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Schrank: From ordinary to exceptional thanks to a little sulfur

December 14, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Exhibits, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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This 1766 schrank was made using black walnut, poplar and oak

This 18th century schrank, a Pennsylvania German variation of the French armoire, is adorned with a technique using sulfur inlay.

In late 18th century Pennsylvania, a technique using sulfur inlay to decorate furniture sprang up around Lancaster County. This beautiful and unique approach is visible in the construction of this schrank, a Pennsylvania German variation of the French armoire now on exhibit in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum. Typically, schranks stored clothing, extra linens or other personal and household goods. However, these pieces of furniture were anything but ordinary in their manufacture and style.

Decorating ordinary household objects was a passion of many Pennsylvania Germans. “Everything was decorated. There was this love of beauty and design in the simplest of objects used in everyday life,” according to Winterthur Museum Curator Lisa Minardi. From forks to weathervanes, few items in a Pennsylvania German household escaped at least a little decorating flair. This schrank , selected by CAP Curator Karen Barlow as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, is no exception.

This schrank was made for I. H. and A. N. Kauffmann in 1766. The additional lettering below I. M. Kauffmann’s name, “D I Mertz,” refers to the date of March 1. Additionally, a signature “C. L. Nissly 1949,” appears on the top, indicating one of the schrank’s many owners. This is one of at least five known schranks from Lancaster County attributed to the same unknown maker on account of their similar construction, decoration and the use of sulfur inlay.

The sulfur inlay process used to adorn this schrank involves carving out the desired design. Next, melted sulfur is poured into the channel, rapidly cooling and slightly expanding to a crystalline solid. The excess sulfur is then chiseled or planed off and the whole piece scraped or sanded to a smooth finish. The inlay color appears as a shade of yellow, but changes to white over time. A challenge for many craftsman, the sulfur inlay process often requires extra effort as the sulfur needs to be poured at a precise temperature for optimal coverage. As a result, sulfur inlay was rarely used much beyond the borders of Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent, in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

Another unusual feature of schranks is how they were constructed. Schranks were made in such a way that they could be quickly disassembled. This method allowed for easy transport through small doorways or to upstairs bedrooms. Also, schranks normally came with hidden compartments for concealing family valuables. Unfortunately, this schrank either lost its hidden compartment in a past refurbishing or never had one to begin with. This schrank was made using black walnut, poplar and oak, and still has its original hinges and escutcheons.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.