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Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture: Characteristics & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You may have heard of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but have you ever checked out their furniture? In this lesson, you can! We'll look at its major characteristics and see what role it played in Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

The Pennsylvania Dutch and their Furniture

Fun fact: The Pennsylvania Dutch are not Dutch. So, why are they called that? Dutch, in this case, does not refer to the Netherlands. It's a mistranslation of the word Deutsch, the German word for the German language. That's right, the Pennsylvania Dutch are ancestrally German.

In the USA today, the Pennsylvania Dutch are a major ethnic/cultural group in Pennsylvania. Their ancestors arrived in the American colonies back in the 1680s, settling into their own part of Pennsylvania and building new German communities based on the ones they left behind in the Rhine Valley. So, how exactly do you translate a German village into rural Pennsylvania? How about making German-style furniture? It ended up becoming a style as American as Dutch apple pie.

Style Versus Utility

As we start to look at Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, there's one thing we have to keep in mind. This was colonial furniture, made by people who had moved thousands of miles from their homeland and were living in very rural and remote communities. So, while we can examine major trends, at the end of the day, the finished product was ultimately a result of the available material and the artist's tastes.

Pennsylvania Dutch furniture complimented their regional architecture
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True Pennsylvania Dutch furniture was produced from roughly 1720 to 1830, as German furniture makers arrived in the Pennsylvania Dutch colonies. They brought German woodworking techniques with them, but also began to incorporate techniques and styles found in nearby English colonies. Ultimately, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture represented a distinct interpretation of many other styles popular in Europe, and the colonies throughout this time, all created foremost with a focus on utility. Again, this was colonial living; it was more important for things to be practical than stylish. Pennsylvania Dutch furniture was noted for its stability and longevity.

Characteristics

So, how can we characterize Pennsylvania Dutch furniture? The furniture objects created by these craftspeople was often straightforward and direct, but nevertheless often followed the German tradition of utilizing elaborate joints to hold it together. Furniture pieces emphasized straight lines, not curves, and very commonly had tapered legs.

Perhaps the most definitive characteristic of Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, however, was the way it was decorated. Most furniture in the English colonies was polished, varnished, or finished with veneer. This did happen in Pennsylvania Dutch villages, but the most prominent form of decoration was painting. Pennsylvania Dutch furniture was painted in bright and colorful scenes of daily life, with birds or other animals, or patterns of geometric shapes. This is one of the most definitive hallmarks of the Pennsylvania Dutch style.

Types of Furniture

Within Pennsylvania Dutch communities, you'd find all the basic furniture items (chairs, tables, chests, etc), but there were a few notable variations unique to these furniture makers. First was the sawbuck table, an oversized table that could hold a large family and plenty of heavy German food. Rather than resting on individual legs, the sawbuck tabletop sat on two x-shaped supports, giving the large table greater stability.

Considering the large tables, Pennsylvania Dutch households needed large cupboards to store all the plates and silverware. Known as shrank cupboards, these oversized storage units took up a lot of floor room but were often painted with lively colors, and scenes of daily life.

A girl retrieves linens from the hope chest
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Finally, Pennsylvania Dutch homes were also never complete without a brightly colored hope chest, used to store the fine linens which were typically associated with the dowry of young women. These dowry chests were often light blue and white with flowers, birds, and other natural motifs, but could be found in other colors as well.

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