Not long ago many collectors, dealers and scholars of Americana would call a piece "Southern" whenever they were stumped. "Southern" became a catchall label for the unusual and the undocumented.
Now the regional arts of the early South are fertile grounds for research and collecting thanks to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Old Salem Inc., the nonprofit organization that administers the museum and preserves the restored 18th century buildings and lifestyle of the Old Salem community.
If Hobart G. Cawood, Old Salem's new president, has his way, the South's social history and decorative arts never again will be a mystery. The Kentucky-born Cawood was wooed away from the post of superintendent of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, where he hosted the nation's 1976 bicentennial celebration and directed the preservation of America's birthplace.
Already Mr. Cawood has plans for a new bed and breakfast to accommodate an influx of visitors to Old Salem's 24-block historic district. The district is composed of 13 buildings and 30 gardens open to the public and 90 other structures still used as residences and businesses, just over the ridge from downtown Winston-Salem.
What distinguishes Old Salem from other site museums is its large collection of authentic artifacts accompanied by meticulously detailed records, making it possible to learn who made what when and why.
Old Salem was settled in 1766 by Moravians who ventured to North Carolina from Bethlehem, Pa., in 1753, invited by the colony's proprietors who heard of their industry and gave them a good deal on 100,000 acres. The Moravians, a separatist sect of pious German Protestants with a missionary zeal, built an extensive settlement with a commercial center serving people in the surrounding back country for more than a century.
The old-world Germanic solidity of the buildings on Main Street, with their steeply pitched roofs and massive half-timbering, give Old Salem the feel of a Central European village. Nevertheless, visitors come away with a unique perspective on early American life.
A costumed guide in Salem Tavern, a plain brick building with a spacious veranda, rebuilt after a fire in 1784, explains that the tavern was a source of pride and something of an embarrassment. Built for the convenience of travelers, it lacks windows on the first floor so the Moravian brethren and sisters in this church-governed town could not look in at the worldly behavior of strangers in their midst. George Washington visited in 1791 and was delighted by the dinnertime string ensemble.
Old Salem's preservation began in 1950 when residents rescued several historic buildings about to be razed for a grocery store. Frank L. Horton, Old Salem's director of restoration, attended a Williamsburg Antiques Forum in Virginia and heard some disparaging comments about Southern furniture. He opened MESDA in 1965 to show anyone who steps inside that there was plenty of fine Southern artistry.
For visitors interested in antiques, MESDA's 19 period rooms and six galleries filled with furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, and iron stoves made in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee before 1820 are an education in diverse regional styles.
"You can't think of Southern furniture as one unit. There are many regional differences, just as there are between New England, New York and Pennsylvania furniture," said Deanne Levison, an Atlanta native and consultant to Israel Sack Inc., American furniture dealers in New York City.
"While there may be more rural furniture made south of the Mason-Dixon line, Norfolk and Charleston pieces are the height of sophistication," she added. "However, there were fewer urban centers in the South, and towns were far apart, so there isn't the crossover of influence."
A room at MESDA adorned with marbleized chimney breast, grain painted paneling, unusually high ceilings and neo-classical carvings removed from a circa 1811 house in the Carolina back country, exemplifies a rural builder's interpretation of the Federal style for an obviously prosperous client. The exposed ceiling beams and large open cooking fireplace from a circa 1700-1725 Maryland dwelling are in stark contrast to the elegant furnishings of a Charleston parlor.
MESDA's research facilities are as valuable a discovery as its collections. Scholars, dealers, collectors and students can use MESDA's resources to identify, date and attribute Southern antiques to their makers. More than 15,000 photographs of Southern objects, discovered in private homes and in public collections during a field research program, are augmented by a state-of-the-art database and a richly annotated index of more than 60,000 artists and artisans working in the South in 125 different trades.