JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 33 to 45)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 33 to 45)





Fraktur-schrift, or “fraktur writing,” is a decorative calligraphy named after a 15th-century typeface called Fraktur (Lichten 1958). Fraktur lettering of the text and designs surrounding or embellishing the text are the two main elements of the fraktur. Religious hymns and scripture are sometimes contained in the text, but other types of frakturs were also produced. Some of these frakturs had very little text or sometimes none at all and were called Bilder, or “pictures,” by their makers (fig. 2)(Conner and Roberts 1988). The confirmation certificate (Confirmationsschein), the memorial (Denkmal), and the family register (Familien Register) were other types of fraktur documents. Frakturs also appeared in the form of broadsides, which served to disperse information throughout the community.

Fig. 2. Frakturs with little or no text were called Bilder, or “pictures,” by their makers.

The majority of frakturs in America date from about 1750 to 1860. They were at the peak of their popularity from 1800 to 1835. Frakturs were produced by Protestant groups from the Rhineland, Switzerland, and the surrounding regions who immigrated to the American colonies in the late 17th century seeking religious freedom. Many were Lutherans or members of Reform churches, but others were Moravians, Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, and Amish. The various groups settled along the Atlantic coast from Ontario to the Carolinas. They also pushed westward to the Ohio Valley. Protestant German immigrants settled Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1683 and across southeastern Pennsylvania. They brought with them a strong cultural fervor that is reflected in their use of the fraktur.

Several distinct members of the Pennsylvania German community were active in producing frakturs. Ministers of the church made fraktur documents such as the Taufschein (birth or baptismal certificate), the Geburts (an early birth certificate form), the Traufschein (wedding certificate), and other church-related documents. The schoolmaster taught his pupils the fraktur form as part of their daily lessons. The Vorschrift, with copies or samples of the alphabet, was used in the classroom to teach lettering skills (fig. 3). Farmers also made frakturs, and the parochial schooling they received gave them the skills to create the calligraphy. In addition, itinerant artisans went from community to community producing frakturs for families desiring certificates for births and baptisms.

Fig. 3. Vorschrift were used in the classroom to teach lettering skills.


The fraktur, like the immigrants who brought it to America, began to lose its traditional European character over time. The first frakturs of the 18th-century Pennsylvania German community were written in German, with standardized format and text, and were completely hand lettered and painted. For a baptismal certificate, for example, the standardized format included the child's name, parents' names, date of birth, minister's name, date of the certificate, county, and village. Phrasing of the text varied somewhat from artist to artist, but the general content remained the same. The certificates contained religious text decorated with drawings and paintings of birds, stars, hearts, and animals that are associated with the Bible and the Creation. Few fraktur artists actually signed their work, and most often the artist is recognized today by his or her individual style and the content of the documents. The decorations of the certificate were at first a minor element in the manuscript, but eventually they came to dominate the format. The Taufschein's European folk motifs were eventually replaced by popular American motifs (Conner and Roberts 1988). Beginning in America the Taufschein gradually lost its association with the traditional European church practice of having the baptismal sponsor or godparent give a monetary gift wrapped in a hand-drawn greeting. The greeting included the child's name, and dates of birth and baptism (Weiser 1973). Over time it became an embellished document for record-keeping purposes only, and the baptismal and birth certificate documents gradually melded into a single document.

Other changes to the fraktur occurred in the late 18th century with the introduction of the printed fraktur. Local and itinerant artists filled in the appropriate information on woodcut prints that presented a standard format. Sometimes the artists also added embellishments at a later date. Because the certificates were usually produced and filled in long after a birth, the date on the certificate may or may not be the date of birth. In the late 18th century a heart- shaped border replaced the rectangular border as another variant of the fraktur (fig. 4). This version became the most popular of the frakturs (Ebert and Ebert 1975).

Fig. 4. A heart-shaped border replaced the rectangular border as a variant of the fraktur in the late 18th century.


The artists who produced handmade documents used commercially available pigments that were imported throughout the 18th century. Pigments included vermilion, gamboge, indigo, and orpiment (Lichten 1958). Osborne, a Philadelphia manufacturer, produced commercial watercolors by the 1820s (Lichten 1958). Given this location, a number of fraktur artists may have used his pigments. In the 19th century local presses printed books in German that specified what could have been 16th-century formulas for making colors (Lichten 1958). It is possible, however, that a few artists may have made their own colors. Binders for the pigments included traditional gum arabic and popular cherry tree gum, which imparted a gloss to the color. One schoolmaster's fraktur paint box was found to contain goose-quill pens and cat-hair brushes. Also included were caked pigments, homemade mixed pigments liquefied with whiskey, and cherry tree gum diluted in water (Ford 1949).

The papers used by artists and printers were available locally. Pennsylvania had many paper mills; the first paper mill in the American colonies was set up in Germantown by William Rittenhouse about 1689. Pietists from Germany built a paper mill at Ephrata, Lancaster County, around 1736 (Hunter 1978), which was most likely a paper source for the Ephrata Society's production of frakturs. One of the primary occupations of this society, founded in 1730 by Conrad Beissel, was producing frakturs in the manner of a medieval cloister (Lichten 1958). The nuns and monks of Ephrata produced the earliest frakturs in America (Ford 1949). By 1810 there were approximately 60 paper mills in Pennsylvania (Thomas 1970).

Printing houses proliferated in and around Germantown and Philadelphia. Like the wandering itinerant fraktur artists, printers used woodblocks in the 18th century. In the 19th century lithographic printing of frakturs replaced woodblock printing. By the 1830s Currier and Ives printed black-and-white as well as full-color frakturs (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. A fraktur printed by lithography. Lithography replaced woodblock printing in the 19th century.


As the 19th century progressed, so did the Pennsylvania German community. The fraktur, however, became an unfortunate casualty of change. There are several reasons for the dramatic decline of the fraktur. In general, the Americanization of the Pennsylvania German community slowly altered traditional customs. English began to supplant German, and German community schools, which had taught the skill of creating frakturs, began to disappear. With the close of the last “parochial” school in 1840, few frakturs were created (Ford 1949). Other community institutions suffered the same fate. The nationalistic fervor of the American Civil War may have further contributed to the decline of regional cultures such as that of the Pennsylvania Germans.

Copyright 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works