The Amish take great pride in their traditional lifestyle and they also take great pride in their woodworking skills, passed on from generation to generation. After being a secret for hundreds of years, Amish furniture is now prized the world over for its beauty and durability, handcrafted from hardwoods such as red oak and maple for lasting value. In addition, the Amish specialize in certain pieces that modern factories can't duplicate, such as very large dining tables, bentwood rockers, and clock cases. All of this comes naturally to this unique culture, because furniture making has always been integral to the Amish identity and economy.
In the late 1600s, the Amish splintered from the Mennonites. Both were Anabaptists who believed in adult baptism and strict rules of conduct, and they were often persecuted in Europe. They took to heart a verse in the Bible from II Corinthians 6:17: "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." So they formed their own farming communities and learned to be self-sufficient, making their own furniture, candles, cloth, and tools. Even staying to themselves, the Amish people were persecuted in Switzerland, Germany, and other parts of Europe. When William Penn claimed that his new state across the Atlantic would offer religious freedom, they fled to America around 1730.
Now the Amish live in 220 different settlements in 22 US States, plus Ontario, Canada, but most people are familiar with their large communities in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Amish shun modern conveniences in everyday life and only use telephones and public transportation when it is absolutely essential. They adhere to strict codes of dress and conduct, and they believe in hard work, frugality, and living in harmony with nature. This austere lifestyle is balanced by a vibrant artistic vision that has created memorable works of art in furniture, ceramics, weaving, and quilting. The love of manual labor and a respect for rural traditions has resulted in homespun crafts that are eagerly sought by the rest of the world.
Throughout the centuries, there have been memorable schools of Amish-Mennonite furniture makers in the US, such as the Soap Hollow craftsmen and the Jonestown movement. Many of these pioneer woodworkers used geometric patterns and simple compass spirals, as well as flowers, birds, and other representational motifs. Today the Amish build solid wood furniture in all kinds of styles, from Mission to Bon Bell, French Country, McCoy, Adirondack and Chippendale. But they have never lost track of their humble beginnings. In fact, being humble and productive are canons of the Amish faith, and so is passing on skills and knowledge.
For an Amish child, schooling in a one-room schoolhouse or home usually ends after the eighth grade, and that is when many of them become apprentices to master craftsmen. They learn how to hew, join, and sand wood products the old-fashioned way, with never a shortcut taken for the sake of convenience. There are not any smokestacks or assembly lines in an Amish community. The person building a bentwood rocking chair has no doubt built hundreds of them, starting during his apprentice years and working up to the status of master craftsman. One artisan might specialize in a particular piece of furniture, such as corner cabinets, making them all one at a time, by himself. Other craftsmen work together in the communal spirit for which the Amish are famous, creating furniture that's intended to last a lifetime. Each piece is unique.
Although they always meet the needs of their community first, the Amish are accustomed to selling goods to the general population. The discovery of folk and decorative arts during the 1920s gave a big push to the popularity of Amish oak furniture, and sales have produced a positive cash flow ever since. Not even their famous roadside stands that offer fruits and vegetables, crafts, and kitchen goods can equal the welcome income from furniture. The Amish do not need much from the outside world, but a little cash is always useful to buy raw materials. Online shopping has made their unique creations even more accessible to the rest of the world, but the buyer should beware. There are poor-quality fakes of Amish furniture on the market, often made in China.
One good way to find the genuine article is to look for the unique family-centered traditions of real Amish furniture. The Amish have large families who enjoy dining together, plus they often worship in their homes and educate their children there. Therefore, they have a fondness for large tables with many leaves. Most Amish homes have movable interior walls to allow placement of a large table, seating 22 or more. Many businesses have found that sturdy Amish tables are more practical for the conference room or meeting areas than regular office furniture. Remember that the Amish create unique benches, hutches, sideboards, corner cabinets, and other accessories that are not found in the catalog of a typical furniture company. That's how to tell them apart.
Remember that the Amish lifestyle is one of choice. They are Anabaptists, which means they practice adult baptism instead of infant baptism. This is an important distinction, because only adults can make an informed decision about being baptized and committing to the Amish faith. Before they are baptized, teenagers are encouraged to sample life in the outside world in an experimental period called rumspringa. That translates to "running around" in the old Pennsylvania Deutsch tongue. The youths are still bound by their traditional rules, but they are in the outside world, living, dressing, and behaving as regular young people. It is a good chance to find out how the rest of the world lives, so they will not be curious about it for the rest of their lives. Rumspringa is over when the young person decides to be baptized into the church and stay permanently in Amish society. Roughly, 80% choose to remain Amish.
So the Amish woodworker has made a conscious decision to excel at this time-honored craft, by building handsome furniture today and by educating young people to carry on the tradition. With the belief that manual labor is a virtue, comes the certainty that every piece of furniture is a testament to Amish faith and skill.
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