A Look Back in History by Richard L.T. Orth: Fraktur among the Pennsylvania Dutch

Berks County watercolor fraktur dated 1761, attributed to Heinrich Otto, the central verse surrounded by some common PA Deitsch folk art symbols of tulips and a North Carolina parrot. Perhaps the mermaid and compass like designs (hex signs) paid homage to the sea captain and successful voyage over the Atlantic to America.

As devout a Christian people as the Quakers were, they did not express their religious belief as dynamic as the Pennsylvania Dutch/Germans, whose American Folk Art naturally spilled over from the Bible into all their furniture and household belongings. These Rhineland immigrants, who feared being crucified for their religious beliefs in Europe by rival Kings; upon stepping onto what we now know as America, beginning in 1683, were for the first time in their lives free to practice whichever faith they chose, and without incrimination to them and their families in America.

Although William Penn had a number of loyal “Society of Friends” members joined him in settling Pennsylvania, these Quakers were not as prolific as the spirited German Rhinelanders who joined with him establishing this “Holy Experiment” in Christian Humanity. Here, they worshiped the Lord and practiced Brotherly love as much as the Germanic Palatines, for whom he invited their illuminated Christ’s teachings in an art practice known as Fraktur. An early folk practice, which Dr. Henry “Hank” Kaufman, featured in a column here roughly two months back, rightfully coined the phrase as our first American Folk Art.

Thereby, these folk art symbols were not able to demonstrate accurately without calling attention to their personal belief in a deity, and our Deitsch were now free to express their beliefs in the New World under William Penn, one of the first proprietors to believe in freedom of religion. The heart and soul of our region, namely the East Penn and Oley Valleys, and beyond cannot be explained without delving into America’s ethnic diversity, especially the Pennsylvania German-American Folk Art, which is world renown. Unlike the English Quakers, who lived in the heart of the Oley basin, rarely decorated dower chests for their new born children, other than lettering their name and date of one’s birth or the presentation date on the front of a dower chest. Rhinelanders from Germany, on the other hand, had their native folk art as an integral part of their folk culture, and showed up not only in furniture like dower chests and wardrobes, but in almost every task in which they undertook, pottery and waffle irons, as well.

Advertisement

Rhinelanders found it necessary, almost mandatory, to decorate birth certificates and religious broadsides for their children not only for deep religious beliefs, but also because they enjoyed expressing their parental love by asking a folk artist to design a lavish Americana folk art chest for their offspring to hold their dowry until they got married. Few children were in need of a wardrobe, until they got married. But since family wardrobes were a necessity later on, these large hardwood or softwood paint decorated parlor pieces were often elaborately paint decorated, and often the most beautiful center-piece found in a hallway or parlor, especially if the home was a very large manor house or Georgian mansion.

Thus, Pennsylvanish Deitsch natives whose religion was written in German became known for their Pennsylvania Dutch/German folk art documents that were vibrantly colored, and inscribed in 18th Century lettering to document their baptism announcements. These colorful Fraktur and marriage drawings of tulips, carnations, and distlefinks were also transferred on to their dower chests and early American wardrobes, together with Jesus fish and or stylized stippled raised panels on local furniture. Because few Germanic homes had closets, clothing was kept in a “Shrank”(Colonial wardrobe) or Kas, and either made of walnut (a hardwood), but more commonly, a softwood like poplar. However, wardrobes made in walnut instead of painted poplar wood were more revered than folk art decorated ones in Georgian mansions of the Federal period with Chippendale furniture.

But nowhere as awe inspiring were the artistic homes of the PA Dutch people, as reinforced by our continued volume II research, and Germanically inspired, as in the heart of the Oley Valley, where Pennsylvania Dutch cupboards were brimming full of sgraffito and earthenware slip designs made by local potteries and other homemade crafts. Even the 18th century cast iron waffle irons were indicative of German Rhine Valley designs and made by local iron furnaces in addition to ecclesiastical church pewter communion cups and plates to honor their (our descendants) freedom of religion way of life.

Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.