Berks County author Richard L. T. Orth recently released his latest book “The Early Decorated Furniture of the Pennsylvania Dutch: 18th-Century Bieber Family of Craftsmen & Other Folk Artists,” published by Masthof Press of Morgantown.
Of all the outstanding dower chests ever designed in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, no school of folk art is prized more than the folk art chests paint-decorated with bold, bulbous twin flat hearts attributed to John Bieber (1763-1825) and father, Jacob (1731-1798) who were Oley township joiners.
Jacob’s father, Johann, came to America in 1744 from Hirschland, Germany and settled in the upper environs of the Oley Valley.
The Bieber family had erected a water-powered sawmill on their Oley Valley plantation along Beaver Creek, west of the village of Lobachsville, PA. It was likely the availability of lumber from the family sawmill that enabled John to build such well-crafted dower chests on very high dovetail bracket feet, much higher than any other joiner of his day. The height of the feet was important, as prior to this, only European nobility had dower chests with high bracket feet. The higher feet served to keep the art and the façade above the cold, damp Colonial floors.
According to Pennsylvania Dutch housekeeping, a dower chest was placed at the foot of the bed and bore the belongings of the person to whom the chest was intended for. It was a common practice for fathers to give their daughter such items in which to store things they would need after they married. The dower chest was the most personalized pieces of furniture anyone owned in the Colonial period, and therefore, a challenge to the joiner not to be outdone by any other artistry or craftsmanship in completing this commissioned work. A very elaborate dower chest might also be considered a “prize” for the prospective groom, much the same as a financial dowry was. A multi-colored dower chest expressed all the grandeur and desire for happiness that any proud father could wish for his daughter in beginning a new branch of the family.
Like many pioneer farmers, the Biebers pursued woodworking as an avocation and both Jacob and John became proficient joiners making furniture for their Oley Valley and Berks Co. neighbors. The two created such extraordinary dower chests and large Colonial wardrobes called in the local Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect, a “Grossa Schrank,” and referred to in the antique world as a Kas (from the Hudson Valley Dutch).
Almost all of the Bieber’s furniture was made from native tulip poplar wood. One of the best examples of father Jacob’s earliest decorated works was a dower chest he created for Estehr (Esther) Berdolet in 1775. The Bertolet chest was vibrantly decorated with a central flat heart flanked by large hex signs on either side, as opposed to his son’s later twin flat heart motif, which became the usual style for both Biebers. Another of the earlier Bieber decorated dower chests was one created for Anna Weis, dated 1777, discovered in Trexlertown, Lehigh County. The chest through the two plus centuries contained its original grab lock and all the original brass hardware for its drawers. It was probably made by Jacob as the chest is not as decorative. Jacob was the more talented joiner, but John the better folk artist.
The simplicity of the Weis chest rests in the folk art: two large, bold, rag-painted flat hearts balanced with corner half heart motifs. The lid and face board were in one continuous piece. But perhaps the most attractive paint-decorated shrank/wardrobe/ clothespress/kas which has survived the ravages of time was the one Jacob Bieber made for Philip DeTurk, dated 1775. Polychromatically marbleized, the DeTurk Shrank features colorful rich, bold raised panels below an equally impressive cornice. This piece once owned by Richard Flanders Smith, sold at auction in 2010 for almost $1 million dollars.
By 1786, John and Jacob moved to Lehigh Valley and bought 460 acres in Salisbury Township. John continued to work once in Lehigh County and there are surviving works from that area. Having developed a successful geometric and aesthetically pleasing motif for his dower chests, John repeated the double heart layout on many chests with or without drawers in their base.
Here and abroad, no other Pennsylvania Dutch motifs have come to be prized in the last 30 years more than those created by Jacob and John Bieber of Berks County. Without a doubt, the hallmark of a Bieber dower chest (hope chest) is its huge, bulbous, flat hearts diligently laid out with compass. The heart motif was the most reoccurring symbol among 18th-century immigrant artisans.
This book celebrates the fine craftsmanship, folk art, and history of these Americana pieces of furniture. Color pictures capture the essence and beauty of these various works filled with folk art motifs and a necessary step to cataloging as many as possible before they are lost to in time. (164pp., 110+ color illus. Masthof Press, Nov., 2019.) www.masthof.com
Richard L.T. Orth is the author of several books concerning the rich Pennsylvania Dutch culture including The Pennsylvania Dutch: From Migration to Acculturation (2018), Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing, and Related Practices (2017), Oley Valley Heritage: The Federal Years- 1776-1862 (2015), and Architecture of the Pennsylvania Dutch: English Ideas, Germanic Builders (March, 2020 Release)