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Pennsylvania Dutch, Plain and Fancy

Furniture made by the Pennsylvania Dutch and used in the ample houses of their prosperous farms displays two of the dominant characteristics of these folk. Their fondness for colorful ornamentation in the home is evident in fine examples of painted furniture, such as the bridal chest.Their hard-headed practicality, on the other hand, is demonstrated by the simple lines and sturdy construction of such pieces made for everyday use as the water bench.

Originally the water bench was a purely functional piece of kitchen furniture, reflecting the farm life of the Pennsylvania Dutch before the days of plumbing and piped-in water. Such benches were indigenous to the five counties back of Philadelphia which were settled mainly by that close-knit group of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century emigrants from the Rhine Valley, originally listed as Dutch because they had embarked at Rotterdam.

Most water benches date from between 1800 and 1860 and still retain the Continental flavor of the German Palatinate. Their original use is indicated by their name. Existing as they did in the era of the old oaken bucket, the counter shelf held the wash basin and pails of fresh water brought from the well or spring. Other buckets and pails were kept in the cupboard below. Dippers and basins were put on the narrow top shelf which was fitted into scroll-cut ends eighteen to twenty inches above. Three drawers immediately below held soap and other small toilet articles.

A typical example was made of pine, sometimes combined with other soft woods. The general outline is similar to a Welsh dresser but neither as tall nor as completely shelved. Most pieces have only the top and counter shelves. Total height of the piece varies from forty-six to fortyeight inches.

General use of the water bench as part of Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen equipment ceased about 1900, but these thrifty people were not foolish enough to reduce such good sturdy pieces to kindling. Consequently there were enough of them in existence to satisfy demand when someone realized about twenty years ago that a well-proportioned water bench could be moved into the dining room and serve either as a dresser for displaying a collection of pewter or as a buffet.

Water benches have now become especially popular in informal country homes because of their good lines and adaptability, and antique dealers from all sections of the country have gone to the Pennsylvania Dutch area to acquire examples. As a result, such pieces can be found from New England to the Pacific Coast. Although they were originally painted Amish blue or some other typical color, the general practice today is to refinish them in the natural pine as better suited to the advanced social station of this once lowly piece.

Bridal chests date from about 1760-1830. They were made of pine or poplar by local carpenters and decorated by self-taught artists. As such they were folk art and represented a love of color and a partiality to symbolism inherent in these people. Structurally, the chests are rectangular boxes with hinged lids; usually supported on four plain bracket feet. The main decorative effect was attained by painted designs on the front consisting of two or three panels. Here symbolism played an important part as did love of nature. Certain motifs are distinctive of each of the five counties in which these German refugees from the Rhine Valley settled.

For instance, the chest has two arched panels enclosing parrot-like birds with tulips and fuchsias, a design common to Lancaster County. The ground color is a reddish brown. Other favored ground colors are Amish blue and cypress green. Designs common to the other counties are: arched panels flanked by a pair of unicorns rampant among tulips and pomegranates, from Berks County; square panels filled with flower sprays rising from a vase, from Dauphin County; large circular medallions overlaid with six-pointed stars, often flanking an arched central panel lettered with owner's name, from Lehigh County; and square panels with tulips and carnations, from Montgomery County.

Many of the designs were painted by men who made a specialty of such decoration and traveled from town to town. Dauphin County had two, Christian Selzer and Johann Rank. In Lancaster County there was Heinrich Otto, also well-known for his fractur writing. A chest decorated and signed by him or either of the other two men would obviously be most desirable and valuable.

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