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

You shall not make unto yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heavens above or the earth beneath … (Exodus 20:4).

How can you have art when you cannot have “graven images?” The Harmony Society (1785-1905) believed in the literal truth of the Bible and followed all of the injunctions carefully, including the third commandment quoted above. Although deeply religious, they did not have a church in the modern sense and certainly had no symbols in their meeting house, not even a cross. The members did not allow themselves to be portrayed. When cameras were introduced they did not allow themselves to be photographed, with few exceptions. Their homes were bare, their dress without ornamentation, they drowned on aesthetic impulses, and yet they had Art (notice the capital “A”).

This type of experience is not uncommon in world history and one can turn to the art history of the Jewish and the Islamic worlds to see an intensive active art modeled on geomorphic and zoomorphic forms. The tradition in these instances was developed partly by a desire to decorate and enrich and partly by an intense intellectual activity. The Harmony Society had the intellectual activity but had no desire 10 decorate, so they arrived at an art from dif­ferent motives.

Harmonist art took several forms. We are going to concern ourselves with the type we will call “graphic art” in the case of the Harmony Society this is mainly pen-and-ink sketches with a wash filler, and the subjects are usually birds and flowers, but there are some architectural and engineering drawings and maps as well. The Harmonists also had an architecture of imagination, a well-developed idea of landscape design, a nascent sculpture, and an active and imaginative music. It is unfortunate that we cannot cover all of these latter themes here. One of our volunteers is developing an article on Harmonist music which will be printed in a later issue, and there has been quite a bit written on their architecture.*

Before photography, “sketching was taught in schools as a means of communication. Any well-educated person was expected to be able to sketch adequately, if not artistically, and to know the rules of perspective, line, form, etc. The Harmony Society, using the latest in educational theories (the Lancastrian) naturally taught sketching to at least some of their students. As in all other art forms, the students were confined to flowers and birds, all presented pretty much In a two-dimensional view. They never strayed from the single medium of the Society which was an ink outline filled in with wash colors.

The students were not expected to have many ideas of their own but were taught the principles by copying existing objects. This was the standard method of the day. What is interesting to one who is a curator is that they often used the stuffed birds in the museum as subjects. From the few sketches that survived, we can get a pretty fair idea of what was in the museum and how the birds were mounted. The Harmonists always had a collection and developed a museum in 1827 which survived until 1853. The Harmony Society Museum was the first of its kind in the Pittsburgh area. They had many works of art in the collection but members never seemed inspired to emulate the art they could see on the museum walls. They stuck to their birds and flowers.

The members of the Harmony Society gave up their individuality when they joined the Society and this was carried over to their art. Practically nothing is signed. The only sketch actually signed was made by Gertrude Rapp (1808-1889) and is signed only with her initials “G. R. FE[CI]T … 1821” when she was thirteen years old. We can identify one other artist quite easily as we call him the “artist of the broken-backed humming bird.” He is Gottfried Wallrath Weingartner (1795-1873), who used the poor birds in several other drawings.

Weingartner’s one great work is a manuscript ornithology called “Ornithology or the Natural History of the Birds of the United States . . . 1829.” It is difficult to decide whether Weingartner saw these in the museum or in some ornithology, but the drawings are lively and lifelike. It is this book, carefully signed, that has the original of the broken-backed humming birds that appear in other Harmonist works. The broken-backed humming bird appears on one of the few pieces of fraktur we have.

This is more of a penmanship exercise and is a “Tribute to Friendship” from “GB” (George Bentel Jr.?) to “GR” (Gerturde Rapp?). Since Weingartner’s penmanship tended to be a little coarse, I suspect that he drew the birds and the mysterious GB drew the design. Another signed object is the inside lid of a bandbox used to hold lace-making tools. It has two eagles in a heraldic pose. Perhaps these eagles came from coins? It is by “E.W.” (Elizabeth Wolfangel) who otherwise does not appear in our records. A similar motif is on a mirror enrichment attributed to Gertrude Rapp. This has the two eagles separated by a rose (of Sharon) tree entwined with grapes, surely one of the most common motifs in American-German folklore. The last piece of any merit is the cover from an account book be­longing to Frederick Rapp with the symbol of industry, the beehive. Perhaps it is by the same hand as the piece of fraktur mentioned above.

Another impulse that inspired the brothers and sisters of the Harmony to art was their religious commitment. We get only a glimmer of this in their writing, but their devotion was intense. It is hard to realize how intense this devotion was until we see the Granary at Old Economy or New Harmony that was built to hold enough grain to get them through the first year of the millennium. People capable of doing that were not mild in their enthusiasm. They led very plain outward lives, but their inward ones were of joy bordering on ecstasy. This was in contrast with the world’s opinion of them as dull dull dull. This joy was reflected in their drawings in the front of their manuscript hymn – and songbooks.

A whole new world opens before our eyes when we look at these plain little leather-bound books. Beautiful flowers and expressive forms in bright colors leap out of the page. The books, with their plain outsides and bright insides, are very much like the members of the Harmony Society themselves. With only two major exceptions all of the book illus­trations are on the fly or title page of the book, and the only thing illustrated, is flowers, both real and imaginary.

The flowers are often framed in an ellipse-shaped losange that is formed with three focii. In architecture, an arch of this shape would be called a “basket arch” and indeed that is the arch the Harmonists used in their architecture.

We know little about the originators of this interesting hidden art form as none is signed. We assume that many people drew their own but some appear to be by the same head. It would be interesting to know more about the impulse that directed this unusual art form.

