Geburtsbriefe and Taufwünsche: European Phenomena

An Alpbrief [1] from the fourteenth century is the earliest extant record in a German-speaking area of Europe that requires a Geburtsbrief as proof of identity: Any nonnative who wished to join one of the three communities in and around Klosters in the Canton of Graubünden Switzerland had to “…present a Geburtsbrief, that is, a written proof of birth; land of origin; and that he [was] of legal lineage…” [2] Geburtsbrief is the earlier form for Geburtsschein, a term recognized today for eighteenth and nineteenth century Pennsylvania Dutch birth records/certificates containing principally the names of the parents, baby, date and place of birth.

Such documents have become collectors’ items, serving no functional purpose. It is important to remember, however, that there was a time when they were an integral part of people’s lives, and could be used in both Europe and America as proof of one’s origins when needed.

Translation [3]
A son was born into this world to this wedded pair, that is to Johannes Landes, and his legal spouse Elisabeth, m.n. Schott. His name is Samuel Landes, and he was born on the 17 January in the Year of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ 1801 in America, in the State of Pennsylvania, in Bucks County, in Rockhill Township; Written on the 13 March in the Year 1816.

The Taufbrief or baptismal letter, also known as a Taufwunsch or baptismal wish, Taufzedel, Taufzettel, Taufzeddul or baptismal note, and Göttelbrief or godparent letter was used differently than a Geburtsschein, or Taufschein, and bears witness to the relationship and responsibilities between godparents and the consecrated infant. This was to be a lasting memory to the child of its dedication to God on that day, and the desire of its sponsor(s) that it might continue to thrive in its relationship with its Creator as it grew to adulthood. It always contains the names of the sponsors, and often the child’s first name, and the date of baptism. It may or may not contain the church affiliation and place, child’s last name, and date of birth. It almost never contains the parents’ names. The earliest known Taufbrief dates back to 1593 in Saverne, Alsace for a Catholic baptismal service.[4]

That the Taufzettel was well established and flourishing at the beginning of the eighteenth century is attested to in an all important source describing the practical details of a woman’s life: Gottlieb Siegmund Corvinus’ (Pseudonym: Amaranthes) Nutzbares, galantes und curiöses Frauenzimmer-Lexicon of 1715 (A Useful, Noble, and Curious Lexicon for Women): [5]

Pathen-Zettul are those printed papers with copper etchings
or engravings intended for a baby boy or girl, and are decorated
with all kinds of rhyming congratulatory verses. The godparents
sign their names on the sheets; tuck their gifts or sponsor money
into them; and usually wind something around to make them secure. [6]

These then were the Patenbriefe that publishers offered and marketed through local bookstores, as well as itinerant book sellers who canvassed the countryside with their wares. Some of the better known were Reinholden Printers in Leipzig; J. Balzer and E. W. Buchheister in Breslau; J. H. Hierthes in Weissenburg; Johann Andreas Endter in Nürnberg; F. J. Oberthür in Straßburg; and Gottfried Hoffmann in Waldenburg, who printed baptismal greetings from 1756 on, and whose heirs continued to do so into the beginning of the nineteenth century. Among the older printed Taufzettel are some fine examples depicting symbols related to baptism and virtue; scenes from the life of Jesus; the four Evangelists; and often the entire baptismal sacrament itself.

Translation [7]
[Center]
Baptismal Note
Most precious child, may you so live on earth that you attain bliss.
I also want to ask of God that after this sojourn here, he might
take you into Salem’s dwelling,[8] into joyful eternity. Amen
I, your most faithful godmother, wish this for you. Elisabeth Käster
at Kästers house on the 22nd Day of December
in the year 1811 you
were baptized in holy consecration at [Blank]

[Upper Left Corner]
May God give this child faith; cleanse it of all its sins; and give it an
upright spirit –

[Upper Right Corner]
to do as God the Father commands, according to His will while
living here on earth, and afterwards in eternal life.

[Lower Left Corner]
Take this penny from me. May God replace it with a better one.
Obey your father and mother—

[Lower Right Corner]
Be happy among pious people, and avoid the evil ones.
Then you’ll be able to enter heaven with God.

