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

The exuberantly decorated furniture made during the first half of the nineteenth century in the Mahantongo Valley of south central Pennsylvania continues to attract considerable attention. The Mahantongo Valley, roughly seventeen miles long and four miles wide, lies about twenty-five miles north of Harrisburg, and its topography is formed by a series of sharp ridges, meandering creeks, and steep valleys which generally run from east to west. The Pennsylvania Germans who settled this tiny, isolated pocket of civilization in Northumberland and Schuylkill Counties created their own culture, and their decorated furniture stands distinctly apart from the great body of painted furniture usually associated with southeastern Pennsylvania.

Nineteenth-century paint-decorated furniture of the Pennsylvania Germans has been prized for years by collec­tors, curators, and dealers of Americana. By the 1830s, production of great chests made in Berks, Lebanon, and Lancaster Counties had ceased, yet a small group of craftsmen living in the remote Mahantongo Valley burst forth with a final wave of creativity before factories of the machine age began mass-producing furniture. Much Like a diminutive “Brigadoon,” the Mahantongo Valley has no major highway, and its character has changed little in the past century. It is a place that time forgot. To many, the little-known valley is nothing short of enchanting.

Researchers have identified and documented two distinct groups of furniture made in the valley. The first category comprises a group of seventeen known chests, each bearing the original owner’s name and a date. Dates of these chests span a period of thirty years, from 1798 to 1828. Their form is commonly known as a “blanket” or “dower” chest; such chests were customarily given to young women and men in their eighteenth year for the storage of household goods to be used in adult life. The decoration of this group is relatively simple. Several of the cases are lightly grain painted using a series of curved lines and dots on a reddish-brown ground. Names and dates are outlined with a double-lined border or cartouche. Between the owner’s first and last names, and between the word anno and the date, are painted small pots of flowers. The chests appear to have been constructed by a single maker, and the similarity of their decoration implies that they may have been painted by only one artist.

The second group – of which sixty-three pieces are known to exist – consists of vividly decorated chests of drawers, chests, slant-top desks, freestanding cupboards, and hanging cup­boards. Some pieces were dated, ranging from 1827 to 1841. This body of work – with its colorful birds, flowers, angels, praying children, and geometric devices – inspired noted collector Earl F. Robacker (whose antique collection was dispersed in a series of public auctions in Lancaster County in 1989) to wax poetic in his 1944 Pennsylvania Dutch Stuff A Guide to Country Antiques.

If one could have a single wish granted, and if that wish were for the most desirable Pennsylvania Dutch chest, the Mahantongo Valley painted bureau would be the thing to ask for . … it is necessary here to say no more than that only a few of these bureaus have ever come to light, but that these few are fully as attractive as their kindred cupboards. Aa late as 1937 a commercial antiques auction listed one “with four graded drawers; upper drawer with jar of tulips, rose and daisy spray decoration; the other drawers painted red; colors, black, yellow and green; turned leg supports, solid ends.”

The best Mahantongo Valley work surpasses this colorful array, utilizing birds, angels, and flowers in an arrangement which may possibly indicate some hidden spiritual significance. Admittedly, there is not much point in dwelling upon the charms of this particular furniture, for there is so little of it that it is all but untouchable, and the pickers and dealers lucky enough to spot a piece of it usually have immediate sale for it among their wealthy clients. Still, it is pleasant to know that the possibility exists.

Most of the motifs on the furniture of the Mahantongo Valley were derived from fraktur decorations embellishing taufscheins (or birth certificates), such as stylized birds, angels, trees of life, hearts, and geometric devices. Stamped rosettes seem to have been inspired by small floral devices painted on the face of blanket chests of the first group, which links the two bodies of furniture.

Through the years, researchers have encountered several stumbling blocks in studying Mahantongo Valley furniture. The identification of both makers and decorators, for instance, has been extremely complex. The search for the identity of the makers begins, logically, with the early group of blanket chests, each of which bears the owner’s name. In their quest, researchers turned to early maps of the area which include inhabitants’ names and locations of their houses. Once having located the names of families on these maps, certain scholars designated the early examples as Schwaben Creek Valley furniture. It is among this group, located along Schwaben Creek near Himmel’s Church, that early settlers – the Rebuck, the Reitz, the Brosius, the Ganser families and, a little farther east, the Diehl family – lived and worked.

