Thrifty New Englanders: Yesterday’s Rag Becomes Tomorrow’s Magic Carpet.

Thrifty New Englanders: Yesterday’s Rag Becomes Tomorrow’s Magic Carpet.

Hooked rugs might be the all-time best example of thrifty Yankees getting the last gasp out of something… and with style! Rural folk admired the machine loomed carpets that became popular after the 1830s, but couldn’t afford such luxuries. So women along the seaboard of New England and the Canadian Maritimes created their own crafty alternatives by taking bits of rags and left-over scraps of fabric, and pulling them on a pattern through a coarse backing like jute or burlap. Yarn, even in short lengths, was much too valuable to waste, so women used any bit of fabric too worn or unsuitable for clothing, and free grain or seed sacks for the backing.

The first hooked rugs were actually used as blankets and bed coverings, inspired by the heavy “bed rugs” from the previous century. They evolved not just as practical floor coverings, but also became colorful, artful designs that ranged from the abstract or geometric, to figural or scenic displays. Each rug hooker devised their own patterns, and a folk art was born.

Dolphin Hooked Rug

Vintage Hooked Rug of Porpoises or Beaked Whales, circa 1930.

As hooked rugs became increasing popular, the variety became more stylized. Edward Sands Frost, an enterprising peddler from Biddeford, Maine, began selling his own stenciled rug designs in the 1860s; he eventually had a repertoire of around 750 patterns (now in the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) which included flowers, wild and domestic animals, and adaptations from Oriental carpets. As in most crafts, rug hookers were influenced by each other, and regional characteristic or styles developed. Today’s collector highly prizes unique patterns and naïve “outsider” charm.

Starburst Hooked Rug

Vintage Starburst or Moravian Star Hooked Rug, circa 1920.

Rug hooking became so popular that Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck began selling their own kits. By the beginning of the 20th Century hooked rug patterns and supplies were abundant and cheap… and unfortunately ever more cheap in quality and deplorable in design. Rug hooking fell out of favor.

Inspired by the general Arts and Crafts movement, many cottage industries started up to counter what was seen as bad designs made cheaply. Companies such as Abanakee Rugs of New Hampshire and , the Subbekashe Rug Industry in Belchertown, MA sought to supply a better made and designed rug to a growing middle class, and at the same time provide work for those in need. Best known of all were the Grenfell Mission Industries, providing crucial support and opportunity in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1893.  The iconic Grenfell Hooked Rugs were made first with cotton flannelette and later (in the 1930s and 40s) with collected and dyed silk and rayon hosiery. The fine tight texture, and distinctive style and subject matter, make Grenfells among the most sought after antique and vintage hooked rugs.

grenfell rug

Grenfell Missions Hooked Rug of Flying Ducks, circa 1930.

Antique hooked rugs remain very popular today, with both the traditional collector as well as the modern decorator. Since they range from the boldly abstract, to the naively quirky, and to the elaborately fancy, there is a hooked rug to grace any room, whether underfoot or on the wall. The hooked rugs illustrated here, and others, are available at the Antiques Depot.


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Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Part Three: Whale’s Teeth and More Materials.

We began in the last blog to take a close look at elephant and walrus ivory. We discussed its characteristics and pointed out its distinguishing features. But that’s just a start. What about whale ivory? Are there other types of ivory as well? How can you tell all these apart from one another? And what about fake ivory?

Most all scrimshaw collectors are especially looking for antique pieces fashioned from Whale Ivory. This is actually the teeth from sperm (or occasionally killer) whales, which grow like all other mammal’s teeth by the laying of concentric strata of dentin beneath the rough cementum seen in unpolished teeth, and a layer of enamel towards the tip. The growth pattern produces a wavy wood-like grain (which can be faint or difficult to see on the surface). The teeth also have relatively deep conical root cavities which often have polyp growths on the surface. Lacking the wonders of modern cosmetic dentistry, whale’s teeth may develop a patina ranging from a light buttercream (why do you think they call that color ivory anyways?) to a fairly deep golden brown (think amber honey rather than a smoker’s smile), and can easily stain from contact with various substances.

The other tusks sometimes used in scrimshaw are much more rarely seen, and are usually identified by their shape and size. A Narwhal Tusk for example is actually formed by a fusion of the two upper incisors on males growing in a spiral. They are prized for their unique helical form. Sailors and craftsmen almost always left these tusks in their natural form and either displayed them whole (typically between five and ten feet long) or used lengths of them for walking stick shafts (or rarely other small objects or applique). The form is the key to identification here.

Wild Boar and Warthog Tusks are the huge protruding canine teeth from these wild pigs formerly ranging through much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They can grow up to seven inches or so long, have a wickedly sabre tooth tiger-ish shape, made even more dramatic by the natural fluting that runs along their length. Their most desirable feature to a craftsman was this wild shape, so once again they were usually left intact and typically used for handles on canes, corkscrews or tools. One might be lucky enough to chance upon a piece made with the much scarcer Tiger’s Teeth, having a similar curved and fluted shape but much smaller and usually having a patina more like a whale’s tooth.

Lastly and most scarce of all there are Hippo Tusks, actually the incisor and canine teeth which grown with tightly packed concentric dentin layers around a central interstitial zone, a thin layer of cementum and a broad band of enamel. They are long (up to ten inches or so), steadily curved as a segment from the arc of a circle, and creamy colored with a very fine, barely discernible grain. These teeth were rarely used because they are incredibly hard, said to be able to strike sparks from steel. When used at all they were almost always left whole, typically as supports for a Victorian dinner gong or handles.

Be aware that these tusks are still legally sold and can be easily worked with modern tools: in fact after elephant tusks they were the most commonly used ivory in the 20th century for producing buttons, handles, inlay and a variety of small applications. If you find objects made with carved or engraved hippo tusks you can be fairly confident (but not positive) that they are not antique.

As if all this wasn’t confusing enough… then there are the synthetics. Clever people have found ways of making synthetic ivory since back in the reign of Victoria Regina. The earliest was no doubt so-called Vegetable Ivory, Tagua and other certain palm nuts whose seeds are the size and shape of hen’s eggs, very hard and solid, and look very much like a smooth, grainless, darkly patinated ivory. Tagua nuts could be polished, carved, engraved, dyed and used like ivory in fashioning a variety of small objects.

Various nitro-cellulose inventions from the 1840s through 1860s culminated in Celluloid, the first proper plastic polymer. This material was moldable, workable and resilient, and quickly became popular for cutlery handles, dresser sets, boxes and more. Celluloid was marketed as French Ivory or other suggestive names, and was often made with a perfect faux elephant ivory grain. After World War II there was an explosion of various polymers, a plastic revolution, and synthetic ivories were variously made with combinations of chemical resins with organic resins, casein (a milk protein of all things), or additions of actual bone or ivory sawdust.

Since the 1970s there has been a proliferation of plastic reproduction scrimshaw made by Artek, Jurotone and a number of other companies. These are not just made of imitation ivory, they are cast in the actual form of whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, panbones or other objects. They are decorated with great scrimshaw inspired images, often copies of some of the greatest examples known in museums. What’s a new collector to do? How can you tell a genuine piece of scrimshaw from these machine-made copies? And most important of all, how can you tell a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw from a later copy or a modern piece of work? Stay tuned…