Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia


Pockets of German culture in America have always fascinated me. I wonder why and when the group arrived in the United States, how they live (and how much different their new home is from Germany), and what parts of Germany do they hold onto. The Pennsylvania Germans go back to the time before there even WAS a United States. What makes them especially interesting is that despite their hold onto tradition, they consider themselves very American. There are no eyes looking wistfully at Germany. Even the language, Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsylvania Deitsch, is a uniquely American language (or dialect). And the name, “Pennsylvania Dutch”, isn’t as incorrect as people like to think. Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia edited by Simon J Bronner and Joshua R Brown brings together 19 scholarly essays about various aspects of over 300 years of Pennsylvania German life, history, and culture. The entire scope of the Pennsylvania German experience is covered by experts and historians with essays on subjects like immigration history, farming practices, religion, art, cooking and of course, language. It’s the history of America through the lens of German immigrants in Pennsylvania.

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Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

In March of 1681, William Penn received a charter for a colony in America, had some promotional materials translated into Dutch and German, and sent his recruiters out to promote Pennsylvania. His plan, a place where the “people and the governor were to have legislative power so that no law can be made, nor money raised, buy by the people’s consent” appealed to many people. As did the “Holy Experiment”, a land “where people of various nationalities and religious beliefs would live together in peace” (Chapter 2 To the New World John B France). People saw a chance to start over in a place where there was enough space for people to spread out and start over in a place where they could worship without persecution.  Close to 100,000 people from the Palatine, Switzerland, and Alsace-Lorraine and beyond took Penn up on his offer, climbed aboard a ship, and headed for the New World.

The encyclopedia is a treasure trove of information about early German immigration to this country. As a lover of history, I was sucked in by descriptions of early settlements. What drives a person to leave their home and start over.

Pennsylvania Germans is set up in logical order. What caused people to come, where they landed, their religious differences (honestly, I never knew there were so many different Anabaptist groups), and then lifestyle. Since each chapter written by a specialist in that particular area of scholarship feels different. Some read more dense, others are lighter. Find yourself bogged down in the details of farming? Move on to the textile arts. Remember, the textbook feel isn’t accidental! The book is meant to be a scholarly resource.

Still…that’s not to say it’s boring for the casual reader! If you have family from the area, interest in the region, are excited to learn more about German immigration and the influence Germans had on the United States, you must read this book! There is so much to learn.

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Pennsylvania Dutch?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the name “Pennsylvania Dutch”. According to Mark Louden (chapter 4 The Pennsylvania German Language) “Pennsylvania Dutch is not a historical mistranslation of the Pennsylvania German word for the language, Deitsch“.  That is, the Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Dutch were never mistaken for immigrants from the Netherlands.

There are two parts to address here… the name of the language, and the name of the group of people. Remember, Germany as a nation has only been around since 1871, before this, the center of Europe was the Holy Roman Empire made up of a lot of smaller principalities and duchies.  People living there spoke German/Deutsch in local dialect. So the name Deutsch referred to all German speaking people from the current Netherlands down to Switzerland and Austria.

When the Pennsylvania Germans came to America, they brought their different local dialects, but they also brought High German. Dialects have overlap, but as someone who had a difficult time understanding my own Oma when she spoke Platt, it makes sense that the immigrants would create a whole new language based around High German, various dialects, with some English words tossed in to account for new innovations and inventions. And Pennsylvania Dutch or Deitsch was born. Although Linguists, who love to argue as much as economists, debate whether it’s a NEW language or just a new dialect, it’ is true that the modern Deutsch speakers have to listen hard to understand Deitsch. The language is still in use today in family or informal context. Hoch Deutsch/High German is reserved for Church.

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Language, Religion, Farming, Cooking

Although much of the culture is defined by language, there is so much more to learn. In Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia chapters/essays are devoted to specific topics.

