Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Life is Pretty Sweet Beyond the Maple Trees

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

On February 21, Landis Valley and the Backyard Fruit Growers will be hosting the February Workshops, a set of four classes, taught by experts, on various intermediate- to high-level gardening topics.  These include:  Restoring the American Chestnut; Soil, Carbon, Gardening and Agriculture – the Rest of the Story; Apple Pruning Basics; and An Introduction to Making Maple Syrup.  I plan on attending this year, but choosing a topic to take will be difficult as all are interesting and, surprisingly, all are pertinent to a person with a small plot of land like me.

Even syrup production. This flabbergasted me, since sugar is difficult to produce on a small, artisanal scale, especially if one is allergic to bees, lives too far north for cane or sorghum, and doesn’t have acres for corn or decades to wait for maples to reach maturity.  What I have are some black walnut trees, some very mature maples, and a bunch of maple saplings that just won’t die.

Other years, I’ve looked at these and sighed.  This year, after hearing about research being done in intensive vacuuming techniques on young saplings and expansion into black walnut tapping, plus some of the great things you can do with the ever-versatile apple, I’m a little more excited.

In an experiment aimed at learning more about maple sap flow under vacuum pressure, researchers Tim Perkins and Abby van den Berg chopped off the top of a young maple tree, sealed it with a plastic bag, and attached a vacuum hose to it.  Not expecting anything revolutionary, they were pleasantly surprised when the tree produced sap long after the researchers predicted that the sap flow would stop.  “The only explanation was that we were pulling water out of the ground, right up through and out the stem,” Perkins said in the article, “Remaking Maple,” published by the University of Vermont and written by Joshua E. Brown.  Brown likened it to sucking water through a sugary straw.

The potential in this discovery is a much more intensive maple syrup production method, called plantation production, where producers could yield up to 400 gallons of syrup from 6,000 chest-high saplings on one acre.  What it means for me is that those chest-high maple saplings in my yard are on the chopping block.

Now, those maples are Norway maples, which don’t produce as much as sugar maples do, so I may have to supplement with something else.  Enter the black walnuts.

Black walnuts are another type of sap-producing tree that are prevalent in our section of the country.  Landis Valley’s millstone grove is lined with them (at right).  They, as well as their much-rarer cousins, butternuts (white walnuts), can be tapped in much the same way as maples are tapped now.  They produce a sweet syrup with a nutty taste and this is often combined with maple syrup in maple/walnut flavored products such as ice cream.  According to the article, “Move over maple syrup: Researchers in Syracuse are tapping walnut trees (and a birch),” Cornell University researchers are testing whether black walnut syrup can be a commercial crop, with small stands along streets and in parks and college campuses being tapped (with permission).  No mention was made of plantation syrup production from these types of trees.

Another source of sugar and/or syrup, one often overlooked, is cider.  Farm manager Joe Schott and his family made a batch of it at Harvest Days this fall and it was absolutely delicious—mildly sweet and full of cider-y flavor.  After pressing apples grown at Landis Valley, the thin cider was boiled in a small, uncovered copper pot over a fire until it reached the consistency of syrup.  Schott said that the boiling time would depend on the amount of water in your apples and how much cider you start with, but the amount in the demonstration took an afternoon to boil down.  My small plot of land could grow one or more apple trees, especially if I grafted multiple varieties onto one rootstock or they were carefully pruned in espalier form, with their branches trained to go out and up.

Classes at Landis Valley open up a whole new world of farming, gardening, craft and trade techniques, ones that were often used for centuries but are only being recently re-discovered.  As land prices rise and people look to local, native, heirloom foods they can grow and produce themselves, revitalized and re-vamped farming methods will increasingly apply to the small-scale farmer/gardener.  My small corner of the world is looking a little more productive now.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Thank God for the Moravians

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

Thank God for the Moravians, because if they had not settled in Pennsylvania, Christmas would not be nearly as rich in custom.  Yes, we have many customs that come to us from the Lutherans, as well as the Reformed, Episcopalians, and Catholics, but some of our most precious Christmas traditions came from this group of evangelists whose mission was to spread Christianity to the far reaches of the globe.

