Review by Neil Duff Kamil
American Kasten: The Dutch-Style Cupboards of New York and New Jersey; 1650-1800

Peter M. Kenny, Frances Gruber Safford, and Gilbert T. Vincent. American Kasten: The Dutch-Style Cupboards of New York and New Jersey; 1650-1800. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991. viii + 80 pp.; 65 illus., line drawings, appendices, glossary, bibliography. $16.95.

Of American Kasten and the Mythloy of "pure Dutchness": A Review Article

Scholars concerned that the rapidly expanding historiography of American regional furniture might somehow pass over traditionally neglected New York Colony while questing new territories south and west of south­eastern Massachusetts will welcome the appearance of this handsome new exhibition catalogue. To be sure, American Kasten will find a secure place on the shelf beside Roderic H. Blackburn and Ruth Piwonka's more general Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609—1776 (1988) and Dean F. Failey's still very useful Long Island Is My Nation: The Decorative Arts &Craftsmen, 1640—I830 (1976).[1]

The American kas (or "kast," as the authors pointedly prefer) has been perceived as synonymous, indeed almost inextricably intertwined, with the material life of early New York since at least the vear 1900 when the influential antiquarian Esther Singleton first published a few well documented examples in Furniture of Our Forefathers. Such an enduring relation has only served to exacerbate a curious process of mystification about the "Dutchness" of New York "Dutch-Style" furniture, which probably finds its ultimate textual origin in the nostalgic and ideological ethnic mythologies popularized by Washington Irving (1783—1859), particularly in Dietrich Knickerbocker's A History of New York (1809). But it was that moralistic entrepreneur and relentless promoter a fortiori, the P. T. Barnum of seventeenth-century New England furniture-Wallace Nutting who, in his seminal Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (1924), conventionalized kasten as "striking example[s] of Knickerbocker work," while hastening to add dismissively, "we believe as a rule very large pieces are less sought for."[2] Nutting knew what was really important. If, as the minister from Framingham preached in his dedication to Henry Wood Erving, "the strength and beauty of Pilgrim furniture was an expression of Pilgrim character," then New York furniture as embodied by Nutting's unprofitable (and therefore trivial) Knickerbocker kasten could only have been an expression of Dutch corpulence, stolidity, closed and self-satisfied conservatism, and inertia. In short, everything his didactic, colonial revival Puritans were not.

The endurance of such self-serving ethnic stereotypes seems all the more anachronistic when confronted with important recent scholarship based on quantitative analysis compiled for extended time frames by folklorist David S. Cohen and historian Thomas L. Purvis, who argue persuasively that although New Amsterdam/New York came into being as a monopoly chartered under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, from its very inception the colony did not seem to possess an effective ethnic Dutch majority. Indeed, many of the earliest colonists were French-speaking Huguenots and Walloons who, together with a large and steadily increasing population of African slaves, joined immigrants from all over Europe (especially the Germanic regions) to inhabit a profoundly pluralistic port town and its hinterland. This fact has enormous implications for the fluid history and culture of New York Colony. It suggests, for example, at least one reason why its "Dutch" citizens failed to mount serious opposition to the English invaders in 1664, choosing instead to cohere behind Frankfurt-born Jacob Leisler in 1689 when he launched his bloody, quixotic rebellion against the then-dominant Anglo-French (and anglicized Dutch) elites in the highly charged atmosphere that surged through the colonies following the Glorious Revolution.[3] Significantly, disaffected Dutch as well as many other groups of northern European Woodworking artisans were among Leisler's most fervent political supporters, perhaps partially in response to their systematic displacement in the luxury trades (and hence removal from access to elite patronage) by Anglo-French artisans, their numbers bolstered by a massive influx of highly skilled Huguenot woodworkers who flooded into New York after Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