Despite some dissimilarities, caused probably by restoration of portions of feet or paint, most 0£ the known chests in the early group appear to have been made and decorated by the same hand. The principal difference is that some have two drawers, and some three. Most have ogee bracket feet with a slight, yet distinctive rake. Moldings are similar. If it can be safely hypothesized that the same craftsman made all these chests over three decades, beginning in 1798, scholars must identify a joiner-carpenter who lived in the Schwaben Creek area, one born early enough to have reached maturity and a level of competence by 1798, and who was still alive and working in 1828. Such a maker would Likely have been related to the owners of several of the chests. Two candidates meet these prerequisites: brothers Michael Rebuck (1769-1852) and John Adam Rebuck Jr. (1763-1835).

Michael Rebuck’s two daughters, Christina and Maria Barbara, each owned chests dating to this group. John Adam Rebuck Jr. had several children, among them Conrad (1788-1857), a carpenter-joiner who married Juliana Reitz, the owner of one of the chests dated 1810; and Peter (1794-1857), also a carpenter (as was his son and namesake). Assuming that a father taught his trade to his son, and so on, historians might conclude that John Adam Rebuck Jr. taught his sons carpentry and made chests for his nieces, as well as for the young women who married his two sons. His lifespan is ideal for establishing the identity of the maker of all the early chests made from 1798 to 1828. In addition to attributing early chests to John Adam Rebuck Jr., furniture sleuths can also consider Conrad and Peter as possible makers of several of the pieces.

While most of the early chests were owned in the Schwaben Creek Valley and Himmel’s Church area, some have come from other parts of the valley. The 1799 Catharina Wagner chest came from a farm which was later owned by Jacob Masser, and the 1823 Anna Haupt chest came from the Mahanoy Valley, north of Line Mountain. Catharina Reidt’s chest, dated 1815, and two chests made for the Diehl family came from the valley’s eastern end. Scholars have long believed that many of these early period Schwaben Creek Valley blanket chests remain to be discovered. However, in the last fifteen years, only two have surfaced, the 1806 Eva Reitz chest and a blanket chest inscribed “Anna Kerstetter, 1817,” sold at a local auction in May 1995.

The identification of the makers and decorators of the later body of vibrantly decorated furniture remains even more problematic. Now in the collections of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, a desk owned by Jacob Masser (1812-1895), bearing his name and dated 1834, is probably the best known piece of Mahantongo Valley furniture. A farmer, Masser lived near Line Mountain in Northumberland County. He was long considered to be the maker of most of the furni­ture, but research now tends to refute this. An entry in the 1911 Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, only adds to the confusion.

Jacob Masser was not only a successful farmer but also an excellent mechanic, in which line he was particularly well known. He learned the carpenter’s trade and, being called upon to make many coffins, followed undertaking and, conducted many funerals in his day. He made considerable furniture of all kinds, and his son Felix has a cupboard made for each of his daughters. Late in the forties he built the barn which stands on the farm, and he also built a part of the present residence there.

It seems improbable that Masser, only twenty-two years old in 1834, could have mastered the skills necessary to have crafted so sophisticated a piece of furniture. For this very reason the handful of painted chests of drawers made before 1834 cannot be attributed to him either. To controvert these conclusions, however, one decorated chest of drawers, dated 1830, also in the Winterthur Museum’s collection, bears a partially legible inscription on the side of the second drawer, “_____es Masser 84.” Of the Massers’ fourteen children, Charles, who married Mary Schlegel, was ninth; furniture detectives speculate that this chest was in his household in 1884, when it was inscribed in pencil.

Until recently a signed piece of decorated Mahantongo Valley furniture has eluded connoisseurs and curators. An owner of a chest of drawers emblazoned with “Jenner, 1829,” removed its drawers and made a startling discovery. He found on the top of the third rail from the bottom, normally obscured by the drawer, two faint, but legible, signatures of John Mayer. This chest of drawers is the only known signed and dated piece of decorated furniture to emerge from the Mahantongo Valley to date!

The use of a distinctive molding and trim has enabled scholars to identify the work of Johannes Mayer (1794-1883). Mayer, who spent most of his life in a house which still stands in Upper Mahanoy Township, near the Northumberland­Schuylkill Counties line, is known to have been a carpenter, a joiner, and a turner, and he has been considered the maker of many pieces. His shop, until recently razed, stood adjacent to his house, which contains trim and molding – obviously hand wrought by the same plane – identical to the molding atop blanket chests decorated with praying children motifs. Several chests of drawers feature this same molding, including those in the collections of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, and New York’s Museum of American Folk Art. Woodworking tools stamped “J. Mayer” have also been found.

