June 17, 2013
New Fraktur Exhibition Opening at Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum celebrates the highly decorative and intricate records created by a diverse German-speaking population in early America. “Paper Trail: Recording Rites of Passage in German-Speaking America” is a collection of 17 frakturs — all created in Virginia and Pennsylvania — opening Saturday, June 29 in the Mary B. and William Lehman Guyton Gallery.
The 100-year-old term “fraktur” initially described colorful and fancifully designed watercolors and illuminated manuscripts, usually recording births, baptisms, marriages and, in some instances, deaths, before the advent of centralized vital recordkeeping. For formal documents, the German-language scriveners favored an elaborate alphabet with letters that had a broken — or fractured — appearance.
“When these frakturs were created, there was no unified German nation such as we know today,” said exhibition curator Barbara Luck, recently retired from Colonial Williamsburg’s division of collections, conservation and museums. “Many German-speaking immigrants who settled in America hailed from areas outside the present-day Germany, particularly Switzerland and portions of France.”
Many of these hand-drawn and colored artifacts date from 1780 to 1830 when the creation of these freehand works of art peaked. Today, fraktur has a much broader meaning and includes a range of decorative works on paper: bookplates and book markers, ornamented songbooks, rewards of merit, texts used to teach reading and writing or piety and Biblical knowledge, whimsical subjects, pictures without any text, house blessings and all manner of certificates documenting rites of passage.
Births and baptisms were the most common rites for which certificates were made. Usually the two milestones were noted on the same piece of paper. Much rarer is birth data combined with information about the subject’s confirmation, marriage, immigration or even death. Such combinations were possible because certificates could be made long after the events they documented. Adults occasionally commissioned birth certificates for themselves. If a competent fraktur-maker were handy, parents might order certificates for all family members at the same time.
“Paper Trail: Recording Rites of Passage in German-Speaking America” will be on view through June 2015. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Museum ticket is required. The exhibition is made possible through a generous gift from Martha R. Rittenhouse in memory of her parents, David and Evelyn Rittenhouse, and her brother, Ward Rittenhouse. Last year, she provided support for the exhibition, “Keeping Time: The Tall Case Clock.”