Pennsylvania Germans made decorative documents — known as “fraktur” — to serve as records of important life events. The most popular type of fraktur commemorated birth and baptism. Many expressed religious sentiments or served as personal papers. They were also an important educational tool for children. The personal data fraktur contain are an essential resource for genealogists and local historians.
German-speaking immigrants began to settle in southeastern Pennsylvania in the late-1600s. These immigrants created a distinct way of life in North America, merging German traditions with the environment of their new home. Fraktur and other folk arts tell us about their culture and give us insight into their everyday lives.
Fraktur designs often represent the rural surroundings and religious beliefs of the Pennsylvania Germans who made them. Lively drawings and intricate lettering are basic features of most fraktur. Popular images include birds, hearts and flowers. Many fraktur also have elaborate borders covered with delicate scrollwork or geometric patterns. These details remind us that most fraktur were personal keepsakes treasured by their owners.
Pennsylvania German fraktur can be traced to the German-speaking regions of central Europe. Official church and government documents were printed with elaborate calligraphic lettering — also called Fraktur. This Fraktur typeface was used in Germany from the mid-1500s until the early 1940s. The word “fraktur” comes from the Latin word fractura, which means “to break” or “to fracture.” This word describes Fraktur letters well, because each letter is separated — or fractured — from the next. Most American fraktur documents are written using the same bold and ornate Fraktur lettering.
German-speaking immigrants brought their knowledge of Fraktur lettering to America. Members of the Ephrata Cloister — a religious community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — produced some of the earliest American fraktur during the 1740s. Most fraktur were made between 1740 and 1850, and most were made in southeastern Pennsylvania — though many early German-speaking immigrants who settled throughout America created fraktur. Fraktur can be found in New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and even Canada.
Fraktur — especially birth and baptismal certificates — became very popular by the late-1700s. In order to make more fraktur in a shorter amount of time, the Ephrata Cloister started using a printing press in the 1780s to produce documents. Nearby cities of Reading, Lancaster, Allentown, Harrisburg and Hanover soon developed important fraktur printing centers of their own.
Many professional fraktur artists used printed documents to keep up with client demand. Even so, fraktur were still crafted for Pennsylvania Germans living in rural farming communities. Artists continued to personalize each mass-produced document. They filled-in clients’ personal information and often hand-colored or embellished printed designs.
Fraktur thrived in Pennsylvania German communities for more than a century. By the middle of the 1800s, however, interest in the art form began to wane. Several factors played a role in the decline of fraktur. Prior to the American Civil War, the United States experienced a surge in nationalist pride. People were encouraged to speak only in English. Traditional German-speaking parochial schools and their German schoolmasters — who were often very productive fraktur artists — soon faded into the past. In addition, baptism — which was a key force driving the mass-printing of fraktur birth and baptismal certificates — lessened in importance in favor of confirmation. Finally, social trends towards industrialism and Victorian sentimentalism also helped put an end to fraktur. Machine-made goods and modern fashions eventually eclipsed the folk-oriented and religious spirit of Pennsylvania German fraktur.
Pennsylvania Germans made fraktur for a variety of reasons. The majority of fraktur are birth and baptismal certificates — called Geburts-und Taufscheine. Some of the many other types of fraktur include writing samples, rewards of merit, house blessings, bookplates, hymnals, New Year’s greetings and love letters.
Fraktur styles are quite diverse and can vary dramatically between artists. Some fraktur are extravagant documents that draw attention to an artist’s expert skill. Others are simple drawings that may contain little artistic flair. Fraktur are frequently religious in nature, though some do address secular themes. Although many fraktur were entirely hand-made, a large number were printed on a printing press. Still others were produced by combining both hand-made and printed techniques. Most fraktur are written in German, although English text appears more frequently on all types of fraktur after the early 1820s.
Elaborate lettering and colorful drawings make Pennsylvania German fraktur easy to recognize. Many fraktur are framed by intricate borders and scrollwork designs. Artists employed hundreds of different motifs to decorate these documents. Their drawings include vivid illustrations of people, buildings and animals, as well as complicated geometric patterns. The most favored designs were of angels, birds, hearts and flowers — especially tulips. Some fraktur even depict mythical creatures such as unicorns or the legendary Wonderfish. The American flag, the bald eagle and other political symbols of the newly formed United States became popular at the beginning of the 1800s.
Pennsylvania Germans usually made fraktur for personal use and put them in storage for safekeeping. The personal and religious information recorded on fraktur was of great importance to them. Only a few types of fraktur — such as house blessings or valentines — may have been displayed in their homes. More often, people rolled-up fraktur documents and tucked them away, pasted them underneath the lids of storage chests, or kept them neatly folded inside books and Bibles. The great care many Pennsylvania Germans took to preserve these documents is a touching reminder that fraktur commemorated important and personal life events.
