Los Angeles Folk

Steve Oney

Steve Oney Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, Summer 2010 |

  • Fig. 1. Frame decorated with the ceremonial symbols of the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), American, c. 1870. Wood, paint, and gilding; height 27 ¾, width 22 ½ inches.
  • Fig. 2. Hand-carved and painted heart-in-hand IOOF staffs, American, 1880–1930.
  • Fig. 3. Mounted above a grain-painted Pennsylvania stand of c. 1830 is a nineteenth-century copper rooster weathervane made by Cushing and White of Waltham, Massachusetts.
  • Fig. 5. The Union soldier pine whirligig is dated 1865; the dandy gentleman one with a tin brimmed hat is from the late nineteenth century.
  • Fig. 6. Game boards line either side of the foyer: on the left are two examples of Parcheesi and on the right are a Chinese checkers board next to an elaborately painted game board, both of the early twentieth century, and a backgammon board of c. 1890. Above the double entrance door is a carved wooden hand of c. 1820, probably originally used as a sign of some sort. The cabinet to the left is filled with hand-painted boxes and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century carved figures.
  • Fig. 7. In the living room a sheet-iron horse weathervane attributed to the W. A. Snow Company of Boston is given pride of place above the fireplace, while a late nineteenth-century full-bodied copper leaping stag weathervane made by A. J. Harris and Company, also of Boston, stands atop a high chest of drawers from Virginia, c. 1790–1810. On the table are a checkerboard of c. 1880 from New Hampshire and a nineteenth-century whirligig of a black man swatting a bumblebee.
  • Fig. 8. Double-sided watchmaker’s trade sign from Fall River, Massachusetts, c. 1860. Painted wood and cast iron, overall height 34 inches.
  • Fig. 9. Painted trade sign of the blacksmith R. W. Clark (b. 1840), Massachusetts or Wisconsin, 1860s.
  • Fig. 10. Chest of drawers made by John Sala (1819–1882), Soap Hollow, Pennsylvania, 1852. Inscribed “MANUFACTURED BY JOHN SALA” on the front and “1852/W*K” on each of the two side panels, the initials presumably those of the original owner. Painted pine and poplar; height 52 ¾, width 37, depth 19 ¾ inches.
  • Fig. 11. In the dining room hang portraits of an unidentified sea captain, his wife, and their two sons attributed to William W. Kennedy (1818–1870), who worked in New Hampshire and Baltimore. A cast-iron rooster made by the Rochester Iron Works, New Hampshire, c. 1860, and retaining its original paint, struts his way toward a spindle-back bench of c. 1820.
  • Fig. 12. At one end of the dining room is an early nineteenth-century grain-painted cupboard. A cast-iron fox weathervane scampers across the table of c. 1840 from Maine. Glimpsed through the door on the right are some of the IOOF staffs in the collection.
  • Fig. 13. This nineteenth-century ventriloquist’s head is attributed to Roy Everingham. Carved and painted pine, height 8 ½ inches.
  • Fig. 14. A painted double-sided game board of c. 1900, with Parcheesi on one side and a checkerboard on the other, hangs above a painted dressing table of c. 1880. On it stands a hand puppet of Punch dating from c. 1900.
  • Fig. 15. The collectors’ passion for blue-painted furniture is evident in this view into the breakfast room, which shows a nineteenth-century apothecary’s cabinet on the left as well as a late nineteenth-century dining table, the dressing table also seen in Fig. 14 (in the right background), and the cupboard also seen in Fig. 17 (on the right).
  • Fig. 16. A Union Army flag with thirty-four stars dating it to 1863 dominates the stairwell.
  • Fig. 17. A late nineteenth-century carved wood banneret weathervane is displayed atop a step-back cupboard from Lenawee County, Michigan, c. 1860.
  • Fig. 18. Hair restorative trade sign, late nineteenth century. Painted wood, height 55 inches.
  • Fig. 19. In a guestroom upstairs stands this unusually large blue-painted screened food safe of c. 1860.
  • Fig. 20. Shooting-gallery target patented by John Theodore Dickman of Los Angeles, 1911. Cast “pat’d sept 19, 1911 by j.t. dickman l.a. cal” along the bottom. Cast iron, height 20 inches.
  • Fig. 21. Heart-in-hand, nineteenth century. Velvet and glass beads, 11 by 8 ½ inches.
  • Fig. 22. Ceremonial lodge goat, Midwestern, c. 1890. Wood, fabric, paint and marbles; height 49, width 51, depth 30 inches. Photograph by Jesse Hill by courtesy of the Hill Gallery, Birmingham, Michigan.
  • Fig. 4. This view of the living room shows an oversized step-back cupboard made in Pennsylvania c. 1860. On the table beneath the watchmaker’s trade sign (see also Fig. 8) is a nineteenth-century toleware box.

