Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


NOW THAT WE’RE well into the 21st century, several design books on my shelves have taken on the aura of time capsules. One in particular, The Index of American Design, was published in 1950, a product of the National Gallery of Art.

The Index of American Design, by Erwin O. Christensen, introduction by Holger Cahill, Macmillian, National Gallery of Art.

The Index of American Design originated as a Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The design project operated in 34 states and the District of Columbia from 1935 to 1942.

“In this book,” Erwin O. Christensen wrote, “we examine the crafts and popular and folks arts of the United States as they have been recorded by the Index of American Design. The objects range from well-known museum specimens to new discoveries made by the artists who did the watercolors.”

Magnus Fossum copying the 1770 Boston Town Coverlet. Image from Wikipedia.

What follows here are several favorites from The Index of American Design, 1950 edition.

Chalkware Deer, Pennsylvania; nineteenth century. Rendered by Mina Lawry, New York City Project.

“If any trend in design can be called American,” Christensen wrote, “it is the tendency to simplify the forms inherited from Europe. A new country, where much work must be done by few hands, does not encourage elaboration.” The whimsical pose of this nineteenth-century deer is an example of this aesthetic.

Dressmakers’ Counter, maple and pine, Shaker; nineteenth century. Rendered by John W. Kelleher, Massachusetts Project.

Of Shaker design aesthetics, Christensen noted, “Construction is light but sturdy, and as inlays and veneers were thought to be deceitful, they were never used. Instead, Shaker furniture depended on proportions and the natural grains of the wood, as in the contrast of ungrained maple posts against pine panels and curly maple drawers.”

Navigator, wood, from the shop of James Fales, New Bedford instrument maker; nineteenth century. Rendered by Ingrid Selmer-Larsen, Massachusetts Project.

Christensen wrote of this Navigator and his oversize sextant, “In his squat proportions, he follows an English tradition, for Dickens in Dombey and Son speaks of this type of shop sign as ‘a little … timber midshipman with an offensively disproportionate piece of machinery.’ ”

Ladderback Chair, oak(?), seat of twisted corn husks, made by Arthur Pimar, Alachua County, Florida; mid-nineteenth century. Rendered by Annie B. Johnston, Florida Project.

My dad, rest his soul, enjoyed a similar chair. It now resides in our living room for books and cat-napping.

Whirligig, painted pine, Pennsylvania German; nineteenth century. Rendered by Yolande DeLasser, New York City Project.

This whirligig isn’t a toy; it’s a variation on the weathervane theme. Christensen noted, “It measures thirty inches and was used out of doors, installed so that the arms would be made to rotate with the wind.”

Stagecoach Model, wood; nineteenth century. Rendered by Lucille Chabot, Massachusetts Project.

“The Overland Stage,” Christensen conjectured, “may be a homemade toy, but it could also have been made for the purpose of display in a store window…. Congress authorized this transcontinental stage line in 1857, and service began in 1858, a decade before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad (1869).”

Bootjack, cast iron; nineteenth century. Rendered by Albert Geuppert, Wisconsin.

“High boots,” Christensen wrote, “served as protection against mud and rain; they had to be pried off when wet, and the bootjack was a necessity. The heel of one foot was clamped into the prongs of the bookjack while the other foot held the bootjack down.”

Gramophone, wood with tin horn and rubber bands, designed by Emile Berliner, made by the United States Gramophone Company; 1887. Rendered by Charles Bowman, Maryland Project.

Of the Gramophone, Christensen wrote, “It is an uncompromisingly functional piece of machinery which is truly modern in its approach.” Just replace the hard rubber disc’s grooves with those in vinyl, or today with electronic enhancements in digitally embossed plastic.

The Federal Arts Project helped a lot of people get through the Great Depression. My copy of The Index of American Design, 1950, displays many of their talents. And, today, this book is an entertaining time capsule. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. Sarah
    May 19, 2020

    The National Gallery of Art is separate from the Smithsonian Institution, but otherwise a very interesting article!

    • simanaitissays
      May 19, 2020

      Hello, Sarah,
      Thank you for this correction. I honestly don’t know where the error crept into my initial narrative. But, through the wonders of electronic post-editing, it’ll be corrected in minutes (so as not to confuse future readers). — Dennis 5/19/2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: