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Review by Lee Ellen Griffith
Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society

Philip D. Zimmerman. Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society. Ambridge, Pa.: Friends of Old Harmony Village, 2010. x + 214 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., bibliography, index. Distributed by University Press of New England. $60.00.

This work is the first in a series of scholarly catalogues to focus on the material culture of the Harmony Society, a separatist religious sect that established a utopian community north of Pittsburgh in 1805. It sets the bar high for the studies that will follow. Harmony in Wood provides the first comprehensive look at the wide range of documented furniture made or used in the Harmonist communities, of which Economy (now Old Economy Village, a property of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) was the last settlement. The author’s stated goal, “to provide a detailed report on a highly select and refined group of the Harmonists’ finest and best documented pieces” (vii), is capably and fully achieved.

The very nature of the Harmony Society’s communal lifestyle presents a challenge for furniture historians accustomed to researching documentary evidence for provenance. No personal property means no probate records. It also means that the traditional understanding of an object’s context, ownership, and use does not necessarily apply. Philip D. Zimmerman, undaunted by this situation, wisely allows the objects to speak for themselves. Through careful and methodical study and analysis, he has successfully defined and described Harmonist furniture and presents a carefully chosen group in ninety detailed catalogue entries. The inclusion of furniture from other public and private collections in addition to that of Old Economy Village allows him to make a richer and much more complete statement.

The book begins with three essays, which provide the context for the catalogue that follows. The first gives a brief history of the Harmony Society from the 1804 immigration of about five hundred followers of George Rapp, the leader of this pietistic millennialist group, from Germany into the wilderness north of Butler County, Pennsylvania. There they established their first settlement, Harmonie (as it was sometimes spelled), which prospered over time by successfully engaging in commerce with the outside world but still staying relatively isolated from worldly society. This economic success led to the decision in 1810 to move the entire community to a new location that offered access to a navigable river. Property was purchased in Indiana for this venture, and New Harmony was built on the Wabash River. In 1824 a third move was made, back to Pennsylvania, where they chose the name “Economy” for their final home, and “this time they got everything right” (p. 7). The second essay chronicles the long road taken by the Old Economy Village furniture collection from its transfer to the State of Pennsylvania in 1937 and its subsequent adoption as a WPA project, through multiple cataloguing campaigns and the gradual reacquisition of furniture that had made its way out of the community. The third section outlines “the essentials of Harmonist furniture,” and here Zimmerman successfully and convincingly identifies distinctive styles, construction details, and craft practices that define the group. While there are many variables and not necessarily one distinctive commonality across all furniture forms, it is apparent that “Harmonists made furniture their own way,” with a preference for Germanic forms, and that they “prized practicality over fashion” (p. 37).

The real story of Harmonist furniture is revealed in all of its complicated and sometimes contradictory glory within the catalogue entries. The majority of furniture shown might be described as sturdy, practical, or plain, with only a few very notable exceptions. The serene bobbin-shaped portrait bust that graces the cover of the book surmounts an elaborately carved and decorated shadow box (cat. no. 80) that stands out as a masterpiece among Harmonist work. A family history suggests a connection to one of Economy’s known craftsmen, a turner, but Zimmerman correctly stops short of making that attribution based solely on a note that accompanied the object, tempting though it may have been. Another singular item is a pyramidal mahogany dish cupboard with carved paw feet (cat. no. 51), which can only be described as eccentric in the extreme. The individual creativity and expressiveness of this cupboard’s design are not particularly in character with Harmonist furniture or thought, but the author is able to point out the reasons why it may have been a special piece made for a special person within the community.

Wide variations in skill, style, and craftsmanship suggest that a number of hands were at work over time; however, no pieces are signed or can be positively attributed to any of the six furniture makers who are known by name through society records. Their anonymity, while frustrating to us, seems well in keeping with their own culture and belief system. The craftsmen had access to wood from the community’s active sawmills, but records show that they also purchased plank and supplies from the outside. Harmonist philosophy favored self-sufficiency first with surplus to be sold for the benefit of the community, but rules within this society were not always hard and fast.

The majority of furniture in the catalogue dates between 1805 and 1840, and the catalogue entries are organized by form. Types of furniture forms that survive reveal a great deal about the Harmonists’ lives, from the numerous long feast tables that were used for group meetings and celebrations to the general preference for a clothespress in which to hang articles of clothing over a chest of drawers in which clothing would have to be folded flat. The latter is a convention that Zimmerman identifies with German culture. Fragments and tools from the Old Economy Village collection are also included in the catalogue, providing the opportunity to delve deeper into the Harmonist craftsmen’s practices and methods. Ornament in the form of inlay was not commonly used, but not out of the question, appearing on several small tables and on chests of drawers showing style influence from outside contacts. Sometimes the influence of outside style may have been quite strongly felt, as in a chest of drawers (cat. no. 50) that illustrates the “ambiguity and uncertainty” in distinguishing work done by Harmonist craftsmen or Pittsburgh-area makers.

In fact, not all furniture used in the Harmonist community was made there, and several entries illustrate that anomaly within the self-sufficient community. A Connecticut shelf clock is a case in point (cat. no. 67), and the author takes the opportunity in that entry to discuss society records that document the purchase of “1 Yankee Clock” in 1830 as well as many other similar clocks in successive years (p. 173). We learn a little more about the society and its members from another clock made by John Hoff of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (cat. no. 64). It was purchased in 1809 as a gift to the society by a patron, Jacob Neff, also of Lancaster, who later moved to Harmony and became a member. The case was made after the clock arrived in Harmony, either by a cabinetmaker in the Pittsburgh area or possibly in Harmony itself.

A few pieces of furniture can be identified with an owner, a rarity in a communal society and outside the situation of the average Harmonist. An example is a blanket chest bearing the initials “C F” (cat. no. 27). Zimmerman identifies the owner as Conrad Feucht, who left the society, which espoused celibacy, in 1829 to marry another member, Heldegart Mutschler. They were later allowed to return as husband and wife, over the objections of some in the community, which is how the chest returned to Economy. The author weaves Feucht’s story into the catalogue entry seamlessly and to good effect.

Zimmerman is to be congratulated on bringing what initially appears to be a moving target into focus as a cohesive group. While questions were consciously left unanswered in some of the entries, they are presented honestly as grist for future research. Other elusive details, like an explanation of the iconography on a watercolor panel over a charming small mirror (cat. no. 68), will, with luck, be revealed in subsequent studies in the series.

Zimmerman states in his introduction, “a talented team produced a beautiful book” (p. x). This volume and its content are of the highest quality in design and production, enhanced by superb photography by Will Brown. It merits a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in American furniture of the early nineteenth century for its content as well as for its methodology. As the field of furniture study progresses, the value of this type of locally focused, in-depth research is becoming recognized as key to understanding the whole picture.

Lee Ellen Griffith
Monmouth County Historical Association

American Furniture 2011

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