Since arriving in America in the 1730s, Amish people have been perceived by non-Amish as both backward and forward-thinking -- and just about everything in between. This 1921 article on the "Pennsylvania Dutch" was an endeavor by Pennsylvania native Katherine Taylor to publish details of the religion and lifestyle of what she calls these "plain people," little of which was understood by the average American at the time.
Despite investigating the Pennsylvania Dutch, Taylor makes several significant errors in her report, which was originally published in Travel Magazine. The article mixes together Mennonites, Amish and Brethren -- three separate religions. The description of Pennsylvania German as "High German" is incorrect. Furthermore, the description of adult baptism by immersion in creeks is correct for neither Amish nor Mennonites. The photos alongside the article include some Amish people, but not all.
This article helps illustrate some of the confusion and miscommunication that has surrounded the Pennsylvania Dutch throughout America's history.
There is a peculiar denseness about the Mennonites, they work all day; go to bed before eight; rarely read; and wear a distinctive garb devoid of color. Their religion prohibits moving picture shows and the theater; and because of their sluggish dullness they offend the people to whom they refer as “the world.
By Katharine Haviland Taylor
When, a few years ago, I landed at the Azores I was no more than mildly interested in the costume of the islands. This garb, which comprises a voluminous black cloak and a coalscuttle hat, caused much interest among the other tourists. “So quaint!” breathed the women, or “Perfectly adorable!” while the men expressed surprise in more pungent terms.
“Look here!” someone asked after this. “Why aren’t you excited? Don’t you like ‘em?”
I explained the faintness of my interest by the fact that I was used to a distinctive local dress, and that in my Pennsylvania Dutch neighborhood there was one quite as picturesque, if not more so.
“Quakers?” he questioned.
“No,” I answered, “nothing like them: Mennonites.”
“What’s a Mennonite?” he further questioned. I tried to tell him, but it was somewhat difficult. And when, on my saying, “It is one of the religions of the Pennsylvania Dutch,” he asked where the Pennsylvania Dutch came from, I was stumped, and I decided on getting home to look it up.
When I did, it was only to find many different theories and legends about the geographical source of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and a general vagueness that was alarming, though there is abundant information about their religion. However, John Fiske, in the “Dutch and Quaker Colonies of America,” makes the statement that they were pure German. One of his footnotes says, “A competent scholar assigns the travels of Penn in Germany in 1671 and 1677 as the chief cause of the direction of this wave of migration to Pennsylvania,” and on the same page I found Fiske’s assertion to the effect that, while many of the Germans settled in New York and the Mohawk Valley, most of them went to the valley of the Susquehanna and remained there so long without intermixture that their language still survived. Mr. Fiske says that this is “the dialect we call Pennsylvania Dutch, but which is really High German with a quaint mixture of English.” But there is no grammar of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, and many people who speak good German cannot understand or make themselves understood when speaking with the Pennsylvania Dutch.
I was amazed to find how few of our party know of the people so thickly settles in Lancaster, York, Lebanon, Reading, Allentown, and the small towns and country that lie between, how few knew even that a sport-growth language is spoken in these localities. They knew nothing either of the religious like of these people, --so strong that is makes them, in case of war defy the government; so severe that the Triple Ban will turn even mother, sister of wife away from the erring sheep who marries out of the fold or otherwise approached the “world” too closely, and even leaves him, perhaps, to die uncared for. “Preacher’s reading” prohibits warring, lawsuits, and dissension. Indeed, in Voltaire’s writings, Pennsylvania more that one receives admiring mention as the one place where men may be devoutly religious and yet not tear one another to pieces.
There are many forms of this religion, all of which are built chiefly upon the tenets of Menno Simons, who was born in Friesland in 1492 and died in Holstein in 1559. The denomination originated early in the sixteenth century, and under that general classification are found the Old Mennonites, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the Reformed Mennonites, several orders of the Amish, and others of less prominence. There are probably close to one hundred thousand members of these sects in Canada and the United States, many of them in Lancaster and York Counties, Pennsylvania. Among the most striking external tokens of these faiths are adult baptism, complete immersion,--often in creeks even in the winter,--Feet Washing, and the Kiss of Charity.
They are reluctant to admit new members, although they have their missions and their church papers. Someone attributes this exclusiveness to the fact that they were greatly persecuted and consequently lack faith in the outsider. Certainly there is no great cordiality toward people not within the faith and no welcome to their meetings. When a stranger goes to their churches, he is usually permitted to leave without a word of greeting and receives only the curious looks of the elect. It is probable that the persecution of the Mennonites led to their migration from Europe and was largely responsible for their racial characteristics.
