The Pennsylvania Dutch art of Fraktur Writing
The term "fraktur" (also spelled as fractur) refers to the elaborate decorative writing used in Pennsylvania Dutch religious manuscripts; birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates; bible pages; hand-done songbooks and so forth.
The term derives from the word "fracture" which essentially means "a break." In this form of writing, the letters of the alphabet appear to be composed of horizontally broken pieces. This appearance of broken lettering is also found in what is generally called, "Old English" type or "Gothic" type.
Actually, although fraktur originally referred to this writing style which looked like an elaborate form of calligraphy, present day usage also includes the various decorative designs found on the manuscripts and certificates.
The very earliest pieces were done entirely by hand. The mid-period ones tends to be done both by hand as well ab block printing. The later forms tends to be done letter press with only the coloring done by hand.
Although Fraktur exists as early as 1760's in Pennsyllvania Dutch country, this art form reached its peak between 1790 and 1810. The quality of the pieces are felt to have declined dramatically after 1830.
Who Were the Artists?
Although schoolmasters were expected to be capable of this form of writing, it is believed that the earliest of the Fraktur practioners were itinerants artists. Because much of the population in the 1700's and 1800's lived on remote farms and did not have easy access to those capable to execute these documents, itinerant artist would visit from time to time and execute the birth records of all those children born since his last visit.
As a result, it was not uncommon that a family had to wait a long time, even until the children were grown up before a fraktur birth certificate could be made.
Since many of these artists were uneducated, there tended to be a lot of spelling mistakes!
Comparatively few pieces were ever signed. Consequently, the names of many talented artists have gone down in history unrecorded. Fortunatley, in later years, the names of the printer were usually given and there are exists many books today that lists the names of these highly-skilled individuals.
Birth and Baptismal Certificates
As mentioned earlier, this style of decorative writing and art was often used in birth and baptismal certificates. Included on these certificates were the names of the baby; the names of the parents, including the mother's maiden name; the place and hour of the birth; names of the baptismal witnesses; the name of the officiating minister; and, the baby's zodiacal sign which was useful to the then-existing practitioners of powwowing and magic.
Despite popular belief, historians do not believe that everyone in Pennsylvania Dutch country had their birth and baptismal statistics recorded in this fashion. Since so few of these stylized certificates exist today, historians do not believe that that the practice was a general one.
However, there are some theories why so few of these certificates exist today.
One theory is that some of the groups in since some of the various groups in Pennsylvania Dutch country simply did not believe in such meticulous record-keeping. For example, religious groups such as the Amish, did not practice infant baptism (please see
Since Fraktur was usually given an important place in the Pennsylvania Dutch household as a decorative object, the artists tended to enhance the beauty of the lettering by various designs.
These designs consisted of a bold color scheme and included representations of angels, hearts, tulips, tulips, star forms, rising suns, parrots, mermaids, floral patterns, and foliage.
These decorations were usually placed around the margins of the certificates and manuscripts with an occasional design sprinkled among the text. (Please see
adult baptism among the Amish
for more details). Therefore, they would have no reason to maintain baptismal documents.
Another reason for the relative scarcity of surviving fraktur certificates can also be attributed to the fact that it was sometimes a custom among the Pennsylvania Dutch to bury an individual birth certificate along with the body at the time of burial.
House Blessings was another of historical certificate that employed fraktur writing and design in Lancaster county. The purpose of the house blessing certificate was to invoke divine protection upon the house and its occupants against evil.
These documents were felt to contain letters from heaven which possessed a supernatural power to protect the owners from harm.
The designs on the house blessing were less florid and more restrained than the decorations on the birth and baptismal certificates.
It is believed that some of the finest fraktur writing are contained in Vorschriften documents. Vorschrifts were documents that presented models of the letters of the alphabet. The owner of the Vorschrifts would aspire to copy the lettering shown on display.
Used a copybook, these documents exhibited the highest skill and beauty of the artist.
Vorschriften documents contained thename of the recipient along with the alphabet in capital and lower case lettering. Many Vorschrifts are contained verses which were sometimes stanzas from hymns but were often an origianl form indigenous early poetry.
Vorschrifts contained both simple as well as extremely detailed colored designs.
Flyleaves in Bibles
Flyleaves in Bibles and New Testaments often used fraktur illustrations and designs along with the owner's name and the date it was written.
Hand-written song books often had a frontispiece of highly detailed design.
Wedding certificates are also known to use fraktur artwork. However, this use of the art is relatively rare. Such usage are mainly found during the later stages of the artform which is past the 1825.
These late stage representations tended to have more Victorian motifs than Dutch.
If you liked learning about fraktur and would like to find out more about other unique types of Pennsylvania Dutch art, please see the following pages:
If you're interested in learning more about Lancaster County's unique folk art during your visit, why not check out some of the best
Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art musuems
where you and your family can experience firsthand this rich and complex and relatively unknown artistic culture.
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