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

It’s been misidentified. Misunderstood. Misnamed. Mistreated. And mistakenly misla­beled by leading antiques dealers, knowledgeable collec­tors, magazine writers and curators of prestigious museums and institutions. Tt’s the little known, rarely encountered, but extremely important decorated furniture of Soap Hollow in southwest­ern Pennsylvania.

To cognizant connoisseurs of antique American furniture, the recently “re-discovered” nineteenth century pieces­ – known for their stenciled and decaled decorations and prominent makers’ signa­tures – are prizes of a raging revival of interest and appreci­ation.

Much of the misunderstood furniture has been termed “Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” by experts, but Johnstown is actually located in adjacent Cambria County – not Somer­set County where the quiet valley of Soap Hollow lies. Most researchers have identi­fied Soap Hollow as a village or small town. It is neither. Instead, Soap Hollow is a little valley at the foothills of Chest­nut Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. Little more than three miles long and two miles wide, Soap Hollow – from Schmier Seife Durch, a German designation meaning “Soft Soap Hollow” for the once prevailing cottage soapmaking industry – is located in the northern section of Somerset County’s Conemaugh Township.

Northern Conemaugh Township was settled about 1765-1768 by the Amish and in 1790 by the Mennonites. In 1767, Christian Blauch, Jr., and his wife, Magdalena Bender, settled in nearby Stoney Creek Glades, becoming the first Mennonites who traveled from eastern Germanic communi­ties in Lebanon and Lancaster counties to settle in the region. Their grandson, Christian C. Blauch, was one of the Soap Hollow furniture makers a century later.

Somerset County was hacked out of Bedford County on April 17, 1795, and Conemaugh – from an Indian term for “long fishing place” – was formed in Febru­ary 1801 out of a section of Quenmahoning Township. The entire area was only officially opened to settlement by the family of William Penn two decades before, on February 23, 1769.

From the settlement of Schmier Seife Durch through today, ninety percent of the population is Mennonite while fourth generation descendants speak a Pennsylvania German (or “Pennsylvania Dutch”) dialect. In fact, many school children had to be taught to speak English, and the Stahl Mennonite Church, the only church in Soap Hollow, regularly conducted services in German until 1939. Today, about eighty-five percent of the residents speak a dialect they call “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

The Amish began leaving the area shortly after the Civil War and most were gone by the turn of the century. The last regular service conducted in the Kaufman Amish Meeting House took place in 1915, and the last meeting occurred the following year for Jacob Kaufman. In 1917, the building was demolished.

The Amish migrated to “Big Valley” in Mifflin County and to the states of Ohio and Indiana. Those that remained were accepted into the Stahl Mennonite Church. In 1916, a Saturday morning service was dedicated to preparing them for acceptance into the Mennonite Church. Of the participants, some joined the Kaufman Mennonite Church. It was several craftsmen of the hollow, some descendants of the earliest settlers, who made the wonderfully decorated furniture whose history, until now, has been muddled by misdirected scholars and experts.

But what makes this body of furniture so significant that major pieces – even after incongruous twentieth century painting and redeco­ration – sell for thousands of dollars at estate auctions? What makes it so important that astute institutions -­ including the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, which owns four pieces -­ eagerly search out the unusual furniture of Soap Hollow? And what makes the furniture so distinctive that both antiques collectors and dealers can recognize it at a glance?

The furniture of Soap Hollow is as unusual and distinctive in its own way as the famous Mahantongo Valley or Schwaben Creek Valley furniture. The most popular of the two styles, the furniture crafted in the Mahantongo Valley, a ribbon­like ravine in the Blue Mountains of Northumberland and Schuylkill counties, is recognized by four types of decorations: a name, date and floral motif; columns of crosses, with a “feathering” of initials and numerals; flowers and birds within arched panels; and simulated wood graining and narrow painted panels. Mahantongo Valley artists favored decorations of birds, stars, hearts and flower­ets for their chests, chests of drawers, cupboards and desks. While Mahantongo Valley furniture can be attrib­uted to the period between 1798 and 1827, and Schwaben Valley pieces from 1827 to 1834, the furniture of Soap HoUow was produced primar­ily between 1845 and 1874. Pieces, however, are known to have been made through 1895.

