Published: February 5, 2008
Not so long ago, the streets of cities and towns across America were lined with the elegantly restrained form of the cast iron hitching post. The sturdy sentinel was an eminently practical addition to the streetscape †it kept order by preventing horses from running loose through the roadways and assuring the driver or rider of finding the horse patiently waiting exactly where it had been left.
A peculiarly American form, the Nineteenth Century cast iron hitching post is the subject of the new exhibit “Horsing Around: Nineteenth Century Cast Iron Hitching Posts from the Collection of Phil and Bunny Savino” on view at the Albany Institute of Art and History through May 25.
Iron has played an essential role in America since the earliest settlements: the first viable ironworks was established in 1644 at Saugus, Mass. Colonial village blacksmiths created the tools, implements and utilitarian objects necessary to support domestic life. The hitching post was as important as other devices of daily life and its earliest manifestations were usually in the form of simple wrought iron rings attached to unembellished posts.
By the Nineteenth Century, however, evolving furnace technology at foundries across the nation allowed for more elaborate productions of an array of cast iron objects that facilitated a modern way of life. They included printing presses, stoves, farming implements, rails, street lamps and, finally, hitching posts. The elementary and utilitarian form ultimately gave way to a folk tradition akin to that of the walking stick: functional, linear and fancifully embellished.
The limits of ornamentation of the manufactured pieces were restricted only by the fancy of the artisan who carved and created the wooden pattern from which the mold was made. Little information survives about the actual production of hitching posts; and, of the surviving examples, only about 15 to 20 percent are marked. Even less information about the carvers is available. One exception is the German-born Julius Melchers, who specialized in carving cigar store Indians, but patented a horse head and chain hitching post from 1872 that bears his mark.
Nineteenth Century consumers could select an entire hitching post or just a decorative cap and finial. They bought from the local hardware store or directly from the foundry. Catalogs from the period reveal a startling array of choices, such as the heads of horses, dogs and other animals; elements of nature, particularly the tree trunk, and expressions of patriotism.
The image of the African American man is a perennial favorite, especially that of the jockey. Equally coveted is the form of George Washington’s faithful groomsman, Jocko Graves, the 12-year-old African American who looked after Washington’s horses while he and his troops crossed the Delaware to fight the British at Trenton.
Jocko kept a lantern illuminated so that Washington and his troops could find the camp upon their return. He was discovered frozen to death on their return, yet the lantern was still lighted and the horses he tended were still in place. Washington later commissioned a statue of the boy to honor his bravery. During the Civil War, images of Jocko or jockeys were used to identify stops along the Underground Railway.
Equally important as the function that the hitching post served above ground was the importance of its base that firmly secured it in place. The anchoring devices were nearly as varied as the upper posts. Some had spring mechanisms, others had a flaring doughnut-shaped base and still others had a flat, horizontal base. The most common fastening method was by means of openings at the bottom of the post through which a board of pine was inserted perpendicularly. In 1898, Pennsylvania doctor Elmer Sellers was granted a patent for a spring-loaded hitching post that also retracted back into the ground.
The reign of the hitching post in America was all too brief. The advent of the street car and the automobile and the attendant traffic problems obviated its necessity. A team of horses and a trolley car were hard pressed to navigate the same street.
The first automobile accident in the United States reportedly involved a hitching post. Lore has it that in 1891 John William Lambert, who built the first gasoline-powered single-cylinder automobile, was motoring in his vehicle when it hit a tree root and ran into a hitching post. Injuries were minor, but a trend was established.
The metal collections of both world wars furthered the disappearance of hitching posts as iron and other metals were collected and melted to aid the war effort. Few hitching posts remain on the streets today and those that do are highly prized. Collectors admire their sculptural folk qualities and seek them out despite their proportions: they are generally at least six feet tall and very heavy.
Collectors Bunny and Phil Savino have spent more than a quarter of a century gathering their impressive collection. They have made extensive study of the forms, and their collection stands as a survey of the cast iron hitching post in America.
The Savinos, each of whom has a background in art, began their collecting with a very different genre: African sculpture. Later they turned to weathervanes, attracted by their sculptural forms, and from there made a natural transition to the sculpture of hitching posts. Their first acquisition was a chance purchase of an eagle-form post from the personal collection of dealer Harold C. Corbin. At that time, Corbin advised the couple that he did not know of anyone else collecting hitching posts †and thus came the impetus to form a collection that now exceeds 100 examples.