The hand-done Taufwunsch was represented first and foremost in the Alsace, and to a lesser extent in Silesia and Bohemia. Especially charming and artistically creative, their makers, whether teachers, ministers, or simple farmers, showed originality in their calligraphy and accompanying decorative elements, replicating on their baptismal greetings the tulips, forget-me-nots, roses, and carnations found in their gardens. The real world that surrounded them supplied the roosters, doves, swans, peacocks, and eagles. Architectural elements dating back to the Renaissance, and adorning town buildings, stone grave monuments, and the homes of the elite perhaps inspired the imaginative figures of unicorns, mermaids, mermen, and angels. The artist, who was more in tune with tradition than symbolism, added these to his design as well, and his love and joy in the artistic process more than made up for any drawing talent he may have lacked.

The following illuminated manuscript, attributed to the Tall-Soldiers Artist, is labeled Taufschein, but follows neither the European Taufbrief template nor the usual and customary formula of American Taufscheins as we understand them today. Rather, it is a baptismal or Tauf adaptation by the artist/scrivener in the form of a Schein or certificate, thus without a place to insert coin(s). More than likely the token gift of money accompanied the Taufschein.

Translation [9]
Michael Bossert was born into this world on 26 February in the year 1766 of Christian Lutheran parents. His Godfather Johann Michael Ritter has had this baptismal certificate made for him in celebration thereof. His Godmother was Margaretha Beck.

The Sussel-Washington Artist, active from 1760-1779, expressly created Taufwünsche that followed the European formula and so labeled them. He used a standard template of baptismal wishes in the center, flanked usually by the charmingly attired God or godmother on one side and the Peter, Pfeter, Pfetter or godfather on the other.

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Fig. 6a Christlicher Tauff Wunsch for Samuel Staud, Pennsylvania, 2/28/1785, 39.164.1 (Courtesy of Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pa.; Photo Image © Del-Louise Moyer)

Translation: [10]
Christian Baptismal Wish: O dear child in Christ, you have been bought through Christ’s death, who, purchased you from Hell with His blood. After your baptism I wanted to send this to you as a remembrance and ever-present reminder. Grow up to honor God, to give joy to your parents, for the benefit of your neighbor, and for your salvation. Samuehl Staud was born Feburary 28, 1785, and baptized by Pastor Henrich Dehkert [Deckert]. Baptismal sponsors were Samuehl Marburger and his wife Maria, in Braunschweig Township, Berks County, in America.

Fig. 6b Christlicher Tauff Wunsch for Johan Heinrich, Pennsylvania, 3/1/1771.
1961.1118 A (Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, De)

Translation  [11]
Johannes Siberi Godfather Susanna Siberi Godmother
Christian Greetings spring forth from the heart’s bower in seven hours. Along with that I wish you luck, health, blessings and prosperity in your life here, and in time may you enter into the kingdom of eternal joy that no man’s tongue can describe; that no eye has seen; and no ear yet heard. Grow up to honor God, for the benefit of your neighbor, and for your salvation. Johan Heinrich was born March 1, 1771 in Warwick Township [Lancaster County].

Fig. 6c Christlicher Tauff Wunsch for Maria Gertraud, Pennsylvania, 9/25/1776, Visual Grace: Important American Folk Art from the Collection of Ralph O. Esmerian, Lot 617 (Courtesy of Sothebys, New York, NY)

Translation [12]
Godmother Maria Hemperling  Godfather Ludwig Hemperling
Christian Baptismal Wish: O dear child in Christ, you have been bought through Christ’s death, who, purchased you from Hell with His blood. After your baptism I wanted to send this to you as a remembrance and ever-present reminder. Grow up to honor God, to give joy to your parents, for the benefit of your neighbor, and for your salvation. Maria Gertraud was born September 24, 1776, in the sign of Aquarius in Paxton [Township] in Lancaster County [now Dauphin County] in Pennsylvania in America. May God grant His blessing.

