The southeastern corner of what is now Pennsylvania was once home to entire towns of religious dissidents. All had been persecuted in Europe, and sought freedom in the colonies. There were clusters of Mennonites, Moravians, Lutherans, and various other German-Protestant sects, some obscure and eccentric. Residents of the Ephrata Cloister, for instance, practiced extreme calorie restriction, sleep deprivation, and celibacy. Another group followed the sixteenth-century teachings of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, a bearded, deaf ornithologist who split ways with Martin Luther over the meaning of the sacrament. These motley religious communities had significant theological differences, but shared a great deal as well — they were farmers who spoke German, prized religious tolerance, and practiced the same distinctive artform: fraktur.
Fraktur is named after the font — heavy, angular, old-timey — which is usually called “blackletter” in the United States. Fraktur was ubiquitous in eighteenth-century Germany, and it remained so long after other European countries switched to the more readable Roman. (Fraktur is now associated with the Nazis, who used it extensively in propaganda, going so far as to outfit government offices with Fraktur typewriters.) How did the name of a font become the name of an art form? Fraktur art existed at the edges of text, as a decorative accessory of writing. It embellished fraktur script. In Pennsylvania and beyond, baptismal records, land deeds, certificates of accomplishment, bookplates, birth registries, and sometimes valentines were lettered in German-language fraktur, and decorated with the hearts, vines, and tulips that came to be characteristic of fraktur art.
Fraktur has its origins in folk art traditions from Alsace, Switzerland, and the Rhineland, but in America it became more colorful, elaborate, and freehand, and far more apt to dominate the script it sought to embellish. The genre’s golden age was the period between 1790 and 1830 — a time when the American religious context was still strong, but the European influence less stultifying. The forms are highly stylized. Hearts, flowers, angels, and various birds are repeated over and over, to soothing effect. The palette favors bold primary colors, traditionally made of inks concocted from berries, iron oxide, and apple juice. The composition is orderly. The tidy leaves of the tidy vines are perfectly equidistant, and the flowers pared down to floral symbols. The goldfinch that appears in many fraktur images is drawn in such a specific way it’s still known by its German name: distelfink. Symmetry reigns, and when it doesn’t, the composition is otherwise balanced. One of the most common fraktur motifs is the “three-heart design” wherein a large heart is complemented by two smaller hearts on either side of its apex — in fraktur, even the most curvaceous of shapes assumes the rootedness of a square.
Fraktur scholars and aficionados can distinguish Ephrata Cloister fraktur from Schwenkfeld fraktur from Mennonite fraktur. They can also identify the work of certain artists by sight —whether by name, or, for those who left their work unsigned, by epithet: the Nine Hearts artist or the Stoney Creek artist. But to simply appreciate the form, no expertise is necessary. Fraktur is straightforward and earnest. There is no irony and no secret code. Its pleasures are the homey kind. To contemporary eyes, the imagery signals feminine domesticity, but it wasn’t always so. Nearly all fraktur artists were men, and the papers they embellished were civic and religious documents. It is true, however, that fraktur was designed for private, domestic pleasures. It was not an artform of display or exhibition, but of personal devotion. Some of the most beautiful examples of fraktur are bookplates, hidden most of the time.
Collectors and art historians have tried various ways of elevating Fraktur’s aesthetic status. One line of argument contends that the hearts and birds are all symbolic, such that each composition contains a decodable message. Others have tried to prove a direct lineage from medieval illumination. The evidence for either of these claims is so thin that the motivation behind them becomes suspect. Not all art need grasp toward grand significance to be enjoyed. A private pleasure, a small delight, a flourish both unnecessary and perfectly lovely is reason enough to look, and look again.