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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Easter at Winterthur: The Pennsylvania German Origins of an American Tradition

Easter at Winterthur: The Pennsylvania German Origins of an American Tradition  by Lisa Minardi
Easter at Winterthur: The Pennsylvania German Origins of an American Tradition  by Lisa Minardi
by Lisa Minardi

Many of the most beloved American holiday traditions have their roots in southeastern Pennsylvania, where German-speaking immigrants introduced customs such as the Christmas tree, the Easter bunny, and colored eggs.1 Last year Winterthur Museum was fortunate to acquire one of the earliest known American depictions of the Easter bunny—a rare Pennsylvania German fraktur that depicts a leaping rabbit carrying a basket of colorful Easter eggs (Fig. 1).2 This charming drawing can be firmly attributed to schoolmaster and fraktur artist Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734–1812), who emigrated from Germany in 1757 and settled in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. About 1780, he moved to Berks County, where he lived until his death in 1812.3 A similar drawing, also attributed to Gilbert, is in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Gilbert likely made both examples as gifts for students as it was common practice for schoolmasters to give their pupils small drawings as a reward, often in March or April, when the school term ended prior to springtime planting.

Fig. 1: Drawing of Easter bunny with eggs, attributed to Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734-1812), probably Berks County, Pa., ca. 1800. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, 3-1/16 x 4-1/16 inches. Winterthur Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle (2011.10).
Fig. 1: Drawing of Easter bunny with eggs, attributed to Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734–1812), probably Berks County, Pa., ca. 1800. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, 3-1/16 x 4-1/16 inches. Winterthur Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle (2011.10).

In transmitted light, the fraktur paper reveals the watermark “PU,” used by papermaker Peter Ulrick of Cocalico Township, Lancaster County, who worked during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The paper also has a number of tiny holes, the result of being attached to something, such as the underside of a chest, for display. Because most fraktur were folded or rolled up and placed in drawers or within books for safekeeping, it is rare to find such evidence.

In the German language, the Easter bunny is known as the Oschter Haws, or Easter hare. The term “bunny” is a modern colloquialism, but there are distinct differences between hares and rabbits. In general, hares are larger, have longer ears, and live in nests above ground, while rabbits live in underground burrows and are more prevalent in North America than hares. Due to their prolific ability to reproduce, the hare or rabbit was a common symbol of fertility in pre-Christian times, along with the egg. During the pagan rites of spring, hares or rabbits and eggs were signs of the new life promised by the planting season. The word Easter is derived from Ostara, the pagan goddess of spring. According to some sources, Ostara took the form of a rabbit or hare, while in other stories she drove a cart pulled by these animals.

Fig. 2: Easter egg, southeastern Pa., 1850. Winterthur Museum, gift of Jane and Gerald Katcher (2011.35); photography by Richard Goodbody, courtesy David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles.
Fig. 2: Easter egg, southeastern Pa., 1850. Winterthur Museum, gift of Jane and Gerald Katcher (2011.35); photography by Richard Goodbody, courtesy David A. Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles.

By the early 1800s, many Pennsylvania Germans included decorating eggs as part of their Easter celebration. Children were taught to prepare a nest for the Easter bunny, who would lay colorful eggs in it during the night provided they were well-behaved. Some families baked cakes in the form of a rabbit laying an egg to convince skeptical youngsters. Among the stricter religious denominations, such as the Amish and Mennonites, children typically set out a plate on which their parents would put Easter eggs and candy because it was considered deceptive to claim that a rabbit “laid” eggs. The eggs were typically dyed by hard-boiling them with onion skins, which imparted a reddish-brown color. Additional colors were achieved with madder root, walnut hulls, hickory bark, and other materials. Most of the eggs would be eaten over the holiday, but some were embellished with scratched decoration, done with a sharp pin or knife, and exchanged as gifts. Floral motifs and birds were especially popular designs. Owing to their extreme fragility, few decorated eggs remain today. An outstanding example (Fig. 2) was recently given to Winterthur by Jane and Gerald Katcher to accompany the Easter bunny fraktur. This rare survival is decorated with hearts and flowers as well as a decanter, two wineglasses, and a tumbler. The egg is also inscribed around the side with an abbreviated name, “Jno Robt Brs,” and a date of 1850.

From its beginnings in southeastern Pennsylvania, the tradition of the Easter bunny and colored eggs spread in popularity during the nineteenth century. In 1878, the first Easter egg roll was held on the White House lawn. For the 2011 egg roll, the 133rd consecutive one to be held, nearly 15,000 hard-boiled and colored eggs were prepared. Together with the Christmas tree, another German custom transported to America, the Easter bunny and colored eggs are among the foremost examples of the widespread influence of German-speaking immigrants on American culture.


Winterthur’s Easter bunny fraktur and egg are on view this Spring in the museum galleries. For more information, visit www.winterthur.org.


Lisa Minardi is an assistant curator at Winterthur Museum and a leading expert on Pennsylvania German arts and culture.


1. For Pennsylvania German Easter traditions, see Alfred L. Shoemaker, Eastertide in Pennsylvania (1960; reprint, Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2000).

2. This fraktur was sold at Pook & Pook, Downingtown, Pa., April 16 2011, lot 747a.

3. See Frederick S. Weiser, “His Deeds Followed Him: The Fraktur of John Conrad Gilbert,” in Der Reggeboge: Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society 16, no. 2 (1982): 33–45.

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