I’m currently working my way through Thomas Andrew Denenberg’s book Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America. I’ve been dismissive on reading through Nutting’s history, for fear of boredom and factory furniture. But Denenberg’s volumn is nothing of the sort (alright, there is stiff furniture in it, but it’s given me a greater appreciation for Nutting – he shared the Arts and Crafts ethos within his furniture business. It wasn’t pure capitalism and the race to the bottom, quality wise).
I plan to share a little more in the future about Nutting and the connection to Berea, KY in an upcoming post. Just a little here for now. Nutting was a Harvard-educated minister turned photographer, antiquarian, furniture maker and entrepreneur and a New Englander through and through. I’ve always had some understanding of the man, but only a vague, hazy sense of his connection to craft and art. He turned himself into a cottage industry around the turn of the 20th century, creating and promoting the idealized version of an early American life.
Two quick passages from Denenberg’s book, to give a sense of things. The first makes be smile because I’ve been a member of New England churches, and I can hear this lame joke coming from the pulpit (if the pastor had hard opinions about furniture styling).
Writing of this hybrid furniture, Nutting oscillated between avuncular storytelling and biting, almost profane criticism. “It is like a bug put together from six bugs and brought to the professor with the bland inquiry by the student, ‘Please tell us what this bug is?’ The professor fixes on it for a moment a sardonic look, and says ‘Yes, gentlemen, it’s a humbug.’p. 131
Again, the pastoral instincts come appear in later writings. Various styles and traditions invoke virtue (both in design and craftspersonship), though I’ve never heard anyone use a “think of the children” argument when criticizing furniture for lack of integrity.
Surface finish referred to issues of honesty and quality in Nutting’s thinking in the same way that construction details bespoke of Arts and Crafts morality. He wrote with disdain of the “cheap furniture [that] floods the American market….Far more attention is given to the finish than to the form or the substance. For instance, I see before me as I write a table of oak, on which is stamped by machinery a design intended to make the buyer suppose that the table is quartered oak. The old scheme of imitating the grain of wood with paint was bad enough, and this is still worse. It is a falsity and is intended to deceive. It isn’t an honest thing for children to see.”p. 149
Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America goes for about $35 on the used book market.