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Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

Joseph Sciorra (June 14, 2013)
Joseph Sciorra
Decorated planter, 1471 East 31st Street, Flatlands, Brooklyn.

Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of Brooklyn’s Decorated Planters


In 1968, folklorist Henry Glassie published his now classic study Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States.

This book offered ways at looking at historical objects by examining the patterns—both similarities and differences—within regional areas and over time. This attention to detail provided a method for understanding such vernacular creations as clay jugs, wood benches, and shotgun houses.  The final chapter addresses "nonregional patterns" of material culture including that found among (European) immigrant groups from the latte nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Italian-American brick ovens in Louisiana, and in cities thus offering countless opportunities for future studies.

I’ve been trying to make sense of Brooklyn’s decorated flowerpots by simply documenting them on my blog as I come across them. It’s not a systematic study but a sort of digital thinking out loud.  Today I offer two examples of differences among recent finds and one very obvious similar.

1218 81st Street, Dyker Heights

Last week I traveled to 81st Street in Dkyer Heights and then to East 31st Street in Flatlands. (Thanks for Anthony Scotto and Annabella Sciorra for informing about these places.)

1226 81st Street, Dyker Heights

Both sets of houses had the now familiar rectangular planter with its center diamond shape, flanked by oval or trapezoid urns. This layout is what Glassie refers to as bilateral, tripartite symmetry, common to European folk aesthetics.

1220 81st Street, Dyker Heights

The three connected houses on 81st Street—1218, 1220, and 1226—shared similarities with some of the other rectangular, pebble planters in Brooklyn: a double row of large pebbles outline the top trim and crushed stone as filler for the diamond shape.  

A single planter set on the back adjoining between 1475 and 1477 East 31st Street, Flatlands

The Flatlands houses at 1471 and 1473 East 31st Street were markedly different from their 81st Street counterparts in several ways: the upper trim did not have two rows of stone and did not have a clear, distinct separation from the rest of the filled-in space.  These planters were different from all the others I had seen to date in that the stones used to fill the diamond were jagged and not the rounded quartz used on the rest of the pots.

1471 East 31st Street, Flatlands.

And some of the planters facing the street had no diamond shape at all, as found in other parts of Brooklyn.

1473 East 31st Street, Flatlands
These are minor variations on the theme of the rectangular flowerpots with diamond shape. They suggest different styles and artisanal hands, while conforming to a recognized form.  But one common element joins together these two types of decorate flowerpots—rectangular planter with flanking urns—and that is they are all found in the exact same housing stock, that of three story brick row housing, with garage.  In addition, all the balconies have an open spaces in the brickwork. It appears that all these buildings were constructed in 1950. 

1473 and 1471 East 31st Street, Flatlands

This association between decorated planters and house type is the next area to explore.  

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