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JAHN, JOHANN MICHAEL

JAHN, JOHANN MICHAEL (1816–1883). Michael Jahn, cabinetmaker and early settler and civic leader of New Braunfels, was born on June 12, 1816, in Barth, a small town near Stralsund, in the Prussian province of Pomerania. As a youth he left home to serve a five-year apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker in Prague. During this period Jahn was permanently disabled when, during the course of an argument, his master threw a tool that struck his hip. Jahn subsequently worked for six years in Switzerland as a journeyman and probably earned the designation Tischlermeister, or master craftsman, before he immigrated to the United States in 1844. Jahn's reasons for leaving Europe are unknown; speculations have centered on his injury, which excluded him from military service, and the impact of machine-made items on the market for handcrafted items in Germany.

Logo for Adelsverein
The logo for the Verein zum Schutze Deutscher Einwanderer in Texas, otherwise known as Adelsverein. Image available on the Internet. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels
Illustration, Portrait of Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

He sailed to the United States on the Herschel as a member of the Adelsverein. He arrived in Galveston on December 5, 1844, and traveled to Carlhafen (later Indianola), where his group joined Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who led them to the site of future New Braunfels on the banks of Comal Creek. Jahn apparently worked in New Orleans for a few months in the mid-1840s, thinking the market might be better there, but soon returned to establish a shop on Seguin Street and help to build the community of New Braunfels. He was a charter member of the German Protestant Church in 1846, and on June 7, 1847, he was elected an alderman in the town's first municipal elections. He continued to be active in civic affairs throughout his career, serving on a number of committees and in various appointed posts. In 1850 he married Anna Marie Klein Bellmer, widow of Carl Bellmer. They had two children.

Historical marker for Johann Michael Jahn
Photograph, Historical marker for Johann Michael Jahn. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Jahn's furniture business prospered throughout the 1850s and 1860s, so much that in 1866 he began importing machine-made furniture to meet the demand. Tax records indicate that he continued to handcraft furniture after 1866, with the help of his son and several assistants. Jahn produced furniture in the Biedermeier style, which typically features careful craftsmanship and the grain and color of wood as its primary decorative elements. Several cabinetmakers in New Braunfels worked in the style during this time. He occasionally experimented with more elaborate styles, as in a walnut scroll-back side chair, ca. 1870, for which the cross splat is beautifully carved in a scrolled Grecian motif. Jahn used native woods such as walnut, pine, cypress, mesquite, and cherry to make chairs, tables, sofas, chests of drawers, bedsteads, wardrobes, and other common household items. He signed only a few, if any, of his handmade pieces, although markings such as "J. J.," "Jahn," "J. Jahn," and "J. Jahn New Braunfels" were stenciled or written on machine-made furniture assembled and sold in his store. Attribution of his work therefore depends on an assessment of quality, construction techniques, and in some cases, provenance.

Grave of Johann Michael Jahn
Photograph, Grave of Johann Michael Jahn in New Braunfels. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Jahn's business continued to expand in the 1870s, during which he constructed a two-story shop building adjacent to his home on Seguin Street and opened a second store in Seguin. An 1872 Texas New Yorker article on New Braunfels craftsmen estimated his estate to be "not worth a cent less than about $25,000.00." In later years he turned over an increasing amount of work and business affairs to his children. He focused his efforts on cultivating native mustang grapes and making wines that were served to guests and customers when they visited the Jahn home or shop. Jahn died on January 10, 1883, and was buried in Comal Cemetery. His children and grandchildren continued to run the shop until 1944; a Jahn building erected in 1910 still stood on Seguin Street in 1990. Examples of his work, as well as some of the tools that he made and used, are in the collections of the New Braunfels Conservation Society, the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels, the San Antonio Museum Association, and the Winedale Historical Center in Round Top.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Ruth Morgan, "The Crafts of Early Texas," Southwest Review 31 (Winter 1945). Pauline Pinckney, "Johann Michael Jahn, Texas Cabinetmaker," Antiques 75 (May 1959). Donald L. Stover, Tischlermeister Jahn (San Antonio Museum Association, 1978). Lonn W. Taylor, Texas Furniture: The Cabinet Makers and Their Work (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975).

Kendall Curlee

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Handbook of Texas Online, Kendall Curlee, "Jahn, Johann Michael," accessed September 26, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjana.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on April 18, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.