If you travel through eastern Pennsylvania, you often see motifs illustrating birds and flowers painted on large barns. These art forms, employed by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers and rural folk for many decades, have their roots in an ornate type of written or printed German, similar to Gothic lettering in English, called “fraktur.”
This art form was originally made by scribes of religious documents in Germany during the 1500s. The decorative motifs were employed to add a bit of beauty to birth certificates and Biblical manuscripts.
Monk scribes tirelessly copied manuscripts using ancient instruments to write in gothic script characterized by spaces between the letter strokes. In the spaces, breaks or fractures were placed. Fraktur was the name rendered to this style of lettering.
To enliven the manuscript, drawings of animals and flora adorned what would have been blank areas.
Eventually, each motif was accepted as a symbol of creation. The tulip quite common in fraktur art represented the Trinity, the lion symbolized Mark the evangelist.
When monastic orders were forced to flee their homeland, they carried their style of writing and theologies to the New World, their destination was Pennsylvania where the Quaker colony was known for its religious tolerance.
In Lancaster, Pa., Conrad Biessel founded a monastic community where early fraktur appeared. Their first choral book was written in the broken style of fraktur, also it was rich in decorative motifs symbolizing religious thought.
Sister Anastasia, the author of the choral books also produced a copy book for schools. This text book also employed in ABC-form fraktur designs. The calligraphy book had letters forming lily leaves, a symbol of rebirth or resurrection.
The art form was also used by neighboring sects, i.e. Dunkards, Mennonites, Moravians and Amish, and this form of artfully decorated articles became the vogue. Writers and publishers seized the Fraktur art forms with enthusiasm employing it in many of their text books. Birth and marriage certificates, baptism and even death documents were decorated quite readily.
On some documents, fraktur was limited to border application.
The very early forms, around 1600 or so, are more in folk art appearance. As time progressed and this form of art became more widely rendered, the lettering and illustrations were simplified, motifs became stronger in appearance and pastel colors became richer and brighter.