ORTH: Exquisite folk art found throughout Kutztown.
Historically, one must recall that at the time of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and thereafter, American agriculture was prospering and farmers became flamboyant in their building habits. The practice of industrious farmers putting architectural hex signs on their barns might very well be a sign and legacy left behind from the Republic’s antebellum days of agrarian wealth! Furthermore, of the fashionable hardwood dower chests found in the Kutztown area, the 1783 Maria Kutz chest with inlays on black walnut wood is remarkable example of folk art decoration. This chest possibly made by the same Colonial joiner who also crafted the incredible Hottenstein inlaid walnut wardrobe for David Hottenstein in 1781. The dower chest itself was discovered on the Sell farm outside of Bowers, near Kutztown.
In 1761, (“Maxatawny”) George Bieber had divided his 302 plus acres of land between his son, Dietrich and son-in-law, George SELL, where this chest was found. This beautiful folk art chest with inlaid grasshoppers and tulips over three drawers was no doubt been coveted by family members in the Kutztown area. Since there were few craftsmen in the early days of the Republic in the Maxatawny area, farmers eagerly sought woodworking craftsmen to meet their furniture needs; so it is possible that more than one craftsman was represented in the rare material wealth that survives in the Kutztown area. Likewise, I’m convinced young apprentices that worked with the compass folk art of the Jacob Bieber woodworking family took their journeymen skills to other communities as with Kutztown.
According to Maxatawny tax rolls of 1779, they list only two joiners: Paul Hertzoge and Philip Heyman, but by 1784, George Esser was now also listed and Christian Den had moved into Maxatawny from Greenwich Township all of which, these Pennsylvania Dutchmen were inspired by their native folk art designs.
Kutztown’s founder, George Kutz, had married into the historic Bieber family tree of woodworkers when he married Margaret Bieber (1730-1796). Bieber folk art decorated furniture pieces with hex sign motifs have been found in the Kutztown area throughout the years, and Georgian architectural farm mansions built at Kutztown often had circular gable-end attic windows with four wooden keystones equally spaced, but do not incorporate any hex sign designs or medallions recessed into their gable end except for a rare barn or two! The fact that a farmer would go to the extra expense of architecturally setting one of these Georgian-type medallion masoned circles in his barn gable-end wall and highlight it with a colorful hex sign, either tells one about his wealth or the culture in which he lived in.
One of the most enchanting motifs on dower chests, whether from the area or not, were unusual sevenpointed barnlike stars, hex signs, or large sunbursts painted in yellow and orange-red on each end of a chest with bold orange centers unlike usual 6 or 8-pointed stars. Most assuredly, this was the sunburst-type design Frances Lichten had attributed to the original archeological sun cult idea of hex-sign motifs she had seen overseas in the Rhineland Valley when visiting in the early 1900s. The stylized famed Bieber flat hearts, an Alsatian design from Europe (pictured), is perhaps the most enchanting folk art motif to me; this example being outlined in red paint.
As the probable builders of the 1783 David Hottenstein mansion, just outside Kutztown along route 222, I am often reminded of the demure twin flat hearts inscribed at the bottom of the 1783 mansion date stones. It was here where its’ colorful paintdecorated Fraktur chamber room was removed and installed at Henry Francis DuPont’s Winterthur Museum in Delaware and could easily be the product of this Bieber family. Another of (John) Bieber’s signature designs- a variation of egg and dart- was carved on the pedimented doorways in the central hallway of the Mansion showing his proficient compass skills. However, to an early PA Dutch Huguenot, the idea of carving five abstract Jesus fish shapes over the threshold to a doorway of a Christian Rhinelander obviously had some religious significance.
This beautiful folk art chest with inlaid grasshoppers and tulips over three drawers was no doubt coveted by family members in the Kutztown area.
This colorful paintdecorated Fraktur chamber room was removed and installed at Henry Francis DuPont’s Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
The David Hottenstein mansion features these demure twin flat hearts inscribed at the bottom of its date stones.
Carving five abstract Jesus fish shapes over the threshold to a doorway of a Christian Rhinelander obviously had some religious significance.