A Look Back in History by Richard H. Shaner: Kauffman's book on PA German folk art

Submitted photo
Submitted photo

Over the years as a PA German historian, I have met several outstanding authorities on our PA Dutch/German culture. Professor Henry J. Kauffman, who wrote the book Pennsylvania Dutch: American Folk Art in 1964, did such a prolific job; I used his text when I was teaching a course about the Oley Valley to Oley High School students. A descendant of the Oley Valley, where the 1766 Jacob Kauffman’s farm house is located, “Hank” Kaufman, as his affectionate Millersville University students called him, was a very knowledgeable professor on our 300-year-old American frontier culture.

Realizing that our native Pennsylvania Deitsch pioneers were worldwide famous for their quaint PA Dutch folk culture, he as a professor of folk crafts and paint decorated folk furniture was proud that our PA Dutch immigrants had developed a unique form of American folk art more famous than any other ethnic group that had immigrated to Colonial America! Thus, as a collector of early American antique folk art furniture, “Hank” and I shared a lifelong quest with my Oley Valley neighbor, Dr. Donald Shelly, the retired head of the Ford Museum of Americana material civilization.

A writer for Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker’s Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, I was very familiar with the vast examples of PA Dutch Fraktur folk art designs, as well as 17th and 18th Century early PA Dutch decorated furniture. As a dedicated professor, who taught in the metal arts program at Millersville State College in those early days, Kauffman was proud of being a Pennsylvania Dutchman, whose immigrant ancestors were known for decorating their furniture in early American folk art style, which they had brought over to America from the Rhine Valley of Europe.

But here in the New World in a land of plenty, they had the resources to develop an American style of folk art never dreamed about in the Old Country. So the creativity of these Rhinelanders blossomed into an amazing folk art form that was nurtured by freedom of religion and free private enterprise, becoming American Folk Art. Although the Plain Dutch, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites seldom engaged in bold colorful folk art as seen by the Church PA Dutch, both groups were known for their religious folk art writings known as Fraktur in the 17th and 18th Centuries.


However, many of the offspring born in the New World were given colorful folk art dower chests to celebrate the beginnings of that branch of the family in a land of freedom of religion and liberty. In Dr. Kauffman’s American Folk Art book, he pictures several colorful folk art dower chests that were representative of different counties of the PA Dutch people, according to their folk art motifs. But barn stars or “Hex signs,” which were boldly painted on the Church Dutch barns outside of Lancaster County, were inspired by native Fraktur religious documents, such as baptism certificates.

Prior to Henry Kauffman’s book, Pennsylvania Dutch: American Folk Art, Dr. Donald Shelley did an amazing research study on Fraktur Writings and Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans in 1961. It certainly gave Americans insight to the colorful Germanic folk art symbols of the PA Dutch people, known as Fraktur. But the sheer number of Germanic people in Pennsylvania, which almost outnumbered the English in frontier days, was always an ethnic ingredient which comprised the cultural makeup of multi-national American civilization.

Kauffman, from Millersville State College, was reluctant at first to claim our ethnic folk art as American, since we as early American pioneers were so widely known as the PA Deitsch people who spoke and wrote a German dialect. But regardless of the fact that we spoke a German dialect, our folk art symbols of Fraktur designs and decorated dower chests were early American. In Kauffman’s folk art book, he includes butter print carvings, as well as PA Dutch cut-out cookie tins, which were among the acculturated examples adopted by the American public. But of course the barn stars (hex signs) painted on our Swiss bank barns throughout the Dutch country are classic!

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.