Most fraktur artists were German-speaking ministers or country schoolmasters. These men were educated and able to prepare documents such as birth and baptismal certificates. In addition, ministers and schoolmasters also had access to paper and writing supplies. Writing samples — called Vorschriften — are striking examples of their expert penmanship. The majority of fraktur artists were men, though several women in the Schwenkfelder community of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania were skilled fraktur artists.
Fraktur were typically made for an individual, though often more than one artist was involved in the process of creating them. A scrivener — or professional penman — wrote out the text of the document, outlined drawings and added scrollwork. A decorator — who may or may not have been the same person — applied the vibrant colors and motifs that characterize fraktur. The role of the printer became increasingly important in the1800s, when many fraktur were made on printing presses. A printer set the typeface and chose the woodcuts or other printed embellishments for these mass-produced documents. Professional scriveners and decorators filled-out and enhanced printed fraktur. Decorators, scriveners and printers regularly influenced one another’s work. Different artists often produced similar texts or illustrations, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish one artist’s work from another.
A variety of instruments filled the fraktur artist’s toolkit. Some of the most important tools included quill pens, brushes, straight edges, compasses, stencils, woodcut stamps, pencils and paper. Fraktur artists used laid paper during the 1700s. Wove paper — which has a smoother surface — became common after 1810. Decorators used imported pigments — carmine, vermilion, umber, gamboge and indigo — to make their colorful inks. They mixed these pigments with various binding substances to create glossy or muted effects. Scriveners usually wrote with iron gall ink — a standard writing ink blended from iron salts and vegetable tannins. Unfortunately, iron gall ink is very acidic and has caused many fraktur to deteriorate.
The history of fraktur is inseparable from the experiences of early German-speaking immigrants and the birth of Pennsylvania German culture. Large numbers of German-speaking people began to move to North America in the 1700s. Many of these immigrants were members of devout religious communities that hoped to find religious tolerance in this new land. Fraktur tell the story of how different immigrant groups united to form a new culture, helping to shape us into the American people we are today.
An estimated 120,000 German-speaking immigrants settled in North America between 1683 and 1820. By 1790, Germans were among the largest European ethnic groups in the United States — second in size only to the English. Most German-speaking immigrants lived in Pennsylvania. There, the number of people with German ancestry almost equaled that of the English. Of the 435,000 Pennsylvania residents, an astounding 140,000 people — or nearly 33% of the population — were German. This is only slightly less than the 35% who were English.
Most Germans who settled in Pennsylvania landed in the port of Philadelphia. Nearly 37,000 German-speaking immigrants entered the city during the peak of this migration between 1749 and 1754. Most eventually moved away from the city to the fertile soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Later generations traveled further south into the Shenandoah Valley through Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. Others migrated west into Ohio and north into Ontario, Canada.
German-speaking immigrants came from many different European states and principalities, including Wurtemberg, Swabia, Alsace, Baden-Durlach, Hesse, Switzerland and the Palatinate. Several of these areas lay outside of the present-day borders of Germany — which did not officially become a nation until 1871. While the people of these regions shared some commonalities, they had their own local traditions and took pride in their homelands. German-speaking immigrants brought a variety of customs with them to North America.
The importance of regional divisions quickly dwindled in their new home. German-speaking immigrants realized that the differences between them were small in comparison to those they encountered with the English. Non-German neighbors often reinforced this attitude by treating all Germans as if they came from the same culture.
German-speaking immigrants may have also encouraged this belief. They settled close together and established their own German-language schools and churches. Their previously diverse traditions and dialects eventually blended together to form a unique Pennsylvania German folk culture.
Pennsylvania Germans integrated this rich heritage into every aspect of their lives. It became a part of their clothing, food, furnishings and architecture. It was even integrated into their farming methods. Pennsylvania Germans expressed their vibrant culture in a distinctive German speech pattern and with colorful folk arts — such as fraktur. Immigrants who later moved to other regions took these rich traditions with them, giving Pennsylvania German culture a presence throughout North America.
The Christian church was at the heart of the Pennsylvania German community. Fraktur — along with hymnbooks and the Bible — were an important part of their religious lives. Pennsylvania German churches are similar in many respects, though they often differ over matters concerning the religious rites of baptism and communion. The particular beliefs and practices of many of these churches were established during the 1500s, when common people became dissatisfied with the doctrines and perceived corruption of the Catholic Church.
Prior to 1820, most Pennsylvania Germans were members of the Lutheran Church or the German Reformed Church. Combined, these were the largest Christian denominations in German-speaking Europe. In America, the similarities between Lutheran and German Reformed Churches were strong enough that church members frequently established “Union Churches.” Union churches allowed two separate congregations to combine their resources for worship services and youth education. Because of their larger population, followers of the Lutheran Church and the German Reformed Church produced most American fraktur.
Only 10% of the early German-speaking immigrants belonged to the independent religious communities of the Schwenkfelders, Brethren or Dunkards, Moravians, Amish and Mennonites. Though smaller in size, these communities still play a significant role in the active preservation of Pennsylvania German culture.