This year marks the 50th presentation of the Philadelphia Antiques Show — widely recognized as the country's premier event showcasing American decorative arts and furniture. And so, naturally, the theme of "Celebration" for the annual loan exhibit is tailor-made for the occasion.
Curated by Constance Hershey of the Frankliniana Database at Franklin & Marshall College, it brings together objects designed to observe festivities like weddings, graduations, inauguaration, parades, holidays, and, of course, anniversaries and birthdays.
Some, like a pair of carved, painted, and gilded angels blowing trumpets — which crowned a 1762 organ built for the Dutch Reformed Church in Germantowm, Pennsylvania — literally herald that celebration is in the air. Others, like a delicately adorned circa 1707 silver bowl crafted to be filled with brandy wine to celebrate a wedding and a plainer 1743 one marking the birth of Ben Franklin's daughter, more subtly announce joyous personal events.
The frakturs of the Pennsylvania German communities offer compelling records that have proven valuable tools for historians and genealogists, notes Hershey in an essay in the Show's catalog. While some are ornately lavish in their depictions of figures and text, others are rigidly geometric and linear.
A section devoted to more public triumphs offers carved eagles and presentation plates. Stovepipe hats worn by firemen parading in Baltimore and Philadelphia are crowd-pleasers. To mark the achievements of America's most over-sized heroes, craftsmen created dazzling swords and ceremonial urns.
When President James Monroe invivted the Marquis de Lafayette to visit the U.S., one English pottery manufacturer offered a transfer-printed earthenware bowl that showed a younger Lafayette sitting peacefully before the tomb of George Washington, bringing together both heroes in imagery. The excitement surrounding his visit was "boundless," notes Hershey. It was, she writes, "our first national celebration."
In its tying together of the treads of America's personal lives and larger trajectories, the exhibit echoes the continuing mission of those who collect and deal in Americana. The array of objects displayed in the Celebrations exhibit are just the tip of the trove found elsewhere at the show. From 18th-century highboys to Tiffany lamps to a stunning array of tattered flags, Audubon prints, quilts and samplers, the exhibitors have crafted, as always, a thorough and fascinating walk through the history of American life.