“When cabbage and peas were often our best meal.” A Letter from an 18th-century Journeyman Cabinetmaker

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In late October 1716 Jacob Arend, a journeyman cabinetmaker, was 28 years old and at a crossroads. He and his fellow journeyman, Johannes Witthalm, had recently finished work on a writing cabinet. They both worked for Servacius Arend, Jacob’s older brother and the cabinetmaker to the court of Würzburg in Germany. The writing cabinet was a masterpiece but Jacob felt the need to write a letter and conceal it in the cabinet. He made sure it would not be easily found and he was very successful in this endeavor. The letter was not found until December 1967 and it wasn’t until 2014 that the letter was translated and studied.

City of Würzburg

City of Würzburg

Before examining the letter let’s take a look at the last piece Jacob and Johannes made in the Würzburg workshop. The writing cabinet is a Baroque behemouth bursting with curved surfaces and marquetry. The cabinet is almost 71 inches high (180 cm), 65 inches wide (165 cm) and the depth is almost 31 inches (78 cm). It appears to be in three pieces but is actually in two pieces. The writing cabinet was made for Jacob Gallus von Hohlach. The double doors of the top section bear von Holhlach’s arms and the writing flap his cypher — JEALUS  JACOB.

Cabinet with writing flap open.

Cabinet with writing flap open.

The carcase is pine with veneering in walnut. Marquetry woods are burr walnut, sycamore, tulipwood, boxwood, ebonized and stained woods; other materials include ivory, bone, turtle shell, pewter and brass. The cypher of von Hohlach is laid into snakewood. The drawers are lined with embossed decorative papers; cupboards are lined with red silk.

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Marquetry of Jacob Gallus von Hohlach’s arms.

Some time after the writing cabinet was finished Jacob Arend wrote his letter filling both sides of one piece of paper. The letter was put in a recess under the lower right hand drawer; the drawer can be seen when the writing flap is open. Secret compartments were not a novelty in 18th-century furniture but Jacob took the additional measure of gluing down the two pieces of wood that protected his hiding place.

Left: the base of the lower right-hand drawer. Right: the hiding place.

Left: the base of the lower right-hand drawer. Right: the hiding place.

The writing cabinet and Jacob’s letter are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This translation is provided by the V&A.

“This cabinet was made by Jacob Arend of Koblenz and Johannes Witthalm of Vienna, who are at present journeymen cabinetmakers in the service of Master Servacius Arend, court cabinetmaker in Würzburg. It was made in the year 1716, when cabbage and peas often were the best meal we could obtain. As a result we have grown so fat that we can hardly climb the stairs any more, but meat has been in very short supply for us, God pity us. There was seldom warm bread in our kitchen, but the wine has always tasted good; when we have earned one week’s wage, two have already been drunk, for wine has become dear this year with the vintage having been poor the last four years. This year there has also been a great war in Hungary against the Turks.”

On the back of the page:

“I, Jacob Arend, invented this cabinet in my own mind and have drafted it all and marked it out. I have cut it [the marquetry] with a fret-saw and shaded it. This was done in the Sander quarter, near Korn Gasse by the river Main. But neither of us will be staying here much longer. This cabinet has been completed in the winter month[s], and we would like to go elsewhere, for little meat and a great deal of cabbage and turnips have driven us out of Würzburg. We ask him who finds this note to drink our health and if we are no longer living then, may God grant us eternal rest and salvation. This 22nd day of October in the year 1716.”

Jacob’s letter gives us a window into a workshop capable of producing a writing cabinet using materials from at least three continents while the craftsmen were living in very straitened circumstances. The contrast between the rich details and opulence of the cabinet and the makers’ steady diet of cabbage and peas is startling. Jacob was working in his brother’s court-appointed workshop, which probably gave him some level of security, but had reached a point of desperation. How had living conditions deteriorated to the extent he and Johannes decided they had to leave? Life traveling from town to town seeking work was not only dangerous there was also no guarantee they would find enough work and wages to survive.

In describing their diet and lack of bread and meat Jacob gives us a key to what had happened to their food supply. In the V&A analysis the harsh winter of 1714-15 was noted as having a dire impact on the following year’s harvest. I did my own investigation to learn more about the weather conditions.

Europe at that time was in a weather pattern called the Late Maunder Minimum (LMM) also known as “The Little Ice Age.” The winter of 1714-15 was very cold and dry and the beginning of a drought that would cause crop failures. There were also more instances of forest fires. With a shortage of grains, prices were raised, farmers could afford to feed fewer livestock and grains for bread and other foodstuffs became more scarce. Drought conditions caused water levels to drop and transport of goods, including lumber, became more difficult and costly. Jacob mentions the poor grape harvest the last four years (and increased price of wine) indicating an extended period of poor crop yields. Jacob writes in a joking manner, “…we have grown so fat that we can hardly climb the stairs any more.” The V&A analysis indicated the term fat may mean bloating from the diet of cabbage and peas or could be the much more serious symptom of prolonged starvation. In the German text there is some ambiguity on whether Jacob had written about the lack of ‘broden’ (bread) or ‘braden’ (roast meat). If they were at the point of a scarcity of bread their level of hunger was more severe.

