Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture Styles

Beginning in the late 17th century, German Protestants arrived in Pennsylvania, settling into insular communities which entertained minimal influence from the outside world. Their handmade hardwood furniture kept a strong Germanic style but started to create its own style as cabinetmakers adapted the regional woods and fulfilled the taste for both tough work and striking kind. The period from 1720 to 1830 is regarded as the main age of Pennsylvania Dutch antique furniture. Many fine furniture manufacturers today replicate the right lines, tapered legs and distinguishing joinery preferred by their forebears.

Tables and Hutches

Pennsylvania Dutch cupboards and hutches tend toward the oversized storage furniture which could handle all of the trappings for large families and communal dinners. Cabinets might be polished and completed real walnut or cherry wood. Or the entire cabinet may be painted, together with highly decorated panels, doors or drawer fronts. Tables were comparable to all table styles in farm and rural areas at the time. The dining room table was timber — again walnut, cherry or an indigenous hardwood. However a particular style preferred in Pennsylvania Dutch country was the sawbuck table. A wood slab shirt rested on 2 X-shaped supports, rather than separate legs. The supports were joined by a crossbar that ran the length of the table. This design creates a very stable and strong tablethat offsets its big size.

Shapes and Lines

A seat was never just a seat in a Pennsylvania Dutch dwelling. It was a riff on a popular style, such as Windsor chairs or rush-seated ladderbacks, always with a personal twist and frequently with a decorated decoration. Some chairs were constructed with arrow-shaped back spindles, others with striped wood backs. But plain, unupholstered timber was common for chairs which have been more about utility than relaxation. The decor was that which softened the hard chairs. Cut-out hearts in seat backs and painted chairs with stenciled flowers or birds were charming. Styles included flat or flipped arms, perpendicular to the seat; cabriole, around, hexagonal or tapered legs occasionally with paw, ball or bun feet; along with solid wood slats, frequently horizontal, on seat backs.

Local Materials

So much of the furniture was simple, uncushioned wood the timber itself was a strong design feature. Pennsylvania Dutch cabinetmakers worked together with exotic regional species like tulipwood. The color of tulipwood ranges from pink-yellow heartwood, striped in red, to paler sapwood. Black walnut, grayish oak along with a yellow to crimson- or pink-tinted pine were ordinary, although building of durable furniture was usually entrusted to more difficult forest than pine. The simple lines of the pieces allowed the nature of the wood to shine through.

Painted Chests

The appeal of several Pennsylvania Dutch pieces is in the lively motifs and stylized figures painted on chests of every sort, chairs, boxes and occasional tables. Dowry or hope chests were carefully stenciled with brilliant stars, tulips, birds, medieval tapestry unicorns and hearts over a light blue backdrop. A tree of life, green and brown against cream, might grace a cabinet door. A farm scene with stylized horses, birds, daisies and sunflowers in greens, grays, cream, yellow, red and black against brown hardwood could be stippled on a blanket chest. The ladderback slats of a painted seat were an inviting canvas for a farm or nature motif. Painting permitted the furniture maker to stamp a slice with individual style.

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