What Is Fraktur?

Your guide to Pennsylvania German folk art

Freeman’s November 15 American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction features a wide array of Fraktur, commemorating life events like marriage and birth or simply adorning the homes of Pennsylvania Germans with bright, colorful flora and fauna motifs. Here, we take a closer look at the form, its origins, and its contemporary appeal.

01/26/2023     Latest News, News and Film, American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts

 fraktur art

Lot 175 I A Fraktur Drawing: A Flowering Vine with Birds I Estimate: $2,000-3,000


Framed or inset in furniture, intricately designed with text or without, you may have seen it before without knowing what it is. Fraktur, a style of folk art created by German-speaking Pennsylvania communities and executed in the 18th and 19th centuries, was particularly prevalent in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But what exactly is Fraktur, and why does is still command fascination and market interest today?

Fraktur (pronounced “frock-tour”) has its roots in the illuminated manuscripts of Northern Europe in the 16th to 18th centuries, when many documents were produced using the calligraphic lettering made by “fractured,” or many, pen strokes. When German immigrants came to America beginning in the 18th century, they brought with them this lettering style, which took on a number of vernacular forms, with the center of production remaining in Pennsylvania German communities.


fraktur baptism certificate

 Lot 199 I A Fraktur Birth and Baptism Record for David Korenborger I Estimate: $2,000-3000


Fraktur documents were often used to commemorate significant life milestones, reward excellence, or facilitate the teaching of religious texts. The creators were not formally trained artists, but usually schoolteachers, ministers, or itinerant artists. Brightly colored and flatly rendered whimsical designs ornamented birth and baptism records (also called Geburts und Taufschein), house blessings, rewards, book plates, or marriage drawings. Several such examples are on offer in Freeman’s November 15 American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction, among them a Fraktur birth and baptism record for David Korenborger from Berks County, dated 1813 (Lot 199; estimate: $3,000-5,000). The striking document is full of many of the visual motifs associated with Fraktur—including hearts and flowers—within an elaborately patterned and bordered work.

Such documents served a twofold purpose: they both kept official records of important events like births and baptisms, and they allowed German immigrants to meaningfully personalize their newfound American experiences, holding on to customs and practices from their homeland at the same time that they settled into a new life across the Atlantic. Fraktur works preserved the German language—rather than English—in which the tradition was inaugurated.


fraktur art

Lot 176 I An Adam and Eve Hand-decorated Letterpress Broadside I Estimate: $4,000-6,000 


Not all Fraktur commemorated life events, however; some, like Georg Friedrich Speyer’s Adam and Eve broadside (Lot 176; estimate: $4,000-6,000), were religious in nature. Created circa 1790, Speyer’s broadside combined many of the Fraktur methods of the day: letterpress text ran alongside charming, hand-rendered ink-and-watercolor drawings of flowers, birds, and the quintessential scene of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, complete with a larger-than-life snake slithering through the apple tree. 

Other Fraktur eschewed text altogether and are charming drawings, like an early-19th-century drawing of a flowering vine with birds (Lot 175; estimate: $2,000-3,000). In ink and subdued red, black, and tan watercolor, this drawing is an excellent example of Fraktur’s simultaneous preoccupation with symmetrical form and its celebration of whimsical idiosyncrasy. A marriage drawing dated 1801 reveals a similar sensibility, rendered in comparatively brighter colors, depicting two flowering vines topped by the nationalistic touch of an American eagle. Works like this (Lot 177; estimate: $3,000-5,000)—the present lot attributed to the Northampton Artist—would have been created not as official certificates, but as celebratory and auspicious drawings.


fraktur art

Lot 177 I A Fraktur Marriage Drawing I Estimate: $3,000-5,000


Fraktur in its many forms is treasured and sought after in contemporary markets as an American folk art. Collecting Fraktur allows contemporary audiences to engage with an art form that was foundational to early American communities, but also—more than almost any other form—gives an intimate glimpse into 18th- and 19th-century Pennsylvania German life. Through the milestones of birth, marriage, death, and everything in between, Fraktur painted a picture of the lives of individual German immigrants as they were actually lived.



View the rest of our November 15 American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction.



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