Perhaps the most distin­guishing hallmark of Soap Hollow is the ways in which the pieces were signed. The makers – lead by John Sala, considered the patriarch of Soap Hollow furniture (often called Sala furniture by older residents) – prominently stenciled their names or initials, preceded by the words “Manufactured by” or the letters “MF” (for manufac­tured by). Rather than follow the traditional practices of signing the furniture in less conspicuous places, such as the bottoms of plank chairs or the backs of chests, the Soap Hollow makers boldly placed their marks on the fronts and sides of larger pieces. Not all makers signed their names, nor are all pieces signed. A miniature blanket chest inscribed with “M F by PKT” identifies the craftsman as Peter K. Thomas, probably the most productive furniture maker in the shortest period of manufacture. Space limitation was certainly not a factor in using the initials; Christian C. Blauch emblazoned a large blanket chest with “MF by C CB” in the center above the skirting.

Jeremiah Stahl was the identified maker to stray from the typical Soap Hollow signa­tures. On the only known set of six plank chairs, all of which were hand painted and not stenciled, Stahl inscribed the underside of the seat with “J H Stahl Maker Warranted.” From all available indications, it appears that all Soap Hollow plank chairs were hand decorated.

Between 1845 and 1874 few changes occurred in the production and appearance of the furniture. Both decorative arts students and experts have characterized the earliest pieces as country Sheraton, but Jeremiah Stahl, by adding a slight swell at the top of a chest, offered a transition to the popular Empire style. Fellow craftsmen eventually copied Stahl’s styling for furniture produced between 1870 and 1895.

Between 1845 and 1874, keyhole escutcheons were inlaid. The earliest knobs, made of sandwich-type glass, were beginning to be replaced by porcelain pulls about 1860; within ten years, porcelain pulls completely replaced glass knobs. Stencilling­ – although not a new form of decoration during this three decade period, and an uncom­mon practice throughout the country – was employed heavily by the furniture makers of Soap Hollow.

Patriarch John Sala also favored decals and passed on this penchant to his furniture­-craftsmen sons, John M. and Joseph. The Sala family decaled stands, cupboards, chests of drawers, even picture frames. Decals included sprigs of flowers, floral arrangements, individ­ual fruits and baskets of fruits. One cupboard-strikingly emblazoned with forty-one decals, not to mention the fifty-eight stenciled designs-­ bears a decal of a pretty woman. A chest of drawers made by Jeremiah Stahl is decorated with decals, but this remains the only Soap Hollow piece not manufactured by the Salas to incorporate decals in the decoration.

The Soap Hollow craftsman used whatever woods were available to them: cherry, walnut, maple, hickory, chest­nut, poplar and pine. They dovetailed and morticed joints and secured them with wooden pins. Wooden wedges were sometimes inserted to secure tightness in construc­tion. Square head nails secured drawer bottoms and guides, as well as scroll splash backs, but wooden screws were also used. Jeremiah Stahl occasionally fashioned raised panels and the Sala brothers chose reeded end panels for a major piece. Chests of drawers always featured a scroll splash back while all cupboards were fitted with quarter-turned pilasters. Blanket chests usually bowed above the front skirt and rested on bracket­-type feet.

John Sala the patriarch, Christian C. Blauch and Tobias Livingston used a traditional buttermilk red paint and sometimes a deep maroon with a medium brown or black graining. Scrolled splash backs, end panels and feet of chests of drawers were usually painted black, but the painting and graining (as well as stenciling) of blanket chests widely varied. Jeremiah Stahl and Peter K. Thomas favored vivid reds and, in several instances, used a bright Chinese vermilion. Stahl also employed a distinctive green that he occasionally used. By the later period of Soap Hollow furniture, from 1870 to 1895, the maroon became markedly darker while the black graining grew more intense. The graining itself even grew fancier. Yellow striping appeared around drawers and carved wooden escutcheons or thin brasses replaced the earlier inlays. Only the dates and initials remained in stenciling.

But who were these marvelous makers of this distinctive furniture?

According to available evidence, nine men are known to have manufactured the distinctive furniture. Of these individuals, six produced pieces which can be documented through their unusual signatures and prove­nance. Two were the sons of the patriarch, John M. (1855-1932) and Joseph (1847-1912), both born and raised in Conemaugh Township. The ninth individ­ual, although identified, has neither been confirmed by signed examples nor by prove­nance.

