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What’s in a Name? Featuring the signed and dated furniture of Jacob and Elias Knagy.


Close-up of Jacob Hersperger’s desk dated 1850 by Jacob Knagy.

(Collection of Dan and Pam Freeburg).

By the early 1800s in most of the eastern United States, the communities had grown to a point where many settlers had begun to specialize in trades other than farming. These were the craftsmen who worked mostly in backyard shops to supply members of the community with the products of their trade. Cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, potters, coopers, and weavers abounded in most populated areas of the countryside by the mid-1800s to meet growing demand. Their works, many of them signed and dated, are highly sought after today by antique dealers and collectors.

In the world of antiques, a signed and dated piece is always the most desired. Whether it is an early piece of redware with a maker’s stamp; or a stoneware jug marked with the name and a local place of manufacture; or a coverlet or textile signed and dated by a weaver who only operated for a short time, those pieces having such attribution of maker, origin or ownership, are the pieces of early American country antiques that can bring frenzied bidding at auction and are prized by collectors for many reasons.

Beaded purse bearing the name of “M.A. White”, Middlebury, NY” and dated 1836.

(Collection of Dan and Pam Freeburg).

Jacob and Elias Knagy’s story

With that in mind, I offer this brief look into a tiny and virtually unknown grouping of Pennsylvania German paint-decorated country furniture known as “Knagy Furniture”. This furniture was made, painted, signed and dated by the father and son team of Jacob and Elias Knagy and is dated between about 1840 and 1870 In southern Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Although their story takes place about 325 miles from GCADA country, it illustrates the significance of signed and dated pieces of American country antiques.

Jacob and Elias Knagy were Amish-Mennonite farmers who traced their heritage to Switzerland, with the first of the family, Christian Knagy, settling in Brotherswalle Township (now Summit Township). In 1774, Christian acquired, by tomahawk claim, a tract of land two and one-half miles west of Meyersdale named Elkton. He cleared the land and erected a house and buildings on what was to remain the Knagy farm for generations to come.

Jacob Knagy was born on this Summit Township farm and spent his life at that place. In addition to being a farmer, Jacob was also a cabinetmaker and cooper. Twelve children were born to him and Veronica (Hochstedler). Their tenth child, Elias (then spelled Gnaegi), began work with his father in the cabinet shop in 1844, at the age of twelve. Records show that together they made thousands of kneelers and 1,123 rope beds, along with corner cupboards, tables, bureaus, chests, and other furniture needed by neighbors and relatives.

The Knagy’s work was of exceptional quality, with all case pieces, chest and drawers made with dovetailed or pegged joinery. The Sheraton style was usually followed in design, as exemplified by straight-front bureaus, and stands and tables featuring Sheraton turned legs with distinguishing rings near the tops. Pine, poplar and cherry woods from the family farm were used predominantly by the Knagys.

Knagy furniture is best known for its distinctive paint decoration. Red buttermilk paint with black feather-graining and black bracket feet is most commonly seen on Knagy furniture, with shades of red varying from salmon and vermillion to brown-maroon. Intricate stencil designs – in gold, silver, and black of such patterns as vines, flowers, wreaths, and geometrics– are hallmarks of Knagy pieces. The majority of Knagy furniture is also stenciled with the date of manufacture; to date, the earliest known piece is stenciled 1841 and the latest is 1868. The name of the person for whom the piece was made is also usually stenciled on the front of Knagy pieces; most often the names were those of young women about to be wed. Although names and dates are relatively common on works by the Knagys, very few pieces are actually signed. Signed Knagy furniture is always found with a “J.K.”, signifying Jacob Knagy as a maker. On signed bureaus, desks, and blanket chests are known to this author, the “J” is found on the left corner and the “K” to the right.

The Knagys relied almost solely on factory-made hardware for their furniture. With the exception of handmade strap hinges on some pre-1860 blanket chests, all other hardware used was mass-produced and probably bought by the Knagys in the nearby village of Meyersdale. Brass keyhole escutcheons, butt hinges, and pulls of wood, sandwich glass, and brass were all used.

Today, there are over 60 pieces known that were actually made by Jacob and Elias Knagy. These consist largely of bureaus and blanket chests, although a few very rare pieces attributed to the Knagys – such as a large wardrobe dated 1852, two schoolmaster’s or clerk’s desks, and a single and

double-drawer farm tables – have been located. Only two of the 1.123 beds recorded to have been made by the Knagys are known to exist.

Appropriately, many of the known pieces of Knagy furniture remain in the Knagy family, or in the families of those for whom the furniture was originally made. Others have been lost forever., while still others are yet to be discovered. In time, they too will be found, brought out, studied, and acclaimed once more. The pieces that remain speak well of the work and pride of the small father and son cabinetmaker partnership and typify the story of a growing rural America. It reminds us that their story is now ours to preserve and tell.

Dated 1850, and proudly displaying the owner’s name, “Jacob Hersperger”, this paint-decorated desk is made of cherry and eastern white pine woods. Notice the “J” and “K” on the left and right posts signifying Jacob Knagy as a maker. Fine, intricate stencils are hallmarks of Knagy’s works.

(Collection of Dan and Pam Freeburg).

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