By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
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American folk art has become more and more popular over the years, and frakturs have become a particular favorite among collectors. These illustrated manuscripts, which are drawn with pen and ink and embellished with vivid colors, are not just nice to look at—they can provide a wealth of genealogical information to researchers. Important historical details often documented in frakturs include family names, relationships, dates, and locations.
The most common type of fraktur is the taufschein, or baptismal certificate. It includes names of the child, father, and mother (with her maiden name); date and place of birth; name and denomination of officiating clergyman; and names of the witnesses present. Originally, ministers and teachers made the frakturs, but later, itinerant penmen and local artisans were responsible for their creation. Frakturs were popular in this country from 1750 to 1900, reaching at peaks between 1800 and 1835. Today, hefty prices are being paid, as they are cherished among collectors. As a result, many frakturs are pictured in publications and auction catalogs, which means important genealogical information is available, even if one is not able to examine the fraktur.
Frakturs were produced mainly in Pennsylvania, the cradle of the Pennsylvania Dutch settlements prior to the Revolutionary War. The term "Dutch" refers to the German-speaking population (mostly Germans and Swiss) and is a corruption of Deutsch, which means German. Frakturs were also made in western Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Ohio, and other states, as well as in Ontario, Canada, where many Germans emigrated from southeastern Pennsylvania. The documents were crafted by people of various religions, but the great majority were made by Lutheran and German Reformed schoolmasters of Pennsylvania.
For descendants of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the possibility of finding frakturs made for family members is good. They may be found in family papers, Bibles, and books, or in files of distant kinsmen and genealogists, libraries, archives, historical societies, and antique shops. Many frakturs have a fold line through the center, as they often were preserved between the leaves of large Bibles, or in hymnal, music, or school books. Some were rolled and put in drawers, while others were passed inside the lids of dower chests or in schranks (wooden wardrobe closets.) One genealogist discovered a large schrank that was completely covered—inside, back, and sides—with frakturs made for various members of the family to whom the schrank had belonged.
The German word "fraktur" actually refers to a certain design of Gothic letters. Early printers tried to produce books that resembled handwritten manuscripts, and "fraktur" is the "broken" lettering found in these early manuscripts. Today, however, "fraktur" refers to the entire decorated manuscripts. The documents’ decorations vary greatly in design and color. All kinds of flowers are depicted, but tulips are especially popular. Birds, such as doves, cardinals, parrots, eagles, peacocks, scarlet tanagers, and yellow warblers, appear in the frakturs’ borders. One may find crocodiles, sheep, an occasional serpent, mermaids, angels, and even portraits. Also among the designs are natural elements such as the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, vines, leaves, trees, butterflies, and fruits. Some manuscripts feature portraits of individuals, such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. On a few wedding certificates, there are pictures of a bride and bridegroom, which may have been an effort at portraiture. In general, the fraktur decorations display joyful scenes, but the text often reminds the reader of the shortness of this life, and the approach of death.
Baptism certificates were greatly esteemed. They were framed and hung upon the walls of the home. It became the practice of penmen (called scriveners) to prepare certificates with blank areas that could be filled in and to peddle them from house to house. Ferdinand Klenk, who lived in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, was one such itinerant penman. He traveled in the rural sections and entered the records of birth, marriage, and death into his customers’ family Bibles. His notebook, dated January 1, 1875, shows samples of his handwriting with prices he charged for his work. The costs were: one name with the date of birth, 10 cents; with the addition of place of birth, 15 cents; with parents’ names, 25 cents. Eventually, to fill the burgeoning demand for birth and baptismal certificate forms that ministers, schoolteachers, or others could fill in, printers supplied a page with the text arranged in a rectangular block at the center. The spaces for the names and dates were left blank, and the borders provided ample opportunity for decorations, if the owner so desired. Later, taufscheins were mass-produced by major printing firms such as Currier and Ives.
Texts on frakturs fall into two main categories: primary texts, where the genealogical information is found, and secondary texts, which usually contain religious topics and are found in small heart-shaped or rectangular enclosures positioned around the central primary text. The primary text usually begins with the parents’ names, but occasionally starts off with the child’s name. Those beginning with the child’s name were often printed on vertically oriented angel-type certificates and were written in English from circa 1820 into the last century. Occasionally, however, major artists before 1820 began their certificates with the child’s name, so genealogists are cautioned not to assume the first name on the certificate is the father’s name.
Although birth and baptism certificates are the most common frakturs, other types were created. In addition to making taufscheins, marriage certificates, and songbooks, schoolmasters frequently decorated bookplates. Fraktur bookplates can be key sources of genealogical data because they include the date of birth and other information about the book owner. The bookplate of a German Reformed Church hymnal recorded Maria Staufer’s birth on April 8, 1777 "in Zeichen des Widder" (in the sign of the ram). Making reference to zodiac signs was also common—a practice that dates back to medieval illuminators.
The Pennsylvania Dutch regarded their homes as sacred, and the blessing of God was frequently invoked in a type of fraktur known as Haus Segen, or house blessing. This is a prayer for the preservation of the house from destruction through fire, storm, or other calamity, and for a benediction upon the owner, his family, and all those who enter and exit the house. "Der Segen Gottes Kron dies Haus" (the blessing of God crown this house) is the usual opening prayer in the Haus Segen. The owner’s name usually appears in these records, and some Haus Segens combine birth records and house blessings.
One of the most prolific fraktur artists was Friedrich Krebs. This Hessian soldier returned to America after the American Revolution and settled in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Krebs often drew "sun faces" on his frakturs, which now make his works immediately recognizable.
Marketplace value of frakturs is largely determined by their overall condition, color, fullness of decoration, and motifs. Each one, no matter how fragmentary, should be recorded so that the work of the artist and the genealogical data are preserved for posterity. Each fraktur is unique, and has the potential of being the only place that certain genealogical information was recorded.
There are several resources that can assist you in your research on frakturs. Two reference books currently available are: The Genealogist’s Guide to Frakturs for Genealogists Researching German-American Families (by Corinne Pattie Earnest and Beverly Repass Hoch, available from Russell D. Earnest Associates) and The Pennsylvania German Frakturs of the Free Library of Philadelphia (compiled by Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney, available from the Pennsylvania German Society), which features more than 1,000 frakturs with translations. Museums and institutions that have excellent fraktur collections include Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Free Library of Philadelphia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, National Archives, National Daughters of the American Revolution, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Winterthur Museum and Gardens.