Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The painted plank bottom chair, a sturdy survivor of Pennsyl­vania’s golden age of chairmaking, is at long last garnering the recognition it has long deserved – thanks to the nation’s seemingly insatiable appetite for what many call The Country Look. This hand-decorated chair, admired by many for its graceful stenciling and skilled workmanship, has weathered a century of heavy use and “touching up,” or, more fortunately, benign neglect while stored in attics, base­ments, and barns. Curators, collectors, and owners had already discovered the inherent beauty and value in these surviving icons of the golden age of chairmaking in Pennsylvania and now the general public has become fascinated.

The painted country chair was a marriage of sturdy construction and folksy decoration. Its seat was made from a single piece of wood (hence, “plank bottom”); legs, posts and spindles were turned on a lathe; and the backsplat, a rectangular piece of wood at the top of the chair, contained most of the hand­-applied decoration. The country chair appeared in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, and grew most popular by mid-century, satisfying the need for a practical and affordable kitchen or parlor chair. “Fancy chairs” were being made in the metropolitan areas of Philadel­phia, New York, and Boston, among others, but these finely made and exquisitely deco­rated chairs, such as the New England Hitchcock, Baltimore, or Windsor styles, were expensive and beyond the reach of the typical rural or small town Pennsylvania family. The delicate spindles and slender legs of these chairs seemed to offer little practical­ity to the large working family of nineteenth century Pennsyl­vania. Clearly the need existed for a chair with heavier parts and sturdier construction, and at an affordable price.

In an era and culture in which works of art were often unavailable to the average family, there was a need for some sort of art work or pleasing decoration to adorn the burgeoning number of farmsteads and village houses. Paintings, prints, photographs, and wallpapers were not readily available, and decora­tion, or “art itself,” had to be produced by local artisans whose work would fulfill the dual functions of utility and beauty – all at a good price. And the chairmakers of the period addressed this double challenge with vigor.

By constructing chairs that were strong and long-lasting, as well as visually appealing, they created a product that met the growing need for sturdy furniture during this frenzied era of growth and change. The men who made chairs between 1830 and 1900 in the Keystone State pos­sessed a variety of talents. However, many had addi­tional occupations, from farming to barbering to undertaking, that were not at all related to woodworking. Michael Bollinger (1763-1840), for instance, patriarch of the well known Bollinger family of chairmakers of Centre County, served as a justice of the peace and became involved in politics and Revolutionary War activities before being elected to the state legislature in 1809. John Bower of Leola, Lancaster County, worked in the undertaking business and also made chairs. In his early career, Jacob Holloway Crouse (1869-1945) of Centre County was a sutler with shipping destinations as far away as Pittsburgh and Chicago. In later years he became a barber, while making chairs through­out his lifetime. Lancaster County artisan Joseph Lehn, best known for his painted, hand-turned wooden egg cups, tiny saffron containers, and goblets, was also a chairmaker. Chairmakers who did labor exclusively at woodworking included additional pieces of furniture in their repertoire. In 1873, Charles S. Bell, a Black chairmaker of Lewisburg, Union County, advertised “chairs of every kind, tables, bedsteads, bureaus, wash­stands, cupboards, doughtrays, and everything in the shape of furniture you may need.” Bell also advertised “Metalic and Wood Coffins, of various Patterns and Styles, Shrouds for a corpse, and Picture Frames of every style and description.” His store was located on Market Street, Lewisburg’s main thoroughfare.

Pennsylvania’s chairmakers were not only skilled cabinet­makers but also meticulous bookkeepers, persuasive salesmen, and shrewd buyers of equipment and materials. Equally important, they needed the fine eye and steady hand of an accomplished artist for the decoration of the chair. George W. Spitler of New Berlin, Union County, was talented and successful; in his painstakingly penned ledger of 1871, he estimated his net worth at nearly eleven thousand dollars – no small achievement. In addition to being a purveyor of cigars and broadcloth, Spitler was also an incurable romantic. At the age of eighteen, he fell in love with Mary Ann Christ of Lebanon. His ledger book, which also served as a diary, contained his musings. “I’ll tell you the worst feeling in the world by all in all is being in love and not knowing whether your gwine to get over your love or not.” A graduate of New Berlin’s Union Seminary, he was fond of writing, evidenced by passages found in his ledger: May violets of beauty and lilies of sweetness, bloom in thy pathways and fill with fragrances all coming days.

