Like their contemporary countrymen who were among the first immigrants to the colony of Pennsylvania, the earliest Germanic settlers who populated the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys of New York during the 1710s and 1720s brought with them the long-established cultural and aesthetic traditions of their former homelands. Palatine Germans, Alsatians, Bavarians, and Swiss-Germans established farms and numerous trading communities in the fertile Hudson River valley, and by 1712 their numbers were expanding into settlements in the northern river valleys. Among them were skilled woodworkers who combined the traditions of fine joinery and cabinetmaking with a love of painted ornament and bold color to produce numerous forms of utilitarian and decorative household furniture.
Surviving domestic inventories suggest the decorated chest was among the most common and symbolically important pieces of furniture within these early New York Germanic households. Presented as part of a dowry or commissioned by a new couple for their marriage household, such chests not only held valuable household textiles and other treasured possessions but served as important symbols of wealth, stability, and ancestral identity. The large, decorated textiles chest made by Johannes Kniskern for his brother Jacob, along with two smaller chests he made for his twin daughters, Elisabeth and Margreda, make up the most important surviving group of early decorated Germanic chests from the Schoharie Valley.1
Kniskern's use of applied framed moldings and corner pilasters on the chest's front facade demonstrates his adherence to earlier Germanic cabinetmaking traditions found in Middle Europe dating from the Late Renaissance. Constructed of pine, the chest displays wide corner dovetailing, simple applied base molding, and a heavy, shaped bracket base with a medial third foot member, all typical features of the earliest chests produced in the region.
While the rabbeted, lapped corner-joint construction of the miniature chest suggests a date somewhat later than that of the Kniskern group, its molding profiles, notch-carved top-edge decoration, and painted checkered patterning are found across both examples and relate the smaller chest to earlier Schoharie Valley traditions.2
On both chests, the decorative patterns were laid out by a series of complicated overlapping lines, deeply scribed with a compass to create a grid and pattern that was selectively filled in with paint. The central circle and star design on the front and top of the miniature chest is similar in pattern and execution to that found on the top of the Kniskern chest, demonstrating the survival of the earlier eighteenth-century decorative tradition well into the nineteenth century within a particular craftsman's shop or within the wider, shared community. -J.L.L.
1 For a full discussion of these three chests and the locations of the two smaller examples, see Mary Antoine De Julio, "New York German Painted Chests," The Magazine Antiques 127, no. 5 (May 1985): 1156-58.
2 The miniature chest was found in north-central Pennsylvania in the early 19705 but has no known relationship to any group of Pennsylvania-produced painted decoration.