Keeping Our Soldiers Informed: An Act of Service During WWII

During WWII, The Reading Eagle published weekly newspapers and sent them to Berks Countians serving overseas. Did you know that another group of local residents created their own publication to send to Berks natives during the war? The Berks History Center is fortunate to have many of these monthly newsletters in our Research Library collection!

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The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces, October 1943. (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, a non-profit organization called the The United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) was founded at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. The organization’s purpose was to boost morale of troops fighting in World War II.  Shortly after the war began, a group of citizens from Berks County decided to enclose a note to servicemen along with the stationary provided by the U.S.O. The group invited local servicemen to write to them in order to keep up with news from home.

The response was overwhelming, so D.R. Shenton and Claire Henry decided to start a newsletter that could be mass produced, instead of writing to each soldier individually. They called it “The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces.” Shenton acted as editor and Henry kept up with correspondence as secretary. Their first official newsletter went out on September 1, 1942. Each newsletter included news about local events, the merits of local soldiers (Lt. General Carl Spaatz’s name appeared often) and a special sports section.

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A V-Mail Letter thanking Claire Henry for The Writers’ Service (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)

 

Local organizations, like churches, clubs, and unions could sponsor copies of the newsletter to send out to their members. Henry wrote to a friend in England that the newsletters and other correspondence were constant work, however the men seemed to enjoy them and appreciate their work. Letters steadily came in from Berks County natives expressing their thanks—most of their correspondence also included change of address information so they would continue to receive the latest news. The Writers’ Service continued sending newsletters, at least until V-J Day in August 1945. There is no record of The Writers’ Service in any local publication, including the Reading Eagle or The Historical Review of Berks County.

Claire Henry, secretary of The Writers’ Service, was an antique collector and antiques dealer. She corresponded with friends in England, often about the latest piece they found in London, and if she wanted them to send it to her in Pennsylvania. One of her shipments in 1942, was sunk by enemy fire while sailing across the Atlantic. Claire noted how disappointed she was that good antiques ended up on the ocean floor. Henry lived in West Lawn, a suburb of Reading. Her sister, Margaret Henry Moeller, stayed with Henry while her husband, A.R. Moeller, served in the war. It is likely their mother and sister lived there as well. Henry died at the age of 101, in 1995. According to her obituary, she lived in Indiana for many years, where she ran a ceramics shop, before returning to Berks County.

D.R. Shenton went on to act as co-editor for The Historical Review for over ten years. He never wrote an article about his work on the newsletters. He died on May 9, 1962.

AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection, which contains these materials, is available to use for research at The Berks History Center Research Library.

Article Written & Researched by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik.

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Before E-Mail There Was V-Mail: War Letters in WWII

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It is not uncommon to find letters written during wartime–either in archival collections or in personal collections kept within the family.

During World War II, you might have received or sent a letter in the “V-mail” (“Victory mail”) format. Letters were written on special paper and then microfilmed to reduce space. The microfilm rolls were shipped and reproduced at another location, and then delivered to the intended recipient.

Although traditional first class mail was preferred, over 1 billion pieces of V-mail were sent and received during WWII!  We have a few pieces of V-mail in the Berks History Center’s Research Library. The letter pictured above was written to thank a local group for producing newsletters and sending them to Berks servicemen around the world.

​(V-mail letter, Berks History Center Library, AC 80)

Researched & Written by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik

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

Sweet Success: Immigrants Prospered in Berks County

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Best known as the inventor of the menthol cough drop, William H. Luden (1859-1949) of Reading rose from humble beginnings to become one of America’s most successful candy makers. The son of an immigrant father from the Netherland’s, Luden quit school at the age of 15 and became an apprentice candy maker.

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In 1879, at age 20, he began making his own candies in his widowed mother’s kitchen. By developing a variety of products and employing innovative business practices, he achieved great success, and his company flourished. By 1909, Luden employed hundreds of workers and was selling five million packages of cough drops per year.

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During our inventory of the Berks History Center Collections, we found a unique Luden item: an engraved spoon which he ostensibly received as a gift on his 50th birthday. The spoon is marked “The 50th Birthday and Anniversary of Thirty Years in the Confectionery Business.” While we do not know who presented this spoon to Luden, it is nevertheless a significant artifact due to its personal connection to one of Berks County’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Article Written & Researched by Bradley K. Smith

Rare Apothecary Scale Discovered in Berks History Center Museum Collection Inventory

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Our inventory of the Berks History Center is nearly complete, but we still continue to discover amazing artifacts such as this 200 year old apothecary scale which belonged to Reading pharmacist Gerhard Gottlieb Bischoff. (1775-1856).  A native of Thuringia, Germany, Bischoff studied pharmacy under his father and then subsequently worked as an apothecary assistant in both Germany and Switzerland.  In 1817, he immigrated to Reading where his brother, Frederick Christopher Bischoff, was already a well established artist. 

Gerhard Bischoff opened an apothecary shop on Penn Street, midway between Sixth and Seventh Streets, and by all accounts was still working when he died in 1856 at the age of 81.  Bischoff had a keen interest in Botany and Zoology.  In addition to a large collection of plant specimens which he had assembled over the years, estate records reveal that he also possessed “19 cabinets of insects”.

We are fortunate that such an unusual artifact survives after two centuries.
Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Hats Off to History!

During our inventory at the Berks History Center, we recently discovered two U.S. Army hats which are both nearly 190 years old!  However, both hats are shrouded in mystery.

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Stove Pipe Shako from the Berks History Center Museum Textile Collection

The first hat is a style known as a stove pipe shako. While it is missing its original brim and a plume which attached at the top, its condition is surprisingly solid for its age. The emblem on this hat was used between 1833 and 1851 by U.S. Dragoon regiments – horse mounted units that would later be known as cavalry. Unfortunately, that is all we know about this hat. We do not know who used it, and in fact we do not even know how it came to be in our collection.

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Bicorne Hat from the Berks History Center Museum Textile Collection

The second hat is known as a bicorne hat. It is in excellent condition, and we can infer several bits of information from its design. The style of the insignia, for example, was used by the U.S. Army between 1821 and 1851. In addition, the hat is marked with the name and address of its maker: William H. Horstmann & Sons, North Third Street, Philadelphia. It is well documented that Horstmann & Sons only operated at this location from 1830 to 1857.

We know that the Berks History Center received the bicorne hat in 1937, and its donor reported that it belonged to a Major David Hocker. Unfortunately, our predecessors did not record any additional information about this person, and to add to the confusion, they incorrectly recorded the hat as having belonged to “Mayor” David Hocker. To date, we have not yet been able to identify a Major Hocker connected with Berks County or the United States Army.

While there are many questions with both of these hats, they are both unique artifacts.  Our hope is that additional research will help us to better ascertain to whom each belonged and how each is connected to Berks County.

Article Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

The Treaty Elm: A Symbol of Peace

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The Treaty Elm Box was found in the Berks History Center Museum Collection during the Collections Management Initiative

The “Treaty Elm” was an enormous tree which stood near the present day neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia. Tradition holds that William Penn pledged an oath of friendship with the Lenape Indian Chief Tamanend at the treaty elm in 1682. While there is no definitive documentation of this meeting, the Treaty Elm came to symbolize Penn’s desire to live in harmony and peace with Native Americans.   After the tree fell during a storm on March 5, 1810, relic hunters salvaged pieces of its wood in order to create mementos of the famous tree.

Today, artifacts crafted from this wood can be found in the collections of several museums.  However, it was with some surprise that we recently discovered a treaty elm box in our collection. While we are not exactly sure of its connection to Berks County, it is inscribed by its maker, a Philadelphia merchant named Benneville D. Brown (1779-1863). Brown was related to several Berks County families including the Keims and Bertolets.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith