One man’s appreciation for this German-American art form has done much to preserve it for future generations.
By Corinne and Russell Earnest
At a Sotheby’s auction in London in the 1980s, Prof. Dr. Klaus Stopp of Mainz, Germany, purchased a colorfully decorated Geburts-und Taufschein (birth and baptism certificate, commonly referred to as Taufschein). Little did he or anyone else know this purchase would turn into a more than twenty-year adventure that culminated in a seven-volume published study of Taufscheine (plural of Taufschein) printed in North America.
Stopp was curious that his new acquisition was printed in German in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A year or two later, he discovered and bought a second example. This, too, was printed in German in southeastern Pennsylvania, as was a third example. As his interest piqued, Stopp decided to investigate. He consulted an American antiquarian at the annual book fair in Frankfort and learned that these printed certificates had been popular among 18th and 19th century descendants of German-speaking immigrants to America. Known as Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Dutch, most of these immigrants and their descendants settled in Pennsylvania before spreading throughout the United States.
In southeastern Pennsylvania especially, Pennsylvania Germans retained some of their European heritage. One of the traditions they kept grew from the medieval European practice of illuminating manuscripts. Hence, Pennsylvania Germans created a huge quantity of 18th and 19th century decorated manuscripts and printed material that Americans now call Fraktur–a term that refers to a German style of lettering. Made for Lutheran and German Reformed families, Taufscheine are one type of Fraktur, but they came to dominate the genre in terms of numbers.