Article by Susan MacFarlane Burke

t is generally acknowledged that folk art’s visual appeal lies with the seemingly contradictory elements of naivety and sophistication that folk brings to form and decoration. For museologists and cultural historians the fascination goes much deeper, however, into the wellspring of collective memory through cultural repetition and historical circumstance. Folk art transmits its messages in a universal language that transcends normal communication. Its strong ties to the history and traditions of its own cultural context open windows of broader understanding that take the researcher well beyond the aesthetics of the artifacts themselves.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the ethnic-German folk and decorative art collections of the Joseph Schneider Haus in Kitchener. At the heart of this nationally-certified collection assembled by well-known author and scholar Dr. Michael Bird and his wife Terry Kobayashi over a ten year period in the 1970s and early 1980s, lay an extraordinary opportunity for a neophyte community museum to acquire the Canadian Harvest Collection. It has since become the nucleus of the Museum’s stored holdings and the catalyst for careful acquisition and measured growth in subsequent years. Today these objects represent Ontario-German communities comprehensively. Augmented by the generosity of other donors they also include folk art from the other major regions of Canada that German immigrants called home, from British Columbia and the Prairie Provinces to the Maritimes.

To explore the language of folk art and to examine the notion of community memory more closely, is to track the distinct cultural elements in the decorative vocabulary of German-Canadian folk artists. One such element drawn from the Schneider Haus collections provides an exemplary and fascinating entry into the process of cultural adaptation and collective memory.
Among the ubiquitous hearts, tulips and floral flourishes of the folk art found in Germany,
Austria, Switzerland and among the German-speaking peoples of South Russia and North
America, are the bird forms that frequently enliven their designs. Generic song birds, for example,
have found their way onto the Fraktur certificates (German black-letter type often with figural
decoration), needlework designs and painted finishes of
tools and utensils fashioned by the Germans of Pennsylvania.

There, these charming little birds have become almost
universally identified as Distelfinks which directly translated
means “thistle finches” — in effect, goldfinches.
Finches were popular feathered friends in Pennsylvania
Dutchland. The bright yellow and black plumage of the
male in mating season was readily identifiable as was its
characteristic swooping flight. Farmers welcomed this little
bird’s presence since thistle finches helped rid their fields
of thistle weed and hence brought them good luck and
good fortune. Its form was also firmly embedded in memories
from childhood since “D” was for Distelfink in German
language alphabet books (ABC Bücher) from which
all German children learned their letters. When folk artists
traced this familiar bird form in their work and
reached for their paint brush however, they did not apply
the yellow and black of the American goldfinch. Instead
they chose red, painting red heads, red wings, red bodies
and red striped tails. These red and yellow finches can be
seen on the Taufschein (Baptismal Certificate) printed by
G.S. Peters of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, c.1840 and in the
Bild (picture) by Waterloo County Fraktur artist Joseph
Bauman (1815-1889) who dutifully copied them from the
printed Pennsylvania source for his baby granddaughter in
1883. The poem he penned at the bottom identifies the
birds as schöne Stieglitze — “beautiful goldfinches” — the
preferred High German name for Distelfinks.
Neither Peters nor Bauman would have observed these
red-feathered birds in the fields of their respective home
places for they are decidedly not American goldfinches. So
are they real birds at all? The answer is a qualified yes. If
not a true species, this red and yellow bird is all the same
the memory of one, the European goldfinch, that has continued
to be revived and renewed in German folk culture
in North America over the generations.

Historically, then, folk artists who chose to embellish
their work with birds, had no interest in being ornithologically
accurate. Nor would either Peters or Bauman have
employed the Distelfink as a symbol for virtue as Gutenburg
had done in his bible several centuries earlier. These artists
simply replicated forms from collective memory and tradition,
forms more frequently found in the conventions of
their past rather than in the natural world around them.

Another common bird species with more iconic status,
the eagle is an ancient motif long used in heraldry to symbolize
power and sovereignty. The double-headed version
is perhaps the most familiar of the many forms the eagle
has assumed in different cultural incarnations. First used
by the Byzantines, it appeared in the West in heraldry associated
with the Holy Roman Empire and was subsequently
used in the coats of arms of many German cities and aristocratic
families. The Russian Tsars, for example, appropriated
the double-headed eagle depicting it crowned, with
spread wings, much as it is today in the coat of arms of the
Russian Federation, the German Confederation and other
countries and territories.

