Saturday, March 26, 2011

Paint, Pattern & People: Book Review

by Wendy A. Cooper and Lisa Minardi

Wendy A. Cooper, Senior Curator of Furniture at Winterthur
Lisa Minardi, Assistant Curator of Furniture for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Furniture Project at Winterthur

Ms. Cooper and Ms. Minardi’s newly released book appeals not only to woodworkers, but to anyone who is interested in early American history, culture, and furniture.

They started their project over six years ago with the desire to bring to light little known facts about the culture and creativity of the 18th- and 19th-century inhabitants of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Cooper and Minardi canvassed over 250 private and public collections, attended auctions and visited antique dealers in search of furniture with well documented histories.

Their exhaustive research gives us fascinating insight into the everyday happenings of the inhabitants, and the furniture transports us into the lives of our ancestors.

The first part of the book focuses on the people who immigrated to the area—equal numbers of English- and German- speaking people—and their attraction to a place that was tolerant of their religious beliefs and provided ample natural resources which would to lead to prosperity.  The dense, tall forests, thick with black walnut, cherry, and maple were especially attractive to woodworkers.

Details about the early settlers include occupations, inventories of possessions, costs of goods, countries of origin, and places of worship.

Peppered throughout the text are excerpts from journals which give us a personal look at habits and personalities.

The authors found that similarities in painted, inlaid, and carved decoration and construction were influenced by a variety of factors including region, ethnicity, religious affiliation, personal taste, socioeconomic status, and the skill of the craftsman.

They also managed to debunk several myths—for example, notions about dower chests, most of which weren’t dower chests at all. In reality, the majority were made for young teens of both genders to store their possessions. The quickly built chests accompanied them in their marriages and became part of their new homes.

Another myth they dispelled is that the region was solely populated by Pennsylvania Germans. In fact, Pennsylvania was the most culturally diverse of the 13 colonies.

We learn about the craftsmen through inventories of their tools, inscriptions left on backs of furniture, and items they bartered in exchange for products of their craft. Cabinetmaker Thomas Ogden of West Chester advertised in 1820 that he would “take in exchange beef, pork, fire wood, wheat, rye, corn or any kind of boards, such as he makes use of in his line.”

The authors provide detailed descriptions of the pieces that are showcased in the book including wood species, dimensions, design features, markings, hardware, and close-ups of carving and inlay.  As furniture experts, Cooper and Minardi speak our language, pointing out of all the things we want to know about the furniture including unique features.

Of one piece they write, “The short cabriole legs of the Garrett tall chest are unusual in that they attach to the case with large wooden screws. The legs are dovetailed to a batten that runs front-to-back at either side of the case, and then secured to the underside of the cabinet with two wooden screws on each side. Approximately thirty other tall chests with this construction feature are known.”

They uncovered an incredible number of fascinating things about the people, furniture, regions and craftsmen. For example, in 1772 John Frederick Whitehead studied to be a cabinetmaker in Germany. After seven months as a young apprentice, he wrote, “I was no further advanced in learning the trade than when I began...the chief [thing] I did was breaking of Gimblets, bending of Chysels and Saws, spoiled boards and planes.” Later, he moved to Pennsylvania and became a weaver.

Interspersed among the photos of more than 125 pieces of painted and high end furniture are numerous 18th- and 19th-century paintings of farmland and fertile, rolling hills of Pennsylvania; painted portraits of families and individuals who are highlighted in the text; photos of stone homesteads which are still standing; and archival images from the early 1900s.

In addition, more than 30 pages of end notes provide even more information about the pieces and the people, and an extensive selected bibliography directs us toward further related reading.

What an undertaking Cooper and Minardi embarked upon six years ago. To have compiled such a thorough and comprehensive amount of useful, captivating, educational, and inspiring information is nothing short of astounding.

Their hope is that their work will lay a foundation which other scholars can use for more study about the people and furniture of early southeastern Pennsylvania. What they’ve also produced is a marvelous tribute to the craftsmen who made the pieces.


A new exhibit—Paint, Pattern & People—opens at the Winterthur Museum on April 2 and will display many of the pieces included in the book. Guess who’s planning to be first in line. ; )


Photos are courtesy of the Winterthur Museum. Notes about the pieces are as follows (from top to bottom):
1. Wainscot armchair, about 1740
Walnut; holly
2. Desk-and-bookcase, 1725–40
Cherry; chestnut, tulip-poplar, oak, white pine, walnut; holly; brass
3. Desk-and-bookcase, 1770–90
Cherry; tulip-poplar; brass
4. Hanging cupboard, 1800
White pine; paint; glass; iron, brass
5. Chest-over-drawers, 1791
Tulip-poplar; paint; brass, iron
6. Tall chest of drawers, 1786
Maple; tulip-poplar, walnut; brass
7. Kitchen cupboard, 1848
Tulip-poplar, maple; white pine; red lead, vermilion (microanalysis); brass, iron; glass