York Folk Artist Lewis Miller Elusive Character
Miller drawing of himself at his carpenter’s bench
Lewis Miller’s drawings are widely known, but not a lot is known about the man himself. The drawings of nineteenth century life have been used widely to illustrate books, including textbooks, and many articles in newspapers and magazines. I often use them to accompany the items I post here.
Miller drew the people and places he knew and saw, at home in York and in his travels, during the first half of the nineteenth century even though, as I explain in my recent York Sunday News column, he seemed to have drawn them much later, after he had retired to live with nieces in Virginia in the late 1850s.
Born in York, Miller was apprenticed as a house carpenter by the time he was 17 and was very busy at the trade until he was around 61. His drawing above shows Miller working in his carpenter shop. The caption starts out: “Lewis Miller, Carpenter, working—–at the trade for thirty years, in South Duke Street, York, PA, done work for the citizens, and County Commissioners at the court house, jail, poor house and county office and bridges; and for the Borough at market house, & &—-for the Lutheran congregation at the houses and church.” The rest of the page is taken up with 110 different individuals for who Miller did carpentry work. It includes many of the prominent York citizens of the time.
For more about Lewis Miller, see the column below:
Who Was the Folk Artist Lewis Miller?
Most of you are probably familiar with his drawings. Yorker Lewis Miller (1796-1882) was a most prolific American folk artist. His depictions of people going about their everyday lives have been used repeatedly in books, articles and documentaries to illustrate nineteenth century America. But, what do we know about the artist himself? Only short biographies of Miller appear in books about American art. Articles written about specific locales that he drew are accompanied by scant information about the artist himself.
We do have access to many words written by Miller, but these words, in English and German, and sometimes Latin or French, seem to have been deliberately written for the audience that peruses his drawings. Only a few actual letters and documents to, from and concerning him have been discovered.
Lewis was the youngest child born to Pennsylvania Germans John Ludwig Miller and Eve Catherine Rothenberger. They arrived in America in 1772. The oldest surviving children, Elizabeth and David, were born in Philadelphia. Philip, John and Joseph were born in Montgomery County, where Ludwig worked as a potter. Benjamin, John, Catherine and Lewis were all born in York, where their father was schoolteacher and choirmaster at Christ Lutheran Church.
York’s population was 2,076 in 1790. A few years later, York had around 400 dwellings, at least six churches and numerous businesses. As county seat, York was the center of the political, legal and commercial life of York County. York held an important geographical position on the path of westward migration. The vast majority of early German immigrants came into the port of Philadelphia. As families grew, they spread to the west through Lancaster and York, following the valleys southwest to the Shenadoah Valley of Virginia. Four of the Miller brothers, including Lewis, spent the last years of their lives in that area.
Lewis seemed to be born with pen and brush in hand. According to his own dating, some of the events he recorded happened when he was a very small child. He must have had a very good memory and listened well to the recollections of his elders. When his drawings are examined closely and compared with contemporary likenesses, Lewis is quite accurate. In a drawing of Ludwig Miller and his students in 1805 one boy, perhaps Lewis, sits off to the side with pen and paper.
He was apprenticed to his brother John to learn house carpentry by the time he was 17, and carpentered for about 35 years. Miller’s name appears often in orders approved by York County Commissioners for payment for carpentry. He made a few small items for county offices, such as desks and ballot boxes, but most of the disbursements were for repairs on county buildings. Miller was the only carpenter paid from county funds during the 1821-1822 fiscal year. He was also busy with private customers, listing 110 of them under a drawing of himself at his carpenter’s bench.
Lewis loved to travel. He listed York County communities he visited, and he drew himself and George Small walking to Baltimore in 1827. He visited sister Elizabeth Kolb’s sons in the New York City area. He went to see brother Joseph Miller in Christiansburg, Virginia, and Joseph’s son, Charles, a student at Princeton Seminary. In 1840, he toured Europe for nearly a year. His obvious delight in visiting the homeland of his ancestors is reflected in many of the drawings from that trip.
He retired from carpentry when he was around 61. Many of his drawings seem to have been done after he retired, even if the scene actually occurred much earlier. Many of the surviving drawings were put together in books, probably by Lewis, so perhaps he copied and refined earlier sketches.
There has been speculation on how Lewis supported himself for the last twenty-odd years of his life. He may have had some savings. He owned bank stocks as well, and he sold his house in 1847 and his boyhood home in 1857.
Lewis seemed to be welcome in the homes of his relatives. He spent the winter of 1859-1860 in New York City, visiting nephews. After the Civil War he spent more time in Virginia, finally making his permanent home with niece Emeline Miller Craig in Christiansburg. He still managed to do some traveling, making several visits to York, including one following a visit to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
He reestablished ties with the affluent Small family of York around this time. A note sent to another Yorker around 1875 reads “Let me know of [if] Mr. Samuel Small is a life [alive] yet.” Samuel Small and others enclosed checks or money in letters they wrote to him. Lewis compiled drawings to send to Small, perhaps in gratitude. Among other projects, he created a seventy-two page illustrated, indexed book of hand-lettered poems, hymns and sermons for Samuel in 1876.
Great-grandnephew George Billmeyer asked Lewis to send his drawings of York to George in return for the 50 dollar check he sent. These trades were advantageous for Yorkers, because many of the drawings in the collections of York County Heritage Trust came through those families. These drawings are displayed on a rotating basis. Other drawings are in the collections of the New-York Historical Society, Virginia Historical Society, Henry Ford Museum, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg.
The few known documents outlined here add another dimension to this unique figure. Taken together with the captions in his “Chronicles” and in his other illustrated writings, Miller reveals something of himself as well as of his contemporaries. Through his works we can get to know the people who lived right here 150-200 years ago.
Lewis may be the little boy on the left with the pen and paper.
Click here for photos of Lewis Miller.