Pfleger on Bronner and Brown, 'Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia'

Simon J. Bronner, Joshua R. Brown, eds.
Birte B. Pfleger

Simon J. Bronner, Joshua R. Brown, eds. Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 592 pp. $80.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4214-2139-1; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2138-4.

Reviewed by Birte B. Pfleger (California State University, Los Angeles) Published on H-TGS (August, 2018) Commissioned by Alison C. Efford (Marquette University)

Printable Version:

Dedicated in Pennsylvania Deitsch to the twentieth-century leaders of Pennsylvania German scholarship, C. Richard Beam and Don Yoder, this multidisciplinary encyclopedia offers a comprehensive overview of Pennsylvania German history, culture, and society. Simon J. Bronner and Joshua R. Brown have compiled nineteen essays that synthesize the latest research on many aspects and debates about Pennsylvania Germans. They move beyond the narrow geographic and temporal scope that grew out of the concerns of the nineteenth-century Pennsylvania German Society, engaging instead in the “new Pennsylvania German studies” with its wider interest in the cultural identity, expression, and influence of the Pennsylvania German diaspora in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The tightly written, fast-paced introduction summarizes the academic genealogy of Pennsylvania German studies by highlighting the central role of a few scholars, the importance of the University of Pennsylvania as its initial academic home, and the three distinct Pennsylvania German societies that created the organizational framework for the increasingly vibrant study, collection, preservation, and practice of Pennsylvania Deitsch history, language, literature, architecture, and cultural traditions.[1]

Because this volume focuses on new aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Pennsylvania German language, geography, and culture, coverage of the early history, including the complicated religious history, makes up less than 20 percent of the over five hundred pages. In part 1, Mark Häberlein summarizes the Old World background of the early modern German-speaking immigrants to North America. Relying on the foundational research of Aaron Fogleman, Greg Roeber, Marianne Wokeck, and others, he argues that German immigrants to the mid-Atlantic region were mostly families led by adults in their mid-twenties pressured by social and economic factors, and persuaded by promotional printed sources as well as letters from immigrants and agents. John B. Frantz shows how the harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage and common agricultural traditions and practices led German-speakers to develop a distinct language and identity, which spread and continued to evolve across North America, albeit without a united political voice. Diane Wenger and Bronner illustrate how Pennsylvania Germans’ insistence on their identity as “old stock Americans” allowed them to weather the anti-German storms of the twentieth century, emerging revitalized in the twenty-first century, assisted by social media and renewed interest in ethnic sociability and culture, such as the groundhog clubs first formed in the 1930s to preserve and celebrate Pennsylvania German culture.

In part 2, Mark L. Louden offers a fascinating account of how Pennsylvania German became a new language in North America, arguing that it was “born not of isolation but of controlled distance between an independent-minded minority community and the sociolinguistic mainstream” (p. 90). An estimated 0.8 percent of the US population—mostly sectarians—speak Pennsylvania German today. Scholars do not agree whether this is evidence of the vibrancy of the language (Louden) or part of a declension model (Sheila Rohrer, William W. Donner).

The three chapters on religion offer a geographic statistical analysis of sectarians and non-sectarians (Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, Edsel Burdge Jr.), useful historical background on the various religious groups from the Protestant Reformation to the “Bush Meeting Dutch” (Frantz), and a thorough discussion of the Amish (Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Brown). This section shows that religion unifies Pennsylvania Germans in some ways but also, at the same time, differentiates them. Together, the chapters highlight the central importance of religious practices to Pennsylvania German identity.

