The name of C. Malcolm Watkins is a household word. Not because everybody knows who he is, maybe, but because he has spent a lifetime brooding over stoneware whisky jugs, broken crockery, brass pins, patented lamps, ingenious foot-warmers and all such other minor monuments of the American family.
You take California. We all know there were Spanish missions out there, and from movies we know just what California was like until three or four years ago when the place went ape.
But Watkins is the sort of man who knows there is a strong New England imprint on the state. He's the man who knows you found Chinese porcelain out there. The Yankees used to sail round Cape Horn and club the little seals and make a lot of money on hides and furs and they got dishes from Canton. All rather different from our nation that everything out there was gilded and baroque and full of swallows.
When I spent an afternoon with him in his office at the Museum of History and Technology I saw the whole wall was lined with shelves and the shelves solid with salt-glaze jugs, the kind that held moonshine in my country.
I had not realized before that some of the jugs are just jugs. But others are right damn beautiful in the refinement of their curves and shoulders.
Watkins knows every blessed jug factory that ever was in the Western world, and if he sees fragments dug up (the privies of Alexandria, for example, have yielded remarkable things recently) he can tell much that we would not notice at all. We would say they're batches of cracked pots, but Watkins would infer patterns of trade, estimates of relative affluence, all sorts of information about how people lived, just from fragments.
Watkins grew up in New England went to Harvard College and then found himself -- who knows how -- taking post-graduate work at the Fogg that would lead him to a career as art historian. Wrangling about the provenance of an imitation Titian, that sort of thing.
It occurred to him (he said) he was bored beyond endurance and, in one of the great ideas of Western Man, quit.
His great-grandfather had been a cabinet maker and his grandfather was one of those self-made men of the 19th century who had endless interests, an amateur in the best sense. The old man had his own method for grinding telescope lenses, for example though that had nothing to do with his livelihood.
So Watkins grew up in a fine clutter of odds and ends of Americana -- a hinge here, an andiron there, some stoneware pots yonder -- and it seized his mind.
But when he flung away the fine arts it was not easy in 1934 to earn a living merely because you liked old American hardware ad weathercocks and rural pottery and all that.
Fortunately he connected with a Yankee industrialist whose house was about to split open with collections of old oddments.
"He was the old-time industrialist with a voice you could hear in the next county and very profane," Watkins said, "After our interview he said, "Watkins, you really like all this stuff, don't you," and I said, "yes, sir," and that was that, he hired me."
In the old days you could look at a man and talk with him 10 minutes and know him. Not now. Now people are pretty devious and sly.
Anyway it worked out fine and the collection turned into Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts with Watkins as director.
He was called to the Smithsonian (I gathered it was very like summoning a new and unknown Dalai Lama) and was installed in the Museum of Natural History.
He was interviewed by a great Smithsonian overlord who said.
"You're from Boston, Watkins. Now down here you're going to have to push your own cart. How do you pronounce vase? Do you say VAHS or vase?" p
Watkins, who has animal cunning when it comes to traps, said:
"I say vase, sir,"
"Humph," said the eminent old scholar and hired him.
Not that life has been fully bonbons and cream, but it has been a good life at the Smithsonian since 1948. First he was at the Museum of National History. That place is alive with anthropologists.
In those days (as now) anthropologists deemed their province to include anything sired, manufactured, sung, painted or otherwise influenced by a human. a
That is how Natural History happened to have the great collection of old harpsichords and American pottery and so on -- things you do not automatically classify as natural history.
In those days (as now) the Smithsonian often got inquiries from old ladies with Chippendale highboys or family bric-a-brac. One old Smithsonian gentleman used to answer them enthusiastically:
Beyond doubt, he would write in a gracious way, your highboys is American Chippendale of the best period, Philadelphia 1768. Fairly priceless Etc.
These enthusiastic evaluations sometimes backfired. One of Watkins' jobs was to respond more cautiously.
Watkins is of medium height, medium bald with a crown of silver, with medium blue eyes and a direct modest smile that can only have survived as the result of long practice and a clear conscience.
When Watkins was translated out of Natural History into History and Technology 15 years ago he carried (for there is much to be said for anthropologists) something of the notion that man, not art, is the important thing.
He was a catalyst in the foundation of a new sub-discipline, Historical Anthropology. It's fuzzy around the edges, as all great disciplines are. It has to do with pots, say, not merely because they are old or because they are beautiful, but because of what they tell about how people lived their lives in their time.
Watkins devised that remarkable series of rooms on the second floor called Everyday Life.
Watkins scoured hell, as you might say, to find those rooms and (dismantling then while the family was asleep, I believe) transported them to the museum.
There is a wonderful late 17th-century farmhouse in which you can see the structural details. A log house so snug the owner clearly never ventured out from September till June, a series of rooms showing how successive generations lived in it (small changes as the world changed). There are collections showing Spanish, Scandinavian and other influences on American houses. The whole assemblage is one of the big showcases of the museum which, itself, is one of the showcases of the capital.
So yesterday Watkins retired. He will move out his own collection of salt-glaze jugs. It was All Saints Day, not that the heathen government or Smithsonian makes anything of that. But it was.
Now you've noticed that nowadays there is complaint against high art -- against great thomping masterpieces -- and the in thing new is to admire rural stuff.
"Why shouldn't a person go visit an El Greco at the Phillips every day and let it go at that?" I inquired.
Watkins said no reason one should not. In a sense you could say one El Greco is worth six Delawares of jugs and 40 Nebraskas of shacks.
But it's not just a question of esthetics in which Titian and Mozart and the big boys have the market cornered. It's also a question of human life.
How the farm woman beat up her mayonnaise in a low stoneware vessel. How many times did she do that over the years, feeding the family and the extra hands in for the wheat harvest. How many times did she admire, in a subconsicious sort of way, the honest, lines of her kitchenware.
The Mexican War came and went. The farmers harvested and died and the stoneware and the mayonnaise continued. Maybe even the mayonnaise stopped. The stoneware, even in fragments scattered under a farm porch, survives.
Watkins is the fellow who never sees even the fragments -- the poor croppers of a glided country as a poet once said -- without responding.
When the last tax is levied and the last skyscraper sold and the sun itself is down on our world, the mayonnaise pot and the whiskey jug will in some form survive, not the least elements of the American dream. Will survive, that is, if Watkins has not cornered them all in his museum. He really should leave a few to be dug up later in darkest Pennsylvania.