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Museum Masterpieces

It’s gratifying that after thirty-four years and counting, our Directory of Traditional American Crafts continues to feature veteran artisans as well as newcomers. We’re always happy to show the work of those who have never entered—it’s our way of encouraging budding traditional craftspeople to seek the Directory’s imprimatur and join those master makers whose work graces period homes, museum sites and gift shops, and the settings of historical feature films.

We showcase the work of this year’s museum-quality artisans at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island, New York, settled by a melting pot of ethnic groups from throughout Europe some four centuries ago. The site has forty-five structures to portray its history from settlement to the present, and so plenty of appropriate display spaces for photographing the artisans’ objects.

Other objects considered to be of museum quality among their genre appear elsewhere in this issue.

Bruce and Barbara McRitchies’ Williamsburg home, while not historic itself, reflects the interior of a well-to-do 18th- Century dwelling, where fine English antiques mix with the work of America’s best early cabinetmakers and decorative artists. Further, a carefully curated collection of ceramics fills every cupboard, graces every mantel and tabletop, and lines long shelves in the couple’s tavern basement.

The McRitchies studied with experts before choosing the best pieces they could find, from Chinese dynasty porcelain to 16th-Century German stoneware to 17th-Century and 18th-Century British creamware, delft, and stoneware. Always learning, the couple has recently branched out, adding maps and miniature portraits to their collections.

You might not envision rolling pins as museum objects, but these ubiquitous household tools came in an assortment of styles and materials, depending on their purpose. Sailors sometimes made them from exotic woods and whalebone, and the Shaker communities made them as well—and yes, you can find them in museums.

And then there are eagles. Once Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States with the bald eagle as its central motif, artists and tradesmen began incorporating it on every type of object imaginable, formal as well as whimsical.

Mints and metal workers engraved the bird on coins and presentation pieces. Carvers and furniture makers added three-dimensional figures to architecture, ships, and tall clocks. Painters limned it on landscapes and ceramics, while printers inked it on newspaper mastheads and magazine covers. Young girls learning to stitch and housewives already proficient with a needle incorporated it onto quilts and samplers.

Most of these makers took artistic license with the eagle-shield-stars motif, although all were recognizable as appropriate renditions. As America matured, so too did the eagle—from a scrawny chickenlike bird with what look like frog legs to the soaring majesty of the real bird in flight.

In either case, its likeness spread as quickly as Americans’ pride in their new and independent nation, and within a few years of the Great Seal’s adoption in 1782, the bald eagle came to symbolize the United States both internally and abroad.

And, as one museum curator noted, if an object bore an eagle, it held more appeal for early buyers. Now those objects—our antiques—sell for more because an eagle decorates them. See how many you can spot on the following pages.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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