An additional factor adding instability to the region was another war with Ottoman forces. European forces led by Prince Eugene of Savoy won the Battle of Peterwardein in August 1716. The recipient of the fancy cabinet (von Hohlach) supplied troops and supplies to Prince Eugene and this likely caused an additional drain on local resources.

Based on the workmanship in the writing cabinet and the fact that Jacob was from Koblentz it is thought he may have trained in Mainz (further up the river Main). As journeymen Jacob and Johannes probably had some familiarity with the conditions and dangers they would face once they became itinerant craftsmen. Besides the hunger they were suffering, I wonder if the workshop had already experienced a significant decrease in the quantity of work coming in. Also, Jacob was a bachelor and may have thought about how he could reduce the economic burden on his brother’s family. One or two less mouths to feed could certainly make a difference.

With the writing cabinet completed and the decision made to leave the shop, Jacob wrote his “message in a bottle.” I don’t see any great mystery on why he wrote his letter and why he hid it. The workshop had endured months of growing hunger while building a magnificent monster. Facing an extremely difficult and perilous future Jacob was saying “I was here and I made this!” The cabinet was his design; he worked on the marquetry and the veneer. He was proud of the cabinet while at the same time very aware that it might be the last piece he would ever make. As a journeyman this was the only way he had of signing his work. Jacob built the cabinet with his talent and sweat and with the letter he was adding one last and very personal part of himself to the piece. He wanted to be remembered.

So what happened to the two journeymen? There is no other record of Johannes Witthalm. Ten years after leaving Würzburg Jacob Arend was appointed cabinetmaker at the court of Fulda and in 1744 he died at age 56. Two years later his son, Carl Philip, was appointed cabinetmaker to the court at Fulda.

City of Fulda

City of Fulda

The owner of the Würzburg writing cabinet, von Hohlach, was booted out of his position not long after the cabinet was completed. The cabinet and other court furniture were sold to England early in the 19th century when Würzburg became part of Bavaria. The last English owners were the Gibbons. The cabinet is in the background of the 1846 painting “The Shell” by Charles Robert Leslie (commissioned by John Gibbons).  On December 26, 1967 two young Gibbons boys were searching for secret compartments and found Jacob Arend’s letter. The cabinet was loaned to the V&A in 1968 and sold to the museum in 1977.

Suzanne Ellison

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26 Responses to “When cabbage and peas were often our best meal.” A Letter from an 18th-century Journeyman Cabinetmaker

  1. allanb48 says:

    Fascinating story! Thank you, Suzanne.

  2. southernwill says:

    Just beautiful (both the story and the craftsmanship). Also interesting to me is his hand. I have read a lot of early eighteenth-century German letters, from folk a great deal more educated than poor Jacob, and mostly they’re a lot less legible.

  3. mnrwoods says:

    Ecclesiastes 3:9: What gain has a worker from his toil?

    There is nothing new under the sun.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this post with us! By far one of the best post on period Americana I’ve ever read.

  5. Eric R says:

    This was great !
    Excellent window into the past.
    Thank you Suzanne.

  6. Incredible. I can’t even fathom the hours of work that went into a masterpiece like this. To think of the conditions that the craftsmen were working under makes it all the more impressive. It’s almost depressing to realize that I’m four years older than the badass who designed and built this thing.

  7. Fascinating piece. Thank you so much. Ms Ellison, you’re a great writer.

  8. Doug Mckay says:

    But, but, but how did he do this without Festool, or Grizzly, or a drum sander, or electricity, or indoor plumbing……. Simply mind boggling! Love your posts Suzanne!

  9. tsstahl says:

    I hereby christen October 22d to be Jacob Arend day. It is to be celebrated by hoisting a pint to his memory, and building a Baroque masterpiece. Beer being in greater supply than turtle shell, you can adopt the practice of fishermen and lie about the Baroque masterpiece.

    Also, hilarious that centuries of educated people used this thing and a couple of snotnosed brats with more curiosity than education found the letter. OK, I’m sure they were fine young men, but that wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

    Thank you, Ms. Saucy; another great find.

    • saucyindexer says:

      When I finished gathering my notes for this post I did have a beer in honor of Jacob. Your suggestion is excellent and next year will be the 300th anniversary of Jacob’s note.

  10. This is a very interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    Ms. Ellison mentioned the carcase is pine veneered in walnut. My memory recalled what Roubo said about woods “appropriate to receive veneerwork…” Other Roubo fans can see on page 50 of To Make As Perfectly As Possible Roubo writes, “I said…that the appropriate woods for construction of frames are soft oak, pine, linden and all other soft and dry woods. However, you must pay attention that only the first, that is to say, the oak, that one [should] use for works of any consequence. The others, however light and little troublesome they are, are not solid enough to make excellent work. That is why one should never use another wood than oak when the frames [cases] are appropriate for joined works, such as bureaus, secretaries, etc.”

