Make Your Mark on Berks History

 

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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.

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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 www.berkshistory.org 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.

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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.

 

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!

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

The Tale of Tommy Hannahoe, the “Mayor of Irishtown”

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Alvah O. Schaeffer, a German musician, loved to play Irish songs for his friend Tommy C. Hannahoe, the”Mayor of Irishtown”.  Tommy owned the Stars & Stripes Hotel, a saloon located on 514 S. 11th Street.

Longtime friends despite their cultural differences, Tommy and Alvah agreed that: “If Tommy dies first, Alvah would play music at his grave each St. Patrick’s night. Should Alvah go first, Tommy would keep Alvah’s grave green forever.”

Tommy died first on February 10, 1897 of typhoid pneumonia. Alvah kept his promise to Tommy and played “Lass O’ Galway” and “Nearer My God to Thee” over his friend’s grave that year.

Alvah never forgot his pact with Tommy. Nor did he let a St. Patrick’s Day go by  without visiting his grave. Alvah continued this tryst until the day he died on March 10, 1947 at the age of 81. Alvah was buried a week later on St. Patrick’s Day in St. Peter’s Cemetery in East Reading on Nanny Goat Hill.

The tradition continues today with Tommy’s great, great-grandson, Corey Hannahoe. Click here to learn more this local St. Patrick’s tradition. 

Reference: Passing Scene Vol. 1, pgs. 169-178

Researched & Written by Volunteer & Historian Corrie Crupi

 

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”.