Henry L. Lapp: Carpenter-Cabinetmaker, Artist, Inventor

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Although Henry Lapp’s craftsmanship was long celebrated in his Amish community, it wasn’t until the 1970s that he was “discovered”. Prior to an auction of a scrapbook of small paintings (found by a collector in the 1920s) an exhibit of his art work was held and a new folk artist had arrived. In 1975 a facsimile edition of his handbook of designs for furniture and household items was published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the work of a 19th century craftsmen was found.

Henry’s handbook came to light in the 1950s when a descendant sold a bureau he had made to a dealer. Inside one of the drawers was a  4-1/2″ x 8″ softcover book with Henry’s stamp on the cover. In 1958 the handbook was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Henry Lapp's Handbook

Henry Lapp’s Handbook

The handbook is filled with Henry’s drawings of chests, washstands, desks, boxes, games and toys and a variety of items for use on the farm and in the home. Henry painted each piece in bright colors and often with painted patterns. The handbook was his commercial catalog showing the wide range of goods he could make for his customers. The image above is a great example of the furniture and household items he offered, as well as the exuberance of his color combinations. There is absolutely no reason the boxes used for gathering fruits and vegetables can’t be yellow and green, or for that matter, purple and green. Do you need a seed cabinet? How about a nice orange and yellow combination? A little wagon in red? Let me show you one in green.

Henry Lapp was born in 1862 in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and was fifth-generation Old Order Amish. He was born deaf and at least partially mute. Based on the number of his paintings that have surfaced in the last 30-40 years he seems to have drawn and painted from an early age. He was not alone in his artist takents. Besides raising a large family his mother was known as a gifted textile artist and his sister was also a painter. We don’t know for sure if Henry learned his trade from his father or was apprenticed to a carpenter or cabinetmaker. In the 1890 local business directory he was listed as a carpenter; six years later he was listed as a cabinetmaker.

In 1884 Henry’s father, Michael, died. Several years later his mother remarried and within a short time Henry bought about 10 acres of land from his step-brother. His property was right along the Philadelphia Pike in Bird-in-Hand where he built a house, a carriage barn and a cabinet shop. At the front of his shop he had a store for hardware and paint. Eventually he added a windmill to the top of his shop to provide power for his saws and lathes. In an interview for an article in Folk Art Magazine a family member said if Henry was at a social gathering and happened to notice a rise in the wind he would leave and go to his shop to cut lumber.

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Henry was known to be friendly and outgoing and liked to travel to visit friends and relatives in Amish communities in Indiana, Ohio and Canada. He made trips to Philadelphia to take his pieces to market and to restock items for his hardware store. He also picked up ideas to incorporate into his furniture designs. Beatrice B. Garvin curated the facsimile edition of Henry’s handbook and noted that his washstand designs were more typical of large urban houses. She also noted the carrot-shaped foot and bulbous rounded foot on some of his pieces were variations of models made in mahogany and rosewood by Philadelphia cabinetmakers. Henry’s flat areas of color were more typical of Welsh settlers east of Lancaster County rather then the painted figures of the old Germanic tradition.

Henry’s paintings included animals, plants, flowers and reproductions of advertisements. His reproduction of an old campaign flyer for the 1868 presidential campaign shows his love of color and eye for detail. By making a quilt of the eagle’s feathers he added color and impact. I think he was also having some fun.

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On the other hand, his study of deer is a quiet observation of nature with varying shades of brown paint helping to differentiate each animal (and the antlers and ears of the buck).

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Of the many items Henry offered for sale a few pieces are my favorites: an eggbeater, bread toasters, an apparatus for washing day (otherwise known as a laundry rack), a choice of ladders in yellow or green and his wheelbarrows. There is also a bit of whimsey in his page showing a variety of picture frames. Henry painted some pictures in a few of the frames.

Henry was also an inventor. In February 1899 he was issued a patent for an improved shutter bolt to better secure the heavy wooden shutters commonly found on homes.

In 1904, about six weeks before his 42nd birthday, Henry died of lead poisoning  from exposure to the paints he mixed. Because he never married his estate was auctioned. An inventory of his shop included chests with woodworking tools, circular saws, a mortise cutter, mortising jack, molding machine, 2 grinding stones, lumber and supplies. Henry’s apprentice, Noah Zook, bought much of the shop equipment and furniture patterns and opened his own shop a few miles down Philadelphia Pike.

A few years ago I was introduced to Henry’s handbook by a coworker from the Lancaster County area: “You don’t know Henry? You have to have a copy of his book!” Chris Schwarz knew Henry’s artwork but wasn’t aware of his furniture handbook. If you don’t know Henry he is waiting for you to discover him and his world. I don’t think you will be disappointed. After all, the slogan above the entrance to Henry’s store was “There is none that equals.”

Suzanne Ellison

P.S. The gallery has a selection of Henry’s work. If you want more, the Philadelphia Museum of art has all 47 pages of Henry’s handbook online here. Copies of “A Craftsman’s Handbook” published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Tinicum Press are still available (watch out for gougers). This facsimile edition includes short notes on each piece by curator Beatrice Garvan. Good Reads, a small publisher in Lancaster County, also published a softcover edition.

 

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8 Responses to Henry L. Lapp: Carpenter-Cabinetmaker, Artist, Inventor

  1. Keep these historical bio’s coming! Simply fascinating and really appreciate your approach in posting them.

  2. Thanks for this post, Suzanne. And for introducing me to Lapp. The book of his designs is well worth owning. Not only is the content excellent, but the book is very well put together.

  3. Thank you for the introduction. >

  4. Any clue what the “broom handle” in the picture with the desk is? It looks suspiciously like a polissoir. I can’t figure out what else it could be.

    For some reason I have an overwhelming desire to build a wheelbarrow right now. A bright yellow one.

    • saucyindexer says:

      From the notes by curator Beatrice Garvan: Handles for brooms and other items were made by tightly binding small round dowels together. Please do make a yellow wheelbarrow and think about adding some orange accents!

      • Thanks, I never would have guessed that. So guess the picture just shows a short cross-section, then? Very interesting way to make a broom handle. I’ll add the wheelbarrow to the end of my queue. Look for it in about seven years!

  5. twgoebel40 says:

    Very, very interesting as are all of your posts. Thank you and keep it up.

  6. tsstahl says:

    The settee and the desk that opens to reveal a well instead of writing surface intrigues me.

    Thanks for the information.

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