The Sick Chair was created by a man named John Vogler, a talented and well-known craftsman in the Moravian community. The chair remained in the Vogler family until it was gifted to MESDA in 1952 by John's great-granddaughter Pauline Bahnson (Archer). By following the descent of the chair, we unlock the narrative of the Vogler family. We are able to gain a unique insight into the life of a Moravian family living in Salem during the 1800s. John Vogler lived for nearly 100 years, and witnessed immense change in his community, including changing attitudes towards the practice of slavery. Through this story of the Voglers and the woman named Bethy they enslaved, we can further understand the Moravian community's connection to slavery in Salem.
The Moravians, or Unity of Brethren, are a sect of the Protestant Church. Their doctrines are rooted in the teachings of John Huss, a religious reformer who lived in what is now the Czech Republic in the early fifteenth century. Like other Protestants, the Moravians disagreed with practices of the Catholic church, leading them to face religious persecution in Europe; their creeds emphasized missionary work, universal kindness, and moderation. Moravians placed a large emphasis on community, and created special social systems to allow their believers to work together: the Choir system divided Moravians by age and gender, calling them “brothers” and “sisters” so peers would go through similar life experiences at the same time. Looking for freedom to practice their beliefs and a space to create a like-minded community, a group of Moravian settlers came to North Carolina in 1752, settling first at Bethabara and then founding Salem in 1773. These communities operated as theocracies, with the Moravian religious leaders also acting as local political leaders and town governors (Niven and Wright).
John Vogler lived from 1783 until 1881; he was born in Friedland, a Moravian Settlement near Salem to parents George Micheal and Anne Kunzel Volger (Niven and Wright). Friedberg, Friedland, and Hope are the Southern Country Congregations in Wachovia, which were all established before the American Revolution. John was orphaned at the age of 11 and was then left in the custody of his maternal grandfather until he moved to Salem as a young man. The date of John Vogler's move to Salem can be estimated by analyzing the records of the application he sent to the Moravian authorities for admission to the Salem congregation in 1803. In his application, John said he had been working as an apprentice under his uncle for several years in the district, without being a recognized member of the Salem congregation. This record would lead us to believe that John left Friedland around the year 1800 in the hopes of becoming an apprentice for his uncle Christopher Vogler, who was a well-known gunsmith in Salem (Smith).
In 1809, at the age of 19, John was accepted to the Moravian congregation in Salem and moved into the Single Brothers House, where all of Salem’s unmarried young men lived at the time. While a single brother, John Vogler lived and worked among his peers. He was able to work under his uncle and begin to master the skills of a gunsmithing, learning to work metal and make fine custom engravings (Niven and Wright). After his apprenticeship was complete, town elders recommended that John pursue a career of silver making. For Salem to run smoothly, there could not be too much competition between craftsmen; John’s uncle was an expert gunsmith with a long career ahead of him, but the town was in need of another silversmith. John would make silverware, jewelry, and other items and clocks for the Salem community and nearby farmers who came into town to do business. However, he was told to leave repairs of these items to an established Salem clockmaker and Single Brother named Ludwig (also referred to as Lewis) Eberhardt, dividing the work and allowing both men to be prosperous (Smith).
In 1809, John Vogler was able to open a shop of his own where he could further his career as a silversmith and watchmaker. His goods were particularly popular as status symbols as the Salem community began to increase its wealth and became involved in ventures with non-Moravians. Even though John was not doing his work in the Single Brothers house anymore, he still gave some of the tools he made back to the Moravian community (Niven and Wright, Forsyth County Historical Commission).
Throughout John Vogler's life, he held various roles within the Moravian community. John was first appointed to serve as a supervisor to the Moravian boys in Salem; he was then elected to join one of the governing organizations in Salem, called the Aufseher Collegium. Additionally, John spent time as a sick nurse for the Single Brethren, curator for the Single Sisters, fire master, roadmaster, and sat on the Congregation Council. He was also involved in the life of the Church; feeling that religious education was lacking, John set up Sunday Schools for the local children (Smith). After seeing John's involvement in the Salem congregation, Moravian leaders asked him to move to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the location of another Moravian community; they hoped he would become the new warden for their Single Brethren. However, John turned down the offer as he thought his future as a craftsman in Salem would bring him more success (Smith).
