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Friday, June 9, 2023

The Harmony Society and their Furniture

Above: Detail of figure 9.

by Philip D. Zimmerman

Fig. 1: Harmonie, Pennsylvania. Drawn by Wallrath Weingärtner (1795–1873), 1833. Ink and watercolor on paper, 21-3/4 x 17-7/8 inches. Courtesy, Old Economy Village (

Guided by spiritual leader George Rapp (1757–1847), a community of German Lutheran separatists, numbering some five hundred emigrants, gathered in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1804 to trek westward. Their destination was land they had purchased about thirty-five miles north of Pittsburgh, where they intended to settle and pursue their religious lifestyle. Early the following year they contracted among themselves to form the Harmony Society headed by Rapp and “his associates,” to whom they transferred all their worldly assets and pledged obedience. In return, they were promised “all the necessaries of life…as well in sick as healthful days,”1 along with Rapp’s spiritual guidance and apocalyptic teachings. Surviving near financial ruin at the outset, the society built Harmonie (Fig. 1), the first of three settlements, and prospered. Within ten years, rising prices of land around Harmonie undermined expansion. More important, the site lacked navigable waters and adequate fall to power mills. In 1814, the Harmonists relocated to New Harmony along the Wabash River in Indiana Territory. Once more they built a thriving settlement, following their creed to provide essentials for themselves and to sell surpluses to outsiders. They manufactured textiles, produced alcoholic beverages, and made iron and tin wares, shoes and leather goods, soap, candles, and a variety of other goods for sale locally, as well as to distant stores they owned and operated, and, in the case of flour and textiles, to Nashville and New Orleans.

Fig. 2: Harmonist church (now St. John’s Lutheran Church, Ambridge) and street, Economy, Pennsylvania. Old Economy Village Archives. Courtesy, Old Economy Village Collection. Harmonist houses were oriented away from the street and towards their gardens.

Manufacturing successes bred raw material shortages. Ten years later, the Harmony Society moved again—and for the last time—to land along the Ohio River about eighteen miles north of Pittsburgh. The new town, named Economy, once more boasted factories, granaries, mills, a church and communal buildings, an inn for visitors, houses (of which about eighty still survive in present-day Ambridge), vineyards, and orchards (Fig. 2), and a printing press, which remains in its original setting. The first floor of the Feast Hall (built in 1827 and still standing), had practice rooms for the society’s orchestra and a museum, open to the public, which displayed paintings, engravings, and natural history collections. Moreover, the society commissioned renowned Philadelphia sculptor William Rush to execute “a colossal statue” described only as a “water lady with the harp” for installation in the stone grotto erected in formal gardens along the Ohio River.2 Regrettably, neither the sculpture nor images of it survive.

Fig. 3: Clothespress, Harmony or New Harmony, 1808–1825. Cherry and maple; maple-and-walnut banding; with tulip poplar and white pine. H. 77-3/8, W. 49-3/4, D. 22-7/8 in. Courtesy, Old Economy Village. Photography by Will Brown.

Now muted with age, this clothespress has coved maple boards in the base and cornice that contrast with cherry used elsewhere. Casters are original.

Despite a schism within the society in 1832; the death of Frederick Rapp, Harmonist business leader and George Rapp’s adopted son, in 1834; George Rapp’s death in 1847, and numerous other challenges, the Harmony Society survived through the end of the century. As membership aged and diminished due to celibacy and admission restrictions, mill production declined, and Harmonist leaders invested in oil and railroads instead. Estimated at seventy members in 1879, the society finally dissolved in 1905. Protracted discussions between the last Harmony trustee, John S. Duss (1860–1951), and the State of Pennsylvania achieved agreement in 1916, when the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (which added “and Museum” to its name at that time) assumed ownership of the core real estate comprising six acres and seventeen buildings, to be called Old Economy Village. After further negotiations, Duss transferred all “relics and furnishings of the said Harmony Society which were in use before its dissolution” to Pennsylvania state in 1937 for $1.

The manuscript and artifactual collections at Old Economy Village document all aspects of Harmony Society life and culture. Manuscript cataloguing began in the late 1930s as a Works Progress Administration Museum Extension Program. After decades of sporadic efforts, cataloguing and microfilming was completed in 1982.3 Between 1965 and 1987, historian Karl J. R, Arndt published a history of the society and seven substantial compilations of documents. Cataloguing of artifacts continues as new objects come to light. Today, Old Economy Village preserves and makes available to visitors the buildings, furnishings, and substantial manuscript holdings, but the enormity of the site and its remarkable collections elude casual inspection. It is an entire community captured in time. Object categories include ceramics, glass, and kitchenwares, paintings and works on paper (including paintings and drawings that were executed under tutelage of the society’s art teacher), woodworking tools, and furniture and textiles of Harmonist manufacture.

Fig 4: Blanket chest, probably New Harmony, 1815–1825. Tulip poplar. H. 22-1/2, W. 40-1/2, D. 19-3/8 in. Collection of John and Sadie Kroeck. Photography by Will Brown.

