Editor's note: The following essay was published on June 28, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibit titled Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Westmoreland Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Decorated Furniture of Somerset County, Pennsylvania
by Charles R. Muller
While some people might perceive furniture as something utilitarian rather than art, we need only apply George Kubler's suggestion: "Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things."  Thus, furniture -- especially paint-decorated furniture -- is a valid expression of art.
This exhibition illustrates the cultural and aesthetic concepts of folk art. Historically, folk art has been concerned with tradition and culture, placing the artwork in the midst of a people; in this way, it must be interpreted in the context of its origin -- as both history and art. The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, adheres to this interpretation of folk art. However, since the 1960s and the founding of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, folk art is not seen as dependent on its origin for its aesthetic value; it can be placed on a pedestal with the simple maxim "Let the object speak for itself."
While each object in this exhibition reflects a cultural tradition, with roots in this region of Pennsylvania and beyond, each can be appreciated outside the context of its place and people of origin. This is particularly true of the work of Jacob Knagy and the Soap Hollow makers.
Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition brings together for the first time the furniture of Knagy and the seven Soap Hollow makers who worked in Somerset County and signed their products. Grounded in centuries-old Germanic ways, these particular craftsmen continued their unique forms for almost a century. At the same time, though, each piece -- by itself -- is a visual treat of form and decoration.
Jacob Knagy (1796-1883) and his son Elias (1832-1906) worked in the southern corner of Somerset County -- just five miles from the Maryland border -- while makers in the three-mile-long valley known as Soap Hollow pursued their trade at the extreme northern edge of the county. Along with their individualized decorative motifs, both stenciled the initials of the owner (or the person for whom the piece was made) as well as the year of making, which represented a milestone in the person's life, maintaining the Germanic tradition of commemorating special occasions, such as coming of age or marriage. Both also placed their own identity on the front of the pieces: Knagy with his initials on the outer edges of a drawer or chest face; Soap Hollow makers with their unique phrase of "Manufactured by..." and either their full name or initials. It is this last characteristic, along with unique design features, that sets Soap Hollow furniture apart from all other American furniture.
In Mennonite Furniture: A Migrant Tradition (1766-1910), Reinhild Janzen offers several references to dowry chests made for young women and wardrobes made for young men. Sulfur inlay decoration on clothespresses from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often incorporates the names of husbands and wives. On at least two Soap Hollow pieces, the dates correspond to the sixteenth birthday of the owner. The "1887" on the miniature chest inscribed "Nathaniel Thomas" corresponds to his twenty-first year, and it is likely that Nathaniel was not the maker but the recipient of this special gift from his craftsman father (cat. #).
From 1834 to 1928, the Soap Hollow craftsmen produced all forms of furniture for the small community. The names of seven men identified in census records as "carpenters" appear on furniture made in the valley: John Sala (1819-1882), Tobias Livingston (1821-1891), Christian C. Blough (1828-1899), David K. Livingston (1845-1940), John K. Livingston (1842-1917), Peter K. Thomas (1838-1907), and Jeremiah Stahl (1830-1907). Two of the sons of John Sala, Joseph (1847-1912) and John M. (1855-1932), are also credited as makers, because some furniture bearing the John Sala name is dated after his death. (The brothers owned their father's tools and stencils, and continued his undertaking business.) In addition, two chests of drawers bearing the phrasing "Manufactured by..." are documented as having been made in Indiana by Edward S. Schrock and Peter D. Mishler, both born in Soap Hollow.  These pieces are not included in this exhibition because they were not made in Pennsylvania. Stylistic evidence also suggests that families from Soap Hollow carried the form to Ontario. 
An 1876 map of Conemaugh Township in Somerset County shows "Carp Sh" (carpenter shop) next to the Stahl residence.  The homes of the Bloughs, Salas, Livingstons, and Thomases are shown nearby. It is possible that all Soap Hollow furniture was made in this shop. A timeline of the dates on 76 signed pieces (out of more than 280 recorded examples) indicates very little overlap in the work of the different makers. For example, John Sala is documented as working from 1846 to 1859; Thomas from 1861 to 1867; and Stahl from 1865 to 1874. These makers were continuing a tradition, a way of life -- a culture.
Henry Glassie noted, "All art is an individual's expression of a culture." In the use of stenciled decoration, initials and dates, choice of color, and form, the work of Knagy and the Soap Hollow makers is similar. At the same time, though, each craftsman put his own unique touch to the pieces he made.
Knagy often signed furniture with his initials on a frontal surface, while Soap Hollow makers stenciled the phrase "Manufactured by..." on the front of their wares. In each case, the "signature" was the creator's own, as were the stencils. Knagy's distinctive heart variation and bold border, as seen on both of the stands in the exhibition, are his own (cat. # and #). His stenciled border framing the owner's name is also distinguishing.
The Soap Hollow chest of drawers in the Westmoreland Museum's collection is attributed to Jeremiah Stahl and clearly illustrates the individuality of the maker (cat. #). The bright red paint, also used by Thomas, is typical of Stahl's work. The stenciled hash marks surrounding the date and initials, as well as the decorative birds, are unique to Stahl.
John Sala, considered the "Patriarch of Soap Hollow furniture" by pioneer collector Robert B. Myers, stenciled heraldic horses on several of his pieces. In addition to the stenciled decoration, transfers (or decals) are often found on items bearing his name, indicating that the work is that of his sons, since transfers were not used before 1875. Peter K. Thomas included hearts in his designs, especially in front of and behind his name (cat. #). Both of the pieces made by the Livingston brothers are decorated with squirrels, a motif not yet seen on other Soap Hollow furniture (cat. #). More distinctive than these obvious features, though, are the stenciled decorations around the keyhole escutcheons. Each maker utilized a stencil design uniquely his own. 
