Marble in America Part II: Marketing and Perception
By Eva Schwartz
One major loophole of the turn-of-the-century Dingley Tariff Act was that scads of objects--including worked marble pieces like statuary and other ornaments--were exempt from duties as long as they were labeled "antique". It practically goes without saying that this provision had certain unsavory consequences. The tariff laws were highly advantageous to antique dealers and Gilded Age estate owners who were busily buying up European marble treasures to display in American homes and gardens. Unfortunately, it was all too tempting for some to circumvent the law by falsifying records and creating fake "antiques". Collectors and even major museums were bamboozled into buying cleverly weathered reproductions (some new wellheads produced for the American market had fabricated "rope marks" to look as if water had been drawn from them for generations). Occurrences of fraud led the United Sates government to take measures against it, cited in the May 6, 1898 issue of the American Economist: "Consuls at Italian ports are to insist that shippers of marble goods of every description furnish sketches showing design and dimensions and details of construction of each piece, and the number of the case in which it is packed; they are also to ascertain and report the prices at which the manufacturers sell those goods in Carrara and Florence."
Despite the challenges of buying abroad, American buyers were eager to buy European ornaments and were less concerned with authenticity than with style. Today, fittingly, these turn-of-the-century marble objects have become sought-after antiques. One art critic who wrote passionately about American garden owners' proclivity for European ornaments was Samuel Swift, a regular contributor to House & Garden. Swift's writing style, typical for the period, was pointedly opinionated, frothy, and perhaps snarkier than any critic could get away with today, which makes it all the more enjoyable to read his pieces. In "Garden Marbles from Abroad", published in the August 1903 issue of House & Garden, Swift elucidated the American taste for the exotic, but also railed against the fraudulent activity that was all too prevalent in the antiques trade. He found the American homeowner to be "eclectic always, and now urged by a sudden enthusiasm to [draw] into his net a wondrous catch of foreign marble and stone ornaments for outdoor use". He noted that "here, [in America], ... one finds antique sarcophagi, mounted on a pair of old capitals inverted, serving as a receptacle for a row of plants or shrubs". In Swift's estimation, a "good sarcophagus [cost] from $1,500-$3,000", as opposed to a replica that went for a few hundred dollars. He blamed high antiques prices on the tariff laws, but admitted these prices were "not only reasonable but unavoidable" and that American collectors were in any case rabid to buy as they had "learned to believe that the word old [was] synonymous with beautiful". Swift disparagingly asserted that the American "public...want[ed] to get its antiques, 'new or old', at low prices". Fortunately for keen buyers, skillful replicas were made to satisfy the demand when truly antique ornaments could not be had; it was, essentially, Italy's cottage industry (as Swift put it, "emigration is the order of the day in Italy"). Swift observed that "antique designs [were] more or less faithfully copied, the very chips and gouges of three hundred years of existence being reproduced as nearly as possible". He quoted Alfred Dwight Foster Hamlin, professor at Columbia University and author of European and Japanese Gardens (1902), who had asserted that "passionate collectors of antiquities...made their gardens veritable museums (even at last) counterfeiting antique ruins when they were not fortunate enough to find them ready at hand on their estates."
Samuel Swift's article also reveals to us that the best galleries sold new garden ornaments alongside antiques, and when it came to the reproductions, they inevitably mimicked the "unsurpassed models of Renaissance Italy". Swift raved about the fine marble benches that Tiffany Studios had made and noted that they were based on an old Venetian design. To Swift, the remarkable thing about these benches, apart from their beauty, was that they were honestly represented as what they were--reproductions. The marble wasn't even aged to look antique! Swift was fairly clear in stating that the benches were carved at Tiffany Studios, presumably in New York, though one wonders if there was an outpost in Italy where the carving was done (more research should be done on that point). Assuming they were carved in the United States, it's likely that there were Italian craftsmen involved. Apart from the benches and an assortment of other decorative, newly-crafted objects for the home, Tiffany Studios sold numerous antiques in its showroom, including wellheads, fountains and fonts imported from Italy.
