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

The Southern Berks News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Richard L.T. Orth Colum­nist Richard L.T. Orth

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.

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