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Soap Hollow -Reviews

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"In this landmark catalogue, raisonne Chuck illuminates a very colorful legacy so that we are able to distinguish the pieces and their makers from similar examples and documents an important heretofore neglected area. This fanciful aand styled decoration by the Soap Hollow cabinetmakers is another contribution to the genre known as American folk art. This catalogue provides us with valuable information and Chuck is to be congratulated on his diligent efforts and comprehensive contribution to another chapter in the history of Pennsylvania furniture makers. Soap Hollow furniture can now take its place alongside the many identified and established categories of made-in-America furniture." - Helaine and Burton Fendelman in the Foreword

"From 1850 to 1889 eleven farmer-craftsmen from the small Mennonite community of Soap Hollow (Schmier Siefe Durch) in Conemagh Township, Somerset County, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, created distinctive paint-decorated furniture that is now recognized as an important achievement in American folk material culture. Among the prominent American museums that exhibit Soap Hollow furniture are Winterthur and the Henry Ford Museum, which also reproduces, for sale to an upscale market, copies of a Soap Hollow cupboard.

"Soap Hollow: The Furniture and its Makers is the result of thirty years of research in this furniture tradition, carried out first by the late Robert Myers and then by his successor, author Charles R. Muller, editor of Ohio Antiques Review. Muller's book supersedes Manufactured by Hand: The Soap Hollow School, which is the catalog of a 1982 exhibit at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

"The names of the artisans are John Sala and his sons Joseph and John M.; Tobias Livingston and his sons David K. and John K.; also Christian C. Blough, Peter K. Thomas, Jeremiah Stahl, Peter D. Mishler and Edward Schrock. Stahl, Thomas and David Livingston eventually moved to Kent County, Michigan, where they continued to make the same kind of furniture. Mishler and Schrock moved to Elkhart County and Howard County, Indiana, respectively, and worked there, as did the sons of of Jacob Barkey in Ontario. Also, derivative kinds of Soap Hollow furniture were later made in Elkhart and LaGrange counties in Indiana, by C.M. Hochstetler, Sam Miller and others.

"The Soap Hollow craftsmen made cupboards, chests of drawers, blanket chests, beds, tables and clock cases, painted them red, black, green and/or yellow and then decorated them with wood-graining, stencilled designs in gold and/or decals. The result is always pleasing and often stunning, especially in John Sala's (or his sons') large "dutch" cupboard (1875), using 58 stenciled designs and 41 decals (19); Jeremiah Stahl's chest of drawers (1867), with bowed-front upper drawers (76); and Peter K. Thomas' blanket chest (1867), with cut-out heart decorations.

"Although the dense, bright, orderly decorations make Soap Hollow furniture similar to the better known Mahantango Valley, Pennsylvania, furniture, Muller claims distinctiveness for the Soap Hollow style, finding no precedents for it elsewhere. However, he does acknowledge influences upon it from German Biedermeyer and American federal and sheraton styles--in bowed-front drawers, scrolled backboards and the feet of chests of drawers, respectively.

"The book contains about 180 colored photographs of many of the 290 pieces of furniture in Myers' and Miller's inventories. The color reproduction is fine, but since many of the photographs were taken by amateurs, some of the details of painting--especially the gold stencil work--often do not show up well.

"Nevertheless, the brilliant colors make one wonder about the relationship between Soap Hollow furniture aesthetics and the makers, who eventually became very 'plain' Mennonite people. Muller tends not to give a cultural analysis of his materials, although we do learn that the Soap Hollow craftsmen made furniture only for short spans of years and then mainly until they became established in farming and, after that, during slow times in the farming year snd the undertaking business. How can such craftsmanship and beauty spring from people for whom making furniture was merely a passing interest or commercial necessity?

"When a full survey of early American Mennonite material culture is complete, and proper cultural analysis is applied to it, Muller's book will stand as a crucial document. He and Robert Myers are to be commended for their persistence and care in the kind of research that Mennonites themselves seldom do." - Ervin Beck, The Mennonite Quarterly Review

"In October 1980 Ohio Antique Review published 'It's Not Johnstown...It's Soap Hollow,' an article by Edna Brendlinger, Robert B. Myers, and Charles Muller about painted furniture made in the Soap Hollow valley in southwestern Pennsylvania between 1834 and 1923. Before the publication of this article, Soap Hollow furniture was often mistakenly attributed to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This important new book is the culmination of many years of research on Soap Hollow furniture by Muller, the former editor and former owner of [Ohio] Antique Review, and Myers, a dealer and collector who died in 1995.

"Soap Hollow is a three-mile-long valley in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Muller has inventoried 290 pieces of Soap Hollow furniture, 71 of which bear the maker's name. According to Muller, 'The shape of the skirts on chests of drawers and distinctive curvature of the skirts on chest of drawers and cupboards set this group of furniture apart from others.' Other features that help identify Soap Hollow pieces are the 'dominant use of red and elaborate stenciled decoration.' The most distinctive feature of Soap Hollow furniture, however, 'is the phrase "Manufactured by [maker's name]" often boldly stenciled in silver or gold across the front of a piece.'

"Eleven known Soap Hollow makers are profiled in this profusely illustrated book, which also includes brief chapters on the surface, decoration, and stenciling of Soap Hollow furniture. The final chapters discuss the various forms of Soap Hollow furniture, ranging from tables and chests to cupboard and clocks. A detailed appendix lists Soap Hollow pieces that are illustrated in this book or in other publications, including Maine Antique Digest.

"In the preface, Muller credits Bob Myers with bringing 'attention to this distinctive group of furniture and chang[ing] its nomenclature in the collecting community.' Muller writes, 'Soap Hollow furniture was Bob Myers' concern, focus and passion, and it has become his legacy to us.' With this book, Muller allows us to share that legacy.". -K.A.P, Maine Antique Digest, April, 2002