Over 500 pieces of Pennsylvania hand-done fraktur and printed house blessings, birth, baptismal, confirmation, and marriage certificates are included in the extensive and rich permanent collection of the Historical Society. For over 125 years fraktur served as a “carrying stream” for preserving the typical designs and dialect of Pennsylvania German folk art. The society’s collection is recorded on microfilm, making it available to anyone researching history and genealogy. These records are in the Society’s library.
The word “Fraktur” refers to a type of German lettering or typeface used from the fifteenth century until World War II. Fraktur lettering is decorative and is often compared to our Old English Gothic. Americans use the word “fraktur” to refer to decorated manuscripts made by and for Pennsylvania Germans and German-Americans.
Most fraktur are Geburts und Taufscheine, birth and baptismal certificates. They were made primarily for Lutheran and Reformed families, for whom baptism is a sacrament. Most fraktur were made about 1745 to 1920 in southeast Pennsylvania. Following the Revolution, the demand for Taufscheine soared. Many schoolmasters, artists, and scriveners turned to printed forms to expedite production.
Berks County families preferred “personalized” forms. In this respect, Berks County held onto the fraktur tradition longer than did neighboring counties. Not only does Berks County fraktur represent a cornucopia because of sheer numbers of fraktur that came from this region, it also represents a microcosm of the history of American Taufscheine made possible by a mutually beneficial trade among schoolmasters, printers, and scnveners.
Berks County holds a special place in the field of American fraktur. Its geographically centralized location in southeast Pennsylvania caused major fraktur artists and itinerants to crisscross the county as they carried on a brisk trade in the Taufsclieine market. Reading printers created the printed source these artists and scriveners needed to expedite production. In all respects-variety of media, form, subject matter, and especially techniques and quality of printing and particularly the endless “angel” form this county was the center of it all.
Certificate of birth and baptism may have originated in Pennsylvania and brought from Germany.
Was the Taufschein, the certificate of birth and baptism which became so characteristic a form of Pennsylvania German illuminated writing, created in America, or was it brought here from Europe, an imitation of European forms?
The European Pattenbrief or Gbtterbrief had appeared already in the seventeenth century although only a few pieces from the eighteenth century survive in German museums. This form of peasant illumination was a well-established tradition in Alsace and other parts of the Rhineland where it took the form of a Taufschein, a short greeting in verse with illumination recalling the baptism of a child and with only an oblique reference to time and place of baptism. Its chief purpose was not to record baptism but to convey the wishes of the godparents who sponsored the child.
The later Pennsylvania Taufschein had another purpose. It was a formal record of birth as well as of the infant’s baptism. In a land where there was as yet no bureau of vital statistics this certificate took on legal significance. The Taufschein was then a record of birth and baptism and so differed from those certificates recording only birth. Such certificates of birth only have been found in Pennsylvania and they were made by or for members of religious groups who did not practice infant baptism. Thus the geographical scope of the Pennsylvania Taufschein was limited, both religiously and spatially to those people who belong to sects practicing adult baptism. Thus Taufschein are rare among the sectarians of Lancaster and the Skippack region.
Chronologically the Pennsylvania Taufschein was a product of the post-Revolutionary period. Therefore it was not the work of the immigrant generation. So it also was not a memory art, a form done here in imitation of European forms. Few pre-Revolutionary Taufschein are known for the bloom of this form of decoration was definitely during the years after the establishment of American independence. We should not then try to trace it back to Europe.
This projects an interesting problem: if the Taufschein was thus made chiefly after the Revolution, what links it with the European Pattenbrief which was its forerunner?
Lately American made Taufschein have been coming to light which date from before the American Revolution. They differ from the post-Revolutionary Taufschein and they have a distinctly European mood. An interesting example—and the earliest one known to this writer—is not from Pennsylvania but, significantly, comes from the Schoharie region in New York where so many families first settled, later to migrate to Pennsylvania. The date of this piece is 1751. And it is a, here illustrated in good European tradition, a thoroughly memory art made exactly as they were being made in the Rhineland. A few have been found made in Pennsylvania before 1775, all in a pattern similar to this Schoharie piece.
Here is the link which joins the European Pattenbrief with the later Pennsylvania Taufschein, leading to the conclusion that there was a period of development and transition during which the European Pattenbrief was being made into the Pennsylvania Taufschein.
Is it true that the Taufschein was not a European cultural mode and that it developed in Pennsylvania? If this be true then we may have to conclude that this form, along with others, were changed in Pennsylvania and that Pennsylvania Folk Art may not be a memory art at all but that it may harbor many new forms in its rich and colorful variety.
The idea that Pennsylvania folk art was not imitative of European ways but was original in form and mood is beginning to be an inescapable conclusion. Images from the Berks History Center Archives.
For more information, and to view our collection, please visit the Henry Janssen Library.