It is therefore surprising, despite having made at least passing reference to the empirical work of Cohen and Purvis (p. 1), that the authors should then choose to align themselves so closely with the moribund Knicker­bocker tradition by questing ceaselessly after what they consistently call, most unfortunately, "pure" Dutchness, with the venerable kas[t] as their Rosetta stone. Thus in his essay "Origins and Uses," Gilbert T. Vincent states unequivocally (but without specific evidence) that "most colonists acceded to Dutch cultural dominance"; and although after 1664 "direct contact With the Netherlands was increasingly cut off . . . many settlers of Flemish, French, or German heritage . . . tended to reject changes that came from the outside and sought to preserve much of the past. This was especially the case with rural inhabitants .... They were more than content with their daily lives" (pp. 1—3) . Generalizations such as these are by their very nature basically fruitless and condescending and are especially vulnerable to criticism using evidence from specific, everyday, face-to-face interaction; evidence that the authors consistently ignore in favor of rudimentary formal analysis that fails to consider, in more than a perfunctory way, the perspective of either artisans or consumers of kasten. Yet arguably, this is precisely the level upon which analysis of domestic artifacts might yield important evidence supporting more complex, alternative interpretations. That is Why it would seem inappropriate to summarily banish "kas" from this text even though we learn it was commonly used "interchangeably" with "kast" by appraisers of colonial New York inventories, simply because it apparently bears the heresy of "English mutations" (p. vii). By so doing, a crucial sociolinguistic link to the past-one that should have supplied the authors with an important insight is also arbitrarily erased. As J.G.A. Pocock, Nancy S. Struever, and Quentin Skinner have amply demonstrated for early modern Europe, the intimate relation of language and culture is retrospectively riven for the sake of conceptual purity only at the historian's peril.[4] Ironically, for many scholars concerned with the development of mid-Atlantic regional material culture, it is precisely this problem of sorting out the historical meaning of such "mutations" what anthropologists term "creolization" that now seems most fascinating and is currently the subject of much fruitful inquiry.

Part of the difficulty lies in the authors' heavy reliance on traditional, idealistic art historical methodology that tends to worship too lovingly at the altar of what Marc Bloch called the "idol of origins." Kasten are therefore lined up serially in a highly dubious chronological order bracketed arbitrarily by the years 1650 and 1800. But even so the authors might have profited from assimilating ideas expressed by the numerous American followers of the influential French art historian Henri Focillon, who argues in his important essay Vie des formes (Paris, 1934) that it can be empirically useful to submit artifacts placed in a series to formal analysis, so long as such an analysis simultaneously is embedded in the specific, mutable, and above all human contexts of each of the artifacts placed therein. Instead, we are confronted here with an elitist rehearsal of nineteenth-century diffusion theory from the top down. Thus, although Vincent is particularly good at elucidating competition between the "older," "idiosyncratic" mannerist style associated with the influential design books of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527—1604) and the "modern," "so­berer" classical Italianate models-disseminated by printmaker Crispin de Passe the Younger (1593—1670) and especially Jacob van Campen (1595—1657), architect of the paradigmatic Amsterdam Town Hall (ca. 1648) the text proceeds to employ these models as well as that of the subsequent monumental Amsterdam "baroque" kussen (or cushion, to indicate projecting beveled door panels) kast to signify the "pure" origin of and prototypes for all "Dutch-Style" American kasten. The logic of this method therefore leads the authors to place their series in a hoary (and ahistorical) organic framework of growth and inevitable decline that maintains the "original," "pure," and idealized seventeenth-century Amsterdam design as the ever-present context and standard for American kasten produced in New York and New Jersey, often nearly two centuries hence. We are told, for example, that by 1790, "Bergen County makers seized the kast form as their own and, taking a neoclassical perspective, attempted to breathe some new life into it before its final demise" (p. 28). One of the great glories of the best recent scholarship in regional furniture history lies in its success in escaping the self-limiting structures of such conventional narrative paths by hewing close to specific contexts provided by local artisans personally engaged with their mental and material worlds. The pursuit of such specificity would almost surely lead us far afield from Vincent's international pattern books and haut bourgeois Amsterdam kasten, to poor, relatively unregulated rural woodworking shops located all over Europe and Britain producing cheap, often crudely constructed painted softwood furniture made in what T. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer has called the witwerker tradition.[5] Only by following pathways taken by the craftsmen themselves can surviving artifacts produced by New York's pluralistic artisans be understood in terms of their own, decidedly multiple (and from the perspective of the little we currently know about early modern European regional woodworking traditions, still mostly painfully obscure) origins.

