Of all the people who immigrated to colonial America, perhaps few are better known for their distinctive arts that the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania. Over the years no other people of foreign nationality in America so steadfastly retained the customs and the manners, as well as the language, of the Old World.
The Pennsylvania Germans were a conservative and deeply religious folk representing a wide variety of pietistic sects -- Mennonites, Amish, Dunkards, Schwenkfelders, among others -- and included in their members such "church people" as the German Lutherans, Moravians and still others of Protestant persuasion. Although in the eyes of the world sectarians, the "plain people," with their picturesque dress and quaint customs, and the Moravians, whose settlement at Bethlehem quickly became one of the show places of America, are the most typical Pennsylvania German element, they represented in fact a minority of these people. Rather it was the Lutherans and Members of the German Reformed Church that fed the mainstream of Pennsylvania German culture. And like the Quakers who received them into their colony, they practiced a benevolent humanitarianism that helped earn the colony of Pennsylvania above all others a reputation for social progress.
At the time the Palatines settled in Pennsylvania in large numbers, Philadelphia was a main center of the most sophisticated and stylish colonial craftsmanship. By extreme contrast the Pennsylvania Germans of nearby counties practiced the useful arts with a spirit that strongly and brightly reflected the deeply rooted, traditional culture of their homeland, a culture that still clung to the medieval past.
Out of that remote past emerged the unicorns, from time immemorial. The fabled symbols denoting purity, that appeared in confronting pairs as the principal motif on painted dower chests, and the peacock, ancient symbol of the resurrection of the dead, which was represented on pottery tableware, illuminated certificates (fraktur) and stitched embroideries.
Like the early settlers in other colonies, the Germans and Swiss who came to Pennsylvania could bring very little with them on the small, crowded ships that carried them from Europe. What they fashioned in the New World; they made and decorated in the memory of what had served them at home.
Many of the other motifs, besides the unicorn and the peacock, had their origins in mythology and folklore. Still others reveal a constant awareness of the flowers, the birds and the beasts, which were so intimately a part of their work in field and garden. The Dove, a symbol of conjugal bliss; the pomegranate, standing for fertility and regeneration; the fuchsia, rose and forget-me-not, these and numerous other natural and geometric forms -- such as stars, crosses and interlaced circles -- persisted as decoration in every medium well into the 19th century.
The most ubiquitous theme of all was the tulip, whose cup-shaped, richly colored blossoms had fired the European imagination when the plant was first introduced into the western world from Turkey in the mid-16th century. In the next century, the Dutch gave way to a frenzied speculation in these exotic, fragile plants (the craze was called tulipomania), until the market crashed. But in Southern Germany and elsewhere, the tulip flower long remained a highly popular decorative motif, well remembered by immigrants to the New World. Whether they knew that the flower was an old Persian symbol of love or whether they thought of it as a variation of the holy lily or, grouped in threes, as a representation of the Holy Trinity can only be conjectured.
Memory blurs with time, and with few European prototypes immediately before them, the Pennsylvania Germans approximated and simplified the traditional designs that had been part of their birthright overseas. Indeed, many of the finest examples of this decorative art, the strongest statements of this colorful tradition, date from the decades after the Revolutionary War, more than a century after the first Rhinelanders settled at Germantown.
The diligent German colonists prospered and began to build the fieldstone farmhouses and magnificent barns which still distinguish much of the countryside where these folk originally settled. The interiors of these farmhouses were simple and effective -- whitewashed plaster walls offset by paneled woodwork on doors, chimney fronts and stairways. The Pennsylvania Germans cherished their warmth, and their houses were well heated in the German manner by cast-iron or tile stoves decorated with Biblical scenes and sayings.
In the solid walnut furniture made by these people traditional forms dating from the Middle Ages were combined with peasant designs remembered from the homeland. The addition of occasional motifs and design elements borrowed from Philadelphia's cabinet-makers created a unique regional expression. The medieval heritage is everywhere evident in wainscot chairs, tables with flat stretchers and removable tops, sawbuck tables with Gothic X-shaped supports, and in plank chairs adapted from provincial forms.
The most imposing piece of furniture in a prosperous Pennsylvania German household was the "schrank" or clothing wardrobe, similar to the great "kas" introduced to New Amsterdam by settlers from Holland. Most "shrunken" were paneled and made of hardwood, usually walnut while others were made of softwood and elaborately painted. The interior of the "schrank" is usually fitted with wooden hanging hooks for clothes; others contain shelves.
