Frakturs and Painted Furniture

I hadn’t known what a Fraktur was until I attended a lecture at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa last evening. I had seen Frakturs before—a decorated document created by German settlers named for the “fractured” lettering. The exhibit is well-thought out and displayed first by region, then by chronology. The Frakturs are displayed with two Pennsylvania clocks, both which contain symbolic inlay also found in many Frakturs.

Also on display is a collection of painted Pennsylvania furniture, much of which was made outside of Johnstown, PA in a place called Soap Hollow. Apparently the most identifiable mark on Soap Hollow furniture (besides the name of the maker painted squarely on the front) is the wave-fold backsplash. In all honesty Frakturs and painted furniture would not be the first thing to catch my eye at an antique show, but I left with a new found appreciation for the furniture. Remarkably some three hundred documented pieces of Soap Hollow furniture exist today, one chest which brought $115,000 at Garth’s auction recently. Impressive at a time when a sophisticated Empire sideboard might not fetch $2,000 at auction.

The painted furniture, like the Frakturs may not be sophisticated or have been created by well-trained artisans. It does have a certain direct connection to the people who made and owned it, however and that then gives it a more direct line into the past. There’s quite a bit to learn from it, stories about the owners, the occasion for its making and its makers. There must have been a couple hundred people from several states who came for the lecture at the Westmoreland, and I think perhaps these are the qualities of Pennsylvania folk art that make it so attractive.

The collector who gave the lecture on the Frakturs explained that after buying his first at an auction, a few hammers later a Fraktur for the sister came up and so on until we arrived last night at the Westmoreland show. How could you not want to keep the family together?

There are some other upcoming events regarding Pennsylvania Folk Art at the museum. Click the link in the right menu bar and check ‘em out.

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George Washington Harris was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1814. In 1819 he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee with his older half-brother, Samuel Bell. He spent the majority of his life in this young, frontier community of eastern Tennessee -- soaking in the life of the frontier. By the age of twelve, Harris was working as an apprentice in Samuel Bell's metalworking shop. He married Mary Emiline Nance in 1835 and within a few years purchased acreage in Blout County, in Tucaleeche Cove at the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains.

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