The limitations of the monolithic Amsterdam model for understanding American kasten is ironically laid bare the few times the artisanal context is actually addressed (albeit too generally) from an archival perspective. When we finally, encounter a New York joiner engaged in "amaking" "the new cupboard" for Evert Van Hook in 1711 (p. 9), we are perhaps surprised to discover he is one Jean Le Chevalier. We are not told, however, that Le Chevalier, an exiled Huguenot and one of New York's leading joiners by 1711, found refuge in the colonies after having escaped from Saintonge in southwestern France by way of London, where along with other family members, he was naturalized on April 9, 1687. Following in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather Jean, who arrived in New York by way of Martinique by 1671, Le Chevalier was to be declared a freeman of the city no earlier than October 12, 1695. Le Chevalier, although married in the Dutch Reformed Church on June 17, 1692, was also an active, well documented member of the local French Church (although we are told on page I that "most French as `yell as German and Flemish colonists simply "acknowledg[ed] the leadership of the Dutch Reformed Church"), where, in a most significant insight into hidden family allegiance, he and his wife Marie de la Plaine (the daughter of another prominent New York Huguenot joiner) chose to have their two daughters baptised in 1693 and 1695. Given the ethnic complexity, of Le Chevalier's biography and the documentary evidence that strongly suggests that he was busily engaged in producing not only kasten but also a great variety of joined and carved work for whomever could afford to employ him in addition to Van Hook, mostly by the 1690s, the city's Anglo-French elites including in one case a contract to repair and frame the English royal arms on the front of city hall-it would seem difficult to understand how this particular figure fits neatly into the authors' Dutch Gestalt.[6]

On another occasion, Peter M. Kenny diminishes an otherwise competent contribution to our understanding of the taxonomy of regional types by holding onto the pure Dutchness of Ulster County kasten (his particular area of research) so that he can ultimately attribute the bulk of Kingston's production to the Dutch "Elting Beckman Shops." He asserts this conclusion even while acknowledging that the most salient construction features of this group (usually, as the folklorists rightly remind us, a far more reliable indicator of ethnicity than exterior design) including the anomalous use of wedged tenon joinery in lieu of pegs for framing combined with the wholesale substitution of wooden pins for nails"have been cited as hallmarks of German (italics mine) joinery when they occur in Pennsylvania furniture" (p. 26). Kenny tenuously stretches his explanation to fit the catalogue's schema by suggesting that "Jan Elting's native province of Drenthe was on the German border; it is possible that these techniques were well known there and that he brought them to Flatbush and Kingston." But it is also equally possible (and far more likely) that any number of unnamed artisans with other than Dutch genealogies were capable of producing kasten with Germanic construction in busy Kingston by the eighteenth century; especially if one considers Kenny's undocumented early dating primarily on the basis of style to be, as the authors themselves admit, mere guesswork at best. It would not be surprising if the two Kingston kasten attributed to the Elting-Beekman shops and subjectively dated circa 1700—1730 (numbers 10 and 11) were in fact made as late as circa 1760—1790 at the earliest. Inasmuch as templates and tools were valuable, enduring commodities passed down from father to son, transferred from master to apprentice through apprenticeship contracts, sold at public vendue, and in general circulated from town to town to be used, repaired, and reused by many hands over the course, sometimes, of generations, it would seem most difficult to reach conclusions about dating on the basis of molding patterns and the shape of door panels. One also wonders why Kenny ignores possible Huguenot influence in Ulster County kasten. Kingston's proximity to New Paltz and the fact that by Kenny's own reckoning two of the three "Kingston" kasten illustrated have strong histories of ownership in prominent local French families is suggestive in itself, but especially so when one considers that New Paltz appears to have been settled by a number of Huguenots who first fled the wars of religion to die Pfaltz (the German Palatinate), settling there for some time before coming belatedly to the Hudson Valley, and then only after having again been forced to flee the resurgence of similar confessional violence in Germany.