Spitler likened his feeling for the young woman to having “forty million muskets and a pin cushion full of darning needles playing blind­man-bluff in his bosom.” “Mary Ann,” he wrote, “could hug like a Grizzly bear” and changed; the craftsmen always sought to construct a sturdy piece of furniture that could withstand the test of hard use.

The first step in the con­struction of a painted country chair was the selection of wood. Oak would not be in vogue for a half century and the early chairmakers were more likely to use hardwoods such as maple and hickory for spindles and legs that required great strength. The makers’ choice of wood in rural areas was usually made on the basis of availability. Samuel Keller and his son William owned a stand of trees near their shop in Kellersville, Juniata County. Consequently, they would simply cut down a tree, saw it into planks, and cure it in their own woodburning kiln. The prolific Centre County chairmaker, Jesse Mauch of Millheim, worked in a shop located within a mile of a sawmill, and undoubtedly had the luxury of choosing woods rather than relying exclusively on whatever happened to be growing nearby. Since the chair would be painted, makers were able to use different woods on the same chair.

After the wood had been dried, the chairmaker was ready to turn the spindles, posts, and legs on a lathe, an extremely important and necessary piece of equipment. Most of the early lathes were powered either by a foot­-treadle or by a horse, but by the end of the nineteenth century steam-powered lathes had become available. David Ginter of Lewisburg owned a lathe that could turn a twenty­-foot piece of wood. Owner of one of the largest furniture shops in central Pennsylvania, he made spindles and legs for other chairmakers and constructed water mains by boring a hole through the middle of long logs. While the lathe went through a series of changes in the way it was powered, its fundamental construction never varied. Other tools became obsolete as steam, electricity, gas, and water were used in turn, but was “none of your little cobweb Deliah critters that the wind would blow away.” This depiction may have resulted from her weight of one hundred and seventy-five pounds, according to Spitter’s notes. When the New Berlin chairmaker told his mother about his feelings for Mary Ann, she blamed it on green corn he had eaten at dinner, gave him some whiskey, and summoned the local doctor. Nothing helped, however, and Spitler wrote that the medicine only made him feel as “weak as a spring gosling.”

George Spitler never did marry Mary Ann Christ, but he did become an outstanding chairmaker, as his surviving work indicates. In decorating, he favored the Egyptian pomegranate (usually painted red), bright colors, and ample use of black stripes against yellow as distinctive hall-marks. He painted green leaves whose tendrils and sinuous vines literally “tied” the entire decorative motif together. Spitler epitomized the chairmakers of this era who not only were skilled craftsmen and good businessmen, but also served as the local artists and creative personalities in the small villages and rural hamlets of mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania.

The construction of the country or plank bottom chair depended on the skill and experience of the chairmaker. Certain tricks of the trade – including various mortise-and-tenon techniques – were used by some but remained unknown to others. Green wood for the seat, for example, caused the holes holding the legs and spindles to shrink, tightening the grip on the inserted pieces as the chair dried and aged. Whatever the particular methods used, the goal never procedure at best and cannot be utilized to determine a chair’s origin. To add more confusion, Mauck and Bollinger exchanged stencils and sometimes shared the same lathe.

Chairmakers who signed their chairs did so in a number of ways. Some wrote in pencil or black paint across the underside of the plank seat. Others, including Boyd and Company of Harrisburg, employed a stamp to incise their names into the wood. Several chairmakers relied on paper labels while others used an ink stamp. Occasionally, the chairmaker would write only the customer’s name on the bottom. Charles Alexander, who lived near Shamokin, Northumberland County, devised a unique signature by placing his name on all four sides of a square and incising this decoration into the wood of the underside of the seat.

In many cases, an “X” was marked on the bottom of a chair. Surely the “X” does not signify the inability of a craftsman to sign his name, even if he could not read. Many Pennsylvania Germans were enamored of their folklore and probably knew that “X” is the Greek symbol for Christ. An astute chairmaker may have wanted to hint that this “X” was a blessing and might even ward off some evil spirits. Whatever method was used, a signature on the painted country chair is significant. It is interesting to speculate why so many chairmakers did not sign their work, and experts can only assume that if they did not sign, they had failed to realize how important their chairs would become to following generations.

