- Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850 by Wendy A. Cooper and Lisa Minardi
The 2011 exhibit Paint, Pattern and People at Winterthur Museum was remarkable in that it showcased not only collections from multiple museums but also numerous objects held privately. Those attending saw artifacts that they could not have seen before, no matter how many museums they had visited or antique shows they had attended. The exhibit catalog that accompanied the exhibit shares this quality. While the decorative arts of early Pennsylvania have been the subject of many publications, the reader of this volume is bound to encounter old favorites as well as examples that have been newly discovered, or at least newly publicized.
The book Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725–1850 aims to bring a new level of attention [End Page 541] to the furniture produced in Philadelphia’s hinterlands through the careful study of a select group of objects. Cooper and Minardi, who authored the book and curated the exhibit, write that “the principal goal of the project was to identify distinct localisms based on well-documented examples in which the maker or family history is known” (xxiv). The emphasis on well-documented examples is noteworthy. While many objects that reside in museum and private collections have limited provenance, those included in this study are generally signed or accompanied by written records, such as receipts, or strong family histories that indicate who made them, who owned them, or both.
Despite the volume’s focus on furniture, Cooper and Minardi do not limit themselves to the study of that medium. Their body of evidence includes other items made from wood, such as architectural features that could have been made by the same woodworkers who crafted seating and storage forms. Recognizing that craftsmen served the needs of families throughout the life cycle, they even include a discussion of coffins, biers for carrying coffins, and corpse trays. References to funeral practices suggest one of the strengths of Paint, Pattern and People: it makes connections among different types of material culture, discussing coffee drinking in the context of coffee mills, music in the context of chairs designed to accommodate trombone players, and textiles such as featherbeds in the context of bedsteads with pillow panels.
If the identification of exceptionally documented objects in a variety of materials (and their lavish illustration in color, no less) is this volume’s greatest strength, the major weakness of Paint, Pattern and People is the lack of a consistent argument. The content of the book is divided into an introduction and four chapters: “People,” “Places,” “Families,” and “Makers.” The first two chapters use material culture as a way to engage in a broad discussion of difference in colonial and early national Pennsylvania. The authors use physical differences among artifacts as a key to understanding differences based on ethnic and religious background and geographic location. In the latter two chapters, the focus shifts to a greater emphasis on individuals, with abundant detail, much of it genealogical, about those who created and owned the objects under study. Unfortunately, there is no formal conclusion to concretely tie the various parts together.
The authors do make the case in the introduction that “localism, more so than regionalism, may be a more relevant organizing concept for the study of American history and material culture” (xvii). Similar arguments have been offered, specifically concerning the mid-Atlantic region, by Gabrielle Lanier in The Delaware Valley in the Early Republic (2005) and Liam Riordan in Many [End Page 542] Identities, One Nation (2007), both of which are cited in the extensive bibliography. In many respects, Paint, Pattern and People builds on the work of these two and other authors. By examining local construction features and decorative patterns, many known to collectors for years, the authors raise questions about both patronage and training networks. When they demonstrate the striking similarity between furniture made in Pennsylvania and Virginia...