American history is very much alive in the public imagination – whether it’s through Oscar-winning films, televised debates, sold-out musicals or, as seen in Sotheby’s upcoming Americana Week, folk art and other creative representations of political culture. We asked Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, about the on-going appeal of these rare objects and how they give us an equally unique glimpse of the nation’s past.
In a broad sense, why do you think Americans are drawn to learning about and connecting to moments from their country’s history?
I think there are a number of reasons, depending on the period at hand. But the number one thing is that people look back in the past for something that’s relevant to the present. For example, we probably keep getting drawn to the Civil War because it seems many of the issues we fought about then, like race and the relationship between the federal and state governments, are still unresolved. Those questions are being debated in the presidential campaign, among many other places. They resonate with people.
FOWLER GUARD FLAG OF THE 42ND GEORGIA INFANTRY, COMPANY D. ESTIMATE: $60,000 – 80,000.
How do you see that dynamic as it relates to the American Revolution?
With the founding generation, I think there’s a real fascination when it comes to figures like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton that reflects a certain dissatisfaction with our leaders today. I’m not talking about any particular person or party, but the general contemporary idea that we once had leaders with noble character, so to speak. Now of course, those guys were politicians also. They weren’t perfect people. Politics back then could be pretty scurrilous. But there’s nostalgia around the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution.
Do you think that nostalgia is part of the appeal in collecting Americana?
When you collect historical objects like this, it seems you want to be connected to the periods of the past that you really find fascinating.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: THREE STRAFFORDSHIRE ENAMEL CURTAIN TIE-BACKS, CIRCA 1800. ESTIMATE: $150 – 250.
Something I think Americana Week brings to light is how we relate to history in its physical form as memorabilia and artefacts.
Many of the items in these catalogues are folk art – meaning ordinary people created them. I find that interesting, and included folk art in my American history textbook, because it gives a real sense of history and identity from various communities. Folk art tells us something about public sentiment, about patriotism and how an average person related to the ideals of society. The government didn’t ask these people to go out and make a carving of Abraham Lincoln or sew a quilt. They did that of their own volition – I think that’s more genuine in a sense.
It also results in some really spontaneous, unique pieces. One of my favourites is the figure of Washington that was originally a radiator stove.
People use the forms of expression that are familiar to them, whether it’s a flag or a carving of a soldier or a portrait. Sometimes the result is directly political, like Benjamin Harrison's campaign art or the picture of Andrew Jackson, but most of it is political in a more general sense of people expressing their ideas. Then you have professional works like the bust of Benjamin Franklin or Trumbull’s print of Washington. There are innumerable representations created in one way or another of some of these historical figures. You could make a good living selling them back in the 19th century.
AMERICAN FLAG AND EAGLES. ESTIMATE: $30,000 – 40,000.
Did any of the folk art from our upcoming auctions speak to you in particular?
I like the quilts – the more you look at them, the more you see that they include so many symbols and concepts. I also like that women created them. We tend to write women out of political history, because they weren’t voting at this period. Yet these are political expressions in the broad concept. They show that women were thinking about public issues as well.
You’ve actually curated a couple history exhibits with objects similar to these. Did you notice if people became especially excited about a particular category or topic?
I have. One was at the Chicago Historical Society and then another started at the Virginia Historical Society and travelled around. You want to have all different kinds of artefacts – lithographs, flags, furniture, quilts, as well as written documents. It’s the range of things that makes an exhibit interesting to visitors. When you get to the Civil War, people are excited about anything relating to Lincoln. At the Chicago Historical Society for example, it’s a little ghoulish, but they have the bed on which Lincoln died. People come from all over the world to see it. Anything relating to Lincoln draws a crowd. It could be a receipt from him buying a quart of milk. If it’s Lincoln, they love it.
MAIN PHOTO CREDIT: DANIELLA ZALCMAN