A Stitch in Time: St. Luke’s Signature Quilt from the Museum Textile Collection

autographed-quilt

The Berks History Center’s textile collection includes a signature quilt, which was presented to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Reading in 1885.   In addition to their aesthetic appeal, such quilts are of interest to scholars because they contain signatures, in embroidery or ink, of a particular community’s members.  Signature quilts became popular in the 1800s and were typically used in fundraisers – featuring the names of those who contributed – or as gifts of friendship and appreciation to an individual.  The St. Luke’s signature quilt contains dozens of signatures and serves as a veritable membership roster of the congregation at that time.

close-up

Local traditions like the signature quilt are embodied in many of our artifacts. They help us understand the past and preserve the identities of Berks County’s diverse communities over time. Do you have a long-standing family or community tradition?  How do you preserve your family’s history?

Scull Map from the Museum Collection

scull-map

In 2015, staff of the Berks History Center discovered an extremely early and original map of Pennsylvania, published in 1759 by Nicholas Scull, II (1687-1761).  Scull was the Surveyor General of Pennsylvania from 1748 until 1761, and his 1759 map of Pennsylvania is considered by some historians to be the first map of the entire colony.  Of interest is the Northwest border of Berks County: since none had been established, none is shown.  IN 1770, Nicholas’ grandson, William Scull, published an updated version of his grandfather’s map.  During inventory work completed in 2016, staff found an original copy of this map as well.

Controversial Collections: Preserving History for Better or Worse

Written by Museum Curator Bradley K. Smithdemvsgop

Election-related disagreement is certainly not a new phenomenon.  In fact one of the nation’s most bitter disagreements occurred during and after the contentious election season of 1876, a contest which pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. While Tilden won a majority of the election’s popular vote, irregularities and disagreements in multiple states left neither candidate with a clear majority of electoral votes.

To settle the matter, congress passed a special bill to establish an Electoral Commission that would review disputed vote counts in several states and award 20 disputed electoral votes as they saw fit.  The 15-member commission was comprised of five senators, five representatives and five members of the Supreme Court.  Among the members was Supreme Court Justice William Strong (1808-1895) of Reading, Pennsylvania, serving in what was likely the most significant role of his distinguished career as a lawyer, U.S. Representative and Supreme Court Justice.

Strong.jpg
Supreme Court Justice William Strong (1808-1895)

The commission was comprised of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats, and it might come as little surprise that for every state reviewed, the Republican candidate Hayes won by an 8-7 vote.  When the commission’s task was complete, they determined that Hayes had rightfully won the election with 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184 votes.  The Commission’s decision was not fully embraced, and in March 3, just two days prior to the inauguration, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring their opinion that Tilden was the rightful President of the United States

This was the era of Reconstruction and federal troops were still occupying states which had aligned with the Confederacy. A consequence of Hayes’ victory was an informal deal which entailed the Republicans withdrawing these troops from the south, effectively ending  Reconstruction.  Unfortunately, this opened the door for the creation of Jim Crow Laws and the disenfranchisement of many African American voters.

During our inventory of the Berks History Center textile collection, we discovered the judicial robe of Election-Commission member William Strong.  Strong was born in Sommers, Connecticut, he studied at Yale Law School and in his later years he resided in Washington D.C.  However, he was considered one of Reading’s native sons, having practiced law here from 1832 to 1857, and serving the region in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1851.  It is one of several items in our collection that belonged to Justice Strong.

As we continue to inventory our museum collections, we are reminded that not all of our history is easy or enjoyable to remember. Some items, like Justice Stong’s judicial robe, tells us part of our American story, from our unique Berks County perspective, of a divided and uncertain sociopolitical climate. Regardless of an artifact’s political context or sometimes controversial subject matter, Berks History Center remains committed to its 148 year tradition of collecting and preserving our shared local history.

Boy’s Skeleton Suit from the Museum Textile Collection

skeleton-suit

Charles Dickens once described the skeleton suit as “An ingenious contrivance for displaying the symmetry of a boy’s figure by fastening him into a very tight jacket… and then buttoning his trousers over it so as to give his legs the appearance of being hooked on just under his arm pits”.  
In his inventory of the Berks History Center’s Museum Collections, Curator Brad Smith recently uncovered a very old child’s outfit.  The outfit is known as a skeleton suit because of its close fit and high waist line. It was a popular boys style from about 1790 to 1830. While the history of our suit is not fully known, it is marked with the owner’s name.  The script is mostly illegible, however it might say “A.W. Yeager”.  Our hope is that with additional research, we can determine the suit’s exact owner and further narrow down its age and history. Considering that is is approximately 200 years old, this piece of our collection is in remarkably good condition.  Textiles dated to the 1700s are rare as they are prone to degradation.

Back to the Future: Bringing Berks History into the 21st Century

out-with-the-old-2

Not all history is meant to be preserved. Here at the Berks History Center we are taking a close look at our organizational history, business practices, and overall institutional well-being. We are taking stock and cleaning house – in more ways than one.

“It’s time to bring history into the 21st Century”, says Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “This year we are getting our house in order.”

Collections Management Initiative

With several initiatives started last year, 2017 promises many positive changes for the Berks History Center. Most notably, we invited former curator of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Bradley K. Smith, to spearhead a new collections management initiative. The initiative aims to inventory, organize, and evaluate our entire collection of museum artifacts.

Mr. Smith kicked off this privately-funded project last fall and will continue his efforts into 2018. By conducting a collections management initiative in our museum this year, and subsequently in our library archives (2019), Berks History Center will be fully equipped to share Berks County’s most important history with our community.Getting our collections organized means that we can tell more accurate, exciting stories about the history that matters to you.

