Having shared with Dr. Alfred Shoemaker a birthright in historic Lehigh County, where our historic ancestors hid the nation’s Liberty Bell at Independence Hall from the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. I was not as excited about acquiring Anna Weisin’s dower chest, as I was realizing that this rare 1777 folk art dower chest was probably painted by my maternal Bieber Palatine Deitsch ancestors who arrived in the Oley Valley as early as 1744.
A unique find, as the Secretary of the Lehigh County Historical Society, I usually canvassed all the county farm auctions to find historic antiques that related to our local heritage. One fall day, while checking out a farm auction outside of Trexlertown, I came across a farmer who was liquidating his assets. However, dubious about his farm items he had for sale, he asked me to check out a household antique he also wanted to sell, but was worried that it would not bring a high enough price.
It was an old worn Weisenberg Township dower chest badly scuffed by having a small child sit on the lid of the chest while the mother laced his shoes, an ancient piece of bedroom furniture according to the modern 1960’s, with an early American rag painted design of two large compass hearts on front. But the dower chest was inscribed for Anna Weisin, originally paint dated 1777 with her name between the two flat hearts of the chest, having period bracket feet and iron hinges and brass pulls on the two drawers across the front, which also included an extra molded wooden foot to support the weight of a two drawer chest. In actuality, Anna Weis was born 1762, and baptized in the Weisenberg Church to her parents, Peter and Elizabeth Weis who had asked a woodworker to make the dower chest in 1777 in honor of their child. The same year Anna’s dower chest was being decorated with two flat hearts, the British had militarily occupied Philadelphia during the American Revolution, and several PA Deitsch farmers fearing the British would confiscate and melt down the 1776 Liberty Bell, these Dutch farmers volunteered to take it to far off Allentown, Lehigh County, where it was hid in the church foundation of Zion Church on Hamilton Street, until the British occupancy of Philadelphia was over; a major patriotic feet for their wagons and horses.
Since the Jacob and John Bieber woodworkers had a water powered sawmill on the Rockland and Oley Township border, south of Kutztown, where they made their flat heart folk art dower chests, and that the Weis family also had a farm in the Oley area, it is evident that Jacob Bieber, Sr. probably decorated this beloved dower chest the same year his fellow Lehigh County Dutchman were hiding the Liberty Bell in Allentown. At any rate, in 1786, Jacob Bieber and son, John moved over to Salisbury Township near Allentown to establish a farm among other Lehigh County French Huguenot immigrants who had recalled the cruelty of King Louis the XIVth of France, where they made beautiful PA Dutch period furniture on the early American frontier.
Embarrassed at this 1777 Anna Weisin Colonial dower chest was not kept in better shape by the family, the Trexlertown farmer realized the huge designed primitive Huguenot pair of flat hearts done in a frontier rag painted technique were done in a Christian PA Dutch symbolism. But in the afternoon’s overcast sky of that day, the country auctioneer might not get many people to bid on this very humble family folk art heirloom. So knowing the technique was an early Huguenot Bieber motif, I offered the farmer a couple hundred dollars.
Grateful that I saw past the badly worn heart designs of the 1777 Colonial date of the dower chest between the two flat hearts, the farmer gladly accepted my offer before the rural auctioneer arrived that morning. Donald “Abe” Roan, a folklorist, helped me load the large historic chest onto my pickup truck, and the two of us took it to my mother’s farm at Macungie.
Later, Monroe Fabian who researched the book, Pennsylvania German Decorated Dower Chests in 1978, considered this humble 1777 Huguenot dower chest the forerunner of the Bieber chests decorated by Jacob (1731-1798) and son, John Bieber from Oley and the Lehigh Valley with this photo being on page 138 in his folk art book. Ironically, the photo used with this article was taken by Andrew Bieber, a native of Kutztown. On page 200 of Fabian’s book is the very iconic 1792 John Bieber (1763-1825) flat heart Huguenot chest done in the later typical John Bieber compass designed art style with carnation flowers.
After Monroe Fabian published this wonderful study of PA German folk art decorated dower chests, including my 1777 Anna Weis chest, I by chance came across another Weis dower chest decorated for an earlier sibling, “Cadarina Weisen” dated 1769 with period iron hardware and brass pulls above two drawers on early bracket feet. But this earlier motif only had squiggly folk art panels painted on its plain board sides to invoke early hard-wood paneling on the primitive frontier. But on either side of the wrought iron escutcheon for the keyhole was a tell tale sign of two small Bieber flat hearts, which were incorporated in Cadarina’s 1769 dower type inscription, perhaps a Palatine symbol of French Huguenot remembrance in the New World.
By the way, if any of my readers have not yet seen the movie, Les Miserables, about the reason for which many Palatine PA Dutch from the Rhine Valley of Rhenish and French heritage came to America, I beg of you it is worth your time. It is a reminder about our courage in the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe to endure Old World hardships! Jacob Bieber, Sr., a French Huguenot who probably decorated Anna Weisin’s 1777 dower chest did a red, white, and blue decorated painted chest for Esther Hoch in 1776, which also included large colorful flat hearts, and is showcased at the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.