Sauerkraut History: The Pennsylvania Dutchman


Happy New Year to all of our Berks County History fans! In Berks County (and beyond), pork and sauerkraut have become synonymous with the New Year. Here is Don Yoder’s interpretation of sauerkraut history from the January 1, 1951 edition of The Pennsylvania Dutchman. The photographs may be a little challenging to read, but we think this fascinating food history is well worth the effort!


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Make Your Mark on Berks History


Make your Mark!_WebBanner

The Berks History Center has joined #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide. Berks County is home to countless individuals who have made an impact on our local history. Make your mark on Berks history this year by supporting the Berks History Center on  November 28, 2017 for #GivingTuesday. 

#GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, following the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday. #GivingTuesday kicks off the holiday giving season and inspires citizens to collaborate by improving their local communities and giving back in impactful ways.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On November 28, 2017, the Berks History Center invites you to “Make Your Mark” on Berks County’s history by supporting the Berks History Center on #GivingTuesday. Generous patrons and friends are encouraged to give to the Berks History Center throughout the day online at and from 2:00-7:00PM at the Berks History Center Museum located at 940 Centre Avenue, Reading, PA 19601, where the Berks History Center will host a free open house.

Visitors are invited to enjoy free tours of the museum, children’s activities, a new museum scavenger hunt and, #UNselfies with the faces of Berks County’s history. The #GivingTuesday open house will run from 2:00-7:00PM and is free of charge as a gesture of appreciation for our friends and supporters.

The Berks History Center’s goal is to raise $10,000 on #GivingTuesday for a number of facilities improvements and operational costs including humidity control improvements, educational materials, preservation supplies and research equipment. All donations will help the Berks History Center continue its mission to preserve and share the historical legacy of Berks County for generations to come through educational programming, museum exhibits and the BHC Research Library. Click here for more information and to “Make Your Mark” on #GivingTuesday.


The Hexerai Letter: Supernatural or Super Strange?


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.



Before Memorial Day was Decoration Day

Decoration Day

This ad for the Reliable Clothing Store, published in The Reading Eagle on May 28, 1920, urged readers to shop for new and appropriate Decoration Day outfits. The store even had Men’s and Boys’ suits on sale for 10-20% off so there would be “no excuse for not being properly appareled when Decoration Day comes around.” The holiday was officially called “Decoration Day” until 1967 when “Memorial Day” became the official name.

(Reproduced with the permission of The Reading Eagle Company)


Happy National Pretzel Day from Pretzel City!

Postcard produced by Unique Pretzel Bakery (From the BHC Research Library Postcard Collection)

Reading, well-deservedly, was known as the Pretzel Capital of the World by 1948. Its pretzel bakeries were producing one-third of all the pretzels baked in the United States. The earliest bakery to open in Reading, was on Apple Street in the 1860’s, owned by Benjamin Lichtenhaler who was born in Lititz, Pennsylvania.  Julius Sturgis, also from Lititz, is credited with opening the first commercial pretzel company in the United States in 1861 in Lititz; later moving the enterprise to Berks County in 1924. His plant produced the first hard pretzels. The original recipe belonged to the Moravians. Other pretzel companies followed as the demand for pretzels increased. The Reading Pretzel Machinery Company was founded in 1935, who produced machinery to automate pretzel production–since up to that point pretzel makers did everything by hand!

The origin of the pretzel can be traced back to a 7th century monk in Europe using it to reward children who knew their prayers, calling it “pretiolas”–“little rewards” in Latin. The shape of the pretiola suggested a pair of folded hands.  Later, they were taken over the Alps into Austria and Germany were the name became “bretzel”. In Vienna, pretzel bakers were awarded a coat of arms for uncovering a Turkish plot in the 1500’s.  From its early use as a reward for prayers, it  became so popular in the Middle Ages that it was a symbol of good luck, and the shape was used as a marriage knot in Switzerland. Pretzels were also supposed to ward off evil.

Pretzels have been popular with Americans for centuries Some believe that the Pilgrims brought pretzels with them on the Mayflower. However, there’s little doubt that early German settlers to Pennsylvania (who we think of as the Pennsylvania Dutch) were baking pretzels in their home kitchens in the early 19th century.

Joseph Kuzminski Mayoral Key for the City of Reading, mid-1970s. (From the BHC Museum Collection)

Although Reading no longer produces one-third of the pretzels in the United States, Pennsylvania remains the pretzel center of America, accounting for 80% of the pretzels made in this country. In 2003, Governor Ed Rendell declared April 26 as Pretzel Day in Pennsylvania in recognize “the importance of the pretzel to the state’s history and economy.” The pretzel still remains an icon for Reading and Berks County. Reading mayoral keys (often called “Keys to the City”) have a pretzel shape at one end! We have a number of these keys in our collection, including the one above from Joseph Kuzminski’s term in the mid-1970s.

Article Written & Researched by Gail Corvaia

Sources and Further Reading:


Mummified Cat, dated 100 BC, Found in BHC Museum Archives


Months into our Collections Management Initiative, Curator Bradley K. Smith came across a surprising and unsettling discovery! We couldn’t believe that such a rare artifact could have been overlooked.

April Fool’s!

No, we didn’t find an ancient mummified cat in our collection during our inventory but we did dig into the history books to explore this day of foolery. We found some epic stories of April Fool’s Day hoaxes thoughout history – but what about Berks County? What local pranks take the cake in Berks County’s history? 

After digging into the archives at the Berks History Center Research Library, we discovered that the Reading Times, and subsequently the Reading Eagle, have a long history of pulling off impressive April Fool’s Day hoaxes. For example on April 1, 1978, the Reading Times reported the Concorde landed at the Reading Airport. They used a photograph enhanced by Photo Editor Cliff Yeich, which looked so realistic that many Berks residents flocked to the Airport!

This photo by Cliff Yeich appeared on the front page of the Reading Times on April 1, 1978, long before digital photography was available.

This popular April Fool’s Day stunt was one of many legendary jokes pulled off by Berks County’s leading news publication. If you would like to see more of Cliff Yeich’s work, our Research Library has a great article about him that appeared in the Summer 2001 edition of the Historical Review of Berks County!

Do you have an April Fool’s Day prank that belongs in the history books? Share your silly stories with us! Comment in the comments section below or tag us (@BerksHistory) in your post on Facebook or Twitter.