We will continue to share more about Curator Bradley K. Smith’s work in the coming months on social media, NewsBits, and our website. Also, tune in to BCTV on Monday, February 6th at 8:30 p.m. as Mr. Smith gives a behind the scenes tour of what he has discovered in our storage rooms and attic!

High Density Shelving Project

Because preservation is a huge part of what we do here at the Berks History Center, we take storage seriously! At BHC’s Henry Janssen Library, our archival storage facility is getting an upgrade. We are installing two new high-density shelving units that will help our archivists optimally organize and safely store thousands of precious historical documents. The improved shelving will not only keep our shared local history safe, it will also make our collections more accessible for archivists and researchers to find the information they need.

Organizational Assessment & Sustainability Planning

In addition to getting our archival collections in order, Berks History Center is redefining how we do business. In more ways than one, we have a long history in the field of history. Berks History Center, formerly the Historical Society of Berks County, has been an institution in Berks County for 148 years. That’s a long organizational history! Looking back on our legacy, while we are proud of many of our accomplishments, we have to acknowledge that we also have shortcomings. That is why we are taking a close look at our organizational history, business practices, and overall institutional well-being.

Led by Executive Director, Sime Bertolet and our new Communications Director, Alexis Campbell, Berks History Center is taking stock with an organizational assessment. Ms. Campbell, who took on the Communications position last fall, is also a sustainability consultant with over 10 years of experience working with systems analysis and design. Drawing upon her expertise, Berks History Center has discovered which parts of our business practices we would like to preserve, and what needs to be left in the past.

With a clear understanding of our shortcomings as well as our assets, we have developed a strategy that first and foremost focuses on connecting with the people who matter most to us: the citizens of Berks County! We know that not everyone has had a good experience with us. We know that we have sometimes been perceived as exclusive, stuffy, and standoffish. However, Berks History Center is committed to positive change. We want to innovate so that we can continue to carry out our mission to preserve, educate and inspire. Because we know that Berks County’s rich history matters to you as much as it does to us, we are rolling up our sleeves.

Here are some of the things that we have evaluated and started to change in our organization:

  1. Membership Benefits – Our dedicated members deserve better attention. Therefore, we revised our membership benefits to reflect how important our members are to us.
  2. Communications Plan – As a member organization and a non-profit that seeks to serve the residents of Berks County, we want to better connect with our community. By stepping up our game on social media and implementing a multi-faceted communications strategy, we are making it a priority to engage in conversation with our members, patrons, and followers as much as possible. If you have feedback or suggestions for us, please email us directly at newsbits@berkshistory.org
  3. New Programming & Education – Using valuable feedback from our members, volunteers, and patrons, we scheduled a dazzling number of programs this spring. This year we are holding our 2nd Annual Berks History Conference, participating in Berks Country Fest, and we are rolling out a series of “Double Header” Second Saturday programs, where we will host both morning and afternoon programs. Also, we are revising our Educational Programs, reaching out to new Berks County school districts and planning to enhance the educational experience in our museums.
  4. Team Building – Positive culture goes a long way in helping an organization to achieve their goals. Especially with a staff of just 8 professionals, Berks History Center staff and volunteers are becoming experts in teamwork. It hasn’t always been this way. However, with positive leadership, the Berks History Center is becoming a creative, collaborative work environment.
  5. Community Partnerships – As a small organization with a huge mission, building relationships is a priority. By working with other local businesses and organizations, we can support one another to accomplish our goals. Last year we collaborated with ReDesign Reading, Penn Street Market, Oakbrook Brewing Company, and Reading 120. This year we plan to partner with Reading Public Library, Barrio Alegria Co., Pollen Consolidated, The Central PA African American Museum, the 88th PA Volunteer Infantry, as well as a number of local social clubs, churches, and associations.
  6. Sustainability Planning – In addition to short-term planning and implementing new ideas, we are taking a good look at the longevity of our organization. We are asking ourselves: “How can we continue to preserve Berks County’s legacy for generations to come?” In the face of economic uncertainty, changing cultural values, and evolving technology, the Berks History Center needs to continue to adapt and grow. BHC’s Executive Director is leading the effort, along with our Board of Directors, to develop a sustainability plan for the Berks History Center.

 

2017 is an exciting year for us. We hope that you are excited too! All of these changes mean an end to “business as usual” and bring a new attitude to the way we preserve, educate and inspire. We hope that you will continue to share the journey with us. Together we can be the stewards of Berks County’s unique heritage.

 

“Heaven’s Letter” The Himmelsbrief – BHC Museum Collection

rohr-huyett-himmelsbrief

The Himmelsbrief or ‘heaven’s letter’ was a charm which a person carried or hung in their home for protection against evil.  The most common iteration was the Magdeburg Letter which purportedly fell from the sky in 1783 after having been written by God Himself.  Scholars  have discovered that the text of the Magdeburg Himmelsbrief existed in central Europe at least as early as the fifteenth century, and would have already been known for centuries when German-speaking immigrants brought the concept with them to Pennsylvania.  This particular Himmelsbrief belonged to John Huyett, a Pennsylvania-German who lived in Cumru Township from 1798 to 1887.  It was printed by a J. Rohr of Philadelphia, probably about 1850.

Eastern-European Immigration from the Museum Collection

img_20170110_111840535

Born at the turn of the 20th Century in Austria-Hungary, Adam Kratochwill and Christina Stoffel immigrated to Reading in 1922.  After their arrival, Adam found employment as a carpenter, and Christina worked as a “seamer” in a hosiery mill.  They were typical of many Eastern-Europeans who came to Reading in the late 19th and early 20th century in search of new opportunities.  Pictured here is one of two wicker suitcases which they carried with them when they made the journey to America.