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Pennsylvania German Fraktur Records: Records of Birth and Symbols of Culture

Pennsylvania German birth and baptism certificates called Fraktur are not only genealogical goldmines, but beautiful cultural windows into the past.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Trish Tolley
Word Count: 539 (approx.)
Labels: Birth Record 
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Decorated manuscripts made primarily by the Pennsylvania Germans, Fraktur records hold in their brilliant colors and German script a wealth of genealogical and historical information. Most of them are birth and baptism certificates (Geburts- und Taufschein) produced from about 1760 to the early 20th century, and almost always in German. By 1900, Fraktur may be frequently found written in English.

From about 1760 to 1818, freehand Fraktur were created by schoolmasters. Later, Fraktur were preprinted and filled out by someone trained in decorative handwriting. Fraktur designs and drawings also help separate them into categoriesmany Fraktur printers specialized in a certain design, such as a three heart or angel-type motif.

Fraktur were common in Pennsylvania and many areas in the eastern U.S. with German populations, as well as Ontario, Canada. The greatest number of Fraktur were recorded in southeast Pennsylvania. In these areas, they were most popular among Lutheran and Reformed families, documenting the important baptism sacrament they cherished.

In other areas of Southeastern Pennsylvania where German-speaking families belonged to smaller religious denominationssuch as Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Schwenkfeldersa larger array of Fraktur beyond the Taufscheine exists. Mennonites and Schwenkfelders did not practice infant baptism and so Taufscheine were not created, but as a culture they valued beautiful folk art and recorded events of Fraktur.

The value of finding a Taufschein or other Fraktur is evident in the bounty of genealogical information they contain. Fraktur birth and baptism certificates include the father's name, the mother's name including her maiden name, the date of birth of the child, the place of birth, the name of the child, the date of baptism, and the name of the pastor who baptized the child. Names of witnesses or sponsors at the baptism are also listed. Witnesses or sponsors were most often relatives or close associates who may have shared religious beliefs, German origins, cultural traditions or property.

While many Fraktur are still in the possession of family members, many have been collected and made more available. Collections of Fraktur may be found in the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Abby Aldrich Rockafeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia; and the Henry Francis du Pont Winterhur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware. Many are also available at historical societies and public libraries, as well as the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Many Fraktur were submitted by Revolutionary War Veterans for pensions or bounty land, and are stored in the individuals case file. Requesting a pension file from the National Archives of a Pennsylvania German ancestor may lend a glimpse of genealogical information, as well the beautiful art and culture on a Fraktur.

Whether a Fraktur of your ancestor is framed in your hallway or tucked away at an archive or library, it can bring the culture of the Pennsylvania Germans alive to any viewer, even if they can't read the German script.

For examples and more historical information about Fraktur, visit the Berks County (PA) Historical Society website: http://www.berkshistory.org/fraktur/.

Books with additional Fraktur information:

  • Dr. Donald A. Shelley's The Fraktur-Writings or Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans
  • Russell and Corrine Earnest's Genealogist's Guide to Fraktur: For Genealogists Researching German-American Families

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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