19th-century craftsmen shift gears for changing market.

Position:ENTERTAINMENT
 
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Byline: Pamela H. Sacks

Alexis de Tocqueville made numerous keen observations during his tour of America in the 1830s, among them that rural craftsmen were producing an abundance of decorative arts at cheap prices. The French historian and political thinker contrasted the phenomenon with craftsmen in Europe, who painstakingly produced a limited number of exquisite, costly items intended for the wealthy.

Historian David Jaffee has taken the singularly American inventiveness witnessed by de Tocqueville and fleshed out its impetus, its evolution and its ramifications in his recently published book "A New Nation of Goods."

"It's a world of scarcity in the 1760s and 1770s, when most people don't have many worldly goods," Jaffee said, adding that decorative arts back then were found mostly in the homes of city dwellers and had either been made in urban settings or abroad.

After the Revolution, craftsmen in villages scattered across New England produced a variety of decorative items that suited both the pocketbook and the taste of the rural populace.

Such work became a means of supporting a family in a changing economy, as well as a way to decorate a home by buying locally, Jaffee said.

Northern Worcester County was a beehive activity, with craftsmen making chairs in Gardner and Sterling, clocks in Athol, and combs in Leominster. Itinerant painters traveled from town to town producing watercolors, oil portraits, silhouettes and murals.

Jaffee was working on his doctoral dissertation on the people of Wachusett when his interest was sparked by the development of village material culture. His research took him throughout Northern Worcester County, among other areas of New England.

He studied at the Smithsonian and at Winterthur in Delaware, the country's premier museum of American decorative arts, as he developed expertise on the subject. In "A New Nation of Goods," he focuses on the production of chairs, clocks, books and portraits.

"I was interested in a wider study that would capture that movement in the 19th century, with Worcester County being one of the key areas," Jaffee said recently by telephone. He is a professor and head of New Media Research at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

Jaffee noted that there is controversy among collectors and museum professionals as to why rurally produced items were less sophisticated than their city counterparts.

In Jaffee's...

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