John Vogler married a Single Sister named Christina Spach on March 7, 1819. At this time, the Moravians used a Lot system to make important decisions, including deciding if a proposed marriage would be a good match. This system was rooted in practices found in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Elders would write “yes,” “no,” and “ask again” on slips of paper, place them in a bowl, and whichever slip was pulled from the bowl was seen to represent the will of God. In the case of marriage, if the Lot answered “yes,” the Elders would allow the man to propose to his intended fiance, but she was able to make the final decision to accept or decline his offer. John had first requested permission to marry Christina in 1814, but it was not granted by the Lot. Family legend says that John asked for permission to propose at least six times, and was denied again and again until 1818, when the congregation stopped the use of the Lot for approving marriages; John proceeded to submit another request to marry Christina, and this time the Elders' Conference approved. Because Christina had waited for him, many believe their marriage was a true love match. John created an intricate and stunning gold wedding ring for Christina with a heart symbol inscribed with the phrase "With God and Thee My Joy shall be" (Niven and Wright).
In 1819, John began building a new house where he would live with his wife and future family. The house is located on Main street and is still there today, where visitors may tour as part of their time at Old Salem. The Vogler house was inspired by the Federal-style architecture that John had seen on one of his business trips to Pennsylvania. This was not typical for Salem, where most houses were built with a traditional German-Moravian architecture. John created a part of his house to be his new silver shop, which meant his customers had to enter his home through the formal front door in order to get to his workplace; this was unusual for Salem. While many workplaces were located technically within the home, they had separate entrances so the domestic and working spheres did not mix (Sinclair). The interior of the house consisted of four rooms on each floor and a very wide center hall in the entry. Their furniture displayed the details and intricate workings of Moravian craftsmanship. The Vogler home's furnishings are also examples of possessions that affluent families were able to afford. For instance, they had a parlor room for entertaining guests that was covered in peacock wallpaper, where a modern and beautiful piano was located. John made the brass doorknob as well as the hood over the front door of their house, and carefully painted faux wood finishes on each of the doors, making them appear to be a higher quality wood than they actually were. About half of the furniture on display in the Vogler house today remains from when the Vogler's lived there themselves. The Vogler home is open to visitors and is used to hold special events, such as Salem Christmas and Saturday Quilting Frolics. Salem Christmas is an event that portrays the customs and traditions of the Moravian people during the eighteenth and nineteenth century with traditional activities, music, and candlelight tours (Sinclair).
The Vogler family grew when John and Christina gave birth to three children: their eldest child Lisetta Maria was born in 1820, Louisa Lauretta was born in 1822, and finally, their son Elias was born in 1825 (Niven and Wright). The Vogler children grew up living a very comfortable life due to the advances of the Industrial Revolution and the success of their father's business. They were able to travel to places such as Philadelphia, New York, Bethlehem, Lititz, and Washington because of work opportunities for John Vogler. They also received a high quality of education due to advancements made in the training of Salem teachers (Niven and Wright). Similar to their father, all three of the children had artistic abilities, and some of their work is still on display in the Vogler house today (Niven and Wright).
The Vogler Children followed in their father’s footsteps and were active members of the Salem community. Lisetta married Francis Fries on May 24, 1838, and went on to have many children: John William, Emma Christina, Francis Henry, Henry Elias, and Louisa Sarah (Albright). Francis Fries was an energetic businessman and a key figure in the movement towards turning Salem into a large industrial center: he owned several textile factories in Salem, in which John Vogler was an investor. These factories were located in what is now the Brookstown area of Downtown Winston-Salem, and were one of the largest employers of enslaved labor in Salem at the time (Niven and Wright, Albright).
Louisa Vogler married Reverend Edward Senseman. Edward was the deacon at the Moravian congregation in Friedberg, which was John Vogler’s hometown. However, in 1852 Edward and Louisa moved to New Salem, Illinois, and became part of the Moravian congregation there. Sadly, Louisa had been dealing with illness for most of her life and eventually passed away at the age of thirty-two (Niven and Wright).
Lastly, Elias Vogler was a very active member of the community. Growing up, his father taught him skills as a silversmith, and he mastered the trade himself. He also adopted skills as an architect and artist. Elias worked for his father for many years, but then went on to become a merchant. Eventually, Elias took on a significant role in the Salem community when he was elected to serve as the second mayor in 1858 following the end of the Moravian theocracy. Elias Vogler was a very generous man as well, distributing food and clothes to the county while they were enduring the impacts of the Civil War (ncpedia). In the 1860's he was the superintendent of the Sunday school at St. Philips Church, home to Salem’s Black Moravian congregation for both freed and enslaved individuals. Elias spent the rest of his life with his wife, Emma Reich (Niven and Wright).