Fig. 6d Christlicher Tauff Wunsch for Stovel Ehmrich, Pennsylvania, 1958.0120.015A (Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, De)

Translation [13]
Christian Baptismal Wish: O dear child in Christ, you have been bought through Christ’s death, Who purchased you from Hell with His blood. After your baptism I wanted to send this to you as a remembrance and ever-present reminder. Grow up to honor God, to give joy to your parents, for the benefit of your neighbor, and for your salvation. Stovel Ehmrich was born January 23, 1771, and baptized by Pastor Schultz. Godparents were Stovel Herrold and his wife Catharina in Bethel Township in Berks County in America in Pennsylvania. [Different hand not original to text as created ] The parents were Johannes Emrich and his wife Gertraut.

Superstitious beliefs also influenced what one might add to the Taufzettel as a gift, and different areas had their own peculiarities. This is especially true as to whether the baptismal letter was to be sealed or left open:

  • In some places, at the end of the consecration the godparents would put a certain sum of money into their Patenbrief, and place it into the godchild’s cradle.   The baptismal letter was left unsealed. This was true, especially if it was for a baby girl, in which case one would wind one strand of thread, and one strand of silk around it. The thread was to be used to sew the child’s first shirt. The silk, which was usually red in color, was to be used some time later to wrap around the baby’s hands. [The reason for the latter custom is unknown].
  • For a baby boy, one added nine kinds of seed to the baptismal letter so that when he grew up, the grains he planted would grow well.
  • Similarly for a baby girl, one added several grains of flax seeds and a threaded sewing needle so that one day her flax crops would flourish, and she would learn to sew well.
  • Including bread, cheese, wool, or flax meant the child would never want when it grew up.
  • In some regions it was believed that the Taufwunsch was to be left open so that the child’s mind would be open to understanding. Otherwise the child’s ability to learn would be impeded.
  • In the Canton of Bern, Switzerland there were to be three Godparents, each one presenting the baby with a separate Taufzedel. If, when the child grew up, it kept the letters on its person, neither witches nor ghosts could ever have power over it. [14]

In 1856 Pastor J. Baumgart described the then current ceremony in middle Silesia:

Before the godparents leave the church, they place a coin into a special fold in so-called Patentbriefe, which are decorated with printed vignettes and appropriate verses. Colorful ribbons are wound around the baptismal letter. The least the sponsors can give a baby girl is one Reichstaler three Pfennig, and the three copper pennies better not be missing. [15]

 It is a curious thing that in the early twentieth century it was sensed and lamented both in German-speaking areas of Europe as well as in America that an era was coming to an end, and the demise of once flourishing folk customs such as the Geburtsschein and Taufzettel were at hand. Prior to World War II feeble attempts were made to reawaken the desire to return to such traditions, but ultimately people were too far removed from the lifestyle that gave birth to these customs. Today Geburtsscheine and Taufwünsche similar in design and content can be found in both museums and libraries in Germany, Holland, Poland, Austria, parts of the former USSR and America leaving little doubt that both forms of identity, one for the temporal needs of this world, and the other for the spiritual were European phenomena that German-speaking immigrants brought with them as they settled southeastern Pennsylvania and other areas in the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Strong cultural ties to regional customs ensured that there would be no cookie cutter formula, neither in Europe nor in America, and that their usage would be adapted to the temporal and spiritual demands of the geographic areas where they would take root and flourish.

___________________

ENDNOTES
[1] Alpbrief was an agreement designating how residents of adjacent alpine areas were to distribute and care for the surrounding pastureland.

[2] Chur, Graubünden, Alpbrief des Hochgerichts Klosters Innern Schnitzes: Statutarrechte   von Graubünden im Brätigäu [14th century], VII, 3, 102ff.

[3] Transcription Fig. 1
Diese Beÿde Ehegaten | Als Johannes Landes Und | Seine eheliche
haus frau Elisabeth; eine | geborne Schottin Ist einen Sohn zur Welt
geboren | Namens; Samuel Landes | Ist geboren d[en] 17ten Jenner
im Jahr | Unsers Herren und Heilandes Jesu Christi | 1801 In america
Im Stat Pensÿlvanie[n] | Im bucks Cauntÿ Im Rockhill | Taunschp;
Ge=schrieben d[en] 13te[n] | Merz Im iahr 1816.

[4] Frederick W. Weiser. “Piety and Protocol in Folk Art: Pennsylvania German Fraktur Birth and Baptismal Certificates,” Winterthur Portfolio. 8: 1973, column 1, 22.