While the Knagys and the Soap Hollow furniture makers continued the Germanic tradition of commemorating particular occasions on furniture, they also added their individual traits. Even in Soap Hollow, each maker maintained a tradition in the use of the form-with its elegant scrolled backboards, shaped skirts, and bold feet-and the phrase "Manufactured by...," but each reflected his individuality through the decoration.
In the chapter on Soap Hollow furniture for the catalog
of the 1982 exhibition "Made in Western Pennsylvania: Early
Decorative Arts," Harley N. Trice wrote, "We know of five Soap
Hollow cabinetmakers who signed their work." Then he concludes the
section: "There are still many questions to be answered about Soap
Hollow furniture and its makers. Were there other as yet unidentified makers
of this distinctive furniture?" In the past quarter century, we have
answered some of the questions, but there is still more to learn. Today
we can document eleven men who made Soap Hollow furniture, but from the
atypical keyhole escutcheon decoration on an unsigned chest of drawers in
the Pennsylvania State Museum collection in Harrisburg, and from a few other
similar examples that vary from recorded pieces, we know that there are
still "yet unidentified makers of this distinctive furniture."
1 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962), 1.
2 Charles R. Muller, Soap Hollow: The Furniture and Its Makers (Groveport, OH: Canal Press, 2002), 4951.
3 Muller, Soap Hollow, 4951.
4 Muller, Soap Hollow, 4.
5 Muller, Soap Hollow, 10.
6 Muller, Soap Hollow, 11.
About the author
Guest curator Charles R. Muller (Groveport, OH), author
of Soap Hollow: The Furniture and its Makers (2002), has selected
eighteen pieces of decorated furniture from Somerset County consisting of
examples by Jacob Knagy and seven Soap Hollow makers. These include many
pieces from private collections not previously exhibited, including a unique
cupboard-over-drawers and a free hand decorated one-drawer stand.
About the exhibition
Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, will be on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. This exhibition presents important examples of fraktur, salt-glazed stoneware, tanware, textiles, and painted furniture, most originating in western Pennsylvania.
Made in Pennsylvania brings together for the first time almost 400 significant examples of folk art that will enable comparisons of style, maker and region. These objects come from both public and private collections, in addition to the Museum's own collection.
(above: Chest of Drawers, 1867, Attributed to Jeremiah Stahl (1830-1907), Soap Hollow, Somerset County, PA, 54 x 39 x 20 inches. Collection: Westmoreland Museum of American Art. Gift of the Westmoreland Society, 2003.3. Photography: Mark May Photography
This chest of drawers represents Soap Hollow furniture at its best. Its bright red color and bird decoration combine with the classic scrolled backboard, kite-shaped escutcheons, drop-centered skirt and finely turned legs to present a piece that incorporates the individuality of the maker with tradition of form.)
(above: One Drawer Stand, Signed by John Sala (1819-1882), Soap Hollow, Somerset County, PA, 30 x 20 1/8 x 19 _ inches. Private collection. Photography: Mark May Photography
This stand was reportedly made for Anna Nancy Sala, the first of John Sala's 13 children. Sala's sons John M. and Joseph continued the family undertaking business and are credited also with furniture making. Although there are no examples specifically bearing their names, the presence of the phrase "Manufactured by John Sala" on pieces decorated after his death suggests the brothers carried on the work. They both acquired numerous wood working tools at the sale of their father's estate.
The exuberant hand-painted decoration is rare on Soap Hollow pieces, although it appears on a cupboard as early as 1843 and a sewing box as late at 1879, suggesting the elder Sala as the maker. Decals were also used on the furniture after 1875, and were probably the work of the Sala brothers.)
(above: Miniature Chest, "Nathaniel Thomas," 1887, Attributed to Peter K. Thomas (1838-1907), Soap Hollow, Somerset County, PA. Private collection. Photography: Mark May Photography
Since it was tradition to have the owner's name on a chest, we conclude that Peter made this chest for his son, the third of nine children. No additional evidence has been found that shows Nathaniel was a carpenter. Note the use of hearts, a characteristic design found on Thomas pieces.)
(above: Cupboard over Drawers, 1870, Signed by David K. Livingston, (1845-1940), Soap Hollow, Somerset County, PA, 57 _ x 29 3/8 x 14 inches. Collection: Brenda and Charles Muller. Photography: Mark May Photography
David was a nephew of Tobias Livingston. His brother, John, purchased most of the tools in Tobias' estate sale. He also bought a group of patterns with another lot of patterns going to Joseph Sala. John lived his entire life in Soap Hollow and is noted as a farm laborer and oldest male in the household in the 1870 Census. David moved to Michigan in time for the 1870 Census where he is listed as a carpenter living in the home of Peter K. Thomas.
The form of the cupboard-over-drawers is unique in Soap Hollow furniture. It is also one of only two known uses of squirrels as decoration on Soap Hollow furniture, although each maker utilized the squirrel design in his own manner. The squirrel decoration also appears on a chest of drawers made by his brother, John.)
An 80-page catalog accompanies the exhibition with color photographs of all objects as well as a short introduction/overview of each object category. Contributors are the guest curators and Phil Schaltenbrand, author of Big Ware Turners: The History and Manufacture of Pennsylvania Stoneware on salt-glazed stoneware. The soft cover catalog is available at An American Marketplace The Shop at The Westmoreland, online at www.wmuseumaa.org or by calling 724-837-1500 ext. 41.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was published on June 28, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibit titled Made in Pennsylvania: A Folk Art Tradition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art with four guest curators, on view at the Museum from June 23 - October 14, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Westmoreland Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judy Linsz Ross, Director of Marketing/Visitor Services, Westmoreland Museum of Art, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text
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