Life in Old South Central Alabama

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South of Birmingham, Alabama, United States
I am an antique trader in central Alabama....I love old houses... My log home was built in 1817 by my ancestors Benjamin and Hannah Harless Wilson .............. Outside the house are herb gardens and lots of pass-along plants................ No one in Alabama is in a hurry about anything......... Visitors think that the garden needs weeding and the furniture needs polishing....I am a direct descendant of Joseph Towne, whose two sisters Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Towne Easty were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 as witches. I am also a direct descendant of Pocahontas and husband John Rolfe.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another Plantation Desk

I met a nice couple who are fellow lovers of primitives. I bought their plantation desk which was part of a general clean out. 

Someone in Arkansas had already bought their Larkin china cabinet or I might have gotten that also.

There are two table top victrolas at their house for $200 each and another with 100 records for $900.

 I have a Brunswick that my parents bought for me in the early 1970s for $50 so I really don't need another one.

Summer of 2011 update: My cousins in Richmond love this desk even more so it is moving to Richmond soon. 

I know where three more are, so if my need to hoard another one arises, I can drive to Tennessee and buy one.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Knoxville buying trip

I rode to Knoxville to see what was on the floor at a really good antique estate buying business. 

I normally don't travel that far ( almost four hours) but they had an 1840's tole painted two-drawer stand that was so outstanding I had to see it in person.

 Sitting next to it was an 1830's Tennessee cherry table with a dough board top. I bought them both, along with a Drexel 1920's mahogany low boy.

 On the way home I stopped in Sweetwater, an antiques town just off the interstate north of Chattanooga, and was able to cram a few smalls in. 

I took the low boy to the shop and kept the other two pieces for my house.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Today's Purchase: Schoolmaster's Desk

Having taught school for so long, I am hard pressed to express my happiness in finding this one and bringing it home. 

It's heavy, and is larger than it looks in the picture. 

Here's how I came to get it.

Nita and I rode to a storage room in McCalla where a guy was selling furniture he and his wife had collected for fifty years.

 The desk was right by the door, and it was the first thing I saw that I knew was good. Turned legs, original hinges, that pumpkin-orange color, no major repairs or replacement parts, and a brown interior that only age could create.

When I saw the prices, my heart sank a bit, but I remained calm as usual and showed no emotion. The man had everything priced sky high, and I knew we could buy little to nothing. I did a quick walk through while he and Nita talked about his terms and prices.

He had told her the night before that she could take anything she wanted on consignment, but now he had changed his mind and wanted only to sell for cash,telling her to buy what she wanted and make all the profit she could.

That would have suited me fine, but, as I said, his sticker prices were too high from a dealer's viewpoint.

Nita then told him who I was and that I was a schoolteacher. I began to tell stories about my students, about the health care situation, about my life as an antique dealer, and about my old log cabin and my love of all things Old South.

After we talked a while he said that the price he had on the furniture wasn't the real price, that I should divide the number by two. 

That was a relief to know; otherwise, it would have been a no sale day.

I told him that I wanted the desk for sure. He also had a dovetailed bible stand, ca. 1840, which Nita wanted for the shop.

 She also got a bucket bench, a sled, a walnut table, a bronze quilt rack, a bureau with mirror( 1920s), and an ogee clock.

We loaded up everything but the dresser. He had a primitive lift-top desk that I want to look at again when we go back to pick up the dresser.

There was also a child's wicker baby doll buggy which was not repro that might be good. 

There was a work bench, but it looked like the 1950s Colonial Revival stuff that was used for the house when Lucy and Ricky moved to Connecticut.

 ( Note: You must be at least 50 years old to understand and remember when Lucy and Ricky moved from New York City to Connecticut and bought a two story colonial house and filled it with 1950's awful maple revival colonial revival furniture. I don't think we ever saw what Ethyl and Fred did in their hired-man's farm house.)

There was also a large oak bed, but oak doesn't sell anymore ( not until Martha puts it back in her magazine). 

So Nita ended up with about $900 worth and I just got the desk.

 We got in the van and headed back to Montevallo before the afternoon storm arrived.

Nita's husband told her that we stole it all ( his favorite expression for a good deal) and I don't think we did so bad myself.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Curves and Color

I have a tendency to line up furniture like some sort of store, and I'm trying to do better, but old habits are hard to break. 

I get the "Your house looks like an antique shop " comment a lot ( which I secretly like to hear), so I'm already prepared to point out sarcastically that there are no price tags on anything, but they are "free to make an offer on anything you see."

I spent the day working outside and inside the place, as this is the first official day of my summer vacation from school.

