Flashback: Folk Art in Pennsylvania Dutch Cooky Cutters

April 2nd, 2009

This article discusses Pennsylvania-Dutch cookie-cutters, considered a form of folk art, noting their evolution, cultural significance, and the variety of themes represented. It originally appeared in the January 1942 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

It might seem that so untractable a medium as cooky dough would lend itself to few varieties of design, but among the homely articles of the old-time Pennsylvania-Dutch household, none represents more clearly the artistic ingenuity of the craftsman than the tin cooky cutter.

Illustration I: Human Figures in Cooky Cutters: These figures, in form and outline, span one hundred and fifty years. At the upper left hand is one of the simplest forms; in the lower right hand, the man silhouette is more sophisticated.

Illustration I: Human Figures in Cooky Cutters: These figures, in form and outline, span one hundred and fifty years. At the upper left hand is one of the simplest forms; in the lower right hand, the man silhouette is more sophisticated.

Made largely by the itinerant or the local tinsmith, these primitive representations of human, animal, and botanical subjects were used to “stick out” the spicy brown cakes of the holiday season. Practically every household had at least a dozen different cutter designs for making such cookies, and the lucky child who could carry “a new one yet” to school scored both for himself and for his mother in an art form which was instantly appreciated by his mates.

From the nearly five hundred different designs which I have been able to track down, it becomes evident that here, as in other decorative forms, there is at once an adherence to tradition and a development in technique. It is my opinion that the simplest versions existed at the beginning of the 19th Century and possibly a little earlier. With these crude and undated primitives it would be difficult to ascribe an exact chronological order, but the amazing variety of designs serves to show the march of time and an awareness of the artistic possibilities of everyday things.

Representations of the human figure, for instance, carry the researcher — or the gourmet — faithfully over a period of a hundred and fifty years of Pennsylvania history. First there is the man (Illustration I), with only the roughest outline to indicate head, arms, and legs. Then the tinsmith, whether to create another sale or to surpass a rival craftsman in skill, added an indeterminate kind of hat.

The figure in profile, with head covered or uncovered, was another step forward, as was also the addition of forehead, eyes, nose, lips, chin, and ears. Attention was given to the body by providing coats, breeches or trousers, and clean-cut hands and feet. Men of ordinary stature were supplemented, perhaps with an occasional sly personal thrust, by those of grotesque girth or inordinate tallness. Arms might be straight at the side, akimbo, or upraised. Still further refinements in design were figures with buttons, cuffs, and frilled neckwear or stocks.

Illustration II: Cooky Cutters Depicting Women and Children: From the simple outline at the upper left to the more detailed one at the lower right, these fourteen cutters show the development of the outlines of such designs.

Illustration II: Cooky Cutters Depicting Women and Children: From the simple outline at the upper left to the more detailed one at the lower right, these fourteen cutters show the development of the outlines of such designs.

Thus the tinsmiths of the country recorded the costumes of the passing years in the equestrian figure of the Continental soldier, accurate even to the three-cornered hat and remarkably like similar figures on sgraffito plates; the figure of William Penn, smoking an enormous peace pipe; the Indian brave brandishing a tomahawk; a mounted rider blowing a trumpet. More immediate in interest were the sectarian with his broad-brimmed hat; the stocky Dutch boy with his hands in his breeches pockets; the preacher in an admonitory gesture; the Forty-niner; Uncle Sam in his traditional stance, and satisfyingly familiar in his top hat and length of shank. Later there is the baseball player, and the elegantly slender gentleman dressed for a party.

Paralleling cooky-cutter men as genre pictures of yesterday are their female counterparts (Illustration II). If there is less variety in execution, it is perhaps no more than is to be expected of an age in which women, in Dutch Pennsylvania at least, were hardly regarded as equals with men. Still, there is a comparable evolution in design, beginning with the corpulent, hatless, footless creature and then, successively, the woman with arms, hands, and feet; with a frilled skirt; with Mennonite costume; with varying styles in hairdressing; with corseted waist and a train; and with puffed sleeves. One tin figure has her hands raised as if in great astonishment; another, in profile, displays a powerful arm ready to strike; still another is just a head, in profile, with classical features and coiffure.

Children, too, are represented, babies in long dresses; boys and girls in ordinary costume and in Amish garb; and one single cutter naïvely indicates a pair of identical twins.

One of the most-loved models was the heart, a pattern favored by the housewife not only because it was so easily handled in baking, but because of its associations with other Pennsylvania-Dutch art forms. The broad flat heart of the cooky cutter was the same one that appeared on birth certificates, on painted furniture, the cut-out handles of knife boxes and other related household articles, in ironwork, and even on tombstones.

However, the craftsman did not remain content with a mere heart shape, but proceeded to add the ornamental embellishments so dear to the Dutchman and so widely used by him. We find hearts with finely crimped edges; hearts with tulips as insets; and various geometric designs, with crimped or plain edges, inset with hearts so that the heart shape appeared only as an incised line on the surface of the finished cooky. Perhaps the ultimate development before the bridge table heart design was taken over by the five-and-ten-cent stores was the Victorian cutter in the heart-and-hand combination so familiar on ornate name cards.

Illustration III: Cutters With Animal Silhouettes: Here, at the upper left, is a traditional design. In the lower row, flanking an elephant, two men on horseback show the gradual development of such animal designs.

Illustration III: Cutters With Animal Silhouettes: Here, at the upper left, is a traditional design. In the lower row, flanking an elephant, two men on horseback show the gradual development of such animal designs.

There is a school of thought which maintains that all the artistry of Pennsylvania springs from mystical Biblical sources. However that may be, there seems some reason to suppose that the cooky cutter, for all its unpretentiousness, does take root in a form of religious expression.

