Question of the Week
The Ephrata Cloister, a religious community in Lancaster, PA, was known for what style of calligraphy?
Answer: Frakturschriften or Fraktur
While the use of the calligraphic script called fraktur dates to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Central Europe, its incorporation into folk art is often credited to the American Pennsylvania German (or Pennsylvania Dutch) communities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This includes the Ephrata Cloister.
The cloister, a religious community, was founded by Conrad Beissel (1691-1768) in 1732 on the banks of the Cocalico Creek in Pennsylvania. Beissel was a German Pietist who was exiled from Germany for religious and political reasons and traveled to Pennsylvania in 1720, attracted by William Penn's policies of religious tolerance. Once in Pennsylvania, he lived in the Germantown settlement near Philadelphia for some time and was appointed leader of the Conestoga Brethren Congregation. In 1728, however, his ideas about celibacy and the Sabbath caused a rift between Beissel and the Brethren and he withdrew from the church, traveling to a secluded spot in Lancaster County along the Cocalico Creek. He was soon sought out by those who agreed with his theology and teachings, and with this new community of believers he founded the Ephrata Cloister. The cloister contained both celibate brothers and sisters and laypeople whose labor helped the community to thrive. Upon entering into the Ephrata community, the brothers and sisters took new names for themselves; Beissel himself became known as Father Friedsam. Ephrata was known for its printing press and the decorated hymnals it produced, which contained music composed by Beissel using his unique philosophy of music and composition. An offshoot of the Ephrata Cloister, the Snow Hill or Schneeberg Cloister, was founded nearby in 1798 by a husband and wife who were inspired by Beissel. Snow Hill operated in much the same way as Ephrata. Brothers and sisters lived a strict, celibate life, produced manuscripts and texts containing calligraphy and fraktur, and sang Beissel's music and hymns.
The Abraham H. Cassel collection (#610) contains a number of beautifully scribed manuscripts and choral books from the Ephrata Cloister that offer a glimpse into its history. Additional examples of fraktur can also be found in our Pennsylvania-German collection (#V80).
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.