 I already miss my ninth graders. Several are in summer school, but not because of me ( Thankfully, everybody passed in my room).

This corner of the old house shows, starting from the left, a federal chest under the window which I found at a mall on Hwy. 280.

By the chair is a Colonial New England 2 drawer blanket chest in original red paint with thumb moulding and flint glass pulls on turned Federal feet, a chest from Virginia in the corner which I paid too much for but it took three years to talk the guy out of it, my plantation desk ( my new baby pride and joy) flanked by two English chairs with little rectangular tags under each one that read "English, ca. 1820".

In the far right one can see the edge of an Alabama black walnut chest I bought out of a hoarder's collection for fifty dollars. The walls are home to Victorian oils which I bought either because I liked the painting or I liked the frame. 

 I rarely fall in love with both painting and frame at the same time! One can finally see more of the mustard rug I bought from the boys in Marion, Alabama. It came out of an old house in Uniontown.

I guess a stained glass window would be the last thing one would expect to see in a log cabin, but I can't help it. 

 People who decorate in primitive style will fill their house with nothing but brown and gray and faded fabrics; being in houses like that gives me a headache after about thirty minutes. 

 I need color; I thrive on color; I gotta have my light and my sunshine and my color.

The McRaven House in Vicksburg impressed me so much when I saw it in the late 80s that I decided to follow the same idea here. The back of the McRaven house is the log structure built first, the central part of the house is Empire, and the front of the house is Greek Revival. The house sort of developed over time, each addition reflecting the styles of its own time.

I have done the same thing here, on a smaller scale. The front of my house is primitive, built in 1817 by my ancestors, the back room is Empire Old South. Right now the kitchen is sort of in a 1950s advertising mode, but I'm thinking of moving all of that to another room and going primitive/buttery.

Upstairs, my bedroom looks like a museum storage room: books, pictures stacked four deep on the floor between the bookcases, some dead animal heads, and family 16x20s of great grandfathers and great aunts.

 In the middle of the room is my sleigh bed that I bought at a country auction after sitting there four hours waiting on it to come up. I have three gallons of yellow paint to apply to the walls. If only I could find the walls.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mobile Alabama 1860s Portrait

I am all excited about an Alabama portrait that has finally come home. This painting is of Felix Taylor Taliaferro, a cotton merchant who lived in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1860s and 1870s.

I bought this portrait from a family member who lives in Pennsylvania. They were unsure if he was a grandfather on up their line or an uncle. 

In either case, they wanted to sell it, having no interest in family history. I was glad to buy it so that his portrait could come back South again.

The subject of the painting was a citizen of Orange County, Virginia.

 According to family, he moved to Mobile to make his fortune in the cotton trade. Some years later, before 1880,  he returned to Virginia.

Although the name is spelled "Taliaferro" it is apparently pronounced more like " Tolliver." Mr. Taliaferro's middle name Taylor is the maiden name of his grandmother, who was a second or third cousin to President Zachary Taylor.

Felix Taylor Taliaferro's parents were Edmund Pendleton Taliaferro and Octavia Hortense Robertson.  Edmund's mother was Mildred Taylor Taliaferro.  Felix married Annie E. Penny in Mobile, Alabama, on 14 January 1867.  Felix is age 4 in 1850 living with his parents in Orange County, VA.  In 1880 he is back in Orange County, VA.  On the 1900 census he and Annie are in Bayonne Ward 1, Hudson County, New Jersey. He is listed as age 54. 

His grand daughter called me and said his portrait looked just like family members she remembered. She was so excited to see the portrait. She was going to call again but I never heard from her and wonder what happened. 

 All of this makes for a wonderful original Alabama portrait and I'm glad to have it back where it belongs. If any descendants see this and find errors about his family, please let me know.  The information I found about him was on genforum from 15  years ago and the address of the posters there are no longer any good.  I would love to hear from descendants of his. 

November 2014:  This portrait is for sale to any descendant of his. Just leave me a message or email me ( see my profile for current email address.)  $2,800.00  

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Plantation Desk

I bought a plantation desk. It is signed by stencil on the back Mitchell and Rammelsberg, Cincinnati, Ohio. They were in business together from 1847 until 1871 and are the company who made the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House. This desk has no flaws and is complete and looks right at home in the front log room.

It's a bit more crowded now ( June 2012).

This was taken at night when colors are rich.

Here it is with the front lowered.

The top bonnet will lift up to reveal storage.

Still as sturdy as the day it was made.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Quilts in the sun

On sunny spring Saturdays, it is the custom to air out the quilts. Here are three of my favorites as seen from the front yard. The front porch of the old cabin is the perfect place to give them all a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

1910 cart wheels

When I discovered these two small wagon wheels, the sight of them reminded me of a project I had wanted to do last summer. A seller had posted an antique peanut cart for $999, really beautiful but much too expensive.

I thought that if I had two matching wheels I could build one myself and put it at the shop with Flowers 5 Cents printed on the side. The front of the cart should be built to resemble a baby buggy, only out of wood, and the back has the basic shape of a wheel barrow.

I bid on the wheels and came out the winner, so now they are in hand and ready for my attention. I will now file them under the top ten projects I really want to do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Tulip Tree

When Joe lived here he planted a tulip tree in the back yard. That was ten years ago. More than the arrival of spring, the tulip tree's blooming signals the end of the worst of winter. March really does come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

I cut several limbs off of the mimosa tree in hopes that the tulip tree will take a growing spell. The entire back yard garden should do well. Mimosas tend to take over very quickly. This one provided so much shade that the plants suffered. It's too big to cut down all at once, so I'm trying the cut-back approach. I know my grandmother's oxalis will appreciate it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Preparing for a new crop

Here is the photo of last year's gourd crop. These are bird house gourds and they did very well; I think there are about 150 in the barn. I took six to Jim at Remember When Antiques in Jemison and he cleaned them with a brillo pad and clorox. They are nice and tan now. I hope I can be that resourceful and clean the remainder myself.

I planted a row of the long neck kind called drinking gourds, but only six came up. When I transplanted them to the other row, they all died, so I guess gourds don't transplant very well. These are what I want to plant this year. Jim said they need a fence or wire to hang from so the necks will not grow crocked. I think I can manage that.

The Indian Corn didn't do well at all last year and I think I have learned from the mistakes we made. It was planted too early. It needs something put on it to kill the worms. It needs to dry in the barn. So the gourd crop and the Indian Corn crop will be my main focus for early summer planting, along with the usuals, okra,squash, tomatoes, and zuchinni.

I have a dishpan full of sunflower seeds, so my father says we can extend the row all the way from my house to his. They grew six to eight feet tall last year. I also still have those Jefferson beans which promise to run twenty feet and bloom a reddish purple, but I don't know yet where to put them.

My accent flower this year is going to be the old English plant called love-lies-a-bleeding (not the same as bleeding heart). I grew them several years ago and they worked well, looking like red dred locks.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Very Yankee Thing

I've done a very unusual thing, something that is practically unheard of here in the South. I have bought a piece of redware. Pennsylvania redware. Antique old Northern redware. Yankee redware.

Southerners, even antiquer people, know little to nothing about it. It is a New England thing. We didn't have it down here. We don't have it now. We used Staffordshire and china and ironstone and our own spit-tobacco and kiln fired pottery. I've done antiques for over forty years, and have never seen a single piece of it in any shop.

But I began to notice the stuff in the magazine Early American Life. It seems that the primitive house people always had some of it tucked away nicely in a wall shelf next to the other Yankee item, the pewter plates. I thought it was ugly. The decorations looked like something a child would do with a magic marker.

But, slowly, it began to grow on me. Then Jill Peterson's book The Settlement came out, and there was more of it. Maybe just a hint here and there. Then Frederick (the dealer in Maine who writes the blog called The Chimney Cupboard) posted a picture of a really old piece of it on his page. That was it. Obviously, I thought, if one has a primitive house, one must have redware.

So I went on ebay and bought a piece. An old bowl. Nothing spectacular- it has its share of chips and cracks and burned spots. I didn't want it to be perfect. Otherwise, it might be new or repro and I'd be in danger of having a piece of yankee ceramics in the house.

My redware bowl is the real deal. No doubt that it's got some age to it, as my favorite auctioneer Gorden Headly used to say. It should arrive in the mail soon, and I'll find a spot for it in the log room, a place where it won't draw too much attention, lest I have to explain to everyone why something so foreign as redware should be resting in my house, next to the pewter plates and the whale-oil lamp.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mustard Rug

I bought an old mustard-centered rug from the boys in Marion, and I suspect there are not many more like it floating around the antique shops here. I wanted to unify the room now that I have painted the doors and windows and moulding in the mustard/yellows I love so much.

My favorite color is yellow, but I have never read any of the charts that attempt to analize a person's favorite color as some sort of indication of personality and behavior. I suspect those who like yellow would either be very chipper and happy, or cautious.

