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Fraktur: Americana with a German Accent

Fraktur (pronounced frahk-toor), in the simplest terms, is a distinctive letter style with origins in 16th-century Europe.

However, upon viewing examples of fraktur created by Pennsylvania Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries, “simple” is hardly fitting.

To better understand fraktur, which is seen by many as both a resplendent form of folk art and a remarkable record of many German-American colonial families, we turned to Patricia Earnest, owner of Earnest Archives and Library – a private library devoted to researching Pennsylvania German genealogy recorded in the form of fraktur.

What role does fraktur serve in history?

Fraktur is an Americanized “catch-all” term referring to the 18th and 19th-century decorated manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans. Taufschein (singular) or Taufscheine (plural) are the birth and baptismal records of the predominately Lutheran and German Reformed denominations. In terms of those that exist, Taufscheine dominate the fraktur field. Bookplates, religious texts, writing exercises, birth and baptismal certificates, confirmation certificates, bible records, and even pictures without writing, all fall under our broad definition of “fraktur.”

In Europe, the term fraktur refers to an archaic style of writing. Birth and baptisms were documented in the local church book so the reigning lord could track his subjects for taxation and conscription. In colonial America, many families purchased their Taufschein, which was usually drawn by a schoolmaster. It was a personal record, not an official document. After Taufscheine started to to be mass-produced on the printing press (after 1780), they became less expensive, which made them available to almost all German-speaking families. The artwork enhanced their appeal, prompting fraktur to be valued for many generations, even after the family could no longer read German. My mother used to say that the earlier fraktur represented the freedom and liberties that had not been available to them in Europe.

Birth fraktur by Jacob Crop(th), circa 1809, Daniel Wiessler, Rockingham Co., watercolor and ink on paper, with imagery featuring two parrots perched on a floral vine with tulips above the inscribed, 7 ¾” x 12 ¼”, commanded $26,950 at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, June 18, 2016 auction.

 

Tip: The date shown on fraktur may not necessarily represent when it was made. Many Taufscheine were drawn, or data filled in on printed sheets, years after the child was born.

 

For someone interested in beginning a collection, what themes or similarities among fraktur could someone base a collection?

One of the most important reasons to collect might be the desire to document the history of a particular family. Others collect specific artists, motifs, geographical locations, or scriveners who created fraktur. One collector is known to pursue only fraktur that feature red as the predominant color. The possibilities for collecting extend as far as one’s imagination.

 

What type of clues can people look for to ascertain that a fraktur is authentic?

This advice could apply to anything being collected: Ask yourself, “is it too good to be true?” If so, stay away.

In the case of paper, know your paper. Check the paper type to see if it is consistent with the age of the piece. As an example, if an item is dated prior to 1785 or so, it should be on laid paper (ladders running through). Look at the paper coloring and condition. Sometimes, a faker might draw a picture on a piece of older paper, such as a ledger page. In that case, the paper is old but the artwork is not, so proceed carefully.

Many forgers may not know how to duplicate or read German fraktur lettering or script, so their handwriting looks forced or cramped. For that reason, many fakers recreate pictures, as opposed to forging an illustration with writing.

 

Tip: Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library (Wilmington, Delaware) recently held an exhibition that presented real and fake fraktur side by side. Collectors should take advantage of exhibits such as this one, and any other events where genuine fraktur are shown, to become familiar with the paper, ink, and all aspects of fraktur.

 

What do you appreciate most about fraktur and its presence in German-American history?

Ask three different people and you will get three different answers. I like looking at history through the eyes of our ancestors.

Can you imagine making that journey, saying goodbye to everyone you knew and loved, to set foot onto colonial shores, then experiencing a freedom never before known by Europeans from German-speaking areas? They sometimes faced awful conditions and poverty here, as they often arrived with nothing, but were so proud they bought these certificates as testaments of their family. In my mom’s case, she loved the genealogy on fraktur. Unlike our English counterparts, the mother’s maiden name was usually recorded. In that way, their histories can be followed.

Ink and watercolor on laid paper fraktur birth certificate by Johann Congrad Gilbert, for Eliesabeth Kunkel, dated 1815, Albany Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania. The central script flanked by two trumpeting male angels, 8” x 13 ¼”, sold for $56,182 at Pook & Pook, Inc., Nov. 11, 2011 auction.

Is there an example of fraktur that simply took your breath away when you saw it?

Too many have taken our breath away to be counted, but my particular favorite is one by Christian Mertel (1739-1802). I adore his lions.

 

The work your family has done over the decades to index various examples of fraktur has resulted in an impressive cache. It is from this index that you draw on the information that appear in the many references you and your parents have authored over the years, as well as the newsletter you regularly deploy, correct?

The archive contains over 40,000 fraktur. As each fraktur has approximately four or more surnames (child, parents, witnesses and preacher), the name index would be over 200,000. Additionally, we are trying to catalog examples of Pennsylvania German broadside printing. Yes, we use this archive for book and article ideas.

Shenandoah Valley of Virginia Taufschein fraktur attributed to Jacob Strikler, watercolor and ink on paper, circa 1806, Susanna Rothgeb Rockbridge, Co. Two Federal eagles with heart-shaped breast medallions, tulips, and a characteristic polychrome diamond border frame the central inscribed reserve, 7 5/8” x 12 ¼”. The document realized $31,200 at Jeffrey s. Evans & Associates, June 20, 2015 auction.

What does it mean to continue the valued work your parents began?

Everything. Mom and Dad embraced every aspect of the Pennsylvania German fraktur culture. I am more focused on printing by Pennsylvania Germans, which has largely been ignored by historians; although the German-language printers were an important part of America’s printing history.

I like being able to share these connections with other groups. For example, I just wrote about William Young, a Philadelphia printer and Delaware papermaker, who advertised the loss of a runaway family. The Janney family  had been indentured to work in Young’s Delaware Paper Mill. The Delaware Bibliophiles just published the article in their periodical, Endpapers. I like these connections between American subcultures, which are often made visible via the certificates and papers they left behind.


Patricia Earnest received her undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico. In 2005 she joined Russell D. Earnest Associates and the Earnest Archives and Library as an archivist, researcher, and writer. She is the lead author of The Hanging of Susanna Cox: The True Story of Pennsylvania’s Most Notorious Infanticide and the Legend That’s Kept It Alive (2010). She also authored Kids and Kin: The Family History Vacation That Involves Kids (1997). Patricia currently serves on the Board of the Children’s Theater in Dover, Delaware.

 

Russell and the late Corinne Earnest spent more than four decades recording and indexing Pennsylvania German genealogical data recorded on fraktur, and the elements that reside within this umbrella. The couple founded the Earnest Archives and Library, and later established the publishing firm Russell D. Earnest Associates. The firm publishes books and articles pertaining to fraktur, Taufscheine, Pennsylvania German broadsides, family registers, Bible records, family histories, and other documents. View the latest book by this firm, The Jungmann Woodblock Fraktur Artist and a Peek At Other Woodblock Artists, published in 2016, as well as many other related references here.