There is little doubt regarding the probable maker of Rebecca Braun’s cupboard and Peter Braun’s chest. Michael Braun (1772-1851) and his wife Catharina lived in Upper Mahanoy Township, near the foot of Line Mountain. They had nine children, among them Rebecca, Peter, and John, who joined his father in cabinetmaking and carpentry. The Genealogical and Biographical Annals of Northumberland County confirms the younger John Braun’s occupation as a cabinetmaker.

John Brown, son of Michael, born March 17, 1808, lived on the place now occupied by his son John F. Brown. He was not only a farmer, but a carpenter and weaver as well, doing house and shop carpentry, making considerable furniture and in his earlier years many coffins, and he wove all sorts of woolen wear and carpets.

A considerable body of painted furniture attributed to the Brauns’ workshop has been discovered over the years, in addition to a tongue and groove plane incised with the name of John Braun and two leather-working tools bearing the name of Michael Braun. Based on both its construction and design, the wall cupboard now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is attributed to Johannes Braun. A chest dated 1829 and owned by Andreas Braun provides clues which suggest that several more pieces of furniture can now be ascribed to the Brauns. Underneath the lid, along the top of all four sides are two reeded incised grooves running around the entire circumference of the chest. This incised reeding motif covers the lid of the till like corduroy fluting – identical to the reeded molding that trims the doorway of the house Braun built in the Mahantongo Valley. Because of their strong affinity for this decorative motif, the Brauns should also be considered as the possible makers of Mahantongo Valley pieces displaying this device.

A due to the identity of the maker, as well as the artist responsible for its decoration, is revealed in a comparison of the decorative motifs of the Brauns’ furniture with their printed fraktur sources. The decoration of the 1829 Andreas Braun chest is particularly interesting because so similar are the urn and tulip motifs to the fraktur of Johann Valentin Schuller Jr. that it has been tempting to ascribe the case decoration to Schuller. On this alone, however, one could not attribute the decoration on this chest to Schuller. The motifs are definitely Schuller’s, but further proof was needed, and it came only months after the chest first appeared. And, once again, the taufschein offered further evidence.

The recently discovered taufschein of Susanna Braun, born to Michael and Catharina Braun on March 15, 1814, is signed “Schuller,” and executed by the same hand and with the same pen and ink that lettered the printed taufschein. Careful examination of this taufschein tells scholars even more. It was published by John S. Wiestling, a Harrisburg firm established in 1827, providing documentation that Schuller lettered Susanna Braun’s taufschein in 1827 (or later), and that he was friendJy with the Braun family at this time. This taufschein is also embellished with a pair of angels similar to those decorat­ing both the 1828 Rebecca Braun cupboard, now held by the Barnes Foundation in Merion, and the 1830 kitchen cupboard inscribed “Concortia” in the Titus C. Geesey Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both examples had been attrib­uted to Johannes Braun, but the new discovery revealed by Susanna Braun’s fraktur now makes it logical to attribute the decoration of these cupboards – as well as that on the 1829 Andreas Braun chest and the 1834 Peter Braun chest – to Johann Valentin Schuller Jr.

In the mid-nineteenth century the central cultural and religious figure of the Mahantongo Valley was the Reverend Isaac Faust Stiehly (1800-1869), pastor of the Reformed Church in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties from 1824 to 1869. Born in Heidelberg Township, Berks County, he lived along the Mahantongo Creek near Klingerstown. Described as “a diamond in the rough, one of the people,” he was not only a minister, but a farmer and a millwright, and with his sons built a grist mill along the Mahantongo Creek. It was not uncom­mon for Stiehly to travel thirty miles on foot on Sundays, for his congregations, sometimes numbering eight at a time, were scattered widely throughout the hills and valleys.

Stiehly literally nurtured his parishioners from the cradle to the grave. Family descendants still own taufscheine lettered by his hand in a distinctive, nearly sculptural script. Folklore of the Mahantongo Valley is replete with stories about Stiehly, but one of the most interesting – and documented – aspects is that he sculpted tombstones. Headstones carved by Stiehly evidence distinctive Mahantongo Valley motifs. In the cemetery of the Salem United Church of Christ in the Schuylkill County village of Rough and Ready, where Stiehly was the first pastor and where he is buried, stand several grave markers which docu­ment his technique and style of decoration. He decorated these headstones with rosettes, hearts, and cartouches, in addition to round compass-like devices often seen on the recessed side panels of Mahantongo Valley chests. Stiehly’s descendants also knew of a journal which contains a list, albeit incomplete, of thirty-five tombstones, with names of the purchasers and prices. Another journal records nearly four hundred funerals at which Stiehly officiated, as well the biblical passages he used in funeral sermons he gave between August 1859 and December 1867.