In a time when the Quakers and Mennonites surrounding their communities observed Christmas as a solemn holy day, the Moravians rejoiced, coming together as a large family and celebrating the birth of the Christ Child.  Below are some interesting facts about Moravain customs:

  • Lovefeast:  Because Christmas was a joyful occasion for them (unlike the Quakers, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and the Pennsylvania German sect people), they held a "Lovefeast," where, amidst bright beeswax candles, members of the congregation mingled and feasted on cakes called streisslers and coffee, tea or chocolate.  The joyful mood was enhanced by music and facilitated the purpose of the feast:  forgiveness of the past year's sins and love for one another.  This feast of forgiveness is not just held on Christmas Eve, though.  Moravians and other denominations have Lovefeasts on other important dates, such as Good Friday and the dates that their congregations were established.  The Christmas Lovefeast is well-known, though, as it draws many visitors from outside denominations.

  • The Moravian Star:  This symbol of the birth of Christ started out as a geometry lesson for young boys at the Neisky Moravian School for boys in Saxony, Germany.  It was quickly adopted by the Moravian Church and hangs from the first Sunday of Advent until Epiphany (January 6).  Points on these stars range from six to over 100, but the traditional star has 26.  Bethlehem's 20-feet diam. 91-feet tall star, was first lighted in 1939 by 280 50-watt lamps and was the tallest individual electrical display in the world at the time.  Now, it is lit with 254 LED lights.

  • The Christmas Pyramid:  Alfred Shoemaker describes this one best, in his book, Christmas in Pennsylvania: “Christmas pyramids were four-sided frame structures (pyramid shaped, as the name correctly implies), some two to three feet in height.  Placed on tables, they served as a Christmas decoration, being loaded down with cookies, candies, and all sorts of fruit.  Christmas pyramids, incidentally, have a long history in northern and eastern Germany.”  Vangie Roby Sweitzer quotes the Bethlehem Diary in her book, The Moravian Christmas Putz:  Bethlehem Moravians Tell the Story of the Birth of Christ:

    "Dec. 25, 1747: Early in the morning, right after they got up, we gave our little children in the children's home a surprise, and made them a lovefeast in memory of the Jesus child and his birth in the stable. For that purpose, a few small and large pyramids [the early Moravian version of a Christmas tree] were made with greenery, which were all beautifully laden with lights, and the biggest ones were also decorated with apples and nice verses."

  • The Putz: Pronounced like "foots," this is a Moravian take on smaller creche scenes that only feature the holy family. They trace their origins to St. Francis of Assisi, who used the creches, or presepio, to explain the Nativity to the illiterate. Because they were labeled as "graven images" in the Reformation, they were thrown out of the churches. They survived in homes, though, and thrived in the mountainous areas of Germany. Creche figurines were carved by skilled tradesmen and in these isolated places that straddled the Polish/Czech border, the Moravians adopted the custom of building their elaborate scenes. Within the verse quoted above, the writer also describes one of the first putzes, built in 1747 in Bethlehem:

    "There was also a stable of Bethlehem with the ox and the donkey as well as with the shepherds to whom the good news of his birth was first brought..."

    Moravian putz-building has grown since then and neighboring Lititz has an impressive one. According to the Lititz Moravian Church's website, "A diorama 16' long and 6' deep, it depicts the Judean countryside with Bethlehem and the nearby stable as a central scene. On the hillsides are other scenes relating to the coming of the Christ child. On one hill is the Prophet Isaiah whose Old Testament prophecy spoke of a new King form the House of David. Other scenes include the angel's visit to Mary, shepherds in field near Bethlehem, Wise Men coming over the hills from afar, and the scene of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt." Admission to this putz is free and is worth seeing.

