NEW YORK – Literally translated as scissors (scheren) and cuttings (schnitte), scherenschnitte came to America with German-speaking immigrants (most from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in the 1700s. While it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, especially Lancaster County, it spread to Virginia and other states. Typically, scherenschnitte is made by cutting a single sheet of paper, with all parts connected, into designs. These elaborate cut work pieces, including love letters, birth and family lineage records and valentines, are highly collectible.
Signed antique and vintage examples can bring over well $10,000 and private collectors as well as museums appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that goes into these works.
“The focus isn’t necessarily on the motif or the decoration, but rather on the skill of the artist and the intricacy of the cuts, the addition of other cut pieces: Did they include watercolor, pin pricks, layers, etc. … ?” said Christina Westenberger, assistant manager, museum education, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Decorative elements were limited only by the artist’s imagination but certain motifs were common such as birds, hearts and flowers with fantastic beasts and creatures sometimes seen. Similar decoration styles often appear in fraktur and painted furniture, she said.
“Scherenschnitte has its roots in Germany, but it’s really important to note that the Germans weren’t the first to start cutting paper, you can find evidence of cutting paper in histories all over the world,” Westenberger said. “The Chinese invented paper and they were the first to start cutting it up. You can also find amazing cut paper coming from Poland and Mexico, and it has deep traditions in the Jewish community. It’s really interesting to compare and contrast scissors cutting from around the world.”
The Guild of American Papercutters, which has a museum in Somerset, Pa., has fine examples in its collection as well as members who practice this craft today, several of whom learned the craft from grandparents. Kathy Trexel Reed, the guild’s museum coordinator, explains in an article she wrote in April for the guild’s Laurel Arts Art Link that this art form shared by German-speaking immigrants was a popular method, pre-Industrial Revolution, to commemorate births, baptisms, and marriage certificates. “Lovingly cut, these often included nature references, painted accents and evolved into ‘lacy’ paper Valentines,” she wrote. While similar in nature overall, scherenschnitte has stylistic differences based on country of origin. “Symmetry was often an important design element in Swiss work, achieved by cutting the paper while folded,” she said. “Intricate borders and themes depicting landscapes and local traditions also characterized Swiss paper cuttings. Germanic and Dutch designs tended to be more surreal personalized and romanticized.” Examples of these influences are in the guild’s permanent collection and can be viewed in regular exhibitions at Laurel Arts, where the GAP museum and home office are located.
The trajectory of scherenschnitte is specifically apparent in Bethlehem, Pa., due to the city’s roots in Germanic culture and craft, notes Lindsey Jancay, director of collections and programming at Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. “The content, materials and approach are a direct reflection of the person who created them, the intended purpose and the time period in which they were made,” she said. “At Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, we have the unique opportunity to exhibit Colonial scherenschnitte silhouettes, alongside ornate Victorian valentines, next to contemporary paper-cut artworks that take the craft to a new level with custom patterns, watercolor and text. Regardless of its iteration, technique remains the heart of the art form and joins these works across centuries.”
Jeffrey Evans, co-owner of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mount Crawford, Va., said collectors are attracted to the artistic appeal and whimsical nature of scherenschnitte. Desirable decoration on these includes “folk art motifs, especially Germanic ones like distelfinks (birds), hearts, fylfots and tulips. Bright watercolor decoration adds tremendously to value, and a nicely written verse with the maker’s and recipient’s names are a big plus,” he said.
“The most desirable and popular forms are the valentines. Once in a while a birth/marriage record or bookplate with a cutwork border will turn up,” he said. “You also see a good number of pictures of various types, most of which are left white with no colored embellishments. Some of these can be extremely intricate and do draw collector’s interest, many are of New England origin. But most are fairly simple and if not signed by the maker don’t bring much money.”
Buyers will seek out examples with strong folk art appeal, and which are brightly colored, signed with presentations, family provenance, and in excellent condition with no fading or missing elements, Evans said. “Collectors are especially seeking out documented Southern examples. Most of the valentines that come to market are of Pennsylvania origin. The tradition did travel with the 19th century German immigrants into the Shenandoah Valley but surviving examples from here are extremely rare and desirable.”
Jamie Shearer, vice president of Pook & Pook, Inc. in Downingtown, Penn., noted that subject, style, quality are all factors that contribute to a piece’s appeal. “Like all artwork and different mediums, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Buyers may be looking for just a certain theme, such as hearts or eagles,” he said. “As with all antiques the three most important things are condition, condition and condition. Next would be how well it is executed, the small and more refined cuttings would produce higher sales. The final thing would be bells and whistles that are added. Pen and ink accents, a date, name of artist or of a place they were from.”
Steve Woodbury, a founding member and the first president of the Guild of American Papercutters, said buyers should be aware that in the 1920s and 1930s, many die-cut papercuts were produced in Germany, and sold widely. “While often referred to as ‘scherenschnitte,’ these are not ‘scissor cuts.’ They were mass-produced with a die-cut process, similar to paper doilies today. Even if ‘signed,’ they are not original scissor-cuts,” he said. Today’s laser technology can also create laser-cut “paper cuttings.”
Many early and authentic scherenschnitte works are signed and among sought after artists is Martha Ann Honeywell, Westenberger noted. “Here’s an artist who is creating tiny, intricate, multiple cuttings, with the inclusion of silk embroidery and woven paper objects to create one piece of art,” she said. “Not only is the piece brilliantly cut, but then you realize she was born without arms and cut with her teeth and her toes. And it’s not Valentines that she is cutting, she’s cutting silhouettes and biblical verses and what one might consider very traditional scherenschnitte designs such as birds and trees. If you haven’t seen her work … Wow!”