[5] Gottlieb Siegmund Covinus (Pseudonym: Amaranthes). Nutzbares, galantes und
curiöses Frauenzimmer-Lexicon.
Leipzig: Johann Friedrich Gleditsch und Sohn, 1715.

[6] Ibid, 1447. Pathen=Zettul = heissen diejenigen in Kupffer | gestochenen oder radirten abge= | druckten Blätter | auf Knäblein oder Mägdlein eingerichtet, und | mit allerhand glückwünschenden | Reimlein gezieret, worein die Ge= |vattern das Geschenke oder Pa= | the= | Geld mit Unterschreibung | ihres Nahmens, einzuwickeln und | zu versiegeln pflegen.

[7] Transcription Fig. 4
[Center]

Tauf= Zedel
Werthes Kind, leb so auf Erden, | Daß Du mögest selig werden. |
Ich will Gott auch für dich bitten; | daß er dich nach dieser Zeit
Nehme auf in Salems Hütten, | In die frohe Ewigkeit. Amen. |
Des wünsche ich, dein allergetreuste Tauf= | Goten Elisabeth Käster |
zu Kästers Haus | Den 22 Tag Christmonat im Jahr 1811 |
bist du getauft worden bey der heiligen Tauf zu [Blank]
[Upper Left Corner]
Gott geb den Glauben diesem | Kind, Und wasch ihm ab all seine |
Sünd; und geb ihm seinen guten Geist –
[Upper Right Corner]
Zu thun was Gott der Vater | heißt. Nach seinem Willen hier |
zu leben; Nach dieser Zeit das ew’ge Leben.
[Lower Left Corner]
Den Pfenning nimm und hab von | mir, Einen bessern woll’ Gott
ge= | ben dir. Thu Vater und Mutter gehorsam seyn—
[Lower Right Corner]
Thu gern bey frommen Leuten | seyn. Der schlimmen Leuten nimm |
dich nicht an, So kannst mit Gott | in Himmel gan.

[8] Salems Hütte or Salems Dwelling refers to the new Jerusalem in Revelations 21, and God’s tent in Salem in Psalm 76: 2.

[9] Transcription Fig. 5
[Original hand] Michael Bossert | ist von christlichen Lu= | therischen Eltern auf dieße Wett [sic] 
ge = | bohren den [different hand] 26 Febrar ann[o]1766|[Original hand] Dießen Tauffschein hat ihme sein | Peter Johann Michael Ritter zu | einem Andencken machen lassen | seine God ist geweßen, Marga | retha Beckin.

[10] Transcription Fig. 6a
Christlicher Tauff wunsch | du bist O: liebes kind in Christ[i] | Tod gekaufft, der dich mitt seinem Blutt, hatt von der Hell erkaufft | deß zur erinnerung, und stettem | angedenck, hab ich nach deiner Tauff, dir dieses wollen sen | den, wachs auff zu gottes | ehr, und deiner eltern Freud | zu deinem nechsten nutz und | deiner seeligkeit. Samuehl Staud \ gebohren den 28ten February 1785 | getaufft von Pfahrer Henrich deh= | kert Tauffzeige Samuehl mar | burger und sein ehe frau maria | in Braunsweig Daunsip in Bergs \ Caunty in amerika

[11] Transcription Fig. 6b
Johannes Siberi
Tauff Zeige |Susanna Siberi Tauff Zeige
Christlicher Wunsch kommt auß | dem herzen grund, in Sieben | Stund, winsch ich darbei, Glück | Heill, Seege und gedeien, in die = | sem leben allhier, Zu wandeln | und gehen ein, in die ewige | freud, die kein menschen Zung[e] | ausprechen kan, da kein auge | gesehen, und kein Ohr nie ge= | hoeret hat, wachs auff zu gottes | ehr; zum menschlichem nutz und | deiner Seeligkeit. Johan | Heinrich gebohren 1771. d| 1ten mertz warwick | Daunsip