For whatever reason, the front room now has this monster rug that goes well with the primitive and high country furniture and I like it, so, having no one else to please, I am sure it will be quite happy here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Zadock Shields a Cabinetmaker in Taylor County West Virginia

One of my never sell pieces is the Federal chest that sits in a corner of the front log room. I bought it several years ago at auction but did not have the opportunity to look it over very much until I got it home.

I have to be careful at auctions not to draw too much attention to any piece, as there are others there who are watching. An experienced antique trader must be able to show no emotion while on the hunt, either at a private sale, tag sale, public auction, or estate sale. At the small auctions around here, since I apparently have that dealer look, people think that whatever interests me should interest them. So when I saw the Federal chest, I gave it a quick look and moved on.

I bought it for $200, which was cheap enough, but would have been cheaper if the house bidder hadn't dropped two bids against mine. At home, I pulled out all the drawers and began a search for a maker's name. I found it, in brown ink, on the second large drawer in the back. Zaddock Shields. I got on the computer, pulled up Ancestry's Federal Census, and found him.

He was listed as a cabinetmaker on the Taylor County, Virginia census in 1850 and 1860. Taylor County is now a part of the state of West Virginia. Finding his name on the piece and on the census -especially with him being listed as a cabinetmaker -added two thousand to the value of the chest. I found some additional family information on Genforum- his father was a sheriff, and the family there seemed to have been well established.

Next, I photographed the chest and added closeups of the signature, made copies of everything, and mailed a packet to the West Virginia State Archives, asking if they had any files or were maintaining any files on their early cabinetmakers. The director said they were not, but with my file as the beginning, they would begin, as it was a great idea. I told him about the Birmingham Museum of Art's large catalog of early Alabama potters, quilters, silversmiths, furniture makers, and assorted craftsmen, and I suggested that West Virginia should have a similar ongoing project.

Beginning in 1850, the Federal census gives a person's main occupation, and although it takes time to go through every county's list of people, the information on who was making furniture or throwing pottery is there, at least on the ones who were doing it full time. I am glad that Zadock Shields of Taylor County, Virginia had enough pride in his work to dip the pen in ink and write his name inside the drawer.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wanda's jacquard bed coverlet

My friend Wanda's bed coverlet has that mustard color that I use all over my house. I doubt I will ever find one as good as hers, but I am going to try. I bought a rug for the front log room yesterday from the boys in Marion, and although the central color looks more like lemon than mustard, it will do just fine.

The rug came from Carlisle Hall, an antebellum mansion that has a rather noisey spirit of a lady made famous in the Thirteen Alabama Ghosts book. I think I will add mustard to the front porch during spring break; the color is already in three rooms; why not add a fourth?

Maybe I could plant only yellow bloomers along the brick walkway. Get me some mustard colored shoes and a matching hat. Now I have the Eccentric Southerner theme going that might attract Garden and Gun magazine to send a photographer down from New York to do a feature.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Miniature Furniture for Primitive Houses

Every primitive collector needs at least one piece of primitive miniature furniture. This is not doll house furniture. Primitive furniture can be salemen samples or some small piece built in the workshop in the form of a cupboard, chest of drawers, or pie safe. They are much too large to go in a doll house.

I found this example of a chest and liked it immediately. It is made of at least three types of wood. Dovetail drawers would have been better but I can live with it as is, as it was less than a hundred dollars.

I'm looking for a miniature blanket chest now; one will turn up sooner or later on Ebay listed as a box. The trick will be finding four little feet to match.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

William Rufus Devane King

Whenever my friend Joe visits from Denver, we always take a road trip to Selma, Alabama, to Live Oak Cemetery, to have a photograph taken at the grave of William Rufus Devane King. Mr. King was Vice President under Franklin Pierce, and is the highest ranking Alabamian ever in the Federal Government.

Mr. King was quite ill at the time of the election, and went to Cuba to try to get well. He was actually sworn in as Vice President there ( with special permission), then came home to Alabama and died suddenly on his plantation in Dallas County. I have a copy of his Last Will and Testament. He had quite an estate.

During his healthier years, Mr. King was the confident and housemate of fellow bachelor James Buchanan, who was elected President in 1856 and is best remembered as being powerless to stop the South from leaving the Union in 1860.

Mr. King's people were from North Carolina, and I have a Devane line from the same place ( my Devane grandmother having married into my Highsmith family), so my next genealogical project will be to look into the Devane line and see just how closely I am related to this fellow Alabamian.

Some of Mr. King's china and silver is on display at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Esther Weston Towne born 1763

I have added more and better photographs plus the information on the back of the daguerreotype at the bottom of this post.