But overall, Kenny's attempt to classify, eighteenth century kasten by locality New York City; Kings County; Queens County; the Upper Hudson Valley; and Bergen County is useful, if often also arbitrary, speculative, and, when discussing Long Island, heavily in debt to Failey. Building on Failey's work on western Long Island, Kenny has done a particularly good job synthesizing prior scholarship to make ya convincing argument for a coherent group of artifacts attributable to Kings County. Here formal analysis is finally effective because he has the advantage of proceeding from the Metropolitan Museum's crucial gumwood desk-on­frame, collected in 1922 from a house on Cortelyou Road in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. With its applied, inset mahogany panels, this artifact also carries the date 1695 in a Dutch inscription under its lid. Kenny makes the key observation that the desk's upper section is related by construction to a group of Kings County kasten that all share a specific sort of dove­tailed cabinetwork in the base that is arguably peculiar to the New York City area: "In both, the joints, precisely cut, have steeply pitched end­grain pins with thin necks. Even stronger evidence . . . of a common shop tradition is the dovetailing in each instance of the front boards to the sides and the sides to the back. The result is the same pattern of face-grain tails and end-grain pins on the facades of the desk and the kast[en] as on their exposed back corners" (p. 20). Having made this most important observation, however, Kenny should have reported that one of the two other paradigmatic artifacts for identifying all early New York furniture (the Lawrence family dressing table probably made to accompany Winterthur's chest of drawers-on-frame signed by Samuel Clement of Flushing and dated 1726) shares this idiosyncratic articulation of the dovetails, albeit here limited only to the front corners of its frame.[7] Still, one can only wonder how this provocative relationship between the Metropolitan's desk, Kings County kasten, and a dressing table made in the dominant Anglo-French style for an Anglo-American merchant by a second-generation Flushing Quaker trained by his father in a town comprised mainly of Friends from the English Midlands can be reconciled with Kenny's notion of a presumably Dutch "common shop tradition." Future research, however, may well reveal an important affinity between continental furniture craftsmen who migrated to England, Scotland, and Wales as well as the Middle Colonies in great numbers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and Midlands and West County craftsmen who may have influenced the development of the one-part Queens County kas that appears to be something of an attenuated version of the distinctive western and west central Long Island two-panel, ball-foot chest (long associated by tradition with the Quaker towns). One curious clue that may be worth pursuing is that both a number of western Long Island kasten and many two-panel ball-foot chests have components that are connected by the relatively laborious method of nailing with deeply countersunk nails then neatly plugged with large round plugs for the sake of sturdiness, or perhaps for camouflage, or to give the appearance of wooden pegs. Is this a transplanted, creolized survival of construction common to a specific, regional witwerker tradition? Perhaps time and future fieldwork will tell. Meanwhile, for structural analysis to pay dividends, much clearly remains to be learned about local New York shop traditions and the artisans who embodied them before any truly meaningful conclusions about cultural interaction can be ventured.

The most significant new contribution to the literature is made by Frances Gruber Safford in her section titled "Joined Oak Kasten of the Seventeenth Century," as to my knowledge this is the first time that four of the five surviving oak kasten have been published together and rigorously compared. The fifth, Winterthur's massive Hewlett family oak kas with inlay and applied softwood door panels, has been deleted, again presumably for the sake of purity, because it would appear to relate more to Germanic than Dutch sources. It might have been wise to reconsider this decision. Much can be learned by allowing the Hewlett cupboard to enter freely into the comparison, as its construction and decorative schema share interesting similarities and differences with not only the other oak kasten but also some Pennsylvania German cupboards and the far more numerous "later" gumwood kasten. More than that, its strong history of ownership in a Long Island family possessed of an impeccable English ancestry that its genealogists like to trace back to service in Cromwell's army, vividly demonstrates how easily the popular kasten form traversed New York's multiple cultures. A comprehensive survey of the available inventories might also have given us some further insight into such patterns of ownership. Although Safford is indeed able to posit the existence of a discreet group of oak kasten related by similar construction techniques but obviously the Work of different hands, only one, the extraordinary example from the Art Institute of Chicago (number 4), is arguably produced in the urban hardwood tradition and related to a known seventeenth-century Amsterdam design source. The others could have been made by opportunistic witwerkers freely taking advantage of an abundance of oak in their New World environment. Certainly, the possibility that the Metropolitan's recently acquired oak kas (number 3) retains its original decorative paint surface would support this hypothesis. And dating is again deeply problematic. If, for the sake of argument, we were to allow the overall assertion of Dutch origins, and if Lunsingh Scheurleer is correct in his widely accepted hypothesis that hardwood and softwood kasten were being produced simultaneously in the Netherlands, then why, in the absence of other evidence, should Safford assume a seventeenth ­century date for colonial New York oak kasten and an eighteenth-century date for all the rest? Perhaps the time-honored association of oak with New England's "Pilgrim Century" remains steadfastly ingrained. But again, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, one might just as reasonably speculate that kasten made of every available wood were being produced concurrently throughout New York and New Jersey and that they can probably be dated quite a bit later than the authors would suppose.

Safford also includes a final section on grisaille-painted kasten that summarizes past research but does not advance far beyond what is already known. It is interesting, however, to observe an apparent conceptual continuity here between the protruding opulence of the hussenkast hardwood door panels and the overripe, burst, or distended fertility of the fruit and other naturalistic motifs conventionally painted on the doors of softwood kasten. Vincent rightly points out the association between kasten and the woman's domestic sphere and develops (borrowing substantially from Simon Schama's Embarrassment of Riches) the complex interplay between the competent storage of valuable, labor-intensive textiles, feminine virtue, war, ecology, and cleanliness.[8] But much still remains to be learned about the place of the kas in domestic space, its role in the ritual of engagement and marriage, and especially its association with family labor; by this I mean labor in the conventional sense of work as value and commodity but also in the primordial sense of fertility, birth, and succession.