The patriarch John Sala (1819-1882) is believed to have been, with his parents, among the area’s earliest settlers. In addition to farming several acres of land, he kept a fairly large orchard, made coffins and served as the local undertaker. His handmade cradles, cupboards, two-drawer worktables, miniature chests of drawers, blanket chests and large chests of drawers span three decades, from the 1840s through the 1860s. He taught several of the men the art of furniture making and general carpentry.

Christian C. Blauch (1828-1899), a native of Conemaugh Township, learned the trade from John Sala but later turned to truck farming. He also maintained a large vineyard. Blauch (now commonly spelled Blough) manufactured six-board blanket chests and chests of drawers, the signed pieces of which date in the 1850s.

Born in Conemaugh Township, Jeremiah Stahl (1830-1907) left his house and adjacent carpentry shop in 1880 and moved near Bowne, Michigan. Absence of records and furniture indicate that he probably did not make furni­ture after leaving the state. His stands, cradles, chests of drawers and blanket chests are easily recognizable by their bright colors, especially vermilion, aJ,d their extensive stenciling. His last known piece was dated 1874.

Considered the most productive maker in the least amount of time, whose works span a brief four year period from 1861 to 1865, Peter K. Thomas (1838-1907) painted much of his furniture in vivid reds and decorated his pieces with extensive stenciling. Known to have made stands, miniature chests, cupboards and chests of drawers, he moved to Bowne, Michigan, in 1867. In the Michigan census for the years 1870 and 1880, he is identified as a carpenter, but no records exist confirming his furniture making upon moving to Michigan.

Other than knowledge of his occupation as a farmer and his having made one chest of drawers, little is known about Conemaugh Township native John K. Livingston (1842-1917). In fact, the only known year in which he produced the chest is 1874.

Much like John K. Livings­ton, little is known about Tobias Livingston (1821-1891), except that he was a carpenter and farmer. In fact, the only known piece by him is an 1853 chest of drawers made for a Rachel Anstead whose family lived in a log cabin along what is now known as the Old Somerset Pike. Near his homestead was a wood­working shop which was later used by John M. Sala.

The sons of the patriarch were both farmers, but Joseph, in addition to making furniture, also conducted funerals and manufactured coffins. John M. also painted and helped his brother in the funeral business which he took over in 1912 and operated until sometime in the 1920s. In 1917 John M. handcrafted collection plates for the Stahl Mennonite Church. Unfortu­nately, it is impossible to discern which brother made which piece.

Most of the history of Soap Hollow’s unique furniture and its makers has been lost during the last century, but the known one hundred and seventy-five identified pieces attest not only to the nineteenth century handicraft, but to the rich legacies left by the patriarch and his follow­ers. It is rare that the early settlers of southwestern Pennsylvania desired pieces crafted and decorated in their own tradition, particularly because inexpensive, mass-produced furniture could be purchased in Pittsburgh and nearby communities. But, thankfully, it is good fortune that avid collectors and institu­tions are continuing their quest for the unusual pieces, guarantying that these remnants of a lost – but remarkable – colony and culture will delight and educate generations to come.

 

For Further Reading

Brendlinger, Edna V. and Robert B. Myers, “It’s Not Johnstown … It’s Soap Hollow.” Ohio Antiques Review 6 (October-November 1980): 37-42.

Fales, Jr., Dean A. American Painted Furniture 1660-1880. New York: Dutton, 1972.

Kauffman, Henry J. Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art. New York: Scribners, 1964.

Kovel, Ralph and Terry. Ameri­can Country Furniture, 1780-1875. New York: Crown Publishers, 1965.

Lichten, Frances. Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania. New York: Scribners, 1946.

Made in Western Pennsyl­vania: Early Decorative Arts. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1982.

Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1965.

Trice, II, Harley N. “Decorated Furniture of Soap Hollow, Somer­set County, Pennsylvania.” The Magazine Antiques 123, 5 (May 1983), 1036-1039.

 

Edna V. Brendlinger, with forty-five years experience as an antiques dealer, and Robert B. Myers, in the business for twenty-one years, formed a partnership fifteen years ago. In 1973, they spied their first piece of Soap Hollow furniture and, since purchasing the unusual chest of drawers, they have spent the ensuing twelve years interviewing area residents and descendants of the furniture makers. Their research has formed the basis of several scholarly articles. To date, they own one-third of the one hundred and seventy-five known pieces of the unique furniture. Both authors reside in Johnstown, about seven miles north of the settlement.