Antiquamania: An Antiques Trade Satire

With fall upon us, thesis research for second year fellows is in full force. My thesis examines collecting and dealing Southern objects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I spent a good portion of my summer in the South researching at the MESDA Summer Institute, and I was lucky enough to encounter a host of knowledgeable and helpful individuals willing to provide research suggestions.  Two collectors kindly recommended that I read Kenneth Roberts’ Antiquamania, a book that satirizes antique collectors of the 1920s. It’s also a book that, to some, may seem all too relatable.

Image: Title page, Antiquamania by Kenneth L. Roberts.

Antiquamania chronicles the collecting pursuits of Professor Milton Kilgallen, F.R.S., of Ugsworth College, a fictional character who, “has so persistently delved into the origin and development of antiques in America.” As Kilgallen and his fellow antiquers travel up and down the coast in search of objects, the narrator offers interesting asides that allow one a glimpse of collecting in the early twentieth century. Roberts writes, “To the man who collects Bennington Ware, the man who collects old cuff links is not normal. The man who collects old shaving mugs is well aware of the fact that the man who collects old Windsor chairs is odd, though not necessarily dangerous.”

The book is more than just an interesting read, but rather speaks importantly to the fervor with which the interest for American antiques swept the nation. Historian Russell Lynes concluded that by the 1920s, “the ‘antiques craze’ turned every old farmhouse and barn into a potential treasure trove, and aged maple beds and corner cupboards, spinning wheels and cobbler’s benches, chests of drawers and blanket chests became the apples of a million eyes…”[1] It is out of this antiquing environment that collectors like H.F. du Pont emerged, and accounts like the one offerered in Antiquamania help explain how our nation’s greatest collections of Americana emerged.

Image: Ruth Wales du Pont and Henry Francis du Pont pictured in 1916, just years prior to du Pont’s momentous visit to Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collection in Shelburne, Vermont, which introduced him to the idea of collecting American decorative arts.


[1] Russel Lynes, The Tastemakers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 239.

By Trent Rhodes, WPAMC Class of 2018

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