Pennsylvania – Dutch Culture

Feature Story July 2006
Pennsylvania – Dutch Culture
excerpted from the English Pennsylvania Dutch Dictionary, Culinary Arts Press,  Reading, Pa. 1965
The ethnic group known as the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (from Deutsch) has left an indelible impress 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 Palatein 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) 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 Schwenckfelder 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 percent 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, which 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 the element of their ethnocentric culture which of itself is a fascinating field of the sociologist.
   Their agriculture – 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.  Their farmsteads became a fairly self-sufficient operation.

   Nature is a stern disciplinarian and those who seek her rewards must learn the disciplines of life.  The Dutch 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 the basic principles and practices in agriculture.

They were credited with the introduction of the willow tree, many varieties of fruit, especially the apples, the prevention of the 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.

   The excellence of Dutch 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.  Their cookbooks provide 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.

  The young ladies of the household filled the dower chest (perhaps one made by a relative and decorated by a friend) with linens made of flax which she spun and embroidered.  Her mother quilted coverings, beaded 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 their communities.

  The men were cabinet makers, 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 and equipment.

   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 all Mennonite and Amish sects, who always preferred “plain living.”