The Fabric of Daily Life: Museum Textile Collection

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Often referred to as “show towels” by collectors, these long, narrow pieces of cloth were originally known as “hand towels” to their makers. Most were made by Mennonite and Schwenkfelder women in Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks and Montgomery Counties from about 1800 to 1880. Meant for display rather than for actual use, such towels were typically hung on the door between the door of the Stube (parlor) and the Kammer (bed chamber) in a Pennsylvania German home.  The example pictured here, marked “M. B. 1840” is one of several attractive examples which we have found during inventory of the Berk’s History Center’s textile collections.

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While some items were strictly for show, other items intended for daily use were no less in quality and craftsmanship. During our inventory of the Textile Collection we also found a somewhat worn potholder with a date of 1855.  Despite its condition, it is a significant discovery which reminds us that the Pennsylvania Germans of Berks County had  a propensity for decorating very common, utilitarian items which they intended to use.  The artifact was donated by Dora Wanner of Shillington (1877-1967).  We believe it was made by her aunt, Lydia Wanner, (1834-1883).

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention

 

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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

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Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

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Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

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Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)

 

This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

Remembering the U.S.S. Maine & a local Monument at the Henry Janssen Library

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(From the Postcard Collection, Henry Janssen Library at Berks History Center)

Today in 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded and sank in the Port of Havana. 267 Americans were killed, including one man from Reading–Frank Anders. Many at the time believed Spain deliberately blew up the ship because it was sent to the area during Cuba’s revolt against Spain. The Spanish-American War started about two months later. Parts of the ship were salvaged after the explosion, including an anchor later presented to the City of Reading. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the monument, which still stands in City Park, on July 31, 1914. The monument was rededicated in 2014.

In addition to numerous postcards depicting the anchor in City Park, we also have two scrapbooks in the Henry Janssen Library compiled by Frank Anders’ family.

The Queen of Hearts: Miss Esther Keim

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The Berks History Center recently discovered several invitations from 1787, each requesting that a Miss Esther Keim accompany the sender to dances held at venues in the Reading area.  While the identity of the admirer remains a mystery, his affection for Esther is clear.  Interestingly, each of the invitations is written on the reverse side of a playing card.

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While the recipient may have been Esther Keim Schlegel (1771-1843) of Fleetwood, circumstantial evidence suggests that the recipient was likely Esther de Benneville Keim (1774-1830) of Reading.  Unfortunately for her mystery admirer, Esther never married.

The author of these invitations was not the only person who thought highly of Esther Keim.  Writing in 1874, her relative Henry May Keim said that “the old people of Reading to this day speak of her many deeds of good will and charity.  Her heart and means went for the encouragement of every act”.

The Watchmen: A Brief History of Reading’s Police Force from the Museum Collection

 

 

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The photos shown here depict artifacts in our collection that belonged to and were used by the Reading Police Department prior to 1967. Most of these artifacts, with the exception of the black and white photo, were donated to the Berks History Center in 1967 by Vincent H. Ahrensfield, a former police officer here in Reading. Found in the attic during our inventory, these objects help tell the story of the forces that have helped keep Reading safe for over a hundred and fifty years.

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Since its inception in 1748, Reading has always had some sort of police protection to keep order and to protect its citizens. However, it was not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 that Reading established its first uniformed department, seen in the black and white photo here. Prior to this, police were known as “Watchmen,” or if they took on the added duty of maintaining the oil lamps in the streets at night, they were called “Night Watchmen.” After Mayor Nathan Eisenhower established the new department in 1865, succeeding mayors found it necessary to increase the force as the city’s population grew larger. Once mayor terms began to get longer in the late nineteenth century, the police force changed less frequency and become more effective.

 

When Vincent Ahrensfield arrived on the force, he had just finished fighting in World War II as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. According to the Reading Directory, Ahrensfield began his time as an officer in 1951. Towards the end of his time at the Reading Police Department, Ahrensfield donated the coat and police supplies to the Berks County Historical Society. The objects here include: a cap marked “Chief of Police,” a gun holster, brass knuckles, keys, a Reading Police badge, a nightstick, a bow tie, a neck tie, a billyclub, a belt with a gun holster, and a winter cap. The coat is marked “Reading Police PA” and has a rank patch on the sleeve while the buttons are marked “Reading Police” as well. Currently, we know that Ahrensfield donated the collection, but we do not which of these items he used while working with the Reading Police. During his time with the force, Ahrensfield would have handled artifacts such as these in order to keep the City of Reading safe.

Researched and written by Erin Benz

Happy Birthday, Henry Janssen!

You may recognize the name “Henry Janssen” from recent news surrounding the sale of his former Wyomissing home. At the Berks History Center, Mr. Janssen is the namesake of our Library and Archival facility on Spring Street. Our Library is also the home of many items related to the businesses Janssen founded with Ferdinand Thun–including early ledgers from Textile Machine Works and bound copies of The Yarn Carrier, the magazine published for Wyomissing Industries employees. Henry Janssen was born on February 8, 1866; and, in honor of his birthday, our Library staff wanted to take a moment to remember Mr. Janssen’s contributions to Berks County and share a few tidbits about his life.

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Portrait of Henry Janssen, 1937 by Egon Josef Kossuth

(Painting hangs in the Research Room of the Henry Janssen Library)

Heinrich Janssen was born in Barmen, Germany (then Prussia) in 1866. Barmen became an center for industry in the 19th century. The town was situated between hills and a river–not unlike Janssen’s future hometown–and became known for its textile industry and coal mining. Janssen’s future partner, Ferdinand Thun, was born a few blocks away in Barmen, on February 14, 1866. Both lived and studied in Germany until the late 1880s. Janssen studied manufacturing before coming to New York City to work in a braiding plant in 1889. It was in New York that Janssen met Thun and, after discovering their similar childhoods and textile skills, they decided to go into business together.

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Barmen (1870) by August von Wille

(Source: Wikipedia, Image is in the Public Domain)

Janssen and Thun’s first business venture in Berks County was a small factory on Cedar Street in Reading, which they opened in 1892. This was the beginning of Textile Machines Works. In 1896, they moved their business to Wyomissing. The partners incorporated Narrow Fabrics in 1900, after they began using their own machines to make braids and other items. Six years later, Janssen and Thun added knitting machines to their lineup, which they used to produce their own range of stockings (specifically full-fashioned, which was the trend at the time). This company was incorporated as Berkshire Knitting Mills. According to many accounts, Janssen was a perfectionist. He insisted that the products produced by his companies were of the highest standards and he wanted his employees to maintain that high quality in themselves. The February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier (which was dedicated to Janssen following his death) included a quote by Janssen from March 1929. He advised one of his employees in German, of which the English translation is roughly: “Be thorough and accurate in both large and small things. May this always be your guide and success will never fail you.” (The Yarn Carrier vol. 17, no. 11, page 12).

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Henry Janssen (center) with partners Ferdinand Thun (l) and Gustav Oberlaender (r), late 1920s-early 1930s (Image from the collections of the Henry Janssen Library, Berks History Center)

Henry Janssen was one of six children. At the time of his death, Janssen had two surviving siblings. Paul Janssen was also a businessman and later Mayor of Offenbach, Germany; while Johannes served in the German Parliament in the early 1900s. During their childhood, their father, Albert, owned a printing and book shop in Barmen. Henry married Wilhelmina Raeker in Brooklyn in 1890. Their son, Harry Janssen, died during WWI. Janssen’s two son-in-laws continued to work for Wyomissing Industries after his passing. In addition to their role at Wyomissing Industries, Janssen and Thun developed the Borough of Wyomissing. Janssen served on the Borough Council for forty years, while he also served on the Reading Hospital Board (including ten years as President). Janssen became a US citizen less than ten years after immigrating from Germany. His death on January 28, 1948 shocked many–not only in the community, but around the world. From the pages of tributes printed in The Yarn Carrier following his death, it is obvious Janssen’s influence was far-reaching. Here are just a few:

“…He was a driving force in the building of an industrial empire unparalleled in the textile industry, and unique in the entire U.S. industrial force.”

Knit Goods Weekly

 

“He will be missed not only as a pioneer of the hosiery industry but also as an outstanding person of the deepest humanitarian interest.”

–Robert Reiner, Inc.

 

“Every day was too short for this man who rate the title of industrial tycoon, titan of industry, capitalist or whatever the popular terms of the day. He could have rested on his laurels. He didn’t.”

–Herbert C. Kohler, in a Reading Times editorial, January 30, 1948.

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Three photos of Janssen, about middle age.

(Images from the February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier, page 9)

Janssen’s philanthropic and industrial contributions live on. The Reading Health System has grown exponentially since Janssen and Thun first made their contributions. Families still flock to the grounds of The Reading Public Museum–another project of the partners. Textile Machine Works products are still in use today. In Wyomissing: An American Dream, the father and son team at Barbett Industries in Reading are shown using Thun and Janssen designed products that are over a hundred years old. They argue that these machines were made to last, unlike many produced today. This is a testament to Janssen’s commitment to perfection. In honor of his industrial expertise and advances, Barmen (now part of Wuppertal, Germany) named a street after Henry Janssen, which intersects with the street named for Ferdinand Thun.

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Heinrich-Janssen-Straße [Street] Sign, Wuppertal, Germany

(Image from GoogleMaps, 2017)

 

If you would like to learn more about Henry Janssen, PBS39 produced a wonderful documentary on Janssen, Thun, and Wyomissing called Wyomissing: An American Dream. It is available to view both on the PBS39 website and on YouTube.

Researched and Written by BHC Archival Assistant Stephanie Mihalik

Sources:

The Yarn Carrier, vol. 17, no. 11. Produced by The Wyomissing Industries: February 1948

Partners: A History of the Development of the Wyomissing Industries. Published by The Wyomissing Industries: 1936.

Wyomissing: An American Dream. Produced by PBS39 WLVT: 2016.

 

Rainbow Fire Company “Parade Hat” from the Museum Collection

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Firemen of the 19th century often participated in parades while wearing painted stove pipe “parade hats” such as this example from the collections of the Berks History Center.   The date on the hat, 1773, is a reference to the date on which Reading’s Rainbow Fire Company was established. This particular hat might have been worn in 1873, when the Rainbow Fire Company participated in a particularly large parade to celebrate their 100th anniversary.

The hat is discretely marked with the name “J. Angstadt”.  In the mid-1800s, Reading was home to a Joel, a Jacob a Joseph and two John Angstadt’s.   We assume that one of these men served with the Rainbow Fire Company and wore this hat.  However, since Joel and Joseph Angstadt were well known painters, it is possible that one of them also supplied the art work.