Hand-decorated birth certificate of Michael Lang, 1802
To commemorate important rites of passage, such as births, baptisms, graduations, and marriages, the Pennsylvania Germans celebrated with an art form that is unique in American folk art: the fraktur.
Though frakturs have their antecedents in European models descended from illuminated manuscripts, examinations of examples in French, Swiss, and German folk art museums show that they cannot compare with American frakturs in complexity, vividness, or sheer number.
Birth and baptism certificate for Heinrich Motz, 1832
The word “fraktur” was derived from a 16th-century type font of the same name. A fraktur essentially must meet two qualifications: it must utilize this font, and include designs in or around the text. Typically, the design would be symmetrical, and comprised mostly of greens, blues, reds, and yellows. The most common style of fraktur was that of the birth or baptismal certificate, but other formats included decorated books and bookplates (like the one pictured below), Valentines, Vorschriften or writing specimens, and religious broadsides.
Bookplate of Christian Steeley, 1826
The earliest frakturs produced in America came from the Ephrata Cloisters in the 1740s. The artists creating frakturs were typically teachers and ministers, and fully handmade frakturs continued to be created alongside printed versions which were to be hand-colored and filled in with names and dates. The demand for birth and baptismal frakturs was so great that first Ephrata, then Reading and Allentown, became centers of mass-production.
Detail of 1829 partially-printed birth certificate
Surprisingly, frakturs were not intended for display, but to be tucked away inside of Bibles or chests to be kept as vital records. Thus, away from potential sun-damage, they have often remained bright and well-preserved.
While artists typically did not sign their works, a few of the examples in Special Collections contain the initials of the artists.
Trexler Library’s frakturs are part of the Pennsylvania German Collection, held in Special Collections and Archives.
Conner, Paul and Jill Roberts. Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Printed Broadsides. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1988. (P.G. 745.6709748 L697p)
Shelley, Donald A. The Fraktur-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans. Allentown, PA: The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1961. (P.G. 974.81 P4154 v.23)