Mennonite Furniture: A Migrant Tradition (1766-1910)

Mennonite Furniture: A Migrant Tradition (1766-1910)

by Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen, John M. Janzen


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The group of Mennonites who eventually settled the plains states and provinces of North America developed a furniture tradition that reflected their values and the mid-1700s styles of the Vistula Delta. A century of life in South Russia brought few changes to the way they made their furniture and passed it on. Numerous pieces traveled with the immigrants to North America. Yet within 50 years after their arrival on the prairies, the tradition was almost lost.

Includes stunning color photographs along with black-and-white illustrations of surviving examples of this remarkable migrant tradition.

"A compelling, comprehensive treatment of a significant Mennonite cultural tradition." -- Dr. Scott T. Swank, Director, Canterbury (NY) Shaker Village

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781561480470
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 11/28/1991
Pages: 231
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 11.37(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

Themes in the Interpretation of an Immigrant Furniture Tradition

This book is a case study of the emergence, the florescence and the transformation of the domestic furnishings and related material culture of the immigrant Mennonites of the prairies of North America, in particular those of the United States.

Mennonites of the North American Plains, like Mennonites worldwide, are an Anabaptist community with spiritual roots in the left wing of the 16th century Reformation. This movement emerged from a desire to radically separate the congregation of believers from the dictates of the state, through the act of adult baptism. (The were called re-baptizers or "anabaptists.") The name "Mennonite" refers to followers of Menno Simons, a 16th century Netherlands priest, who became a leading figure among the Anabaptists for his emphasis on the congregation and on the doctrine of pacifist Christian witness. Anabaptist assumptions are at the historical basis of the modern separation of church and state, including the first amendment of the American Constitution.

For their beliefs the Anabaptist-Mennonites were severely persecuted, forced to flee, and even martyred. From their original homes in The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy, they scattered to places such as the Vistula Delta of Poland, Moravia, and the New World where they found a tolerant political environment and where they could believe and live according to their consciences.

This work follows the northern European path of Mennonite migrations, first eastward to Poland in the 16th century, still further eastward to Russia in the 18th century and westward to the Plains of North America in the 19th century. The time framework of 1766-1910 suggests by the book title is based on the earliest and the latest authentic pieces of furniture in the Plains corpus. The first is a spinning chair made in the Vistula Delta which was taken to South Russia and subsequently to North America. The second is a desk made by Peter Vogt of Inman, Kansas, for his daughter Nettie when, at the age of 16, she became a school teacher.

Furniture provides a unique material record of a way of life and a people. It may be presented as a medium with functions, forms, and aesthetic sensibilities in its own right. For a fuller understanding furniture may also be interpreted in terms of the layers of context which shape it: the domestic architecture in which it stands; the materials out of which it is made; the family institutions which shape the pattern of commissionings and inheritance; the broader economic patterns of varied tastes determined by class or grouping. Furniture may also serve as a mirror of the culture in which it is found -- a reflection of the sense of privacy, of domestic function, and of family organization. Because of the intricacy of the migration story behind this Mennonite furniture tradition, and the fact that the co-authors are an art historian and a cultural anthropologist, respectively, this work addresses the full range of presentations suggested.

The material culture represented by immigrant Mennonite furniture may be seen as a tradition that comes into being at a given point, persists for a time and then changes. As it is now understood, this furniture tradition crystallized in the period 1750-1800 in the Vistula Delta of northern Poland where Mennonites had lived from the 16th century. From there it was taken by late 18th and early 19th century emigrant groups to central Poland and South Russia. Finally, it was taken from all three locations to the Plains in the late 19th century (see Maps 1 and 2), as well as to other locations in the Soviet Union and the Americas.

The North American prairie Mennonite immigrant domestic furniture, although now an extinct tradition which is no longer made by craftsmen, continues to provide a kind of mirror of the conditions that prevailed at the time of the tradition's emergence 250 years ago. In a manner comparable to Jean-Louis Flandrin's work on 17th century French society, we believe furniture and the domestic layout offer a way "to rediscover the characteristics of family life in former times on the basis of what is known of the material environment."

The material record of pieces of furniture created over a period of 250 years and taken along at the time of migration, together with archival sources and oral traditions, may, like an archeological record of artifacts, reveal both the conditions at the time of the emergence of the tradition as well as the conditions of internal change and possible complete dissolution.

To "read" furniture and the domestic layout in an effort to understand the formative setting and its later dissolution, we must look at the ways in which the cognitive dimension of the tradition -- beliefs, concepts, aesthetic patterns, and principles -- interacts with or inspires the material dimension of the tradition -- the actual objects and the material conditions that go into the constructions and use of the object. Initially, the two dimensions or realms are often closely associated. However, over time the cognitive may change and come to be out of phase with the material tradition. Subtle changes or abrupt, drastic changes may then appear in the record of material objects. For example, the intricate construction and fine aesthetic sense in Mennonite dowry chests of 1800 reflect both the central role of the dowry as an institution in the society of the time and the high value that was placed on bringing together all of the material needs for the new household prior to the time of marriage. Later, on the plains of North America, the dowry as a chest-full of household items was replaced by readily available land which could be bought and sold and farmed to generate resources needed to furnish the household's goods. Thus the construction of new dowry chests came to an abrupt halt.


Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Table of Maps
Foreword and Acknowledgments
Themes in the Interpretation of an Immigrant Tradition

1. Mennonite Furniture in the Rituals of Daily Life

2. The Sources for a Vistula Delta Tradition

3. Making the Tradition Mennonite

4. Furnishing a New Home

5. The Migration of the Tradition

6. The Tradition Comes to America in Shipping Crates and in the Minds and Hands of Immigrant Craftsmen

7. Construction, Decoration, and Style

8. The Waning of the Tradition

9. Conclusions: Thoughts on Mennonite Aesthetic Identity

Appendix A: Mennonite Cabinetmakers and Painters
Appendix B: Kauffman Museum Inventory of Mennonite Immigrant Furniture
Appendix C: Jacob Adrian's Wood-Finishing Recipes
Notes for Text
Notes for Figure Captions
About the Authors

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