    Landis Valley's rather unique putz can trace its origins to an idea floated by staff band board members Cindy Kirby-Reedy, Beth Leensvaart, and Rick Brouse. They wanted to expand the Pennsylvania German Christmas traditions, but didn't want to link it directly to one church (we are owned by the Commonwealth, after all). Rick came up with the idea to build scale models of some of our buildings that could be set within a winter scene. Cindy and Beth ran with the idea and, in 2006, the putz was born. Using Rick's architectural experience, the three build five scale models, each with intricate detail. Though the putz was discontinued for a few years, it has seen a revival thanks to a writing intern (this gal!) who happened to have some artistic talent, as well as some willing and very able friends and family.
Though they are not officially Pennsylvania Dutch, Landis Valley respects the Moravian contributions to Christmas by featuring the delicate paper stars on some of our Christmas trees, as well as crafting our elaborate putz, housed during December in our Education Building. We also welcome the Lititz Moravian Trombone Choir to our Holiday at Landis Valley Bonfire every year. Come see our display of Pennsylvania German (and some Moravian!) customs at Country Christmas Village, Saturdays, December 6 & 13, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays, December 7 & 14, from noon to 4 p.m.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Postcard from America to Landis Valley: Mt. St. Helens

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

Take a look at the mountain in the picture. It’s a typical snow-capped peak, with a lush forest at its feet and a clear sky above—nothing abnormal.  If the title of the image didn’t state, “Mount St. Helens, Washington,” one would think that it was just another massif looming above the landscape.

According to the USDA Forest Service, on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 in the morning, the vista changed forever as a magnitude 5.1 earthquake caused the most massive landslide in recorded history:  the collapse of the summit and north flank of Mount St. Helens.  Suddenly, superheated groundwater and gas-rich magma within the volcano escaped in a lateral blast, sending a plume of volcanic ash and pumice 15 miles into the atmosphere and melting glaciers that mixed with rock and debris to create a concrete-like slurry that destroyed 230 square miles of forest.

In other words, this picture on this postcard will never be taken again.

It’s another treasure in Landis Valley’s collection of postcards and was published in the early 1900’s by the Edward H. Mitchell Company, out of San Francisco.  It was never sent to anyone, so it is virtually impossible to date it precisely.  It is a divided back card and, because cards with a divided back were not introduced until 1907, this card could not have been produced before then, according to the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City.  Domestically, the postage rate is 1 cent, which means that it could not have been produced after 1952, but, because Mitchell’s company closed in 1923, it was obviously produced before then.  The postage rate was increased to 2 cents in 1917 (because of a temporary War Tax), then lowered back to 1 cent in 1919, then raised again in 1925 to 2 cents.  All of this means that it was printed sometime either between 1907 and 1917 or from 1919 to 1925.

The vista is still changing today.  According to the Christian Science Monitor article titled, “Mt. St Helens: Is it ready to erupt again?” two lava domes have formed in the crater since the 1980 eruption:  one from 1980 to 1986 and the other from 2004 to 2008.  The US Geological Survey reported in September, 2014 that, five miles down, the volcano’s magma chamber is charging again.  Not to worry, though.  Dome building will resume and the summit may take on a similar shape to the one in the postcard, but this dome won’t be built in a day.

In other words, save the postcards you have now.  The view of this young terrain will change again.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Historical Magic

Guest blog entry by Kayla Heiserman    
Kayla (left) and her grandmother (right) with a young cousin
Landis Valley Museum has been my home away from home since I was small enough to toddle under the fence. My grandmother has been an employee and volunteer for many years, and when I was four she started bringing me with her to share in the historical magic. My pre-school was 100 acres of handmade penny rugs, warped glass windows, and draft horses pulling jingling wagons of people.

When I was that young, my job was simply to run around and look authentic. My Gram sewed me a chemise, pantaloons, a dress and a bonnet, and I ran around barefoot and smiled at visitors. I visited Tanya the Turkey (below) in the barnyard and marveled at the exhibits in the Visitor's Center. The craftsmen came to know me by name and gave me small things that they'd made.
One craftsman who came to know me well was Mr. Clair Garman, a carpenter at Landis Valley. He would invite me in under the ropes blocking off his work area to show me what he was working on. He gave me three small wooden houses he had made, which I painted and returned to him as a gift. He tells me every time I see him that he keeps those houses on his bedside table, even a decade later.