While the painted country chairs possessed common construction and decorative similarities, most of the chairmakers of this era could­ – and did – make specialty chairs requested by their customers. The rocking chair is the most obvious example of this departure from the norm. In fact, a set of six chairs was usually accompanied by a rocker decorated with the same design. Jesse Mauck, for example, made one hundred and ten rocking chairs to accompany his two thousand chairs. During the early years of the nineteenth century, rocking chairs were usually made by applying two pieces of curved wood to the legs of a plank bottom chair. However, as time passed, construction became more sophisticated. The rockers were extended and the chair was customized for men, women, and children. This specialization extended to the making of a “mammy” rocker, built wide enough to accommodate a sleeping child and long enough to seat its mother.

The “potty chair,” made with a hole in the plank seat, was another speciality item. This forerunner of the modern toilet came equipped with a removable lid, so that it could be used for something other than its primary purpose. The list of various chair styles goes on. Witness chairs, constructed with elongated legs and a special platform for the feet, enabled a person testifying in court to be seen by all. Other special chairs made during this period included barber chairs outfitted with a special headrest, high chairs for children, and settles, or settees, to accommodate several guests or visitors.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a confident Pennsylvania, growing in population and resources, became a leader in scientific theory and practice, in inventions and innovations, and in changes in the way people lived and worked. In a sense, the painted country chair is a chronicle – a three dimensional document – of that era. Through the years, the quality of these chairs, made first with hand tools, changed dramatically and became increasingly finer and more sophisticated. With new steam-operated lathes, better paints, and improved tools, Pennsylvania’s chairmakers were able to refine their craftsmanship. The very progress that enabled the chairmakers to improve their product, ironically, sounded the death knell for the painted country chairs. In the decades following the Civil War, shops were converted into factories, more workers were hired, and newfangled machinery was installed to meet the rising demand for more chairs. It was only a matter of time before the lone artisan (and possibly his son) working in a small shop would disappear forever. By the early 1900s the finely stenciled chair and the hand­-carved details of a country chair had succumbed to the demands of the market place and, essentially, to the less interesting and less distinctive fruits of mass production.

For nearly a century, the painted country chairs of Pennsylvania received little notice – except by farsighted collectors and proud owners. Tucked away, they were used infrequently, if at all, which spared them hard use and wear. This century of oversight has been most fortunate. Benign neglect has enabled the chairs to survive. Now that the rich tradition these chairs represent is beginning to attract national attention, it is likely that collectors and owners of the painted country chair will make special efforts to preserve this valuable furniture form. They will not only protect the fine work documenting the Keystone State’s golden age of chair­making, but they will preserve as well the rich heritage of that remarkable period of history.


For Further Reading

Anderson, Barbara, ed. Haines Township Life and Tradition. Aaronsburg, Pa.: Haines Township Bicentennial Commis­sion, 1976.

Brazer, Esther Stephens. Early American Decoration. Springfield, Mass.: Pond-Eckberg, 1940.

Clark, Mnry Jane. Illustrated Glossary of Decorated Antiques. Norwell, Mass.: Scrabble Arts and Historical Society of Early American Decoration, 1990.

Dreppnrd, Karl W. Handbook of Antique Chairs. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1948.

Kovel, Ralph, and Terry Kovel. American Country Furniture. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1967.

Lea, Zilla Rider. The Orna­mented Chair. Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle Publishers, 1960.

Lichten Frances. Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1946.

Linn, John Blair. Annals of Buffalo Valley, Pennsylvania 1775-1855. Harrisburg: Lane Hart, 1877.

____. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1883.

Snyder, Charles M. Union County, Pennsylvania: A Bicentennial History. Lewisburg, Pn.: Colonial Printing House, 1976.


Marie Purnell Musser, born in Nova Scotia in 1903, attended the Curry School of Expression, Boston, and graduated from Acadia Ladies’ Seminary in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in 1924. Three years Infer she married Dr. John S. Purnell, Sr., and moved to Mifflinburg, Union County, where she raised a family and collected antiques. In the 1950s, she studied traditional methods of decorating chairs and tinware, including stenciling and freehand painting. She serves on the board of directors of the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum and is an active member of the Union County Historical Society. The author has written a definitive study, Country Chairs of Central Pennsylvania, which was published in 1990.