This sales model--of combining old with new--was also followed by Erkins Studios, a New York City-based garden ornament manufacturer, active from 1900 to 1983. An advertisement in the October 1908 issue of Country Life in America magazine proclaims: "The Erkins Studios announces the opening of a branch in Carrara, Italy, under the personal supervision of a resident American manager. ...The manufacture of our own objects and direct importation will assure certain deliveries, and the reputation of The Erkins Studios guarantees the best workmanship". The firm boasted a repertoire of "over 400 Italian and Classical pieces".
The Erkins Studio ad communicates essential information about the production of marble garden ornaments by American companies. It establishes that, at least in the early years of the twentieth century, many of the best marble pieces for the garden were still being made in Italy of Italian marble, whereas architectural and memorial/monumental marble work had really taken off in America. Moreover, it brings to light an inventive new construct: the American-run Italian operation. In addition to dealers and decorators scouring Italy for antiques or buying from Italian reproduction firms, there were American companies setting up branches in Carrara, and using Italian marble and Italian carvers to produce their own original designs. An endeavor such as this would seem to indicate that there was a healthy demand in the States for Italian marble ornaments. Considering the buying public's mistrust of the import/export process--due to fraud--the American managerial aspect of the operation was no doubt an indispensable sales feature. And the combination of Italian craftsmanship with an American guarantee made for a highly marketable product. Further research must be done to ascertain the actual success of Erkins' Italian branch, as we currently have no sales records to assess how well it fared. Additionally, when considering the American offices in Carrara it is important to maintain a shred of skepticism; one wonders if these offices were in fact real physical entities, or were they simply illusions of advertising? After all, it would have been a very compelling sales point for these firms, but it is difficult to say how viable it would have been to keep offices abroad. And what would these firms have gained by doing so? There weren't laws regarding truth in advertising the way there are now, so it is conceivable that these Italian offices were skeletal operations if anything. This aspect of our research demands much further exploration.
In early 1929, Erkins released its Catalogue No. 9, chock full of offerings. The introductory pages of the publication specify that the "majority of pieces in our large collection are copies of masterpieces ... in the Museums and the world-famed gardens of Italy". Even more instructive than the catalog, however, is the letter that just happened to be tucked inside the vintage copy lent to us by a dealer friend. The letter was written by an Erkins salesperson on February 28, 1929 to Harold Hill Blossom (1879-1935), a renowned landscape architect who had worked in the Olmsted Brothers' Boston office and was responsible for designing several public parks and estate gardens in the area. The salesperson pointed out that their "previous catalogues have dealt only with cast stone ornaments which we have manufactured for many years, but in No. 9 we have added several pages of the lines we import, and which we have been selling in our Studio for the past two or three years, including Italian terra cotta pots and jars, both modern and antique; [and] Italian marble fountains, benches, etc.". Are we to assume, then, that the Italian branch announced in the 1908 advertisement had not survived long? Certainly the occurrence of World War I in the intervening years would have made it nearly impossible to carry on. There is no indication in the letter of an actual branch in Carrara, nor is any address other than its New York City address listed in the catalog, so it is fairly safe to say that the office in Carrara--if there had in fact been one--had been long gone. But the connection to Italy was apparently as strong as ever. Instead of devoting itself solely to the production of cast stone ornaments, Erkins Studios made a point of carrying the finest Italian marble pieces--and it seems that doing so was a critically important part of the business.
