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  • Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America
  • Sally McMurry (bio)
Cynthia Falk Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. 256 pages. 108 black-and-white photographs and plans, appendices. ISBN 978-0-271-03338-9, $45.00 HB

This beautifully produced volume carries on a distinguished tradition of scholarship about buildings produced by a well-known early American social group, the Pennsylvania Germans. Cynthia Falk's fine study combines conventional historical analysis with careful readings of material objects to produce a thoughtful reinterpretation of familiar architectural monuments.

Most of the buildings analyzed here, such as the Zeller house, the Peter Wentz house, and the Miller's house at Millbach are iconic monuments for American architectural historians and students of colonial material culture. Falk's contribution does not substantially expand the universe of documented buildings (though new documentation of the Eshleman house in Lancaster County is presented); its purpose is to offer fresh perspectives on interpreting [End Page 103] them. Her central claim is that historians have been too quick to see the buildings as expressions of ethnicity, to the exclusion of other factors that were historically more important. In five richly illustrated chapters, she develops alternative interpretations with the goal of understanding "the meanings ascribed to buildings and belongings in late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania," and more particularly "how objects served as expressions of identity." In doing so, she makes a contribution to an area already established as crucial by leading scholars such as T. H. Breen and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (2).

The first chapter, "German or Georgian?" follows on previous scholarship, both utilizing earlier insights and offering new ones. Early investigators tended to "essentialize" what they saw as "pure" Pennsylvania German expression. They focused on the so-called Continental house as the quintessentially Pennsylvania German house. This form was a (usually) three-room house with center chimney, long entry kitchen (küche), "stove-room" (stube) heated by a five-plate stove fed from the kitchen hearth, and unheated or bedroom chamber (kammer). As Falk notes, however, William Woys Weaver and Charles Bergengren have brought new evidence to bear that complicates Pennsylvania Germans' relationships with these forms. Indisputably, the form is clearly associated with Pennsylvania settlers from German-speaking Europe; but Weaver has found that the so called Continental house was not very common at all in Europe, and indeed may have been developed most fully in Pennsylvania, while Bergengren finds several other types associated with German-speaking residents.

Falk acknowledges their findings but offers a different interpretive perspective. Most important, she takes issue with their assumption that artifacts that display definite and identifiable cultural practices necessarily were expressions of ethnicity. An important contextual point that she makes is that the Pennsylvania German population was itself far from homogeneous; it was divided by class and religion, to name two of the more important social fault lines. Thus, she maintains, to argue for a cohesive Pennsylvania German ethnic expression is a mistake. Her argument is further developed as she takes up a building form that was new after the mid-eighteenth century. The form commonly labeled German-Georgian combines architectural traits clearly connected to German Pennsylvanians' cultural practices (for example, retaining stoves, or conversely using the term "stove room" for a room heated by a fireplace) with the symmetry, closed center-passage floor plan, and classical trim characteristic of the late colonial architectural style we call Georgian. Falk takes issue with the very opposition the question poses, with the notion that just because a building combines architectural repertoires that it is somehow "schizophrenic." She argues that such combinations are evidence not of ambivalence or assimilation (a claim made by several other scholars), but rather that they represent owners' aspirations to gentility; their creators saw no contradiction in wanting to have the latest ornament while also retaining some features carried along from their repertoire of German-derived cultural practices. Falk maintains that these later houses embody what Cary Carson has suggested is a choice between folk and formal rather than between German and English.1

Falk's arguments rest primarily on presenting an alternative...


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