Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

One of the most distinctive and colorful forms of early Pennsylvania art was manuscript illumina­tion or, as it’s commonly called today, fraktur-schriften. Al­though this genre of folk art was a derivative of European prototypes, those produced in Pennsylvania by the German settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries showed an intensity not nor­mally found in their European counterparts.

The familiar term for these manuscripts is fraktur, derived from the word fractura mean­ing “a broken or fractured style of lettering.” Fraktur is an ancient style of penmanship in which all capitals and many lower case letters are formed so that fractures appear be­tween the strokes of the let­ters. This art form grew from medieval styles of lettering, although the immediate parent type, textura, was a post-Reformation style associated primarily with religious works.

By the dose of the thir­teenth century, there were distinct differences between the fraktur pieces produced in the countries of Europe, where three great schools of illumina­tion had developed: The French-Flemish-English, the Italian and the German schools. Several of the German sects that emigrated to Penn­sylvania produced many pieces in an effort to preserve the ideals of their school and artistry. Fraktur also served as a way for the early settlers to preserve vital religious beliefs.

Overall, illumination was not a common practice during the early years of Pennsylva­nia’s settlement. It has been estimated that thirty thousand pieces of fraktur were made between 1750 and 1850, the period of its greatest popular­ity. At least a quarter-million Germans lived in Pennsylvania during that time, translating into about one piece of fraktur for every sixth person.

Basically, the art of fraktur combines pen and ink draw­ings with brilliant colors which contrast sharply. Since the lifestyle of the Pennsylvania Germans emphasized plainness in most things, the occasional use of vivid colors stands in stark contrast. Fraktur em­ploys two elements in an al­most equal balance – script and design. In Pennsylvania, this combination served as a revival of the art established in the Middle Ages before the invention of printing. The adoption of printing by means of moveable type by Guten­berg and other German printers in the fifteenth cen­tury led to the eventual disin­tegration of the art of manuscript illumination.

One ideal that prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a belief that books and docu­ments were noble, demanding reverence and respect. They were considered precious because they were produced with so much labor and thought given to beauty. But there was also a belief regard­ing their sanctity. Books and manuscripts were the means by which human thought – the most evanescent and treasured of all things – could now be made permanent.

The notable practice of combining human thought with art was practiced by the Pennsylvania Germans, for whom it had a significant place in religion and society. The illumination of manu­scripts by these settlers was a more sophisticated achieve­ment than similar pursuits in neighboring areas. Although fraktur appeared in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, it was indigenous to the Pennsylvania German farming areas. These settlers, much like other cultural groups, designed a way to preserve a common body of thought for future genera­tions. The lives of the early Pennsylvanians were orga­nized around particular beliefs exemplified in illuminated manuscripts. Given the lan­guage differences in the vast areas during the eighteenth century, fraktur was also used to retain and share a cultural identity.

The basic cultural binding force for the early Pennsylva­nia Germans was dialect, and it is no wonder that parochial schools were the birthplace of fraktur schriften. Schoolmas­ters were the first to produce fraktur, initially using it as part of the educational process. Later, they used it as a means of supplementing their in­comes. It is impossible to de­termine what percentage of income a schoolmaster might have received from producing fraktur, but records do exist to document the prices of certain pieces sold during the nineteenth century. A baptismal certificate, or taufscheine, measuring eight inches by thirteen inches, sold for twenty-five cents, while small flower drawings, one-fourth the size, sold for about six cents.

Often, fraktur artists were clergymen and laymen who regarded themselves as ser­vants of the church. Some­times these artists were motivated to demonstrate individualism – as well as religious convictions. To un­derstand the symbolism of Pennsylvania German folk art, it must be related not only to individual preferences, but also to local literary traditions and a heritage thoroughly founded in religious values. The religion of the Pennsylva­nia Germans, regardless of the different creeds and various sects, manifested itself in illu­minated manuscripts through symbolism.

