Shenandoah County Craftsmen

EMERGING SCHOLARS > SUMMER RESEARCH GRANTS

by Sarah Thomas
College of William and Mary, History, PhD. Candidate

During the summer of 2015, the Decorative Arts Trust kindly provided me with funding to support research for my doctoral dissertation, “Objects of the Southern Backcountry: The People of Shenandoah County and their Material Culture.” Because of this generous research grant, I examined Shenandoah County furniture in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV), Jeffrey S. Evans Auctions, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

I studied the work of acclaimed craftsmen, including Johannes Spitler, John Siron, and Jacob Stirewalt, as well as unattributed objects linked to the county. I use furniture in conjunction with houses and other material culture objects for my dissertation broadly to understand the people of Shenandoah County, their everyday lives, and how their lives and objects changed for the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Trust’s grant allowed me to make significant progress on several chapters of my dissertation.

Although chests painted by Spitler in the late-18th-century Shenandoah County are popular among collectors and curators, we know little about the construction of these pieces. One of my goals this past summer was to closely examine construction details of chests in museum collections. While I plan to study more Spitler pieces, I have discerned several patterns that provide tantalizing clues to the maker(s) of his decorated chests. I compared features such as wedged dovetails, the prevalence of unnecessary wooden pins, and similar hardware to the work of other Shenandoah County joiners and cabinetmakers.

The examination of Spitler’s highly decorated chests, however, was just one component of my summer research. Most, if not all, of Shenandoah County furniture makers were part-time joiners primarily employed in agriculture and, at times, the church. At the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, I examined a box with Curator of Collections Nick Powers that was probably constructed by Stirewalt, a preacher and farmer. Studying the simply constructed though thoughtfully decorated boxes at the MSV piqued my interest in this artisan. I will continue to research him through the extensive document collections left by the Henkel family, as well as Stirewalt’s own writings and records, and the boxes attributed to him.

I am grateful for the gracious assistance of Tara Chicirda of Colonial Williamsburg, Nick Powers of the MSV, and Jeff Evans of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, as well as the generous funding from the Trust that made these essential research trips possible.

Sarah will be presenting a portion of her research on Shenandoah County craftsmen during the Trust’s Fall 2016 symposium in Winchester, VA. Please stay tuned for further details. Registration will open by mid-February.

UPCOMING EVENTS

SAVE THE DATE
  • Special Program: Tour of the Newark Museum with retiring Chief Curator Ulysses Dietz
    November 3
  • New York Antiques Weekend
    January 19-20, 2018
  • Emerging Scholars Colloquium
    January 21, 2018
  • Symposium
    Upper Hudson River Valley: From the Mohawk to the Berkshires
    May 3-6, 2018
  • Symposium
    New Orleans & the Mississippi Delta
    Fall 2018
  • Study Trip
    Vienna & Prague
    With an extension to Budapest
    October, 2018

by Sarah Thomas
College of William and Mary, History, PhD. Candidate

During the summer of 2015, the Decorative Arts Trust kindly provided me with funding to support research for my doctoral dissertation, “Objects of the Southern Backcountry: The People of Shenandoah County and their Material Culture.” Because of this generous research grant, I examined Shenandoah County furniture in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV), Jeffrey S. Evans Auctions, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

I studied the work of acclaimed craftsmen, including Johannes Spitler, John Siron, and Jacob Stirewalt, as well as unattributed objects linked to the county. I use furniture in conjunction with houses and other material culture objects for my dissertation broadly to understand the people of Shenandoah County, their everyday lives, and how their lives and objects changed for the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Trust’s grant allowed me to make significant progress on several chapters of my dissertation.

Although chests painted by Spitler in the late-18th-century Shenandoah County are popular among collectors and curators, we know little about the construction of these pieces. One of my goals this past summer was to closely examine construction details of chests in museum collections. While I plan to study more Spitler pieces, I have discerned several patterns that provide tantalizing clues to the maker(s) of his decorated chests. I compared features such as wedged dovetails, the prevalence of unnecessary wooden pins, and similar hardware to the work of other Shenandoah County joiners and cabinetmakers.

The examination of Spitler’s highly decorated chests, however, was just one component of my summer research. Most, if not all, of Shenandoah County furniture makers were part-time joiners primarily employed in agriculture and, at times, the church. At the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, I examined a box with Curator of Collections Nick Powers that was probably constructed by Stirewalt, a preacher and farmer. Studying the simply constructed though thoughtfully decorated boxes at the MSV piqued my interest in this artisan. I will continue to research him through the extensive document collections left by the Henkel family, as well as Stirewalt’s own writings and records, and the boxes attributed to him.

I am grateful for the gracious assistance of Tara Chicirda of Colonial Williamsburg, Nick Powers of the MSV, and Jeff Evans of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, as well as the generous funding from the Trust that made these essential research trips possible.

Sarah will be presenting a portion of her research on Shenandoah County craftsmen during the Trust’s Fall 2016 symposium in Winchester, VA. Please stay tuned for further details. Registration will open by mid-February.

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