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Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture

German Pennsylvania - Background

German settlers and pioneers arrived in Pennsylvania in large numbers from 1683, mostly deeply religious people called Pietists and later ordinary Lutheran and Reformed colonists. (Sometimes they are called Pennsylvania Dutch, Dutch here being a mistranslation of "Deutsch", which is German for "German".)

The Germans, or Dutch, who settled in Pennsylvania tended to maintain their own culture and language for an unusually long period and this included the German style of home decor and furnishings particularly that of the Rhine Valley in Germany.

Pennsylvania Dutch Furniture

The furniture handmade in Pennsylvania followed prevailing German furniture traditions and heritage in the home country but developed its own traits and peculiarities.

Painted Furniture

Pennsylvanian Dutch furniture's most characteristic feature was the use of decorative hand painted motifs.

Painted Hope Chests

Painted Dowry Chest
Painted Dowry Chest

Pennsylvania German furniture makers made a trademark out of their handpainted hope or dowry chests. Built to store the linen made by young german American women dowry or hope chests were customarily painted a light blue colour over which was painted a variety of decorative accents such as vases of flowers, tulips, stars, birds, angels, and unicorns among others.


Painted Cabinet
Painted Cabinet

German cupboards, or "shrank" were distinctive pieces usually massive in size, occupying much of the available floor space. Either painted, or finished naturally of walnut or cherry, the painted models were normally decorated with floral or fruit motifs.


Colonial german tables were made of similar size and in a similar style to other wood tables of the same period. A distinguishing type of German Pennsylvanian furniture was the walnut sawbuck dining table. The ends of sawbucks were subtly shaped and curved to soften the imposing look of these huge tables. The central rails were pierced by keyed end tenons making these German inspired tables very structurally sound and some antique examples remain in use today.


Dining chairs made by German settlers came in a number of derivative styles from, at first, wainscot chairs of New England origin, and later, ladderback and Windsor style chairs. Also of note were arrow back chairs which had backs made of arrow shaped spindles.

German influenced chairs were usually painted in decorative patterns. The Germans were skilled at stenciling designs of fruit, flowers, and birds against backgrounds of yellow, green, or brown paint.

Moravian chairs were also commonplace. Made with a splay legged design the moravian chair was built with a carved out heart through the backrest. Peglegs without rungs had the effect of simplifying the making process.


Hanging Salt Box
Hanging Salt Box

German decorating style in the country Pennsylvania mirrored the desire of furniture makers to apply some unique details and decorations to otherwise fairly plain and simple designs. Decor items included hanging cabinets and wall racks often adorned with fancy scrolling and painted accents.

German Country Style

The furniture described above was made in a true country style without the sophistication of design seen in urban centers like Philadelphia. Suited to the needs of ordinary folk in the farmhouses and barns of German Pennsylvania this German, or "Dutch", furniture, as evidenced in the use of painted decoration and elaborate turning and scrolling of wood, also had a unique country style of its own.

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