February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
The hundreds of thousands of people who came to America aboard small, crowded ships did not have the luxury of taking much with them. Although furniture and household utensils had to be left behind, they could and did bring their traditions, arts, and skills. The immigrants not only adapted their native crafts and customs—their most precious cargo, as it turned out—to their new surroundings but often improved on them. In these virgin environs, where many settlers owned land and tasted political freedom for the first time, the urge to enliven, enrich, record, and leave one’s own mark for posterity was unquenchable.
The melding of an Old World heritage with New World vitality is one of the glories of the illuminated manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans, who first migrated to the Commonwealth in 1683 at the invitation of William Penn. These immigrants set great store by written proofs proclaiming that they and their culture had survived the arduous journey across the Atlantic. Families celebrated their background, ancestors, and offspring in highly detailed birth and baptismal certificates, marriage confirmations, bookplates, house blessings, and genealogies. Donald A. Shelley, an authority on Pennsylvania German folk art, once estimated that between eight and ten thousand such documents were created.
It was not just a matter of records being meticulously kept. Unstinting artistry was lavished on their embellishment. These hand-drawn and handcolored texts are called fraktur, after the ornate sixteenth-century Gothic alphabet that most illuminators employed. A typical fraktur combines words and images: an inscription containing several sizes of decorative letters is surrounded by drawings of people, plants, and animals that are themselves framed by abstract geometric patterns.
The elaborate fraktur seen on the opposite page is a Vorschrift , or writing sample. It was drawn in 1801 by Georg Geistweit, a circuit minister and schoolmaster active in central Pennsylvania. By and large, the early practitioners of fraktur were ministers and teachers, because they were the only ones in these farming communities with the necessary writing skills. The specimen seen here instructs students in virtuous conduct. The text, taken from the Thirty-fourth Psalm, reads: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do eood.”
Schoolmasters often presented a writing sample as a going-away gift, a further reminder to be good after the term ended. (This fraktur was awarded to one Henry Bower in February 1802.) While Georg Geistweit excelled at lettering, he was also a master of composition; a profusion of patterns and motifs covers the entire surface of the paper, and yet the overall appearance is crisp rather than chaotic.
This fraktur has both European and American overtones. The tulip and the carnation are favorite Pennsylvania German motifs. So are the parrot, a brilliantly colored species that was once indigenous in the States; the peacock, which stands for the resurrection of the dead; the pelican, which symbolizes maternal love; and the eagle, the bird of freedom, which denotes the core of the American experience. Yet the nude figures in the lower section seem to allude to a contemporary drama already making itself felt throughout the Republic: the tracking down of what is labeled “a runaway slave.” A European flavor is conveyed by such heraldic beasts as the lion, the unicorn, and the bear.
The writing sample was one of the few varieties of fraktur that would be hung on the wall for display, either at home or at school. Other fraktur, in spite of the expert decoration that cried out to be seen and admired, was considered private and hence not appropriate to show. Birth and baptismal certificates were folded between the leaves of the family Bible, stored in drawers, or glued to the inside lids of dower chests.
All fraktur was very personal, marking individual milestones and commemorating rites of passage. Accordingly, the fraktur is deeply representative of folk art, in which no personage, event, trade, or community was too small or insignificant to cherish. The very notion of fraktur—that spiritual importance resides in the ceremonies of ordinary life—was a true expression of the people who put down new roots in the sunny uplands of young America.