Friday, July 23, 2010
Fraktur in the Lehigh Valley
The Pennsylvania German emigrant documented births, baptisms (Taufschein) and marriages (Traufschein) with Fraktur, between 1750 and 1900. Henry Mercer defined Fraktur as a decorated document, handwritten in German in fractured pen strokes, although a few were written in English. The writing is similar to the 15th-century typeface called Fraktur. The documents were often colorfully embellished with paintings of birds, flowers, sun, moon, hearts, trees and animals. Lutheran and Reformed ministers and school teachers created many of the Fraktur that exist in collections today. It was an additional source of income for the poorly paid teachers. Eventually, traveling artists offered the services of creating Fraktur for the farm families of Pennsylvania.
The origins of the art can be traced to Alsace or Switzerland. The European handwritten manuscripts communicated serious religious themes or governmental proclamations. In America, Fraktur became more personal and centered on family events. School teachers used Vorschrift (letter exercises), drawing samples of the alphabet, to teach lettering skills and penmanship. The Pennsylvanian German community adopted Fraktur as their own.
There are only a few examples of Fraktur in the Moravian settlements as they preferred to document important events through their congregational daily diary. Their beautifully written memoirs or Lebenslaufe might be considered a form of Fraktur.
The first Fraktur in America, were created by the German Seventh Day Baptist Cloister in Ephrata, Lancaster County, in the mid 1700s. The Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders and Amish also produced Fraktur.
Fraktur artists made their own or ordered imported pigments such as vermilion, gamboge (yellow), Prussian blue, indigo, and orpiment. The Osborne Company in Philadelphia began manufacturing watercolors in the 1820s, making the supplies easier to obtain. They could be purchased at the local apothecary or drugstore. In an Osborne paint box from 1826, thirty different pigment cakes were included. Many of the watercolor paints used from 1700 to 1850 contained lead. The deadly ingredient was used to make colors more opaque or lighter. Mercury and arsenic were also typical additives.
Early pens were made from a quill taken from the wing of a goose, swan or turkey. By the 1800s, steel nibs were manufactured, which gave the artist more control. Iron gall ink, the commonly used black ink, was easily made; the ingredients were inexpensive and readily available.
Imported or from local paper mills, paper was always obtainable. Around 1689 William Rittenhouse constructed the first paper mill in the American colonies in Germantown. Most Fraktur were painted on sheets of paper measuring 16 by 13 inches or 8 by 13 inches.
As more sophisticated printing processes became available, forms for fraktur were printed with colorful designs and blank spaces for information to be filled in later. Printers advanced from using woodblocks in the 18th century to lithographic printing in the 19th century. The Currier and Ives Company mass produced black-and-white as well as full-color Fraktur.
A Northampton County schoolmaster, Johannes Ernst Spangenberg (1755-1814), was much in demand for his Fraktur and was known as the “Easton Bible Artist.” Spangenberg lived in Easton with his wife, Elizabeth Blantz and their eleven children. Spangenberg may have listened to the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776, in Easton, as he soon enlisted in the militia to fight in the Revolutionary War. He taught at the stone schoolhouse at 229 Church St. in Easton. His Fraktur work featured a variety of themes, including buildings with arched windows and turrets topped with pennants, musicians, flowers and animals. He was finally identified by Monroe Fabian, associate curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who found a signature on one of the Fraktur. The Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society has two Spangenberg Fraktur in their collection. One of his Fraktur, owned by a private collector, sold for $134,500 at an auction in 2002.