Pennsylvania German Lift-Top Chest

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This article is from Issue 84 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Josh Lane

fastFACTS

  • “Pennsylvania Dutch” is misleading designation, because it refers to German-speaking immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. “Dutch” was an Americanization of the German “Deutch.” 
  • Of the hundreds of Pennsylvania German painted chests that have survived to the present, only 27 incorporate black unicorn motifs.
  • Research indicates that eight cabinetmakers and four decorative painters may have been responsible for the "black unicorn" group of painted chests built between 1780 and 1830.

In 1733, Protestant families from Southwest Germany and Switzerland began to settle Berks County, Pennsylvania. By 1790, 85% of Berks County residents spoke German. Following German tradition, parents presented painted chests like this one to teen-age children of both sexes. The practical function of these chests was to store clothing and textiles in houses built without large closets. The chests also served to safe-keep small valuables and important personal documents, either rolled up in drawers, or, as in this case, pasted to the underside of the lid (see photo, above). It wasn’t unusual for such chests to have secret storage, like the two small drawers hidden in this chest’s till. 

The carpenter who made the unicorn chest relied on traditional techniques brought from the old country. Hardwood pins were used instead of steel nails. The four corners of the case were joined together with wedged through dovetails. In this case, the wedges forced a tighter fit between pins and tails, helping joints to stay tight despite inevitable wood movement.   

Parents not only marked a child’s adolescence with a chest like this; they also relied on rich iconography to underscore their ethics and expectations for meaningful life in the community. Sometimes emblazoned with the name of the recipient and a significant life-date, painted chests were highly personalized repositories—and much more. As coming-of-age gifts, they signaled the importance of adult obligations and responsibilities, expressed cultural heritage, and even cued reflection on religious faith and personal conduct.

Family values. Painted chests like this one were made for the families of German-speaking immigrants who settled in the countryside northwest of Philadelphia between 1780 and 1830. A classic example of American folk art, this pine chest (and others like it) relies on symbolic imagery to express the heritage, hopes, and expectations of community members.

Secret drawers. Like many large chests, this one contains a small, built-in storage compartment (called a “till”). By tilting up the till’s lid and removing a false front, you gain access to a pair of hidden drawers.

The painted exterior of the chest includes iconography from numerous cultures. For example, the tulips and other floral elements derived from Ottoman textiles and ceramics that had reached all of Europe by the 16th century through trade with Italy. The sword-wielding cavalry rider is a subject that appears in Byzantine art, and may reflect a figure from the vision of St. John, as related in the Bible’s book of Revelations. Traditional symbols of virtue, purity, and chastity, the “rampant, confronted” unicorns may have been inspired by unicorns that appear in Anglo, rather than Germanic, civic heraldry such as the English royal coat of arms. Some historians have suggested that German artists took direct inspiration from the horses included in the Pennsylvania seal that was adopted in 1778. Such a connection would indicate a new sensibility borne out of the immigrant experience: German families living alongside their English, Welsh, and Scots-Irish counterparts, dedicated to maintaining traditional ways while also becoming American. 

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