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Article Archive >> Community

Ask About Antiques Frakturs - Fractured German Art

by Budd A. Moore, Ed.D.


The tradition of Pennsylvania German decorative arts and folk art is one that dates to the earliest arrival of Germans on American shores. Though many motifs can be found throughout areas of southeastern Pennsylvania - including birds, hearts and tulips - regional variations lend texture and diversity to Pennsylvania German arts.

Schwenkfelder fraktur is among the most distinctive work produced by a Pennsylvania German group. The Schwenkfelders did not express themselves through exuberant painted furniture or interiors, as some Pennsylvania Germans did, but instead produced magnificent, colorful and often complex Fraktur writings and drawings. The very literate Schwenkfelders combined words and elaborate decoration to express their spirituality and their delight in the world around them.

American fraktur is a reflection of a very old European tradition of illuminated manuscripts. The term “fraktur” actually refers to mechanically printed type called “fraktur” meaning “broken letters.” European artists would take a mechanically printed piece and add hand drawn decoration - often elaborate swirls and scrolls. This process was in keeping with the illumination heritage that dated to the Middle Ages. Most European illuminated manuscripts were created for legal documents or religious purposes. The American tradition became much more personal and individualized.

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 birth and baptismal certificates that were printed by the thousands from the end of the 18th century into the 20th century. These decorative records today provide excellent clues to family history.

The real treasures of fraktur are the intricate Vorschriften (student rewards), birth certificates, bookplates and other forms made by hand by skilled artists. The Ephrata, PA 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 of course, the Schwenkfelders.

David Kriebel’s (1787-1848) fraktur is the benchmark of the Schwenkfelder style. Kriebel, a schoolteacher, farmer and minister, created lush jewel-toned foliage, magical stars and intricate fraktur lettering. His extraordinary drawings, which at first seem unparalleled in fraktur, echo some of the designs made at Ephrata some sixty years before.

Abraham Schultz (1747-1822) was a Schwenkfelder schoolteacher, state representative and scholar who developed his own unique fraktur style. Filled with elegant rococo scrolls and other fanciful devices, Schultz combined sophisticated decorations with folksy animals and scenery. Graceful vines, ripe fruit trees, and stylized urns grace many of his works. His fraktur generally appears as bookplates, small jewels that surprise and delight the eye.

Balthasar Heydrick (1765-1846) possibly had the longest career of any Schwenkfelder fraktur artist. For over 50 years, Heydrick (also known as Balzer or Baltzer Heydrich) created fraktur. An unmarried carpenter, “Uncle Balzer” made his later pieces for his nieces and nephews. Heydrick created fraktur until his death nine months before his 81st birthday.

Making fraktur and folk art drawings became a form of entertainment for children and young adults. Popular inexpensive children’s prints, issued in the 1830s, were not unlike today’s cartoons with their whimsical and often silly subject manner. Abraham Heebner, a young Schwenkfelder, was particularly fond of copying these prints and was quite adept at it. Young Schwenkfelders also copied their predecessors’ work, creating admirable copies of fraktur made fifty years earlier. Many Schwenkfelders produced fraktur from the 18th to the end of the 19th century, and most of these artists remain unidentified today.

Auction Action: [Recently sold at Matt Hurley’s Legacy Auction Center, 2800 Buchanan Trail East, Greencastle, Pa. 17225]
* Mahogany Bedroom Suite, $1150
* Walnut Tilt-top Table, $250
* 5 Nazi Pins & Buttons, $245
* 3 Whitsel Civil War Prints, $210
* Whitehouse Vinegar Bottle, $150
* 1937 Child’s “Little LuLu” Book, $50
* Pen Mar “Pop Corn Jim” Postcard, $40

Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 100 years. He is an educator, counselor, and avid antique enthusiast as well as a candidate member of the American Society of Appraisers. He has been a collector of antique American Art Pottery and has been a dealer for over 20 years. He is familiar with nearly all lines of American Art Pottery, twentieth century glassware, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau categories. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at buddm4cnsl@comcast.net or drop him a letter at 8864 Lorford Drive, Chambersburg, PA 17201-9335. An answer to your question may appear in a subsequent column.

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