Pennsylvania Germans, who were among the earliest American settlers, still abide as an American folk group and have had a profound effect on American culture. Penn State folklorist and historian Simon Bronner recently spoke with us about his new book, Pennsylvania Germans: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, and about current directions in the study of this distinctive culture.
Why bring out this book now?
I was astonished to find that the last academic survey of Pennsylvania German history and culture came out almost 75 years ago. And why should they demand encyclopedic attention? The Pennsylvania Germans are a very old and extensive group—during the 18th century, it was estimated that one out of every three settlers in Pennsylvania spoke German or came from Germany—but they’ve often been dismissed because of the view that they’re not a contemporary group, outside of the Amish. We’re trying to show that many people maintain that heritage and find it significant to their identity.
What makes the Pennsylvania Germans a ‘folk group,’ and how is that different from an ethnic minority?
Previously they were known as a folk group partly because of their association with the land and living closely in community. Now, you don’t have to be tradition-centered to be considered a folk group. The point is that you have traditions that you continue to express and use to maintain your identity. With an ethnic minority, you’re identified by your national ancestry whether or not you continue to have traditions that you maintain. Probably the best example is of the Scots-Irish. They were also a colonial-era folk group, but they didn’t maintain community and their traditions in the same way that other groups did.
They’ve also had a large impact on the dominant culture.
Yes! Pennsylvania Germans are associated with the Christmas tree, the Easter bunny, funnel cakes, scrapple, and with Groundhog Day—the groundhog is the avatar of Pennsylvania Germans. In the Popular Culture chapter I document ‘groundhog clubs’ as far west as California, that get together and try to maintain their ‘Dutchiness.’
Tell us a little about the “Pennsylvania Dutch” language.
This is really an amazing story of a language that is distinctively an American dialect lasting for over 200 years. It is an amalgamation of many dialects in Germany, with a lot of English thrown in. The secular language is in decline, because it’s not a workaday language for many, but Amish and other Plain groups still use Pennsylvania German in their work and in their education.
How healthy is the culture today?
Despite the decline in the language, we’re seeing a spread of Pennsylvania German cultural practices. Since the late 20th century, the Amish, for example, have expanded to over 30 states and provinces of Canada—Montana, Wyoming, Maine, Nova Scotia—places you would not expect. They actually sent out groups to search for where there was land and where they could set up schools and trades, because they believe in being close to one another in face-to-face communities. These new communities are essentially colonies of Pennsylvania.
How has Penn State contributed to study of this group?
Some of the first courses on Pennsylvania Germans came out of Penn State, and Pattee Library has several special collections that I’ve consulted for this book and other work. At the Center for Pennsylvania Culture Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, we continue to try to document these cultural features.
There’s a tendency to always look beyond your own back yard. Maybe because I am not originally from Pennsylvania, I saw all kinds of cultural riches and questions here, and I said, it’s several lifetimes of work just to document all the groups and cultural traditions that are here. Penn State of all places should do that, because of its land-grant mission, and I feel fortunate we’ve had support administratively and from the communities for doing that.
Simon Bronner is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Folklore and was founding director of the Center for Pennsylvania Culture Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. His book, co-edited with Joshua Brown of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was published in February by Johns Hopkins University Press.
This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Research/Penn State magazine.