Fraktur? What Is That?

Hello, my name is Janice Camren and I am a graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University working on a Master’s Degree in Public History.  This semester I have a project in a class called History Communications.  As part of that project, I will be a guest blogger for the Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum with a two-part series on fraktur.  I hope you find the blogs informative and useful.

When I first arrived to discuss the project, it was mentioned that the research library had fraktur.  My mind immediately went to the colorful images of flowers and patterns found on the folk art called fraktur.  That is not what is in the research library, though, this fraktur was the writing found in the numerous church records on the shelves.  Hmmm, I thought that was what the folk art was called.  So, fraktur?  What is that?

According to Corinne and Russell Earnest in their book Fraktur:  Folk Art & Family, “The word fraktur comes from the Latin word meaning ‘broken’—the same as our word ‘fracture.’”  Frederick S. Weiser wrote that fraktur is “a name that properly describes a type face popular in Germany from the sixteenth century.”  In 1897, however, scholar Henry Mercer used the term to refer to the illuminated texts of the Pennsylvania Germans.  So why doesn’t the research library have watercolor paintings on their fraktur?  There are three possibilities—location, location, and location.

The Earnests indicate that the fraktur of the Pennsylvania Germans was derived from European illuminated manuscripts of the mediaeval period.  The example below is from a French Bible, c. 1270.

Illuminated Manuscript

The Pennsylvania Germans who practiced this tradition were immigrants from the Rhineland-Palatinate of Germany, the Alsace region of France, and Switzerland who settled in southeast Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, the Carolinas, and New Jersey.  The Lutheran German immigrants who settled in St. Louis and East Perry County were from Saxony, located a distance from the points of origin of the previous immigrants.  The difference in original location may indicate a difference in folk traditions.


Another possibility is the location of where the fraktur would have been kept.  The examples of fraktur in the research library are church records to list marriages, births, baptisms, and deaths.

Church Records – Trinity, Altenburg

The Earnests take into consideration that the Pennsylvania Germans, “did not cluster in villages surrounding the church.  Instead, these families lived on their own farms, sometimes located far from the church.”  With this distance and the possibility of relocations, they perhaps preferred such important records to be kept with them.  They became personal documents of important life events and “were decorated for fun and were meant to be kept by the family, displayed, and enjoyed.”  This birth and baptism certificate is attributed to the Earl Township, Berks County Artist #1, c. 1816.

Pennsylvania German Fraktur

The third possibility is the location in time.  The Pennsylvania Germans arrived in America during the seventeenth century to live their lives and establish their own traditions.  Over a century later the Lutheran Germans arrived in a different place and time in America to do the same.

These three possibilities help to explain the differences in fraktur.  So, the next time you visit the Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum, be sure to take a look!

Church Records – Trinity, Altenburg – Cover Page


Thanks to Janice Camren for contributing this post today.  Soon, a second post will be published as part of her work toward her master’s degree.  Often over the years, our museum has been blessed with helpers and interns from Southeast Missouri State University.  Our museum is thankful for their contributions to our mission.

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