Having researched several folk art PA Dutch Bieber dower chests, I was drawn to an unusual 1780 example which was photographed in Slator’s Antique Newspaper in 1997. An important folk art designed chest whose motif Frances Lichten copied on the back binding of her famous 1946 memorable works indexing PA Dutch folk art designs. Its special significance were the Edelweiss flowers which adorned the white flat hears on both corners! Now immortalized in Oscar Hammerstein’s musical, “The Sound of Music.”
Obviously, Lichten was impressed with this folk art design and included it on the back binding of her important index showing PA Dutch creativity. Jacob and son, John Bieber, folk artists of the 18th Century, had a water powered sawmill in the Oley Hills run by the Bieber creek soon after their patriarch, Johnann Bieber immigrated here in 1744, with two other brothers. French Hugenot pioneers from Alsace, France, they settled with other Rhinelanders who spoke a Palatine German dialect in the Oley Hills which was near Lobachsville, founded by Peter Lobach in 1745, a fellow French Hugenot. Called the Alsatian Hills by their native countrymen who spoke mostly PA Dietsch, in America.
In 1776 the Bieber father and son folk artists decorated a patriotic dower chest with two large flat hearts for their Oley Valley neighbor Esther Hoch, another Hugenot.
Jacob Bieber’s son John followed with two twin flat hearts but included different variations of designs within each cheek or lobe of the large flat heart, many of which followed a geometric pattern, like hex signs or barn stars, since the Biebers were skilled carpenters and sawers. But, on occasion, John, who favored flowers, would paint a dogwood flower in the center of each lobe of the flat heart. But herein lies the secret to this unusual 1780 Rhineland designed chest. Even though it had two enormous flat hearts with other geometric designs and compass arches highlighting the motif, the central figure of each lobe of the hearts was a noble black “edelweiss” flower which was reminiscent of the Bieber’s homeland in the Palatinate near Hirschland. One of their Rhineland ministers who crossed off Biebers on the church rolls as they sailed to America in disappointment crossed off several Bieber names, together, and in German wrote in the margin they have “all gone” to America!
Thinking that John or Jacob Bieber made a mistake with his compass drawing of a perpendicular hex sign, we noticed that this unusual designed chest had six edelweiss flowers sprouting from three white flat hearts on each corner of the dower chest with the elaborate tulip shaped escutcheon design in the middle. They were not barn stars, but an edelweiss flower theme which spread their flower like petals standing upright in each cheek of the flat hearts! A native Rhineland symbol of love used by John Bieber in the 1780s on his dower chests. However true edelweiss star like flowers are white blooming high in the Swiss Alps. But Bieber alternated the colors of his edelweiss flower petals including red, white and blue for American on his later 1792 chests.
Although these six pointed edelweiss flowers were painted in bluish black with white or red alternate flower petals, original edelweiss flowers have white star shaped petals. In the German language, Edelweiss means noble and white. Perhaps this is why the Bieber folk artists drew black edelweiss flowers draped over three white painted flat hearts on the corners of the chest, with casual black edelweiss blossoms on each white square corner of the lid.
Waking up the next morning while studying this edelweiss flower decorated chest, my clock radio was turned to my friend Charlie Adams, whose program on WEEU was playing Julie Andrews’ song, “The Sound of Music.” But the most memorable Oscar Hammerstein song from this movie was ironically the lilting song, “Edelweiss” which recalled my grandmother, Mary Bieber’s fond memories of living in Rockland Township, high up in the Oley Hills over looking the beautiful Oley Valley.
I instantly made the connection with her immigrant Alsatian ancestors who came to America in 1744 and how they must have been home sick for their Rhine Valley and its native EDELWEISS flowers. So this American folk decorated Bieber dower chest was more historic to these Hugenots who settled Berks County in the early American period. But I still only had the initials of this 1780 pioneer who was given this dower chest by loving pioneer parents.
Sometime after 1808, joiner and folk artist, John Bieber (1763-1825) left the French Hugenot community in the Oley Hills and migrated to our nation.
Richard Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.