Every summer, Landis Valley hosts a Civil War encampment. Men come dressed as Union soldiers in their stuffy wool uniforms under the even more oppressive July heat. When I was 6 or 7, Gram was volunteering at the entrance tent, selling tickets, and I was running around, as per usual. One visitor in particular caught my attention. He walked in bedecked in Confederate grey, with a broad brimmed hat, and a handlebar mustache. I had been versed in Civil War etiquette for the past year or so, so I knew what this situation called for. Panic. The enemy was here. Here, above the Confederate high water mark! How? He looked like a general. He probably had troops just waiting to blow cannonballs through my beloved Landis Valley. I had to act. I ran to my grandmother. Flushed, I tugged on the leg of her capris and beckoned her closer. I whispered in her ear that there was a Confederate soldier underfoot, and we had to do something quickly. She chuckled and I scolded her crossly. This was definitely not my idea of a laughing matter. Clearly, Gram could not or would not help, so I ran to the Union. I ran to the nearest "soldier" and told him the crisis. He giggled, and told me they knew his motives and were planning to take care of it. I sighed with relief and, satisfied with that, ran to the barnyard where I'd be safe with Tanya the Turkey.

As I grew older, around the age of eight or so, I had to buy boots to wear because in the 19th century, I would have been too old for bare feet and loose hair out of my bonnet. I stayed inside The Weathervane (now the Landis Valley Museum Store) with my grandmother and played with the puppets or rearranged the farm animal figurines on a shelf. The summer of 2006, I went to summer camp at Landis Valley. I went to "school" at the schoolhouse, boys on the left, girls on the right. I sat in a desk with 200-year-old petrified gum stuck on the edge. We played "graces" and dipped candles in the yard of the Henry Landis house. We cut Scherenschnitte (scissor cuttings) and went on a scavenger hunt in the General Store. I made friends who loved history as much as I did (or at least their parents did).

When I was fourteen, I was old enough to actually volunteer. Every spring, I help out at the Landis Valley Auction and the  Herb and Garden Faire. This past year I worked at the "plant sitting" tent where shoppers could drop off their plants while they shop for more. Every autumn, I volunteer at the pumpkin patch during Harvest Days and every December I go to the Bonfire, see the Belsnickel and have hot apple cider in the Yellow Barn.

Landis Valley has been a part of my life and close to my heart for as long as I can remember, and will be for the rest of my life. I hope to have my wedding here, bring my children here, and volunteer for as long as my able-bodied life will allow.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Postcards from America to Landis Valley: San Francisco's Golden Gate Before the Bridge (first in a series)

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey
Upon first glance, Landis Valley’s postcard collection can be summed up in one word:  extensive.  Dive into it and other words come to mind:  humorous, colorful, touching, wondrous, and surprising.  In perusing the collection recently with volunteer and postcard expert Russell Eaton, I was definitely surprised and amused by a few of the pieces I found.

Most of the cards in the collection were produced in the first two decades of the twentieth century, a time when our country started to change dramatically.  Since then, bridges went up, mountains were moved, and cityscapes grew, sometimes to a point where we wouldn’t recognize the landscape that was there before the improvements.

That’s what struck me with this postcard of the Golden Gate.  As I flipped through the stack of cards labeled “San Francisco,” I almost missed its significance because of the image ingrained in my brain of what it “should” look like now.

I stopped and flipped back to the 110-year-old image.

To my mind, having walked along part of the 4,200ft span, it seemed that the gate was waiting for its bridge.  Between the Marin Highlands on the right and the Presidio on the left, steam ships chugged through the 300ft deep waters by the tiny lighthouse in the distance.  It was a quiet scene—nothing spectacular.

