Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 2002 Volume 39 Number 4, Pages 129–138

Pennsylvania German Folk Art

Joseph Devanney

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Pennsylvania German folk art, also sometimes called Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, encompasses individually crafted pieces made by artisans who bring their own ethnic heritage into the work. The basic question to ask, I guess, is not just what is Pennsylvania German folk art, but what is folk art in general? The answer is that there is no uni­versally accepted definition, but in a broad sense it's an unconscious type of art, made by people who don't usually think of themselves as being artists. They are typically laborers or run-of-the-mill middle class folks who decided to create some type of expression for themselves through the medium of art, which has come down to us as the expression of a culture.

There are as many types of folk art as there have been cultures, but that is what the idea of folk art is, a less formal, more natural, more unconscious expression of creativity by an individual based upon the culture in which he or she grew up. Pennsylvania Germans, in particular, have left us with a very vivid sense of their folk culture from ap­proximately 1750 to about 1850, or thereabouts.

In order to understand some of the aspects of this culture, we need to examine first what exactly it was. Most of us know about the Amish

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and the Mennonites, but there are some facts underlying that particular culture as it existed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that contributed to the arts that may not be so well known today.

First of all, the culture expressed by Pennsylvania Germans in folk art was really a hybrid culture. German immigrants, when they came over here, certainly kept much of their ethnic German identity, but very quickly they adopted the English forms as well, as we shall see when we examine in more detail particular art categories, like furniture, for example. In some areas, English motifs, particularly in the sense of ratio and proportion, crept very quickly into German furniture even while keeping the visual aspects of tulips and birds and other decoration. Much of the art in furniture, and in other subjects, was a hybrid between the original German and the English settings that they found in Pennsylvania.

Secondly, the Germans who came over here were not a unitary type of people. They were a mixed bag. You really had people who today would be called Swiss, you had Germans from many different kingdoms, and they reflected many different sub-nationalities within the German culture itself. What united them, however, was two basic things. One was the Protestant religion. Very few of them were Catholic, almost all were Protestant, and, not exclusively, but a majority were Anabap­tist. The other was that most of them were lower to lower middle class. In all fairness, I should say they did not have much of a middle class existing in Germany at the time. They were not aristocrats that came over here. These were people, basically, who were laborers, who were by and large lacking in formal education, but who nonetheless usually had high active creative ability. With that natural intelligence, that's how the culture was created.

Finally, a third point, before we go on to examine specifics, is religion itself. As mentioned, the religion was overwhelmingly Protestant, Ana­baptist, but interlaced throughout much of the German culture of the time was a strong sense of what we would call today "white magic." Many of the written publications, and to a smaller extent the art forms, had to do with certain white magic as well. We will get into that in a little more detail below.

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With that very basic background behind us, let's look at some of the more specific aspects of the way in which Pennsylvania German folk art manifested itself. First and foremost, probably the most visual, well-recognized and popular of the folk arts that we think of today, is the "fraktur writing," A fraktur is basically an illuminated manuscript. Going back centuries to the Middle Ages, probably even beyond, the Germans, particularly, were crazy about such illuminated manuscripts, decorating everything in sight. You could not, quite literally, have an uncarved section of a church pew without someone sooner or later whittling a design in it. Decoration to the German mind is absolutely critical. That has also carried over into their illuminated manuscripts.

The fraktur is a hand written document which essentially recorded vital information. It was most often a birth record, but it could be a mar­riage certificate or contain other information about the life of the person. Occasionally, and these were the more rare ones, you have what was called a "house blessing" where individuals would quite literally draw 30 or 40 lines by hand requesting that the house be blessed and protected from evil. Most typically a fraktur recorded somebody's birth, the location of the birth and the parents' names.

Fraktur is probably what most people think of first when they think of Pennsylvania German folk art. There are two basic types of fraktur. The original, earliest type was made by hand. If there were angels on the fraktur, they would be drawn by hand, and the printing would be done by hand. Beginning about 1810 or 1815 they started to be mechanically printed. What they would do is print these things by the thousands. Then individuals would simply fill in by hand the information they felt appropriate. Today the spread in value between handmade and printed fraktur is like night and day. The printed type, even if it's an original, would probably be worth no more than $150 today. The handmade ones, if they're good, would be worth in excess of $2000, some of them going up to about $50,000. Obviously, there is a critical difference between the handmade fraktur and the printed fraktur.

