Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850

Wendy Cooper, Winterthur Museum

Tuesday, June 14, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Portrait of Grace Peel, by Benjamin West

Portrait of Grace Peel, by Benjamin West, probably Philadelphia, 1756-1760. Winterthur Museum, purchased with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle

Winterthur’s most recent research, and exhibit, uses a wide variety of well-documented objects made in southeastern Pennsylvania to reevaluate the entire concept of “Pennsylvania Dutch” material culture. Furniture with well-documented family histories, or for which the maker is known, enabled Wendy Cooper and Lisa Minardi to detect the “localism” that pervades the region. The result presents furniture that pleases the eye, but also shatters longstanding misconceptions about early Pennsylvania.

There was no pervasive, homogeneous German culture which is commonly associated with distinctive furniture forms and colorfully decorated furniture. Instead, “localisms” of form, construction and ornament were influenced by a variety of factors, including ethnicity, religious affiliation, personal taste, socioeconomic status and the skill of the craftsman.

While Philadelphia was reputedly the third largest city in the British Empire during most of the 18th century, only about 10% of Pennsylvanians lived in Philadelphia. Although the stylish furniture of elite Philadelphians often influenced production in the surrounding counties, many creative localisms flourished in areas not bound by the restraints of more formulaic modes of expression. Major market towns, such as Lancaster (the largest inland town in the American colonies), York, Reading, West Chester, Lebanon and Carlisle each produced its own distinctive furniture. In turn, each local style center influenced more rural production in the surrounding countryside.

“Paint, Pattern and People” also integrates a multi-variable analysis of consumer choices that reaches beyond the factors of wealth and availability of high-style Philadelphia furnishings. As early as 1717, Quaker merchant Jonathan Dickinson of Philadelphia accurately predicted that “[w]e shall have a great mixt multitude.” The German-speaking peoples of Pennsylvania shared the varied landscape with the English, Welsh, Scots-Irish, African-Americans (both enslaved and free) and Native Americans. Diversity in ethnicity accounts for some of the diversity in furniture forms, construction and decoration.

Religious affiliation, another important cultural factor, cut across ethnic divisions. The role of religious affiliation in consumer choices will also be explored. Quakers came from England, Wales and Ireland. Presbyterians were predominantly Scots-Irish. Germanic peoples ranged from non-conformist minorities, such as the Mennonites and Moravians, to the predominant Lutherans and Reformed. Ms Cooper will also demonstrate, with two similarly decorated blanket chests — one made for a woman and the other made for a man — that gender may not have played a role in decoration.

Pennsylvanians brought their aesthetic traditions with them when they moved into Maryland and down the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia and the Carolinas, to Ohio and even into Ontario, Canada. Pennsylvania provided a more representative model of the development of decorative arts traditions than the plantation South and New England that lacked the ethic and socio-economic diversity of the mid-Atlantic colonies.

“Paint, Pattern and People” will also display how craft skills — and styles — were utilized for both furniture and architecture. Ms Cooper will demonstrate the similarities between turned elements in chairs, spinning wheels and stair balusters. Other focuses of the Pennsylvania study are Moravian chairs, wainscot chairs, paint-decorated chests including Berks County “black unicorn” chests, “compass artist” boxes and sulfur-inlaid furniture.

The Pennsylvania project also develops a new model for decorative arts scholarship. This research is concerned with the greater culture that produced and used these objects, rather just the objects themselves. Decorative arts become more than just illustrations to historical research; they become data for rewriting history about how past cultures functioned.

Wendy Cooper graduated from Brown University and the Winterthur program in early American culture. She has curated American decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Baltimore Museum of Art before returning to Winterthur as its furniture curator in 1999.

Wendy Cooper was guest curator for two exhibitions at the National Gallery, In Praise of America: American Decorative Arts 1640-1840 and The Kaufman Collection of American Furniture. She also curated and wrote the publication for An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont’s Winterthur Museum, a traveling exhibition that began at the National Gallery of Art. Ms Cooper previously spoke to the Forum about “Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840” in June, 1994; and “America’s Earliest Garden Rooms: Painted Furniture Inside and Out” in September, 2002.

This lecture is sponsored in memory of Tom Armour (1925-2010).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Bring a painted object, a box, table, chair or even a blanket chest. Of course, a painting would be appropriate. Share your folk art, including fraktur.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.