According to, this wasn’t the first time that the San Francisco Bay changed dramatically.  The bay used to be a valley, which flooded at the end of the last ice age—roughly 10,000 years ago—due to rising ocean levels.  Today, on average, the bay is 14ft deep and is home to over 130 species of fish, including four runs of Chinook salmon.  The tides come in and out four times daily and carry roughly 390 billion gallons of water.  Moist winds off the ocean oftentimes carry a band of thick fog—called the Marine Layer—into the bay.  It wasn’t until 1933, when construction began, that the skyline to the north of San Francisco began to change forever. 

Engineer Joseph Strauss (1870-1938) had always dreamed of building “the biggest thing of its kind that a man cold build” and when San Francisco city engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy approached him in 1919 with the idea to build a bridge across the turbulent Golden Gate, he jumped at the chance.  He lobbied for a decade, facing stiff opposition from ferry operators, environmentalists, city administrators, and even other engineers before the voters approved the project in 1930.

Strauss was the chief engineer, but he also had a team of talented—if relatively unknown—designers working with him.  In a compromise, he selected his biggest rival, leading theoretician of suspension bridge design Leon Moiseiff, as a consultant on the project.  He also hired Irving Morrow, a San Francisco-based architect, who styled the bridge in the classic Art Deco style and gave it its distinctive orange color.  The man who should claim the most credit but who didn’t receive it, though, is University of Illinois engineer Charles Ellis, who worked tirelessly for months on the bridge’s overall design and specifications.  Ellis labored over calculations for so long that Strauss eventually dismissed him, accusing him of wasting time and money.  He wasn’t among the engineers credited when the bridge was completed in 1937 and it wasn’t until 1949, in an obituary, that he was formally recognized for his work with the project.

Strauss was a safety fanatic, ordering every worker to wear a safety helmet and constructing a huge safety net ten feet wider than the bridge’s width and fifteen feet longer than the roadways length.  It sped up work, but was not infallible, as evidenced by the tragic accident of February 16, 1937.  Twelve men who were working on scaffolding close to the North Tower fell when the scaffolding collapsed, taking the net with it.  Two survived, including foreman Slim Lambert, but the other ten were dragged down 220 feet into the icy water.  One, carpenter Arthur Anderson, was found tangled in the net when it was recovered a mile out and 500 feet deep into the Pacific Ocean.

Strauss’s structure holds fast today, having been closed only three times due to high winds.  Steel girders were added after a severe storm rippled the bridge in 1951 and the cables were replaced in 1970, but other than that, the bridge endured no other engineering modifications in sixty years.

The image is eerie, but the card itself holds history, too.  It was produced by the Detroit Photographic Company and, according to the Metropolitan Postcard Club of NewYork City’s website (a great resource for information, according to Russ Eaton), it was produced between 1903 and 1904, right around the time that famous photographer William Henry Jackson became the manager of the factory and before it was changed to Detroit Publishing Company in 1904.  At that time, according to the Metropolitan Postcard Club, sales were around 7 million cards. 

Our collection has many other interesting postcards, including the one on the left looking out across the Golden Gate.  We also have an interesting one of Mt. St. Helens before it blew its stack, but that’s a story for another time…

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Prolific John Heffner

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

In Landis Valley’s extensive newspaper collection, curator Bruce Bomberger discovered in the September 6, 1883 edition of the Reading Eagle this sad, but odd, tale of a prolific man looking for a decent living.

On Tuesday, September 4, 1883, a certain John Heffner, 67-year-old German rag picker from Reading, PA, dressed up in a full suit, high hat, and coarse shoes, tearfully parted with his children, and went to Lancaster to look for work.  He took with him several dollars and a card that bore the inscription, “Fredericka Hefner, 816 Bingaman Street, Reading,” and it’s a good thing he did.  While crossing the railroad tracks on Prince Street in Lancaster, he was struck and killed.  The card was what identified him.

A sad tale, but not odd—yet.  Turns out, the rag picker sired a prodigious family which he, somehow, supported by picking up rags, pieces of paper, stumps of cigars, etc. and utilizing in various ways.  All told, John Heffner fathered 42 children with three wives.  Heffner didn’t say goodbye to all of them on September 4, though, as only five daughters survived to see 1883.

