Monday, March 31, 2014

Examples in Landis Valley's Sidesaddle Collection

Guest blog entry by Jeannette Koczwara

My first task as an intern at Landis Valley museum has been to clean the collection of ladies sidesaddles dating from the mid 1800’s. At first glance, one could tell that these pieces were not only a means for transportation but also works of art meant to display the taste of the owner and the skill of the craftsman. It became my goal then to see if I could discover who had put forth so much effort to create these, albeit much aged, painted and tooled works of art.

As a horsewoman myself I know how important it is to care for the leather tack. Properly oiled and stored a saddle can last generations of riders. But these sidesaddles, designed for the proper Pennsylvania-German lady, had seen better days. Some had come from musty attics, others stored in damp barns, and after carefully cleaning several of them I began to worry that and sort of maker’s mark had not survived.

But then, beneath the top pommel (also known as the fixed head) which would be on the rider’s right side, I found a nearly perfectly preserved paper label. Later I found other labels in far less readable condition, but this one was the best. Beneath the printed engraving of a horse the label reads “J. M’Phail/ Saddler/ Strasburg /Lancaster County.” It was a dream come true for my hopes of being able to place the origins of the saddle and its maker

Taking to my computer I began a search for one J. M’Phail who had been a saddler during the 1800’s in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Surprisingly the easiest place to search for records was on such sites as and There I found the 1850 census record of James McPhail (an alternative to M’Phail) who lived in the Borough of Strasburg in Lancaster County and was employed as a saddler. He lived with his wife Elizabeth and together they had four sons, three of whom were also saddlers. When exactly this saddle was made and who it was for is still uncertain but should James McPhail indeed be its maker then an important piece of the puzzle has already been placed.