Pennsylvania-German Culture

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The ethnic group known as the Pennsylvania "Dutch" (from Deutsch) has left an indelible impression upon the American way of life. They are a group of people (of Swiss, Alsatian, and Palatine origin) who earlier shared and still share to a certain extent a common High-German Palatine dialect, and who settled mostly in Pennsylvania in the 18th century and later. Religiously there are three general types of Pennsylvania Dutch: (1) "Church People," so called because the adherents belonged to established state churches (Lutheran and Reformed) when they came to this country; (2) the Moravians; and (3) the "plain people" (also called Sects).

Among the "plain people" (so named because of their plainness in dress) are the various groups of Mennonites, Amish, Dunkards or Church of the Brethren, Zion's Children, Brethren in Christ, and earlier the Schwenkfelder group. The Amish are currently photographed and popularized so much that there is a common mistaken notion that all Pennsylvania Dutchmen are "plain." The plain people probably number not more than 10-15 per cent of the total dialect-speaking population; there are about a half million in North America who can speak or understand the Pennsylvania-Dutch dialect.

The Pennsylvania Germans preserved many of the finer features of the group culture that they brought with them from the Old World. Here will be discussed their contributions to the broader scope of American life, with occasional reference to elements of their ethnocentric culture, which of itself is a fascinating field for the sociologist.


Few persons will disagree that these people always have been among the best farmers in America. Accustomed to the intensive cultivation of their fields, they did not adopt the plantation system of the southern states or devote vast acreage to grazing. The farmstead became a fairly self-sufficient economic unit.

Nature is a stern disciplinarian and those who seek her rewards must learn the disciplines of life. The Mennonites, Amish, and other members of the plain people have integrated these disciplines with their spiritual and economic life. Usually the Lutheran and Reformed people also held close to basic principles and practices in agriculture.

The Pennsylvania Germans are credited with the introduction of the willow tree, many varieties of fruit, especially apples, the prevention of soil erosion, the balanced rotation of crops, the building of "bank" barns, the Conestoga wagon, prairie schooner of pioneer days, several types of fences, and numerous other elements found in modern agriculture.

Kitchen Culture

The excellence of Pennsylvania-German cooking is acknowledged by most people. Housewives in Pennsylvania are little concerned with calories and vitamins but ever alert to the virtues of cleanliness, taste, and the complete banishment of hunger from the domains over which they rule. The Mennonite Community Cookbook, by Mary Emma Showalter, provides a full fare for those who wish to be initiated. They contributed to our national pantry such delicacies as cottage cheese, scrapple, various types of sausages, pretzels, cole slaw and, of course, sauerkraut.


Every ethnic group has its own peculiar Volkskunde; that of the Pennsylvania Germans is of especial interest because of its expertness and the vestiges of Renaissance lore which survived the centuries in a new world. Early craftsmen included cabinetmakers, whose workmanship is attested to this day by antique collectors, weavers, potters, stone masons, wheelwrights, wainwrights, carpenters, smiths, millers, coopers, and processors of farm products. (See Furniture and Woodworking and Folk Arts.)

The young lady of the household filled the dower chest (perhaps one made by a relative and decorated by a friend) with linens made of flax that she spun and embroidered. Her mother quilted bed coverings, braided straw for the making of hats, cut and sewed cloth to furnish garments for her family. Some of these handicrafts are still employed on farmsteads in Mennonite-Amish communities.

The Finer Arts, Fraktur

A style of broken or fractured writing, usually illuminated in brilliant colors, was one of the arts practiced in monasteries by the trained copyists of medieval times. The skills involved and the knowledge of vegetable dyes used were brought to America by the early Germans. They illuminated their birth certificates, baptismal certificates, Haus-Segen (house blessings), and other documents of record. Itinerant artists wrote life data on the flyleaves of Bibles and seamstresses designed and appliqued them to cloth.

This art flourished until 1830 when commercial printing presses began to supply printed forms. Later Currier and Ives attempted to reproduce these forms in color. The invention of four-color printing in the early 1930's has made it possible to reproduce these designs in fairly satisfactory color and theme. Since then the general public has become accustomed to all sorts of advertising materials showing hearts, doves, tulips, stars, and fraktur lettering in glittering hues. The arts of fraktur and illumination are the only forms of folk art transplanted from Europe to American soil.

