Cover image for Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America By Cynthia G. Falk

Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans

Constructing Identity in Early America

Cynthia G. Falk


$55.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03338-9

256 pages
8" × 9.5"
128 b&w illustrations
Co-published with the Pennsylvania German Society

Pennsylvania German History and Culture

Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans

Constructing Identity in Early America

Cynthia G. Falk

“This book—beautifully printed on high-quality paper and enhanced by excellent black-and-white photos and sketches—reflects the high quality of the material culture in the German areas of Pennsylvania. . . . Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans is worthy of acquisition by libraries, scholars, the general public, and collectors of antiques and art.”


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How did a mid-eighteenth-century group, the so-called Pennsylvania Germans, build their cultural identity in the face of ethnic stereotyping, nostalgic ideals, and the views imposed by outside contemporaries? Numerous forces create a group’s identity, including the views of outsiders, insiders, and the shaping pressure of religious beliefs, but to understand the process better, we must look to clues from material culture.

Cynthia Falk explores the relationship between ethnicity and the buildings, personal belongings, and other cultural artifacts of early Pennsylvania German immigrants and their descendants. Such material culture has been the basis of stereotyping Pennsylvania Germans almost since their arrival. Falk warns us against the typical scholarly overemphasis on Pennsylvania Germans’ assimilation into an English way of life. Rather, she demonstrates that more than anything, socioeconomic status and religious affiliation influenced the character of the material culture of Pennsylvania Germans. Her work also shows how early Pennsylvania Germans defined their own identities.

“This book—beautifully printed on high-quality paper and enhanced by excellent black-and-white photos and sketches—reflects the high quality of the material culture in the German areas of Pennsylvania. . . . Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans is worthy of acquisition by libraries, scholars, the general public, and collectors of antiques and art.”
“[Cynthia G. Falk] analyzes what kinds of objects were associated with people of German heritage of various ranks and religious denominations. . . . Students of sociology and ethnicity in our earliest years as a state and nation should find this volume of great interest and value. She raises points not usually seen in books about early years of German settlements in our state.”

Cynthia G. Falk is Assistant Professor of Material Culture at Cooperstown Graduate Program of SUNY Oneonta.


List of Illustrations



1 German or Georgian?

2 Industry, Economy, and Ignorance

3 From Awkwardness to Civility

4 Luxury

5 Changes and Choices

Appendix A: “An Account of the Manners of the German Inhabitants of Pennsylvania” (1789), Benjamin Rush

Appendix B: “Progress of Cultivation in Pennsylvania” (1792), Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville




In the late 1790s, while touring the Pennsylvania countryside, a French duke stopped to rest at Clements’s Tavern on the border between Montgomery and Bucks counties, not far from Philadelphia (fig. 1). According to the duke’s published narrative of his journey, the tavern keeper, Clements, was “of Dutch descent,” his grandfather having left Holland to start a new life in America many years earlier. During the course of the duke’s visit, Clements displayed what appeared to his aristocratic guest to be nothing more than an old andiron. To its owner, however, the fireplace implement was considerably more valuable than the antique metal from which it was made. The duke’s host explained that the andiron had belonged to his great-grandfather and was brought by his grandfather to the New World. As the duke informed his readers, “Clements sees in this old piece of furniture, which is displayed in his kitchen, a family monument, which makes him trace two hundred years of his genealogy.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from the duke’s brief account of his visit with Clements. The first is that people in the eighteenth century, as today, invested material goods with meaning. Objects served as symbols of otherwise intangible ideas, as the old andiron did of Clements’s heritage. The second is that the meaning attached to material culture was, and is, not fixed. The traveling aristocrat learned about the personal symbolism of the andiron by talking with his host, discovering that the warmth of the burning logs it once held was exceeded by years of warm memories held by Clements. Without that oral history, the duke would have seen the andiron as simply an old but useful household item. Today, if Clements’s andiron were to survive in a public or private collection, it would likely be given yet another interpretation, endowed with symbolism as an artifact of past technologies and lifestyles.

This project examines the meanings ascribed to buildings and belongings in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. It looks at how objects served as expressions of identity for one component of the population, namely, German immigrants and their descendants. I use the term “Pennsylvania German” to describe members of this group, although it is not one with which they or their contemporaries would have been familiar. And I use it to refer to immigrants to the colony or Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from the many German-speaking principalities of central Europe—who, in addition to the more representative Rhinelanders, included among their number Swiss, Bohemians, Alsatians, French Huguenots, and others—and their descendants who remained in the state. Focusing on this diverse group of early Americans, I examine the meaning of material culture both to those who created and used it and to the outsiders who observed them doing so.