If you have a fraktur at home or if you see them in antique shows or wherever, keep in mind that the information displayed on those fraktur does not necessarily reflect the date on which they were actually

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made. Many individuals had fraktur commissioned for themselves when they were in their 20s or 30s, and then simply backdated them with the date of birth. It's quite possible you could see a fraktur that's dated 1790, for example, but the person was 30 when it was done so it was really finished in 1820. The date that is on the fraktur doesn't necessarily mean the date on which it was created.

One thing I should add here is the question of forgery. This applies to anything in the antiques trade, some things being more susceptible to forgery than others, but particularly with something like fraktur, particularly handmade fraktur. The prices have become so high that it is tempting for forgers to reproduce them. What individuals have been doing is going to libraries that have old books to razor out, quite literally, the blank pages usually found in the back of 18th century volumes. Once the blank pages are in their possession, they will take inks which they have put together using 18th century recipes and try to duplicate a handmade fraktur. Some of them, depending on their skills, can be very, very successful. Then they will try to pass it off, of course, as being the authentic thing. This is not an overwhelming problem, but it is a problem that does exist.

The Ephrata Cloister, by the way, is quite famous for the fraktur it produced. Ephrata was founded by a break-away religious group (today it would be called a cult) whose leader, Conrad Beissel, liked to send his followers out in the snow to stand barefoot for hours on end so they would derive spiritual benefit. That aspect of it aside, what they did otherwise was to create absolutely brilliant printed and handmade fraktur, more handmade than printed. They did this across a span of many decades until the late 1830s, and today some of those fraktur are considered to be the largest ever made. There is one, I believe, on exhibition in Ephrata itself that is approximately 20 feet tall. It was used to depict musical scales, musical composition.

Now that ties into a second area, and that is the art of printing in gen­eral. We mentioned printing briefly as far as the fraktur were con­cerned, but over and beyond fraktur, what many people do not appreciate is the degree to which Pennsylvania Germans in the late 18th and 19th centuries, even into the very, very early 20th century, contrib­

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uted to the written word here in Pennsylvania. At one point, some years before the Revolution, there was concern expressed, I think by Benjamin Franklin, that German could become the language of Pennsylvania and not English because there were so many Germans here. Con­firming that fact is the secondary fact that there were so many news­papers and other publications in the German language circulated from the late 18th to the early 20th century that they are still relatively easy to find today.

The first World War basically swept use of the German language away. When the Huns appeared on the horizon, attitudes changed probably al­most overnight around 1914 from "I'm a German; I love Germany" to "I'm ashamed of being a German." That's what the newspapers really quoted in masses of printed material in German. But up until about the first World War there were many German-language publications doing a big business.

Jumping back now to about 1750, in the early part of that period, again it was Ephrata that dominated, and still does, the history behind the German printed word. But throughout the 19th century there were literally hundreds and hundreds of other publishers who did their thing in German and who did it fairly well.

This also ties into the cultural preoccupation with what we know of as white magic. White magic, or good magic, is used to heal and to counteract the effects of black magic, or evil. Everybody knows about German Bibles, but much of the printed material that is still around, either in German, or reflecting the German culture, really has aspects of what we would call white magic. That would not only be things like hex signs that we've all heard about, but the idea of spells and protections and things that today would seem a little off the wall. To a person in the 19th century who was typically uneducated but who had an interest in reading, it would make a lot of sense; it was magic out of this world.

One of those publications most sought after today is something called "The Long Lost Friend." It was a little booklet that people would carry on their person to protect them from witchcraft and spells and so on. Like fraktur, many copies of this book, and books like it, were literally

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buried with their owner at the time of the owner's death. That is why they are difficult to find today. "The Long Lost Friend" is very typical of the books like this that circulated in the German community of that time, and represents the type of German sentiment that was reflected in the culture concerning magical practices. It ranges across every­thing from how to prevent cattle from being made sick by your en­emy's spells to just normal medical recipes for protection against common colds and things like that. There seems to have been a con­tinuous European tradition that the German immigrants carried over into this country which found reflection in books like this and similar publications.

Another art form is pottery, redware specifically; and also something called sgraffito. When the Germans came over here, many of them already had a background in pottery and ceramics. In what was basically a coincidence, the soil in Pennsylvania was very rich in the same type of red clays found in central Europe in Germany. So it was quite natu­ral that almost from the beginning many Germans immigrants here would end up becoming potters or makers of ceramics.

From the beginning in the 1740s and 1750s ceramics was a major industry within the Pennsylvania German culture. Most of it is what we know now as redware, often with a pattern of "slip decoration." Typical of this work is a charger, or large flat platter, red in color, with little white lines, a picture, or something similar on the surface. The more valuable types of redware would be the decorated types with pic­tures on them. George Washington riding a horse, for example, or human figures generally, or something like that might be shown..

You also have a variation which is called sgraffito. The majority of Pennsylvania German decorated pieces were sgraffito. It is applied when you take an item, say a plate, or more typically an urn or a little jug, made of the red clay and then cover it entirely with white slip, a type of decoration White slip would cover the item totally, and then the potter would take a knife and would incise through the slip to reveal the red from underneath. The red, when it was revealed, would form the desired pattern. Sgraffitoware, if you see it, is very valuable. Obviously there are exceptions depending on condition and things

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like that. Generally the sgraffito was used for presentation or show. Good redware will bring several hundred dollars. Sgraffito you would have to mortgage the house to acquire. There is that degree of difference between the two.

Pennsylvania German wood carving is another artistic medium deserving attention. As mentioned above, the Germans abhorred a vacuum, meaning wherever there was an empty blank space, they wanted to fill it up with an art decoration, a painting, a carving, whatever. If they could carve on it, for example, they would be happy to do so. Many Germans seem to have an inborn need to do what we would just call whittling today. Most of these objects which predated 1850, 1860 or so, disappeared long ago. They have quite literally been thrown in the fireplace. Keep in mind our original definition of folk art, because the nature of folk art, the unconscious type of creativity, is such that its owners don't appreciate it. Most folk art ends up getting destroyed over time unless people start to realize that it is "folk art," especially in the area of carving, whittling and things that were just carved out of wood. Very few early items are still around. Most of what we have today dates from only the 19th or even the early 20th century.

One of the foremost carvers was Wilhelm Schimmel. His story is very typical. Schimmel was born in Germany in 1817, immigrated to Pennsylvania and ended up in the Cumberland Valley area near Carlisle soon after the Civil War. Schimmel quite literally was an alcoholic, and from all accounts was a very vicious alcoholic, in today's world, he probably would be incarcerated, based on the stories that have come down to us. He nonetheless had a genius for carving.

What he did was go from barn to barn in the Cumberland Valley, for a week or two at a time, and in return for food and lodging would carve little animals, birds or maybe roosters. On rare occasions he would carve human likenesses, but most often he did eagles or roosters or birds. He would take little chunks of wood that were in the woodpile, pine typically, and with just an ordinary knife carve them into shapes. He would then paint them with his own paint. The result was pleasing, and he would give a carving to the owner of the house and they would let him stay a week or so in the barn.

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He probably did hundreds of pieces, but most of them ended up in the fireplace after a couple of years. Schimmel died about 1890. He's buried in a pauper's grave in the Carlisle area. His work s tarted to be recognized around 1950 and 1960 as being "folk art." Even though it's late 19th century, the art curators, individuals who study the history of Pennsylvania art, determined that he was probably, and rightly so, the last true artist carver of Pennsylvania. Everyone else since then has been doing it in a conscious attempt to be German. Beginning with that understanding or revelation, his work, what was left of it, began to skyrocket in value. Bill Gates paid $50,000 ten years ago for an eagle. Today the same eagle would probably be closer to $100,000 to $150,000. Even the small birds that Schimmel carved would be worth a minimum of $8,000 to $9,000.

