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Pennsylvania Dutch History and Culture

Primer for Visiting PA Dutch Country

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There are communities of Pennsylvania Dutch living in many parts of the United States and Canada today, but the largest settlement is here in Pennsylvania, concentrated in and around Lancaster County. It would take volumes to delve into the fascinating heritage of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but for anyone visiting the area, here is a little primer. There is no better way to get a glimpse into their unique way of life than to visit the area.

History

The Pennsylvania Dutch (also called Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Deutsch) are descendants of early German immigrants to Pennsylvania. They population arrived in droves, mostly before 1800, to escape religious persecution in Europe. Like so many other persecuted groups, they came here for William Penn’s promise of religious freedom in his new land of Pennsylvania.

Population and Language

Many speak a variation of their original German language, as well as English. They are made up of Amish, Mennonite Lutheran, German Reformed, Moravian, and other groups. These groups share some beliefs while differing in others.

Clothing

Most Pennsylvania Dutch wear traditional clothing that is simple, unadorned, and made by hand. Jewelry is not worn -- not even wedding bands; unmarried men are usually clean-shaven while married men have beards to distinguish them.

Values and Beliefs

It is best not to generalize, as every family and sect is different. But the Amish are generally averse to anything that could chip away at the family or close-knit community structure, which is of the highest importance. This includes most modern technology, and education beyond the eighth grade, which they feel can lead to unnecessary egoism and separation. Mennonites hold many of the same beliefs but tend to be somewhat less conservative in dress codes and in the use of technology.

The many different sects of Pennsylvania Dutch vary from strict followers of the Old Order to more modern groups who have allowed certain aspects of modernity into their lives. Some do not use battery-powered electronics, while others now use phones or cars. Some do not allow phones in their home but have them in their place of business, as it can be essential to making a living. Each sect has their own rules ranging from guidelines for dress and hair length to buggy styles and farming techniques.

Tips for Visitors

It is unusual in the United States for the people and culture to be the primary tourist draw as it is in Amish Country. Yet it is not surprising that visitors want to witness a lifestyle so different than their own. Observing the culture, free from modern technology like telephones, computers, and cars, offers a window into a time long past.

While many local Pennsylvania Dutch welcome and have come to rely on the tourist industry for their livelihood, it is important to also be respectful of their privacy. Remember that they are real people going about their daily lives. It is important for all visitors to know that among their many unique beliefs, most Pennsylvania Dutch do not believe in having their photograph taken, as they believe it is a sign of vanity.

You’ll learn about their way of life through your own observation and through the many museums and sites dedicated to preserving local culture. Most Pennsylvania Dutch tour guides are very open and willing to answer any questions. Many constantly have to reassess their beliefs and choose what to incorporate from the modern world without sacrificing their core values. Times have changed, and continue to change, for the Pennsylvania Dutch, if at a much slower pace than for the rest of the world.

Check out these Dos and Dont's before your next visit.

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