Armed with the list of the thirty-five tombstones, researchers began exploring cemeteries throughout the Mahantongo Valley. They examined Howerter’s cemetery near Pitman, Salem United Church of Christ cemetery at Rough and Ready, Klinger’s cemetery, just south of the gap in the Mahantongo Mountain, and the churchyards at Sacramento, Hegins, and at the little Brick Church at Leck Kill. They positively identified twelve headstones noted in Stiehly’s list and attributed many others to him. Headstones identified as the work of Stiehly enable researchers to distinguish his particular style and technique: the employment of a large curve on the top, sometimes with two smaller curves at the shoulders; the use of a double lined cartouche with recessed quarter-rounded corners; and adornment with rosettes, hearts, flowers and tulips. On nearly every stone carved by the Reverend Stiehly, a simple heart device or a spandrel ray device, evocative of a setting sun, is found at the bottom.

But what has all this to do with the furniture of the Mahantongo Valley?

The decorative devices on the tombstones are similar to those on the chests, and the area of Stiehly’s greatest activity coincides with the area where the decorated chests of drawers seem to have originated. Something was still missing, though. The experts had hoped to discover clues about his carving that might link him in some way to the furniture.

In early spring 1986, the crucial document confirming Stiehly’s artistry, the consum­mate statement of his importance in the entire Mahantongo Valley culture, was discovered after nearly a century. An example of scherenschnitte (a form of folk art consisting of scissors cuttings in paper developed by Pennsylvania Germans), obviously a gift for, and dedicated to, his friend John Mayer bore Stiehly’s name and the date April 4, 1844. It was a discovery of tremen­dous significance!

The Reverend Isaac Faust Stiehly was a man of many talents, one of which was sculpting. The art of produc­ing scherenschnitte is sculptural and Stiehly was a master. Not only is the design of this paper cutout beautiful­ly organized and articulated, but the incised feathering of the eagle’s wings and the pinpricking provide an exquisite sense of texture as well. Stiehly’s dedication to Mayer only hints of collaboration between the two artists, but it seems to portend an even more specific – yet undefined – role for Stiehly in the making of the famous Mahantongo Valley furniture. In time, more examples of scherenschnitte by Stiehly would eventually come to light.

The discovery of the Stiehly scherenschnitte opened a new and exciting phase of the Mahantongo research. Stiehly’s son Jared (1833-1911) married Elizabeth Mayer (1826-1878), daugh­ter of one of the Mahantongo Valley’s two most significant furniture makers, on February 8, 1857. The union of these families was of great importance. According to family tradition, Jared Stiehly apprenticed with his father-in-law and specialized as a lathe operator, or turner. Family tradition holds that he was the turner of distinctive wooden spice cups, hallmarked by spiked finials, which were decorated by his wife.

In addition to tentatively identifying John Adam Rebuck as the maker of the early period Schwaben Creek Valley blanket chests and, with reasonable certainty, John Mayer and Johannes Braun as the principal makers of the exuberantly decorated Mahantongo Valley furniture, scholars have docu­mented other furniture makers working throughout the region.

Fraktur artist and furniture maker William Otto (1761-1841) lived in Hegins, not far from the Mahantongo Mountain, which forms the southern border of the valley. Otto made and decorated a blanket chest in 1812, now in the Smithsonian Institution, for his niece Anamarie Geres, and one in 1814 for his wife’s nephew John Kesler. Both Geres and Kesler lived near the foot of the Mahantongo Mountain. Otto made the first decorated chest of drawers for his son. The chest is vigorously grain-painted, emblazoned with “Jonathan Otto 1824,” “Mahantongo Taunschip” and “Schuykill Caunty den 17 tag April 1824” on center panels in three drawers. Despite the fact that this piece lacks the typical Mahantongo decorations, such as rosettes, hearts, tulips, or angels, its general appearance, molding, and turned feet place it well within – and possibly as the forerunner of – the entire body of Mahantongo Valley decorated bureaus.

