Previously on Lives and Legacies, curator Meghan Budinger laid out a wonderful summary of the Colonial Revival movement. At no point did she weigh-in with her opinion of Colonial Revival and she should be applauded for her diplomacy. To be honest, though, many historians, material culture specialists, and decorative arts enthusiasts (among others) can get a little ‘judgy’ when it comes to Colonial Revival.
Copies of copies rarely turn out as nice as the original and, as Meghan discussed, Colonial Revival items conform more to our notion of how things looked in the 18th century than how they actually looked in the 18th century.
When dealing with ceramics, Colonial Revival copies are almost always ‘clunky’ compared to the beauties they seek to emulate. This is because the reproductions are machine made, while the colonial originals were handmade and hand-decorated. It’s very hard to imitate that kind of craftsmanship with a machine. Experts call it being ‘debased’. The copy is simply of a lower quality and slightly distorted.
Take for example this, um, interesting platter made between 1935 and 1941 by The Homer Laughlin China Company. It is a hideous imitation of the beautiful shell edge decoration popular in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century. Of course, not all Colonial Revival is quite this debased as this extreme example.
Some are actually pretty accurate, like this tasteful white granite pitcher or this stoneware mustard pot, which dates from 1993. I’m pretty sure it came from The Cracker Barrel.
It just so happens that our awesome team of specialists (curators and archaeologists – a fun bunch) are currently furnishing the Washington house at Ferry Farm with reproductions the public may handle as we create an interactive house. Original 18th century objects are not an option. Good colonial reproductions can sometimes cost as much as originals and can also be surprisingly hard to find. Thus, despite our prejudices, we’re finding ourselves extremely grateful for the glut of Colonial Revival tea and tablewares currently on the market.
Colonial Revival pieces are often quite sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and no member of our staff will dissolve into tears if a stoneware crock with cobalt blue hand-painted decoration originally purchased at The Cracker Barrel in 1997 broke. We might actually celebrate it. And so we hunt for modern items that straddle the line between historically accurate and, if need be, expendable. We are diligently scouring auction sites, thrift and junk shops, antique markets, and sometimes our own cupboards in our never ending quest for Colonial Revival. We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress and hope you can visit the Washington House to see how we did!
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist