained that the thin tail end of the snake cut into the snow, ensuring that the broad leading head stayed on top. “Even if you goofed and threw it under the snow, it would crawl back up to the top,” he said.

 snow snake heads

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Emotional Design

07.22.2013

heartgraphweb

At this time of year we sometimes get feedback from customers who have settled into their summer homes and are living for the first time with things they purchased from us earlier in the year.  Happily, the comments are often sprinkled with the word “love,” which turns our musings this month towards exploring what it means to love an inanimate object such as a piece of furniture, and what elements go into stirring such strong positive emotion.

In his book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (New York:  Basic Books, 2004), Donald Norman, a computer and psychology professor who is also a consultant on designing human-centered products, analyzes what’s behind people’s emotional reactions to  viewing and using common objects such as tea kettles, wristwatches, and laptop computers.  He is mostly concerned with our reactions to utilitarian objects rather than to artistic creations such as paintings or photographs which more directly represent and invoke the human experience and related emotions.

Norman proposes three different levels of the brain at which an everyday object can evoke emotion.  The first level is Visceral – the immediacy of how something looks or feels, the symmetry of its lines and its aesthetic congruity.  Whether the physical appearance of an object strikes a person as pleasing or ugly will generate a corresponding emotional response.

The second level of the interaction between objects and emotions is Behavioral.  How well a gadget functions and whether it is pleasurable to interact with as we carry out a task can generate positive or negative emotions.  An interesting finding is that when we have a positive aesthetic response to something such as a technological device, it also becomes easier to use at the behavioral level. This is because positive emotions can actually sharpen our cognitive problem solving processes.

Appearance and function of an object are the two basic levels that designers need to get right – a product usually has to look good and work well to become popular.  Take an Old Hickory Morris chair, for example.

Old Hickory Morris chair

With its high back, multiple spindles, organic weave, and bark-on hickory frame it creates a composition that is a pleasure to look at, so is a success at the visceral level.   It also scores high points at the functional/behavioral level, with a wide seat, a back that adjusts to different angles, and a footstool for ergonomic comfort.

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Hand-Painted Tourists Sign

06.26.2013

Tourists sign

Although we all use the term “tourist” regularly, whether referring to ourselves on holiday or to hordes of vacationers invading our home towns, it is not so common to see signs on modern roadside establishments beckoning specifically to tourists.  In contrast, during the 1920s through the 1940s, beginning just after automobiles became ubiquitous among middle class families and highways were being established and improved, the word “tourist” was used to lure burgeoning road traffic into lodging establishments, gift shops, restaurants and dubious roadside attractions all across the country.

Tourist sign in Florida

Florida, 1941, U.S. National Archives

It is not surprising then, that most of the vintage tourists signs we acquire date from the 1920s-1940s.  The framed tourist sign that we have for sale (shown below) was made in the 1920s and came from the Catskills region of New York.  It was most likely attached to the top of another sign, as the legs are long enough to hold it aloft, but are not long (or rotted) enough to indicate that they were posted in the ground.

Tourists sign

This vintage photo taken in Louisiana shows the technique of layering signs to create the special effect of a place that gives you a lot for your time and money, making it irresistible for a traveler to pass by.

Signs in Louisiana

Louisiana, 1940, U.S. National Archives

Since running water, hot water, bathrooms, showers, heat and electricity could not to be taken for granted by tourists, these modern amenities merited special emphasis on road signs, whether layered as multiple signs, or painted all on the same sign.

Tourist signs

1938 in Ohio and 1940 in Maryland. U.S. National Archives.

While a lot of vintage tourist signs are simply painted in black and white, the one we are offering has multiple colors – green, ochre, red and black – which is not so common.

Tourists sign

The shadowed letters, arched word presentation, and flourish beneath the center indicate that this might have been created by a professional sign painter, although there is no signature.

Tourists sign

This sign is also double-sided and was definitely used outdoors, with the side that was presumably more exposed to harsh prevailing winds and driving rain being more weathered.