Here is Esther Weston Towne born 1763. She is my oldest identified Daguerreotype. My early Towne family is from Salem, Massachusetts. She is not my ancestor but she is a New England Towne.

My ancestor William Towne was born about the year 1600 in England. He married Joanna Blessing about 1620. They are the parents of my ancestor Joseph Towne of Salem, who was born about 1639 and married Phoebe Perkins. Joseph's sisters Mary Towne Easty and Rebecca Towne Nurse were hanged in the Salem Witchcraft trials of 1692/1693. Their sister Sarah escaped hanging when the trials were ended.

My line then proceeds to Johanna Towne who married Thomas Nichols. Their daughter Anna married William Vining in 1723 and comes all the way down to me.

Esther Weston Towne pictured here was born in 1763 or 1764 and would have been an eye witness to the American Revolutionary War. She married Archelaus Towne and had several children. Her father was perhaps Ebenezer Weston  She is from Amherst, Hillsborough, New Hampshire.  She actually has a faint smile on her face.   I see on ancestry that she has many descendants   I do not descend from her. I bought this original because she was identified as a Towne from New England and I knew I needed to save it and share it. This picture was made 1845-1850 as she died in April of 1850.

I think Esther Weston Towne is quite a lovely old New England lady. I am always amazed when photographs such as this one, taken in the 1840's/1850's, have survived as identified people. The problem with daguerreotypes and ambrotypes: there was no place to write the person's name unless the family attaches a little piece of paper or takes the image out of the case and writes on the inside back. Someone tucked a piece of paper inside this dag with info on her and one granddaughter.

They were so expensive that no one ever thought the day would come when the sitter would be unknown. I have several 1820's- 1830's oil paintings of people and the same problem occurs: a beautiful painting but no one wrote the person's name on the back of the frame.

My mother was smart to go through all of the little snapshots in her picture box and write names on all of them. Everyone should do that.

All descendants please copy these and add them to your family archives. These pictures are also posted on my page at  I also posted a tree on just her, called  Esther Weston Towne Family Tree, so that people on Ancestry could find her.

Attached to back of dag:  "Esther Weston Towne grandmother of Miss Mary Ann Danforth who died at Hillsboro Center N. H. June 1913. "

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Oil Painting by Francis E. Jamieson

Francis E. Jamieson ( 1895-1950 )was an Englishman who fell in love with the Scots Highlands. He painted hundreds of scenes showing the mountains and villages of Scotland. He also painted the Highlands cattle.

His pictures were so popular that he was contracted to paint scenes on furniture. In order to sell more paintings and not be in violation of his contract, he came up with over ten other names used to sign his paintings which he sold on the side and on the sly.

I found this painting for sale on Ebay and realized that it was one of his when I saw the faces of the cattle. The sellers could not decipher the name of the artist in the bottom right hand corner; they thought it was some French name, which they read as W. Rieliard. I saw that it was W. Richards, one of Jamieson's many pseudo-artist names.

The seller had had the painting appraised for $1200, but I wonder now about the ability of an appraiser of art who couldn't read the name. The asking price was $400 to start, so I didn't feel guilty knowing the seller believed the painting was worth $1200, what it actually is worth.

No, I didn't write the seller later and tell them. What good can that do? Nor do I approve of anyone who does that sort of thing unless the seller flat out asks for more information. It's not a class-act thing and should be avoided.

The painting is now hanging above an 1850 Virginia chest in the old part of the house. Its browns and oranges stand out nicely against the log walls.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Silhouettes bring a surprise

My bid on this pair of silhouettes was the winner, and they arrived in today's mail. Silhouettes are selling well on Ebay..$200 up when framed, so when I found this pair unframed I thought I might have a chance.

First of all, I wanted something that was actually old. They appeared from their condition to be the real thing. The tears and silverfish spots were a plus in my opinion. Then the seller said that one was marked with some embossing by the Peale museum, so I liked that, too.

The surprise came when I opened them up. Each was in a protective slip, backed by paper. I was looking for the Peale museum mark, whatever that was supposed to be, but found instead, written on the back of the lady, a note in faded period brown ink that says "Robert and Mary Adams 1818."

I can't imagine why the seller didn't mention that in his Ebay description. Either he never took them out of their protective sleeve, or he missed seeing it entirely. It is rather faded, but completely authentic, and certainly wasn't added later.

I already have frames that will work for them, but will continue to monitor the frames on line in case something perfect comes up. The frames I have are 1840's, a bit late, but they will DO until I find a good one buried in the Ebay listings. I need two good ones, actually. They don't need to match ( that is asking too much ), and I really don't want them to match.