[12] Transcription Fig. 6c
Tauf zeigin maria Hemperlinge Tauff Zeige Ludwig Hemperling
Christlicher Tauff Wunsch | du bist o liebes Kind in Christi | Tod getaufft der dich mit seinem blutt | hat von der Hell erkaufft, daß zur er = | rinnerung und stettem angedenck hab ich nach deiner Tauff, dir dießes wollen |senden, wachs auff zu gottes ehr | und deiner eltern Freud \ zu deinem nech = | sten nutz und deiner seeligkeit. Maria Gertraud gebohren | den 24ten September 1776 | im Zeichen Waßerman in | Becksten Caunty, Lenkester Caunty in Penselvani in | amerika Gott gebe seinen | seegen

[13] Transcription Fig. 6d
Christlicher Tauff wunsch, | du bist O: liebe kind, in Christi | Tod getaufft, der dich mit seinen |blutt, hat von der hell erkaufft | deß zur errinnerung, und stet = | tem angedenk, hab ich nach | deiner Tauff, dir dieses wol= | len sencken, wachs auff zu gottes | ehr, und deiner Eltern Freud zu | deinem nechsten nutz, und deiner | seeligkeit stovel ehmrich gebohren | den 23ten January 1771 getaufft | vom Phahrer Schultz Tauffzeige | stovel Herrold und sein ehe frau | Catarina in Bettel daunsip | Bergs Caunty in amerika in | Pensylvani [Different hand not original to text as created →] Die Eltern waren Johannes | Emrich und frau gertraut.

[14] Adolf Jacoby. “Taufbriefe,” in Monatsschrift für Gottesdienst und kirchliche Kunst. 13. Jahrgang, Heft I, Januar 1908. Göttingen Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, herausgegeben [für] Dr. Friedrich Spitta and Dr. Julius Smend, 1908, 202-211.

15 Ibid, 204. Ehe die Paten die Kirche verlassen, werden dem Kinde noch die Patengeschenke eingebunden d. h. ins Bettchen gelegt und zwar Geld in besonders dazu gefertigten Couverts (sogenannte Patenbriefe mit Vignetten und bezüglichen Versen geziert) gewickelt und mit buntseidenen Bändern umschlungen. Die niedrigste Taxe für das Eingebind einer Magd beträgt 1 Rtlr. 3 Pf., der Kupferdreier darf nicht fehlen.


I’d like to thank Corinne & Russell Earnest of the Earnest Archives and Library; Bill Daley and Bod Wood of Goschenhoppen Historians, Inc.; Edwin Hild and Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques; Jeanine Pollock and Joe Shemtov of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Scott Schweigert, and Ashley Hamilton Houston of the Reading Public Museum; Jean Solensky, Librarian for the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera; Susan Ishler Newton, Photographic Services Coordinator; Julia R. Hofer, Registration Database Specialist; and Lea Lane, Elizabeth and Robert Owens Curatorial Fellow, all of Winterthur.

Geburtsbriefe and Taufwünsche: European Phenomena Blog Post including transcriptions; translations; and photo image for Christlicher Tauff Wunsch for Samuel Staud © 2016 Del-Louise Moyer.

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Geburtsbriefe and Taufwünsche: European Phenomena

  1. Neil Stackhouse

    Del Louise ,you have such an abundance of knowledge and sharing as you do is so wonderful .Always looking forward to new and interesting topics. Thank You for all your hard work. Neil

    Like

    Reply
  2. Robert Wood

    Del–I so appreciate and enjoy your blogs. You always find new information and your work is so thoroughly researched. Thanks for your generous sharing.

    Like

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  3. Edwin Hild, Olde Hope Antiques, Inc.

    Del, I learn so much from your blogs giving me a new insight into the importance of these documents. It makes me wonder if a Baptismal letter has ever been found with the coin intact.
    Thank you for including the “Bossert” Taufschein. Interesting commentary.

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  4. Mary Ann Erb

    As always, very interesting. Thank you so much for your untiring efforts to bring the old vanishing Pennsylvania German traditions to light. You are an artist of history. I wish my husband’s dad and grandparents were still around to read and comment. They were Lutherans and very active with church and old traditions.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Del-Louise Moyer Post author

      Mary Ann, Thanks so much for your comments. It’s the spirit of people such as your husband’s dad and grandparents who inspire me to nurture the past so that it might have a future!

      Like

      Reply

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