Anna Seifert: Letters in German from a Wisconsin Farm

Anna (Jagow) Seifert’s Letters to Her Son Lester “Smoky” Seifert: 1932–1942

The Max Kade Institute holds a collection of 164 letters and postcards written between 1932 and 1942 by Anna (nee Jagow) Seifert (1876–1958) to her son, Lester W. J. “Smoky” Seifert (1915–1996) who was a professor of Germanic linguistics at UW–Madison and a pioneer in research on German-related heritage language varieties in North America. Anna and Lester themselves were German heritage speakers in the second and third generation, respectively. Written in Kurrent (the old German script), the correspondence was transcribed by the MKI Kurrent Transcription Group.

Anna Seifert wrote from the family farm near Juneau, Dodge County, Wisconsin. Her letters span a decade when Lester went to Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a master’s degree, pursued doctoral studies at Brown University in Rhode Island, and conducted fieldwork recording the Pennsylvania Dutch language in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. At first glance, Anna’s letters would appear to be just simple notes from a mother to her son. Taken together, though, they offer unique insights into a rural German-American community during the Great Depression, the world of a woman on a small dairy farm, and the use of language(s) in this corner of southeast Wisconsin.

The entire corpus of scanned letters and transcriptions can be viewed in MKI’s Anna Seifert Correspondence Collection. To access individual letters on that website, scroll to and click on one of the links under “Available Contents.” After selecting a letter, go to the “Format” selection in the task bar. Click on the picture icon for a scan, click on the letter “A” icon for a transcription.


The Jagow and Seifert families were among the early (1840s) German-speaking settlers in Dodge County, Wisconsin, emigrants from the Oderbruch region in Prussia.


Anna Seifert lived in a community where standard German, Low German dialect, and English were spoken. Her letters are written in the old German script.


Anna Seifert wrote all letters from the family farm near Juneau, Wisconsin, and sent them across the country to the places where Lester went to school and did research on the Pennsylvania Dutch language.


In 1946, Lester Seifert started a survey of "German in Wisconsin," recording informants on a SoundScriber. One of his early informants was his mother Anna.