An 18th Century German Treatise on the Chairmaker’s Trade

The Chairmaker

In 1700 almost all of the white inhabitants of British colonial America were English or descended from English immigrants. The total white and black population was only about 250,000.  By 1776 this figure had grown to 2.5 million! Contributing to this ten-fold increase were over 585,000 immigrants. It is estimated that roughly 100,000 German-speaking immigrants settled in the thirteen British colonies of North America during the colonial period, the largest group of continental European immigrants. [1] According to Aaron Fogelman in his book Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement and Political Culture in Colonial America 1717-1775 this is almost twice the number of English immigrants during the same period in the 18th century.  (The Irish, Scots and Welsh are considered separately.)[2] In Pennsylvania where most of the German-speaking immigrants ultimately settled they made up half of the population by the time of the revolutionary war.[3] Groups of German immigrants also came to the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, New York, and up the Delaware River), Massachusetts, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Large numbers of German immigrants came through Philadelphia into southeast Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the southern back country settling along the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and into the Carolina Piedmont[4], permeating the whole western part of North Carolina[5]. They brought a colorful material culture of traditional German motifs and methods of construction different from their English counterparts.[6]

Considering the significant German contribution to colonial American furniture, it’s appropriate to address German furniture making practices.  This translation concerns a single chapter from a multivolume work written by Peter Nathan Sprengel in Berlin during the third quarter of the 18th century.  It is noteworthy that Sprengel recognizes the English influence on the chair makers trade as practiced in Germany at that time.  Of course in many urban centers of the American colonies the work of these immigrant German builders is affected to a greater degree by the pre-established English taste, and the availability of only British tools.

Because of some very basic differences between German and British trade practices and changes over 240 years some tools are completely foreign to modern woodworkers and are described only in 18th century dictionaries.  Some tools don’t have an equivalent in traditional British tool use so their German name is usually accompanied with an explanatory note or footnote.

There are many nuggets of early information concerning early tools, techniques, furniture forms and background, but I don’t want to overwhelm the reader so I’ll be posting this work in segments over the next few weeks.

Lastly I would like to thank Hildegard Leckliter without whose help this work would never have been translated.  Her faithful and patient aid made the work enjoyable.

Enjoy!        Kaare

Sprengel: The Chairmaker (Tools)

P.S. This translation can also be accessed through the SAPFM web site on which it was originally published.

[1] Fogelman, Aaron Spencer, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775, Univ. of Penn. Press, Philadelphia, 1996, p.1-3, 178

[2] Ibid, p.176

[3] Hobbie, Margaret, Museums, Sites and Collections of Germanic culture in North America, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., p.xiv

[4] Fogelman, Hopeful Journeys, p.8

[5] Bittinger, The Germans in Colonial Times, p.150-151

[6] Ronald L Hurst and Jonathan Prown, Southern Furniture 1680-1830 The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, New York, 1997


This entry was posted in Chairs, Sundry Historical Matters, Tools, Treatise by Sprengel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An 18th Century German Treatise on the Chairmaker’s Trade

  1. Shannon says:

    Hier is das Schneidemesser aber wo ist dein Schnitzelbanc? I was surprised that there was no mention of the shave horse. Realizing that the style of chair discussed here is not of the stick or Windsor bent and more high style, it was still interesting to read of several drawknife mentions yet nothing of the horse. Also the mention of Cedar being reserved only for the very wealthy. I maintain that Cedar doesn’t get the respect is deserves today. Any idea what kind of Cedar would have been referred to in this treatise?

    By the way, thanks for a wonderful visit last weekend. You were all very welcoming, and Kaare, I appreciate the time out you took to talk with me.

    • Yes, I think you’re right: A shaving horse was used with the making of less formal and more utilitarian work.
      The cedar that Sprengel is referring to may be Spanish Cedar, Cedrela mexicana, which (according to Constantine in Knowing Your Woods) grows in every country south of the United States except Chile.

  2. Chuck N. says:

    Thanks for another great topic! Really enjoying it.

  3. Steven says:

    I just bought a beautiful clavichord, modeled after the Silbermann, made by Byron Hill. It is not painted, has beautiful matched walnut, has a clean spare form, and sounds beautiful; a heavenly instrument. Where could I have made a reproduction of a German chair to go with it?

Comments are closed.