Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library: 

Celebrating National
German Language Day
Coming up this week (September 12) is German Language Day, and that reminds us of the extraordinary rare books in German that have been part of the Mercantile’s collections for generations. German Americana is a great subgenre term that covers the German experience as visitors and immigrants to the new world almost since the beginnings of European expansion, but that picked up steam in the American colonial period as early as the beginnings of the eighteenth century, and was facilitated to some extent by the accession of the Hanover kings in England. One byproduct was the immigration to Quaker Pennsylvania in the early 1700s of the wave of Anabaptist and Mennonite religious sects wishing to found new homes in the verdant Lancaster area and Ephrata in particular was the epicenter of a productive German culture of industry and thought. It was, indeed, a major printing center when the printer and publisher, Christoph Sauer, (1695-1758) moved to the region from the Heidelberg area in the 1720’s to begin his work on the frontier. 
First edition, 1743
Second edition, 1763
Leaves from the earliest editions of the Sauer Bible.
From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
In his day Philadelphia printers like Franklin recognized the need for German printing in Pennsylvania but their roman typefaces were so hard for German settlers to read that Sauer imported German script, fraktur typefaces which descended from the central European black letter, gothic types of the dawn of printing, even of the written German language itself. Sauer printed almanacs, calendars and in 1743 a great German Bible, “the Sauer Bible” for his community. This great Lutheran translation became the first Bible printed in any European language in America, the first Bible in fact printed in the colonies save for the famous “Eliot Indian Bible” printed in Algonquian (Massachusetts indigenous) language. The old Ephrata community’s German books were  magnificent artifacts of a bygone age. They were bound in solid, ¾ inch sawed boards cut out of the virgin forests and bound heavily and elaborately in tooled and reinforced leather—the way German craftsman had bound their books since the Middle Ages. Thieleman A. van Braght’s  seventeenth century book of martyrs from the origins of these religious dissenters, who sought new homes and lives in the shelter of the most tolerant of colonies, is another example in the Mercantile’s collection, possessing an elaborate fraktur design hand made for the endpaper—perhaps done in Sauer’s specially formulated “powder ink." Both of these books were considered two of the largest books made up to their time in America in any language and date from the troubled days of the French and Indian War and stresses on such frontier communities on the borderlands of the wilderness. Thus the surviving copies are extraordinary achievements on many levels.
St. Louis’ German presses rolled on heavily for generations. Settlers fleeing from the suppression of freedom meted out during the 1848 revolutions found ready homes in the Mississippi Valley, and wrote back for others to join them.  The German newspapers of St. Louis, like those of Carl Shurz and Henry Boernstein before and after the Civil War were courageous anti-slavery and progressive organs, never silenced. Pioneer German merchants and scientists like Fredeick Wislezenus and George Engelmann joined trading companies and other daring expeditions and helped explore and describe the American West. German artists like Henry Lewis created great regional descriptions for readers back in Germany, who dreamt of coming to St. Louis. All of their books and many others are the backbone of the St. Louis imprint and rare book collections at the Mercantile, and so it’s appropriate to give a bow to the precise and celebrated tongue that gave birth to such important expressions of discovery, science, literature, and faith.
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