Fraktur: More than Pennsylvania German artwork

A replica of the Mansfield fraktur is on display at the Monroe County Historical Association’s Stroud Mansion
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

Fraktur is an art-form that came to America with European immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. The name fraktur refers to the “broken” appearance of the Gothic or Old English style of printing and is pronounced “frock-tour.”

Laws in what is now Germany dictated that all vital statistics on a citizen be recorded, and the art of fraktur began as means by which folks could document and preserve important family information. The techniques that developed to adorn the records were brought to the United States by German immigrants.

Done on paper, each piece of hand-drawn and hand-colored fraktur is unique and is considered an important form of early American folk art. The information contained in frakturs varies; many were used as birth and baptismal records (known as Geburtsschein and Taufscheine, respectively), marriage certificates, or family registers.

As the art-form blossomed, the techniques were commonly used to decorate hymn and prayer books, bookmarks, and student rewards of merit. Frakturs were hand-decorated with an array of images including hearts, birds, tulips, angels, flowers and vines, and human figures.

Usually educated men such as school masters or ministers were proficient in the art of fraktur and were able to supply German-American immigrants with traditional documentation of birth, baptism, and marriage certificates.

Fraktur was not always religious in nature, and secular examples include poems, stories, and children’s alphabet books.

Pennsylvania German artists used ink and watercolors to create fraktur. Some pieces were created entirely freehand while others were printed on a printing press, then embellished with hand-drawn details. The professionally printed fraktur had blank spaces for a minister or schoolmaster to fill in with the individual’s vital information.

While several examples of fraktur documenting local Monroe County families exist, only one fraktur is known to have been printed locally, and came from the office of the
Monroe Democrat in Stroudsburg. This facsimile of the Birth and Christening Certificate was made for Henry Mansfield; it reads:

Henry son of Jacob Mansfield and his wife Mary a daughter of Abraham Greene
was born the 19th day of February in the year of our Lord 1829,
at ___ o’clock in the ___ in the constellation of ___
in the township of Hamilton county of Northampton
and state of Pennsylvania in North America;
and was baptizes the ___ day of ___ A.D. 18___
by the Revd. Mr. Theadore Hoffeditz.

The sponsors were Henry Fenner and his wife, Margaret.

In his book,
The Printed Birth and Baptismal Certificates of the German Americans, author Klaus Stopp refers to the Stroudsburg Mansfield fraktur as the “most northern printing place in Pennsylvania before 1850.” It is also a rare piece because it was printed in English rather than German.

The Mansfield fraktur features brightly-colored and stylized parrots and distelfinks bird. The distelfinks are now known as goldfinches, which are common in Monroe County and can still be seen today.

The parrot-like bird is the Carolina parakeet, which was officially classified as extinct in 1939. Before its extinction, the Carolina parakeet was a commonly seen and well documented bird.

From 1804 through 1806, President Thomas Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to travel across the United States. One of Lewis and Clark’s missions was to document all natural flora and fauna in the then uncharted west. Lewis recorded having “observed a great number of parrot queets” during their travels.

Images of the bird were common on Pennsylvania German fraktur, and, as with most of the fraktur images, the folk motives had symbolic importance. Parakeets typically represented the soul; the birds were seen as liaisons between heaven and earth.

Today, as in the past, fraktur serves two purposes: as a culturally important art-form, and; as a source of information for genealogists. Frakturs were the official documentation for major life events of many families.