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The Victorian period had inspired our PA Dutch people to create many types of gifts, including decorated eggs placed carefully in hand crafted individual cardboard egg boxes pasted over with decorative pieces of Victorian wallpaper, or more uniquely large wallpaper boxes. A gift that was meant to surprise someone when this loved one opened the small lid of the custom designed Easter egg hidden inside. Springtime and summer were also times of the year that wood craftsmen would carve fanciful birds or bird trees as gifts, inspired after our long winter months were over. So many of the PA Dutch were naturalists that their unique wood carved birds and bird trees were very popular bringing images of the outdoors into their historic fieldstone masoned homes, or log houses.
Several years ago when visiting Mary Snyder who died just last fall at age 80, an antique dealer at Reinholds, Lancaster Counter, I purchased, by chance, an old intricate cut-out cardboard wallpaper box some zealous craftsman made in the shape of a huge rooster. So appropriate the time of season that I could not resist buying this large, over three foot tall, homemade wallpaper box with cock comb and colorful cut-out tail and a bow string to tie its large lid to the nicely shaped base. Mary did not know why the craftsman made it so large, other than that it belonged to the folk art school of wallpaper boxes of the PA Dutch.
Mary was a top notch collector of rare PA Dutch antiques, who knew my fellow antique dealer Bobby Merritt, so I figured it was only a matter of time before Robert would discover it for his antique warehouse, and buy this folk wallpaper box, despite of its outrageous three foot high size. A collector of early PA Dutch folk art, I hid this huge folk rooster wallpaper box at the foot end of a bed upstairs where it guarded the bedroom’s Georgian fireplace! But my number of Easter eggs and bird trees were more visible to guests who entered our 1804 parlor downstairs. Sometimes a small hand crafted gift to a loved one is more touching than the more expensive box store item in the 21st Century. But these cherished antique gifts have stood the test of time, becoming even more valuable at museums.
Since my great uncle Freddie Bieber in the Oley Hills was a pioneer craftsman who made split oak melon shaped baskets on a schnitzelbunk, I have always been fond of intricate crafts and the diligence and creativity of our PA Dutch. My family would stop in at his farm to purchase split white oak shaped baskets, a very nostalgic time of the year when he and my aunt Annie were weaving baskets for Bill Becker’s General store at Lobachsville. Living in modern Allentown and returning to my grandmother’s ancestral homestead in Rockland Township, Berks County, it was like an early American history lesson. My Bieber elders all spoke PA Dutch to each other, making this early American craft appear more mysterious than it really was. But Uncle Fred would not cut a white oak tree down in the forest, unless it would yield a certain number of marketable spilt oak melon baskets. He stored the white oak logs in his spring cellar to keep them pliable for splitting the splints for weaving, upstairs in the kitchen. A quite unique yet simple man!
Richard Shaner is the director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.