Published: June 24, 2003
Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America
By Laura Beach
HARTFORD, CONN. — Two antiques dealers we know created a beautiful formal garden, planting in it a stone monument inscribed, “Reality is what you can get away with.” The phrase, both wry and inspirational, sums up the guiding philosophy of Wallace Nutting, the crazy-like-a-fox Congregational minister turned marketeer who perhaps more than any one else is responsible for our vision of the past, maybe even for the whole culture of collecting that past.
That Wallace Nutting (1861-1941) packaged “Old America” as an integrated consumer experience — see the life, buy the life, live the life — is a theory persuasively argued by Thomas Andrew Denenberg in a new book, Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America, published by Yale University Press and a companion exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Artthrough October 19.
Of the man who reminds him of no one more than Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart, Denenberg, the Atheneum’s Richard Koopman Curator of American Decorative Arts, writes, “Nutting organized the fledgling Americana market to fit his commercial needs. By writing books for the collector while providing catalogs for the consumer, Nutting effectively linked culture and commerce…”
But who was Wallace Nutting?
“If he hadn’t existed, his Madison Avenue advertising agency would have created him,” says Denenberg, striding through the serpentine galleries housing nearly 200 examples of Nutting’s products — photographs, books and furniture — along with the Boston School painting and antiques that inspired him, and the “mongrel” Victoriana that repelled him.
Under the slogan “Whatever is new is bad,” the purveyor of New England refinement for the masses, his Anglo Saxon features chiseled and his eyes icy blue, gazes benevolently, if patronizingly, at visitors from the heights of William Cushing Loring’s 1925 oil on canvas portrait of the minister.
As he delighted in telling people, Nutting, as American a figure as ever was one, was born poor in Rockbottom, now Marlboro, Mass., and through luck and pluck made his way through Harvard. Part Horatio Alger, part Henry Ford and part P.T. Barnum, he trained as a clergyman, then suffered a nervous collapse that forced his retirement from the pulpit in 1904. He began copyrighting his photographs by 1901, perhaps envisioning a new career for himself as a commercial photographer. By 1906, he had moved to Southbury, Conn., where he created his fanciful country seat-cum-cottage industry, Nuttinghame; then on to Framingham, Mass., in 1912.
By 1915, Nutting operated a tourist concession, five historic properties christened the Chain of Colonial Picture Houses. Having assembled one of the country’s largest collections of early American furniture and accessories, which he used primarily as props, Nutting began copying them for resale in 1917. When wartime gas rationing contributed to the demise of the Picture Houses, Nutting, ever resourceful, turned to publishing travelogs, like the 1922 Vermont Beautiful, for armchair adventurers. With his extraordinarily successful Furniture Treasury, Nutting secured his lasting reputation as a collector and antiques authority, a reputation enhanced when the Wadsworth Atheneum acquired his collection, a gift from J.P. Morgan, Jr., in 1926.
Very little about Nutting was completely original. There were earlier and better photographers of the New England scene, as Denenberg’s thoughtful display of images by Mary and Francis Allen, Emma Coleman and Amasa Day Chafee reveal. There were makers of Colonial-style furniture, sincere copyists and disreputable fakers alike; and popular authors who extolled the virtues of roadside tea houses and Model T touring. Nutting’s contribution, says Denenberg, was to “make history an everyday part of the modern era.”
“It was the generation from the Civil War to WWII that invented Old America. Many of these artists and writers were born in somewhat reduced circumstances. What they had was their ancestry and their ability to advance socially,” reflects the curator, who argues that the Colonial Revival began as early as the Federal era with the conscious desire to forge a national identity and continues to this day.
But history is never simple. Nutting’s Colonial Revival is a contradictory movement meshing the Arts and Crafts’ horror of industrialization with the Modernist’s enthusiasm for technology. The duality is explicit in photographs such as “Waiting for the Auto to Pass,” a hand tinted platinum print of 1901 that shows a farmer pushed to the side of a country road as the future overtakes him. Of all of Nutting’s creations, it is the photographs, with their alien hues, homespun pieties and overt symbolism, that offer the sharpest insights into Old America.
It is small wonder that the curator has chosen as the show’s central icon, on loan from the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine, a 1913 Stephens Duryea touring car much like the one Nutting himself owned. The entrepreneur liked his fans to think he was a humble man of God. In fact, the status symbol set Nutting back $4,400, the equivalent of about $90,000 today.
“For all of Nutting’s arguments about spinning wheels, the touring machine was the center of his universe, the center of modern life,” concludes Denenberg.
Through department stores and mail order catalogs around the country, Nutting sold more than five million hand tinted platinum prints of pastoral landscapes and early American interiors. By contrast, Hospitality Hall, now part of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Conn., drew only 2,000 visitors between 1916 and 1918 when it was part of the Chain of Colonial Picture Houses.
There is also less surviving Nutting furniture that one might imagine. The #733 Desk-and-Bookcase is probably one of less than a dozen such pieces made. The Newport-style, nine-shelf desk-and-bookcase cost $1,800 in 1932, the equivalent of about $19,000 today. It sold in 2002 for a record $36,750 to Massachusetts collectors Sharon and Robert LaCasse and is shown in the galleries next to a spectrum of Nutting’s inventory that ranges from the limited edition #910 Cupboard to one of the bread-and-butter Windsors, sold by Nutting by the truckload to banks and libraries.
Denenberg has also included what he calls the “zany” Nuttings, among them such unashamedly commercial pieces as a Pilgrim Century executive desk; reproductions by other interpreters of Colonial style, including a 1930 Sunflower Chest from the Nathan Margolis Shop of Hartford; and, in a hands-on exhibit of tools and workbenches in the last gallery, Nutting-style Windsors by contemporary craftsman D.R. Dimes.
After viewing “Wallace Nutting and The Invention of Old America,” visitors are encouraged to climb the stairs to view the Nutting’s antiques. “We’ve got every major monument you could want,” Denenberg says of the 1,100-object trove.
Some of the curator’s most intriguing discoveries were made close to home. Nadeau Auction Gallery’s 2001 sale of the estate of Paul Koda (1905-2001), a Hartford restorer with links to early Twentieth Century collectors, dealers and cabinetmakers, led to the identification of E.J. Dunn of Hartford as a supplier of carved elements to Nutting, among others.
“Nutting made a lot of money, lost a lot of money, and didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing,” says Denenberg. The marketer and his wife destroyed their business records and personal papers, and Nutting’s autobiography, published in 1936, offers few additional clues. It is “equal parts memoir, advertisement and Christian testimony,” says the curator. With limited sources to draw from, Denenberg made thorough use of the papers of William Summer Appleton, stored in the archives of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
“Nutting is an impossible man to deal with,” wrote SPNEA’s founder, who more successfully than most maintained relations with the former minister, whose disputes with the leading dealers and collectors of the day are storied. Through Appleton, Denenberg views Nutting as his contemporaries did, as an unstoppable force for both good and ill in the fledgling preservation movement.
Denenberg adds significant chapters to the Nutting story. Few in this context have looked as closely at Berea College, which led an Appalachian revival in traditional crafts. The college, where the former minister helped develop a woodworking program in the 1920s, was a favorite charity of both Wallace and Mariet Nutting, who willed their business to the institution. Denenberg also examines the role of Madison Avenue in promoting the idea of Old America through the deft manipulation of potent symbols. In the early 1920s, Nutting employed the George Batten Company, a precursor to the 1970s powerhouse advertising and design agency BBDO.
Wallace Nutting never called himself an artist, instead protesting that he was only “a minister with a love of beauty.” But in his brilliant synthesis of myth and materialism, Nutting was as artful as spokesman as ever lived for America at the twilight of one century and the dawn of another.
Following its close at the Wadsworth Atheneum, “Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America” travels to the Allentown Art Museum where it remains from February 22 to May 23, 2004.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860-278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
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