“C F”, for Conrad Feucht, is painted on the outside of the backboard. Feucht and Hildegart Mutschler left the Society in 1829 to marry but were allowed to rejoin a few years later. The chest descended through the Feucht and Mohn families of Leetsdale until acquired by the present owner.

In addition to wool and cotton textiles, documented by samples, dyes and formulas, and records, Harmonists were at the forefront of the silk-cultivation craze in the United States. Frederick Rapp wrote in the news weekly Niles Register, “in the spring of 1828 we made a small beginning to raise silk worms, which has been attended with good success.” Their first silk products were handkerchiefs distributed among society members. By 1830 Rapp reported, “[we] have at this time, near one million of worms, in a prosperous condition.”4 Although silk manufacturing never became a significant source of Harmonist revenues, George Rapp sent gifts of their silk to Pennsylvania governor Joseph Ritner in 1837 and to President John Tyler in 1841 as encouragements for domestic production and protective tariffs.

In contrast to many other products made by Harmonist tradesman, “who serve[d] not only their own community, but also the surrounding country,”5 Harmonist furniture was not offered for sale in outside markets. Consequently, it embodies their values unadulterated by customer preferences: it was “simple, but wholesome and substantial,” as one traveler described it in 1842.6 Although the furniture did not express stylishness, it exhibited admirable workmanship, creativity, and beauty.

Fig. 5: Square-back bench, New Harmony or Economy, 1815–1830. Walnut, maple, and white pine; with oak battens. H. 40-1/4, W. 78-1/4, D. 18-1/4 in. Courtesy, Old Economy Village. Photography by Will Brown.

The underside of the right stretcher exhibits bold yellow stripes outlined in black or dark green against a red field, documenting the vibrant colors this bench once displayed. The opposite side stretcher is a replacement.

Conventional decorative arts strategies for identifying and interpreting Harmonist furniture are not very useful. Society members owned everything in common, so identification associated with individual objects rarely exists. The very few initials and names on furniture seem to have occurred when members left the community for some reason. Because members did not incur indebtedness, there was no reason to take an inventory of personal property at death or leave a will to guide distribution of personal assets. Voluminous society records survive of agricultural and industrial activities, but little mention is made of everyday things made for consumption within the community. Personal letters and papers are not known except those related to Rapp and a few other leaders. Finally, daily life within the Harmonist community was different than that outside. Visitors to Economy noted that Harmonist life was somber, even somewhat peculiar. Reflecting this inattention to changing worldly fashions around them, a Society member recalled in 1874, “We were brought up to be economical; to waste is a sin; we live simply; and each has enough, all that he can eat and wear, and no man can use more than that.”7

Fig. 6: Tall clock, New Harmony or Economy, 1820–1830. Eight-day brass movement with painted iron dial. Grain-painted white pine, cherry, and cherry veneer case. H. 96-5/8, W. 19-3/8, D. 10-7/8 in. Courtesy, Old Economy Village. Photography by Will Brown.

Without maker’s names on specific pieces of furniture and without verifiable individual purchase records and histories of ownership, identification of Harmonist-made furniture depends largely upon sorting through all that survives at Old Economy Village and the other two settlements, now called Historic Harmony and Historic New Harmony. Accurate provenance within the society is indispensable, as is careful examination and comparison to non-Harmonist furniture. Harmonists made most of their furniture but also purchased furniture from outside the community. Additionally, as nonmembers increasingly occupied Harmonist dwellings through the nineteenth century, their non-Harmonist furnishings mixed in. Despite this “contamination” of the site furniture, consistent shared construction and design details point to Harmonist origins. Made almost exclusively of walnut or cherry or of painted pine or occasionally tulip poplar, Harmonist furniture used similar molding profiles, bracket foot profiles, and baluster and other distinctive turnings. Backboards and drawer bottoms were nailed in place rather than slid in grooves. Drawer runners and other structural elements were cut from substantially larger pieces of wood than was customary, reflecting the Harmony Society’s status as a regional supplier of lumber.

Harmonist furniture generally followed eighteenth-century Germanic designs and construction. The largest examples were clothespresses or wardrobes used for clothes rather than the various cases of drawers common in Anglo-American households (Fig. 3). The many blanket chests among Old Economy Village furnishings attested to the longevity of that form in this community as well (Fig. 4). Tables were almost always variations of rectangular frames supported by square-tapered legs. Their broadly overhanging tops were attached by pins through the table sides and cleats dovetailed to the undersides at each end. In addition to slat-back chairs, Windsors, and plank-seated chairs, Harmonists made square-back Windsor benches (Fig. 5). They survive in numbers that suggest use in most, if not all, Harmonist households. Despite all of the furniture made by Harmonist woodworkers for fellow members—generally estimated at eight hundred—no two tables, case pieces, or other furniture forms (except sets of chairs) were the same. This stands in marked contrast to the innovative and efficient production practices that characterized the immensely successful textile and other Harmonist industries.8 Furniture, made almost exclusively for the community, was not subject to profit motives and Frederick Rapp’s capable supervision. Instead, it was made piece-by-piece without the savings of standardization and related efficiencies.

