Outdoor Americana: Garden and Architectural Antiques

With the month of May now upon us, it won’t be long until we’re spending summer days in the garden and evenings out on the patio. If do-it-yourself programs and Pinterest postings are any indication, there’s no shortage of ideas for incorporating personal style and decorating flair into your outdoor space.

Antique and vintage garden accessories and repurposed goods to use and enjoy in outdoor settings are not a new concept. Although the roots of this practice may run deep, the rules of application today seem to afford greater flexibility.

Simply put, if classic planters, urns, birdbaths and patio furniture are top of mind, there are plenty of options. Or, if the idea of transforming traditional with a personal touch is appealing, there are ideas and options for that, as well.

This also means the patriotic look is sometimes, often viewed only in association with Memorial Day and Independence Day festivities, need not be confined to a long weekend. It can be a central theme or a spectacular accent to an outdoor entertainment space, all summer long.

Stars with a decidedly folk-art flair, like the 19th-century iron star windmill weight offered by Urban Country, will give a star-filled sky competition for your attention. Whether star-shape items serve the purpose of holding items in place on a patio table, or simply adorn a shed, fence, or garage, the versatility adds an exciting extra dimension.

Halladay H37 cast iron windmill weight, U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company, circa 1880-1916. Offered by Urban Country, $3,000

Figural accessories have appeared as garden ornaments for generations, with the earliest ones probably being those of a religious nature. Other popular themes for garden antiques have included cultural icons, military heroes, and other familiar figures of their day.

An example of a military design is this circa-1940 sailor whirligig. It is made of carved, painted wood and has a brimmed hat made of tin. Positioned on a metal stand, it measures 18 inches high by 9½ inches wide.

Sailor whirligig, circa 1940, Andrew Anderson, New Jersey. Available at Aileen Minor Garden Antiques & Decorative Arts, $450

If any outdoor piece is considered folk-art royalty, it’s the weathervane. Although in most cases this welcome backyard resident is no longer seen serving its original purpose, it remains highly sought after. Surface indications of what such coveted examples of once-practical folk art have “weathered” does not seem to lessen their appeal. If anything, it adds to their character and charm.

For example, a circa-1880 weathervane of a horse in running stride, made of cast zinc and molded copper by J.W. Fiske Ironworks, New York, was a highlight of Jasper52’s May 7 auction and quickly attracted bids. The weathervane displays original verdigris patina – which can only come from the natural aging process – with traces of attractive gilt.

J.W. Fiske Ironworks horse weathervane, circa 1880. Image courtesy Jasper52

Another utilitarian type of garden antique is a sundial, like this one decorated with the Latin phrase “Tempus Fugit,” or “Time Flies.”

American sundial. Photo taken at the New Hampshire Antiques Show by Catherine Saunders-Watson

Antique and vintage garden ornaments add special distinctive charm to any yard and patio scene, but it should be kept in mind that not every object can withstand the elements without some preventative measures being taken. In an article penned by Dennis Gaffney for Antiques Roadshow, the author of “Antique Garden Ornament, Two Centuries of American Taste,” Barbara Israel shares a few words of advice. Four points paraphrasing Israel’s advice include:

  1. Take steps to prevent damage from occurring. It’s easier and more affordable than fixing damage that has already occurred.
  2. Keep statues off the ground during winter months and wrap them in a breathable, weatherproof material.
  3. Avoid placing iron ornaments on marble to prevent rusty imprints.
  4. In the case of all garden ornaments, display and enjoy them in season but store them safely, away from the effects of winter weather during the off-season.