Crafts & Folk Art

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Carved Noah's Ark painted blue with dove on roof with approximately 200 animals and figures.Just about any day now the fall rains are going to start.  Of course, it’s only going to seem like it’s rained forty days and forty nights, but when I’m lying awake at night wondering how much more water the septic system can withstand, I can think about Noah and his orderly pairs of animals.  Which usually makes my thoughts wonder off, because have you ever noticed that all the depictions include exotic animals and farmyard critters, but no cats?  That’s because Noah was probably unable to get the cooperation of cats, if any of his cats were like mine….

Anyway, arks are actually highly collectible, probably because they have crossover appeal, since they find favor among collectors of folk art, toys, and miniatures.  This helps support prices, and it doesn’t hurt that there are so many to choose from.  There are store-bought versions on a relatively small scale, like this one, and then there are early German-manufactured examples, like this one that has compartments for all the animals and measures nearly 3′ high!  In terms of sale prices, though, it’s all about folky craftsmanship and numbers – the one pictured above, complete with approximately 200 animal and human figures, sold for more than $28,000!

Logging tools in an antique bottle whimsy The ship in a bottle has become an icon of sorts, a necessity in any scene depicting an expensively decorated office with a nautical theme, a visual gag as a stand-in hobby for any character when one wants to convey a level of obsessiveness or fustiness.  As usual, these sorts of stereotypes aren’t really accurate, in part simply because it wasn’t just ships that were assembled in bottles, but a wide range of folk art creations.

In many respects, bottle whimsies, as the form is called, share their origins and themes with the rest of the folk art world.  They were typically made by people either on the fringes of society (drifters, prisoners, the mentally ill, etc.) or those who found themselves in isolated circumstances for extended periods of time (sailors, loggers, soldiers at remote posts, etc.), and the majority of them seem to be made by men and unsigned.  Most of the bottles date from around the 1870s to the 1930s, but bottles from the 1850s through the 1950s are occasionally seen, but since little is generally known about the makers, it’s difficult to say if these dates also define the artwork.  And, like much folk art, religion is a common theme with a number of bottles containing depictions of Christ on the cross.

Because of their more recent age, rustic nature, and mysterious origins, bottle whimsies aren’t typically as appreciated by collectors as some other folk art forms (scrimshaw, carvings, etc.), but researchers have made some connections that allow them to attribute certain bottles to the same maker, even if the maker’s identity remains unknown.  Carl Worner is the most prolific known maker, and while little is known about his life, 50-60 bottles have been attributed to him.

A Baltimore applique album quilt, dated 1855Quilts are some of the most ubiquitous antiques – made for generations, still made, sometimes in the same ways, and still being sold or handed down in families. And perhaps more than many objects, they’re often completely detached from their history – no provenance, no history of a maker – and thus are reduced just to condition and whatever details can be drawn out from the age of the fabric, the pattern, and the technique.

For this reason, history can make a great difference in prices. A quilt like this one, which descended in an early Virginia/West Virginia family with family provenance, fetched easily three times what it likely would have as just an “old quilt” with no specific origins. Friendship quilts were also popular and help researchers make genealogical and historical connections. Friendship quilts are typically quilts with a traditional pieced structure, but they are often signed (and the pieced pattern often incorporates a “clear” white space for a signature and/or an embroidered inscription). Tradition indicates that friends would each make a pieced section to contribute.

A better documented, if more isolated tradition is that of the Baltimore album quilt. Album quilts (like the one pictured above) appeared in the 1840s in the Baltimore area (eventually spreading to other regions, including documented examples in the Miami River Valley area of Ohio), and unlike more traditional quilts which are made up of pieces of the same composition stitched together to create a pattern, album quilts are typically comprised of larger individual blocks, all with a separate design, style, or motif. While they were later often sold in kit form, early ones were individually designed, and while they occasionally appear to have been made by one person, the majority – and the most desirable – album quilts were, instead, often made by a group of women with each contributing a block that was either designed by the future owner or that was designed by the individual contributor. Oftentimes, the blocks are also signed by the makers, either in indelible ink or embroidery. The genealogical gift of more than one name (and, frequently, a date) is a great one to researchers.

Both friendship and album quilts were periodically also made for very specific occasions or causes, to commemorate weddings, birthdays, or other milestone events. While it appears to have been done all in one hand, this quilt, for example, marks Ohio’s contribution to the Civil War, being presented in 1884 to the mother of a soldier and listing the names, companies, and regiments of around 300 Ohio soldiers. So many quilts probably carry great stories, and the marketplace definitely appreciates those still in a position to “speak up”!