Every primitive collector needs a silhouette or two. I think I was very lucky to get them both for $30 ( I think wonderful things slip right through Ebay all the time), and to find the 1818 date PLUS their names on the back, well, that was more than enough to let me know that I am blessed in this.

There is a big difference in feeling blessed and feeling lucky; you have to know this to know this; it really can't be explained.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Primitive Oil Painting: Her Gentle Disposition

This lovely lady arrived on Saturday morning and helped to brighten up an otherwise cold and sunless day. She slipped through Ebay for less than $200 and will fit perfectly on the wall going up the stairs.

I like her mousey look from behind those glasses. She is a normal size, 20x24, so I won't have too difficult a time finding a primitive frame for her. I estimate she was painted about 1840. That should place her birth about 1780 to 1800.

I showed her to Nita at the antique shop and she was as excited as I was. This makes a total of three primitive women I have hanging on the wall at my old house. I was inspired to own a few after getting my copy of Jill Peterson's "The Homestead" plus all those years of Colonial Homes and Early American Life.

Early American Life is about it for primitives and old houses. Colonial Homes went out a few years ago. Jill Peterson is starting a new magazine about Primitives that is supposed to begin publication in February. I am already lined up with a subscription.

If there are any other magazines that feature primitive and colonial houses, I don't know about them. I've about run out of wall space for portraits, unless I go floor to ceiling, which I'm trying to avoid.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Adding to the R S Prussia collection

I notice that Ebay prices for R S Prussia are almost reasonable again. The celery dishes and the odd sugars and creamers are less than $50. I found some bowls tonight in the same price range, especially the unmarked ones. I know many of the common decals used as well as the mold patterns , but I am lucky to have the gift of looking at a piece and being able to know if it is good or not.

All of the R S Prussia collectors can do that. The R S Germany pieces are no problem being on the page, but the fake pieces give me a headache just looking at them. They all need to be busted with a hammer.

I still see them in the shops here sometimes, but not as often as before. I would like to write FAKE on the price tag with a red Sharpie just like I saw it once written on a piece of fake Roseville.

Anyway, I need to add two or three pieces a month to what I have while it is cheap ( cheap for R S Prussia , that is ).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Part Two: Director's Opinion on the Admiralty House Photo

The next two blog entries are about a little cdv photograph of a building in Halifax called the Admiralty House. I bought it for less than a dollar and kept it over 30 years. I finally donated the photo to the Admiralty House Museum. It is the oldest known photograph of their building/museum. It was like finding a picture of the White House twenty years older than any other known picture. They were all excited about the whole thing. The earlier blog gives the background, and the blog below gives the results, so if you want to read them in order, skip to the next entry and come back to this one. The whole ordeal turned out to be lots of fun over such a little thing.

The email arrived from the Director of the Admiralty House and his historical savey is all over the place. Here is what he had to say:

Good afternoon

Your donation arrived this morning. I must say I was gob-smacked.

As you mentioned in your accompanying letter, it is the earliest known photograph of Admiralty House. It shows fine detail of a line of carriages and and their occupants waiting patiently for the photo to be taken.

I am particularly interested in the fact that amongst the individuals visible are army personnel including a sergeant. There is a navy officer in a for-and-aft cap as well so this appears to be a dress event.

The uniforms will give us a better idea of the date. During this period Admiralty House was one of the centres of Halifax social life and perhaps we have a view of guests arriving for a summer garden party.

As you may be aware, this structure is a National Historic Site, central to the fabric of the nation. The architectural details of the photograph fill in a number of gaps in our history of the building and will help to determine the direction of on-going renovations and restorations.

It would be a fine thing to bring the building back to the structure it was 150 years ago. In the meantime we will send the photo for digital reproduction and possible upload onto the web site.

I think the photo might be from a slightly earlier period. The uniforms need closer examination but the navy pattern and the army shako is consistent with ca 1855-65. W. Chase Photographic Gallery was active in Halifax in 1860 and had established a reputation for outdoor event informal photography.

Almost like snapshots, which is odd considering the long exposure times necessary for the process. But then again he seemed to prefer full sun shooting. As to how the photo ended up in Alabama, there was a close and unofficial connection between the South and Great Britain during the Civil War. Very close.

Southern vessels put into Halifax often including the CSS Talahasee. And Britain wanted the cotton. We have a Board member whose British ancestors were cotton merchants making buying trips into the South at the time. And there is well-documented evidence of Southern agents and their British/Canadian sympathisizers meeting and plotting in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. There may be an interesting trail of intrigue in this photo.

I have shown the photo to civilian and navy personnel on the Base; all are pleased to see this glimpse of the past.

I will foreward you a number of documents for your signature in order to transfer ownership of the photo to The Crown and to express our appreciation in a more formal manner.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Part One: Admiralty House 1860 Photograph

That particular Saturday was the right Saturday of the month in June of 1978 and I was at the Fairfield, Alabama, flea market, once the glorious location of the Alabama State Fair. Fairfield is not hard to find; just follow US 11 through Bessemer and there you are. If you go too far you'll end up on 1st Avenue North in Birmingham.

This monthly flea market was not one of those pretty outdoor affairs like you see on the treasure hunt shows on BBC and HGTV; it was held in a large dirty building where dealers or anyone else who wanted pay the fee would bring their smalls to display on old tables covered mostly in sheets.

When I say that the dealers brought smalls, I say so with no exaggeration. The 1970's and 1980's were a time when people who liked antiques ( including myself) were doing what I call collecting collections. Some dealers sold nothing but depression glass; others were selling figurines; others sold old paper ephemerae.

Today's young antique enthusiast may find it hard to believe that some sellers back then could bring in a hundred dollars on a good weekend by selling only picture postcards, prints, and boxes of old letters and magazines. Or that there were buyers who wanted only salt and pepper shakers, or teapots, or anything marked Made in Occupied Japan that wasn't chipped.

Today the decorating magazines forbid anyone to display such clutter. If you have some sort of collection you certainly don't put it out for anyone to see. The same thing is going on with antique oak furniture. At our shop, oak has been "out " for a decade. We sell plenty of mahagony and walnut and pine, but very few people come in looking for anything from the Golden Oak era in America.

But know this: when Martha puts oak pieces in her magazine, the prices will skyrocket. She already proved this when she used Jadite in her kitchen shots. The price tripled overnight.

So, I was there at the Fairfield flea market on that particular Saturday, looking through boxes of photographs for my collection, lots of photographs of everyday Americans staring at the camera. Cdv's ( carte-de-visite's: little rectangular photographs from the 1860's ) and Cabinet Cards ( larger hard backed pictures from the 1870s to the 1890's ) were selling for about a quarter each. Tintypes ( which the advanced collectors call ferrotypes) were about the same price.

I would pick out a good stack of the most interesting people, and if lucky, would find one or two photos actually taken outside of houses or barns, or , if I was really lucky, a buggy or wagon with horses or mules.

One of the cdv's which caught my attention was of a building with carriages and soldiers standing around. The back of the photo had the photographer listed as being in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I really wasn't interested in foreign pictures much, but there was a line of carriages with horses and the cdv looked to be early 1860's, so I put it in the buy stack. The back had a pencil notation which read "Admiralty House." Sounded like a hotel to me. I paid the guy for my stack ( total not over $5 : big money then) and went home happy as usual.

Now we leave 1978 and fast forward ( I hate saying that) to the present, thirty-something years later. I am going through my collections ( They aren't on display of course: that's against the rules) and I find this stack of cdv's and the Admiralty House picture.

I have my computer and I know all about google, so I type in Admiralty House. What is this? Admiralty House is not a hotel after all, but a well known Canadian national Maritime Museum , and is still standing. The web site has some old photographs , but their's are only back to the 1880's. Mine is 1860's.

Now comes the question: Do I do the sensible thing and let them know about the picture, and that it is for sale on ebay , or do I once again play my role as the country gentleman and offer the photograph as a donation and get the satisfaction of thinking of myself as a patron of the arts? Well, as habits are, I went with the patron thing.

Now the fact that I had paid a quarter for it in the 1970's has nothing to do with it. While most people my age back then were out doing the hustle and dancing to YMCA at the disco, I was climbing under plantation houses to look at floor joists and digging through flea markets and going to estate sales buying what my father called junk. I preferred to do that then, and prefer to do that now.

This is not a whine about how I missed out on all the fun of disco days. This is a little dig at having the satisfaction of knowing today that I was right and he was , well, somewhat mistaken. Anyway, he long ago changed his mind about my antiquing when he saw that I was making money at it.

I wrote the Admiralty House people a short email.

Dear Staff, I have a cdv photograph of Admiralty House taken about 1860. I see from your web site that your earliest photograph of the museum is from the 1880's, so I believe this photo would be of historical importance. I would like to donate the photograph to the museum, but would like the address of a specific person there who would be kind enough to email me when it safely arrives. Thank you.

