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In studying early American folk art, there is no shortage of folk art documents (i.e. Fraktur) that express a pioneer immigrant’s gratitude for reaching America; in a time when many individuals still feared the world was flat, or worse, like demonic dragons still lurked in the troubled ocean currents to tend their lives. Crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean at the mercy of a sea captain’s nautical skill, thousands of Europeans expressed their faith in God and gratitude for their safe crossing, once they set foot on the ground of the New World, through art. But perhaps there were no more religious believers than the PA Dutch immigrants who saw in Penn’s Colony the promised land of milk and honey, that these war ravaged European farmers sought, and created one of the nation’s most successful farming Commonwealths.
These religious people from the Rhine Valley wasted no time timbering William Penn’s woods and raising large farming families whose offspring were proudly documented with the baptism of each child, proclaimed by a hand done illuminated fraktur that proudly announced their birth in a township within the New World. In gratitude to God, many of the Church Dutch decorated each child’s “Tauf Schein” (baptism certificate) with glorious folk art images, which sometimes included mermaids or naval compass designs that came to be associated with sunbursts, hex signs, barn stars on the voyage to the New World. These dynamic PA Dutch fraktur scriveners celebrating the majesty of the New World hemisphere and help create religious church fever created also included “good luck” unicorns painted on “Tauf Scheins” made for farming families in Berks County. Optimistically, and encouraging a life of good fortune for the newly born child, the symbol that best exemplified God’s compassion was in the shape of a huge flat heart bursting with love, was very prevalent, and used in the framing around the name of the parents and their offspring, baptized in their religious faith
The early Amish or Mennonite sects did not engage in the PA Dutch or colorfully decorating their children’s birth certificates, simply because they were Anabaptists. But the Church Dutch enjoyed decorating their baptism “Tauf Schein” with colorful folk art images. But they too refrained from using a Christian cross as a symbol among their folk art images; however, PA Dutch scribes did make elaborate fraktur folk art designs. So well executed that in our contemporary culture, these American folk art designs can bring as high a price as $100,000 at such auction houses as Sotheby’s Gallery in New York City or Christie’s.
Unlike more commercialized hex signs placed on the forebay sides of barns (gable end), early American folk art, known as fraktur, is a scrivener’s illumination art done by monks in Medieval times. Our most popular images on baptism documents are hearts and angels with tulips in the borders. But being Deitsch, our early PA German printers used a Germanic type face known as fraktur, not easily read compared to English type faces.
Among the popular early American fraktur artists that designed elaborate folk art baptisms were Frederich Krebs and Frederich Speyer who traveled the Dutch Country, making colorful baptism documents for farm families who were illiterate. Most often the frakturs were attached to the lid of the child’s dower chest, which could be seen when it was opened. In the Oley Valley, a “Serivener,” known by the PA Dutch of the early 18th Century scribed a folk art design on the interior door to the 1753 Jacob Keim cabinet shop. The art work showed four flat hearts that were grouped together so they created a lovely tulip design within their cluster. The Keims were wood crafters like Jacob and John Bieber, their neighbors, who also painted folk art flat hearts on their dower chests. A sentimental symbol of love, each immigrant expressed to God their gratitude for having made it safely to America, the land of liberty and freedom; regardless of your ethnicity!
Richard L.T. Orth is the assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.