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Reviewed by:
  • Pennsylvania Germans, An Interpretive Encyclopedia ed. by Simon J. Bronner and Joshua R. Brown
  • Bruce D. Bomberger
Simon J. Bronner and Joshua R. Brown, editors. Pennsylvania Germans, An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. 554 pp. Hardcover, $80.00.

An edited compilation by experts in specific branches of history, anthropology, and the arts, Pennsylvania Germans, An Interpretive Encyclopedia dispels much of the cultural mystery through which Anglo-Americans have long squinted at their central European co-immigrants for understanding. It also builds a considerable case for confronting the undertreatment of Pennsylvania German contributions to greater American identity and culture, succeeding at making known their outsize influence in the formative early period of this country's history. And while the Pennsylvania Germans have been a large minority in America's most diverse colony and early state, the authors have striven to make known the Pennsylvania Germans' spectrum of diversity within their own ranks.

This publication is a wieldy reference book, and most readers will find a chapter or chapters that suit their specific interests or answer their research needs. Taken all together, there is some redundancy, but that is not problematic because it allows chapters to stand on their own where necessary, as encyclopedia entries should. Those chapters cover such topics as European origins, language, religion, the Amish, agriculture and industries, various forms of the decorative arts, food traditions, medicine, education, and folklore studies. Being the products of several authors, the chapters vary in presentation. Those on furniture and fraktur are especially clear; that on folklife less so. Those on the language and on education are conclusive; that on architecture is less so.

Some especially important and interesting developments described in the work are the merger, by about 1780, of several southwest German dialects into a cohesive Pennsylvania German spoken language. Also explained is how Pennsylvania Germans influenced American agriculture by means of crop rotation, land fertilization, and barn construction. Another interesting revelation is the explanation of the "Amish" quilt as a relatively recent tradition, stemming from British origins, Pennsylvania German overlay of stylistic taste and utility, and modern commercial influences. Yet another has been the interface between an English-speaking American educational system and Pennsylvania German households—both Anabaptist sectarian ones, and more modernistic and broadly assimilated Pennsylvania Germans—both of which have valued and sought to keep parts of their distinctive heritage. [End Page 297]

Related to the theme of education is the story of how the Pennsylvania Germans have become topics of study themselves at higher levels of education, and it is fascinating to read how leading lights in the field, such as nineteenth-century pioneer Walter Jacob Hoffman and the late Don Yoder, have led efforts to identify, investigate, and preserve (and, why not, to champion) the distinctiveness and worth of "Dutchiness." From a surge of academic interest in things Pennsylvania German, invigorated especially in the 1930–90 period, it is disappointing but not shocking to learn that some academicians and college administrators find Pennsylvania German studies to be "parochial."

In general, this relates to the constant battle shared by university history programs and history museums to perform the cyclical maintenance of relevancy. If the gold standard for historical significance is to show historical influence, this book would be well served by adding one more chapter: "Technology." This is needed both to better document the influence, and hence the relevancy of Pennsylvania German contributions to America, and to explain several cultural markers distinguishing German from Anglo-American technology.

Taken together, the Conestoga wagon, the migration of horizontal log building construction, the long rifle, and the forebay bank barn are either outright Pennsylvania German inventions or greatly re-engineered tools of American success that nearly every citizen would recognize on some terms. While most of these icons of early American civilization are mentioned or treated to greater or lesser degrees in this book, not nearly enough hay is made from them.

Some things to go in a technology chapter: the Pennsylvania Germans hitched their lead horses on the left side (British and French the right side), and as a result, they oriented their large Conestoga wagons to be driven from the left while occupying...


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