A Look Back in History: Early American Scriveners in the New World

The Huguenots of Lobachsville followed in William Penn’s teachings and did not use noble titles from the Old World. They painted flat Huguenot hearts on their children’s dower chests to express their love of mankind. On the door to the Keim woodshop is an early drawing of four flat hearts that created a tulip outline design, the folk symbol of fertility. Today it is the logo of the American Folklife Institute of Kutztown.
The Huguenots of Lobachsville followed in William Penn’s teachings and did not use noble titles from the Old World. They painted flat Huguenot hearts on their children’s dower chests to express their love of mankind. On the door to the Keim woodshop is an early drawing of four flat hearts that created a tulip outline design, the folk symbol of fertility. Today it is the logo of the American Folklife Institute of Kutztown. Submitted photo

Among the popular early American fraktur artists who designed elaborate folk art baptisms were Frederich Krebs and Frederich Speyer, who traveled our beloved Dutch Country making colorful baptism documents for farm families who were illiterate.

Most often, the frakturs were attached to the lid of the child’s dower chest, so it could easily be seen when the chest was opened. In the Oley Valley, a scrivener of the early 18th Century scribed a folk art design on the interior door to the historic 1753 Jacob Keim cabinet shop, a unique pattern of three flat heart deigns grouped together so they created an enchanting tulip design within their cluster. Coincidentally, the Keims were also wood crafters like the chronicled Jacob and John Bieber family, their neighbors, who also painted bulbous folk art flat hearts on their dower chests, which they became known for.

A sentimental symbol of love (the heart), each immigrant expressed to the Lord, in their belongings, for having made it safely to America; the land of liberty and freedom, regardless of ethnicity. American Fraktur-style decorated Birth and Baptism documents traced the child’s maternal and paternal genealogy, and often included the name of the clergyman who baptized and gave them their Christian name, a practice popular among the Church Dutch. But to reiterate, Anabaptist sects such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites refrained from getting their children a Taufschein, since they were “Plain People.” The most elaborate family Birth and Baptism documents were commissioned by Lutheran and Reformed parents who sought out a scribe that would design a most unique “Taufschein” that would surprise the child and include his or her date of birth and could be fastened under the lid of the child’s personal dower chest.

Some Fraktur folk art documents were very unique, so much so that today, the most unusual ones continue to garner an outstandingly high auction price, well above any printed ones furnished by traveling itinerant scriveners from the Reading and Allentown areas. These frontier PA Dutch, including the traveling folk artists, had to endure natural and Native Indian threats in the New World, and any 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 have a woodworker build a personalized decorated dower chest with their child’s name celebrated on front with American folk art.

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Almost all the Church PA Dutch had Fraktur Taufscheins made for their children with the exception of aforementioned Plain Dutch Anabaptists, and some early Fraktur artists embellished these traditional Taufschein documents with Germanic folk art that went way beyond Christian Angels and folk art Trees of Life, sprouting their creativity in mythical flowers and whimsical faces on the Sun and moon. Unicorn animals were particularly praised as a good luck symbol, but some people were unsure if the Lion figure was not a symbol for King George III of England! The religious church fever created by these dynamic PA Dutch Fraktur scriveners who celebrated the majesty of the New World hemisphere who incorporated good luck unicorns, optimistically encouraged a life of good fortune for the newly born child.

Painted on Tauf Scheins made for farming families in Berks County and beyond, the symbol of God’s compassion remained the shape of a huge flat heart bursting with love, which was very prevalent when framing the name of the parents and the names of their offspring baptized in their religious faith. Ultimately, PA German printers standardized Taufschein forms for various churches mostly with Angels flanking the left and right, where few scribes were able to enhance the format. However, the Angel Gabriel overlooked both the man and woman’s maiden name printed at the top of the Taufschein, and people in early America could write in German script, but few of our PA Deitsch Rhinelanders were able to write English.