In recent years, historians of early America have increasingly recognized the role objects played in self-definition in the years leading up to and immediately following the American Revolution. Before the Revolutionary War, T. H. Breen argues, the consumption of British imported goods—including paper and books, ceramic and pewter table and tea ware, and cloth for adorning beds, tables, and bodies—united American colonists and helped them define themselves in opposition to England. In the 1760s and 1770s, as Americans chose whether or not to boycott British manufactures, their consumer choices expressed their political views. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, focusing on domestically produced rather than imported goods, finds that objects from spinning wheels to decorative embroideries not only served to convey political meaning but also helped identify their makers and users according to their gender, wealth, education, skill level, cultural heritage, religious affiliation, and virtue. In the formative years of the United States, as these authors make clear, material culture, through its ability to foster personal identity, played a crucial role in bringing people together as well as in tearing them apart. It helped create an American identity, yet it also sustained divisions within the population.

Pennsylvania, with its ethnically and religiously diverse inhabitants, offers an ideal testing ground for determining the role of objects in creating affiliations and disaffiliations in late eighteenth-century America. Prior to 1776, more than eighty thousand men, women, and children from the German-speaking principalities of central Europe arrived in the city of Philadelphia. Many, but certainly not all, had come from the region surrounding the Rhine River and its tributaries. They left Europe as a result of population growth, natural disasters, wars, inheritance practices, high taxes, debt, and, occasionally, religious intolerance. During the early colonial period, the majority of the migrants traveled in family groups; single men became a larger percentage of the immigrant group as the century progressed. Although the European occupation of immigrants was seldom recorded, limited data indicate that in the early eighteenth century, fewer than two-thirds of the migrants were farmers, and that tradesmen were becoming increasingly common among immigrants by the end of the century. The proportion of professionals—merchants, clerks, accountants, and doctors—was also on the rise. Although the economic resources of immigrants varied from substantial to extremely meager, in the limited cases where statistical analysis is available, it is clear that the greatest proportion of immigrants had limited financial resources. Literacy rates among male immigrants, however, measured by the ability to sign one’s name, were high by eighteenth-century standards, ranging from 60 percent in the 1730s to almost 100 percent by the time of the American Revolution.

German immigrants and their descendants accounted for 50 to 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s population in 1760. By the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, roughly a third of the state’s population consisted of people of German ancestry. In some counties, such as Lancaster County, they accounted for almost three-quarters of the population. Although some of the immigrants who arrived in Philadelphia opted to settle outside the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, many stayed. In the early eighteenth century it was common for immigrants to acquire land outside the city, and by 1760 Germans had settled in large numbers in an area extending from present-day Northampton County to York County. Yet, as the century progressed, more immigrants stayed in urban centers, including not only Philadelphia but also Lancaster, York, and Reading. Complicating individual decisions about where to settle was the fact that many German immigrants arrived in Philadelphia as redemptioners who were unable to pay their own passage from Europe. Although the cost of the voyage could be covered by family members or acquaintances after arrival, as many as half of German immigrants were forced into periods of indentured servitude to pay for their travel and had to move to a location determined by their new employer. Regardless of this fact, at the close of the eighteenth century people of German descent tended to live near other Germans, especially in the countryside, and a distinct German region was widely recognized in the counties west of the city of Philadelphia.

Not surprisingly, the areas with the heaviest concentration of German settlement attracted the attention of curious outsiders seeking to discover what made the Germans—the largest group of eighteenth-century non-British European settlers in the colonies that would become the United States—distinct socially, politically, and materially. The region still attracts the attention of outsiders today. Yet as people have begun to study and write about Pennsylvania’s ethnic material culture, they have perceived a discrepancy between the documentary evidence provided by period commentators, particularly concerning Pennsylvania German distinctiveness, and the information encoded in actual objects. Reading an eighteenth-century source such as Benjamin Rush’s “An Account of the Manners of the German Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” it is difficult not to focus on the reported differences between the British and German residents of the commonwealth. An examination of surviving objects from the period clearly reveals, however, that the goods produced and used by members of the two groups were not always so distinct. In an attempt to explain the divergence, students of material cultures have tended to develop interpretations emphasizing the assimilation of German immigrants and their descendants to English ways.