    And yet here we have a very fine writing cabinet with excellent construction and veneering with the carcase made of pine.

    I don’t necessarily want to start a debate on appropriate woods for veneered case pieces. My main point is that it is easy to interpret what our heroes say as infallible gospel truth. As modern woodworkers, we should listen to the old men but always think for ourselves.

    As a side note, over the past year I have made many pieces where I veneered over solid wood…primarily using wooden staves as my substrate. So far these pieces have gone through several seasons without wood movement causing the veneer bond to fail or split. I have found many advantages to using solid wood substrates rather than plywood. Perhaps this is a topic worthy of another post?

    -Jack Ipekjian
    Pasadena Woodworks

  11. Thank you, Suzanne. These little tid bits of history offer tons of invaluable information, as Mr. Ipekjian pointed out above. It’s fascinating to see how our ancestors in the trade worked to survive, and provide the world with beautiful, and functional, pieces of work.

  12. artisandcw says:

    Saucy

    A mot excellent posting. I love getting this glimpse into the lives of the citizens of the past, especially artisans from my own tradition. Some years ago there was a book with a remarkable title, “The Past Is A Foreign Country” that might have been an exquisite peek into the past, but alas it was merely modern psycobabble imposed on historical societal patterns. A true wasted opportunity.

    As for the hidden letter, that is the very literary device behind my own in-process novel “Reisener’s Legacy,” wherein a furniture conservator walks a young protege through the process of restoring a French marquetry cabinet and finds a letter that changes the course of human history. And, the bodies pile up. Some day I will return to that manuscript and finish it, to be either LAP’s second work of fiction or something I serialize on my own blog.

    DCW

  13. Marion Ros says:

    Well, a diet consisting of nothing but carbohydrates (and a bit of veggie protein) might actually make you fat, I’m just sayin’…

    Next year, on october 22nd, I will lit a candle and raise a glass in honor of Jacob Arend and all of the ‘small people’ who could not leave their mark on history but whose lives certainly mattered.

  14. Astounding example of how far this craft has risen, and evolved.
    Even though their age was comparible to modern day middle age, it is hard to imagine they were only considered as itenerate journeyman. Probably apprentices at 6 or7 years of age.
    Even today in respectable shops the plight of notable craftsman struggle to survive.
    Working for food in a Royal court shop only to survive. Tough , tough life and still they loved there
    craft enough to be proud of the work they gave away.
    Pride with humility at the very core of their endeavor.
    ATB

  15. Brian Eve says:

    Thanks for this. I found it fascinating to read, having been and spent time in nearly all of the places mentioned. Wuerzburg is definitely excellent wine country, and a couple vintages of wine that were poor very definitely would be bad for morale.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I spent a few years in this area of Germany when I was a kid and that made Jacob’s story all the more interesting to me. And…the local wines are wonderful.

  16. glinka21 says:

    Well researched, beautifully illustrated, clearly and carefully written with an unusually gripping subject. Very nice job, indeed.

    I have one question, though: if the letter was discovered in 1967, why did it wait until 2014 for translation? Did the ink and paper deteriorate so badly over the years that some kind of digital reconstruction, possibly with the aid of x-rays, proved necessary?

    • saucyindexer says:

      The basic word-for-word translation was likely done prior to 2014 but the meaning behind phrases such as ‘cabbage and peas’ and their context were not understood, and therefore no real work on the letter was done until 2014. The V&A, like most large museums, has a vast inventory of items that are waiting for more study. Detailed translations and studies of documents like this are many times done by visiting scholars and graduate students. Sometimes documents like Jacob’s letter are bundled with family papers and are hidden until a researcher, usually loking for something else, stumbles upon a better treasure.

  17. paul6000000 says:

    This post was a big favourite over on Metafilter but one of the pointy headed copy editors had to mention that “straightened” circumstances should actually be “straitened”. You’re welcome.

  18. wallachuck says:

    Thank you for this most interesting look into the lives of craftsmen who have gone before and created works of art as well as the epitome of crafts excellence. The piece reminded me of the intriguing pieces by Abraham and David Roentgen of Neuwied on the Rhine roughly in the same time frame. A display of these pieces was presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Winter of 2012-13. It was titled “Extravagant Inventions – The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens” and is worth a look or two especially for the automation of the pieces.

    May I ask if your source material was from the V&A Museum? or was it from further research by you or others? Just curious. A brilliant article!

    Chuck

    • saucyindexer says:

      Chuck, I have been accumulating information on 18th c. Mainz-area cabinetmakers for a while (I lived in that area for a few years as a kid so it will always interest me). The marquetry they produced is extraordinary. I came across the letter on the V&A site and that led me to research weather shifts in Europe causing agriculture shortages, access to materials and population movements. I wanted to know how bad were the conditions faced by Jacob Arend. The V&A paper focused on the emotional life of artisans. I wanted the facts that drove Jacob’s decision.

  19. gblogswild says:

    Oct 22, 2016. Pint. Got it. Does it have to be German? Could it be dark, and a quart? These are important details.

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