Fraktur: Writing and Reading for Genealogical Research

Today’s post is once again written by Janice Camren, who authored the first entry in this series of blog posts a few days ago.  That post was titled, Fraktur? What Is That?  We thank her for her contributions to our blog and support Janice in her efforts to further her education at Southeast Missouri State University.

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When I have the opportunity, I volunteer at the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House in Edwardsville, Illinois to gain experience in my chosen field while I am attending school.  As part of the Stephenson House educational programming, participants engage in the art of quill and ink or pen and ink, learning script common to 1820.  The photo below is from a session at Mrs. Lucy’s Academy for Young Ladies.  Little do they know how beneficial this may be at some point in their lives.  Such an activity is also beneficial to those who research genealogical records containing fraktur.

Stephenson_House

For part two of this series on fraktur, I will provide some information on how to learn from documents with the script, also referred to by some as Gothic, German Black Letter, or German Running Hand.  I will then mention some of the resources available at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum to use while in the research library.

In A Genealogical and Demographic Handbook of German Handwriting 17th-19th Centuries, Norman J. Storrer and Larry O. Jensen wrote, “In order to learn to transcribe German script one must begin by learning to write the script alphabet.”  With hands-on experience you will be able to know how each letter is formed and connected to make a word.  Storrer and Jensen indicate that, “German script is formed by breaking the stroke and varying the pressure on the nib.”  Thus, the term fraktur.  Numerous alphabet examples may be located online or in resources at the research library.  For a more authentic experience, use pen and ink available at your favorite craft store and then practice often.

Pen_and_Ink

Another way to learn the script is to recognize the handwriting style of individuals.  This is a method that Edgar Dreyer used in the 1980s to translate the fraktur on church records held at the research library.  He became familiar with how different pastors wrote and was able to distinguish different styles to their letters.  Researchers may also realize that some of the alphabet looks similar to today’s handwriting such as b, d, f, g, i, j, l, m, n, and o.  If an imaginary line was drawn under these letters, according to Storrer and Jensen, “you would notice that certain letters extend high above the line and above all other letters, and some extend below the line, and some extend above and below the line.”  Identifying these letters will help in putting together certain words that can then be located throughout the document.  Something to keep in mind is that some records may contain Latin words too.

Researchers will find it useful to become acquainted with certain words, phrases, and names that may appear on ancestral documents.  Below is an example with the first word listed being Latin.

Words

Two of the resources available for use during research at the Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum include Witter’s German-English Primer and New First German Reader for Public Schools and Deciphering Gothic Records:  Useful Hints for Helping You Read “Old German” Script!  The first one is a fine introduction to German writing and reading, originally from 1881.  The second one is a slim spiral-bound guide with good information for the researcher.  Both are available from online booksellers as well.

I hope you have enjoyed learning more about fraktur and ways to learn from it in your genealogical research!—Janice Camren

Primer
Primer

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