NEW YORK – One can look at a large tree and see its natural lines spoiled by a somewhat cancerous growth along the base or trunk that we would call a knot. Yet, to a woodcarver, this deformity hides lovely, durable bowls, tureens and containers.
Today this knot or burl and wood objects in general are known as treenware (loosely “of the tree”). Early examples are now collectible art, but it wasn’t always that way. Wooden bowls, cups, utensils and storage containers were household necessities throughout the millennia, mostly because wood was the only affordable and plentiful resource around. Woodworking has been found in China, ancient Egypt, early Rome, and as far back as the Neolithic period 12,000 years ago.
By the 1600s, though, most of the old growth forests in Europe were long depleted to meet the needs of a growing population. With a population of the known world at about 580 million, wood was a main source of building, heating, shipbuilding and domestic implements. Wooden bowls made from burl, for example, were hard to find and not an everyday household item for everyone. The Age of Exploration of the 15th to 17th centuries helped change that. The New World, once discovered, provided not only expansive new territory but also a much needed resource – trees.
That was certainly a welcome surprise when Colonists first landed in the Americas of the early 17th century. There was an overwhelming abundance of old growth trees and virgin forests of every variety of hard and soft woods. Needing household cooking and working implements, the new Colonists relied on the skills of Native Americans for their first set of treenware because woodworking was a skill most early Colonists did not possess.
Native Americans had perfected the skill of carving their wooden household necessities. Bowls made from hardwood burl utilized a long process that included using fire to shape a burl bowl, then patiently smoothing it with a hard shell, beaver tooth or smooth stone. Later, woodturners, the most familiar of European woodworkers, would join the Colonies who specialized in turning bowls on pole and treadle lathes, a method unknown to the Native Americans, but most familiar to Europeans for nearly 2,000 years. The skills for learning how to fashion bowls from burl, though, had to be learned by the Colonists over time, so trading for the more highly skilled Native American burl and wooden items predominated for most of early America.
By the middle of the 19th century American craftsmen forged their own identities and specializations. The Native Americans had long stopped hand carving bowls and other wooden treenware and instead used the tools traded with the early Colonists such as axes, knives, adzes and other metalware to continue creating their own distinctive styles.
One such craftsman was David Mills Pease of the Cascade Valley of northeastern Ohio. Beginning about 1850, his woodturning skill produced the everyday useable lidded and unlidded household items to store grain, seeds, salt and general cooking implements. Natural, unadorned, practical and stable, Peaseware, as it is known, is usually turned and varnished maple, but sometimes combined with other woods. They were always more functional than decorative and made to last for generations. By 1876, Peaseware could be found at world’s fairs and international expositions until about 1906.
More distinctive treenware was created about the same time by Joseph Lehn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. What’s particularly noteworthy about Lehnware, as it is known, is that it is quite decorative. Lehn was a wood turner, cooper and furniture maker by trade but by 1856 or so was being recognized by his elaborately designed treenware.
Turning boxes, cups, barrels, buckets, kegs and barrels wasn’t quite enough. Lehn decorated them in patterns of strawberry, pomegranate and floral decorations using yellow, blue, red, green and salmon colors. All had a repeated sequence and were uniquely hand-painted and at times, had decals added.
Lehn died in 1892 at the age of 94, but his distinctive style of treenware survives as collectibles today. Some of his later pieces bore a paper label that read: “Made by Joseph Lehn in his 91 year Jan. 1, 1889.”
Peter Stauffer was a neighbor of Joseph Lehn and made blanket chests with similar decorations as Lehn. William Carl Heilig turned cups and saucers as well as chests and chairs. He may have signed his work “Wm. C. Heilig Ephrata” in the same period as Joseph Lehn. Robert F. Lausch of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, continued the turning and decorating of boxes in the Lehn tradition in the 1960s, 100 years later.
Treen Can Be Faked
Vintage treenware is difficult to date, according to Steven Powers in his book North American Burl Treen: Colonial & Native American. “Exact dating can almost never be attained with treen,” Powers writes. “Our best gauge for dating treen is dating it to like forms in other materials that have a known date … [and so it] becomes quite instinctual or more of a feeling.”
Because of this, many early Native American burl bowls have been modified to attract more buyers at auction such as adding handles or figures into the bowls or other native treenware. Additional carvings are noticeable because the wear would be quite different, for example. Powers suggests that most faked Native American treenware at auctions are the carved effigy bowls that are carved too thin and rounded at the bottom which is not usual. Other small footed bowls have been made in China and Tibet made of ash burl and claim to be early Native American treenware, but a well-trained eye can notice the discrepancies of added carvings and unusual use of nonnative woods.
A ‘Green’ Collectible
Treenware handcrafted or turned from burl or any wood wasn’t usually as long-lasting as the metal pots, pans and other implements that were more the norm in the industrial age. But for the early Colonists and Native American communities, treenware was plentiful, strong and dependable. Only later would treenware become more decorative, artistic and collectible and yet still maintain its ability to be useful for generations to come. What could be more “green” than that?