Four Zilm Family Chairs

‘Full hand’ armchair. Collection of the National Museum of Australia.

My first thought on seeing the photo of this chair was, “that certainly is an armchair.” It turns out that was the maker’s intention – to make a visual pun of an Armstuhl.

The chair was made by Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Zilm, known as Wilhelm, when he was in his late 60s. Three of the four chairs were later repainted and decorated by one of Wilhelm’s youngest sons.

A Very Short Zilm Family History in Australia

After King Frederick William III mandated a new Lutheran church service many “Old Lutherans” rejected the change and, to avoid persecution, decided to migrate to other countries. Groups of Old Lutherans migrated under the leadership of their pastors with many going to Australia and North America. Five members of the Zilm family left their town of Goltzen in the Brandenburg area of Prussia in early 1838: Johann Christian (known as Christian), his wife Anna Dorothea, their sons Wilhelm and Friedrich and Christian’s brother and sister.

The family sailed on the ship Bengalee and arrived at Port Adelaide in South Australia in November 1838. The Zilms and about 50 other families helped to found the town of Hanhdorf (about 28 km southeast of Adelaide). On arrival in Australia, Wilhelm was weeks short of his 11th birthday and his brother Friedrich was 7.

From Date estimate 1860s?

By 1853, the much larger Zilm family decided to go north to the Barossa Valley and helped found the community of Nain. In 1875 Wilhelm, now age 48, moved with his wife and nine of his children further north to Booleroo. He had acquired 450 acres to clear and to ultimately grow wheat.

Wilhelm (center) his wife Luise (on the right) and some of their many children, date unknown. Collection of the National Museum of Australia.

The Zilms named their Booleroo homestead Pantakora, and in addition to the family home, there was a workshop for the farm (originally the first house they built) used for equipment repairs and blacksmithing and another small building for carpentry work.

Wilhelm and his sons had both the metal and woodworking skills required to run a farm. They were able to make and repair farm equipment, furniture and other wares for the home.

When Wilhelm arrived in Australia he was of an age when a boy might enter an apprenticeship. He certainly helped his father as the newly arrived families built homes and made serviceable furniture. Wilhelm would have had ample opportunities to observe and help men who, although they originally migrated to farm, had trained as carpenters and cabinetmakers (some of whom would later resume their former occupations). Finally, he was a member of a community that migrated together and worked together for the benefit of all. Passing along needed skills, such as metal working and woodworking, was a value to the entire community.

Chairmaking at Pantakora

The woods used to make the chairs were red gum and other eucalyptus species. According to Noris Ionnou’s research, the carpentry bench was essentially a huge table with a thick red-gum top (about 20 cm) and splayed legs. With this basic setup, Wilhelm and his sons made staked tables, chairs and stools (all of which readers of this blog will be familiar).

‘Knuckle or closed fist’ chair (#1) with outward curving arms. Collection of the National Museum of Australia.

The chairs seats average 4 cm in thickness and to lighten the weight of a chair (except the “full hand” chair in the topmost photo) the central part of the underside of the seats were carved out. Seats were not saddled. Chair legs were squared or rounded and staked and wedged to the seat. The back slats all have the same shape: narrow at each end tapering to a wider middle. Two of the four chairs have two round spindles (or sticks) in the back rest. The crest rails are a tablet form and have a slight curve. Screws were used to attach the crest rail to the back slats.

Wilhelm used well-known construction techniques to make his chairs. Was a similar style made by other branches of the Zilm family or other Old Lutheran families? Did he develop the look of his chairs, or was it learned from one particular furniture maker? We don’t know, but there is a consistency in all the known chairs he made.

The carved hands aside, his chairs were a local style, made for daily use and to meet the needs of the family. The carved hands were his unique addition for his and his family’s enjoyment. In other words, Wilhelm made true vernacular chairs.

Decoration and a Few Other Details

Full hand with fingernails on the left. Knuckle or closed fist (chair No. 2) on the right.

Wilhelm made two types of chairs with hands. The “full hand” has four fingers including fingernails! As related by family members, Wilhelm carved the hands to replicate the natural action of hands draped over the end of the chair arm. He was also fashioning a visual pun: he put “arms” on an Armstuhl (armchair). This chair is also heavier than the other three and was the chair he sat in.

The other three chairs have small knuckles (or closed fists) at the end of the chair arm. The arms of one chair curve outward (chair No. 1 in the large photo above) and there are only three knuckles. This is the chair Wilhelm’s wife sat in.

‘Knuckle or closed fist’ chair (No. 2). Photo from ‘The Barossa Folk-Germanic Furniture and Craft Traditions in Australia’ by Noris Iannou.

The other two “knuckle” chairs each have four knuckles with chair No. 2 having the addition of two back spindles.

‘Knuckle or closed fist chair (No. 3). Photo from ‘The Barossa Folk-Germanic Furniture and Craft Traditions in Australia’ by Noris Ioannou.

The four chairs are dated 1895 and the original paint color was yellow. A nice, bright accent in a pre-electric and dark home interior.

There is some thought that the chairs are gendered. Wilhelm and his wife each had a specific chair and perhaps each family member had their own specific chair. It is very common for the parents to have specific chairs and the kids to each have their own until they grow up and move on (and then a younger sibling grabs that chair). I really don’t see a lot of difference between the knuckle chairs. It is one thing to make a chair for your wife, a lovely sentiment, but that does not necessarily give the chair a specific gender. Also, when the chairs were originally made they were all the same color and did not have the decorative designs we see on them today. So, I don’t see a gender factor.

Wilhelm Zilm, about 1895, State Library of South Australia.

At the time of Wilhelm’s death in 1906 (at age 78) his three youngest sons were living at Pantakora: Christian, Jack and Paul. Christian, a bachelor, inherited the farm and later left it to Jack. In 1937 Jack (also a bachelor) gave the farm to the married Paul.

Paul, the youngest son, is responsible for the designs on chairs. About 1910 the chairs were painted black. White, orange and red-brown paint was used to decorate the knuckle chairs. Other chairs he may have decorated are either in private hands, destroyed by later family members or otherwise lost.

The crest rails and the shaped back splats were outlined in orange. Legs were painted with concentric orange circles and the seats were given curved lines in orange and white. Swirls, leaf shapes, flowers and suns were in white. Dots were added to fill in the background. On his mother’s chair (chair No. 1) hearts, a common German motif, were painted on either side of the seat. (Note: design details on chairs Nos. 2 and 3 are difficult to see due to the low resolution of the photos.)

According to his family, Paul painted and decorated furniture and woodwork in the Zilm home. He also liked to carve. His designs incorporate both German motifs and elements often used in aboriginal rock, bark and body painting.

Top: detail of an X-ray style of rock painting, ca. 6000 B.C. photo from NIH, Washington, D.C. Bottom: stone hatchet, no date, acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 1987.

Outlining the shaped back splays and chair arms and then adding a central line simulates a skeleton and has similarities to the X-ray style of aboriginal painting. Outlining a figure and filling in spaces with dots are also a familiar part of aboriginal painting. Paul’s use of orange, red-brown and white, colors that can be obtained from the earth, are another element in common with aboriginal painting.

When the Zilms moved into the Booleroo area, well before full European settlement, there were still aboriginal peoples living nearby. How much contact Paul may have had with them we don’t know. But he was a creative sort and seems to have appreciated the colors and designs he saw.

Paul Zilm standing near the family home Pantakora. On the veranda is one of the chairs with carved hands (left of the blue arrow). Circa 1940. National Museum of Australia.

When the early German migrants arrived on the frontier of South Australia the first concern wasn’t to make beautiful furniture, but to build shelter. Furniture had only to be serviceable. Later, serviceable could be replaced with the familiar styles formerly made in Prussia. But as time and distance from the home country lengthened different chair styles developed. Regional differences also developed (consider the numerous variations in Welsh stick chairs). Influences from the new homeland were also absorbed by the furniture maker.

These four chairs were made when the Pantakora homestead was well settled and Wilhelm had several grown children to run the farm. After a half century of arduous work he had some time to enjoy making chairs that where a little different, a bit whimsical. He had time to indulge his sense of humor. Fifteen years after the chairs were made, Wilhelm’s youngest son, born and raised in Australia, repainted the chairs and joined symbols of the old home with the new and permanent home.

Suzanne Ellison

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13 Responses to Four Zilm Family Chairs

  1. Kerry doyle says:

    Cool history! Thanks.


  2. tsstahl says:

    Another one out of the park. Thank you.

    Wee nit: …but to built shelter.


  3. Wow, Suzanne. You really researched the heck out of this. To quote the local vernacular, wicked nice.

    I have to say, that first chair looks like it has two left hands.


    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, John. I’ve seen three photos of the ‘full hand’ chair and all were taken at the same angle. I checked the largest photo and it looks like the near finger on the chair’s right ‘hand’ is a bit short and doesn’t have a fingernail. Perhaps the end was sheared off?


  4. Al says:

    If you all are interested in Australia’s woodworking I highly recommend “ The Building of the Queensland Home”. I can’t recal the author at the moment. Was interested in the home stle for other reasons and it took me a while to get a copy, but when I did, wow! Reads like a novel with a section at the end for more info. Very interesting book. No chairs though. The body of the work really reminds me of LAPs stuff. Too bad its paperback and hard to find here. If you all are interested in the book, say so and I’ll drop my copy in the mail to you, just give it back when done. Awesome illustrations too


  5. boclocks says:

    Great article! Please keep them coming!


  6. flyandgrain says:

    I’ve grown up Lutheran and the most believable part of this is that they had three choices. Accept the new service, stop going to service, and continue with the old service, but move everything you own 3000 miles away to start a new life. Somehow, the third choice is exactly what I’d expect out of Lutheran Germans


  7. Thanks for that splendid story. I grew up with many descendants of those early Lutheran settlers around the western part of Victoria. I also lived in Adelaide, and visited Hahndorf and the Barrossa Valley. Many of the old German names of settlements in the area were changed during WW1. That was a great read.


  8. Great post. Always interested in chair history so close to home. Thanks very much.


  9. Derek Cohen says:

    Thanks for this. You can indeed see influence of the local Aboriginal art in decorating the chair backs. Look at the rock axe for similarities.
    Regards from Perth (Western Australia)


  10. John Hancock says:

    Fascinating story. I live in SA and drive through Hanhdorf on the way to work every day. It is a beautiful town with tree lined streets and many places to drink coffee or eat with a strong German heritage. I have also been to the other places mentioned. My family were also early settlers coming from England in 1839 a few years after the colony was established although the were Methodists 😉


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