The Historical Society recently acquired a new piece which sheds light on an interesting part of our county history. A geistlicher irrgarten, or spiritual labyrinth, was a piece made by skilled German printers and typesetters. An irrgarten represented their best work and was used to demonstrate skills to attract customers. Since all type had to be arranged backward during typesetting, a printer had to read backwards, sideways, and upside-down! He also had to keep margins uniform, make sure the words were spelled correctly and evenly spaced, and keep all the squares at right angles. One can start to see why only the most skilled printers created these mazes.
The printing seen in this irrgarten is known as German blackletter, or Gothic script. It was popular in German printing for centuries until World War II.
Most labyrinths show biblical verses or other religious texts which lead to the four rectangular areas in the center. The verses lead the reader through a maze of moral and immoral, to Heaven or Hell.
This irrgarten was printed between around 1830 and 1850 by Enos Benner, a Marlborough Township printer. He also printed Der Bauern Freund, or the Farmer’s Friend between 1828 and 1858 from his print shop in Sumneytown. This newspaper was a successful, German-language newspaper aimed at American Germans. It was well-read throughout rural eastern Pennsylvania during a time when, according to the paper itself, German was the prevailing language in Montgomery County.
The Historical Society also has a collection of issues of Der Bauern Freund. Come visit and test out your German skills!