Generally, this is the kind of carving and artistic activity that constitutes folk art. However, most of it has been lost to us. In Schimmel's case and one or two others, we know their names, but most of the work is anonymous. Most of the people who created fraktur and many of the other artistic Pennsylvania German expressions were also anonymous. We don't know who they are because they didn't think of themselves as being artists or as being creative. They basically thought of themselves as having a little ability and having a need to make money. They had to do it because they could do it, and they didn't think of it as art in the sense that we approach it today.

When you look at styles of dower chests, the type of chests in which women frequently stored their pre-marriage goods, and then you look at the craftsmen who decorated these chests, we don't know who they were. We identify them, for example, as being the Berks County artist or the Northampton County artist or the Manheim artist. Their actual identities, with some rare exceptions, really are unknown to us. Again, that is one of the basic problems that people interested in folk art constantly encounter, the lack of knowledge about the specific identities of these people.

Let's consider furniture. I said originally that Pennsylvania German furniture was a hybrid between the English and German. Just to round that out a little bit more, if you follow up on something like the dower

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chest and you visualize it in your mind, you will have connotations of bright vivid colors, tulips, possibly unicorns, rosettes, things like that; a very heavily vivid, visual type of display. That part of it is typically German, the visual color, the love of style, the distilfinks (which are the painted birds), the rosettes. Now the English element, though, is the piece itself, the ratio and the proportion.

If you look at a German piece of furniture from between 1750 to 1850, a continental German piece of furniture, the thing will be, to our visual senses, a monstrosity. It would be tall, gangly, impressive and look like it is going to fall on top of you. Basically, the idea of ratio and proportion will not be there. The dower chests you look at are going to be typically 36 inches high, 48 inches iong, 24 inches wide, and you will have that fine sense of balance. The German ones you see will be 60 inches by 75 inches by 12 inches. You see the point. The sense of balance, ratio, proportion is something that was fundamentally English, and it was what Germans very quickly adopted over here in their furniture. The real German emphasis is on the paint, and again, it's on the bright, visual, vivid appearance that we see, even today. It's not on the construction and not on the piece itself.

Pierced tin and toleware are other forms of folk art. Pierced tin was basically a functional thing. The piercing utilized in pie safes, for ex­ample, allowed air to circulate around the object. They are notable because of the decorative tin front. Many of those were German, but not necessarily all of them were. The English had them, and as far as I know, everyone else did as well.

Toleware, or lacquered tinware, on the other hand, which is a different thing entirely, was more painted. Here you had individuals, artists, again with the German love of style, vividness, creating, actually painting, tin in bright colors that was sold in what was the equivalent of Penney's at the time. The buyer wanted it just for appearances. It was not anything that the wealthy people particularly desired. It was just something that was attractive to most people, and that's why it was popular. Toleware that you see today, by the way, is almost universally fake. In its day when it was created, it was very bright, very vivid, very colorful, but unfortunately, it has faded a lot over time.

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Let me conclude with a couple of general thoughts. The amount of information available is relevant. From about the year 1800 on there is no problem of finding information. The problem is that there is so much information out there that you don't know how to correlate it correctly and get what you really want to get because there is so much else you have to stumble over. Up until about 1800 that's not the case. Try to find muster roils of the Revolutionary War, for example. You will have a hard time doing that. But after 1800, or the War of 1812, the material that is out there is just awe inspiring, and the real problem is trying to figure out what's important and what's not and how to sift through the less relevant to get to the more relevant.

Secondly, how do you decide where the antiques market is going to go? What should you invest in now that might be hot? As a direct result of the interest in genealogy and family history, for example, the book market took off. How society develops an interest in one thing and focuses on it is going to have a direct bearing on what part of the antiques market increases in value. If you can sense what wave is coming, it might pay off - as it did in the Schimmel sense.


Books for further reading

Lichten, Frances, Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946) I'm not so familiar with this one. It has some very nice illustrations.

Richman, Irwin, Pennsylvania's Decorative Arts, in the age of handcraft, Pennsylvania History Studies: No. 13. (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1978) A very good basic summary of the decorative arts of Pennsylvania.

Robacker, Earl F., Pennsylvania Dutch Stuff, a guide to country antiques. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944) This one I would also recommend, but it is more just light reading.

Swank, Scott T., Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, a Winterthur book. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983) Good for academic, or anything approaching academic, studies into German culture and art. I would recommend this.


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