Germanic Fraktur and Calligraphy

Handwriting has served the fundamental needs of communication and recording in all literate cultures and been regarded as an essential tool of civilization. Frequently, however, lettering has been developed beyond the utilitarian level to an artistic form.

Germanic Fraktur and Calligraphy

Handwriting has served the fundamental needs of communication and recording in all literate cultures and been regarded as an essential tool of civilization. Frequently, however, lettering has been developed beyond the utilitarian level to an artistic form. The artistic CALLIGRAPHY which flourished after the 17th century among peoples of southern Germany, Alsace and Switzerland and was later brought to America is known by the term fraktur. Related to the English word "fracture," the term suggests a lettering form with fractures or breaks in the script which, impart an ornamental effect. Hand-lettered texts and documents (notably birth and baptismal records, marriage certificates, family registers, bookplates and the like) were often further embellished with hand-drawn decorative motifs in the margins. Popular motifs were birds, hearts and tulips as well as other floral and geometric designs. Later examples of fraktur are interesting in that the decorative motifs frequently begin to overshadow or even replace text.

In German areas of Pennsylvania and Ontario, fraktur was practised in schools and sometimes at home. The development of fraktur as an artform in Canada is associated with Germanic settlers in areas as diverse as Lunenburg, Nova Scotia and southern Ontario. There are also examples in Hutterite communities of Western Canada. Fraktur's principal flowering is to be found among the Pennsylvania-German MENNONITES who established settlements in 3 regions of southwestern Ontario: the Niagara Peninsula (1786), upper York County (Markham and Vaughan Townships, 1803) and Waterloo County (1800).

The earliest Ontario fraktur specimens consist of small drawings and illuminated songbooks made by teachers for pupils in regular and also singing schools in the Jordan area of the Niagara Peninsula, some attributed to the hand of the early school teacher Samuel Moyer (1767-1844). In the Markham area, the farmer and self-taught artist Christian L. Hoover (1835-1918) executed colourful birth and baptismal records for many relatives and friends in the Mennonite community there.

The largest output occurred in Waterloo County, where 4 major artists produced texts and drawings for a lengthy period from the early 1820s to almost 1890. While the earliest of these artists, Abraham Latschaw (1799-1870), worked closely within an earlier Pennsylvania tradition of elaborately decorated texts, the best-known (and later) artist is Anna Weber (1814-88), whose watercolour drawings of birds and floral motifs emphasize the pictorial largely at the expense of text. Her work is unusual in its colour palette, its lateness of production, its highly personal motivation (done quite overtly as token of friendship and in hope of remembrance by others), and by the fact that she was Canada's only woman practitioner.

Known specimens of Canadian fraktur are comparatively rare - in all, there may be fewer than 500 documented examples. The art has enjoyed a small revival in recent years with its reintroduction in some Old Order Mennonite schools in the Waterloo area, and with a growing interest by the public at large in relearning lost artistic forms. During its high point, in 19th-century Ontario Mennonite communities, fraktur was one of Canada's most colourful forms of visual folk-art expression. Major collections can be seen at the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum in Kitchener, as well as at the Markham Museum and also the Jordan Historical Museum of The Twenty.


Further Reading

  • Michael S. Bird, Ontario Fraktur: A Pennsylvania-German Folk Tradition in Early Canada (1977); Susan Burke and Matthew Hill, eds, From Pennsylvania to Waterloo: Pennsylvania German Folk Arts in Transition (1991).

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