Some early settlers of the Appalachia regions were of German and Dutch descent. They settled in Pennsylvania and brought with them customs, traditions, and folk art from their homelands.
Pennsylvania Dutch people are descendants of immigrants from southwestern Germany and Switzerland who settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries. They brought with them from the Old World some of the most beautiful folk art traditions. The art of fraktur is just one of these forms of
art they excel at.
Fraktur is the Old World art of using archaic and decorative fonts for lettering. The Pennsylvania Dutch peoples combined family history with folk art in a beautiful and rich tradition of their past.
The term "fraktur" comes from the word fracture, which means "a break", and is Latin in origin. The letters of the fraktur writing style appear as broken pieces, as will be found in Old English or Gothic style writing - which is more of an art form than writing.
On the beautifully expressed Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, you will often find depictions of nature, which was thought to represent good luck and a healthy life. Fraktur combined with birds, hearts, angels, flowers (especially tulips), leaf designs, can be found on antique furniture, pottery, baskets and even fabric. This colorful combination of designs and words were also used for illustrations of certificates and documents, for births, baptismal, marriage and death records.
These documents were also known as fraktur because of the writing on them. This lovely form of calligraphy originated in medieval times and was often used to embellish religious writings. Some of the most beautiful and finest examples of fraktur with images was created by Mennonite and Amish artists who had vibrant, if somewhat restrained, styles. Often, in old bibles, one will find beautifully decorated borders and family history pages done in fraktur lettering, illustrations, and designs.
In the mid 1700s, when this art form was really becoming popular in America, the work was done entirely by hand. Using quills or pens, pencils, paint brushes, a compass, a stylus, inks, a pen knife, and pigments to mix watercolors, the artist would work on paper, which in early America was a durable, high rag content paper. The usual size of the finished project was 16 by 13 inches, sometimes a half size, 8 by 13 inches, was used.
The most important tool for the fraktur artist was his pen. In the mid-to-late 1700s, the pen was made from a goose quill. By the nineteenth century, steel nibs were available commercially. This gave the artist a tool with the ability to create smoother writing lines. By the early 1800s, the letter press was used with only the coloring done by hand.
The art of fraktur was introduced in America by German scribes who settled in Pennsylvania, around Lancaster County. The writing itself is based upon sixteenth century typeface which is a more free form of the bold and rigid Gothic lettering. The paintings on the pieces followed in the tradition of manuscripts from medieval times.
The frakturists in these early colonies were often schoolmasters or clergymen. Because of their unique skills, they also were called upon for illustrations of books and hymnals as well as creating the documents mentioned above. Since very few pieces were ever signed by the artists, they have unfortunately gone unrecorded in history for their talents. Later years would see the names of the artists to give credit to for their highly skilled works.
Fraktur pieces were given an important place in the households of the Pennsylvania Dutch. They were decorative objects to be proud of and to place in prominent parts of the home. Often the pieces were created for House Blessings to invoke divine protection for the house and it's family. It was believed that some of the letters were given to the artist from heaven and possessed supernatural powers to protect the people from harm.
Pennsylvania Dutch art is still very much alive today. In Lancaster County, they will have an annual festival for their folk art and crafts in July. If you are planning to visit that area at that time, it would be well worth it to attend the festival and see this lovely form of art up close.