Furniture and Woodworking
Ever since the "discovery" of early American folk and decorative arts in the 1920s, connoisseurs and historians of American decorative arts have placed a high value on furniture made by some Mennonite and Amish craftsmen. The distinctiveness of such furniture, however, usually lies in the decoration applied to it rather than in actual design and construction. Although Jan Gleysteen, for instance, suggested that the decorative designs originated in the Swiss homeland of the Mennonites, they probably result from more diffused origins and influences in Europe and America.
Colonial Swiss Mennonites are closely associated with 22 surviving pieces of unpainted walnut furniture decorated with a distinctive sulfur inlay technique. Two of the most outstanding pieces are wardrobes made for Mennonite families in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The one made for George Huber in 1779 is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the one made in 1768 for Emmanuel (1745-1828) and Mary Herr is in the Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, Del. The Huber piece, one of the finest pieces of furniture made in colonial America, is attributed to George's brother Christian (1758-1820) and Peter Holl III (d. 1825).
The sulfur inlay furniture is constructed in the heavy Swiss-German manner and the decorations -- crowns, tulips, stars, urns, birds -- are related to designs used at the Ephrata Cloisters. Such designs were sometimes applied to textiles, handkerchief borders, and ecclesiastical linens. Although the sulfur inlay technique may have been brought from Switzerland, it was more likely developed in Pennsylvania.
Johannes Spitler (1774-1837) of Shenandoah County, Virginia, may have been a Mennonite from the community settled ca. 1733 by 51 Swiss and German pioneers from Lancaster County, Pa. Spitler is famous for his softwood blanket chests and tall case clocks decorated boldly in white, red, and black designs on a blue ground. A tall case clock made by him in 1800 is owned by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Spitler used geometric patterns and simple compass work as well as flowers, birds, and other representational motifs. Some designs are remarkably similar to the Fraktur designs of Jacob Strickler (1770-1842), for whom Spitler also made and decorated a tall case clock in 1801. When that clock was sold for $203,500 at Sotheby's in New York in 1986, it established a record price for American folk-painted furniture. Strickler, a Mennonite preacher in Shenandoah County, was Spitler's neighbor and relative by marriage. Spitler later moved to Fairfield County, Ohio, where he died.
Christian Seltzer (1749-1831), a Mennonite, began the "Jonestown school" of decorated furniture in Lebanon County, Pa. Others working with him include his son, John (1774-1845), and Lutheran brothers, Johannes Ranck (17631828) and Peter Ranck (1765-1851). They are known for their painted blanket chests, usually decorated with three panels depicting flowers in urns. A chest by Christian is to be found in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; one by John, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Another distinctive school of Amish-Mennonite furniture developed in Somerset County, Pa., in the little town of Soap Hollow (Schmier Seife Durch) in Conemaugh Township near Johnstown. The outstanding furniture-makers and decorators there were Jeremiah H. Stahl (1830-1907), Peter K. Thomas (1838-1907), Christian C. Blanch (182899), and Tobias Livingston (ca. 1822-91). Others include Joseph Sala (1848-1912) and John M. Sala (1852-1932), the sons of John Sala, Sr. (1819-82); and perhaps John Hershberger and a Reininger. Thomas and Stahl moved to Kent County, Mich., in 1868 and 1880 respectively, and continued their craft there. Near Meyersdale, also in Somerset County, worked Jacob Ganaegi (1796-1883), who made 1,123 bedsteads (according to family records) and also furniture resembling Soap Hollow work. He was succeeded by his son Elias (1832-1906). Soap Hollow furniture is often painted red with black and gold trim. Some pieces -- especially those by Stahl -- have a yellow ground and tan, brown, and bright green decoration. Designs, dates, and initials are usually stenciled. They are generally not applied free-hand.
Henry Lapp (1862-1904), an Amish joiner from Leacock Township in Lancaster County, is noted for his painted furniture and household accessories done in an undecorated, plain style (although some of these pieces were painted to resemble wood grain). The coloring of his work is related to Welsh traditions; other aspects of his design derive from Philadelphia influences. His order book, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, contains watercolor paintings of the items he offered to his customers. Since Lapp was deaf and virtually mute, the order book may have served to communicate to his customers what he could do. Lapp and his sister Lizzie are also noted for their small watercolor paintings of animals, plants, and other everyday subjects.
John Bachman II (1746-1829), of Lampeter Township in Lancaster County, is a good example of a Mennonite joiner who abandoned Germanic-style furniture for the English styles associated with Philadelphia furniture. He is noted for the "plain" Chippendale pieces he made, largely for Mennonite customers. After 1797 Bachman's son, John III (1775-1849), had established his own furniture-making business in McCartney's Corner, Pequea Township, Lancaster County Jacob Bachman (1782-1849), another son of John II, and Jacob Bachman I (1798-1869), son of John III, were also cabinetmakers.
John Bachman II probably learned his craft from his father, John Bachman I, with whom he emigrated to Lancaster County from Switzerland in 1766. Later members of the Bachman family who were also cabinetmakers in Lancaster County include Jacob I's son, Christian (1827-1901), and Christian's son, Ellis (1856-1917?). Johan Bear (1745?-1803?) also made Chippendale-style furniture in Lancaster County
Between 1775 and 1810 John Bachman II trained 10 apprentices, among whom were Johannes Miller, Johan Rohrer, Valentine Meyer, Jacob Brand, Kitschli Miller, Heinrich Jung, Gottlieb Sellers and Jacob Sener. Although probably not all of these cabinetmakers were Mennonites, many have Mennonite family names. The Philadelphia-style furniture made in Lancaster by the Michael Linds (father and son) and Hans Jurig Burkhart was earlier attributed to John Bachman II.
