They emigrated from Germany to America in the late 17th century, settling in southeastern Pennsylvania and hoping for a new life free from religious persecution. Initially, they brought with them a style of decoration known as Frakturschriften, or fraktur writing, a type of calligraphy used in medieval manuscripts. For those who became known as Pennsylvania Germans, it was simply a method of recording family events – births, baptisms, marriages and deaths. In Europe, such a record was required; in America, the custom continued.
Usually done in pen and ink, or with brightly colored watercolors on paper, early frakturs featured angels, Biblical characters, hearts, vines and flowers (especially tulips), stylized birds and geometric designs. After the American Revolution, patriotic symbols were incorporated. Popular motifs included military soldiers on horseback, eagles and shields. The patriotic flavor is easily explained: Pennsylvania Germans were fiercely loyal to their adopted country. In fact, the earliest effort in America on behalf of the federal Constitution was a petition from 250 residents of Germantown.
Pennsylvania German design and artistry were not limited to fraktur. In Bavaria, as early as the 1600s, border patterns had been stenciled in black on natural-wood finishes. And as fraktur evolved, so too did painted furniture. “By the late 18th century, the decorations had become increasingly exuberant,” said Americana specialist Martha Hamilton, of Skinner Inc. “It was a way to beautify the soft woods which were indigenous to the area, such as tulip poplar and pine. Tulip poplar, (also known as yellow poplar), was a particular favorite among rural craftsmen.”
Although pieces were made more attractive with the use of ground paint, stenciling and hand-painted decoration, almost all were utilitarian in nature. “Perhaps the piece most closely associated with Pennsylvania painted furniture is the chest,” said Hamilton. “Essentially storage boxes with dovetail construction, they were used to house linens and other personal possessions, and have lift-top lids attached with decorative iron hinges, and occasionally, drawers. Those with three painted panels on the facade are very popular with collectors, as are certain images, like prancing lions or unicorns.
“There is also the dower or bride’s chest,” said Hamilton. “These frequently bore the name of the owner, stenciled on the front of the box, and the addition of a name increases value. Attribution to a known maker will also add value, although only a handful of makers has been identified. Among the names to look for are Johannes Ranck, Peter Ranck, Christian Selzer and Jacob Weber.”
The most prominent piece of furniture in any Pennsylvania German household was the schrank or kas, a large wardrobe that housed linens and clothing for the entire family. “The Pennsylvania-German examples were quite a bit larger than those made in the New England area,” said Hamilton. “They were sometimes made out of beautiful woods, like cherry, and in those cases, they would not be painted or decorated.
When made of pine, they were often grain painted or featured stenciling. A grain-painted piece might fetch $25,000-$35,000. Of course, the most sought-after examples will be painted – a great example will easily command $100,000-200,000.”
Also sought after by collectors are smaller boxes, which were made for everything from trinkets and books to salt, and chests of drawers, especially those made in the Mahantango Valley, an area in southeastern Pennsylvania. A stunning Mahantango Valley chest of drawers, circa 1835-1840, sold for $211,500 (inclusive of 15 percent buyer’s premium) in June 1997 at Christie’s New York, Rockefeller Center.
“It’s difficult to predict what such a piece could fetch today,” said Margot Rosenberg, department head, American Folk Art, Christie’s New York. “Prices for Pennsylvania painted pieces have climbed steadily over the years, and there has been a tremendous increase at the top end of market. These pieces have just skyrocketed.”
So what drives the price? Both Hamilton and Rosenberg say it’s all in the paint. “The aesthetic appeal of the decoration, the colors used, how much of the piece has been decorated (e.g., in the case of a chest, are the sides, top and front decorated – or only the front?), and most importantly, originality,” said Rosenberg. “Collectors are very particular about the paint being unrestored; they’re willing to accept some paint loss and fading, in fact, it’s expected, given the age. So while little touch-ups, which are non invasive, might have minimal detraction, repainting the entire piece would reduce the value by 90 percent.”