The term fraktur is used today to describe a wide variety of Pennsylvania German folk-art documents. In this particular incarnation, embellishment "beyond necessity" seems to be an adequate definition of folk art. The word fraktur, which means "fractured" or "broken apart," has its origin in the presentation of text in discrete letters as opposed to a cursive hand. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the vast influx of immigrants from what is now Germany and Switzerland brought the tradition to Pennsylvania, where it underwent considerable evolution. Schoolteachers in the rural areas made a very large percentage of the fraktur that survives today.
American fraktur is a reflection of a very old European tradition of illuminated manuscripts. European artists would take a mechanically printed piece and added hand drawn decoration, often elaborate swirls and scrolls. This process was in keeping with the illumination heritage that dated to the Middle Ages. The Book of Kells is the most well known illuminated manuscript, created in Ireland in the 8th century. Most European illuminated manuscripts were created for legal documents or religious purposes. The American tradition became much more personal and individualized. Certainly, the earliest American fraktur artists who were also emigrants brought their knowledge of the European illumination styles and techniques with them to America. It was not long however, until these artists established there own styles and infused their own personalities into the traditional genre.
Fraktur drawings were essentially serious religious pieces with colorful, exuberant additions to delight the eye. The most prevalent form of fraktur consists of birth and baptismal records (geburts und taufschein, often simply referred to as taufschein). Other forms include House blessings (haus segen), writing examples (vorschriften), and narratives (such as the parable of the prodigal son), marriage blessings, book plates, and floral and figurative scenes. The earlier Fraktur were executed entirely by hand, while printed text became increasingly common in later examples. Common artistic motifs in Fraktur include birds (distelfinks), hearts, and tulips, as well as blackletter and italic calligraphy. Typically created with ink and watercolor on paper, most of these documents are approximately thirteen by sixteen inches.
Today collectors tend to group any hand written and drawn folk art work on paper under the fraktur umbrella, though fraktur is truly a Pennsylvania German phenomenon. The Quakers, Shakers and other early groups up and down the eastern seaboard and into the Midwest all made decorated manuscripts in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, but the practice did not become rooted in the culture as Pennsylvania German fraktur did.
The accepted dates for traditional, hand drawn and hand written American fraktur are 1750-1850. The "Golden Age" of fraktur spanned the period from approximately 1790 to the mid 1830s. The most common documents that are considered fraktur are Geburts und Taufschein or birth and baptismal certificates that were printed by the thousands from the end of the 18th century into the 20th century. Taufschein were often made by itinerant scriveners who went from town to town demonstrating their fine penmanship and creative flair on these ready-made certificates.
The Ephrata, Pennsylvania community of Seventh Day Baptists created some of the earliest fraktur. Fraktur was made by all of the Pennsylvania German groups including the Amish, Mennonite, Reformed and Lutheran, and the Schwenkfelders.
Here are two examples for my family, both from my paternal grandmother's parents. The first is for my great grandfather, James M. Blew. It is his baptismal record, dated 8 May 1860.
In contrast, here is the birth record for my great grandmother, Ellen Irene Moyer. Both are from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and from the 1860's. But, unlike James', hers is in German.