An Introduction to Pa. Dutch decorated Dower Chest
Some were made of hardwoods like walnut or cherry to have their folk decoration inlaid by a master cabinet maker
When one studies Americana folk art, they must of necessity study the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch of southeastern, Pennsylvania. Nowhere in America did early American folkart flourish more, and for a longer period, than among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Certainly, the illuminated documents, known as Fraktur of the PA Dutch Germanic people, have long been considered one of the highest folk-art forms in the nation. But next to the fraktur tradition of the Deitsch, their decorated furniture has no equal in the folk-art realm.
Of the numerous folk decorated pieces of furniture, none are as cherished more than the dower chest. The dower chest, in its simplest explanation, was a paint decorated blanket chest given to a farmer’s daughter for her personal possessions as she prepared for the day of her matrimony.
Often the chest was dated and the name of the owner painted on the front, but chests were not just gifted to daughters, on occasion to sons, as well.
It is difficult to tell when the folk-art tradition of decorating the dower chest began since not all chests are dated, but one authority many decades ago, had foolishly stated, “There are no decorated dower chests before 1770, simply because there is no data that chests have been found to predate that decade.”
The fact for even the most novice of researchers is there are several, very early undated dower chests which predate 1770. As we have expanded our research since, we find some decorated chests before then (1770) as I have exhibited in book and has become quite the common knowledge to those in the field.
Take for example, the decorated 1762 Jacob Bieber dower chest once showcased at the Catasauqua Historical Society in Lehigh County. An interesting question is whether the highly-decorated fraktur birth certificates predate these dower chests or whether some of the early, undated chests predate the folk-art birth certificates?
It was quite common for a girl to paste or tack her birth certificate to the inside of her dower chest lid, so the question remains: Did this custom encourage early scribes to decorate the birth certificate to match these beautifully paint decorated chests or did the cabinet maker decide to match the work of talented early Scribes?
The dower chest was certainly a joyous gift for the father to give his daughter, not only because it was her personal piece of furniture to carry on, but these commissioned polychromatic folk decorations were meant to portray or reflect the love of the father for his daughter(s).
It is perhaps the pride that the daughter had in the father’s gifts of a chest of this type that some specimens have made it down through the centuries with barely a scratch. Not all chests were made from humble softwood poplar and pine boards to be painted by the folk artist; some were made of hardwoods like walnut or cherry to have their folk decoration inlaid by a master cabinet maker and some early walnut chests were sometimes made with very fashionable ogee feet, while others with a simple dovetailed bracket foot similar to their painted counterparts.
The early, if not the earliest, decorated dower chest of Jacob Bieber (1762), as it looked in the mid-1990s, then housed at the Catasauqua Historical Society in Lehigh County. The chest has now fallen in private hands and off the author’s radar, which unfortunately many pieces have, or worse, destroyed or disregarded, maybe even broken down as kindling.