Pennsylvania German Fraktur Art

In today’s post, Janneken Smucker discusses Fraktur, an art form once popular among the Pennsylvania German people.

Fraktur and Family Records

Among the decorative items in some Amish homes—both today and in the past—have been ornamental family records, some stitched, some inked, some produced on painted glass (a unique genre that clearly deserves its own post!). These records mark marriages, births, and baptisms, and are acceptable ways to add decoration to Amish homes.

glick-family-record
Jacob & Annie Glick Family Record, By Artist David Hoke, circa 1930s. Courtesy of Justina Dee, lydiaglick.com

The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has on exhibit a remarkable collection of the precursors to these contemporary family records in the form of Fraktur, decorative documents made by Pennsylvania Germans. Those who owned, commissioned, or created Fraktur include the Amish and other sectarian groups, as well as the much larger Lutheran and Reformed groups, who interacted regularly with Amish and Mennonites in their shared German dialect through the 18th and 19th centuries. The exhibit, Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection runs through April 26.

christian-mertel-birth-baptismal-certificate
Birth and baptismal certificate for Eliesabetta Scheffer (born August 17, 1796). Attributed to Christian Mertel (1739 – 1802) c. 1796. Mount Joy Township, Lancaster County, PA Philadelphia Museum of Art, Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson

The Fraktur on display include many family records, as well as book plates, such as this one created by the so-called “Weaverland artist” (many Fraktur artists have not been identified by name because few signed their work, but scholars have been able to classify Fraktur by style and attribute it to unnamed artists) as well as drawings of the natural world, whimsical creatures, and scenes from contemporary life.

weaverland-artist-book-plate
Bookplate Attributed to Weaverland Artist, American, active c. 1822 – 24. 1823. East Earl Township, Lancaster County, PA Philadelphia Museum of Art, Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson

Along with the beautiful Fraktur examples, the Museum has on exhibit many related Pennsylvania German decorative arts, where we can see shared motifs, such as the ubiquitous distelfink birds, tulips, and hearts, decorating redware plates, painted chests, small boxes, and even cookie cutters. My favorite is a small tape loom created by John Drissell for Elisabeth Stauffer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1794. Such a loom could be used to weave ribbon and binding.

john-drissell-tape-loom
John Drissell. Tape Loom with Spools. Lower Milford Township, Bucks County, PA 1794. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Susanne Strassburger Anderson, Valerie Anderson Readman, and Veronica Anderson Macdonald from the estate of Mae Bourne and Ralph Beaver Strassburger, 1994

While not included in this exhibit, some Amish continued to create Fraktur into the 20th century. Perhaps most regarded is Barbara Ebersol (1846-1922) of Lancaster County, whose work as a Fraktur artist has been documented in Louise Stoltzfus’s Two Amish Folk Artists: The Story of Henry Lapp & Barbara Ebersol (Good Books, 1996) and David Luthy’s Amish Folk Artist Barbara Ebersol: Her Life, Fraktur, and Death Record Book (Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1995).

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    4 Comments

    1. Margaret

      We have several examples of this from my husband’s family on certificates and hand-stitched items. The work on them is really amazing. Thanks for providing us with this information. We would love to go see this exhibit.

    2. Naomi Wilson

      That birth record is so pretty. When my husband and I were married, we had someone paint our marriage certificate in a similar way. We asked the lady who did it if she would insert small garden insects among the flowers, just as a fun, whimsical thing for our children and grandchildren to find someday. If you look carefully, you can find an ant, a grasshopper, a cricket, etc.

      Also, my husband’s grandmother had a tradition of taking each couple’s wedding invitation and painting it in a personalized way with flowers, candles, and such. By the time she did ours she was in declining health, and the painting is a little shaky looking, but of course it is such a treasure for us and sits framed in our bedroom.

      These pretty, personalized touches turns ordinary family memorabilia into something that is so special.

    3. Dennis Haller

      Raeb Fraktur

      Hello;

      Would you please advise if you have any information on a fraktur artist by the name of RAEB (I think, signature is small). I own what is suppossed to be the largest fraktur that she (?) ever produced and was porported to have said she would never make another that size.
      It is a portrait of George and Martha Washington.

      I would appreciate any information or direction you may afford me.

      Kindest regards,
      DCHaller

    4. Sarah Scholly

      Amish Fraktur

      My great-great aunt was Barbara Ebersole, the renowned Amish Fraktur artist. I was wondering if you knew where I could search to possibly purchase on of her pieces?

      Thank you.