The garb of these sects is severely plain and in many cases remarkably becoming. For the women it comprises a black, brown, or gray frock, as the particular order prescribes; a close-fitting, transparent, fine muslin cap which is worn all the time; and a black, sunbonnet-like head-covering for the street. The men wear black, gray, or brown clothes, broad-brimmed hats which looks as if they had been born in Texas, and beards—heavens and earth! what beards!—beards that look as if they had been cropped from a moss-hung Florida tree! I do not know why the upper lip if always shaved, but it is.
Usually the brethren own farms, and they are very successful. It may be their caution about spending money that leads to its accumulation, but I think that they have a real talent for making money at farming. The land about Lancaster and York is called “The Garden Spot of Pennsylvania,” because each farm, small or large, is a model of efficiency and neatness. That this prosperity does not always tend to make for beauty, no one can deny.
The decorative instinct in the Pennsylvania Dutch leads sometimes to strange manifestations. Leaky hot-water tanks are cut in two and used for flower boxes, after having suffered a coat of violently red paint or a covering of blue-tinted whitewash (almost every front yard had one of these lying on its side), and every tree-trunk is whitewashed. Some of the fences are painted blue and yellow, the houses sport amazing colors, and the favorite tone for the front doors is bright ultramarine.
As you travel through this country you’ll find women near the pumps, busily preparing their vegetables for market. On one occasion I stopped to talk to a sturdy housewife who was scouring carrots until they almost shrieked for mercy.
“Is that your little girl?” I asked, as I pointed to the most incredibly dirty child I had ever seen.
“Ach, yes,” was the reply, “and she gets so dirty yet that I hafta vash her almost every veek!”
The aversion of these people to soap and water for anything but vegetable and floor scrubbing is perhaps as well known as their inability to pronounce the letter V. In a person of oratorical habit pronunciation becomes ludicrous. One Decoration Day I set forth to a cemetery for the express purpose of hearing the address on “them there where has passed away still.” The day was very hot, I was bitten by flies and covered with dust, but the address was worth it, for never in my life shall I forget how Milt Billheimer, who was the speaker of the day, paid tribute to the Old Guard.
“The Pennsylvania Wolunteers marched waliently up the walley,” he boomed, “firing wolley after wolley at them there where they pursued yet!”
A friend of mine in the market, from whom I bought “eggs and all,” told me that he had shaken hands with McKinley before he “passed away still,” and that he “had a hand like welwet,” and it is common to hear such expressions from a small boy as “And he got winegar on his welwet west.”
There is a peculiar denseness about these people, which comes, to my thinking, from their constant plodding, over the soil. They work all day, and then, at seven, or at the latest at eight, go to bed. They rarely read; their religion prohibits moving picture shows or the theater; and it seems that they must lack the influence that public opinion exercises upon the more sophisticated.
Their only recreation consists in going to meeting, where they are edified by one of their own number elected to preach. These preachers are hardly qualified for mental leadership, for they are elected from the ranks, receive no salary, and do their preaching after no consecration, no real foundation, and no adequate preparation. The caution of these odd people in avoiding the purely physical touch with what they believe to be sin amounts to a superstition. I have a little Dutch maid, who is fascinated by cards. She loves to watch me play, and through me enjoys playing herself.
“Put the eight on the nine,” she’ll say.
I move it for her. “Why don’t you play, Minnie?” I ask.
“I can’t play cards,” she replies. “It’s against the Preacher’s reading.” Without the physical touch, she feels perfectly safe.
Once I ventured to probe with, “you like me, Minnie, don’t you?”
She said she did.
“Well,” I continued, “aren’t you sorry to send me to hell? You know you will, by making me play.”
“Ach!” she replied, “it is too bad; but it is my soul I must think fer!”
This regard for the outer things which they consider sinful, such as music, dancing, fiction reading, card playing, and the like, reminds one of the monks who built a wall to keep Satan out, only to find that they had walled him in. For there exist in these people the sins natural to all mankind; perhaps stronger with them because less controlled by the staunch moral ideals of the “world.”
Motor cars have done much to widen the horizon of the Mennonites. Many women who knew nothing but their countryside and grew dull with constant absorption in their own narrow affairs, now go to town with their “Misters,” see the sights, and return with something new to think about. A few years ago, when the scarlet-bodied motor was rampant, the brethren were universally drawn to it, and on the road one would pass hundreds of these fiery chuggers, filled with soberly dressed women in scoop bonnets and men in broad-brimmed hats and flying whiskers. The effect was incongruous, and I often wondered if it was a pathetic reaching after the color denied them in other things.
The time will come, I think, when little Dutch boys and girls will see more of “the world,” and become a part of it; and in that case we shall have more valuable citizens in the Dutch, who know so well the value of thrift and work.
My American Experience
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