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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Painted Pennsylvania German dower chest sold for $446,000. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.
There’s a carefree feeling to this 18th century hope (dower) chest. If it could speak what might it say about the young woman whose linens, needlework and quilts it housed? What might it say about a bride’s hopes for the future and worries about the past?

Painted robin’s egg blue and decorated with bold black unicorns, lions, tulips and fancy compass designs, it’s eye-dazzling, clearly built with kindness and a gentle hand.

Usually these chests, decorated with symbols from folklore were three to four feet long. They were popular among Pennsylvania German settlers in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The chests could be found in the bedroom or parlor. They may very well have been the only touch of color in an otherwise drab farmhouse.

People who owned them were generally moneyed. Chests in poorer families were usually one color—barn red.

The customs of the day dictated that dowries of peasant maidens needed to have all the basics for country housekeeping. This included a wardrobe, chest, table, bed, plus quilts and linens spun and woven by the bride.

Did the village carpenter build this particular dower chest? Did the would-be bride’s father build it? And who decorated it?

The maker’s name is often missing on these pieces, but the owner’s name or initials and the date in Roman characters is often given prominent space.

The German red paint on this particular chest translates to “Adam Menick in Bern Berks County in the year 1796.” The 1810 census actually lists Adam Menick (born between 1765 and 1784) living in Bern Township, Berks County, Pa.
Pennsylvania German folk art has an interesting history.

Crude and charming, the chests were crafted by peasants, farmers, artisans and other immigrants who were isolated on rural farms.

Some of the early settlers brought the folk heritage with them from Germany. Other pioneers settled in and farmers gradually became craftsmen. Being isolated gave them the opportunity to develop an ageless folk art.

Peace-loving and hard-working, they called themselves the Pennsylvania Dutch. As pioneers, they were lucky in many ways.

They picked an area of the country with rich soil, plenty of field stone for building and clay for roof tiles and utensils. The forests were dense and iron lay just below the earth’s surface waiting to be made into nails and cooking pots.

In this environment the Pennsylvania (Dutch) Germans thrived and created their unique folk art.

Nowadays any collection of Early American furniture seems incomplete without at least one piece of painted furniture. These Pennsylvania German dower chests have been elevated to the level of antiques worthy of inclusion in the best museums.

On Nov. 5, Skinner Auctioneers, Boston, Mass., offered the painted and decorated dower chest described in its American Furniture & Decorative Arts auction. The piece went for $446,000. It sold over the phone to Olde Hope Antiques in New Hope, Pa., on behalf of a client.

Here are some current values for other vintage pieces offered in the sale.

Painted Furniture

Dome-Top box; painted and decorated; grain-painted; American early-19th century; 3 5/8 inches by 6 5/8 inches; $470.

Sled; miniature; painted and decorated; American late-19th century; 5 5/8 inches by 15 inches; $940.

Pine Cricket Stool; painted and decorated; green; `American early-19th century; 5 inches by 10 inches; $1,410.

Pine Cricket Stool; painted and decorated; yellow; American early-19th century; 7 1/4 inches; 13 1/8 inches; $2,233.

Dome-Top Box; painted and decorated; rectangular with hinged lid; American; early-19th century; 13 3/8 inches by 13 7/8 inches; $9,400.

Dower Chest; fancifully painted in arcs; lettered Jacob Hubner; Pennsburg, Pa., area; 1815; 27 ¼ inches by 49 inches; $30,550.

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