At the Sign of the Brass Dog: Passaic County Folk Art Exhibit (1987)


Extracted from The Castle Lite, Vol. 18, No. 2 

The following article was published in the PCHS newsletter dated January, April 1987.  The folk art exhibit was held at the Lambert Museum and was comprised of articles from the Society’s collection.  The exhibition continued through January 31, 1988.  At that time, an illustrated catalog and poster were available in the Museum Shop.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Society also sponsored a series of Folk Art films.  The films were shown during the Month of March on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. and were free with museum admission.  The films were: “Anonymous Was a Woman,” “Quilts in Women’s Lives,” “Lakota Quillwork:  Art and Legend,”  and “The Stonecarvers.”

Note: Although the Folk Art Exhibit is long gone, the “Brass Dog” continues to generate much interest in Passaic County Folk Art.  He is on permanent display at Lambert Castle Museum. 


The Brass Dog

AT THE SIGN OF THE BRASS DOG:  PASSAIC COUNTY FOLK ART” highlights county history through an examination of the art and artifacts produced in the county.  The pieces which appear in the exhibit are revealing, not only as art but also as social and economic documents which offer an interesting perspective on the history of Passaic County as it was lived by some of its inhabitants.

The early history of the county and its settlement by Dutch farming families is evidenced by the number of portraits which have survived to this day.  They tell us of a hard working people who subsisted off the land and who later, became the source of the county’s first commercial products.  Early landscapes tell us about the other ways the early settlers utilized the resources of the land.  In addition to farming, land in what is now Upper Passaic County was mined for its precious iron ore.  This ore was processed into products which were especially useful to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and included such items as cannon, cannon balls, and wheel rims.

The rise of other industries in the county – especially in Paterson – is also seen in the folk art production of its inhabitants.  A landscape of the Great Falls and a watercolor of an early paper mill suggest Paterson as an ideal site for industrial development. The manufacturing of cotton and later, silk textiles became the pre-eminent industries in the area.  The quilts on display in the exhibition reaffirm this transition in an industry through a transition of their own – that of material.  Just as Paterson grew from a cotton “boom” town to “silk” city, the quilter’s art changed from one utilizing cotton to one made from silk scraps.

Along with the development of industry in the county came additional population growth.  As this occurred, additional goods and services were required and this opened the way for commercial opportunity.  Small manufacturers began to produce items needed in local industries and for the local consumer.  Shoemakers, grocers, taverns, and doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists brought their particular service to this expanding community.  To advertise their existence, many of these businessmen had unique trade signs made.  In 1828, for example, Horatio Moses, a tin, and coppersmith, fashioned a “brass” (actually gilded tin) dog to hang over his Paterson shop.  Today, it and other unusual signs have captured the imagination of the folk art enthusiast.

Paterson and Passaic like most emerging towns in the early 19th century provided educational opportunities for children of middle to upper-class families before the advent of public schools.  Both boys and girls attended these private academies, but the subjects taught to the opposite sexes differed dramatically.  Boys enrolled in English, Science, Math, and the Classics while young ladies were taught Music, Drawing, and the Needle Arts.

Immigration to the county in the mid to late 19th century grew as area industries required more workers.  The Paterson silk industry and the woolen and rubber industries of Passaic drew many immigrants to the area.  These immigrant groups brought many customs with them including a native folk art tradition.  The diversity of these traditions in Passaic County is illustrated by the uniqueness of each native art form from the intricacy of an Italian cut paper frame to the colorful exuberance of a Ukrainian Easter Egg.