Rustic Garden Structures


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 ( 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



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 (  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


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” ( 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.

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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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.


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.


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


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.


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


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


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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Figural Crooked Knife


(click photo to enlarge)

Crooked knives are multi-purpose tools that were made and used by Woodlands Indians as early as the 1600s.  They were documented by explorers, traders and missionaries as one of the most essential tools of “the Man of the North.”  Woodlands tribes include those in the Northeast (Maine and the Maritime Provinces) such as Micmac, Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and those in the Eastern, Central and Western Great Lakes regions such as Iroquois, Huron, Cree, and Chippewa.

The circa 1880 Northeastern Woodlands Indian crooked knife pictured here has a handle carved in the shape of a curled human hand, exemplifying the blend of function and artistic expression that elevates embellished crooked knives beyond the status of an everyday tool.

An excellent book, “Mocotaugan:  The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife” (2003) by Russell Jalbert & Ned Jalbert (available as a pdf at, describes the crooked knife being used for everything from making wood shavings for fire starter to shaping ax handles, wigwam poles, storage vessel, snow shoes, canoe paddles, and birch bark canoes.  The unique angle at which the blade is set into the handle earned this knife the name “crooked.”   The blade is positioned so that the grip can be grasped with the thumb placed under the handle, allowing for a powerful stroke as the knife is drawn across wood towards the body.

Indians were adept at recycling useful materials, and often repurposed steel from a straight razor or a file to serve as the knife blade.  In our example, the knife is secured to the handle with a harness of inlaid lead or pewter, but often blades are held with leather or wire wrap.

Not all crooked knives were elaborately carved.  Utilitarian knives with simple handles would have been among the several crooked knives a woodsman typically owned.  This unpublished photo from circa 1880 of a group of Cree Indians in Quebec shows three men (sitting at far right, sitting center front, standing in back near the tent opening) using their everyday crooked knives to shape canoe paddles.

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Pinning Antiques


We have been surprised how often our online research leads to images of antiques posted on Pinterest, one of the fastest growing social networking sites on the internet.  Pinterest is a photo-sharing website on which users post and manage photos within categories that they create on their own pages, which are called “pinboards.” The categories reflect the personal interests of the page creator, and often are organized along themes such as hobbies, travel, cooking, fashion and decorating.  Users can browse the images on other pinboards for inspiration and ideas, and then re-pin images to their own page, thus creating a network of users with similar interests.

As is true with all social networking sites one thing leads to another, so when we’ve found one image of an antique on a pinboard it often leads to finding other similar images.  A case in point is discovering images of vintage lodging signs that recently sold at Garth’s auction.  This Round Top Inn sign sold for $3,819 at their auction in January 2013, and also appeared on a person’s Pinterest pinboard (

Other images of vintage signs from the same auction appeared on another pinboard (, such as this tourist lodging that sign that sold for $2,115,


and this Riverside Hotel sign sold that for $4,700.

Both pinboards on which these signs appeared display collections of images representing the pinners’ interests and favorite aesthetics.

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Vintage Canoeing Photograph


What motivates people to buy an antique photo? Serious photography collectors of course, seek high-value photos with historical or artistic significance due to the scene or person captured, the early photographic and printing methods used, or the photographer’s notoriety.

But people who are not specifically photography collectors are also drawn to vintage photographs for a variety of reasons.  These include attraction to the aesthetic richness of the image or appreciation for its inherent visual commentary that is thought-provoking or smile-inducing.  Or a photo might have a connection to a subject matter that relates to one’s broader areas of collecting or interest (e.g., railroads, dolls, barber shops).

Old photos can also remind people of a place or pastime they have enjoyed – an image of a person skating or an old farmhouse shaded by a maple tree need not be exactly identifiable to evoke nostalgia.  Finally, there are photos of an actual place that one knows well, but captured in an earlier era, thereby putting one’s experience of it into historical perspective; that is what attracted me (Jeff) to this photo.

Grand Lake Algonquin Park

The 7” x 9”  black-and-white image captures a circa 1910-1920 scene on Grand Lake in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, a 2,946 square mile preserve of lakes and rivers established in 1893 which quickly became a desirable destination for wilderness canoe tripping.

Map of Grand Lake

I spent many summers canoeing, camping and guiding in Algonquin Park, and have paddled by this exact spot.  I found (and kept) a print of this image 15 years ago, so this one is now going to a customer for whom it also triggers positive associations with lakes and canoeing.

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Shades of Light on Buying Antiques


As antiques dealers, we look seriously at thousands of objects a year and develop a strong sense of the market value of antiques within our purview.  Yet innumerable categories of antiques fall outside of our expertise.  A recent experience purchasing something not within our familiar realm gave me (Kass) empathy for people who are attracted to antiques, but are intimidated because they have no touchstones for price structure.

This dilemma was brought home to me while shopping for glass shades that would be appropriate for the original, early 20th century brass sconces and a chandelier in the house we are restoring.

glass sconce

When Jeff first saw a pair of these shades I was immediately smitten, but thought that they seemed expensive. Through the decision-making process, I challenged myself to deconstruct what I meant by “expensive” – did it mean being overpriced for what they are (i.e., I could find the exact objects in the same excellent condition elsewhere for less money), or did it mean having a significant price because they are (now and presumably in the future should I want to sell them) rare, good, and desirable in the marketplace?  The former would mean I would not feel good about buying them, and the latter would help to justify the expenditure.

Occasionally a new customer will wonder aloud how to know if something is a fair price. I remember one person in particular who kept coming by our booth at a show and glancing in, then on one walk-by showing disappointment to see a sold sign on a set of Old Hickory dining chairs.  He then spoke up saying, “I really liked those, but they seemed expensive.”  His comment aroused my curiosity, so I asked “Expensive as compared to what?” In fact, the person who had purchased the chairs was an experienced buyer of rustic furniture who had remarked that they were a good value.

The visitor responded that it was a good question, and upon reflecting said he was probably subconsciously comparing them to the price of contemporary chairs he had seen in furniture stores while shopping to furnish his ski condo.  As someone drawn to attend an antiques show as an alternative to considering modern mass-produced furniture, he was gradually gathering the knowledge and confidence to make his first significant purchase.

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