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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Fracturing Fraktur
by Bob Brooke


Fraktur was a highly artistic and elaborate illuminated folk art that originated in Germany in the 18th century. Named for the Fraktur script associated with it, it reached its peak between 1740 and 1860.

What is Fraktur?
Laws in what’s now Germany dictated that all vital statistics on a citizen be recorded, and the art of fraktur began as means by which people could document and preserve important family information.

This form of folk illumination was already a well-established tradition in Alsace and other parts of the Rhineland where it took the form of a Taufschein, a short greeting in verse with illumination recalling the baptism of a child and with only an oblique reference to time and place of the baptism. Its chief purpose was not to record baptism but to convey the wishes of the godparents who sponsored the child.

But Taufschein created later in Pennsylvania had another purpose. It was a formal record of birth as well as of the infant’s baptism. In a land where there was as yet no bureau of vital statistics this certificate became a legal document..

Fraktur styles were diverse and varied dramatically between artists. Some fraktur were extravagant documents that draw attention to an artist’s expert skill while others were simple drawings that contained little artistic flair. Most fraktur often had religious themes, though some did have secular ones. Men wrote most fraktur in German text, although they used English text on all types of fraktur after the early 1820s. .

While Pennsylvania Germans created most fraktur for record keeping, they also made them just for fun. Some schoolmasters created drawings as rewards of merit for their students. Others were simply decorative pieces. Regardless of purpose, fraktur was a personal art that was extremely popular with 19th century rural families of Pennsylvania.

Fraktur Origins
The first Fraktur typeface arose in the early 16th century, when Emperor Maximilian I commissioned the design of the Triumphal Arch woodcut by Albrecht Dürer and had a new typeface created specifically for this purpose, designed by Hieronymus Andreae.

The name Fraktur came from the Latin fractus, meaning “broken.” It was a blackletter typeface—a gebrochene Schrift in German, which meant “broken font”—which the bends of the letters were angular or “broken,” as abrupt changes in stroke direction occur.

Pennsylvania Germans and Fraktur
Although its roots lie in medieval Europe, fraktur was an art form that came into its own and flourished amid the Pennsylvania Germans, who brought it with them to the New World.

German-speaking immigrants brought their knowledge of Fraktur lettering to America. Members of the Ephrata Cloister—a religious community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—produced some of the earliest American fraktur during the 1740s using inks, paints, and paper produced at the Cloister. Pennsylvania Germans made most fraktur between 1740 and 1850 in southeastern Pennsylvania, although many early German immigrants who settled in New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and even Canada made produced fraktur.

The Cloister’s brothers and sisters used fraktur letters to copy scriptures and hymn books. Some of the earliest frakturs done there were quite primitive. The written documents they created weren’t official in nature, but rather represented attempts at basic recordkeeping functions, such as birth and baptismal certificates, and marriage records.

Pennsylvania Germans made fraktur for a variety of reasons. The majority of fraktur were birth and baptismal certificates, called Geburts-und Taufscheine. Some of the many other types of fraktur include writing samples, rewards of merit, house blessings, bookplates, hymnals, New Year’s greetings and love letters.

In order to produce more fraktur in a shorter amount of time, the members of the Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, began using a printing press in the 1780s to produce documents. Nearby cities of Reading, Lancaster, Allentown, Harrisburg, and Hanover soon developed important fraktur printing centers of their own.

Many professional fraktur artists used printed documents to keep up with customer demand. Even so, those living in rural farming communities continued to personalize each printed document. They filled-in customers’ personal information and often handcolored or embellished printed designs.

Pennsylvania German fraktur contained elaborate lettering and colorful drawings, along with intricate borders and scrollwork designs. Artists employed hundreds of different motifs to decorate these documents. Their drawings included vivid illustrations of people, buildings and animals, as well as complicated geometric patterns. The most favored designs were of angels, birds, hearts, and flowers. Some fraktur even depicted mythical creatures such as unicorns or the legendary Wonderfish. The American flag, the bald eagle and other political symbols of the newly formed United States became popular motifs at the beginning of the 19th century.

Prior to 1820, most Pennsylvania Germans belonged to the Lutheran Church or the German Reformed Church. Because of their larger population, followers of the Lutheran Church and the German Reformed Church produced most American fraktur, many of which were either Geburts or Taufscheine, birth and baptismal certificates.

Berks County, Pennsylvania, families preferred “personalized” forms, and residents held onto the fraktur tradition longer than did neighboring counties. Fraktur artists and itinerants crisscrossed the county producing birth certificates which by that time now recorded the details of births for vital statistic records. Reading printers created the printed source these artists and scriveners needed to expedite production.

Pennsylvania Germans usually made fraktur for personal use and put them in storage for safekeeping. The personal and religious information recorded on fraktur was of great importance to them. Only a few types of fraktur—such as house blessings or valentines—would have been displayed in their homes. More often, people rolled up fraktur documents and hid them away, pasting them underneath the lids of storage chests or keeping them neatly folded inside books and Bibles.

Fraktur thrived in Pennsylvania German communities for more than a century. By the 1850s, however, interest in fraktur began to decline. Prior to the Civil War, the United States experienced a surge in nationalist pride. With the encouragement of speaking only English, traditional German-speaking parochial schools and their German schoolmasters, who created many fraktur, soon faded into the past. And baptism, a key force driving the mass-printing of fraktur birth and baptismal certificates, lessened in importance in favor of confirmation.

Making Fraktur
Ministers and school teachers created most fraktur on paper for individuals, although often more than one artist usually created them. A scrivener, or professional penman, wrote out the text of the document in the Fraktur scrips, then outlined drawings, and added scrollwork. A decorator, who may or may not have been the same person, applied the vibrant colors and motifs that decorated it.

A variety of instruments filled the fraktur artist’s toolkit. Some of the most important tools included quill pens, brushes, straight edges, compasses, stencils, woodcut stamps, pencils and paper. Fraktur artists used laid paper during the 1700s. Woven paper—which has a smoother surface—became common after 1810. Decorators used imported pigments—carmine, vermilion, umber, gamboge and indigo—to make their colorful inks. They mixed these pigments with various binding substances to create glossy or muted effects. Scriveners usually wrote with iron gall ink—a standard writing ink blended from iron salts and vegetable tannins. Unfortunately, iron gall ink was very acidic and caused many fraktur to deteriorate.

Originally, the inks used to draw fraktur would had been concocted of natural ingredients such as berries, iron oxide and apple juice. However, the acids found in these inks led to deterioration and discoloration, or to brown stains left behind by the iron oxides.

Perhaps because of these concerns, the Ephrata Cloisters’ fraktur artisans relied mainly on black inks and plainer styles of fraktur without the illumination and decoration of others produced at that time.

Images of the bird or distelfink were common on Pennsylvania German fraktur, and, as with most of the fraktur images, they had symbolic importance. Parakeets typically represented the soul, as people viewed the birds as liaisons between heaven and earth.

Many major American museums, including the American Folk Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Winterthur Museum have Fraktur in their collections. Important Fraktur have been sold by major American auction houses and antique dealers for prices in excess of $100,000.

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