In the Mennonite diaspora to Ontario and the Midwest, traditional furniture-making was often continued. The Ontario Mennonite tradition has been well surveyed; the Midwest achievement is less well documented.
In Ontario, John Grobb (1800-1885), Jacob Fry, J. H. Housser, Jacob Houser, and Israel Moyer worked in the Niagara Peninsula, but abandoned Germanic for English styles. Waterloo County Mennonite furniture retains a strongly Pennsylvania-German character. John Barkey, a Mennonite from Markham (York County), made fancifully painted cupboards and chests, ca. 1875. Moses Eby (1799-1854) is noted for a cherry slant-front desk of 1817, using inlaid designs. John Gerber (1809-89) and his son, Christian (1845-1928), were Amish cabinetmakers in Wellesley known for their painted furniture decorated with abstract motifs, ebonizing, and grained effects. As of 1981 Sidney Fry, an Old Order Mennonite of Conestogo, was still making furniture in traditional designs.
Early York County, Ont., Mennonite furniture blends Germanic and English traditions. Abram Ramer, the first furniture-maker in Markham and eventually a manufacturer of chairs, is noted for his massive Germanic furniture in the Empire style. In the 1850s John and Jacob Barkey produced pine country furniture that sometimes incorporates a carved shell design or grain painting that suggests inlaid wood. Simon Reesor (1829-1909) made smaller, simpler furniture in Sheraton styles. The York County tradition ended with Samuel Burkholder, nephew of the Barkeys, who made Victorian-style furniture.
In Ohio, Moses K. Troyer (1838-1923) and David Hershberger (1813-87), both Amish Mennonites, made grained and decorated furniture in Holmes County. Near Archbold, Jacob Werrey (1838-93), Mennonite, made painted and decorated furniture in the Germanic style, mainly blanket chests, one of which is in the Columbus, Ohio, Museum of Art.
Indiana furniture-makers in the Germanic tradition include Samuel M. Miller (1870-1943) of LaGrange County, Ind., who made painted furniture in the style of Somerset County, Pa., where many of the Amish in northern Indiana originated. M. H. Hochstetler made similar furniture ca. 1900 near Nappanee. Both were Amish. Old Order Mennonite John Weaver (1821-1907) of the Yellow Creek area made elaborately inlaid furniture after he retired from farming. One blanket chest used 11,800 pieces of inlay.
In the 1980s little had been written about western American Mennonite furniture. However, Gerhard Esau (b. 1876), who learned cabinet-making from his father in Russia and emigrated to Beatrice, Nebr., in 1907, is noted for intricate inlaid tables, sometimes requiring as many as 8,500 separate pieces of wood , Also, museums and art historians have been attracted to European folk furniture forms that survive among western Mennonites, particularly the Hutterites and Russian Mennonites. Among them are the Kiste, or massive storage chest, and the Schlafbank or sleeping bench. The latter is a kind of wooden sofa, usually painted, grained, or carved, and sometimes providing storage space as well as a place to rest.
In 1991 Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen and John M. Janzen published the first major work on Russian Mennonite furniture-making among the immigrants who settled in the U.S. midwest during the 1870s. Franz Adrian (1936-1910), Heinrich Schroeder (1825-1908) and Heinrich Rempel (1849-1902) were prolific cabinet makers in Kansas and Nebraska. A similar study has not yet been done (1999) on furniture makers in the Canadian West.
Some (Old) Mennonites (MC) are known for the smaller household accessories-sugar buckets, saltboxes, eggcups, saffron boxes, etc. -- that they made and decorated in a colorful, Germanic style. Chief among them is Joseph Lehn (1798-1892) of near Lititz in Lancaster County. Another is Samuel Plank (1821-1900) of near Belleville, Pa., who made saltboxes decorated with Fraktur motifs.
The making of handcrafted furniture by Mennonites and Amish continued in the 1980s. Small woodworking shops flourish in most Amish communities, although the items produced there differ little from mainstream American designs. However, in some Ohio and Indiana Amish communities one still finds makers of bent hickory rockers in the Adirondack style as well as chair-makers who use older American designs. Among the Mennonites who produce custom-designed furniture in larger woodworking shops is Swartzendruber Hardwood Creations in Goshen, Ind., founded and owned by Larion Swartzendruber.
A few Mennonites now mass-produce furniture for national and international markets. Apparently the largest such manufacturer is Sauder's in Archbold, Ohio, founded by Erie J. Sauder, Mennonite (MC), in 1934. The various Sauder operations produce church and office furniture, as well as occasional furniture for the home. The DeFehr Manufacturing Co. of Winnipeg, Man., makes wooden and upholstered household furniture. It was founded in 1944 by A. A. DeFehr, Mennonite Brethren. Royal Creations of Upland, Cal., founded by Marlin Riegsecker, (old) Mennonite, makes occasional furniture.
A cluster of furniture companies has arisen in the Swiss Amish Mennonite community of Berne, Ind. They include Dunbar (founded in 1919 by Homer Niederhauser and Aloysius Dunbar), Berne Furniture (founded in 1925 by L. Lawrence Yager) and Smith Brothers of Berne (founded in 1926 by Homer Niederhauser). Berne Furniture and Smith Brothers both manufacture upholstered furniture; Dunbar produces bedroom, dining room, and office furniture.
Although most such furniture conforms to the tastes of the general American consumer, it sometimes attains distinction of design, as for instance with the Body Form Chair produced by Sauder Designaire of Stryker, Ohio, one of which was purchased in 1986 for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
See also Furniture in Russia, Mennonite
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 320-322. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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APA style: Beck, Ervin. (1989). Furniture and Woodworking. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F88ME.html.