For one thing it was chiefly among Pennsylvanians of German or Swiss ancestry that the elaborate Christmas putz was to be found. Part of this display almost invariably included cakes which represented objects of the Christmas legend. To evolve these a mold or cutter was naturally needed, and it is not improbable that such cutters existed long before trees, putzen, or any other of the traditional Christmas customs were brought to America.

From earliest times the sectarians were both a devout and a determined people, and once they had settled upon a course of procedure they adhered to it doggedly. Graven images, ritualistic worship and elaborate ceremonial may have been eschewed by their leaders, but food prepared with a spiritual symbolism in mind seems not to have come under the ban. Beautiful pudding and butter molds, wooden springerle boards, and turkshead baking dishes all bear testimony to the sectarians’ love for literal representation. However, regardless of the appreciation for the beautiful that made pudding presses and butter molds everyday objects, it was only at Christmas time that the fancy cooky cutters were used, whether or not their purpose had originally been religious in intent.

Starting with traditional designs, it was but natural that succeeding generations of tinsmiths should choose those subjects which were close to the heart of the people. Thus, when the original religious zeal which had brought so many of the sectarians to Pennsylvania had flowed into quieter streams for lack of obstacles in the New World, the shepherds and Wise Men of days gone by began to take on the shape of people In less archaic garb; the camel (Illustration III) and the sheep gave way to animals of more immediate interest to Pennsylvania farm children. Even the star was modified in various ways. For every camel which has survived the wear and rust of time there are fifty horses, galloping, trotting, standing still, or metamorphosed into circus performers or transfixed on rockers. For every sheep there are several pigs, goats, donkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals known to every farm child.

Seemingly, animals were among the most interesting of all cooky forms, for they exist in greater variety than any other. Naturally enough it was the well-known domestic creatures that were oftenest imitated, but the genius of the craftsman soon transcended the purely artificial limitations of the barnyard, and began to create bears, foxes, squirrels, skunks, beavers, and even the more exotic hyenas, lions, hippos, and elephants.

Illustration IV: Bird and Animal Forms: At the top, left, is a dove. Next to it is a patriotic eagle. Beneath is an owl and other birds, as well as a horse and kindred farmyard animals.

Illustration IV: Bird and Animal Forms: At the top, left, is a dove. Next to it is a patriotic eagle. Beneath is an owl and other birds, as well as a horse and kindred farmyard animals.

In like fashion the ancient dove began to take on the form of the birds of Pennsylvania (Illustration IV): first the distelfink of the fractur birth certificate, and then the hen, goose, turkey, guinea fowl, parrot, pigeon, peacock, duck, and swan. Birds on the wing were harder to execute in a shape that was both realistic and practical, so that the creatures of the air do not always tend to be immediately recognizable. Still, there are excellent robins, quail, wild geese and owls, and, putatively, wrens, sparrows and crows. Beyond this pale there are still others whose naïve proportions would baffle even the most expert ornithologist.

Flower shapes and flower petals did not lend themselves especially well to models which must be essentially massive in order to stand the exigencies of handling and baking. And yet here, too, the possibility of a spiritual genesis presents itself, for the one flower form at all common is the tulip, the Biblical “lily” of those who see a mystical symbolism in Pennsylvania-Dutch art. The tulip, of course, has always been a favorite flower with the Pennsylvania Dutch, and is, indeed, one of the prime motifs in all their artistry.

The cooky cutter variety may either be the tulip in profile, as in the ornamentation of the bride’s box, or the open tulip of spatterware. One cutter has a conventionalized tulip in duplicate, that is with the bases of the flower cups joined, the petals facing out. Tiny tulips are the favorite insets for most of the geometrically shaped forms — ovals, circles, diamonds, et cetera. One unique specimen depicts the profile tulip growing in its flower pot, a pattern reminiscent of similar representations on fractur and on dower chests.

After the tulip, the most popular flower shape seems to be a petaled bloom with a leaf and a rather heavy stem. As in the case of practically all Pennsylvania-Dutch cutters, there are no two just alike. Whether this flower was a rose, a daisy, or still another blossom may well be a matter of conjecture.

The daffodil is less common but more easily identified, and with the carnation or thistle shape seen so frequently on spatterware just about concludes the list. Leaves are more prevalent, although again it is not easy to tell what particular variety was intended, except in the case of three- or four-leafed clover. One curious cutter seems to represent the top of a palm tree, with pendant fruit. Other tree forms occur now and then, the bulk of them apparently having been intended as Christmas trees.

Illustration V: Familiar Household Designs: the upper row is a hand and a horseshoe. In the next row, a pistol, a pair of shears, and letters of the alphabet. In the bottom row are two forms of the crucifix.

Illustration V: Familiar Household Designs: the upper row is a hand and a horseshoe. In the next row, a pistol, a pair of shears, and letters of the alphabet. In the bottom row are two forms of the crucifix.

Perhaps most interesting to the student of early arts and crafts is the great variety of cutters fashioned in obvious imitation of familiar household objects (Illustration V). The painted tole coffeepot which has been so sought after in recent years has its faithful replica here, as well as the common pitcher in its various guises. Now and then a covered bowl is found, so similar to the pitcher in treatment and size that they were clearly intended to be mates.

A stoppered bottle, a clothespin, and a broom add to the list. High boots or shoes and low slippers are fairly common. Pipes in most of the forms commonly known to smokers are one of the few concessions, made to the masculine side of the house, although guns turn up infrequently. The outline of the Pennsylvania-made Kentucky rifle is plainly indicated in at least one specimen.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.


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