In the foyer of a handsome Los Angeles house hang half a dozen handmade nineteenth-century game boards (backgammon, checkers, Chinese checkers, and Parcheesi, among others), the bright colors and well-used wooden surfaces of which convey something many history texts do not: the vividness and vitality of everyday American life at the turn of the last century. On the shelves of a facing alcove stands an army of small, idiosyncratically carved figures that evoke still more of the nation’s past: a blue-coated soldier keeps company with a cowboy-boot-clad Indian agent, while several black whirligigs commune with a group of white whirligigs. Striking as all this is, the showstopper is a mounted sheaf of seven heart-in-hand staffs at the rear of the room (see Fig. 2). Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows used the shafts—each the length of a fireplace implement and topped by an open wooden palm adorned with a hand-painted red heart—in their lodge ceremonies. At once beautiful and mysterious, they bear out the point of view at work here: these are artifacts that enchant and instruct.

Everything my wife and I have gives us a sense of pleasure,” the collector says as he leads me through the house. “Everything has a story. Who did it? Why did they do it? We’re always learning.”

Although there are certainly more authoritative collections of American folk art, few have been as joyfully put together as this one. “My clients have let their hearts guide them,” says Michael J. Ogle, proprietor of Los Angeles’s American Garage, an antiques shop specializing in Americana. For more than fifteen years Ogle and his wife, Diana Douglas, have helped this couple acquire most of their collection. Ogle has joined us on our walk through the house. “I know super collectors who buy million-dollar pieces because they want the definitive object,” he says, “but that’s not what motivates these clients. They buy things they fall in love with.”
Nothing better speaks to the sense of romance that animates the couple than their house, which they purchased in 2004 as much to serve as a gallery for their collection as a place to live. Situated in an historic Los Angeles neighborhood (Cecil B. DeMille lived down the street), the 1934 colonial revival by the architect Wallace Neff (1895–1982) is itself a wonderful example of Americana. In a city where great houses are typically Spanish revival haciendas or sleek modernist icons, this sturdy but stylish two-story clapboarded jewel is as heartland as it gets.

Almost everything in the collection—from the grand to the utilitarian—is a work of early American folk art. In the spacious light-filled living room, an oversized blue-on-blue Pennsylvania step-back cupboard of about 1860 stands against the main wall. It may once have served a humble purpose, but it plays like a piece of sculpture here (see Fig. 4). So, too, do the several small nineteenth-century tables with painted graining. Although the owners have integrated paintings into the room, among them Edmund C. Coates’s View of Hudson Highlands from Fort Putnam, above West Point and A View of Mount Tom on the Connecticut River by Thomas Chambers (both c. 1840), it is the decorative arts that really dazzle. A painted, wooden double-sided clock from the 1860s that served as a watchmaker’s sign features the original cast-iron hanging ring (Fig. 8). A late nineteenth-century sheet-iron horse weathervane attributed to the W. A. Snow Company catches its equine subject in full-muscled stride. When the collector first saw it, he exclaimed, “That’s what I want over my fireplace so people will know what this house is all about” (see Fig. 7).

With some three hundred objects arrayed around the house, the merely diverting and the truly significant must coexist. Even so, several pieces stand out. The “R.W. Clark Blacksmith” sign in the dining room is one (Fig. 9). Adorned on the front side by a fierce white stallion and on the reverse by a buckboard, the sign looks very much as it must have when Clark, a Massachusetts and then Wisconsin blacksmith active in the 1860s, used it to advertise his handiwork. It also boasts an impeccable provenance, having once belonged to the great collector of Americana Roger Bacon (1904–1982). “It really is one of the cornerstones of this collection,” Ogle says.

