The Pennsylvania Germans have long been renowned for their colorful folk art, embellished with tulips, hearts, birds, and other whimsical motifs. But during the American Revolution, many began to incorporate patriotic imagery into their artwork. Also known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Pennsylvania Germans descend from the approximately 80,000 German-speaking people who had immigrated to Pennsylvania before the war; about 90 percent were from the Palatinate region of southwest Germany and belonged to the Lutheran or Reformed Church. The remaining 10 percent included the Amish, Mennonites, Schwenkfelders, Moravians, and other sectarian groups. Although many Pennsylvania Germans supported the War for Independence, a number did so reluctantly, or not at all. Some were loath to break the oaths of allegiance they had sworn to the British crown when they immigrated. They feared for their liberty and property rights should the Americans lose. Pacifists who refused to fight were often fined, jailed, or otherwise mistreated.
The outbreak of war was depicted in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by one artist in the form of a cutwork picture (a technique known in German as Scherenschnitte) featuring two soldiers with crossed swords. This picture was found in a Bible with a second cutwork made by the same hand depicting a man and woman holding a ring, suggesting they were allegories of war and peace. The drawings descended in the Mennonite family of John and Barbara (Amweg) Stauffer of Lancaster County.
Many Pennsylvania Germans fought in the war, including Peter Ickes, a Lutheran who served as a captain in the Pennsylvania militia. He was born in Limerick Township, Montgomery County, but in 1772 moved to Abbottstown, York (now Adams) County, where he served as a postmaster, innkeeper, and deacon of St. John’s Lutheran Church. Soon after the war, Ickes acquired a pewter mug engraved with an image of a man on horseback and the inscriptions “HUZZA FOR CAPT. ICKES” and “Liberty or Death,” the latter echoing Patrick Henry’s famous speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775.
After the Great Seal of the United States was adopted, in 1782, images of spread-wing eagles bearing shields became widely popular among Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, including the Pennsylvania Germans (especially those of the Lutheran or Reformed faith). Needlework, furniture, fraktur (decorated manuscripts), and other objects were frequently embellished with patriotic symbols. Schoolmaster Johann Adam Eyer made a reward of merit for one of his students featuring a large spread-wing eagle. He added a distinctively Germanic twist by substituting a bunch of flowering tulips for the olive branch normally held in the eagle’s talons; otherwise, he attempted a faithful rendition.
The extent to which the Pennsylvania Germans had embraced patriotic imagery and American political culture by the early 1800s is revealed by a pair of commemorative dishes. The Independence Hall dish honors its master builder, Edmund Wooley; the dates 1732 and 1741 on the rim refer to the beginning and completion of construction. The other dish features the Liberty Bell with the inscription “DER FRIHIDE GLUG 1776 WASHINGTON.”
Both are a blend of patriotic symbolism. National politics was not something people thought about only on election day; rather, it permeated their everyday lives through the very objects that adorned their mantels, beds, and walls. Patriotic artifacts were a tangible means of actively participating in the formation of a national identity in which all Americans could share regardless of their ethnic background.
Post by Lisa Minardi, assistant curator, Museum Collections, Winterthur and a specialist in Pennsylvania German art and culture.