Tourists sign

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Treasures of a Rustic Summer Colony

06.26.2013

Lookout tower at Sprucewold

Summer colonies exist all across the country, usually situated on a fabulous tract of land near a lake, mountain or seaside. Unlike a resort community (Lake Tahoe, Jackson Hole, Myrtle Beach) that is a regular municipality whose natural assets are available to tourists and local residents alike, a summer colony is much smaller, and occupied primarily by its owners and their guests. Usually some lands or resources are held in common and some form of a property owners’ association provides common governance and services.

We recently had an opportunity to visit an historic summer colony in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, which is not far from our gallery. Called Sprucewold, this colony is of particular interest because it was founded nearly 100 years ago as a rustic summer colony, an identity it still maintains.* The visit also unexpectedly helped us link something in Sprucewold’s past to something in our own present.

Sprucewold porch

Sprucewold’s origins go back to 1888 when a local land development company acquired land on thickly forested Spruce Point on Linekin Bay in the Gulf of Maine, and drew up the following plan for dividing it into individual lots.

spruceplanweb

But the land was not actually developed until a series of further land acquisitions, transfers, partnerships and mergers led local businessmen to begin building on their holdings in 1912.  Water, electricity and road improvements were introduced in the early 1920s, and by 1922 some of the original developers began renting cabins. A lodge was built in 1925-26 and announced to potential guests that it offered “all the pleasures of primitive living with none of the penalties.”

Sprucewold brochure

Most of the people who visited and eventually bought or built cabins at Sprucewold were from cities and suburbs south of Maine – Philadelphia, New York, Boston and the like – taking trains, boats and ferries to get to the peninsula before cars were common.

Linekin Bay ferry

Men would make the long journey on weekends while their wives and children stayed in residence for the summer.  By 1930 there were 60 cabins plus the lodge, all united by private roads, paths and ocean frontage.  After a period of decline during the Great Depression, building picked up again to complete the log cabin community in the following decades.

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Rustic Garden Structures

05.23.2013

During the height of garden preparations here in the Northeast, we are thinking about rustic garden structures.  Only once have we had large antique rustic twig garden ornaments for sale.  It was a pair of 8’ high twig obelisks that we assumed had lived inside a conservatory, as they were still intact at 80 or more years of age.  We took them to a show a few days after finding them, and they sold during set-up to a patron of the show who was given early preview privileges.  We didn’t even have a chance to take pictures of them before they sold, but they were similar to these gate posts made by the Dixie Wood Company, circa 1920:

rustci obelisks

We agreed to deliver them to the buyer’s home before the show started.  Having heard about her legendary gardens, we expected to see the seventy-something year old lady wearing kid gloves, assiduously tending her rose bushes.  Much to our surprise what we saw instead was a legion of garden workers, including a full-time head gardener with a half-dozen minions. The gardens were gorgeous, but the experience helped to put into perspective what it takes to construct and maintain such beautiful private gardens – a good reality check as we design and labor in our own home gardens.  The obelisks fit in exactly where she had envisioned placing them, so it was a pleasure to leave them behind in such a glorious place.

It is not surprising that old twig garden structures do not often appear on the market – either they were permanently installed and too big to relocate, or more likely, have rotted away.  Yet decorative rustic garden structures have been ubiquitous for over a century.  These two circa 1875-1880 tintypes (jcosmasvintage.tumblr.com) reflect their popularity, as photographers used them as props to add a bit of rustic allure to studio portraits.

tintype with rustic gate

tintype portrait with rustic gate

A few decades after these images were taken, hickory furniture companies started to manufacture rustic garden structures along with rustic furniture. The 1914 Old Hickory Chair Company catalog advertised a variety of forms including bridges, fences, gazebos and pergolas, as seen in these pages:

Old Hickory fencesOld Hickory gazebos

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Canoeing Lithograph on Linen

05.23.2013

canoepill1

Illustrations of well-dressed ladies enjoying genteel sports, such as this lithograph on linen, accompanied a rise in popularity of sports participation among women during the final third of the 19th century.  After the Civil War elite women in the U.S., who had more time and energy for leisure pursuits than working-class women, began to participate more actively in croquet, archery, and tennis.