When the Vogler children were adults, their mother Christina became increasingly ill, and required medical care. While it is unclear what exactly her ailment was, she was confined to the home and frequently stayed in bed. In the nineteenth century, the woman of the house had many responsibilities to clean, cook, and engage in social events to support her husband’s business connections and provide for the family. When Christina fell ill, this greatly changed how she was able to participate in her family’s life, as she was no longer able to do the labor-intensive tasks she was used to. But, just because Christina was unable to perform these duties, it did not make them any less necessary: faced with this situation, the Voglers bought Bethy, an enslaved woman to work in the house.
Bethy was an African American woman born in Salem around 1833. She was the daughter of Patience, an enslaved woman on the Waugh Plantation, located to the southeast of Salem. Bethy was baptized in November 1851 when she joined the African Church in Salem. At Bethy's first attempt to join the church, they had recorded that "a negro girl Betty who belongs to Br. John Vogler wants to Join. Since she is still very young it was decided to wait for the present and give her an opportunity to prove herself further (Thacker, 5599). Bethy went on to become a communicant member and was allowed to be a sponsor for others trying to join the church. Bethy was purchased by John Vogler in 1848, the year after Slave Regulations ended. Bethy was about 17 years old when she began working for John and Christina Vogler. There is no evidence of a slave house on the Vogler property, so it is assumed that she lived in the main house with the family. When Bethy started working for the Voglers their three children were already grown, so her duties primarily consisted of housework and caring for Christina Vogler, whose health had become compromised at this time. Acting as a nurse, Bethy may have been expected to sleep on the floor in order to assist Christina should she need help in the middle of the night. There is also reason to believe that Bethy may have been sleeping in the attic space. There is no exact record of when Bethy stopped working for the Vogler family; however the church records for 1865 show that Bethy had "not previously attended for a long time" (Thacker). This could mean that Bethy no longer lived in Salem, or that she simply was not attending church events.
The Vogler Sick Chair currently resides in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts collection in Winston-Salem, NC. Based on an inscription on the bottom of the seat which reads “I.V” and a signed newspaper found in the lower back area of the chair it is concluded that this sick chair was built by John for his wife Christina Vogler. The newspaper is signed by John and is dated August 15, 1858. In the 1850s, the practice of medicine was beginning to change as new professionalization measures were put in place to make doctors more credible, but it was still a far cry from the medicine of today. Germ theory, which is what tells us to wash our hands and clean wounds to avoid infection, had not become popular, and very little was known about the transmission of disease itself. Doctors worked to make their patients comfortable, but treatments were not always very effective (Devine). When a person became seriously ill or disabled, like Christina, there were few options for total recovery, and energy instead was better spent making adjustments to ensure they could be comfortable in what would become their new normal. For this reason, we find artifacts like the Vogler’s sick chair that represent ways people worked around illness and disability to maintain a level of comfort and involvement in daily life for someone who had fallen ill.
At first glance, this sick chair closely resembles a rocking chair or armrest chair that one would have in their home. However, specific and subtle structural features differentiate it from an ordinary chair. Similar to other chairs from the late 1800s and early 1900s it has four legs, armrests, a high back and wings. According to MESDA’s object files, the materials that were used to craft this chair include “cherry, maple, hickory, oak, poplar, leather, grass, newspaper, brass and iron.” Different from an ordinary chair, the top third of the sick chair is hinged, which would have allowed a patient to tilt their head back while being supported by the chair. The wheels, also known as casters, and receptacles attached to the arms of the chair imply that the patient may have been immobile or too weak to move without assistance. The receptacles would have provided support for a tray or closure to be placed across the front and the wheels would have allowed mobility. The upholstery of the chair consists of leather stuffed with straw and newspaper. In addition, a red cushion with a green embroidered edging was made to add comfort for the patient. Some information on the purpose of this chair can be deduced by its structural and design features, but comparisons to other chairs from a similar time period help strengthen knowledge on the Vogler sick chair.
“The Sisters House Chair” dated February 16th, 1796 is also part of the MESDA collection. It was built to and perform procedures on sick patients in the Moravian single sisters choir house. Unlike the Vogler chair, the back of this chair has the function to recline completely, allowing a patient to lie flat. It also has a more substantial footrest which could be used to raise the legs of the patient. The Sisters House chair has casters, however, they are not original. If the casters were replaced with almost identical ones which were just as small it could suggest that the chair was not moved often, supporting the belief that the chair was used in a medical facility. These features indicate that this chair was not intended to be used in a home, but rather an environment similar to a hospital. Therefore, it can be deduced that the Vogler chair was most likely not intended for substantial medical procedures, and instead to make Christina’s life at home more comfortable.
MESDA has two other chairs attributed to the Moravian craftsmen, both made in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A detailed narrative of these chairs is unknown, but their structure indicates their functionality as sick chairs. The first chair is very different to both the Vogler and Sisters House chair as it is completely upholstered in a decorative fabric. This could suggest that it functioned more as a resting chair in a home that a procedural chair. It too has small casters, armrests, and wings. The second chair (S-12065) is most similar to the Sisters House chair structurally, but it does not have any reclining abilities, casters, or any unique features which would indicate it as being a sick chair. Visually it appears as a regular sitting room chair, but across the front of the seat real there are engraved letters which read, “17·KRANKEN·STUBE·88”. The writing is German and means sick room. This is its only obvious indication as being used in a medical context.
Through comparing the context, structure and features of these four chairs it can be concluded that sick chairs had different features which were appropriate for specific patients and environments. The unique qualities of the Vogler chair could imply that Christina was unable to walk, ate meals from her chair, or had some use for a tray, and that she needed mobility of her neck while in the chair. While Christina used her sick chair, it is likely that Bethy cooked for her and John, cleaned the house, and did errands. She took on the responsibilities of a nurse, housekeeper, and maid, working long days, and even at night was expected to be available should Christina need help. As she was enslaved and did not write about her life, we have no record of how Bethy actually felt about her enslavers, their expectations, or her life with them.
The practice of slavery was of huge debate in the Moravian communities of the American South; their theocratic doctrine held all members of the faith as spiritual equals, and yet by the 1860s in Salem, those spiritual equals were legally allowed to own each other. At the end of the eighteenth century, eight enslaved men and women were owned directly by the Moravian church’s governing body, the Wachovia Administration. For large-scale projects, townspeople could rent these enslaved individuals from the church, or from nearby non-Moravian farmers and planters (Stinson). By 1810, the number of people enslaved in Salem had more than doubled to meet the demand for growing industry, such as the establishment of a paper mill. In another twenty years, the number of individuals held in bondage had quadrupled, now reaching eighty. Moravians were building larger, more labor-intensive farms and assimilating into a common North Carolinian identity, moving away from the strict observance of the equalizing doctrines of their faith that characterized the early communities at Bethabara and Salem. By 1850, the number of enslaved had grown again, now reaching around 100. In the last Federal Census before the Civil War, 135 individuals were enslaved in the Salem community; there are records of thirty-five “slave houses,” none of which remain in the landscape. Other records show that on the eve of the Civil War, 160 men and women were enslaved in Salem. Francis Fries, John Vogler’s son-in-law, enslaved forty-eight individuals as laborers for his wool and cotton mills (Stinson). In 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was read from the pulpit of St. Philips Church, where enslaved Moravians attended their religious services. Some of the 160 formerly enslaved people who heard the Proclamation read left Salem, and others stayed, establishing a community across Salem Creek that would become known as Happy Hill. In the early 1900s, Salem and nearby Winston consolidated into one city: today’s Winston-Salem, and the historic area of Salem was slowly reworked into a bustling mercantile district; the material remnants of the lives of the enslaved were erased in an effort to clean up the area.
Because of the system of urban slavery practiced in Salem, the archaeological record of enslaved individuals’ lives looks very different than the lives of those enslaved on Southern plantations: enslaved men and women in Salem often lived alongside their enslavers, as Bethy lived in the Vogler’s attic. This makes it very hard to identify spaces used exclusively by the Black community, whereas plantation systems often had dedicated, separate houses for enslaved individuals. Because of the way the stories of these individuals have been obscured over time, historians, archaeologists, and researchers working with Old Salem have named the initiative to re-discover the enslaved community and the places that mattered to them “Hidden Town.”
Beginning in the 1980s, Frank Horton, founder of MESDA and a huge influence on Old Salem today, began to realize the need to address the histories of enslaved lives in the interpretive materials at Old Salem. In 2003, this journey truly began when St. Philips church was opened up to the public; three years later, the Southern Province of the Moravian Church issued a formal apology for its historic practice of slavery, and created a reconciliation program to address race relations (Associated Press). These early steps to acknowledge the past in its difficult complexity contributed to the ongoing story of Hidden Town. Led by Frank Vagnone, Cheryl Harry, and Martha Hartley, the project is focused on continuing to reveal the obscured foundations of Salem’s past. Their goals are: locating the sites where enslaved individuals lived within the historic district, make these previously underrepresented narratives an integral part of the visitor experience, collaborate with descendant communities, use archaeology, artistic work, and public engagement to understand the heritage of enslaved individuals in new ways. Their current primary goal is to find the spaces where enslaved men and women lived, which is being done through archival and archaeological research projects. They have many community partnerships in this research, including a network of volunteers of various ages, North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, and student projects at Middle Tennessee State University and Savannah School of Art and Design. Archival research is completed in an orderly fashion: selecting a lot on which a house was built in Salem, and investigating the family who lived there. Research into the family often reveals the presence of enslaved individuals, as research into the Voglers revealed Bethy’s involvement in their lives. After these “Research Lot Files” are developed, Biography Files are created for each person in the household. These files can then be cross referenced by other researchers later, which over time will reveal a more complete image of the complex social networks that existed in historic Salem.