A native of the Kingdom of Wurtemberg (which includes the Black Forest, top, and whose capital is Stuttgart, bottom), he started his brood at the age of 25 in Germany.  Mrs. Heffner #1 bore 17 children in eight years:  twins in each of the first two years, triplets in each of the next four, and in the seventh year a single child.  She died the year after (in February, 1848) and was laid to rest in the village church yard in Germany.

Faced with a large gaggle of children ages seven and younger, Heffner accepted the help of a young woman, who took charge of the children three months after Mrs. Heffner #1 died and shortly thereafter became Mrs. Heffner #2.  She bore Heffner a son in February, 1849, and that same Christmas came Heffner child #19, which made the Heffner family the largest in that part of Germany.  The Eagle colorfully speculated that, “When they gathered around the table, the household had the appearance of a small orphan asylum.”

Twins came in each of the next five years and then, after the entire family packed up and moved to America, Mrs. Heffner #2 had one child per year for three years.  Childbirth is very hard on a body, and so she died in 1857, having been married for nine years and producing 15 children.  Of that large brood, 12 had died, leaving Heffner with 20 to be taken care of by a widow, who became Mrs. Heffner #3 in 1858.

Mrs. Heffner #3 brought one child to the family and added nine more in the next ten years.  The Eagle states that “another was born since then,” but does not give the child’s birth year.  The article also does not delve into how Heffner supported his large family, though it does say, “None of the first set of 17 of children survive.  Two of the 15 of the second wife still live, and 3 of the third wife’s 9.”  According to the article, “The old man has long since forgotten the names of his numerous progeny.”

Fast Mover

In looking over the chronology, it seems that Mr. Heffner moved awfully fast, mourning a wife for a few months before marrying again and proceeding with adding more children to the family.  Further research on, though, reveals that, according to antebellum traditions, a man could mourn for three months, whereas a woman must mourn for a minimum of two and a half years.

The tracks that Heffner crossed were probably on the Reading and Columbia Railroad line, which, according to the website, "Pennsylvania Railroad Stations Past & Present," had a station at Prince and Frederick Streets, near the present-day Clipper Stadium.

Heffner's Reading

Heffner lived on Bingaman St., of which we don't have a picture readily available in the collection.  We do, however, have a few Reading postcards from the turn of the 20th century.

At right is a postcard of the St. Joseph's Hospital, which was built in 1885 at 12th and Walnut Streets (the image, though, was taken a few years after construction).  Heffner would have seen a much different building in his lifetime, which can be seen in the article "St. Joseph's Hospital" on the Go Reading Berks website.

Another interesting find (and an ironic one, considering Heffner's search for work on the day he died) is this postcard image of Labor Day in Reading, taken around the turn of the century.  It features the huge Kline, Eppihimer & Co. department store (second building from the left).

Below are images of the Penn Street Bridge, which spanned the Schuylkill River from 1885, two years after Heffner's death, to 1913. According to Go Reading Berks, the old steel bridge was built for ordinary traffic, but expanding industry in the western part of the city necessitated rail lines across the span. These were built without thought for the strength of the structure so, in 1913, the current viaduct was built.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Delaware Valley Ladder Back Chair

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

Walking through an exhibit with Jim Lewars is fun, especially when he is in the mood to give a history lesson.  He is so much like my favorite high school teacher, Mr. Anderson—who could skip an entire lesson in physics when we asked him to tell us about black holes—that sometimes, when I just feel like relaxing and losing myself in a good, informative lecture, I’ll ask Jim to enlighten me about an aspect of the latest exhibit in the Visitor Center Gallery.

It had been a long day for me, back in early March, and I was feeling pretty excited about the prospect of trying out the seating in the Gallery provided by Martin’s Chair and not about having to go back to my office and face my list of e-mails.  Jim, curators Bruce Bomberger and Jen Royer, and I had just gotten done with giving a preview tour and were loitering.  Jim was taking a last look at the chairs in the case closest to the exit and it was there that I approached him.

