Catalog puts history at your fingertips

HOME WORK

March 12, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

There are a lot of reasons why people like old houses. Some like the style, the many-paned windows, the woodwork and molding. Some like the space, the high ceilings and generously proportioned rooms. Some like the neighborhoods, the big trees or corner stores. Some are recyclers, bringing a once-useful building into a new age. And some people simply like the chance to touch history, to see what carpenters saw a hundred years ago, to imagine the people who lived in these rooms, to run a hand down a banister that five or six generations have caressed.

History lovers often feel they were born in the wrong era -- that the time of the Revolution would have suited them better, or the waning years of Queen Victoria's reign.

But the past may not be as distant as you think. You may, in fact, be able to look at it, touch it and use it in your daily life.

Clawfoot bathtubs, pocket watches, wagon wheels, coontail caps, carpet bags, tinderboxes, cavalry sabers, daguerreotype cameras, snuff boxes and smoked hams: all of these things associated with bygone days are available, newly manufactured, today.

You can find them, and about 500 other items, in Alan Wellikoff's newly revised and expanded book, "The Historical Supply Catalog" (Camden House Publishing, $17.95).

But it's not a house-restoration catalog, or a guide for the retroactively acquisitive.

"This is not intended as a tool," Mr. Wellikoff says over coffee during a recent interview. "I don't imagine anyone using the book to acquire a lot of things."

Instead, it's intended to be a reminder of the presence of the past. "The temptation is to think this stuff is ancient American history," Mr. Wellikoff says, "but the last Revolutionary War veteran died around 1860 -- you could actually have met a man who met a man who was in the Revolutionary War."

Mr. Wellikoff, a free-lance writer and book author who lives in Baltimore, says he's always been a little in love with the past. "I always wanted to go back to the past," he says. "When I was a kid I remember thinking how every second takes us farther and farther away from the past."

Then, as an American Civilization major at George Washington University in the '60s, Mr. Wellikoff studied with Clarence Mondale -- Vice President Walter Mondale's older brother. "He brought out a lot of this interest I have in American history as pTC something that is not in the past. It is all around us."

Unlike house-restoration catalogs, of which there are several these days, Mr. Wellikoff's catalog contains chapters on housewares and crockery, time pieces and clothing, military goods, musical instruments, nautical items and toys and games. "The products are selected for their historical and utilitarian interest as well as for the accuracy with which they conform to past materials, workmanship and design," Mr. Wellikoff says in the book's preface. It is not a catalog of antique items, he emphasizes: it is a collection of replicas and reproductions -- "copies," he says, that have no history of their own.

"But this does not mean," he writes, "that replicas and reproductions are just less expensive alternatives to antiques, not notable as cultural phenomena in their own right. On the contrary, it is only replicas and reproductions that are simultaneously illustrative of two eras, revealing something of each in concert. Faithfully crafted, they claim a singular status as manifestations of the present's regard for -- and society with -- the past."

"I had a hard time putting across the idea of the book," says Mr. Wellikoff, whose first job was in a Revolutionary War living history museum. It's intended, as he describes it, as a sort of "1800s trade catalog come alive."

Indeed, how many people would want to buy a brand-new Concord stagecoach from Edwards Horse-drawn Buggy Works and Harnesses of Putnam, Ga., for $50,000? (If you're so inclined, however, you can call: [912] 787-5307. There's a catalog.)

But the items do sell. "They all have stories about selling to the movies," Mr. Wellikoff says. Other items are bought for display -- an inn or restaurant might like to have an buckboard or surrey to show off. And he notes, there are lots of living history museums and restoration projects for whom a newly made item is a sturdy and replaceable alternative to a fragile and priceless original. One of his sources, Cumberland General Store in Crossville, Tenn., sells a lot of items to the Amish, and "there are a lot of Third World sales," he says, where low-tech, labor-intensive devices are practical and affordable.

Mr. Wellikoff finds his items by combing catalogs and standard references, and by getting tips; he also reads small-town newspapers for items about local craftspeople. That's how he found the man who makes Gatling guns (Custom Blacksmithing and Manufacturing of Waterloo, Iowa; phone [319] 291-2095.)

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