Book Report: Fraktur: The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Dutch by Frances Lichten (1958)

Book coverI forgot to include Fraktur in my list of disparate vocabulary words I will soon forget, but fraktur is one of them. Because suddenly I found myself reading this book, which I undoubtedly got in a Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library Book Sale bundle of chapbooks for $1.

The booklet contains the contents of a talk that the author gave when the Free Library of Pennsylvania got a large collection of fraktur documents. Fraktur refers not only to a font/typeface of German printing but also to the freehand documents produced by German immigrants in Pennsylvania in the late 18th through the late to middle 19th centuries.

Basically, if you wanted to have a birth certificate or a marriage certificate in those days, you’d hire a wandering illustrator to write one up for you are pre-printed forms from the county office were not available. The Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Deutsch) mostly spoke German, so they hired German-speakers to write them up, and the producers also decorated the documents with little illustrations. The Free Library of Pennsylvania in the middle of the last century (hey, old man!) got a private collection (and later another) of these historical documents.

And, you know what? It was an interesting little read.

The talk/booklet gives a bit of history, some description, and a couple of stories. She tells of finding an illustration of a crocodile on one such document and wondering how a German-American circa 1850 knew how to draw a crocodile, so she starts looking at educational spellers, in German, and finds the very illustration the artist reproduced. She also briefly outlines one such itinerant artist who spent years going community to community, sleeping in the rail depots, and earning just a bit writing and illustrating fraktur.

It’s 26 pages, so the length of a long essay or something that the New England slicks produced before they became mere propaganda mills.

And, gentle reader, you might wonder, Does Brian J. have any fraktur? Well, gentle reader, I might, although a photo reproduction. I have in a rolled tube somewhere a large photograph or slick reproduction of my great Aunt Laura’s birth certificate from the late 19th century (I assume), and from what I remember, it is in German, elaborate, and quite likely frakturic. It has been a while since I’ve gone into the archives–about a year and a quarter ago I had to come up with my marriage license, and although I did not find mine (I am married–I remember that pretty clearly even though I might have gotten a little wavery and woozy when she came down the aisle), I found many others in the family–and I would likely have put this document to the side un-unrolled as I knew what it was and I was not interested.

I am interested now. So I got more out of this book, and more interest on things outside this book, than I get from most books I read.

The author has a couple of other books available on Amazon and eBay from the first half of the last century, but this one does not look to be widely available. As it is collectible, perhaps I should put it in a special place on my read shelves. Undoubtedly, wherever I put it, it will be the place where I cannot find it again.

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