This work offers a different perspective. Rather than treat ethnic heritage as the primary attribute affecting a person’s material possessions, I treat it as one of several factors that influenced the goods a person chose for him- or herself. In addition to ethnicity, characteristics such as social and economic status, religious affiliation, age, gender, familial status, occupation, place of residency, and length of settlement all had the potential to affect an individual’s choices about his or her possessions and physical surroundings. In this book, I look specifically at three attributes—ethnicity and European heritage, social and economic status, and religious affiliation and personal piety—to understand the influences on Pennsylvania German material culture. My comparison of the effect of these three personal characteristics suggests that the emphasis on the assimilation of German immigrants and their descendants has been overstated. In the eighteenth century, the material culture of individual Pennsylvania Germans was more overtly influenced by status than by ethnic identity. Grand houses and the activities that went on inside them were understood as tangible manifestations of “improvement,” a term that held financial, social, and even moral connotations. In interpreting material cultural as an expression of self, it was this sense of improvement, closely tied to a person’s rank rather than ethnic background, that played the prominent role.

Throughout this book, I consider material culture as a physical manifestation of personal identity, that is, as a means of defining self. As a result, I address how people of German descent used objects to express outwardly various aspects of their existence or experience. I do this by using the objects themselves as evidence. Throughout my work, material culture is defined broadly to include anything made, modified, or used by human beings. Much of my focus is on buildings, but I make every effort to analyze structures in their context by including information on both their site and the items found inside them. I treat buildings, particularly houses, as the physical settings where people lived their lives and as tangible evidence of how they wanted to portray themselves. As a result, my emphasis is on how spaces were used for work, sustenance, display, leisure, and other activities. While the artifacts themselves remain mute, the patterns of their use and disuse provide clues to the meaning eighteenth-century people of German descent bestowed on their physical surroundings.

Most of the buildings and eighteenth-century household objects included in this study are well known. Some former houses are now historic sites owned and operated by private nonprofit groups, which make them accessible to the public. Other buildings are held publicly by the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, or local municipalities. Many of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as part of districts, and a few, most notably the religious structures discussed in Chapter 4, have been designated National Historic Landmarks. Interior elements from three buildings, the David and Caterina Hottenstein house, the George and Magdalena Elizabeth Hehn house (better known as the later residence of Captain Conrad Kershner), and the George and Maria Caterina Müller house (the House of the Miller at Millbach), have been relocated to the Winterthur Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In addition to housing the Hottenstein, Hehn, and Müller architectural interiors, those museums are responsible for two of the most extensive Pennsylvania German collections in existence and have produced major publications on the artifacts they hold. Objects examined in this study include those in the collections of Winterthur and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as several other institutions, such as the Hershey Museum, the Moravian Historical Society, and the American Folk Art Museum. Yet despite their inclusion in publicly accessible collections, their meaning to their eighteenth-century makers, owners, and users is not completely understood. This work provides additional insight into how these artifacts of the past should be interpreted.

In studying how German immigrants and their descendants used objects to define themselves in relation to those around them, accounts of the decision-making process regarding the building of a house, the purchase of furnishings, the choice of color schemes, and the preparation of meals would be most helpful. Unfortunately, people rarely take time to record their feelings about their personal property in a medium that will survive for later generations. When studying the material culture of the not-so-distant past, much information can be uncovered through observation and interviews with living subjects. Although we do not have access to this kind of evidence for the material culture of eighteenth-century America, certain documents of the period can begin to provide similarly ethnographic information.

Some of the most enlightening written sources are those directly connected to the people and objects in question. Probate inventories, or lists of movable property and money owed a decedent at the time of death, and wills provide important insight into the monetary value and, occasionally, the cultural significance of some of the items included in this study. Other important sources of information are the date stones that were used to label the buildings themselves. Particularly on grand dwellings erected by Pennsylvania Germans in the late eighteenth century, original owners often included text in addition to the date of construction on the tablet that served to identify a house—and its inhabitants—to the outside world.

Sometimes date stones included scriptural or other spiritual passages written in the German language in fraktur, or the “broken lettering” of German script, as opposed to English roman characters, thus providing evidence of both ethnic background and religious conviction. The names of the original owners also appeared regularly. The use of German lettering, German spelling, and German grammar was common. It was also customary to include the names of both husband and wife. The date stones indicate that houses were shared architectural spaces during this period, despite a legal structure that presupposed male ownership during marriage and later cultural conventions that would relegate women to a separate sphere defined largely by the home. In the late eighteenth century, both Pennsylvania German men and women worked to fashion their houses, and in many cases both of their names were prominently displayed on the exterior of the building. This convention does not deny the patriarchal nature of eighteenth-century society or suggest that men and women had similar roles during the period, but rather demonstrates that most residences were neither exclusively male nor exclusively female places. As a result, when I refer to a house, I have made every effort to include the name of both the male and female householder. Unfortunately, the latter, if it was not emblazoned on a date stone, has often not been preserved in other types of sources either.

