I’ve been hearing about the “glory days” of antique shows enough that I went to the library last night and headed for the microfilm, armed with a short list of New York Times articles I found online. First, here are a few general observations. I didn’t search that hard, but didn’t see many articles in the 1970s, or 1960s for that matter. The bulk of the articles appeared in the 1940s, 50s and 90s. It’s by no means a scientific measure, but if articles are an indication of the general popularity of antiques, the notion that people turn to tradition (and thus buy antiques) when times are bad isn’t easily supported by the occurrence of articles.
Before last night I had never heard of the National Antiques Show at Madison Square Garden. I’m not sure how many years the show ran, or if any of the current shows are successors to it, but I can ascertain that it was big and popular. It ran at least from 1948 through the ’60s. It featured some 200 exhibitors in 1948 (they didn’t seem to call them dealers) and the fair opened to a crowd “queued up outside the Garden for about an hour before being admitted.” In the first three days of the week-long show, 58,000 were in attendance. Items were shipped from the show to 31 states. In my time, I have not witnessed that at antique shows. Art exhibits and toy train shows, yes, but not antique shows.
It also appears museum buyers came in great numbers, at least to the 1948 show. According to the article, most of the furnishings of a Shaker exhibit had been sold to museums within an hour of opening. These Shaker pieces were apparently brought by a dealer and arranged in a room setting “and their metamorphosis through fabrics, rugs and arrangement to components of a smart, modern room” was accomplished by a decorator. Retail department stores were also big buyers, as most had “antiques departments.” (A side note, I was just reading that New York retailer Benjamin Altman began his art collection with Chinese ceramics—originals of the copies he sold in his stores.)
Back to the Shaker furniture. Whoa! Did we hear that right? A “smart, modern room?” at an antiques show? It seems obvious that in the day of the National Antiques Show, much less than today, we didn’t assume everyone walking through the door was an antiquarian! I can’t pretend to imagine with vividness what a smart and modern room in the 1940s would look like, but that image was helped by a nearby ad for a modern split-level house. Moreover, it also challenges the contemporary notion of vetting—a modern setting must have had modern components that were part of a show. Whether they were on sale, or not, is the question.
To the antiques world of today, this all may seem like too much: department stores were selling antiques, and antique shows presented wares in modern rooms. When you think about it, it makes some sense. Today we tend to treat everyone as a collector, but most people just want to satisfy the age-old urge to have a pleasant, comfortable, attractive and strategically impressive living environment. This isn’t entirely an analysis of today’s shows, but perhaps we aren’t as good at answering the questions of “why” and “what to do with it.” (and dare I say that even antiques lovers like to be thought of as smart and modern).
The other phenomenon I gathered from my journey through the microfilm files is the element of a show. I think this tradition still survives, but it has become more reserved in recent years. At the National Antiques Show the New York Public Library displayed 1,500 books on antiques and related subjects. A dozen old-time gowns were put on display by Goodwill Industries of New York. One of the most popular exhibits: an antique lock collection presented by Yale and Towne Manufacturing Company. Also on display curiously was a 1910 Cadillac. This would be the equivalent of bringing a 1975 or ’80 Cadillac to a show today.
Sure, there were lots of the things we see and think of as antiques today, furniture, silver, etc. The National Antiques Show, because of its size, was probably an anomaly, perhaps the kind of thing that happens when a frenzy builds a thing up until it collapses. It could just be the show ended with the demolition of the old Madison Square Garden. (One of our readers must have some insight). The New York Antiques Show at the Waldorf Astoria seemed to have much greater emphasis on traditional antiques in antique settings (but I bet the attendance numbers weren’t there!)
What can we take from this? If anything, I think it’s the sense that as humans we like to latch onto something big, and then feel we’re a part of it. It’s true in politics, fashion and in home decorating. We can’t all own Jefferson’s candlestick, but we can find one of a similar age and design. Just as today, the show draws us in (and there has to be an element of show to accomplish that), and we take a small part home. Most dealers at the national Antiques Show reported that the bulk of visitors were interested in lower-priced articles such as mirrors, prints, china and glass which they could carry home.