The Evolution of German-American Culture in Indianapolis

Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives would like to announce the completion of an LSTA digitization grant from the Indiana State Library entitled "The Evolution of German-American Culture in Indianapolis, 1866-2011." 


Germans were one of the largest immigrant groups in Indianapolis in the 19th century.  The German language and German culture had a tremendous impact on the development of the city, especially through the establishment of gymnastics clubs, which were as much about social and cultural development as they were physical development.  This collection documents the participation of German-American groups in music, art, education, business, and physical fitness. 1874 Maennerchor Concert Program

Established by German immigrants in 1850, the American Turners advocated a liberal political philosophy and fought to protect both the political rights and the German heritage of immigrants.  The Turners encouraged the practice of exercise and physical fitness, and they convinced school boards in many cities to make physical education a part of the educational curriculum.  Their great success in Indianapolis came when the Normal College of the American Gymnastic Union, which moved to Indianapolis in 1907, affiliated with Indiana University in Indianapolis in 1941. 

The records of the Athenaeum Turners and the South Side Turners, the local Indianapolis chapters of the national organization, show the development of German-American identity in Indianapolis over the course of more than a hundred years. German speakers faced numerous challenges during both World Wars, as German became the language of the enemy.  The choice of language during this era reveals much about the complicated “hyphenated” identity expressed by German-Americans, sometimes only a generation or two removed from immigration.  Acculturation (adoption of cultural traits from the dominant culture) and assimilation (the full adoption of the dominant culture) are both present, but it is clear from the records of many German-American organizations that individuals of mixed or of non-German heritage participated for the social benefits as well as access to gym space.

The records of the Damenverein, the Turners’ women’s organization, showcase the role of women in the German-American community.  The Maennerchor records highlight the importance of music in the development of a uniquely German-American identity in the city, even as it embraced non-German members.  The Freethinkers’ Society of Indianapolis, founded in the gymnasium of the Indianapolis Turnverein in 1870, featured prominent Indianapolis residents, including Clemens Vonnegut and Herman Lieber.

The project features five collections:

  • The Indianpolis Maennerchor:  this men's choir featured prominent national and international performers, including Dame Myra Hess, the Boston Opera Company, Georges Enesco, and Victor Herbert.
  • The Athenaeum Turners:  one of the local German gymnastics associations, the Athenaeum Turners advocated physical and intellectual development within a German cultural context.  Their meeting minutes, annual reports, newsletters, and correspondence detail the at-times difficult relationship between German Americans and other Indianapolis residents.
  • The Athenaeum Turners Damenverein:  the records of the women's auxiliary of the Athenaeum Turners illuminates the important role women played in the organization and within the broader Indianapolis community.
  • The South Side Turners:  the early meeting minutes of the South Side Turners organization illuminate their concerns and struggles--first in German and later in English.
  • The Indianapolis German Freethinker Society:  This small collection includes the handwritten German meeting minutes, the printed German minutes, and the English translation. 

Updated Jun 20, 2018 by angwhite