Wallace Nutting’s [Old] America

5 Jul

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hamphire, one of the properties in Walter Nutting's late 1910s "Colonial Chain of Picture Houses." Photo source: Flickr

Yesterday was July 4th and today I’m pooped.  I spent the weekend biking around the city by day and watching the neighborhood fireworks by night from the back deck (my memories of the booming and bursting of Chicago fireworks will be forever inextricably mixed with the sound of the neighbors’ norteño music blaring across the fence – nothing more unabashedly American than the mix of those two together.)

All the red, white, and blue reminds me of research I did two years ago on Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), an early twentieth-century writer, photographer, furniture designer, and operator of some of the history-driven tourism sites in the country.  In 1916, when he was fifty-five years old, Nutting,  a Massachusetts minister-turned-entrepreneur embarked on a commercial venture virtually-untried in the United States up to that time: a collection of early American homes dotting the eastern seaboard kept open (at least for a brief while) exclusively through the support of visitor admission fees.   Nutting transformed five New England homes from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries into destinations for history-hungry tourists presented these homes collectively (despite the hundreds of miles that separated them) as “The Wallace Nutting Colonial Chain of Picture Houses.”

Nutting came late to his history tourism scheme.  He started life as a minister but found more success and more fulfillment as an amateur photographer, choosing as his subjects charming landscapes and picturesque old-house interiors near his New England home.  Nutting’s “Old America” photographs — images primarily of women dressed in what he saw as authentic American colonial costume, acting out domestic scenes in period settings – were bestsellers in the 1900s and 1910s, and his reproduction colonial furniture venture was even more popular.

Walter Nutting's "Old America" photographs sentimentalized the historic, as can be seen here in "Three Chums" from 1923. Photo source: Library of Congress

All of these successes made Nutting a very rich man and in 1915 he thought of a way to put this new fortune to good use – and to possibly make another fortune on top of it.  By the end of 1916, after seeking advice from various historians and preservationists, including William Sumner Appleton (1874-1947) of the influential Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), Nutting had purchased five properties, all in danger of destruction, to compose his “Colonial Chain of Picture Houses:”  the Hazen Garrison in Haverhill, Massachusetts, built in 1694, one of the oldest brick houses in the region; the Cutler-Bartlett House in Newburyport, Massachusetts, built in 1782, a three-story brick mansion and an excellent example of urban eighteenth-century Georgian architecture; the Iron Works House at Saugus, Massachusetts, built 1642-1645, the site of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first iron foundry;  the Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, built in 1760, the jewel of the Nutting collection (and today; and the Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut, built in 1752, in whose front parlor Washington and Rochambeau had drafted an early plan for the siege of Yorktown.

The tours given at the Nutting houses were educational, true, but the houses also served Nutting’s other purposes.  The period drawings rooms doubled as ready-made backdrops for his photographic tableaux and as makeshift showrooms where he could exhibit his extensive furniture collection.  Though self-described history buffs, Nutting and his wife Mariet weren’t bothered by the particulars of the homes’ restorations.  Mariet Nutting’s penchant for reproduction hooked rugs took center stage in the homes, despite historic evidence to discourage their use.   To give the Iron Works House a nobler historic air, Wallace Nutting exercised his habit of “Anglo-fying” sites and arbitrarily renamed the house “Broadhearth.”  And at the Webb House, in order to give the site a greater sense of history, Nutting had murals painted in the downstairs rooms depicting Revolutionary War scenes; in the “Council Room,” Nutting composed a tableau of the historic battle planning that had happened there, but depicted Washington and Rochambeau seated surrounded by Nutting’s re-created paneling and furnishings.

"Young woman in colonial dress on steps," another "Old America" photograph by Wallace Nutting. Photo source: Library of Congress

The “Colonial Chain of Picture Houses” only stayed afloat a few years and by the early 1920s, Wallace Nutting had closed all and sold off most of the sites.  Despite their failure, Nutting and his houses were extremely important in the history of heritage tourism. His work in New England preceded both Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Colonial Williamsburg, two of the country’s best known and most-visited heritage tourism sites.  The “Colonial Chain” concept was one of the first to debut the commercial possibilities of the new auto-tourism movement, and its failure exposed how enormous risks and uncontrollable forces – a fickle public, expensive restoration and upkeep, the ups and downs of local and national economies – could affect such ventures.  It’s astounding to me that given his popularity in the early twentieth century that more people don’t know Nutting’s work or even his name.

There is another reason that Nutting’s work in New England should give us pause, one that should make us wary anytime we visit a self-proclaiming “restored” heritage tourism site.  Like historic sites today, the environments Nutting created in his “Colonial Chain” were intended to translate history to the masses.  Instead they confused historical accuracy with interpretation and blurred the lines between sentimentality and objectivity, between the posed tableau and genuine reality.

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