Although the art of illuminating manuscripts gradually died out in Europe with the widespread use of movable type and the printing press, it continued to be practiced by Pennsylvania Germans in a vital and decorative expression of folk art known as "franktur." Among Pennsylvania Germans the term "franktur" was used for both illuminated calligraphy and for ornamental drawings usually in the symmetrical form that typifies peasant art.
Birth and Babtismal certificates, often made by itinerant artists, were intricately and elaborately illuminated, and were favored by those sects that believed in infant baptism, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches, whereas the Amish and Mennonites, for example, did not. The recurring motifs "franktur" -- traditional peasant designs -- are the same motifs used by the Pennsylvania Germans in their lively and colorfully painted household furnishings.
In the years following the Revolution, tinware became an important American product, and whitesmiths, as workers in tin were called, busily manufactured a remarkable assortment of objects, from everyday household utensils to trinket boxes, speaking trumpets, toys and trunks. Pennsylvania German whitesmiths clung to the folk patterns they had always loved, and their tinware carried the familiar motifs of birds, tulips, hearts, stars and clusters of fruit.
The metal used was not entirely tin, but a thin sheet of iron dipped in molten tin, which protected the iron from rust and was easy to solder at the joints. The brightly painted are generally called toleware, an adaptation of the japanned tin originally made in the Far East. Unpainted tin, if not left plain, was engraved, pierced or punched.
In their pottery, the Pennsylvania German artisans displayed the traditional deftness and imaginative sense of decoration that so clearly distinguishes all handicrafts of these resourceful people. Again, the familiar Old World motifs were used. Humorous sayings were also popular.
The application of patterns onto pottery fell into two basic techniques -- slip decoration and sgraffito. Both these methods are among the most ancient of the ceramic arts, and as used by the Pennsylvania Germans, both were colorful additions to that already colorful local clay, which turned to a deep reddish-brown when baked in a kiln.
Slip decorations were drawn with goose quills filled with a light-colored liquid clay (or "slip"), which was imported from New Jersey. The designs, applied before the final firing of the pottery, were often nothing more than initials or a name or a random squiggle across the face of a plate, but line drawings of such motifs as birds and flowers were frequently made, and slipware was also done in highly elaborate patterns.
Sgraffito (a word derived from the Italian verb "sgraffiare," to scratch) was a technique extensively used by Pennsylvania German potters. The design was, indeed, achieved by "scratching"; the piece to be decorated was coated with New Jersey slip, into which patterns was incised with a sharp stick, thus revealing the red clay base underneath.
Among the thousands of Palantine emigrants arriving during the 18th century were appreciable numbers of trained ironworkers and blacksmiths. These men found a ready market for their skills in Pennsylvania, which was well on its way to becoming the center of American iron manufacture. The colony was rich in the natural resources necessary for production -- limestone for flux, timber for charcoal and the iron ore, as many early travelers remarked, often lay just below the surface of the ground and could be mined with no more complicated equipment than a crowbar and pickaxe and similarly rudimentary tools.
Pennsylvania German blacksmiths at their forges and anvils, working the bar iron bought from Pennsylvania's furnaces, fashion the household and farm implements needed by their neighbors, and with their inbred tradition of European folk designs left few objects in iron undecorated. Hasps and hinges of Conestoga Wagon toolboxes were forged in flowering patterns, waffle irons in heart designs, cranes and ladles with ornamental motifs: theirs was probably the most accomplished and intricate of early American wrought iron.
The first successful producers of glass in colonial America were German immigrants: Casper Wistar, Henry William Stiegel and John Frederick Amelung. They all employed skilled European craftsmen. In addition to window glass, Pennsylvania glasshouses made large quantities of bottles and flasks as well as tableware, wine glasses, tumblers, decanters, sugar bowls and the like.
In spite of their devotion to old traditions, the Pennsylvania Germans were responsible for some innovations that played an important part in the destiny of Americans. It was their gunsmiths who developed the "Kentucky" rifle, that exquisitely fashioned instrument of precision, which proved such a deadly weapon both in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812, at New Orleans.
It was also the Pennsylvania Germans who developed the Conestoga wagon -- that boat-like, handsome, gaily colored "ship of inland commerce" drawn by at least four horses that proved such an invaluable transport during the Revolution. It was an adaptation of these covered wagons that in the next century carried an untold number of Americans to a new life in the western reaches of the union.