Shaker child's sewing desk, Canterbury, New Hampshire

Rare Shaker child's sewing desk, Canterbury, New Hampshire

Typically, when one thinks of the artifacts of a religious group, one thinks of icons, crucifixes, ceremonial silver, not rocking chairs.  Yet the Shakers, more accurately known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a group that never had more than about 6,000 full members, have made some of the greatest contributions to American material culture and design.

The Shaker religion appeared in England in 1747, and really began to gain momentum in 1758 when Ann Lee joined them.  (Among the many things that reveal Shakers were ahead of their time is their democratic attitude toward women and leadership.)  Their basic tenets involved, among other things, a renouncing of worldly goods, a communal life of celibacy and simplicity, and the enthusiastic style of worship that earned them their nickname.  The religion’s heyday was over the next century or so; children were adopted by the communities, but the communal and egalitarian nature of the Shaker life no doubt also appealed to women who were disenfranchised, either through abusive marriages or the societal and financial limitations of widowhood.

Today, aside from that quirky idea about celibacy, Shakers are most remembered for the products of their industrious simplicity.  Not only did they invent or pioneer a number of ideas – from the “flat” household broom (versus the less effective round version) to packaging and selling seeds in paper packets, but they also created one of the most appealing design aesthetics through their devotion to neat, clean, symmetrical work.  Coming to prominence during the Federal period of style, they took what was already a very refined and balanced sense of design and just stripped it down to the most elegant elements.

These days, however, elegant simplicity is probably going to cost you.  Shaker pieces are highly desirable (assuming that objects are convincingly Shaker and not just in the “Shaker style”), in part just because of the careful attention to the details of quality construction and in part perhaps because with so few communities, pieces can be more readily identified and researched than other pieces of the same period.  In terms of collecting, things fall out fairly simply in terms of price: you have the small things like chairs and pantry boxes that were made in vast quantities for sale outside the communities and you have case pieces, tables, and more specialized forms that were manufactured for use within the community.  Chairs, spinning wheels and the like can easily be had for a few hundred dollars, but if it’s Shaker-made AND Shaker-used someone is after, the case pieces (like the one pictured above) generally bring well into five figures.  But, after all, simplicity never goes out of style!

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor,

Reference & Further Recommended Reading:

To search the Prices4Antiques antiques reference database for valuation information on hundreds of thousands of antiques and fine art visit our homepage

Andrew Clemens folk art sand bottle with rose over McGregor, Iowa, Oct. 1892 caption

Andrew Clemens folk art sand bottle with rose over McGregor, Iowa, Oct. 1892 caption

Also see: A World in a Grain of Sand: Andrew Clemens’ Sand Bottles

It’s always exciting when research brings new things to light and because of a lecture given at the Midwest Antiques Forum, I’m able to revisit something I’ve written about before – the sand bottle art of Andrew Clemens (1857? to 1894) of McGregor, Iowa (originally covered in our May 2011 newsletter).  Clemens, left deaf and mostly, it’s believed, mute by a bout of encephalitis as a young boy, made incredible works of art like the one here by positioning sand one grain at a time.  Recent research into Clemens by Wes Cowan of Cowan’s Auctions (also star of PBS’s History Detectives and a frequent guest on Antiques Roadshow) has identified around 50 bottles (he believes he knows of at least another 50 or so), and this process has allowed us to see how the bottles changed over time.

One myth that the lecture dispelled was the belief that Clemens collected all the sand himself, that the colors were all naturally occurring in the Picture Rocks area near McGregor.  Most of the sand was naturally occurring, but some colors, blues and greens, for instance, were so rare that it would have take far too long to collect them solely from a natural source.  Closer examination reveals “filler” and artificial color, as well as the use of bits of charcoal for blacks and greys used in shading.

Perhaps, however, the most amazing discovery is some documentary evidence relating to the creation of the sand bottles.  Cowan’s research has uncovered a printed price list, offering everything from flowers to eagles to steamboats, with prices ranging from 50 cents to around five dollars.  This seems like such a small amount for such amazing, precise work, until placed in the context of one of the only known surviving letters from Clemens to a customer, discussing his process for the work and telling him that for a jar of the type requested, it normally took him just about two days….

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor,

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