Relics of American History: 6 Archetypes of Americana

Rare 13-Star American National Flag Commemorating the Centennial Celebration of American Independence, 1876. $7,500 - $9,000 via Sotheby's (May 2002).

For some it is a grand grill-fest; for others, it might be with spectacular sparklers. No matter how you celebrate, the 4th of July in America comes steeped in tradition. In commemoration of the nation’s birthday and the time-honored rituals that surface this time of year, this article looks to the some of the rich artistic traditions of America’s early days. Enjoy a stroll through history and some of the archetypes of Americana and Folk art as we look to the stories and significance of some of these unique and entrancing works — and tip our hat to a country entering its 243rd year.

1. Trade Signs

Well before the advent of online banner ads and email campaigns, shops and retailers relied on effective trade signs to showcase their offerings. Often elaborately decorated with individualized typography and rich colors, these signs would serve as the business’ street presence and had to be effective in pulling customers in during a time when literacy was not guaranteed. Such signage reached its peak in the 19th century, the era from which some of the most splendid examples survive today.

Examples that appear in the market vary from the straightforward to the humorous and from the modest to the monumentally priced, depending on the sign’s level of decoration and preservation.

Left: Hat maker’s trade sign, early 20th century, sold for $120. Right: American boot maker’s trade sign, 19th century, sold for $570. Both via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers (March 2017).

2. Weathervanes

Weathervanes share a similar tradition of unique yet usable design and are another category that American folk art collectors watch carefully. Designed primarily to assess the direction of the wind and predict weather, weathervanes became more intricate over time. From the weathervane eventually evolved a form of decorative art known as the whirligig, which featured movable limbs or appendages that would spin wildly when in use.

Two American Sailor Whirligigs, 20th century, sold for $270 via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers (March 2016).

Weathervanes fall across a wide range of prices in today’s market. On the lower end are mass-produced varieties in molded forms, while those of individual, exceptional craftsmanship typically reach the highest prices.

Left: American rooster weathervane, sold for $510 (March 2017). Right: American horse weathervane, sold for $3,120 (March 2018). Both via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers.

3. Embroidery Sampler

Not unlike the needlepoint kits found at craft stores today, embroidery samplers have been popular since the 18th century as a means to train young girls in the art of fine needlework. Many of the earliest examples were simply patterns imprinted on silks or linens for an embroiderer to follow, though they eventually expanded into a useful tool for young women to refine their skills in a domestic artform so that they could be entrusted with such tasks for their families in adulthood. This isn’t to say that boys shied away from samplers; on the contrary, some male youths partook in samplers that were designed to reinforce reading and writing skills. Given fabric’s degradation over time, it is rare to find an early antique sampler in mint condition, but many still retain their intricate details.

Needlework sampler, Eunice Pilsbery (1777-1856), Newburyport, MA, 18th century. Sold for $10,625 via Freeman’s (April 2015).

4. Silhouettes

Originally known simply as profile portraits, likenesses “à la silhouette” were ushered in during the mid-18th century in France, the term being a pejorative name for the seemingly cheap and insignificant portrait style (the name comes from a French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, who at the time was much vilified for his ruthless tax proposals). By the end of the century, however, such delicate renderings became increasingly popular with European and American audiences who saw them as a means of conveying a very dignified representation of the sitter. Talented artists who specialized in the art of the silhouette portrait grew in popularity as profile portraits achieved one of the most exact likenesses of an individual that a patron could buy. By the dawn of the 19th century such portraits exploded in acclaim. So, while silhouettes aren’t originally an American innovation, their prevalence in the early 19th-century American household was certain.

Family silhouette, 19th century. Sold for $720 via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers (January 2018).

5. William and Mary Furniture

A style named for its debut during the reign of William of Orange and Mary II of England, William and Mary furniture emerged in the later 17th century and was defined by Baroque flourishes and overall unity of design. By the 18th century the style had made it to America’s shores and was slowly modified to be more streamlined than splashy. William and Mary furniture from American workshops still sported rich woods and the lacquer technique of japanning, but carved scrolls and arabesques were replaced with smooth arcs and tufted seat cushions were replaced with chair caning. Though simpler in style, these examples reflect a key moment of American furniture’s fascinating history.

William and Mary chest on frame, early 18th century. Sold for $3,000 via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers (January 2018).

6. Stoneware

The first stoneware ceramics came from 15th-century Germany, but by the 18th century American makers dominated the field with an amazing array of salt-glazed vessels, so called for the mottled surface achieved by adding salt during the kiln firing process. As the years progressed, new glazing colors and motifs were added, and by the peak years of the 19th century stoneware workshops dotted the American east coast. From the Crolius and Remney potters in New York to J. Eberly Company in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, acclaimed stoneware makers can see prices at auction today that rival some of their more refined ceramic kin.


Left: Pennsylvania stoneware canning jar, 19th century, sold for $4,080 (September 2017). Right: New York stoneware crock, sold for $720 (March 2017). Both via Garth’s Auctioneers & Appraisers.

Looking for more? Click here to explore Early American furniture.