As of January 2020, the Hidden Town Project has completed 29 of these Research Lot Files, and 27 are currently in the process of being researched. Community members interested in assisting with the Hidden Town Project through archival research can fill out an application form on the Old Salem Museum website. There are also a lot of ways for those interested in helping the aims of Hidden Town, but not completing academic research, to be involved; Hidden Town is about confronting racial injustice and inequality, and treating others with empathy, which everyone can participate in, all the time. When you visit a historic site, think about the stories that are shared there, and who they might be leaving out when they talk about the past. By acknowledging the hard parts of history, we are doing a service to the memories of people like Bethy, who have been forgotten for too long.
Object biography by Annabelle Lewis, Lizzie Michaelson, and Kylie Nolan, Fall 2020
Associated Press. “Southern Moravians Apologize for Slavery.” Wilmington Star News. , https://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20060427/News/605130491. Accessed 24 Apr. 2020.
Devine, Shauna. “Health Care and the American Medical Profession, 1830-1880.” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 6 July 2017. , https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2017/07/health-care-american-medical-profession-1830-1880/.
Hidden Town Project | Old Salem Museums & Gardens. https://www.oldsalem.org/core-initiatives/hidden-town-project/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2020.
House, John Vogler. Local Historic Landmark Program. p. 1.
Niven, Penelope, and Cornelia Wright. Old Salem: The Official Guidebook. Old Salem, Inc., 2000.
Out of Bounds: Sounds of Hidden Town | Old Salem Museums & Gardens.
Out of Bounds: Sounds of Hidden Town | Old Salem Museums & Gardens. https://www.oldsalem.org/out-of-bounds-sounds-of-hidden-town/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2020.
Sinclair, Coy Archer-Photos by J. “The Moravian Way.” Winston-Salem Journal. , https://www.journalnow.com/winstonsalemmonthly/step-inside/the-moravian-way/article_a7b7f270-52f6-11e3-8b2b-001a4bcf6878.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2020.
Smith, Rosamond. Vogler, John | NCpedia. 1996, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/vogler-john.
Stinson, Tevin. “Slaves and Freemen Lived in Shadows of Salem.” WS Chronicle, 24 Aug. 2017.
Stinson, Tevin. “Slaves and Freemen Lived in Shadows of Salem.” WS Chronicle, 24 Aug. 2017. wschronicle.com, https://wschronicle.com/2017/08/slaves-freemen-lived-shadows-salem/.
Thacker, Tanya. African-American References Wachovia/Salem, NC. 1994. Old Salem, Inc.
Watts, Kathy Norcross. “Hidden In History: Old Salem’s Hidden Town.” Winston-Salem Journal. , https://www.journalnow.com/winstonsalemmonthly/hidden-in-history-old-salems-hidden-town/article_67d75536-0762-11e8-8404-db4e2f1b5d84.html. Accessed 24 Apr. 2020.
“By 1860, North Carolina had a greater percentage of political leaders owning enslaved people than any other state.”
“Hidden Town is about confronting racial injustice and inequality, and treating others with empathy, which everyone can participate in, all the time. When you visit a historic site, think about the stories that are shared there, and who they might be leaving out when they talk about the past. By acknowledging the hard parts of history, we are doing a service to the memories of people like Bethy, who have been forgotten for too long.”
“As she was enslaved and did not write about her life, we have no record of how Bethy actually felt about her enslavers, their expectations, or her life with them.”
The Moravian Lot System
The Moravian lot system was a process by which people would draw lots, that would determine their actions. Those lots, at least originally, would be slips of paper that read "The Saviour's Will" and "The Saviour does not approve." This was shaped by a belief that the lots represented the will of Christ, enabling participants to follow it. And this process was traditionally used for making all sorts of decisions, including decisions about marriage."
For more on this see Elisabeth Sommer's "Gambling with God: The Use of the Lot by the Moravian Brethren in the Eighteenth Century."
A Brief Timeline of Slavery in Salem
1760s: Moravians rented slaves from outside the area
1769: The first enslaved person was purchased by
the church. Individual ownership was banned.
1840: There were 50 enslaved people in Salem
1847: Regulations prohibiting private or individual
ownership were lifted.
1850: There were 100 enslaved people in Salem.
1861: There were 160 enslaved people in Salem.
To learn more please see Stinson's