Curator Lisa Minardi discusses the elaborately embroidered cotton and linen hand towels which were often hung from hooks on the outside of a cupboard door for display.

'A Colorful Folk'

UD alumna, doctoral student curates new Winterthur exhibition


1:14 p.m., March 3, 2015--One summer when she was a child, Lisa Minardi attended a “Colonial craft” day camp at the historic Peter Wentz Farmstead near her home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where activities focused on local German culture and early American farm life. 

Unlike the state history she remembered from school — mostly William Penn, Philadelphia and the Quakers — she learned that Germans also lived in early Pennsylvania.

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In fact, there were a lot of Germans, who by 1790 made up 40 percent of the population in the southeastern part of the state. And they all seemed to have a tradition of surrounding themselves with brightly colored and whimsically decorated items.

“I was totally hooked,” says Minardi, now a University of Delaware alumna and doctoral student, who is curator of a new exhibition at Winterthur Museum titled “A Colorful Folk: Pennsylvania Germans and the Art of Everyday Life.” The exhibit features many examples of fraktur, a decorated type of manuscripts and documents such as birth and baptismal certificates, as well as household items ranging from tiny pincushions to an elaborately carved tall-case clock.

“These people decorated everything,” Minardi says she soon realized. “Cooking utensils, the cloth hanging behind the cooking utensils to protect the wall from dirt … if they could paint a tulip on it, 20 tulips were better.”

Minardi pursued her fascination with the Pennsylvania German (also known, less accurately, as Pennsylvania Dutch) culture throughout her academic career. After undergraduate studies in history at Ursinus College, she earned a master’s degree in 2006 from UD’s Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and is a current doctoral student in the Department of History.

Now an assistant curator at Winterthur, she created “A Colorful Folk” primarily from objects that are part of the museum’s collection. Many were collected by Henry Francis du Pont, who first opened the family home as a museum, and in 2013 Winterthur greatly expanded that collection by acquiring items from the estate of Pastor Frederick Weiser.

Weiser, who led Lutheran congregations in York and Adams counties and died in 2009, was a noted scholar and collector of Pennsylvania German fraktur and folk art. He was also a mentor to Minardi, who says she first contacted him after reading his books on the subject while she was an undergraduate.

“He was a great guy, a living legend, and I was privileged to know him,” she says. “The fraktur, the decorated manuscripts, were his first love, along with textiles.”

In all, Winterthur purchased 121 fraktur and almost 200 textiles from Weiser’s estate, which also donated his papers to the Winterthur Library.

Minardi is a student in the UD history department’s History of American Civilization program, where she is focusing her research on Germans in 18th century Philadelphia. 

She notes that, contrary to what many people believe, Pennsylvania Germans lived in urban as well as rural areas and that 90 percent of them belonged to Lutheran or German Reformed churches, while only a small proportion were members of such religious groups as Amish or Mennonite.

She is the author of Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection.

More about the region’s Pennsylvania German exhibits

“A Colorful Folk” opened at Winterthur on March 1 and will run through Jan. 3, 2016. 

Its focus is on the use of decorated objects in daily life, including such items as cloth bags to hold garden seeds, embroidered towels, painted wooden chests, weather vanes and other metalwork, quilted pillowcases and a 2.5-inch-diameter pincushion sewn together from 86 tiny pieces of printed fabric.

Despite the colorful designs, often featuring birds, flowers and hearts, most of the objects were typical household items, although some were displayed “just for nice” rather than being in everyday use. The fraktur, also richly decorated, hang in frames in the exhibit, but Minardi says that in most households they were considered private documents and kept out of sight in a desk drawer or cupboard.

Related exhibitions of Pennsylvania German fraktur and decorative art are on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 26 and the Free Library of Philadelphia through June 14. Minardi is guest curator of the Free Library exhibition.

Article by Ann Manser

Photos by Evan Krape

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