In the end, American Kasten remains unconvincing in its rather forced assertion that the kas is simply a quixotic artifact reflecting specifically a one-dimensional, "conservative" culture. Rather, perhaps not unlike its close colonial relations-the Germanic schrank, French armoire, and Spanish armario-the kas may have endured in its various forms precisely because it conveyed certain universal early modern capitalist values associated with accumulation and the subtle comportment of domestic display and concealment, which would have been familiar to the many non-Dutch inhabitants of the New York region and, as such, was inclusive and adaptable to change.

Neil Duff Kamil
The University of Texas at Austin

American Furniture 1993

  • [1]

    Published by the Albany Institute of History and Art and the Society for the Preserva­tion of Long Island Antiquities, respectively.

  • [2]

    Esther Singleton, Furniture of Our Forefathers (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1900-­1901), see especially pp. 234—311. The 1809 or first edition of Irving's History may be found in Washington Irving, Dietrich Knickerbocker's A History of New York, ed. Stanley Williams and Tremavne McDowell (New York: Harcourt Brace, & CO., 1927). Wallace Nutting, Furniture of the Pilgrim Century (Boston: Marshall Jones CO., 1921), p. 270.

  • [3]
    See David S. Cohen, "How Dutch Were the Dutch of New Netherland?," New York History 62, no. 1 (January 1981): 43—60; and Thomas L. Purvis, "The National Origins of New Yorkers in 1790," New York History 67, no. 2 (April 1986) : 133—53. For a succinct analy­sis of the ethnic component of Leisler's Rebellion, see Thomas J. Archdeacon, New York City, 1664—1710: Conquest and Change (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976), esp. pp. 97—146.
  • [4]

    See Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Theory 8, no.1(1969) : 45; J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (N.Y.: Atheneum, 1971); and Nancy S. Struever, "Historiography and Linguistics," in George G. Iggers and Harold T. Parker, eds., International Handbook of Historical Studies: Contemporary Research and Theory (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), pp. 127—50.

  • [5]
    Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1954), pp. 29—35. T. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, "The Dutch and Their Homes in the Seven­teenth Century," in Ian M. G. Quimby, ed., Arts of the Anglo-American Community in the Seventeenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), pp. 14—21.
  • [6]
    See Charles W. Baird, History of the Huguenot Emigration to America, 2 vols. (Balti­more: Regional Publishing Company, 1966), 2: 80—81, and 1: 210, note 2; see also E. B. O'Callaghan, Kenneth Scott, and Kenneth Stryker-Rodda, New York Manuscripts Dutch: The Register of Salomon Lachaire Notary Public of New Amsterdam, 1661—1662 (Baltimore: The Genealogical Publishing Company, 1978), pp. xii, xvi; and I. N. Phelps Stokes, The Iconog­raphy of Manhattan Island, 1498—1909 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1922), 4: 305. Baird argues incorrectly on the basis of his family's coat of arms that Le Chevalier originated in Normandy. I have discovered direct archival evidence that strongly suggests a Saintongeais origin. See Neil D. Kamil,"War, Natural Philosophy, and the Metaphysical Foundations of Artisanal Thought in American Mid-Atlantic Colony: La Rochelle, New York City, and the Southwestern Huguenot Paradigm, 1517—1730" (Ph.D., dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University, 1988), PP. 563—68.
  • [7]
    The sides are attached to the back with blind dovetails on Winterthur's Flushing dress­ing table. In recent years, an early (ca. 1695) stretcher-based table with one drawer was de­accessioned from Colonial Williamsburg (accession number 1930—17) and has resurfaced in a private collection. This table arguably originated in Flushing-or even New York City (due to the presence of cedrela and other exotic woods)-and it also shares a similar dovetailing technique with the Metropolitan's desk-on-frame. The remarkable thinness of its drawer linings would seem to indicate a closer affinity to the wood starvation mentality usually associated with seventeenth-century English and especially London craftsmanship, than with what we currently know of continental construction techniques.
  • [8]
    See Simon Schama, Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (N.Y.: Knopf, 1987).