“Jim, what makes the Delaware Valley ladderback chair special?” I asked.  The light went on in his eyes.  I had him.

Delaware Valley ladder back chair.
Daniel Boone 18th century.
“So, the Delaware Valley ladder back became very commonly used throughout Southeastern PA in the 18th century.  And it is a chair type which was distinctive to Southeastern PA.  There were ladder back chairs produced elsewhere—there were New England ladder back chairs, New York ladder back chairs—but the chairs produced in the Delaware Valley are distinctive.  It is believed that they relate more closely to a Germanic prototype, as opposed to an English ladder back.  The back—the splats—are not only arched on the top, but the bottom as well.  The armchairs have a distinctive cutout, which you can see here on this one loaned from the Daniel Boone Homestead,” he said as he pointed to a well-preserved, rush-bottom, rocking chair dating from the late 18th century.  I leaned over and, sure enough, when viewed from an artist’s perspective, I could see the curved negative space between the arms and the seat.  Beautiful.

He went on to say, “They were produced by non-German cabinetmakers as well, but the style is attributed to the Germans.  We have visual evidence that they were produced as early as the beginning of the 18th century.  There’s a painting of a man named Johannes Kelpius that shows the Delaware Valley ladder back.  And they were produced well into the 19th century, too.”

Jim started to walk away, but my interest was piqued.  After excitedly returning to my desk, I researched as much as I could find about the Delaware Valley ladder back style:

According to Harvey Green in his book, Wood:  Craft, Culture, History, two chair making traditions existed in Europe:  joiner’s chairs, of frame-and-panel furniture, and turner’s chairs, made with a lathe.  Ladder backs are a relatively easy to produce combination of the two, with the support structure—legs and stretchers—turned with a lathe and the backs made of pinned mortise-and-tendon joints.  The seats were of woven rushes, or other pliant materials, and tightly threaded through the weave, creating a sturdy platform upon which to sit.

Green also goes on to say, “The ladder back was also a more efficient way to produce a chair back.  Although it entailed chopping six to ten mortises (which could be roughed out with an auger), that process involved less careful and less demanding work than did the multitude of round holes that had to be drilled in precise angles to hold the spindles of the Windsor chair’s back and sides.”

The ladder back’s comfort and modest price were well-known to those around the Philadelphia area, including Benjamin Franklin, who bought twenty of them between 1739 and 1748, according to the late Benno Forman, who worked as curator of Winterthur Museum and wrote the essay “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture” for the book, Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans.  Philadelphia styles tended to be higher style, borrowing elements such as crookt legs and ornately turned stretchers from other styles.  At their heart, though, they were the rush-bottom, straight-back chairs of German origin.

According to Forman, the Delaware Valley ladder back chair “may have been introduced into Pennsylvania by a chair maker who was a member of the Shoemaker (originally Shumacher) family of Germantown.  If the Shoemakers were the first makers of these chairs in the New World, then they are also the agents through which the style made its way to Philadelphia early in the eighteenth century, for Jacob Shoemaker, formerly of Germantown, moved there in 1714/15 and continued to practice his trade.”  The ladder back was made even later than Jim thought, too, as Forman notes the Ware family of southern New Jersey, who made these chairs well into the 1930’s.

In my research, I also found a book on “chairs-as-art,” by Ray Hemachandra, called 500 Chairs:  Celebrating Traditional and Innovative Designs.  In it, there are ladder back chairs made of wood and iron and actual ladders that are really neat to look at, but their sole purpose is gone.  The iron climbs up the back like an immovable portcullis.  In the other, the ladder rests in a chair that reminds me of a letter Z made of wood.  I would never want to sit in them and rock out all day long like I would when I gaze at the examples in Landis Valley’s exhibit.  Maybe that’s the true innovation—when form and function combine to make you want to plant yourself on it and forget all about that for a while.