Ever-present as it was to ethnic Germans whether they
were living in the fatherland, in South Russia or beyond, it
is certainly no surprise to find it appearing in the iconography
of areas to which Russian Mennonites and Doukhobors
migrated in the New World. Both found refuge in Canada’s
West from the severe persecution they had experienced
abroad so the memory of this symbol would have been
strong when Wasyl Zubenkoff, a Doukhobor of Kamsack,
Saskatchewan carved the beautifully articulated spreadwinged
eagle into the pediment of his picture frame in
1907 (illustrated page 28).

The use of the two-headed eagle emblem in the 1823
Fraktur Bild by scrivener, Abraham Clemens, is more incongruous,
for this work was the product of the less sophisticated
milieu of rural Pennsylvania. The configuration
of the outward-turned heads surmounted by the
stemmed tulips and the positioning of the wings appear to
serve the demands of pattern and symmetry within the
traditions of Germanic folk decoration rather than to
evoke the symbolic powers of the German Confederation.
Community memory was likely at work here too. The
Clemens family had been in Pennsylvania where the piece
was completed for more than a century and the ways of the
Old World were no doubt distant dreams. In fact, when
Abraham D. Clemens immigrated to Waterloo Township
(Ontario) in 1825 America’s leaders had long since invoked
the powers of a native eagle to symbolize the independence
and freedom from foreign domination the new
nation would enjoy.

In choosing the eagle that would serve as their national
symbol, Americans rejected the politics of the doubleheaded
eagle adopting instead a North American species
that was distinctive — the bald eagle. The Great Seal displayed
this American eagle, also with wings outstretched,
but arrows clutched in one claw, an olive branch in the
other surmounting a shield with thirteen stars and stripes
representing the founding thirteen states. This eagle with
the white head and tail was a bird of a different feather,
one which the common man could easily identify.

The chances of this iconic bird either appearing in
the skies of the country to the north of the New Republic or
more improbably still, finding its way into the decorative
arts of the Germanic folk of Waterloo County seems impossibly
remote, particularly after the War of 1812 and the
unpleasant encounters many migrating Pennsylvanians experienced
while journeying to Upper Canada through New
York State. The passage of the Mennonites’ wagons was
reportedly impeded by the citizens of the “Great Republic”
who upbraided the travellers for being so foolish as to emigrate
to a country that still belonged to the hated British!
But community memory can be both short and selective.

By the early 1870s, a German Lutheran by the name
of August Ploethner was weaving jacquard coverlets in
Preston, Waterloo County, in a striking design that had
seemingly equal appeal both for his Mennonite customers
of Pennsylvania origin and his Continental-German clients
(not illustrated). It featured a central medallion, grape
and vine borders, and in all four corners American eagles
complete with stars and shield. Ploethner was assuredly
not designing coverlets for the American market. In fact,
after the Civil War, the American market for handweaving
had all but dried up and weavers there were finding employment
in textile manufactories or leaving the trade altogether.
This unexpected turn-of-events meant opportunities for
Waterloo County weavers, however, some of whom actually
expanded their businesses at that time, often because of
reasonable prices from colleagues south of the border, for
redundant looms and sets of punched cards for jacquard
patterns that were time-consuming to produce.

Thus Ploethner’s trade in eagle coverlets across Waterloo
County was enlivened by American eagles well into the
twentieth century. With the introduction of central heating,
however, these cherished wool coverlets were usually retired
from winter service. If the number of eagle-patterned favourites
that have made their way to the Schneider Haus
Museum are any indication, more must still repose today in
family blanket chests around the region.

Susan MacFarlane Burke is the Manager and Curator of
Joseph Schneider Haus National Historic Site in Kitchener
and co-author of this old haus: a place in time.

Image: Fraktur of paired birds, Abraham Clemensm,
Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, dated 1823
Photograph courtesy of the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum