The Hexerai Letter: Supernatural or Super Strange?

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With Halloween approaching it may be interesting to explore some of the more supernatural beliefs found in Berks County. The manuscript collection at the Berks History Center Research Library holds a remarkable illustrated document from 1816 that fits this theme.

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Written mostly in Pennsylvania German, the letter prophesied that terrible events were about to occur based on the political news of the day. Called the Hexerai letter, its most striking feature is a myriad of hand drawn pictures inside. The author drew in vivid detail blood red moons, arch angels, demons, a mysterious clock, and a rendition of the day of judgment. One picture, in particular, tells the document’s story. The picture shows a devil with the number 666 written under its eyes and the name Jackson emblazoned across its forehead. That devil is General Andrew Jackson, who the author thought would soon bring doom upon the country. Produced during a time exploding with religious revival and emerging political individuality and expression, this document has much to offer researchers of the early nineteenth century.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

 

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A Walk Through History: Celebrating Education through the Arts at the Berks History Center

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Fall is finally here and a kaleidoscope of vibrant autumn leaves aren’t the only changes we see here in the Centre Park Historic District. Students of two local high schools are bringing a splash of color to the Berks History Center, brightening the path to our shared local history.

The Berks History Center has partnered with award-winning mural artist Michael Miller, the Wyomissing Area High School, Reading High School, and the Berks Arts Council to design and create a permanent piece of artwork that is being installed on the walkways between the Berks History Center Museum and Research Library buildings.

The art installation, or “Art Walk,” is being painted directly on the sidewalk surrounding the Berks History Center using a series of repeating stencil patterns, which were designed and created by the students. Reflecting the Berks History Center’s role in preserving Berks County’s cultural heritage, the stencil designs are inspired by Berks County’s historical crafts and iconic images such as fraktur, the distelfink, quilt work, Berks County redware, and city landmarks. The installation also serves as a neighborhood beautification project that will enhance the Centre Park Historic District and the surrounding neighborhood. Mural artist Michael Miller, who is an art instructor at Wyomissing Area School District, is leading the project.

Miller explains, “Over the past several years, I have worked with various groups to create a number of beautification projects that work with stencils. We often think that images can only be made with paint and brush, but we can use stencils to create complex images on almost any surface. The project at the Berks History Center has allowed us to focus on the rich traditional crafts and patterns native to Berks County.”

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The project will conclude with a Community Celebration on October 26th at 5:00PM where the Berks History Center will acknowledge the students’ work with a free public celebration and ceremonious reveal of the completed work. The Berks History Center will serve refreshments to those in attendance. Free entertainment, children’s activities, and tours of the museum will also be available. Along with the Berks History Center staff and trustees, guests may include city officials, neighbors, families, and members of the Centre Park Historic District.

This project is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Berks History received a grant from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts program administered locally by Berks Arts Council with additional support from The Wyomissing Foundation.

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Muhlenberg Artists: Christopher Shearer and Mary Leisz

 

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Christopher High Shearer (1846-1926), a prolific landscape artist of national reputation, was raised on the family farm in Shearertown, located in Tuckerton, Berks County, Pa., where his father built him his first studio.

During his youth he spent time in the studios of  well-known artists Francis D. Devlan and J. Heyl Raser, and later became a student of both before opening his own studio in Reading at the age of twenty-one. When about 27 years old, being well on his way to success, he traveled to Germany to further pursue his studies in the great schools of art in Dusseldorf and Munich.

In 1876, Christopher began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and also at the art exhibition celebrating the United States Centennial. During that time he attracted great public attention and won the favorable opinion of art critics for his large landscapes.

In 1878 he went back to Europe and spent four years there, two in Germany and the remainder in Paris.  When returning home, he and his second wife, lived in a home along the Schuylkill River, off Stoudt’s Ferry Bridge Road (close to Shearertown) where Christopher maintained an art studio and held outdoor art classes for his many students.

During this time, another well-known Berks County artist, Mary Leisz, studied with Shearer and became his closest protégé, moving into the Shearer Homestead to share studio space in 1914.

Shearer was also an acknowledged naturalist with a large collection of butterflies and moths. He was instrumental in helping to found the Reading Public Museum along with his friend, Dr. Levi Mengel, persuading Mengel to include works of art. It then became known as the Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery where Shearer was appointed the art curator.

Much of the work of Christopher High Shearer, his brother Edmund Shearer, and that of Christopher’s son Victor, is displayed prominently in many private homes, museums, etc. throughout Berks County.

 

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Mary B. Leisz was born in Reading in 1876. Leisz began lessons with Christopher H. Shearer at the age of fifteen. Mary mastered both oil and watercolor painting and eventually developed her own distinct style, separate from her teacher.

She often painted near Tuckertown and Onteluanee in Berks, capturing flowing streams, gristmills, springhouses, and colorful foliage in her landscapes. Mary’s work also includes watercolor portraits, which focus on young women and children. Mary became one of Christopher’s closest “proteges” and eventually taught art classes with him in his home studio.

Written by M. Catherine Shearer

 

 

War Bonds for Liberty: WWI Collection

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WWI Era Advertisement for Liberty Bonds from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

During the Great War, or the “War to End All Wars,” public support at home was crucial to the success of our troops overseas.

The Liberty Loan drive was devised to help cover the expenses of the United States war effort. There were five loan drives in total during the Great War, the last ending in 1919. The poster shown is by Joseph Pennell from the fourth loan drive, depicting what would happen to the home front if the civilian population did not buy war bonds. New York harbor is ablaze, German air fighters rule the sky, Lady Liberty’s head has been severed and lays in the harbor, with the German Eagle standing proudly at her feet, and a U-boat patroling the harbor. If this horrific scene didn’t make the public buy war bonds, what would?

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Victory Liberty Loan Medallion from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The fourth Liberty Bond ultimately wound up defaulting, as the terms of the bond were payable in U.S. gold coin at maturity in 1938. Unfotunately for bond holders, Franklin Roosevelt eliminated the gold market in 1933. Bond holders wound up losing approximately 41% of the bonds principal.

The U.S. Treasury commissioned the Victory Liberty Loan Medallion shown above in conjunction with the 5th loan drive of 1919. The medallion was made from a German cannon captured at Chateau-Thierry in north west France. The medal was awarded by the Department of Treasury to victory Liberty Loan campaign volunteers.

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

Among the Greats: Victor Nehlig Painting in the BHC Museum Collection

 

Daniel Boone by Nehlig 2.jpgVictor Nehlig (1830-1909) was a French-born painter renowned during his lifetime for historical paintings.  While no longer a household name, Nehlig’s works are preserved in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and even the Berks History Center.

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Berks History Center’s Nehlig painting, shown above, depicts Berks County native Daniel Boone in a frontier scene. This was one of several studies which Nehlig completed while he lived in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1870s.  Nehlig hoped to earn a commission painting scenes of the iconic frontiersman for display in the Kentucky State Capitol, but the commission never materialized.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith