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Imagery enlivens text and fixes its meaning in the mind’s eye. In the Pennsylvania German tradition, elaborate designs known as fraktur turned record-keeping into a visual art, memorializing important events with exuberant decoration.

Records such as birth and marriage certificates were lavishly decorated with birds, flowers, and other motifs of cultural and religious significance. They were often colored in vibrant oranges, reds, greens, and yellows, speaking to the frequently celebratory nature of the documents. Additional texts such as writing samplers, music books, and religious writings were afforded equally elaborate treatment, underlining the importance of their contents and serving as a cue to the reader to take their meaning to heart.


Fraktur had antecedents in Europe where the word was originally an indication of an associated type of “fractured” calligraphy. The form developed into a distinctive style among the German immigrant communities of Southeastern Pennsylvania in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on a common visual vocabulary, fraktur artists nonetheless found ways to express singular creative vision, as seen in the diversity of the examples on view.

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