Pieces of fraktur contain many different designs and symbols that may be pictorial or illustrative, symbolically interpretive and conventional or decorative. In a Catalogue of an Exhibition of Illuminated Manuscripts issued by New York’s prestigious J. Pierpont Morgan Library, illumination is soundly distinguished from illustration: “While the object of illumination is to beautify the text, the object of illustra­tion is to clarify it.” Artistically, only a very thin line exists between symbolism and deco­ration. Technical, ecclesiastical symbolism, however, is most easily discernible from the imaginative use of metaphor in these early pieces.

Many symbols may be found on taufscheines. One popular decoration is the dove, which appears in manuscripts for decorative, as well as sym­bolic, purposes. The dove is an attractive, decorative bird while, symbolically, it served in biblical days as Noah’s messenger. Since the spirit of God “descended like a dove” upon Christ at his baptism, the bird enjoys a definite niche in the symbolism of the Christian baptismal rite.

Angels, too, routinely ap­pear in manuscripts, but are often naively rendered. Since no artist has ever actually seen an angel, their portrayals vary greatly. In fact, many of the folk artists’ interpretations of these celestial beings depict them as stout, exceptionally thin, blonde, long-legged, with hooked noses, in flowing garb and with rays of sunshine piercing wings. One primitive painter even portrayed an angel wearing clumsy, box-like shoes.

Early manuscripts feature drawings of parrots, crocodiles and pelicans in addition to the customary maidens. Most of the animal depictions were used primarily for decoration and convey no traditional religious significance. However, an interesting example of the development of symbolism is found in the use of the peli­can, which, according to Leviticus, is an unclean bird. Over time, however, this bird was adopted by Christian artists as a symbol of Christ and eventually became a sym­bol of redemption for many Christians.

Other designs merely add life and brilliance to manu­scripts. Parrots appear alone and in pairs, but seem not to carry symbolic significance. They do, however, have a great decorative value because of the opportunity given to an artist to use vibrant colors. Al­though many incorrectly be­lieve that the tulip was the only flower used by the Penn­sylvania German penman, it was accompanied by many other flowers. Symbolically, the tulip was chosen to repre­sent religious beliefs because its structure is emblematic of the Trinity.

Since folk artists lived in the open, sparsely populated countryside, one may expect that designs would be sug­gested by things in nature, such as flowers, birds, stars and children. Although figures sometimes appeared in the manuscripts, portraiture was seldom attempted. In rare instances, the portraits of George Washington and An­drew Jackson appear. The only other use of portraits can be found on marriage certificates, occasionally picturing a bride and groom, usually shown as children. Most of the plant and animal forms were used purely for decoration, rather than for scientific delineation. A large variety of plants and animals depicted defy scientific identi­fication, resulting in – more often than not – much amuse­ment.

Certain general features are revealed by the German art. For instance, the rules of per­spective drawing are absent, no landscape effects were attempted to any extent, and designs and symbols usually appear in separate settings, without being incorporated into the decorative whole. Taufscheines boasted the greatest variety of decorations and are the type of manuscript most often encountered today.

These certificates served as beautiful examples of a love for children and were records of the baptism which became vital later in life when the child appeared for confirmation. These certificates were not documents in a technical sense; that is, they were not signed by a public official. They were, however, accepted as truth by reasons that readily suggest themselves. The very form of the taufscheines car­ries with it a certification of truth. After all, a skilled callig­rapher was not employed to make a manuscript with pleas­ing letters and designs to re­cord an untruth. Also, they were carefully preserved for posterity and the statements were passed on as truth from generation to generation. Through the years these tauf­scheines eventually acquired the credentials of a formal certificate.

The earliest taufscheines produced in America were entirely handwritten and illu­minated. By the end of the eighteenth century, partially printed forms were commonly used. Each of the artists who produced these documents developed his or her own unique style and emphasized particular motifs. Baptismal certificates were rather large in size and exuberantly decorated with brilliantly colored sub­jects, such as birds, flowers and angels. The genealogical value of these documents cannot be overemphasized. In addition to the name of the baptized child are the parents’ names, the place of birth, the name of the officiating clergy­man and the names of wit­nesses present. The tauf­scheines give exact family names that can be traced and placed in historical context.

