The fraktur collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia is an outstanding example of American folk art. It is a treasure to anyone interested in Pennsylvania German history and decorative arts. With over a thousand fraktur documents and related books, this assemblage includes an astonishing variety of fraktur themes and reveals a diversity of artistic styles. The collection represents more than a century of fraktur documents made in many different townships and print shops. This historic and geographic breadth provides genealogists with a rich resource for tracing personal and family histories.
Overall, fraktur in the collection are in good condition and, notably, most have retained their vibrant colors. Most of these pieces have remained in storage in order to protect them from the damaging effects of light and moisture.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is fortunate to have many rare and unique fraktur. Some of these noteworthy pieces include unusual death memorials and Christmas greetings, along with broadsides and books containing exceptional bookplates. The collection has numerous documents produced by prominent artists whose skill and creativity influenced the development of fraktur in America. These works give perspective to the large number of anonymously created fraktur.
There was not a standard formula guiding the aesthetic styles or techniques used to create fraktur. Elaborate handwriting, however, is the most distinctive element on most of these documents. The beauty of the letters emphasizes the importance of the information they record. Handmade flourishes and artists’ personal ties with clients give fraktur an intimate charm that can still be appreciated.
The Free Library of Philadelphia has exemplary representations of some of the most important fraktur artists’ works. One of the most prolific artists was Friedrich Krebs. Throughout his career, he decorated hundreds of fraktur printed with a common “three-hearts” design. Pennsylvania German families could easily recognize Martin Brechall’s birth and baptismal certificates, which he often adorned with abstract red and blue flowers. One of the few women fraktur artists, Susanna Hübner, created intricate fraktur with floral designs for members of her Schwenkfelder community
As schoolmasters and master scriveners, Johann Adam Eyer and Christian Strenge influenced the style of many fraktur artists who followed them. Johann Adam Eyer’s fraktur was highly regarded and often copied by his students. Christian Strenge drew intricate designs within his elaborate calligraphic lettering. A patterned songbird with a uniquely-shaped head is also a distinguishing mark of his work.
As fraktur gained popularity during the late 1700s, many artists began to use printed forms. Henrich Otto was a frequent customer of the Ephrata Cloister print shop, where he ordered many birth and baptismal certificates. He later decorated them with his own bright color schemes. Friedrich Speyer was another artist who frequently relied on print shops, often designing documents that included his own fanciful drawings of angels, animals and mythical figures
A House Blessing printed by the Ephrata Cloister in 1785 with decoration attributed to Henrich Otto.
The Free Library of Philadelphia also houses several hand-decorated hymnals from the Ephrata Cloister. While not as widely disseminated as their printed documents, handmade fraktur created at the Ephrata Cloister and its sister cloister of Snow Hill is notable for its nearly flawless calligraphy and delicately colored scrollwork designs.
The best work of many highly regarded fraktur artists can be seen in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection. A stunning masterpiece – drawn by either Durs Rudy Sr. or his son, Durs Rudy Jr. – depicts Jesus preaching to his disciples. Traditional Fraktur lettering juxtaposed with whimsical folk art is characteristic of manuscripts made by the Rudy family. Another exceptional piece is the baptismal wish made by the Sussel-Washington Artist. The delightful human figures that decorate this document highlight the intimate charm of this fraktur. Jacob Botz is most likely the artist of one of the most elaborate religious texts in the collection. This fraktur is embellished with watercolor decoration and ornate cutwork, and is amazingly well preserved.
Fraktur that were signed by the artists are important examples for the ongoing research of this collection. Because fraktur artists often did not sign their work, signed examples serve as the primary means for determining who made anonymous documents. A rare marriage blessing - made by schoolmaster Johann Adam Eyer in 1784 – is significant among the collection’s signed fraktur.
Another important signed fraktur is a birth and baptismal certificate made by Henrich Otto for Maria Elisabeth Miller, born in 1775 to Michael and Maria Elisabeth Miller. This fraktur is especially interesting because it draws our attention to the rich history of Pennsylvania German families. The Miller family lived in a magnificent stone house at Millbach in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Now more than 200-years old, the Miller’s stone house remains an outstanding icon of early Pennsylvania German architecture. The kitchen of the house is now installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art , where it serves as the setting for the museum’s exhibit of Pennsylvania German artifacts.
Fraktur was important to all German-speaking immigrants, and also flourished in communities outside of southeastern Pennsylvania. The Free Library of Philadelphia has several examples of fraktur made in western Pennsylvania. The scrivener George Burger – a Bavarian immigrant who was a talented linguist – most likely made this birth certificate for his daughter Martha. There are also numerous southern fraktur in the collection, including this birth certificate made in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. Helehna Henkel, for whom the certificate was made, was the daughter of the renowned German printer Solomon Henkel and the granddaughter of the prominent Lutheran pastor Paul Henkel, who performed her baptism.
In addition to the many fraktur documents contained within the collection, the Free Library of Philadelphia owns an artist’s toolkit along with other very rare materials used to make fraktur. The toolkit is a small leather-bound case with several different compartments that contain various writing tools. Some of the specialized instruments include a straightedge made from bone, pen nibs and containers for ink powder. Artists may have also carried clippings of printed verses and drawings which were used as practice pieces or as design samples to show to prospective clients. Another unusual artifact in the collection is a carved woodblock that was used to print fraktur certificates.
The fraktur collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia was first established in 1955 with the purchase of the private fraktur collection of Philadelphia lawyer, Henry S. Borneman, shortly following his death. Ellen Shaffer, a rare book librarian for the Free Library of Philadelphia from 1954 to 1970, was instrumental in promoting the acquisition of the Borneman collection – which totaled more than 600 fraktur – and for overseeing the subsequent study of these materials. Soon after obtaining the Borneman collection, the Free Library acquired the 275-piece fraktur collection of Bucks County antiques dealer Levi E. Yoder. More works have since been added to the Free Library’s collection, including several fraktur from the collection of Arthur J. Sussel, and documents from Mrs. Raymond W. Albright, Rev. Scott Francis Brenner, Mrs. Wilbur H. Oda, Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.
Henry S. Borneman, whose work provided the foundation for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection, was an early pioneer in fraktur scholarship. Borneman undertook the study of fraktur using his own extensive collection and propelled fraktur scholarship into the twentieth century. Borneman published two major books from his ongoing research – Pennsylvania German Illuminated Manuscripts (1937) and Pennsylvania German Bookplates (1953). The most significant contribution of Borneman’s work was his concept of classifying fraktur according to its purpose. The Free Library of Philadelphia continues to organize fraktur by function and uses this system as the “Category” Search for the Fraktur Digital Collection website.
Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney compiled most of the fraktur in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection for the 1976 publication, The Pennsylvania German Fraktur of the Free Library of Philadelphia: An Illustrated Catalogue, distributed by the Pennsylvania German Society. Monumental in scope, this two-volume set presented groundbreaking research, providing scholars and enthusiasts with valuable information, translations and images of over 1,000 fraktur. Extensive as it was, however, this publication excluded non-American fraktur, fragments and less significant documents.
The Fraktur Digital Collection expands upon previous research and, at the same time, makes the fraktur collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia available online. Contemporary fraktur scholars have worked closely with the Free Library of Philadelphia to review and update information about each fraktur. They have attributed many formerly anonymous works to specific artists and have revised several translations. The Fraktur Digital Collection website aims to be an ongoing and dynamic resource for public and scholarly information about Pennsylvania German families, history and folk art.