Three Angels came from the East Bringing Frost & Fire
by Silver RavenWolf
Fraktur, originally meaning –broken letters– in regard to Old World alphabet types — became the catch-all word to describe the rainbow of American German Folk Art that appears on a variety of certificates, blessings, bookplates, property ownership, baptismal records, marriage papers, broadsides (fliers), rewards of merit, family registers (family trees) and even New Year’s greetings. Today, the word “fraktur” with the small “f” refers to the artwork, and “Fraktur” with the capital letter is used in Europe to describe the German typeface.
From the modest beginnings of construction in America (about 1730) through the art form’s Golden Age (1750-1850) and into later years, these ethnic, artistic records are a treasure of family history. Based on European Illumination style, this completely Americanized art form blends color, primitive design, magick, and type into a vibrant statement of individuality and have become a gold mine for genealogists. Fraktur art can be found where ever the immigrant Germans landed — New York, Delaware, Virginia, what is now West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, the Carolinas and particularly — Pennsylvania.
There are three basic types of fraktur — completely hand drawn, lettered, and painted by an artist or family member; pre-printed forms that could be filled in by the artist or family; and totally printed documents that were colorized by the printer, an apprentice, an artist, or a family member.
The most prolific type of fraktur art is the Taufschein — the Baptism Certificate (sometimes also referred to as Birth Certificates) — printed and hand colored in the thousands as they appealed to a significant group of Pennsylvania Germans who were either Lutheran or German Reformed, and viewed the infant blessing as an important, religious event. More document types and their German names are listed in the quick glossary further down on this page.
Fraktur symbolism included religious and secular images that might mean one thing to one person and something entirely different to someone else, the basis really only known in the mind of the artist (which could have been pointed, or mere whimsy, or simply matched his or her artistic skill level). Even today, sometimes the artists themselves will not admit the secrets of their muse either for personal reasons or because condemnation means loss of community reputation or decreased revenue from much-needed customers. Pious folk (both then and now) snorted at magickal implications, and those with a more open mind welcome the idea of positive enchantment. Researchers in tune with a Jungian outlook see the process of psychology in the observance of iconic images from both the individual standpoint and that of the collective group mind of humanity. The Pennsylvania Germans were as religious as they were superstitious — you simply cannot exclude one concept from the other in fair research. The controversy alone on what a “symbol” in fraktur and hexology (hex sign art and study) actually means, shows that these art forms are so appealing that everyone wants it to be “theirs”. To that end, fraktur and hexology become a true members of the artistic world by falling into the adage of: It is — what it is to you.
On occasion neither printer nor artist had a hand in symbol choices, particularly in the event of the traveling artist where the client dictated what designs they wanted on a personalized document, as shown in the modern parrot birth certificate design above. The original black and white template was crafted for a little girl already born and into her toddler years. She loves marigolds and helps her mother plant peas every spring. The mother asked that both marigolds and peas appear on the certificate. I then used the template to show you how I turned the same birth certificate into a genealogy history piece. As such, the certificate carries several common symbols found in fraktur — the parrot (messages, communication, announcement and fashioned after the native parakeet of North Carolina or the parrot shown in European motifs), Hearts (love), Marigolds (success), ripe Pea Pods (Family Unity, Abundance, and the Garden of Life), the Lotus (spirituality), the Crown (success), and the Five-Pointed Star Hex Sign (luck and good fortune). That’s what these symbols meant to me when I drew them. Someone else might claim these symbols mean something entirely different with a more religious twist substituting the Crown of Success for the Crown of Glory and the Hearts of Love for the Heart of God and so forth. Like I said — it is all in the eye of the beholder.
Notice in the example that I used the Fraktur font style. The infant’s name was actually Samuel Cornelius Baker; but, someone could make a future transcription error, thinking the name reads: Samuel Corneliuf Bater because of the Fraktur font style. The debate then lies within yourself — do you try to stay historically accurate to render your pieces closer to the originals, or do you change the font style for future accuracy in transcription?
Historically, watercolors or paints mixed with egg/water blend were used to illuminate documents. You might like to stick with watercolors, or work with markers, acrylics, or colored pencils.
What information can be seen on Pennsylvania German (used here as a subgroup name that includes those German-speaking immigrants that moved into other states) frakturs? Fraktur art wasn’t all about birth or baptismal certificates — indeed, this paper art form included a broad range of topics from fliers (broadsides), to Bible inserts, to spells and charms, and more. It is also interesting to note that several surviving birth and baptismal certificates show Classical Astrological information, including the time of birth and what someone thought might be important — the midheaven sign, the all-important moon sign, or even the ruling planetary hour. In Classical Astrology (that used before our modern methods) — your sign of birth was not your sun sign; but your rising sign, which can lead today’s researchers astray when trying to understand the significance of some astrological information on fraktur art, particularly in studying the birth and baptismal certificates. The Moon Sign, too, was considered highly significant. For example, the sign the moon is in (Moon Sign) has always been important in Pennsylvania German activities from deciding when to plant, weed, and harvest daily crops, to preparing and preserving food, to making candles and practicing household chores — cutting hair, buying and selling — all had their specific good and bad times as equated by the moon sign. It is not surprising, then, to find a fraktur birth certificate designed for a child born on 28 October 1762*, that indicates not the sun or the rising sign on the document — but, the moon sign. In this case, the child was born in the moon sign of Pisces in the planetary hour of Saturn (as shown on that birth certificate). Where might the schrivner have found this information? Either he cast the chart himself which would have been somewhat complicated, but not impossible — or, he used the local almanac available at that time (more highly likely). How do I know this information? I double-checked the birth time by running a chart with modern astrological programming using a Classical astrological backdrop. Why did I do it? Because I was curious why the researcher wrote that the astrological signs were different from then as compared to now. This didn’t make sense to me. The signs are not different — modern or classical — they are still the same signs. It was the researcher’s explanation, however, for the October 1762 date not lining up with the sun sign information of today. In this chart, the schrivner was not concerned with the sun or rising sign — he wanted to make sure the Moon Sign and the Planetary Hour of Birth were recorded.