Johannes Haas (1814-1856), a fraktur artist and furniture maker, lived in the valley’s Upper Mahantongo Township. He was a friend of Isaac Stiehly who officiated at his marriage to Brigitta DeLong in 1840, lettered and decorated his trauschein (wedding certificate), and carved his gravestone. With the exception of a spinning wheel in the private collec­tion, no furniture made by Haas has been positively identified. Besides Mayer, Braun, Otto, and Haas, many of the Mahantongo Valley’s farmers made furniture which was painted, but otherwise undecorated. One known piece, signed “Daniel Kieffer 1836,” was made by a local craftsman. According to area tax lists, a fairly large number of the valley’s farmers are also listed as carpenters or joiners, several of whom, too, might have been furniture makers.

Interest in the furniture of the Mahantongo Valley ignited nearly seventy years ago when Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, dealer A. H. Rice advertised a collection of eleven pieces for seventy-three hundred dollars in the December 1926 edition of The Magazine Antiques. Rice’s advertisement featured the famous Jacob Masser desk and the Peter Braun blanket chest, currently in the collections of the Dietrich Americana Foundation. Apparently unable to find a single buyer, Rice broke up the lot and sold pieces individually. Philadelphia collector George Horace Lorimer acquired several pieces over the years, which he ultimately gave to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. important pieces were also acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, and the Museum of American Folk Art.

Recent interest in the furniture was piqued by Frederick S. Weiser and Mary Hammond-Sullivan whose articles appeared in the May 1973 edition of The Magazine Antiques and in a publication issued by the Pennsylvania German Society in 1980. A major exhibition entitled “Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley,” installed in 1987 at the Center Gallery of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, proved to be the turning point in the scholarly interest in the Mahantongo Valley furniture and culture. During the exhibition’s run, a typical Mahantongo Valley chest of drawers sold for a record $72,500 at the auction house of Butterfield and Butterfield in San Francisco in November 1987. In January 1989, the world auction record for painted American antique furniture was tied at $203,500 at Weschler’s Auction Gallery in Washington, D. C., for a chest of drawers consigned by the estate of Mary Elizabeth Whitney Tippett. The bureau was discovered in superb, untouched condition with good wear and patina. With the publicity generated by such auction prices, interest in Mahantongo Valley furniture continued to accelerate. And it shows no sign of waning.

On Thursday, May 26, 1995, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Sotheby’s conducted an auction of Americana collected by the late Dr. and Mrs. Henry P. Deyerle of Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Deyerles’ collection included a magnificent Mahantongo Valley chest of drawers, retaining a hand­some deep reddish-brown patina, masterfully painted with pairs of birds, prancing reindeer, and hex signs, and stamped with flower heads. Few registered surprise as the chest was knocked down to the highest bidder for $211,500, a new auction record for a piece of Mahantongo Valley furniture!

Historians, as well as collectors and dealers, believe that the furniture of the Mahantongo Valley, despite its rarity, constitutes the largest body of documented antique American furniture. They use the term “documented” to mean that all pieces were made within a small, tight­-knit geographical area in which most of the makers, some of the decorators, and many of the original owners are known. As one studies the history, the topography, and the culture of the Mahantongo Valley, the fascination with this area becomes immediately apparent.

Decades after the introduction of modern, mass produced machine-made furniture, the old vibrantly painted cupboards, chests, and bureaus were relegated to attics, cellars, and barns, simply cast aside and forgotten. Sometimes they were rescued from oblivion, only to be completely repainted with heavy kitchen enamel, almost as if the “old-fashioned” bright colors and ornamentation were an embarrassment. Pieces that have survived with their original color and decoration intact are a salutary reminder of just how glorious was the folk artistry of these talented Pennsylvanians.


For Further Reading

Fabian, Monroe H. The Pennsylvania­-German Decorated Chest. New York: Universe Books, 1978.

Garvan, Beatrice B. The Pennsylvania German Collection. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

Garvan, Beatrice B., and Charles F. Hummel. The Pennsylvania Germans: A Celebration of Their Arts, 1683-1850. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

Horwitz, Elinor Lander. The Bird, The Banner, and Uncle Sam: Images of America in Folk Art. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1976.

Reed, Henry M. Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley. Lewisburg: Center Gallery of Bucknell University, 1987.

Robacker, Earl F. Pennsylvania Dutch Stuff: A Guide to Country Antiques. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944.

Shelley, Donald A. The Fraktur­-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans. Allentown: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1961.

Swank, Scott T., et al. Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.


Henry M. Reed of Montclair, New Jersey, served as guest curator of the 1987 exhibition at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, entitled “Decorated Furniture of the Mahantongo Valley.” This article has been adapted from the publication that accompanied the exhibition.