It should be pointed out here that not all of the church groups participated in the application of designs to the barns, dower chests, chairs, bookmarks, quilts, tombstones, pottery, etc. The practices were not common among Mennonite and Amish sects, who always preferred "plain" living.

After 1830, when the printer, the loom, and the planing mill supplanted the fraktur artist, the seamstress, and the cabinetmaker, respectively, the farmers transferred some of these designs to their barns. To break the monotony of color in an 80-foot expanse of red or white painted boards the owner had attractive designs such as stars, teardrops, sun wheels, etc., painted on barn sides. The credulous, perhaps gullible, persons who know little or nothing of Pennsylvania-German culture have accepted the rather sensational version that these barnscapes are "hex" signs, designed to drive away evil spirits, or witches who might otherwise molest the cattle in the barns. (See Painting and Printmaking)


If the musical capital of the United States had been designated prior to 1830 it would have been located either in Bethlehem or Ephrata, PA. Remembering that the Puritans of New England were prohibited by the tenets of their faith from participating in any kind of music other than humming and that the plantation of the south knew only the spinet and the fiddle, it becomes quite clear that music could develop only in the middle colonies.

The monks at the Ephrata Cloisters wrote more than 600 hymns. Conrad Beissel, the superintendent of the Cloisters, wrote the first book on harmony written in the New World. As early as 1742 the Moravians in Bethlehem rendered "In Dulce Jubilo." The Brothers and Sisters in Unity (Moravians) composed hundreds of chorales for their religious festivals. To this day the Bach Festival Chorus at Bethlehem continues as one of the finest choral groups in America.

It was the Pennsylvania Germans who built the first church organs, introduced the trombone, the flute, and various types of horns. They formed the first orchestra, rendered the first symphony, and established singing schools in nearly all communities in which they were settled.


The literature created by people who use a foreign language does not exist for those who do not understand it. The great mass of German literature created before the triumph of English, cl910, is therefore frequently not recognized as a contribution to American life.

Since 1910 all Pennsylvania Germans are completely literate in English and most of them do their thinking in English. The full impact of their contributions is only now beginning to be felt. Among recent writers whose ancestry dates back to early German immigrants are Pearl Buck, Lowell Thomas, Bayard Taylor, William Dean Howells, Joyce Kilmer, Alan Segar, Conrad Richter, Hervey Allen, Neal Swanson, Elsie Singmaster, Joseph Hergesheimer, James Whitcomb Riley, Grace Noll Crowell.

A sizable volume of literature in English has been produced by Pennsylvania German scholars writing for learned societies devoted to the preservation of their history and lore. The result is that the Pennsylvania Germans are probably the most thoroughly recorded group in all America. No group knows its own history better. Not only have professional groups such as the German Society of Pennsylvania (est. 1765), the Pennsylvania German Society (est. 1895), the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society (est. 1935), and the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center (est. 1948) produced much of the literature, but many church bodies, notably the Mennonites, Moravians, and Schwenckfelders, have published great masses of literature relating to their own individual history and statement of faith.


In spite of the assertions made by some writers condemning the Pennsylvania Germans for hostility to secular education the facts prove the opposite to be true. These writers have mistaken the cautious and conservative approach for opposition and benightedness. There are more colleges located in the southeastern segment of Pennsylvania than there are in any similar area in the country; the Language Atlas prepared by Brown University in 1943-44 lists Lancaster, PA as the spot where the best English is being used; nearly all the leaders of public education at the state and federal levels are descendants of Pennsylvania – German stock; and the literacy census of 1940 places southeastern Pennsylvania as lowest in the extent of illiteracy in the entire nation. (See Dialect, Literature and Speech, Pennsylvania German.)


Klees, Frederick. The Pennsylvania Dutch. New York, 1950.

Meynen, Emil. Bibliographie des Deutschtums der kolonialzeitlichen Einwanderung in Nordamerika, 1683-1933. Leipzig, 1937.

Author(s) Arthur D Graeff
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Graeff, Arthur D. "Pennsylvania-German Culture." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 22 Jun 2021.

APA style

Graeff, Arthur D. (1959). Pennsylvania-German Culture. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 June 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 142-144. All rights reserved.

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