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"A laudable example of industry": North Carolina Moravian furniture
The sight of this little settlement of Moravians is highly curious and interesting. Between 200 and 300 persons of this sect here assembled live in brotherly love and set a laudable example of industry, unfortunately too little observed and followed in this part of the country." So wrote the statesman William Loughton Smith (1758-1812) in his journal in 1791, describing the industriousness of the Moravian settlers in Salem, North Carolina. (1) MESDA, over the years has identified sixty-one North Carolina Moravians who worked as joiners, cabinetmakers, turners, chairmakers, or as apprentices in those trades between 1754 and about 1850. (2) What makes these statistics particularly remarkable is that many examples of the furniture these artisans produced are exhibited in their original context--the extant houses and shops of the Moravians who settled Salem, several of which are now museum buildings in the Historic Town of Salem. (3) MESDA provides a look at the macrocosm of the decorative arts of the early South. The Historic Town of Salem provides a microcosm that focuses on the arts and aesthetic of one important settlement in the southern backcountry and how forces within and outside the community affected artistic style over time.
The Moravian Church, which traces its roots to the fifteenth century, reemerged in the eighteenth century under the leadership of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) in Herrnhut, Germany. (4) Its first successful American settlement was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1740 and 1741, and it was there that the Moravians built a reputation as talented artisans and industrious colonists of good character. (5) A group of the Pennsylvania Moravians moved in the early 1750s to what they called Wachovia, a tract of almost one hundred thousand acres in North Carolina that the church had purchased. Intending to establish a center of trade, the first Moravians in the region founded two small towns, Bethabara (1753) and Bethania (1759), before beginning construction of the centerpiece town of Salem in 1766. (6) It was not until 1772 that Salem was fully occupied and assumed its role as the trading center the Moravians had envisioned.
One of the earliest mentions of Moravian furniture in North Carolina comes only a year after the establishment of Bethabara. In a letter of May 1754 to one of his colleagues in London, the Reverend Johann Jacob Friis (1708-1793) wrote, "I made the top of a Table for myself, and ... cut wood for feet.... They shall be Lyons Claws; is not that too much?" (7) Friis then spoke to the versatility demanded of the first Moravians in North Carolina, writing, "One day I am a Joiner, the next a Carver; what could I not learn if I was not too old?" (8)
A table with "Lyons Claws" for feet may seem both a bit refined for the relatively unsettled backcountry and to reflect a British rather than Germanic influence. However, most of the Moravians chosen by the church to settle in North Carolina were by design relatively well-educated professionals and artisans who had come to America from small European urban centers. (9) Furthermore, although the Moravians in America were primarily German-speaking until well into the nineteenth century, early settlers had ties to other northern European countries and England as well. Friis, for example, was born in Denmark, and Enert Enerson (1718-1777), one of the first joiners in Wachovia, was born and trained in Norway before becoming a member of the Moravian church and immigrating to America. (10)
Eighteenth-century North Carolina Moravian furniture has bold proportions, relying heavily on the vocabulary of the baroque period well beyond the time that such elements were considered the height of style. The retention of both baroque design and construction elements reflects the training the artisans had received in the first half of the eighteenth century, primarily in German areas and sometimes in other parts of Europe as well. An excellent example of the Moravians' use of baroque design and construction, has turned legs, a stretcher base, and ball feet that belie its construction date of about 1775. The top is held in place with pinned sliding dovetailed battens, a feature used to prevent the warping of tabletops in the baroque period that the cabinetmakers in Wachovia continued to utilize well into the nineteenth century.
The earliest surviving chair style from the Wachovia communities also probably dates from about 1775. It combines a solidly baroque back complete with a curved crest rail and vasiform splat with a turned and joined base reminiscent of late seventeenth-century chairs. The space between the woven seat and the bottom rail of the back suggests that such chairs were probably equipped with a squab, or cushion. An inventory of the Gemein Haus (Congregation House) in Salem taken in 1776 lists "six black walnut chairs with woven seats".
The Moravians recorded the proceedings of the everyday life of their church boards in minutes, diaries, and regular inventories of church property, so it is not surprising that they needed places to store the documents that were accumulating. The members in Bethabara must have been delighted when, on February 26, 1772, "George Hauser [1730-1801] came in his wagon from Bethania, bringing the archives closet made by Bulitscheck." (12) Born and trained in Germany, Joseph Ferdinand Bulitschek (1729-1801) came to Bethania in 1771 from Pennsylvania. He was an organ builder and millwright as well as a talented cabinetmaker. The two-piece archives cupboard is believed to be the one Hauser brought to Bethabara. Made of black walnut and tulip poplar, it exhibits characteristics associated with Bulitschek, such as the large exposed wedged dovetails on the distinctive bracket feet, the liberal use of clearly visible pegs, the composition of the deeply coved cornice, and the deep fielded panels. (13)
One cannot discuss German American furniture without discussing the ubiquitous Schrank, or large cabinet. Several of the construction features found on the archives cupboard also appear on the Schrank, which is likewise attributed to Bulitschek. Although the Moravian cabinetmaking tradition did not embrace the fanciful painted and inlaid decoration associated with German American Schranke from Pennsylvania, Wachovia's joiners did use simple paint schemes on pieces made primarily of yellow pine or tulip poplar. The painted decoration on the Schrank was restored in 1981 using sight evidence, but recent paint studies suggest that the original scheme was probably a much brighter combination of similar colors.
The mastership of the Wachovia Single Brothers' Joinery, first in Bethabara and then at Salem, changed with some frequency in the early 1770s. Enerson probably held the post until he succumbed to bad health in 1772 and was succeeded by Andreas Brosing (w. 1770-1827), who was master until 1775. Johann Friedrich Beck (w. 1772-1788) was master between 1775 and 1776, when Johannes Krause took over. Each of these joiners undoubtedly had some influence on the development of style in Wachovia, but because Krause remained the master of the shop the longest, for twenty years, until 1796, it is his work that we know the most about.
Krause, was born in Ebersdorf, Germany, in 1742, arrived in Salem in 1774, and first worked in the Single Brothers' Joinery as a journeyman. (14) The desk-and-bookcase made for the Salem potter Rudolph Christ (1750-1833) about 1794, can certainly be considered the tour de force of the Krause shop. Inlaid and veneered Moravian furniture is rare, but this example incorporates both types of embellishment. The case of the desk is yellow pine fully veneered in cherry with inlaid stringing and banding, while the bookcase section is solid cherry. The inlay on the drawer fronts, desk sides, and fall front includes figured cherry and mahogany, a rarity in Moravian furniture of any period. Features of this desk that are typical of Krause's work include the shape of the bracket feet, the composition of the cornice molding, and the bookcase doors that are hung flush with the case sides. The unbroken domed top is the piece's most conspicuous early baroque characteristic and is probably what is described in a late eighteenth-century Salem price list as a "Bookcase arched," which cost more than a "Plain" bookcase on the same list. (15)
Tables seem to have been made in abundance by Krause and his contemporaries in Wachovia, including tilt-top tea tables and drop-leaf tables. The tilt-top tea table is the only North Carolina Moravian example known with a spiral turned pedestal, but it is related to another Salem tea table by several construction characteristics, particularly the use of sliding dovetailed battens to secure the top to the pedestal. Drop-leaf tables with oval tops, deep skirts that conceal dovetailed battens, and turned legs that terminate in ponderous pad feet were typical in this period. The legs on at least one similar table terminate in claw-and-ball feet--a nod by the Krause shop to British design. The most unusual type of foot on a Wachovia table is the fully formed trifid foot. It provides a clear illustration of the influence of Delaware Valley furniture on the furniture of at least one artisan working in Wachovia and may point to an encroaching British influence as the eighteenth century progressed. Since many artisans came to Wachovia from Pennsylvania, and North Carolina Moravians are known to have travelled to Philadelphia for trading purposes, a Delaware Valley influence is hardly surprising.
The Delaware Valley and British influence also resulted in the development of a Windsor chair tradition in Wachovia beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing through at least the first quarter of the nineteenth. An example of the earliest Wachovia Windsor’s is distinguished by the tight radius of the seat. Perhaps this was one of the "12 Green Chairs" listed as being in the "Meeting Hall" of the Gemein Haus on the 1791 inventory. (16) Indeed, the church marked this particular chair with a stamp designating it as church property. (17)
Moravian joiners were slow to embrace the neoclassical style, but with the arrival of several artisans from Europe between 1806 and 1809, the appearance of North Carolina Moravian furniture began a gradual transformation. These cabinetmakers, several of whom came directly from Herrnhut, built furniture with more simplified lines and a lighter appearance, although still of rather heavy proportions. While extant eighteenth-century chests of drawers are rare, nineteenth-century examples abound, and a few even incorporate French feet. The most unusual type of foot on case pieces from this period is the squared tapering foot with an attached bracket seen on the chest-and-bookcase. Such feet seem to be a direct transference from Herrnhut, for a chest of drawers in the museum operated by the Moravian Church there has identical feet.
The attribution of Moravian furniture to specific makers is complicated because the same shop masters among the various Moravian communities (throughout America and abroad) were likely to have trained several of the rising generation, sometimes at the same time. As a result furniture made by different craftsmen during the same period shares construction and design characteristics that scholars might ordinarily use to distinguish a particular maker's hand. An example is the stepped cornice molding seen on the chest-and-bookcase and on a corner cupboard in Old Salem's collection. Such cornices predominate on neoclassical North Carolina Moravian case pieces and are often paired with flat-panel doors and the distinct bracket feet also seen on these examples. The piece could have been made by any one of several cabinetmakers working at this time. With luck, continuing research will help to distinguish individual hands more clearly.
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