Baseball Player (Shop Sign)
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller; S.935.1.113
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller included this baseball figure as part of her large donation of art to Dartmouth in 1935. She had purchased the work from Edith Gregor Halpert, owner of New York’s Downtown Gallery and a pioneer in the collecting and marketing of American modernism and folk art. According to notes from Halpert in the museum’s curatorial files, the work came from Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it was likely used as a trade sign for a sporting goods store. The “baseball boy” holds a ball in his right hand and most likely originally clasped a bat with his left, making him a symbol of the sport that by the 1870s was already being called our “national pastime.” The wooden shop-figure tradition grew out of the once-vibrant ship-carver’s trade, which declined in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of metal-hulled ships. According to shopfigure authority Ralph Sessions, this particular carving is notable for its relatively rare subject, life-size scale, and naturalistic handling. Although it can be attributed to a New York maker on stylistic grounds, it is difficult to assign the figure to a specific carver or shop, because several individuals generally worked on a single piece. Typically, a master carver would block out the form from a white pine mast and carve the face, while others would do the rest of the carving and the painting. By far the most common subject for shop figures was the American Indian, which traditionally identified a tobacco store; others included fictional characters and, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, a range of stereotypical urban types. Such variety was driven by shopkeepers who continually tried to beat out the competition’s success in luring customers to their businesses.
Last Updated: 4/29/09