John J. Snyder Jr, 67; Noted Pennsylvania Antiquarian

LANDISVILLE, PENN. — John J. Snyder Jr, 67, of Landisville, died Saturday, December 28. John was a noted antiquarian, particularly with respect to late Eighteenth–early Nineteenth Century furniture, clocks and architecture of the central and eastern counties in Pennsylvania.

John edited, authored or co-authored a number of books and articles on those and other subjects, and was instrumental in founding the Heritage Center of Lancaster County and the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County. John was born in Harrisburg, Penn., and was a graduate of Dickinson College. He was a graduate of the University of Delaware and a fellow in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. John was the only son of Evelyn R.G. Snyder and John J. Snyder, both of whom predeceased him.

The funeral services took place January 4 at Longsdorf Cemetery in New Kingstown. Memorial contributions may be made to The Lancaster County Community Foundation, http://lancfound.org. Online condolences can be made at www.mem.com.

 

In Memory Of John J. Snyder Jr.

This morning I learned of the passing of my friend and colleague, John J. Snyder Jr (1946–December 28, 2013). The world has lost one of the great antiquarians of the Twenty-First Century!

Even as I sit at my computer to write this memorial, I think about the lengthy manual-typed letters that were his trademark and that he shared with hundreds of collectors, dealers and scholars. Everyone who ever got a typed John letter probably remembers its contents and may still have it tucked away in a drawer or taped, if appropriate in content, to the inside of a clock case or back of a painting. They were filled with humor, wit, facts, critiques and genuine humanity.

John was perhaps the last great American antiquarian in the finest Nineteenth Century sense of the word. He preached the skills of research, genealogy, observation, and backed it up with the retention of a myriad of miniscule facts that always turned out to be of the greatest importance.

He devoted his life to the study of art, architecture and most importantly the decorative arts of the Mid-Atlantic. His pioneer research on early Lancaster furniture shredded the old chestnut that all the pieces were all made by the Bachman family of cabinetmakers. For decades, he tracked the footsteps of West Virginia cabinetmaker John Shearer and found records of him in corners long forgotten. One of his last articles in The Magazine Antiques was about Michael Stoner, the newly discovered master cabinetmaker and chairmaker of Dauphin and Lancaster Counties. And the list could go on! John’s research was impeccable and never filled with hyperbole or the silliness of “material culture” jargon. It was — in the tradition of Nineteenth Century scholars like William Henry Egle — truly fact-driven.

There was never a day for John that was not filled with answering research queries or chasing a new lead. Even when Parkinson’s disease debilitated his body, his mind was strong and powerful.

In listing his scholarly achievements, you need to also understand his kindness, generosity and humanity. He was generous to hundreds of museums and historical organizations with both financial support and the donation of objects. Frequently when I borrowed things from him for the Heritage Center’s exhibits, he would tell me to keep them for the permanent collection after the exhibit ended.

One cannot also write about John without mentioning his beloved Krote cousins. This refers to numerous generations of Spaniels, alternately named Gwinnie, Sukey and Nixie, who inhabited John’s home, aptly named, Toad Hall. Oh…and for those of you not schooled in esoteric terms — Krote is the German word for toad.

I also have to share a few stories by and about John. There was the day that he called to tell me he won a brand-new house in a raffle. I was shocked and amazed and repeatedly asked him all about it. It took him several weeks for him to finally confess that the “house” was only 8-by-8-by-8-inches and fit only for the birds.

Or that when he moved from his home in Harrisburg to Lancaster that he brought the bodies of several generations of Krote cousins to be reinterred in the backyard of the new Toad Hall. Each cousin was carefully packed in its own very large Coleman cooler as John had decided these made far better caskets than what came from the local pet store. The digger was delayed several days in coming to rebury the dogs and so the cooler/coffins remained stacked several high on his back porch… causing me to wonder about the local miscreants who might have investigated them, hoping to find beer inside.

John’s collection was the single-finest inland Pennsylvania furniture collection every assembled. He took his cue as a collector when as a Winterthur fellow, he was among the last to know Henry Francis DuPont. It was built over decades and consisted of hundreds of tall case clocks, desks, chests, silver, paintings, lustre (perhaps the biggest collection in the world) and a staggering reference library in support of it all. He knew the objects in his collection intimately and could discuss the aesthetic and historical relationships of each in great detail.

One of my last memories of John, and demonstrative of both his passion as a collector and his wonderful humor, occurred shortly before I left Lancaster. His small room at the rehab center was packed full of furniture, including a superb Lancaster tall case clock. Despite his illness, he had taken the clock apart himself (don’t even ask how!) and was busy studying the movement.

He told me that one of the nurses had come in right after he had done this and discovered the bonnet on the floor, the weights and pendulum next to it, the movement next to it along with the finials, etc. She screamed and ran from the room to find the administrator, fearing that one of the cleaning staff had destroyed Mr Snyder’s rare clock. John put it all back together before they returned, thus creating even more chaos when the found it in “one piece.”

John... I shall miss your humor and your letters and our long conversations about friends and colleagues both present and long past. I envision you in the great beyond playing with the Krote cousins, and discussing the fine points of wedged dovetails, Flemish bond and repoussé silver with an audience of curious angels!

Peter S. Seibert

Executive Director

Millicent Rogers Museum

 

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