Because the scale of furniture production in the Harmony settlements was modest, makers were not predominantly furniture- or cabinetmakers (although occasional written records reference “cabinetmakers” within the society). Harmonist account books characterized woodworkers more accurately as carpenters, joiners, and turners. The tasks of these craftsmen included constructing the many Harmonist buildings, fitting out building interiors, fabricating industrial equipment, making wheels, keeping everything in repair—and making furniture. Unusual case construction (e.g., the base is built out with two additional boards laminated to the waist boards) and the turning profile of the colonnettes in the bonnet, confirm Harmonist manufacture of this imposing tall clock (Fig. 6). The clock movement never had a strike train, date wheel, or second hand. Woodworking proficiencies in Harmonist furniture exhibit ranges of skill.

Fig. 8: Chest of drawers, Harmony, New Harmony, or Economy, 1810–1830. Walnut; cherry, walnut, and maple banding and stringing; with tulip poplar and white pine. H. 40, W. 41-1/8, D. 20-3/4 in. Courtesy, Old Economy Village. Photography by Will Brown.

Sometimes, Harmonist furniture acknowledges Anglo-American designs and the fashionable world outside. An attractive cherry candlestand with a baluster shaft of distinct Harmonist shape (note the reverse flare at the bottom) imitates other examples (Fig. 7), but unusual construction techniques betray the maker’s inexperience fabricating this common form: the legs slide into channels so short that screws were necessary at the tops; “short grain” on the legs risks breakage; and the enclosed box at the top lacks a drawer or any kind of access. An inlaid chest of drawers (Fig. 8) looks like other Western Pennsylvania cabinetwork, but its resemblance ends there. It is built like a clothespress, having a top board dovetailed to the sides, which extend to the floor. The bottom board slides in a channel, rather than also being dovetailed. Otherwise, it is an elegantly fabricated object with mitered blind dovetails and paneled backboards and drawer bottom undersides.

Fig. 7: Candlestand, Economy, 1825–1835. Cherry. H. 30-3/8, W. 12-5/8, D. 12-5/8 in. Courtesy, Old Economy Village. Photography by Will Brown.
Fig. 9: Shadow box, Economy, 1825–30. Cherry, maple; white pine. H. 25-1/8, W. 15-1/4, D. 5-3/4 in. Collection of Bob and Patty Clendennen. Photography by Will Brown.

The present owners acquired the box from antiques dealer Mary Robbins who bought it in the 1930s from a member of the Mueller family of Harmonists.

Last, a unique and expressive shadow box (Fig. 9), whose specific function remains unknown, derives from contemporary clock bonnets. The pediment bust may represent Sophia—the embodiment of spiritual wisdom, or Harmonie—representing communal love and respect.

The story of Harmonist furniture is just beginning to take shape. Further research and interpretation will unlock more mysteries. Other aspects of Harmony life and material culture await detailed investigation and careful assessment. The long-term success of the Harmony Society underscores its importance in the history and material culture of the Midwest in the nineteenth century.

Old Economy Village, located in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and open mid-March through December 31, is a National Historic Landmark site and is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. A detailed study of the society’s furniture was undertaken by the author and is published as Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society (UPNE, 2010). For more information call 724.266.4500 or visit

Philip D. Zimmerman is a museum and decorative arts consultant and early American furniture broker in Lancaster, PA, and is the author of Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society.

1. The contract, written in German, was signed in Harmony on February 15, 1805. John Archibald Bole, The Harmony Society (Philadelphia: Americana Germanica Press, 1904), 8.

2. Vincennes Western Sun, August 13, 1825, as quoted in Karl J. R. Arndt, George Rapp’s Harmony Society, 1785–1847 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965),344; letter from J. Solms to Frederick Rapp, July 5, 1825, as transcribed in Karl J. R, Arndt, Harmony on the Wabash in Transition, 1824-1826: A Documentary History (Worcester, Mass.: Harmony Society Press, 1982), 577. This commission is not listed in the published canon of William Rush sculpture.

3. Guide to the Microfilmed Harmony Society Records 1786–1951 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1983), 6–12.

4. Niles Register (August 14, 1830): 441.

5. Aaron Williams, The Harmony Society at Economy, Penn’a. Founded by George Rapp, A.D. 1805 (Pittsburgh: W.S. Haven, 1866), 54.

6. James S. Buckingham, The Eastern and Western States of America, vol. 2 (London 1842), 217.

7. Quoted in Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States, from personal visit and Observation (New York: Harper, 1875), 90.

8. Frederick Rappwas asked to testify about wool manufacture before the “Committee of Manufactures” of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1828.