Fraktur, that exquisite script formed with ornate letters and highly decorated borders, was created for nearly 90 consecutive years by a series of teachers in the Mennonite schools in communities northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Because Mennonites were not known for producing paintings and other two-dimensional art, this well-developed practice of making quill-lettered mottos, certificates, and rewards is particularly outstanding. Historian and fraktur expert and collector Mary Jane Lederach Hershey tells about these Mennonite-run schools, the unusual teachers who oversaw them, and the artistic tradition they carried forward and passed on to their willing students. The book includes rich full-color photographs of more than 100 pieces of fraktur made between 1747 and 1836, complete with English translations of their German texts.
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The European Experience
The Skippack and Salford Mennonite communities were outgrowths of the Germantown settlement near Philadel-phia, founded in 1683 by a group of 13 Dutch-speaking Mennonite-Quakers from Germany’s lower Rhineland. The refugees had come to inhabit land owned by English Quaker William Penn, who had obtained the land as payment for a debt owed by King Charles II to Penn’s father. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the settlers of Germantown were joined by dozens—later hundreds—of their Mennonite neighbors and relatives from the Old World.
Mennonites immigrated to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons. Many of them were eager to escape religious persecution. They and their forebears had been suffering displacement and even martyrdom since the early years of the Reformation. In 1517 the German monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Catholic church in Wittenburg, Germany. Shortly thereafter, Ulrich Zwingli, a pastor in Zurich, Switzerland, began teaching “salvation by grace.” Although Zwingli served communion wine and bread directly to the members of his congregation and rejected religious pomp and ceremony, he continued to support the alliance between the church and state.
Some of Zwingli’s followers began to question his cooperation with the state. They called for the removal of governmental authority from church affairs. One of the state church practices—infant baptism—was particularly offensive to the dissenters. They had studied the biblical text concerning baptism and concluded that only adults confessing their faith in Christ should be baptized. Since the baptism of infants into the church also established their citizenship with the state, those who chose not to have their children baptized placed themselves at odds with the government. Similarly, adults who had been baptized as infants but were then “rebaptized” by one of their fellow believers found them- selves alienated from the state church and their citizenship in jeopardy. Because of their acts of “rebaptism,” these dissenters became known as “Anabaptists.”1
In addition to rebaptizing themselves, Anabaptists interpreted Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in a way that further alienated themselves from the state church. Based on this teaching, they refused to use weapons, even when the government called upon them to do so. They were soon regarded as enemies by state officials and by leaders of the government-regulated church. The first execution of an Anabaptist occurred in Switzerland in 1525. Persecution resulting in thousands of deaths—many by public burning, beheading, or drowning—continued in Germany, Belgium, and Holland until the end of the sixteenth century. In Switzer-land, although public executions ceased in the early 1600s, discrimination against Anabaptists—including imprisonment and torture resulting in death—persisted for another century.2 Because of the difficulty of life in Switzerland, hundreds of Anabaptists migrated northward to a section of Germany known as the Palatinate. There, on both sides of the Rhine River, they occupied hofs, or farmsteads, that had been ravaged during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). There, too, they heard about opportunities for resettlement in Pennsylva-nia. Many pioneers who settled in Skippack and Salford during the early 1700s traced their roots to the Swiss Palatines.3
In the Palatinate, Anabaptists restored homes and farm buildings, cleared forests, and turned swamps into fruitful, productive fields. Their hope for a peaceful way of life became difficult to sustain, however, when, in 1661, a religious head tax was imposed on all Anabaptists who gathered together for worship. Despite this tax, Anabaptists fleeing persecution in Switzerland continued to resettle in the Palatinate.4
Coming to an Unfamiliar Land
When news reached Anabaptists in the Palatinate that land was available for settlement in Pennsylvania, the exodus began. The prospect of acquiring fertile, undeveloped land in a country whose agents promised religious freedom appealed to these refugees. The initial emigration in 1683 was followed by the emigration of other small groups during the next two decades. Some immigrants stopped first in Germantown, then continued moving to the northwest, and by 1703 had established permanent residences in Skippack, an area also known as Bebberstown.5
In 1717 and 1718, 11 families (most from the Palatinate) arrived and purchased land that extended from the Skippack settlement to Salford, five miles to the north. Gustavus Hesselius, a contemporary observer of the terrain surrounding Germantown, wrote in 1714 from Philadelphia to his mother in Sweden, noting the beauty of the land, the abundance of native fruit trees, and hardwood and softwood trees that could be used for building and firewood. He wrote, “The forest is very lovely and beautiful, there is no garden in Sweden so wonderful to walk in, as the forest here in America and smells so good.”6
Though many of the Skippack and Salford settlers were of Swiss heritage, others had names which reflected their origins in Germany and Holland.7
In Holland, the growth of Anabaptism centered around an ex-Catholic priest named Menno Simons. His name was eventually applied to his fellow-believers, who became known as “Mennists” and subsequently “Mennonites.” When the Mennonite settlers came to Germantown, Skippack, and Salford, they were referred to as both “Anabaptists” and “Mennists.” Skippack and Salford settlers occupied land that for centuries had been home to small groups of Native Americans who called themselves Lenape, meaning “The Real People.” These Indians were hunters and gatherers who spent the warm seasons fishing and raising crops in riverside planting villages, then moved to inland camps to hunt game in winter. The Lenape concept of land ownership differed from the European concept that conferred clear and absolute title. Although the settlers viewed the wooded land in the Delaware watershed as uninhabited, it was actually divided into hunting and foraging areas used by separate groups of Lenapes. These areas were significant to maintaining small communities of Native Americans. Even though the European settlers thought they were buying the land when they exchanged gifts with the Indians, the Native Americans understood the transactions as agreements conferring the right to use the land and to establish an ongoing relationship.8
As the Indians were losing their homeland to European settlers, their population was also being ravaged by diseases introduced from Europe, for which the Indians had no immunity. An example of this devastation was recorded by Daniel Pastorius, a German schoolmaster teaching in Philadelphia. Writing in 1694 about the smallpox epidemic of 1688–1691, he noted: “A great many of these savages have died, even since I came here, so that there are hardly more than a fourth part of the number existing that were to be seen when I came to the country ten years ago.”9
However, as late as 1718 when the Salford settlers were arriving, the Lenapes confirmed in a treaty that they were comfortable with the earlier agreements made with the settlers. The Indians’ traditional belief that land was to be shared was not understood by the colonists, and surely not by the people who settled on land surrounding the Skippack Creek and the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek at Salford. Few stories have survived concerning contacts between Skippack and Salford settlers and the Lenapes. A small tributary to the East Branch waterway was named “Indian Creek,” and Abram Harley Cassel (a self-educated Brethren schoolteacher and bibliophile living in Lower Salford Township at the close of the nineteenth century) related that the Indians who remained in the township “behaved well and lived together in the greatest kindness.
They did everything that they could to befriend my ancestors on the hills here.”10
Table of ContentsSeries Editor’s Foreword, Steven M. Nolt 3
Preface, Alan G. Keyser 5
From Europe to the New World 15
Starting Schools at Skippack and Salford 19
Schoolmaster Christopher Dock 31
Early Fraktur in Pennsylvania 45
Quills and Colors, Tulips and Birds 49
Color Plates with Notes, 1747 to 1836 57
Word Definitions 161
Chronological List of Dated Fraktur 164
from Skippack and Salford Schoolmaster Biographical List 168
Student Biographical List 175
Transcriptions and Translations 179
Reflections and Acknowledgments 231
About the Author 244
What People are Saying About This
One of the most delightful and colorful studies of Pennsylvania German material culture ever to be published. . . . Hershey weaves fascinating stories of a rural way of life in which education was reverenced and teachers and their pupils created works of transcending beauty.
Director, American Folk Art Museum, New York
One of the most delightful and colorful studies of Pennsylvania German material culture ever to be published.
This Teaching I Present provides readers with remarkably deep insights into history and creative expression through
fraktur—illuminated manuscript writings. Mary Jane Lederach Hershey weaves fascinating stories of a rural way of life
in which education was reverenced and teachers and their pupils created works of transcending beauty.
Director American Folk Art Museum, New York