Although taufscheines are the type most often found today, they represent only one form of illuminated writing. Another type is vorschriften or vorschrift. It takes its name from the German word vor­schriftbuch, or scholar’s copy­book, which had been a tradi­tional part of the German educational pattern for years. There were no printed text­books delineating the art of penmanship during the eight­eenth century, and schoolmas­ters needed to make their own patterns for teaching hand­writing to their pupils. Origi­nally, vorschrifts were speci­mens of writing used to teach the art of writing; soon, how­ever, it became an indepen­dent cultural form and was expanded beyond its academic use. Even the earliest Pennsylvania vorschrifts displayed a diverse mixture of cultural traditions such as scriptures and mythology. Vorschrifts ranged even in function from teaching penmanship to use on tavern signs.

While vorschrift was a Eu­ropean conception, it under­went an elaboration of deco­ration in Pennsylvania. Even in the pre-Revolutionary War period, Pennsylvania Germans began to stray from their strictly biblical relationship.

Perhaps in its earliest stages of development in America, the sectarian vorschrift became the main vehicle for the dis­semination of poetry written in Pennsylvania. This poetry was rather ordinary, but its signifi­cance lies not in its literary value but rather in the social and cultural importance of the pervading ideas. It evidenced the popular aspects of human endeavor, including folklore and humor.

Vorschrifts were produced roughly from 1765 to 1830, concentrated in those areas of eastern Pennsylvania where religious schools were estab­lished. As a cultural form, it could only arise in areas with­out adequate printed materials to support the lessons.

In addition to taufscheines and vorschrifts, another form of fraktur was favored by the early Pennsylvanians. Called haus segens, or house bless­ings, they exhibited a variety and diversity in both text and decoration.

House blessings were pray­ers to God for the preservation of the house from destruction. They were also a benediction upon the owner, his family and everyone who entered the dwelling. The origin and long­-continued use of these invoca­tions rests with the Pennsyl­vania Germans’ attitude about their homes. To understand the sincerity of these prayers, consideration must be given to the physical energy required to build and maintain a home during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The family was the center of life for the Pennsylvania German and the home stood for the unity of the family under one roof. Although these prayers were manifested in carvings on the outer walls of homes, they usually were made into illumi­nated manuscripts and hung above doorways.

The central haus segen text was usually surrounded by colorful angels, fruits and birds. Their contents reveal an intense desire for keeping a house in which peace and tranquility exist.

Today, houses in Pennsylva­nia are still hung with haus segens or other fraktur, pri­marily because they have de­scended through the owners’ families. Enjoying a boom in popularity, fraktur – part an­tique, part fine art – are rou­tinely surfacing at auctions of folk art and Americana in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco – far from their humble origins in Penn­sylvania’s gentle farmlands.

Whether taufscheine, vorschriften or haus segen, fraktur has played an invalu­able role not only in preserv­ing the vital statistics of generations of Pennsylvania pioneers and settlers, but it has, too, recorded the perspec­tives, inspirations and beliefs of the Pennsylvania Germans. And they have recorded, for posterity, their art and their artwork for a world that holds their beautifully illuminated manuscripts in awe.


For Further Reading

Borneman, Henry S. Pennsylva­nia German Illuminated Manuscripts. A Classification of Fraktur-Schriften and Inquiry into their History and Art. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973.

Parsons, William T. The Pennsyl­vania Dutch. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Penn­sylvania Arts and Crafts. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964.

Swank, Scott. Arts of the Penn­sylvania Germans. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Weiser, Frederick S., and Howell J.Heaney. The Pennsylvania German Fraktur. Breinigsville, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1977.


Karen M. Fox, a native Pennsyl­vanian, has been keenly interested in the folklore and folklife of the Pennsylvania Germans for several years. A resident of Allentown, she regularly attends folk festivals and crafts fairs throughout the Lehigh Valley. The author also served as a tour guide for Historic Bethlehem, Inc., a local preservation and museum organization. A journalism major at Lehigh Uni­versity in Bethlehem, she recently graduated cum laude from Cedar Crest College, Allentown.