This month we review the first catalogue from Extant Americana of New York City: Catalogue One. Naturally, the American material in this catalogue is “extant,” but it is the implication of rarity in that term that best explains the items offered. These pieces still exist, but their existence is unusual and surprising. They are usually one-of-a-kind or short run items that you would not readily expect to find, or perhaps even think still existed. But... here they are! We only have space to mention a few of the items you will find in this catalogue, but hopefully it will provide a flavor of the type of material Extant Americana has waiting.
We will start with that stark photograph you see on the cover of the catalogue. It looks like a medieval fortress, but actually it is far more peaceful. It is the dam at Fort Peck, Montana, a massive project built by the Army Corps of Engineers during the Depression. It created jobs for over 10,000 workers, while its lasting legacy is hydroelectric power, flood control, and a huge lake. The photographer was Margaret Bourke-White. Bourke-White had been the first western photographer allowed to photograph Soviet industry. In 1936, Henry Luce hired her to provide photography for his newly revamped Life Magazine, which would feature pictures. This photograph of Fort Peck Dam appeared on the cover of the first issue of the new Life Magazine. This copy of the photograph was inscribed by Bourke-White in the 1950s to John Bryson, a fellow photographer at Life at the time. Item 162. Priced at $15,000.
Republicans evidently had different beliefs a century ago. Item 140 is a 1912 letter from President William Howard Taft to a Mr. Glaser, expressing his regret at being unable to attend a “Ratification Banquet.” He is sorry he will not be able to “rejoice” with them. The celebration was over the (not quite) ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, an amendment that the Republican Taft introduced and championed. That was the amendment that made the federal income tax legal. It received the final state vote necessary for ratification the following year. $3,000.
Item 3 is a poster of one of America's uglier practices a couple of centuries ago. It announces Sale of Valuable Negroes & Land. It's from a slave sale that took place on January 11, 1858, in Germanton, North Carolina. This was an estate sale of the late Dr. William W. Stedman, and it included “14 Likely Negroes,” including “girls and boys, men and women.” It goes on to point out that, “These are a choice lot of negroes, and among which are some GOOD COOKS and NURSES.” In this case, the “likely Negroes” reference would have been used to mean suitable, not that they were most likely Negroes, but maybe not. Such a maybe not claim would have struck fear in many a white heart. $2,750.
Item 5 is a carte-de-viste of some African Americans, and some of them are less likely Negroes, but in the more common usage of that term. It is titled Learning is Wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca & Rosa, Slaves from New Orleans. It depicts a black man and three slave children. The three children are evidently mixed race, very light skinned, who could readily pass for white. The card states that proceeds will “be devoted to the education of Colored People in the department of the Gulf.” This would have been published during the Civil War, as no one would have been raising funds to educate black children in New Orleans prior to Union soldiers taking over. At the time, it was not uncommon to use pictures of very light skinned blacks as such were more likely to arouse sympathy from whites. $650.