In the 1880s and 1890s upper-class women increasingly explored other physical sports such as horseback riding, bowling, rowing, canoeing, yachting, and skating.  Towards the end of the century, as the growing demand for female emancipation was leading up to the acquisition of voting rights for women, even bicycling and golf became possible pursuits for women.  (For additional historical details see “Women, sport and exercise in the 19th century” by Patricia Vertinsky in Women & Sport – Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by D. M. Costa  & S. Guthrie, 1994).

closeup canoeing image on linen

This lithograph captures the spirit of the sporting woman at the turn of the 20th century.  She resembles a “Gibson Girl,” a stereotyped look popularized by the magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson from 1890 through about 1910.  Like the woman in this lithograph, Gibson Girls were always impeccably dressed, attractive, confident, and somewhat athletic (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibson_Girl).  Similarly, this woman with her hair piled high, an hour-glass figure and fashionable clothing, projects enough confidence to steer her own boat, while still conveying appropriate social respectability.

We framed this print in a circa 1900 gold bead lined oak frame (~ 27” square) befitting its time period.

period oak frame

We have had several similar woman sporting pillow covers over the years which were likewise kept in storage or framed and never made into pillows.  The following examples help put into context the one in our current inventory for anyone considering starting a collection or simply interested in knowing more about this genre.

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Super Cool Aquaplane

04.29.2013

Arro-PlaneAnyone lucky enough to have grown up recreating on a freshwater lake may recognize this form of vintage water sports equipment.  It is a wooden aquaplane dating from circa 1930-40.

An aquaplane is “a board ridden by a standing person and pulled by a motorboat for entertainment” (www.lexic.us). This “Arro-Plane” was probably made by a water ski manufacturer, and has fantastic graphic appeal – painted with a long arrow shape that is crowned with an Indian head (think arrowhead) in strong red, white and blue colors.  The condition of the paint decoration with minor scuffs and wear indicates that the board must not have been used much.  In addition to being a cool piece of vintage sports equipment, this board has all of the attributes that are desirable in vintage trade signs.

Arroplane decoration

It is 71” long x 24” wide x 2” thick, and is quite heavy – about 35 pounds.

Thickness of arroplane

A rope harness would have been attached to the two side rings, and then a tow rope would have extended from the front of the aquaplane to the back of a motor boat.  The light blue patches near the back of the board are sand-painted to provide grip for wet feet.

Arroplane grips

This following rather comical vintage illustration shows aquaplaning technique during a thrilling ride behind what looks to be about a ten horse-power motor.

http://descowaterskis.com/desco_aquaplanes.htm

http://descowaterskis.com/desco_aquaplanes.htm

We also found a few 1924 vintage photos of aquaplane athletes that show the basic technique of board riding, as well as some fancier tricks.

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Travelogue

04.29.2013

Most antiques dealers do business in a variety of ways, including hitting the road to sell their wares in larger markets than they can find at home.  We do several big antiques shows each year, but our annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden Antiques and Garden Fair is the longest journey we make.  In April we captured some aspects of our trip in photos, and share them here to paint a portrait of a few weeks in the business lives of antiques dealers.

truck ready for loading

We once owned our own box truck, but since it moved on to greener pastures we have found it easier to rent.  Once we have the truck, our next step in getting to an out-of-town show is to pack up all of the antiques chosen for the journey.  Jeff is an experienced packer, knowing through trial and error how to 1) pack to prevent shifting and damage en route, and 2) see goods as geometric puzzle pieces that can be optimally arranged to conserve space and maximize the load.  It is not unusual for loading to occur in adverse conditions – on this packing day, rain, sleet and freezing temperatures outside our gallery in Damariscotta made things a bit trying.

 packed truck

Once the truck is loaded, we leave a few days early in order to stop at several targeted antiques shops along the way.

 travel3

Jeff loads one of our purchases onto the truck.

 loading a table

 

We also broke up the trip by diverting from major highways occasionally, finding scenes like this in rural Indiana more pleasant than endless asphalt with six lanes of traffic.

 travel5

A homey welcome from friends in the Midwest warmed our hearts and provided a welcome break from the sterile environments of chain motels.

travel6

Upon arrival at the Garden on the morning of set-up, we lined up to wait for our turn to be directed to our load-in location.

travel7

The Botanic Garden is a beautiful location for a show, but getting large vehicles safely along the network of interior garden roads and pathways to the tents presents logistical challenges which Stella Show Management handles admirably.  Some of their logistical people are full-time New York City fire fighters who take vacation time to moonlight with Stella.  They know how to back up trucks in tight spots, and remain calmly assertive in “crisis” (i.e., when accosted by dealers who are unhappy with long waits in line and long walks to their booths with heavy goods).

 

Once parked, we quickly check out our booth location, and find it ready and waiting to be filled.

 

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Decorated Birch Bark Container

03.21.2013

Sabattis Tomah birch bark wastebasket

This cylindrical container decorated with canoeing, hunting and camping images was made in the early 1900s by Sabattis Tomah, a Maine Passamaquoddy Indian who was the only son of Passamaquoddy chief and renowned birch bark artist Tomah Joseph (1837-1914).  Sabattis borrowed artistic birch bark techniques, themes and forms from his father, whose work is well-documented in the 1993 exhibition catalog History on Birchbark:  The Art of Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy by Joan A. Lester.

Book about Tomah Joseph

The bark of the white birch tree has been an important element of the material culture of Northern Woodlands Indian tribes since long before their contact with Europeans.  It was used for making such life essentials as wigwams, canoes, storage vessels, and even cooking pots. (As maple sugaring is in full swing here in New England, it is amazing to think that Woodlands tribes could make maple syrup by boiling sap with hot rocks added to sap-filled birch bark containers).

When birch bark was used as a raw material for making utilitarian goods, the flakey outer bark of the white birch tree was turned to the inside, while the interior bark formed the exterior of the object.

Birch bark wastebasket interior

This material is not only strong, pliable and water resistant, but the inner bark also makes an ideal canvas for decoration when harvested in the winter because that is when it has a solid maroon-brown rind.  When that darker rind is etched away, the inscribed design appears in the lighter bark layer just beneath it.

Design etched on birch bark

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Antiques Dealers as Sleuths in Fiction and Fact

03.21.2013

In a sense, all antiques dealers are sleuths. A detective’s sensibility is required to be successful in the concrete enterprise of finding valuable old goods, as well as for the less tangible task of seeking the story behind an object, whether researching its particular provenance or just the historical context of the time and place in which it was made and used.

But one local antiques dealer here in Maine has taken things a step further by inventing a fictional alter ego – an antiques dealer who solves mysteries of the true-crime variety.  Like the author, Lea Wait, the protagonist of her “Shadows” mystery series is a dealer in antique prints.  The latest installment in the series, Shadows of a Down East Summer, finds 38-year old Maggie Summer taking an August vacation with her boyfriend (also an antiques dealer) at the home of his 91-year old aunt in the charming coastal Maine town of Waymouth, which is purely imagined, but strikingly similar to our own home base of Damariscotta.

Shadows of a Down East Summer book cover

The story interweaves some true historical details of the late 19th century life of the artist Winslow Homer at his studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine with a fictional crime spree in a modern-day small town. It intersperses excerpts from an invented 1890 journal of a young woman who posed with a friend for Homer while he sketched at the rocky shore.

The Bathers, wood engraving by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, 1873

As the story progresses, we discover that this artist model’s descendants live in Waymouth, setting the stage for old family secrets and new family greed to result in theft and a murder.  Maggie helps solve these crimes by using her antiques dealer-honed skills, such as recognizing stolen paintings at an auction preview, and finding and interpreting primary historical documents.

Some aspects of the story involving the antiques business are realistic, and some not so much.  Maggie is a full-time professor and a part-time antiques dealer, which would be hard to pull off successfully in real life.  But a chapter about Maggie helping her boyfriend set up at an outdoor antiques show in a rain storm, trying to save his merchandise from damage while bemoaning the lack of customers and sales on such a filthy day, rings quite true.

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