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

Treaty Elm Box
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

Can History Go A Day Without A Woman?

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Can you really imagine A Day Without A Woman? Historically speaking, women have always been essential to our nation’s security and economic well-being. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Coast Guard formed a Women’s Reserve, better known as SPAR. Created to relieve men of office work so that they could go overseas to fight, most of the jobs were clerical in nature.

Mildred Hiller Snyder, a Kutztown graduate and teacher at Reading Schools, served our country in SPAR as a Specialist, Petty Officer of the First Class. From 1944 to 1946, she worked in collaboration with the FBI in processing fingerprints at her office in Philadelphia. These artifacts, articles of Snyder’s time in the military, are now on display in Berks History Center’s Museum for Women’s History Month.

Snyder’s contributions are just one local example of how our national history has been shaped by women. Yesterday’s International Women’s Day Strike is another. Today women continue to make their mark, as they always have, in the books of American history.  How do your daily activities contribute to history-in-the-making?

Women’s History Exhibit Items Curated & Researched by Erin Benz

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”.

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.

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

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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.