Equally noteworthy is a grouping of four oil-on-canvas portraits of about 1845, also in the dining room (Fig. 11). Attributed to William W. Kennedy, a New Hampshire-born artist who worked in New England and Baltimore, the paintings depict a sea captain, his olive-skinned dark-eyed wife, and two sons—the older with a smart stickpin in his cravat, the younger holding flowers. “They came out of a Baltimore estate, and when we first saw them they weren’t for sale,” the collector explains. “But Diana said, ‘You have to have them.’ It’s rare to find four portraits of a family together. Most groupings are broken up. I love to look at them and think about their lives. The mother looks Spanish to me. I think the captain met her while abroad. One son is a daddy’s boy, the other a mother’s boy.” This, of course, is speculation, but with folk portraiture the precise truth about the subjects depicted is not always the main point.Few of this collection’s holdings are more powerful than the Union Army battle flag framed above the landing of the central stairwell (Fig. 16). The flag, whose thirty-four stars date it to 1863 (West Virginia and Kansas had just become states), is unusual because of its relatively small size. “Most battle flags are huge, because they were used by the cavalry,” the collector says. “But this one was carried by a Pennsylvania infantry company.” The silk fabric is fraying at the edges, lending the red, white, and blue threads a fragile luminosity. For me, the flag is the most stirring item in the collection, both a work of art and a piece of history.

This is a house that encourages daily intimacy with its objects. The owners use their antiques, and visitors are urged to play with the toys. “Everything in the house is in use,” Ogle says as he drops down into a eighteenth-century windsor chair in the dining room. Wandering into the laundry room, the owner runs his hands through a wire basket of early twentieth-century wooden clothespins that he and his wife use for the laundry. He then glances at a nineteenth-century wooden blackboard on which the two leave each other chalked notes. The eraser is a vintage Milton Bradley.

The passion for collecting runs deep in this couple. Early in their married life they filled a 1760 house outside New York with antiques. But it was not until they moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s that they began acquiring objects in earnest. On a visit to Santa Fe they became enamored of American Indian artifacts and began collecting them. The husband liked beadwork. The wife loved baskets and nineteenth-century Navajo jewelry. In the 1990s they sold most of that collection. They had discovered Americana.

In an upstairs guestroom an optometrist’s sign featuring cast-iron spectacles with the original blue glass lenses stares down. In the master bedroom, an 1852 Pennsylvania Soap Hollow dresser painted with gold horses and stars and signed by its maker, John Sala, is in daily use (Fig. 10). In the master bath, a nineteenth-century placard (Fig. 18) conjures up the snake oil salesmanship of a lost age: “Hair Restorative Restores Falling Hair. Prevents Hair from Turning Gray. Price: $1.00.”

Often accompanied by Ogle and Douglas, the collectors enjoy traveling to the major antiques shows in New York, Nashville, and New England. “The sick part of it,” says the husband as he waits for Ogle to mix a bourbon and water in the bar just off the kitchen, “is that we’re always on the hunt. We’ll never stop looking.”

Steve Oney is a Los Angeles-based writer and is the author of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.

Iconography of the Odd Fellows

For several years now objects associated with American fraternal organizations, especially the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, have been turning up with increasing regularity among collectors of folk art like the couple featured here. The allure of these pieces is as bold as information about who made them and when is scarce. Perhaps a scholar will eventually dig through the records of a few of the hundreds of lodges (many of them now disbanded) and retrieve a part of this information, but the results of that detective work may not tell us much beyond the obvious facts: some of these pieces were handmade by a member of the lodge; some were manufactured by one of the regalia companies that grew up to satisfy a growing demand for ritualistic objects from fraternal organizations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and still others were probably made by hand and sold by regalia companies.

In the meantime, there are the artifacts—staffs, quilts, doorstops, signs, frames, and so forth—with their bold graphics and whiff of secrecy. The Odd Fellows symbols are not, in fact, all that mysterious: the heart-in-hand represents the charity and love that is at the core of a lodge’s mission to protect its members in illness, injury, or death. And so forth through the three interlocking rings (friendship, love, truth), the shepherd’s crook, the bundle of rods, the hourglass—all time-worn symbols easily decoded with a little help from online sources. It is the spirit of these objects that exerts their pull on collectors, and it is the individual character of a piece that separates it from its lesser counterparts. As with much folk art, value resides not in provenance but in individual artistry, in separating the exceptional from the routine.

The Freemasons may be the august paradigm of fraternal organizations with members among the founding fathers and a refined material culture that excites conspiracy theories and best-selling novels, but it was the more egalitarian Odd Fellows that yielded objects made by men and women that, at their best, seem to bubble up from a vanished popular culture. Tim Hill of the Hill Gallery in Michigan has been buying such pieces since the 1970s when many lodges had already disbanded. He looks for variations on a known theme that exhibit an idiosyncratic vision, and he points to the goat pictured here as an exceptional example of well-made folk art goatiness. Such goats are associated with rituals in which blindfolded initiates were wheeled around on them, but they were not part of sanctioned lodge practice according to Aimee Newell of the National Heritage Museum. Nevertheless they were prevalent and turn up frequently in old regalia catalogues and recent antiques shows. This one wins best in breed.