A little-known American firm called the Leland & Hall Company, later the Leland Company, noted in advertisements its office in Manhattan and studios in Pietrasanta, Italy (in Tuscany, south of Carrara), Long Island City, New York, and Barre, Vermont. The company sold a range of garden ornaments, mostly classical and Italianate in design, and was successful marketing to big-name landscape architects in America. It seems--though we had to do a bit of guessing--that the company had its own granite works in Vermont, but turned to Italy for marble, sometimes just importing rough Carrara blocks to be worked in New York, sometimes completing the work at its Italian studio. An October 1906 advertisement in Country Life in America, showed a granite Celtic cross, modeled in Vermont and a rather odd-looking term figure representing Joseph Addison, the English man of letters (a "term" is a classical Greek form and is essentially a bust on an integrated tall pedestal). The marble term was, according to the ad copy, "modeled at [the] studio in Long Island City, executed in Carrara marble, and placed in the grounds about a Newport villa". Other ads from 1907, also in Country Life, included photographs of Leland & Hall marble ornaments installed at gardens designed by Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871-1928), one of the most prominent landscape architects of the day. Another from 1907 showed an extraordinary marble font that had been "designed and executed by artists and artisans in our own studios at Pietrasanta, Italy". In 1906-7, Leland & Hall's garden objects took center stage in its ads, but by 1908, the company had not only changed its name--to the Leland Company--but had apparently also shifted its focus, at least momentarily. A September 1908 advertisement in Country Life drew attention to its memorial and monumental work, adding, almost as an afterthought in smaller text, "We have a few pieces of garden furniture which can be purchased very reasonably". We would have concluded that the firm had decided to get out of the garden ornament business if we hadn't discovered another ad, in the March 1909 issue of The Garden Magazine picturing a glorious classical sundial and proclaiming that the company crafted the finest "garden furniture in marble and stone". As the Pietrasanta address was still listed on these later ads, it can be assumed that many marble pieces were still being crafted abroad.
Other renowned dealers in garden ornament such as Elmore Studios, Howard Studios, and Studios of the Pompeian, all based in New York City in the early twentieth century, operated just as Tiffany, Erkins and Leland & Hall did; they sold manufactured pieces made in America, but also imported marbles from Italy. The Studios of the Pompeian, a prolific firm that survived for decades, had a location in Carrara as well as in New York City, at 30 East 22nd Street. An article in the January 1925 issue of Commercial Digest remarked on the company's "close foreign connection [that] enables them to keep in constant touch with developments on the other side and also gives them a source of supply for imported objets d'art, which must of necessity form a large part of the stock of a concern of this kind."
One conundrum that popped up when looking through trade catalogs and periodicals of the period was that different makers sometimes used the same photographs in their published materials. Both Leland & Hall Company and the Studios of the Pompeian used the same photograph (or at least the same view) showing two marble tritons placed at opposite ends of a rectangular pool designed by landscape architect, Charles Wellford Leavitt. In another instance, both Leland & Hall Company and Erkins Studios used the identical image of another Leavitt garden showing an assortment of marble columns, term figures, benches and sundials. So, it may be fair to assume that these companies were all buying from the same Italian sources. Or, if carving to order at their own Italian locations, there had likely been a selection of standard models that the local carvers copied, no matter for which American firm. It is intriguing that so many of these makers made sure to note in their publications that they executed their own designs, even when the majority of ornaments were extremely similar, if not identical, from company to company. This "borrowing" of designs was utterly common among nineteenth and early twentieth century makers for two reasons: one, many of the designs were after the Antique, and thereby commonly familiar and available to copy; and two, copyright laws covering this sort of thing were not yet written. Still, it is puzzling that multiple companies would use exactly the same images of the same gardens, as it then seems that more than one firm was taking credit for the same job. It leads us to believe that the garden ornament world was as small then as it is today--and that there was quite a bit of collaboration going on amongst the dealers.
While all of the smaller niche dealers like Erkins Studios and Leland & Hall Company were making a huge effort in the first decades of the twentieth century to import Italian marbles and/or maintain outposts in Italy, the Vermont Marble Company seems to have been content to, for the most part, stay out of the garden ornament business. There must have been special commissions, surely, but in terms of ready-made or ready-to-order garden goods, Vermont Marble was not a key player during the first 50 or so years of its existence. Instead, the gigantic firm dominated the field of domestic output of architectural and interior finished marbles, and also, of course, in the production of memorials, its original mainstay. Perhaps garden ornament was not a big enough business to satisfy Vermont Marble's earliest model for expansion and growth (set forth by the company's original visionary, Redfield Proctor). After all, gardens that had needed marble ornaments were usually the grandest sort, owned by wealthy industrialists who preferred to shop in Europe to decorate their properties. It probably made a lot of sense, moneywise, to focus on larger architectural commissions and a range of marble cemetery monuments (since everyone would, at one point, have a use for those!) In the 1920s, the company used the tagline, "All That is Beautiful Shall Abide Forever" to promote its line of monuments. A 1927 advertisement declared, "Joy comes, grief goes, generations pass; but Vermont Marble Memorials remain--and remain beautiful".