Religion The Reformation resulted in many different interpretations of Christianity, and groups the Amish, Mennonites, Lutherans all brought their worship practices with them. Not all Pennsylvania Germans ride around with horse and buggy… and interestingly, not all buggies look the same.

Farming The German farming methods of crop rotation were brought to America, making the Pennsylvania German farms successful. But they also created a new way to build barns, and the outbuildings are a hybrid of German and new world practices. The animals no longer lived in the house!

Literature– Publications by and for Pennsylvania Germans, like books and newspapers were written in Hochdeutsch (remember, the Declaration of Independence was first published in a German Language Newspaper in America…), Deitsch didn’t get used for writing  stories until later.

Cooking– Although many early recipes have roots in Germany, cooks worked with what they could produce from kitchen gardens in their new home. Yvonne Milspaw’s piece on Food and Cooking (chapter 14) was my personal favorite. She points out something interesting… very few cookbooks come out of the early cooking practices. Why not? Because everyone knew the recipes, and just passed them orally. Anything written down would be new or unusual. (We still deal with today, trying to get those recipes that Oma made and NEVER WROTE DOWN)

Arts and Furniture In the encyclopedia you’ll find information about Fraktur and Hex Signs, and crafts like Quilting (which did not come from Germany), but also cabinetmaking and glassmaking (which did). Fraktur… the distinct art of lettering… also gets a chapter. These beautiful and practical pieces were generally made to be used, today, we view them as art.

Folkways and modern Interpretations Folk medicine, and Folklore, even the new modern interpretations and practices, like Braucherei and Urglaawe are explained. Traditional pagan practices that came along with the early settlers. Today there is a resurgence of the old ways with young new practitioners.
Medicine, education, industry, and even tourism are covered in this comprehensive book.

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Reading Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

To read Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia is to receive a crash course in a 300 year old culture that sees itself as distinctly American despite different ways and a separate language. (It’s also a culture that sees itself as quite different from later immigrants from Germany… who they perceive as being too connected to the old world….too German.) Yet, the book reminds us that although they may be lumped into one name, Pennsylvania Germans are not all the same.

Fair warning, the book was never designed to be casual reading. Comprehensive scholarship (with footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies) make some of the chapters read like the college textbook it is. That said… many of the chapters feel more “casual” and readable (fewer citations, more descriptions). But then, it could depend also on your level of interest in that specific topic. Reading the charts and graphs regarding population change weren’t exactly enthralling… but on the other hand, I truly enjoyed the essays on home arts and farming practices. And I’m always up for more detailed information about the Reformation and its aftermath. It’s up to you to choose whether to read cover to cover, or pick and choose articles of interest…. much like you would with any encyclopedia.

But as a reference book about a specific group of German Immigrants to America, it’s unmatched. If you have interest in German culture in America… and the effects of Germans on the formation of the United States, this book should be on your shelves.

Order Your Copy Here

Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies)


4 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia

  1. This is what we Pennsylvania Germans always have known and are proud to pass down from generation to generation, despite local “Englishe” attempts to wipe out Deitsch as “Dumme” in early 1900’s. My family has members from Bavaria, Silesia, and Alsace-Lorraine – you can tell by the food as well as the family stories – LOL. Some came as indentured servants in 1697 to pay for their passage. Yes – 10 years a slave. But they bought farm land from Benjamin Franklin and Caspar Wistar. One home still stands proudly despite Hwy 309 that was built through the middle. The family members are accounted for in the German Society Library, The Pennsburg Museum Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Families cherish the fractur “taufscheine,” quilts and furniture and still teach the hex symbolic meanings. And organic, high quality food is still our means of staying healthy. Thank you for bringing this story to the wider attention.

    1. It really is an interesting history. I enjoyed taking a deep dive into the book.

    2. I believe that it’s very possible that at least one of my German ancestors came over as an “indentured servant”. I also have ancestors who came over with William Penn.

      1. It wasn’t unusual at the time to come over as indentured servant… it was a way to pay the expensive fare to America. Did your family stay in Pennsylvania?

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