I got a response almost immediatly from Mr. Sanderson, the acting director, giving me his address and expressing great interest in the photograph. I figured that if someone who was in charge of a national museum could take the time to write me so quickly and give me just that little bit of attention I wanted ( as a country gentleman and patron of the arts) , that I should waste no time in mailing the little gem to Canada.

I composed a carefully worded ( and I guess wordy ) letter and enclosed it with the cdv. It said:

Dear Mr. Sanderson,

Here for your collection of artifacts is an original photograph cdv of Admiralty House. I estimate the photograph, being a cdv, would have been taken sometime between 1860 and 1868. I see from your web site that this will now be the earliest known photograph of your museum.

The quickness of your reply to my email let me know that you were on top of things up there and could be trusted with the original as a gift.

I hope your web person can post this photograph on the web site, which would give me great pleasure. You might even generate a bit of publicity by treating this as historical news, " Earliest known photograph of Admiralty House found in an Alabama antique flea market" or " 150 year old photograph of Admiralty House found in Alabama flea market" etc.

Here are some quotes from me: " I purchased it for a quarter. It was mixed in with a box of other old photographs. Where it has been for the last 150 years and how it ever got to Alabama is quite unknown. I knew nothing about the building when I saw the photograph, but I recognized it as being of some importance, especially when I saw the faintly penciled identification on the back, which read simply "Admiralty House."

I did a search on the web and, to my delight, the museum was discovered. I saw the posted photographs of the museum had been taken at least twenty years later and knew I had found a treasure."

Since Admiralty House is a national treasure, I think finding an 1860 photograph of it should add to that standing. I think any historical find , no matter how small, is worth a bit of free publicity.

This photograph will give you a view of the building basically when "new, " as I doubt any structural changes had been made in that short of a time. I think to have it is exciting. You might have far more problems going on up there to deal with than a photograph, but it might get you a little atttention.

Anyway, I hope you can at least post the photograph on the web site. If you do manage to get an article done, it would give me a lot of satisfaction to have a copy. Thank you!!

It took about four days to get my package from Alabama to Nova Scotia, which was quicker than I thought. The director of the museum emailed me the day it arrived. He seemed delighted with it. Of course I'd never met him ( goes without saying when I'm in Alabama and he's somewhere in Canada), didn't know anything about him, but after reading the email from him, I can tell one thing for sure: he has historical savey.

He didn't slide the cdv into a poly-photo envelope and file it away in an acid free box . He actually studied it. He showed it around. He had some fun with it. My little cdv ( now his little cdv) made an impression up there. He gets to say " Look what's been given to the museum " and a historical well now soon follows.

One might think: all this over a little photograph? But, one must think like the historian who puts importance on historical things. Just last year the discovery was made of an original portrait of William Shakespeare, and it made the international news.

If a new photograph of Abraham Lincoln were to be added to the less that 100 known, it would also, on our level of American importance, cause a bit of a flurry of excitement. So , the discovery of a 150 year old photograph of an 1840 Halifax house might not make CNN, but it is never the less entitled to its own bit of historical what have you found now?

Monday, January 4, 2010

On Writing a Blog

This is a blog about my life in Central Alabama. I don't presume that anyone other than myself would want to read it, at least not on purpose, for it might prove to be dull reading indeed.

But, it's foolish to pretend that anyone who starts a blog doesn't have the idea that someone will click and read, someone who can say I understand what this person is saying. I know how this person thinks.

Sarah Palmer ( real teacher whom everyone loved ) told me in college that I had the potential to be a fairly tolerable writer, but that implied something of hard work and committment to the task, and, at that stage of my life, I didn't understand the concept of not doing anything to the extreme.

I also remember that she hated what was called stream of consciousness writing, which I was inclined to do, and, in the 70's, that was not good for an A in English Composition 101 unless you were assigned to mimic the style of Henry David Thoreau, whose essays she could not bear to read.

The order of the day was introduction with thesis, three points, and a summary conclusion. I soon saw the pattern as a mathematical formula, and my success was assured, after she corrected my little problem which she called "writing like a Victorian."

Now, thirty-five years later, I am free to let my stream of consciousness flow, and, if I still write like a Victorian, I have no one to blame but myself, as she did her best to change me.

I want to write about things here in Alabama, my collections ( "Let's go antique-ing" ), maybe something about my ancestors ( a big deal among old familes here), my obsessive searches on Ebay, my primitive furniture ( which fits right in with my log house) , and anything else which gains my attention for the day. If I promise nothing, then I won't disappoint.

Finally, I don't know how to turn on the spell-check, or if there even is such a thing in this place. I will say here that I don't think any writer ( or reader) is all that smart who can't think of at least three ways to spell a word.