*Note: The Fraktur in question is part of the Collection of the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County — gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Flanders Smith.
What then, does fraktur have to do with Braucherei? Were all fraktur artists also practicing Braucherei or Pow-Wow? No. Just as our present social-economic community undulates with all types of people that share similar interests, likewise communities of the past exhibited the same kind of diversity that occasionally overlapped one field into another. To say some fraktur artists never charmed their product is just as ridiculous as to say every fraktur artist charmed every paper. Intent, however, is an enchantment all in itself, particularly where art is concerned. No one can deny that the muse has spoken when eyeing a finished piece; yet, what symbolic language the work sings is truly only known by the artist (or perhaps the client). Several fraktur documents did lend themselves directly to magickal application including the Feuers-brief (fire charm), the Himmels-brief (protection letters), the Ein-Brief (letters from God) and the Haus-segen (house blessing) and were used by the Braucher and the Hexenmeister — either constructed for clients by the magickal person or purchased from a printer and charmed (such as the Himmelsbrief ).
An incredible number of document types fall under what is collectively called “fraktur”. Here is a brief list of various documents and other applicable terms, along with their German names to clear any confusion as you do your own research on the subject. Most of the documents listed fall under the broadside category. The broadside is a filer, often printed on one side only (but, not always) and first appeared in printed form somewhere around the year 1575.
Andenken — Memorial for the deceased.
Ausfullers — Individuals who filled out forms (filler-outers).
Belohnung –A reward of merit, usually a small illustration made
by a teacher for a student.
Bilderbogen — picture sheet.
Blatt — leaf or sheet of paper.
Brief — letter or epistle.
Buecherzeichen — Bookplate.
Einblattdruck — single sheet print (broadside or flier)
Ein Briefs — Letters from God. (Ein Brief so von Gott selbst geschriben).
Familienregister — Family Record.
Feuersbrief — Fire Charm.
Flugschrift — Pamphlet.
Frakturschreiber — Fraktur writer.
Frakturschriften — Fraktur writing.
Geburtschein — Birth Certificate.
Geistlicher Irrgarten — Spiritual Labyrinth. (Religious text written
in a pattern of circles, squares, etc., much like a labyrinth.)
Handzettel — handbill or hand paper.
Haus Segen or Haussegen — House Blessing.
Himmelsbrief (singular) — Letter of Protection.
Hinkender Bote — Limping Messenger – a broadside correction.
Hochdeutsch — the language of the Pennsylvania Germans
Starb — Died.
Taufschein — Baptism certificate.
Taufwunsch (Taufpatenbrief), Taufzettel) — European Letter given to child’s parents by the sponsors at the child’s baptism. These documents did not catch on well in America.
Trauschein — Marriage certificate.
und so weiter — “and so on” — often added if a particular biblical passage or well-known poem did not fit entirely on the fraktur.
Vorschrift — Writing sample by a schoolmaster or Fraktur artist.
This is an illustration of two commonly used fonts styles used by German-American printers — the Leipzig and the Schwabacher. These fonts and many other fraktur styles can be downloaded for free from various internet sites for your own use. Just search for Fraktur Alphabets or Fraktur Fonts, then choose the site you feel is the most responsible. Remember that often the letters “k”, “s”, “w”, “v”, and “y” are difficult to read and have caused more than one genealogical transcription error. More Americanized-English versions of the fraktur alphabet can also be found where the style is less confusing and may be more to your artistic taste.
Research on the net provides a delightful array of material regarding Pennsylvania German Fraktur. Try these great links for more information!
http://antiquesandthearts.com/archive/frak.htm — provides the best article on the net to date, authored by Corinne and Russel Earnest. Entitled Fraktur — Folk Art and Family, you’ll find an easy to read, entertaining, and informational piece on the roots, purpose, and popular motifs.
http://www.frakturweb.org — is a website dedicated to Fraktur constructed by Joel Clemmer. This site contains an introduction, historical research material, Fraktur types, and special topics. Thesite takes a scholarly look at Fraktur and mentions debates and contentions of various historians. The site features searchable indexes of over one thousand fraktur artists and about seven hundred citations to the literature of fraktur.
http://www.schwenkfelder.com/Museum_Fraktur.htm — Official site of the Schwenkfelder Museum, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the religious group called Schwenkfelders and the history of southeastern Pennsylvania and the Perkiomen Region. This article focuses on notable Schwenkfelder artists and shows a distinctively stunning illustration by D. Kriebel (1787-1848).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Kells — explanation of an Illuminated Manuscript — showing the most well known European type — the Book of Kells — a collection of manuscripts created in Ireland from the late 6th to the early 9th century.
Earnest, Russel & Corrine, “Flying Leaves and One-Sheets — Pennsylvania German Broadsides, Fraktur, and Their Printers”, New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 2005.
Earnest, Russel & Corrine, “Fraktur: Folk Art and Family”, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1999.
Hartung, Ruthanne, “Fraktur — Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Learning the Craft”, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
Kauffman, Henry J., “Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art”, New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1964 edition.
Above referenced websites.