It wasn't until around 1930 that Vermont Marble ads began to make reference to garden ornaments. A 1930 ad from National Geographic included a large photo of the Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia, for which Vermont marble was used, along with smaller images of a mausoleum and a simple birdbath. Another 1930 print ad from National Geographic that highlighted the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater at the National Cemetery announced, "In simple tablets and sculptured mausoleums, in noble buildings, in homes where beauty also abides, and in all forms of garden furniture, Vermont Marble represents established culture, serene permanence and sound economy of investment". Perhaps the firm had been encouraged by the 1928 publication of Marble in the Home and Garden, a promotional handbook put out by The National Association of Marble Dealers in Cleveland, Ohio. The majesties of marble for all sorts of buildings and purposes was put forth in this slim volume, and there was quite a bit of attention paid to the usability of marble in the garden. This book made a point of making marble sound accessible to all homeowners with even the most modest gardens, since "simple and charming pools or fountains can be created from marble--from reasonably priced marbles". That "marble suggest[ed] strength and integrity" added to the stone's charm. After all, "age [could] only mellow marble", as it had the capacity to withstand severe weather conditions. The handbook explained: "these pieces need not be elaborate nor need their use to be limited to large or pretentious gardens. A sundial, a bench, a birdbath, a graceful urn, a walk of irregularly shaped slabs--any one of these can frequently be employed with much success in a small garden or on a small strip of lawn".
By the early 1940s, The Vermont Marble Company was regularly offering ready-made garden ornaments and their publications championed marble as a modern option for the average homeowner. A brochure called "Marble Goes Modern", the text of which seems to have been written after 1941 (the text was recycled from brochure to brochure but the cover image changed depending on the fashion of the time--the cover of our version probably dates to the late 1950s), pictured a simple birdbath with cylindrical baluster, a post and lintel bench with classical volute supports, a gazing globe on a baluster, and a Renaissance style planter. The text assured the buyer that "birdbaths, seats, gazing globes, vases, sundials in marble add immeasurably to the beauty of the home and garden. Each of these Vermont marble products is well adapted to the needs of the small home builder". The objects shown in the brochure are not exactly "modern" in aesthetic, but the idea of marble being available to everyone was a very modern concept.
Another Vermont Marble brochure from the early 1940s that featured garden ornament was titled "Sentinels of the Season". It pictured three styles of birdbaths, two benches, two planters, two sundials, and a gazing globe, all executed in a highly austere style that, while unfussy and simple, were still nevertheless classical in form. The brochure text referenced Old World gardens and noted that "each year [in America] finds the garden delegated to a broader field of service". Once the domain of luxury estate gardens, marble had found its place in more modest settings. It continued: "it is but logical that the quarries of Vermont should take a leading part in providing the marble for the nation's garden work. They are the oldest marble quarries in the United States, and the output is of proven durability".
An undated promotional postcard titled "Garden Furniture" produced by the firm in the 1950s (1960s?) shows an extremely simple rectangular marble pedestal with sundial and a plain rectangular window box. By that point there were almost no vestiges of the classical aesthetic, though the simple forms may have been as much due to dollars and cents as they were to the new modern standards of style--after all, simple was less costly to produce. True to form, the Vermont Marble Company had risen to meet the demands of the buying public, and to its shifting tastes.
We started this research with an eye toward discovering a definitive means to decipher imported marble from domestic marble. Certainly, more work must be done to determine the exact role of the Italian carvers who emigrated to the United States and who provided the skill to turn the Vermont Marble Company into a powerhouse marble finishing company. And further probing into the Italian operations of the American garden ornament dealers would be helpful to establish the demand for Italian pieces and the successes and failures of the import/export business that went with it. For now, it seems fairly clear to us that there is no definitive method to tell the difference between Italian marble and American marble objects (other than scientific analysis of the stone) but our long-held gut feeling that most Italianate ornaments were, in fact, made in Italy by local craftsmen, seems to be correct. In the end, and even to this day, nothing could quite equal the allure of Carrara.
Carrara Marble Workshop, ca. 1995