Holidays on the Homefront: Reading at Christmastime in 1917

Mon, Dec 17, 1917
Reading Times, December 17, 1917

On December 21, 1917, a Red Cross worker made his way up Penn Street toward the imposing iron gates of the Berks County prison. With him, he carried a service flag and 77 “gifts” to be distributed. Meanwhile, George H. Zellers was delighted serving in an English aviation camp and Sergeant Joseph Eisenbrown sent greetings home from Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia. 

The holiday season in Reading and Berks County during the first year of the American involvement in the Great War moved along at a normal pace, despite the additional distractions of war. New recruits were leaving the area for camp on a regular basis, knowing that they would ultimately participate in the war theatre in Europe.

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At the bequest of President Wilson, the Red Cross began a national campaign to raise $100 million to support soldiers and civilians affected by the war. The drive ran from December 16th to December 23rd and aimed to enroll 50,000 new memberships.  Adult memberships ranged from $1.00 to $100.00 and junior memberships were $0.25 each. The Mansion House at 5th and Penn Streets served as the headquarters for the drive. During that time, Penn Square was decorated with trees for Christmas and a large Santa was placed on the balcony of the Mansion House with a candle. Santa’s goal was to make his way to the other side of the balcony to light 50,000-membership candles by the end of the drive. On the first day of the drive, Reading was digging out of its second biggest snow in 5 days and 2 trainloads of coal were delivered to relieve the city of its coal shortage. The snow-covered streets made delivering the coal to city homes difficult, and in some cases, impossible.  Despite these poor conditions, the people of Reading were not deterred from making their way to Penn Street for their Christmas shopping.

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Mansion House on 5th and Penn. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

The Red Cross campaign was kicked off on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with the Penn Wheelmen providing inspiration. Riding a sleigh with a piano mounted on its deck, the Penn Wheelmen, led by Joseph M. Eshelman, William G. Rees and Paul E. Glase, sang patriotic songs through megaphones with various slogans of the Red Cross shouted between the songs. “We want 50,000 members! Where is your button? Have a heart and a dollar!” and “You will want a Red Cross emblem to shine in your window Christmas Eve,” were among the slogans shouted. The Boy Scouts contributed as well, raising a large Red Cross flag on the rooftop of the Mansion House. The first day of enrollment was quite successful, with 15,000 enrollees registered.

The drive brought interesting stories to the daily newspaper, like William H. Luden enrolling all 26 residents at the Boys Home on Schuylkill Avenue in the Red Cross. The most surprising participation in the drive was at the Berks County Prison in City Park. The prison raised a service flag because all 77 inmates at the prison enrolled in the Red Cross. Memberships were distributed as gifts to the inmates. At the same time, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Warden C. Herbert Schwartz on the charge of selling dope to inmates in July 1917. The Red Cross achieved its goal both locally and nationally. The amount of money raised in such a brief time was a monumental achievement; the $100 million at the time is equivalent to over $1 billion today.

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Berks Prison in City Park. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

Just before the Red Cross campaign began, Reading learned of its second casualty of the war on December 13, 1917. Martin Diebert, formerly of the 200 block of Front Street, was officially listed as a British casualty. At the time, Reading was beginning to experience lightless nights, an order of the fuel administrator in a effort to conserve the coal supply. By 9 p.m. only street lights were burning. The “Great White Way” of Penn Street was dark, making citizens well aware that the country was at war. Neighborhoods were also dark and an eerie feeling crept over the entire city.

The city experienced other unusual happenings as the citizens prepared for the first wartime Christmas. On December 18, 1917, a parade was held on Penn Street by the Foresters of America for Charles S. Rissmiller of Reading for his gold star. Rissmiller was a member of the Foresters and the first Reading casualty of the Great War. Also, the first coasting (sledding) casualty was reported December 20, 1917. Luther E. Schaeffer of 1223 Mulberry Street died when he and his brother hit a curb while coasting at the Spring Street Subway. Luther was steering when he and his brother wrecked. Luther complained of back pain but the boys walked home after the accident. The next day, after still complaining of pain, Luther’s father took him to the Reading Hospital. There they learned that he sustained an injury to his spine and he died two days later.

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WWI Red Cross Pin from the BHC Museum Collection

While life at home was somewhat unsettling, soldiers stationed at camp or overseas longed to be back home. Many sent letters, which were published in the newspaper as Christmas day approached. From the trenches, H. L. Rourke, 18th Canadian Reserve Battalion, formerly of Reading, wrote of his willingness to give up his Christmas cheer for the trenches abroad. At the time he wrote to George Kemp, asking him to forward his address to his friend Will Keffer, who he didn’t know had died since he joined the 18th.

After he left Camp Hancock, Joseph Eisenbrown rose to the rank of Lieutenant by September 1918. He sent home war relics, which were displayed in G. O. Glase Carpet store on Penn Square. Eisenbrown later attained the rank of Major by 1939 and served in both World Wars. Lieutenant George H. Zellers of Morgantown wasn’t as fortunate. Engaged in a dogfight with German aircraft, Zellers’ plane was riddled with machine gun fire after he flamed two German fighters on July 30, 1918. Zellers managed to fly back to his own lines only to die after landing his damaged plane. In his December 26, 1917 letter, Zellers noted that he was a quick learner. Zellers excelled in training and became a trusted flier for the British as an American officer. Zellers was a 1911 Reading High School graduate and a biology teacher in Hazelton when he enlisted. The same day Zellers’ letter was published, Second Lieutenant Ralph M. Getz of Reading received a unique distinction – he was the first officer or enlisted man in the entire United States Army to be honorably discharged from the Great War.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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