Apart from probate records and the date stones affixed to houses, the most accessible written sources about the meaning of the material culture of eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians were penned by outsiders, especially European visitors. In a few cases, like that of Clements and the duke, authors told their readers what an object meant to its male owner. More often, travelers and other observers interpreted goods from their own standpoint. As they toured an area, they pointed out buildings they felt were of particularly high or low quality. If they entered a house or tavern, they made notes about furnishings, food, and even articles of clothing that impressed them with their cost, condition, or another distinguishing attribute. The outsiders who observed the material landscapes created by Pennsylvanians of German descent drew conclusions about members of the group based on assessments of their personal belongings. Because the definition of “others” serves as an important corollary to self-definition, I examine their conclusions here as well.

There are clearly distinctions to be made between accounts produced by Pennsylvania Germans themselves and those of outsiders. In many cases, the written word cannot be taken at face value, and its meaning must be carefully assessed in the light of contemporary polemics. By thoughtfully studying documentary materials, however, we can achieve a more accurate interpretation of what these artifacts meant to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Germans than if we simply postulated what they might have meant based on modern concepts about how people must have understood the late eighteenth-century material landscape.

While evidence produced by Pennsylvania Germans and outsiders served different purposes and often reached radically different conclusions, both types of sources demonstrate the widespread belief that an individual’s ethnic background, social and economic status, and religious beliefs could all be encoded in his or her possessions. This work analyzes each of these three categories to ascertain what kinds of objects were associated with people of German heritage of various ranks and affiliated with different religious denominations. It reevaluates the importance of ethnic divisions in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania and finds that social and economic status, which during the period was often tied to issues of virtue and religiosity, was a paramount concern when it came to choosing a house and household furnishings. While ethnic attributes were often a noticeable part of Pennsylvania German dwellings, they were usually overshadowed in observers’ minds by characteristics related to the rank of the buildings’ occupants.

The first chapter of this book reviews the scholarship on Pennsylvania German material culture, particularly Pennsylvania German domestic architecture, of the eighteenth century. It examines the general tenor of late eighteenth-century written sources concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the German population in Pennsylvania and demonstrates how scholars working in more recent times adopted similar themes. In assessing the current state of the field of Pennsylvania German material culture studies, this chapter recognizes the pioneering work of twentieth-century fieldworkers who began the process of documenting artifacts of the past as well as the efforts of those who have more recently begun to expand our understanding of the intellectual complexity of the objects associated with Pennsylvanians of German descent.

In the second chapter I begin the process of unraveling the perceived relationship between ethnicity and material culture by examining the eighteenth-century accounts of outsiders. Using documentary sources, I describe just what period authors considered “German” and why they came to the conclusions they did. I argue that most authors’ comments had more to do with ongoing debates about the proper ordering of American society than with issues of ethnic distinctiveness. In the postrevolutionary period, as conflicting opinions developed about the relative merits of commerce versus agriculture and aristocracy versus democracy, Pennsylvania Germans as a group became an important illustration. On the basis of their material culture, authors on both sides of the controversy depicted the Pennsylvania Germans as industrious, but often thrifty and uninformed, farmers. Like their contemporaries who made generalized, value-laden statements about Native Americans and people of African descent, the authors who described the Pennsylvania Germans created a stereotype that served their own purposes but was not necessarily accurate. Their comments, which at best held true for a small proportion of Pennsylvania’s German population, were intended to be statements about the virtue of farmers generally, regardless of ethnic background. Rather than seeking to reflect accurately the reality of a very diverse national group, these authors were trying to create a serviceable example through their caricatures of Pennsylvania’s German population.

The third and fourth chapters of this work move from an analysis of outsiders’ constructions of Pennsylvania German identity to an account of how Pennsylvanians of German descent represented themselves. Chapter 3 shifts the terms of the discussion from the issue of ethnic identity to the issue of identity based on social and economic status. It focuses on how individual Pennsylvania Germans used the built environment to define themselves. This chapter supplements information provided by travelers and other late eighteenth-century authors with physical and documentary evidence about actual Pennsylvania German objects. It analyzes Pennsylvania German houses, which European travelers often criticized in an attempt to denigrate American farmers, within the context of late eighteenth-century regional domestic architecture.

