Love signs at the heart of Pennsylvania folk art

Looking for love in all the wrong places? If plump, happy hearts give you the warm fuzzies, look no further that traditional Pennsylvania folk art.

Hearts adorn bride's chests and sewing boxes, twine around birth and baptismal notices, and give curving shape to wrought-iron trivets and door latches. Were 18th- and 19th-century locals just a happy lot? A "Yellow Submarine" society chugging along to "All You Need Is Love"?

In the heart of the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has one of the great permanent collections of regional folk art, anchored by a priceless group of objects donated by Titus C. Geesey between 1953 and 1969. Cherished by collectors, a 1982 catalog - The Pennsylvania German Collection by Beatrice B. Garvan - analyzes these wonderful objects.

Loving images pop off the pages - a painted pine door from Berks County with hearts point-to-point, sturdy stools from Lebanon and Lehigh Counties with heart cutouts on the back splats, a looking glass from Bucks with hearts and tulip, and quilts with appliqued heart repeats.

A lift-top box from the Geesey collection, painted with hearts, horses, and a central star, appeared in one of the most important 20th-century antiques reference works, The Flowering of American Folk Art (1974) by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester. The volume accompanied a groundbreaking exhibition that introduced a generation of collectors to the magic of folk art.

David Barquist, curator of American decorative arts in Philadelphia, calls the Geesey pieces "one of the seminal collections of non-urban Pennsylvania furniture and decorative arts. The collection has more than just Pennsylvania German artifacts but includes many landmark objects from that source."

Geesey was forming his collection from the 1920s to 1940s, when the getting, truly, was good. "There were wonderful things on the market," Barquist says. And the heart motif appears on object after object.

According to Barquist, heart-shaped emblems are both emotional and practical. Even schoolchildren quickly learn to execute the form. "Heart designs are not just Germanic," he says. "They're ubiquitous throughout Western culture, in part because they're easily drawn with a compass.

"They also connect to really basic human emotions and events such as marriage and birth. There's a chest out in the gallery from the Geesey collection [a Berks County example dated 1788] that has hearts going down the corners as well as at the base of the flower designs. That whole idea of love as a generator of fertility and fecundity is a pretty basic concept, especially for a chest probably connected with a marriage."

Barquist said hearts on the dower chests are not surprising: "The assumption is that they were given to a woman with the linens she would need to set up housekeeping when she marries. The chest is her private space in the house. So the imagery of the hearts and flowers has to do with wishes for a happy and fruitful marriage."

Lancaster dealers Patricia Herr and her husband, Don, are fortunate to have one of the dower chests in their personal collection. A special find, the example is decorated with a large heart, dated 1825, and the owner's name is "Elizabeth Herr," their daughter's name.

Trish Herr explains: "The heart is white, and the writing is red. This heart on the blanket chest is compass-created; most of them are. They're not long, attenuated hearts, they're big fat hearts!"

The couple will exhibit this spring at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, April 17 to 20. Among the Pennsylvania antiques recently sold by the Herrs were an unusual heart-shaped needle case, circa 1840, and an appliqued quilt with eagles and hearts, made in the 1870s by a mother for her son.

In addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Heritage Center Museum in Lancaster and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware have great collections of Pennsylvania German arts and hearts. Local artistry created unique furniture, textiles, and decorative arts as well as paper treasures such as lively family documents and intricate cut-paper Valentines.

Not surprisingly, heart shapes frequently appear on the elegant Pennsylvania German hand-painted documents called fraktur. The familiar outline often surrounds the lettering on birth and baptismal certificates, which - like the dower chests - were closely tied to family life.

In their book Fraktur: Folk Art & Family, Corinne and Russell Earnest discuss the cheerful iconography of these brightly decorated documents: "(F)lowers and birds of every color, shape, and size, that defy taxonomic classification.

"Add to this hearts, mermaids and mermen, sunbursts, geometric designs, sun and moon faces and much, much more. Almost all of the preceding were drawn for fun, to delight the eye, and to please a customer."

Equally delightful were the scherenschnitte or cut-paper love notes that Pennsylvania Germans made for their sweethearts. Given on many occasions - not just a single holiday - David Barquist says, "these were tokens of affection."

One in the Geesey collection, dated 1799, was made in Paradise Township, Lancaster County. The lacy paper has four hearts cut into the corners and the declaration "My heart within my Breast doth Ake."

Another famous example at the Winterthur Museum is the 1779 love letter made by Adam Dambach, also of Lancaster County. The romantic sentiments - this time in German - are placed within a network of hearts and flowers, carefully cut out and boldly painted with color.

Although fashions may change, hearts - aching, breaking, and soaring again - are as popular as ever. A legacy of Pennsylvania folk art, this universal symbol is still the perfect way to say just how you feel.