Another eagle that they agree is one of the best in their collection, and one of Phil Savino’s favorites, is a similar example with a greenish patina they bought at the 1989 New Year’s Day auction of the Corbin cast iron collection. It is remarkable for its flowing qualities, from the bird’s slightly upturned head and its feathers that extend along the post to the stylized shells and C-scrolls at the base. Bunny Savino cites as her favorite an example of a hand in a fist supporting a chain. She describes it as “powerful.” The couple is drawn to well-formed and highly detailed pieces, and they prefer examples decorated over the visible length of the post.
The couple formed their collection carefully, relying on dealers and their own discerning eyes, seeking exceptional pieces rare in form and fresh to the market. They own several one-of-a-kind pieces, including a furled flag. They both respond eagerly to the sculptural forms of the pieces and the interplay of light and shadow on each piece. The couple has also gathered more common forms to document the evolution of hitching post design.
Today, they seek the best of each form and report that competition from folk art dealers is stiff. Although their collection is not restricted to any geographic area, whenever the Savinos come across a good New York example, they buy it.
The Savinos’ collection usually resides on the walls of their Hudson Valley home, filling what the couple describes as “absolutely every square inch.” They confess to feeling a great void in the house while the posts are out on view at the Albany museum.
“Horsing Around” also includes a selection of paintings, drawings, broadsides and photographs that depict horses at work and at leisure, complementing the cast iron forms by illustrating the role of the horse in Nineteenth Century American art and society. Works by Thomas Kirby Van Zandt, William Gerritt Van Zandt and Edward Lamson Henry are on view, along with patterns, trade catalogs and photographs, drawn from the collections of the Albany Institute and private lenders.
A scholarly catalog of the exhibit with essays by the Savinos and curator Tammis K. Groft has been published by the museum. It is available from the museum shop for $26.95.
The museum is at 125 Washington Avenue. For information, 518-463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org.
‘Cast With Style: Nineteenth Century Cast Iron Stoves’
The hot topic at the Albany Institute of History and Art is cast iron stoves. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, the two cities at the confluence of the Hudson and the Mohawk Rivers, Albany and Troy, N.Y., supplied households in many parts of the world with stoves for heating and cooking. Rich natural resources, like iron ore from Columbia and Dutchess Counties, accessible transportation and enterprising artisans and manufacturers combined to produce superior products. These stoves, esteemed for their quality and design, are the subject of the exhibit “Cast with Style: Nineteenth Century Cast Iron Stoves” on view at the Albany Institute of History and Art through May 25.
More than 30 stoves from the institute’s collection illustrate the artistry and technological innovations in stove making between 1840 and 1870.
Technological developments, such as flask casting and the cupola furnace, coupled with the availability of the same English and Continental pattern books employed by early woodcarvers, rendered these stoves most desirable. The same design elements set forth by Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale were adopted by stove makers. Reeding, cabriole legs, C-scrolling, sprays of flowers made for splendid displays.
Stoves were also embellished with Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Rococo Revival elements and patriotic symbols. Domestic life that formerly centered around the fireplace had refocused on the stove, which became the decorative centerpiece in a room.
The cast iron stove brought physical modifications as well. Its greater efficiency meant that homes were more easily heated; even central heat was possible. Smaller rooms gave way to large ones, doorways were wider and windows were taller, giving a boost to the fortunes of housewrights and architects.
Stoves were first cast in Albany in about 1808 when the Warner Daniels Company was established. In Troy, the James and Cornell Stove Factory began producing the Baltimore Cookstove in 1815. The Troy Air Furnace, which began operations in 1818, quickly entered the business by casting stoves for the Starbuck and Gurley Company in 1821. In the two cities, dozens of companies employed thousands of people and produced hundreds of thousands of cast iron stoves.
The demand for Albany and Troy stoves was international. The same easy transportation routes that brought the raw materials to the area facilitated shipment to the Midwestern states and farther afield to the newly opened American West. Albany and Troy stoves were also shipped to South America, Europe, the Baltic countries, China and Japan, Australia and Turkey.
Curator Tammis K. Groft confesses to a lifelong interest in cast iron stoves. It began early in her career when she organized an exhibit of stoves in the late 1970s. She has also written extensively on the subject. For information, 518-463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org .
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