Eight essays address different aspects of material culture. R. Troy Boyer reminds readers of the tremendous influence of Pennsylvania German farming practices and architecture as well as craft industries, ranging from weaving to paper mills and furniture making, even shaping mainstream American notions of classic liberalism and capitalism. Boyer also suggests that despite the recent emergence of agricultural tourism among some small farmers, shrinking landholdings, the increase of monoculture, and urban sprawl point to the declining role of farming, leaving him to question what this might mean for Pennsylvania German ethnic identity. Gabrielle Lanier focuses in more detail on Pennsylvania German architecture and includes beautiful and valuable illustrations. Although she indicates that recent scholarship has focused on gender and class, this volume does not incorporate these studies. Lisa Minardi, curator at the Winterthur Museum, also includes many striking images in her essays on furniture; decorative arts made from wood, glass, metal, stone, and other raw materials; and Fraktur manuscripts, paintings, and photography. She calls for more comparative studies (setting Pennsylvania Dutch objects against German material culture and placing them in the diasporic context) and points to other areas for future research. Candace Kintzer Perry mentions that although the quilt as a bedspread was an English tradition, Pennsylvania Germans also claimed it through their patchwork quilts, some of which have become highly valued among art collectors. Her fascinating discussion of the different kinds of samplers and clothing offers rare glimpses into the lives of the women who made and continue to make them. Similarly, Yvonne J. Milspaw examines Pennsylvania German foodways by focusing on the central importance of “the ordinary” to ethnic identity and calls for further research (p. 311). David W. Kriebel argues that while “complementary and alternative medical” practices are not unique to Pennsylvania Germans, the use of powwowing (rituals combined with herbal remedies but ultimately controlled by God) and herbal medicine going back to eighteenth-century printer Christopher Sauer’s work are distinct (p. 341).

Donner’s chapters on education, tourism, and heritage argue that Pennsylvania Germans offer important lessons about long-standing debates over assimilation on the one hand versus preserving ethnic heritage and language on the other. He uses the term “public heritage” to describe the history and recent resurgence of “organizations, events, festivals, historical societies, and websites” that represent and express Pennsylvania German culture (p. 411). Bronner closes with an overview of how this culture has been represented in popular media, including most recently in social media.

This book is a tour de force of Pennsylvania German history, language, and culture and points to many directions for future research. The foundational question of who constituted the original Pennsylvania Germans remains: Was it only the 35,000 who arrived between 1754 and 1774? Or was it some self-selected few among the over 110,000 German-speakers who arrived in the long eighteenth century? Moreover, the essays do not include sustained analyses of gender, class, or race. Even the chapters on textiles and cooking merely describe the women who perpetuate certain traditions. African Americans are mentioned ten times, and slavery three times, but neither race nor gender is even indexed.[2] There are a few missed opportunities to include this important work. For example, Minardi’s discussion of John Lewis Krimmel’s painting The Quilting Frolic (1825) includes two African Americans (a young boy serving a large tray of cups and a man playing the fiddle), yet their presence is not interrogated. Louden’s essay on language uses a beer advertisement “The wife wears the pants” to illustrate the linguistic richness of Pennsylvania German, ignoring the misogynistic implications of this ad and others (p. 82). Finally, a minor stylistic choice might leave some readers wanting: only Donner’s essays include endnotes. Some scholars would probably appreciate quicker access to references than the long bibliography at the end.

Bronner and Brown’s “assessment of diasporic Pennsylvania” seeks to “trigger larger conversations on the cultural Pennsylvania German diaspora and its integration in ethnic studies, regional studies, German studies, transnational American studies, and cultural studies” (p. xiii). Considering the disciplinary breadth, array of methodological approaches, and theoretical foundations, this volume should succeed in starting important dialogues.


[1]. While Oswald Seidensticker, mid-nineteenth-century professor of German language and culture made Pennsylvania German into a recognized academic field, Henry Chapman Mercer, curator at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Mercer Museum, began collecting, preserving, and studying material artifacts. Phebe Earle Gibbons, the only female founding scholar, highlighted the religious diversity of Pennsylvania Germans, and Marion Dexter Learned deployed anthropological research expeditions and collected “ethnographical” information about Pennsylvania Germans using questionnaires.

[2]. Important work has been done by Jon Sensbach, Aaron Fogleman, and others. See Jon Sensbach, A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1998); Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); and Aaron Fogleman, Jesus Is Female: Moravians and the Challenge of Radical Religion in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Citation: Birte B. Pfleger. Review of Bronner, Simon J.; Brown, Joshua R., eds., Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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