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About Fraktur

"The art of illuminative writing."

One might imagine that the word “fraktur” refers to the painting itself, however; the term is actually referring to the script and it means “broken lettering.” Interestingly enough though, this type of artwork is always referred to as fraktur even if it contains no script. Fraktur painting is a Pennsylvania German decorative tradition. It combines calligraphic and pictorial elements embellished to reflect a deep religious significance for family documents. It is greatly appreciated for it’s aesthetic, moral, devotional, genealogical, and sentimental values. Fraktur combines words and elaborate decoration to express spirituality and delight in the world around us.

American fraktur is a reflection of a very old European tradition of illuminated manuscripts. The roots of fraktur lie in Central Europe, where fraktur flourished in the German-speaking lands of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria—during the 16th and 17th Centuries, the period immediately preceding the Atlantic migration. Fraktur art is seen in American history from the time these German settlers came to “The New World” and on down through the years, until this individualistic art form eventually gave way with the rise of the printing press.

In America, the two most common types of Fraktur, are the vorschrift and the taufschein, the "writing document" and the "birth and baptismal record", respectively.

The Taufschein, (baptismal, and marriage certificates) was practiced mainly by the Lutheran and German Reformed people in Pennsylvania. Handcrafted and written in the Germanic Gothic form, these frakturs were first decorated with beautifully ornate capital letters. When the Scribner was finished with his work, he would often embellish it with drawings of birds, flowers, angels, and other objects of his fancy.

The Vorschrift (writing examples) flourished from 1760-1860 as a teaching tool and was practiced by the smaller numbers of Mennonites, Amish and brethren. These documents were generally written by the schoolmaster for the use of the students to “copy” his penmanship or learn a specific passage of Scripture, hymn or other spiritual truth.

Sometimes a student was given a Belohnung (reward) for excellent work and conduct or a perfect recitation in a school exercise - a schoolmaster’s way of encouraging the students with his finely drawn pictures of flowers and birds.

Bilder (pictures) of: animals, people, soldiers, flowers, angels, birds, mermaids (believed to save children from drowning in wells), Bücherzeichen, (which identified ownership of Bible- catechism- and singing-school bookplates) as well as that occasional Irrgarten (token of love) from a young man to his special young lady--these are all considered frakturs as well, and were not only drawn by men…women have painted some of the most prized pieces of fraktur art.

Fraktur art was painted using ink and watercolors. Pigments produced for watercolor drawings were derived from plants and trees. Rag paper and quills made from goose and turkey feathers were used prior to 1860.

Original frakturs were usually on the smaller side, as paper was expensive. Families cherished these beautiful handcrafted documents. Often a fraktur was folded and placed in the family’s Bible or pasted to the lid of a dowry chest. Rarely were they ever hung on a wall.

Artists with a love for the past and a desire to preserve our heritage, as well as leave a legacy to future generations are persevering to bring back this beautiful art form as well as add to it with their own folk-art expressions from the 21st Century.

I hope this gives the reader a better uderstanding of what fraktur is all about!

Amanda Rae       

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