Hitching on history

Phil and Bunny Savino are collectors, and like many people who are interested in a variety of things

Phil and Bunny Savino are collectors, and like many people who are interested in a variety of things, the stuff they’ve accumulated over the years is vast and varied.

When it comes to hoarding hitching posts, however, particularly the cast-iron type that was so prevalent throughout much of the second half of the 19th century, the Savinos and their friends at the Albany Institute of History & Art are in a class by themselves.

“This is the first exhibition and catalog of cast-iron hitching posts anywhere, ever,” said AIHA curator Douglas McCombs, who put together “Horsing Around: 19th Century Cast Iron Hitching Posts,” currently on display through May 25. “You might see two or three at a folk art exhibit somewhere, but this is the first time you can come in and see a wide range of hitching posts all assembled in one place. We’re the first, and that’s good for us because the exhibit is getting some attention, but this is the kind of structural form that in the past hasn’t received a lot of attention.”

There are about 100 hitching posts in the exhibit, and all but a few of them belong to the Savinos, retired teachers who moved from Long Island to Freehold in Greene County in 1988. It was 25 years ago now that the Savinos were at an antiques show in Kinderhook and came across the eagle — item No. 38 in the catalog they put together for the AIHA program — that prompted them to become hitching posts collectors.

“We were looking over some things and came across this eagle hitching post that we both fell in love with,” said Phil Savino. “We bought it from the dealer who later become pretty good friends with us. We picked up a few other hitching posts later on and he told us that he didn’t know anyone else in America who was collecting hitching posts. Well, that was like putting a dare down. That’s when we really started collecting.”

The Savinos began discussing doing a possible exhibition of their collection at AIHA even before McCombs came on the staff three years ago.

“I became aware of the collection not too long after I came to Albany, and it was pretty unusual when I first went to their house to see all these hitching posts together,” said McCombs. “Certain themes began to appear to me: rustic tree trunks, horse heads, birds, eagles, a couple of swan’s heads. [The Savinos] were very interested in the aesthetics, and we’re looking at the design and integration of the finial with the post below. They were interested in it strictly as folk art.”

Appealing combination

Then, art merged with history.

“They started collecting posts that might not be that sophisticated as sculpture, but had a great foundry mark on it that let you know where it was manufactured and by who,” said McCombs. “Initially, they were looking at the form and not the history, but then they began meticulously recording all the pertinent information and anything else that was known about the post. They are very good at it.”

Most of the hitching posts owned by the Savinos were made between 1850 and the turn of the century, and although one post was standing outside Maxwell’s Hardware Store in Oakland, Calif., right after the Civil War, the majority of items come from east of the Mississippi. Originally, the Savinos collected hitching posts from all over the world, but decided to narrow their focus.

“We loved the form and shape of African sculptured pieces, but we could never connect the history of the African forms,” said Savino. “So we decided to collect just Americana items, and we sold our African pieces. Now, we try to learn as much history about the item as we can, and we might do that by contacting local historical societies or museums. But it’s a lot harder finding posts now. Twenty-five years ago, we’d go to an antiques show and pick up four or five. It’s a lot harder now.”

In fact, finding a hitching post these days is like finding a needle in a haystack.

“You just can’t get in your car and go driving and expect to find one,” said Savino. “We know a lot of dealers from around the country. If they come across something, they contact us and usually send us a picture, and then we decide if we want to add it to our collection.”

Along with being outdated, another reason it’s hard to find a hitching post these days is that most of them were turned in to the U.S. government because of scrap metal drives during time of war.

“Between the automobile and World War I many of the hitching posts were gone by the 1920s,” said Savino. “Many of them went with the scrap metal drives during World War I, and what didn’t disappear after World War I went into the scrap heap for World War II.”

Hitching posts of the 19th century were made by skilled craftsmen who began the process by carving a wooden figure and then sending it to a foundry where molten iron was poured into a sand mold. The DaVinci of hitching posts, according to McCombs, was Julius Melcher, who lived in the Detroit area after emigrating from Germany.

“He was also known for his cigar store Indians, and on his professional letterhead he advertised himself as a carver of not only furniture and architectural elements but also patterns for casting,” said McCombs. “He was a skilled wood carver, but I don’t think he would have considered himself a sculptor or an artist. There’s no evidence that he made a great fortune for his work. So he was probably part of the middle class. There were many Germans that came to the U.S. in the latter half of the 19th century and the furniture industry relied on that skilled work force to build their products.”

Keeping eyes open

While the Savinos’ collection isn’t growing by leaps and bounds these days, they do have their eyes on a few items.

“They’ve gone up in price considerably since we started collecting them,” said Bunny Savino, “and we know through our research that there are a few out there that we’ve been looking for for a couple of years.”

Just where they are, however, will remain a mystery for now.

“There’s one on a street corner we’d love to have, and we’ve written to the local government to let them know we’d love to have it,” she said. “When they’re ready to sell it, they’re going to let us know.”

‘Horsing Around: 19th Century Cast Iron Hitching Posts’

WHERE: Albany Institute of History and Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany

WHEN: Through May 25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed on Mondays and by special appointment only on Tuesdays.

HOW MUCH: $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens and students, $4 for children 6-12, free for children 5 and under

MORE INFO: 463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org

Categories: Life and Arts

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