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Living the Amish Life—On Postcards

by Bonnie Wilpon (04/10/13).

Fun and games are part of Amish life. These two teenagers are headed for the frozen pond on their farm to enjoy an afternoon of ice skating. This unusual Amish scene can be found in the $2 to $5 range.

Mainstream Americans have always found the lifestyle of Amish people fascinating. Perhaps it’s because the Amish dress differently. Maybe it’s astonishment that whole communities can live, work and play without modern conveniences such as cars, televisions and computers. And it could be the language the Amish speak—a German-based dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch, mixed with English.

Traditionally, Amish people would not pose for photographs, believing that this violates the second of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” So it is difficult to find many pre-1920s postcards at all, and even linens are scarce. In many years of collecting Amish cards, I have only seen 15 to 20 different linen views.

In more modern times, with some softening of this attitude along with more sophisticated cameras for candid shots, views of the Amish going about their daily lives have become much more common, with an explosion of postcards coming out in the 1960s and 1970s, delighting visitors and bringing huge
numbers of tourists to the Pennsylvania Dutch country.

So how and why are Amish folks in America? In the 1500s, a group of European Christians challenged changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Specifically, these Mennonites believed in baptism as the choice of an adult rather than being done at infancy and the separation of church and state, which attracted them to the new United States of America.

The Amish broke away from mainstream Mennonites in the late 1600s, believing in more strict excommunication of disobedient members and other issues of ritual. The two groups remain similar today, though they dress a bit differently and worship differently—Amish in the homes of members and Mennonites in church.

This rare Amish postcard shows Amish children with their mother in Lancaster County, PA. Copyright date 1909 by Alice Malone, photographer. When you can find pre-1920a cards at all, they generally begin in the $25 range, even when the subject matter isn’t especially unusual.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Gift Haus, built in 1953 in Shartlesville and still operating, is one of the earliest eateries and souvenir shops designed for tourists. Its grounds include a playground and picnic area. Linens generally sell for $6 to $15, depending on the subject matter.

William Penn’s “holy experiment” in religious tolerance brought large groups of Amish people to America around 1725, and they settled in Lancaster County, PA. But the three largest Amish communities in the U.S. today are in northeastern Ohio, northeast Indiana and Pennsylvania.

There are groups living in 24 states, with over 180,000 people, and the population is growing. The Amish have large families, averaging 7 children, and about 80 percent choose to remain Amish all their lives. Today, the only Amish communities are in the U.S. and Canada.

Postcards of the Amish in horse-drawn buggies, cute children posing in their old-fashioned clothes and men plowing their fields without mechanized equipment are quite common. So I’ll try to show you a few cards that are more unusual.

This Mennonite woman is getting the table ready for her hungry family. Her homemade bread is part of this simple, hearty meal. From Pennsylvania, this standard-size chrome averages $3 to $6 online and $2 to $4 at postcard shows.

Amish life is centered on family, farming, community and worship. Families are quite traditional, with the man as the head of the household. Men and boys work on the farm; women and girls care for the home. Marrying outside the faith is not allowed, nor is divorce. Technology that is viewed as weakening the family is not permitted. Anything that might create inequality, cause jealousy or tempt people to leave the community is unacceptable.

The Ordnung, a list of rules, dictates every aspect of the community’s lifestyle—from the length of hair to how people dress, tend their crops and travel. Because there are several orders of Amish culture and the Ordnung varies from community to community, sometimes we see Amish taking airplanes and other times see them refusing to use even battery-powered lights.

Amish communities often use telephones, for example, but they’re usually shared by several families and placed in small structures between farms. Electricity can be used for home heating, electric fences for farm animals, and the like. Many modern things such as disposable diapers, inline skates and barbecue grills are used, since the Ordnung doesn’t specifically say they can’t be.

Self-reliance is integral to the Amish lifestyle, with all clothing and food made at home. Quilting is a tradition. These quilters are part of an Iowa community. Standard-size chrome, this card averages $3 to $6 online and $2 to $4 at postcard shows.

In keeping with their religious beliefs, the Amish strive to separate themselves from the “English” outsiders. Relying on themselves and avoiding sin and temptations, community members are tight-knit. As part of this separation and independence, they don’t accept any form of government assistance and don’t draw Social Security, though they do pay sales and property taxes. Because of their rejection of violence, they do not enter military service.

Worship is an integral part of the lives of all Amish people. Rather than using a separate building as a church, they hold services in the homes of their members. Because of this, the walls of Amish houses are designed to be moved to accommodate large numbers of people. Services are held all morning, every other Sunday, followed by a large noonday meal.

Here we see Amish men and children waiting their turn to eat lunch after the worship service at the farmhouse of a member of the community. Clothing is designed to avoid vanity, though traditional dark colors have gradually been replaced by brighter ones. Less-common standard-size chrome Amish cards like this one average $3 to $6 online.

The bishop, two ministers and deacon of each congregation of usually 20 to 40 families are all men. Since adults must decide for themselves whether to make a lifetime commitment to the church, young people from about 16 to 25 years old usually move away for a while in order to taste mainstream life before they’re baptized.

“Rumspringa”, meaning “running around” gives these American teens a chance to do all the things other teenagers do. Popularized by recent television shows such as TLC’s “Breaking Amish,” this time in their lives ends with their decision to either be baptized into the church or leave it forever. Almost 90 percent choose to return to the Amish community.

A great many Amish families live on farms, following the guidance of Genesis to work the soil with the sweat of your brow. Farmers will tell you that working the soil and growing crops is as close to God as a person can get.

This standard-size chrome postcard is fairly common and can be found on the Internet and at shows in the $1 to $3 range.

A well-known Amish tradition is the community barn-raising. If a neighbor’s barn is destroyed, scores of community members gather to build a new one. Typically, the barn is completed in one day, though a lot of preparation is done beforehand. While the men and older boys do most of the work, women and children are also involved, providing food and water to the workers.

A typical one-room schoolhouse in 1967. This standard-size chrome card will generally fetch $2 to $5.

For Amish families, education is very important, and much of it takes place at home. Homemaking, child-rearing and farming skills are considered every bit as important as academic ones. The Amish have their own one-room private schools run by parents, and students are taught only through the 8th grade. The U.S. Supreme Court has exempted them from state-required schooling beyond that.

Being Amish means being an integral part of your family, church and community. It also means being separate from mainstream American society. Perhaps it’s this independence that makes outsiders so intrigued with Amish life. Postcards give us a peek into Amish customs that we might not be able to see otherwise.

Postcard #1 in The Pennsylvania Dutch series from Conestoga Crafts in York, PA. These standard-size postcards, circa 1940, illustrate Amish proverbs. A recent check online showed this one and others ranging from $5 to $25, averaging about $8.


Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.

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