The farm women who made up the distaff side of the Society came from a culture that deemed every idle mo­ment not only wasted, but dedicated to the devil. A great deal of the German farm women’s spare time was taken up in needlecrafts. When these women joined the Society this was not changed, but directed more toward commu­nity benefit than toward family. Not only this. many of the women were freed from housework and while today we would not consider ten hours spent in the cotton mill as liberation, back then they did – they had more leisure time. With this new freedom, their old skills. and the religious impulse, they turned out many an item that would be considered creative, if not art, today. Unfortunately, few of these survive. We have some pieces of crewel embroidery on paper. One has a deep religious theme written in beautiful Swabish script in the center. However, these are on very poor quality paper and that probably accounts for the few survivals. We know they made lace, but none survives that we can identify. Each woman stitched her initials in neat little cross-stitches on her underclothing so it would not get mixed up with that of others in the laundry. Although the men and women did not blaze on the inside as their hymnbooks did, the women did wear bright scarves on occasion, as we have a number in our collection. These were woven by the members of the Society themselves. We have one collar pattern meant to be done in crewel that we have copied, and it ls well-designed and bright. It is unfortunate that clothing is worn out and discarded as this area of domestic art would be the most interesting of all if we only had more examples. The few we have show the richness that was once there.

Decorative arts have often been described as those which are too good to discard and not good enough to be art. The smith and carpenter of the Harmony Society made many things which, if made by the Shakers, today would be con­sidered extremely aesthetic or even art. Looking around the grounds of Old Economy, we can find many a door scraper, lock, latch, chair or table that is extremely well-designed.

Although the members of the Harmony Society were not aesthetic people and in fact, emphasized strength and plainness, It was more from lack of interest than lack of talent. When called upon, they could turn out very respect­able art forms as many of the examples in our collection show.

Another force impelling them to create an artistic form was the need for surveys, maps, plans, and mechanical drawings. Frederick Rapp, who is credited with being the architect for the Society, took a surveying course at one point in his career, as did Johannes Rapp (1783-1812). Frederick Rapp was one of the committee that laid out the city of Indianapolis and it is said there was once a manu­script map by him of that town, perhaps the first. At this time we have in our collection only two town plans by Harmonists, both by Wallrath Weingartner, and both are more on the order of reminiscences than actual maps: These are of the two Harmonys and both were made in the 1830s, perhaps to keep the Society’s memories of their former towns intact. They are not so well executed as many of Weingartner’s works but are carefully signed, which is unusual. We have many anonymous maps of surveys of several holdings of the Society.

The two Weingartner maps are both maps and drawings of the town. Although the ground features are laid out in plan, the buildings are shown in elevation. This is interesting as many of these buildings no longer exist and the drawings, although small, are very accurate. This method of making maps was popular until about 1800.

Some of the best imaginative work by the Harmony Society is in their architectural drawings. These all seem to be by the same hand and are all the usual ink drawings with portions tinted by a wash. It is hard to say whether these are meant to be plans for projected buildings or are drawings of existing buildings. They appear to be both. Some of the most imaginative works are of the 1822 Meeting House in Harmony, Indiana. The drawings show six or eight different interiors, trying many different seating plans. There is a similar situation for plans for a building similar to the Great House at Economy in which several different floor plans are tried for essentially the same building. There were several rather exotic baroque buildings drawn, perhaps as trials for the Meeting House here. The most exotic one of all with a series of elaborate strong-courses up a huge tower, had a floor plan that was eventually used in the Meeting House as it was built at Econ­omy. Despite the elaborate plans, a rather conventional building was erected in 1828-31. This building still stands.

Although there are two elaborate garden houses still standing at Old Economy, one exotic structure was drawn with a tapering cylindrical roof and elaborate finials on the corners. This could be called a sort of oriental or Egyptian building. A building of the same size, complete with finials, was eventually built in 1831, but it was more or less in the conventional Italianate genre of the day. There are two drawings of mazes, one of them evidently an “as built” drawing. The Harmonists had mazes at all of their com­munities.

Some of their architectural drawings are of their factories and machinery. There is one large cotton mill which, ff built, would have been equal to anything built in New England. However, most of these types of drawings are of more conventional buildings and one gets the impression that they are actually buildings by the Society.

Although most of these technical drawings were mere working drawings, the attempt to actually draw the building or object in such a plan raised several of them to art-like structures, if not art.

No one of the Harmony Society, even the gifted Wallrath Weingartner, was ever allowed to make art an occupation, but many of the Society tried their hands at it in moments of leisure. The concept of it as art for art’s sake was com­pletely subjected to the concept of it as communication. They were under no pressures to conform to any worldly standard. The standards of their own community suppressed the type of individual creative impulse that produces great art. There were no demands to refine it, but in several in­stances it reached a respectable level of artistic creation and gives us an insight into a hidden aspect of their per­sonalities.

 

* For their architecture, see Charles M. Stotz, Architectural Heritage of Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh: UniversitY of Pittsburgh Press, 1966). 193ff, and “Threshold of the Golden Kingdom: The Village of Economy and its Restoration,” Winterthur Portfolio 8, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1973), 133ff. For the other art Impulses of the Harmony SocietY, see Paul H. Douglas, “The Material Culture of the … Harmony Society,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, George Washington University, 1973, and Hilda A. Kring, The Harmonists: A Folk-Cultural Approach (Mutchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973). See Kring and Douglas for many other sources on Harmonists art. The only source on music is Richard D. Wetzel, Frontier Musicians .. . (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Press, 1976).

 

Daniel B. Reibel is Curator of Old Economy Village, Ambridge.