The Berks-Mont News (

A Look Back in History: Frontier PA Dutch Folk Art of Early America

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I was a young college graduate when I first realized I had a dual identity living in southeastern Pennsylvania, besides being an American citizen. But the importance of being a local PA Dutchman did not astonish me until I went to an Allentown household auction sale of another urban PA Dutchman, eager to acquire some of his family heirlooms. I bid on a colorful, rare, early American decorated PA Dutch folk art baptism fraktur, but was upset that it went so overwhelmingly high, I could not afford it!
A modest antique collector at the time, I quickly asked another antique dealer why this hand done German lettered specimen brought such an amazing price among the local crowd gathered there in Allentown. A veteran antique dealer, whom I knew from other auctions, said to me “You’re PA Dutch, aren’t you?” I replied, “Both my grandmothers still speak the German dialect,” to which he replied, that this decorated birth certificate had remarkable folk art decorations, besides being lettered in a German script, known as Fraktur. He went on to say that this folk art PA Dutch example would bring four times as much as the bidder paid for it among rare high-end folk art collectors at Sotheby’s New York Auction Gallery.
Right then and there, I realized my local citizenship as an ethnic PA Dutchman was more important than any other citizen whose ethnicity was not known for exceptional primitive Americana folk art. Henceforth, I visited local museums that displayed rare PA German folk art and crafts and bought a copy of Francis Lichten’s Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania, dealing with PA Dutch folk art. No longer a collector of typical antique household objects, I now look at my family’s PA German craft heirlooms with an eye, that they were not common place, but in time would appreciate rapidly in value, becoming far more valuable than any other person’s ethnic heirlooms. Even my uncle Freddie Bieber, who at the time was still making hand split-oak baskets that were very much in demand, was a one of a kind treasure.
But in time, I found out that Freddie’s great, great, Grandfather, Jacob, was an exceptional frontier dower chest decorator, and his early hand decorated furniture could bring over $100,000 at high-end Auction Galleries. Like other Patriots in the Oley Valley, my maternal Bieber family played a role in the American Revolution, and as farmers and Conestoga Wagoneers hauling grain to Philadelphia, they were influential citizens of our young Republic intermarrying with Colonel John Lesher’s Oley Forge family. All the while keeping records of newborn family members recorded in decorative German script, many of which our family has retained as heirlooms, with a few decorative PA Dutch dower chests, including the Bieber Pennsylvania Long Rifle from our early American period with powder horns.
However, my important historic memories, are the times I spend with both grandmothers who revealed our PA Dietsch heritage that parallels my American citizenship as a descendant who was given the best opportunity to fill my life as a German-American from the Rhineland, under the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Besides having talented PA Dutch relatives and neighbors to assist in my PA Dutch collection of Americana, in 1960, I was fortunate to have met Dr. Alfred Shoemaker as my folklore mentor, who personally made me aware of the magnificent PA Dutch culture on a national level.
All the more, this made me aware of the fact that the Dutch Country was not just an ethnic cultural island, but the heart of American folklife. It indeed represented the best of our American social customs and our unique rural folk art and furniture. He was a good friend of Frances Lichten who was an expert on our PA German folk art in early America. Having collected PA Dutch antique treasures since the 1950’s, I have become a serious buyer at local auctions for the last 63 years. A member of the PA German Society, I was honored when Mr. Thomas Gerhart, their editor, asked me if I would allow them to include several rare fraktur folk art pieces from my collection in the society’s pending book on PA Dutch folk art by Corinne and Russell Earnest, two accomplished authorities on this unique American folk art among our Rhineland natives.
American Fraktur style decorated Birth and Baptism documents traced the child’s maternal and paternal genealogy and often include the name of the clergyman who baptized and gave them their Christian name, a practice popular among the Church Dutch. But Anabaptist sects, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites refrained from getting their children a Taufschein, since they were “Plain People.”
In fact, the more elaborate family Birth and Baptism documents were done by Lutheran and Reformed parents who sought out a scribe who would design a special “Taufschein” that would surprise the child with her date of birth and could be fastened under the lid off the child’s personal dower chest, be they male or female. Some Fraktur folk art documents were very unusual, and today fetch a high auction price well above the printed ones furnished by traveling itinerant scriveners from the Reading and Allentown areas.
To understand the American folk art of our 17th and 18th century PA German immigrants to the new world, one must realize how much a religious background men to these Pilgrims were the product of Medieval times; when scribes of the Middle Ages eliminated religious texts and a stylish lettering form known as Fraktur. Rhineland natives who were lucky to reach America in primitive sea vessels after this death defying crossing of the terrible Atlantic Ocean very much beholding to the benevolent God! Not only for the safe passage to this “land of milk and honey” in the New World, but for surviving cruel European wars in which their ancestors were fortunate enough to survive gross treatment in the Old World.
Therefore, when these frontier PA Germans were able to endure natural and native Indian threats, in the New World, their newly born children were considered no less than a God given miracle. But among literate PA German pilgrims, each one wanted to express gratitude to the Lord either by having a scribe pen a cherished Fraktur Birth and Baptism certificate, or the parents had a woodworker build a personalized decorated dower chest with their child’s name celebrated on front with American folk art. Almost all the church PA Dutch had Fraktur Taufscheins made for their children with the exception of the Plain Dutch Anabaptists.
But some early Fraktur artists elaborated these traditional Taufschein documents with Germanic folk art that went beyond Christian angels and folk art trees of life, sprouting mythical flowers and whimsical faces on the Sun and Moon. Unicorn animals were particularly praised as a good luck symbol, but some people were not sure if the lion figure was not a symbol for King George the Third of England!
However, when PA German printers standardized Taufschein forms for various churches with angels flanking on the left and right, few scribes were able to enhance the format, but the Angel Gabriel overlooked both the man and woman’s maiden name printed at the top of the Taufschein. But people in early America could write German script, and fewer Deitsch Rhinelanders were able to write English, so itinerant ministers and teachers were the people whom the farmers were able to rely upon for doing illuminated Taufschein documents, done approximately on 13 X 16 inch paper.
Following in the steps of folklorist Dr. Donald Shelly, Russell and Corinne Earnest have done a wonderful review of Pennsylvania German Taufschein Fraktur, called The Heart of the Taufschein, published by the PA German society in 2012. It’s treasured research of the American folk artists who have long been bringing exceptional prices at Americana auctions throughout the United States, definitely are the heart of these ethnic peoples for three hundred years. Fraktur is an important folk practice of God and Country.
*To obtain a copy of The Heart of the Taufschein the 2012 volume of the PA German Society, call 717-795-7940 or email: (302-page illustrated book).
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.