While some features of Pennsylvania German dwellings from this period served as manifestations of ethnic background, the buildings were simultaneously part of a much larger process that linked personal and financial improvement with the physical improvement of property. Authors of the period associated certain kinds of “good” and “notable” houses with men and women of elevated social and economic standing. Although scholars have detailed how the construction of such buildings by affluent people of British descent corresponded with the rise of gentility and refinement, little attention has been paid to differences based on rank among Pennsylvania Germans. In this chapter, I demonstrate that genteel forms, such as so-called Georgian houses, crossed ethnic boundaries. They were primarily understood as expressions of status and were used by Pennsylvanians from various national groups. They allowed elite Pennsylvania Germans, for example, to forge unions with non-Germans of similar status and simultaneously distance themselves from subordinates of the same ethnic background.

Chapter 4 continues to explore the topic of Pennsylvania German self-representation by looking at the intersections between religious belief and material culture. It examines how religious ideals concerning the appropriateness of certain belongings and behaviors worked to both unite and divide Pennsylvania Germans. Moving from the realm of the individual to that of the religious community, this chapter analyzes the standards espoused by the members of the numerically dominant Reformed and Lutheran congregations, the Anabaptist “Plain” sects, such as the Mennonites and Dunkards, and atypical communal settlements, such as Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata and Moravian communities.

Like most people of British descent who lived in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century, most Pennsylvania Germans were Protestant in background. As the availability of specialized, often imported, goods associated with polite pastimes increased, a general apprehension about the rise of immoderation and luxury developed among members of most religious groups. Although American and European authors who debated the meaning of the term “luxury” often borrowed ideas from contemporary political rhetoric, including the proper relationship between Britain and her colonies, they also drew on the general religious tenor of the time. This was an era during which concerns about social organization and the economy were regularly tied to concepts of virtue and morality. Particularly among prosperous people of German descent, decisions about material belongings and the behavior associated with them had to strike a balance between high social status and Christian propriety. Most pious Pennsylvania Germans shared a desire to shun what they defined as superfluous and, therefore, ungodly.

Not all people of German descent, however, came to the same conclusion concerning what was and was not appropriate. Differences in religious belief, even among members of Protestant denominations, sometimes resulted in visible differences in the earthly realm. But Anabaptist groups, such as the Mennonites and Amish whom authors and tourism promoters have often touted for their traditions of simplicity, were not as different from Lutheran and Reformed German speakers in the eighteenth century as is often imagined. By the end of the eighteenth century, members of “Plain” religious communities may have worshipped in spaces that were not as churchlike and stylishly detailed as those of their Lutheran and Reformed counterparts, but outside the meetinghouse, clothing was the primary material indication of religious affiliation. The houses of individual Mennonites could be as large and assigned as high a monetary value as those owned and occupied by members of other religious communities. Pious Pennsylvania Germans from all denominations were known to build grand dwellings for their families. It was only at communal religious settlements, such as Ephrata and Moravian Bethlehem, that the physical environment was truly distinct. At these religious communities, the extremes of the material spectrum, which ranged from asceticism to cosmopolitan sophistication, were in evidence.

The concluding chapter of this work analyzes the influences of ethnic heritage, social and economic status, and religious belief on material culture by examining a number of late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania German objects that I purposely chose because they defy easy cultural categorization. In addition to so-called German-Georgian houses, I look at a communion set from a German Reformed church with components made in London, Cologne, and Philadelphia; a painted chest signed by its maker in both German script and English roman characters; and a ten-plate stove fabricated at Henry William Stiegel’s Elizabeth Furnace with a stylish Rococo cartouche containing a scene from Aesop’s fables. In summarizing my findings and presenting a model for interpretation, I encourage readers to appreciate surviving eighteenth-century Pennsylvania German material culture for its complexity of meaning. As our twenty-first-century lives attest, our choices about what we create, the items we purchase, and how we use our possessions can rarely be explained in terms of a simple either/or proposition.

While this project defines the term “Pennsylvania German” as encompassing both immigrants from the German-speaking principalities of central Europe and Pennsylvanians descended from them, there is good reason to believe that many of these people would not have solely defined themselves in terms of their national heritage. Although ethnic labels have long been applied to Pennsylvania Germans by outsiders, self-representation was a much more complicated process. Through their material possessions, Pennsylvania Germans created associations and dissociations with others that were grounded in several personal characteristics. Allegiances based on ethnic background were often overshadowed by those based on social and economic status and mingled with a sense of appropriateness based on religious conviction. This study cautions against accepting ethnic and racial categories, particularly those applied by nonmembers, as absolute, and it urges a greater recognition of the multifaceted contours of diversity in America. In defining self, as eighteenth-century Pennsylvania German material culture suggests, where one came from may not always have been as important as where one was going in this world and the next.