The Historian: Fraktur, the folk art of the Pa. Germans

During the 100 years between 1720 and 1820, well over 100,000 German-speaking immigrants entered Pennsylvania, most of them through the port of Philadelphia. In just the five years between 1749 and 1754 nearly 37,000 Germans came through that port and spread throughout Pennsylvania and beyond.

During that century, some townships such as New Hanover, which then extended to the Schuylkill River and included Upper and Lower Pottsgrove and Pottstown, were almost exclusively populated by German-speaking residents.

The immigrants came principally from the Upper Rhine and settled close together so their traditions and dialects blended to form the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect and Pennsylvania German folk culture. This Germanic heritage found expression in all aspects of their lives: farming methods, clothing, food, speech, architecture, church, school and colorful folk arts, one of which specifically is our theme today — “fraktur” (pronounced frok-tour).

Fraktur is the term for the colorful, highly artistic and frequently elaborate illuminated folk art executed in ink and watercolor usually on paper. The term “illuminated” refers back to the pre-printing era when the initial letter or word in a manuscript was decorated with elaborate tracery and miniature designs executed in bright colors.

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The word “fraktur” has the same root as “fracture” and refers to an early Germanic typeface. In fraktur type, the letters of the Latin alphabet are formed by relatively straight broken strokes and many angles when compared to the rounded typeface of the antique (common) typeface. Fraktur typeface was developed in the 16th Century and was used in most of Germany until the Nazis prohibited it in 1941.

Our use of the term fraktur to describe artwork takes its name from early scriveners’ practice of mimicking fraktur type as they hand-drew wording on homemade documents that recorded births, baptisms, marriages, house blessings or other such matters. The fraktur maker frequently embellished his work with brightly painted drawings of various birds (real and imaginary), tulips, angels, mermaids, soldiers, animals, vines and geometric patterns and designs of his fancy.

Many of these early works (particularly those originating in Mennonite communities and Schwenkfelder families) demonstrate consummate skill by master draftsmen who were gifted artists and are today much prized by collectors and museums.

Today the term is used a little more loosely and describes all sorts of Germanic folk art on paper. The most common fraktur works that survive today are probably the printed “certificate” forms that were filled in and painted, often by itinerant scriveners.

Even before 1800, certificates for births, baptisms and weddings were commercially printed with borders and outlines of birds, flowers and other decorative designs, while blank spaces were left for the names and other information. These printed forms were often sold by itinerants and at rural stores. A skilled calligrapher, perhaps the itinerant himself, would fill in the information and maybe do the painting. Although not strictly speaking “certificates,” since no one in authority had signed them, they have been regarded as legal documents. Framed, these today adorn the walls of many proud descendants.

Baptismal certificates, “Taufschein” in the dialect, are of particular value to genealogists since in addition to the name of the child, there are recorded the names of the father and mother, with her maiden name, the date of birth, the place of birth, usually the county and township being given, the name of the officiating clergyman with his denomination and the names of the witnesses.

Other than these printed certificates, there all manner of native folk drawings and paintings without text that are found on bookplates (the blank pages at the front of books), inside book covers and on all manner of paper such as journals, standalone drawings or even as mere doodles. These are prized today by collectors.

Finally, innumerable small, colorful, hand-drawn and painted paper rewards were created by Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite and Schwenkfelder school teachers as rewards to favored students or as writing models.

The practice of creating these various handmade documents and art work decline during the 19th Century and seems to have disappeared altogether by mid-century.

The premier collections of fraktur today are held by the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum. Additionally, the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg has an outstanding collection.

The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.