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.

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

Summer in Berks: Andalusia Hall & Park

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Andalusia Hall & Park started as a farmhouse owned by the Maderia Family. Around 1865 they converted their home to a summer boarding house. Its location across from Charles Evans Cemetery, along what is now Centre Avenue, made it easily accessible for locals and visitors. Later owners converted it to a public house and park. One owner, Julius Hertwig, built a 2,000 seat bandshell in the lower area of the property. The Ringgold Band alternated with other local artists to play two to three concerts per week. There were also facilities for banquets and theatrical performances. In 1891, James H. Sternbergh purchased the property and tore down the Hall and park facilities to built his mansion, which is now the Stirling Guest Hotel at Robeson St. and Centre Ave.
 
(From the BHC Library’s Photograph Collection)

Sousa’s Signature: A Legend’s Final Note in Reading, PA

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John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a renowned American musician, composer and conductor whose music is celebrated to this day. While he led both the United States Marine Band and the United States Naval Reserve Band, he is probably better known for leading his own “Sousa Band” which he established in 1892. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the Sousa Band “covered an aggregate itinerary of a million and a quarter miles, visiting nearly every city in this country, a great many in Europe and others in all parts of the world”.

On the Saturday afternoon of March 5th, 1932, Sousa’s travels brought him to Reading, Pennsylvania.  He was in the city to conduct the Ringgold Band on the occasion of its eightieth anniversary concert, scheduled for the following afternoon. His busy itinerary began with a three-hour rehearsal at the American Legion Building at 133 North Fourth Street and was followed by an 8pm banquet at the Wyomissing Club. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack, shortly after midnight that evening, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln hotel.

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One of the most interesting artifacts of the visit is a surviving dinner menu from the Wyomissing Club banquet which contains a copy of Sousa’s autograph. The menu belonged to Andrew J. Fisher (1899-1963) of Mohnton, the Ringgold Band’s first trombonist.  Fisher wrote that “ this is the last autograph that Mr. Sousa gave to anyone.  He died about one hour after he obliged me with this signature at the Abraham Lincoln hotel, March, 1932…  He was already feeling bad at this time…  I played under him for the last note he ever conducted (The Stars & Stripes Forever).”

Interestingly, a Reading Times article published on March 7, 1932 reveals how Fisher learned the news of Sousa’s passing. It explains that “Andrew Fisher, Ringgold Band trombone soloist, had just arrived home in Mohnton from the banquet and turned on the radio….  He settled down to listen to a program of Mexican music when the announcer said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are deeply grieved to announce the death of John Philip Sousa, in Reading, PA, just two hours after he attended a banquet in his honor there’.”

It was fortuitous that a trombone player from Mohnton was one of the last people to interact with an American musical icon. It was also fortuitous that Fisher’s daughter, Rachel Herb, donated this unique artifact of her father’s encounter with John Philip Sousa.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

A Sign of the Times: Uncovering More Berks County History

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New research is shedding light on an artifact which is currently on display at the Berks History Center.  The artifact belonged to George E. Haak (1842-1915) of Reading.

After serving in the Civil War, Haak found employment as a “digger”.  However, by 1870 he was working in the dry goods store of his father-in-law, Amos Potteiger (1824-1897), which operated at 310 Penn Street.  It appears that by 1877, he was running an independent China & Glass business within his father-in-law’s store.  It also appears that by 1882 he had moved his china and glass business into its own location, next door at 312 Penn Street, while his father-in-law continued operating the dry goods store at 310 Penn Street.

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The sign was presumably made in the early 1870s, while Haak was still working from his father-in-law’s store.  The sign is marked “Baker” and we assume that this refers to William B. Baker (1850-1920), a painter who lived at 27 South 11th Street in Reading.

Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

Rulers of the Roost: Reading’s Most Prominent Social Club

 

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Photograph of the Stammtisch located on the Second Floor of the Berks History Center Museum

Why is this table so special to Berks County’s unique history? The “Stammtisch” was a centerpiece of the “Tafelrunde auf Kuechler’s Roost,” a club of German businessmen who met regularly at Kuechler’s Roost on Mt. Penn. Jacob Kuechler, pictured in the painting hanging above the table, was  known as the ‘hermit of the mountain’. He was a spirited character who lived on Mt. Penn on what is now List Road. His “Roost” was one of many stops along the Gravity Railroad where crowds would gather to enjoy delicious fare and libations.

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The 2nd Kuechler’s Roost – Postcard from the BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

The Originators of the club took an interest in Kuechler’s Roost and organized in 1907. Founding members included Ferdinand Thun, Henry Janssen, Gustav Oberlaender and Robert Carl Rahn. They met every Saturday afternoon for literary sessions followed by supper, sociability, and singing. They gathered in a unique corner room where the chief piece of furniture was a large round table, commonly known in Germany as the “Stammtisch”

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The table and chairs were designed and executed by Robert Carl Braun and were produced at Louis Heilbron’s furniture store and factory at 940 Penn Street. The table was saved when the Roost was destroyed by fire on July 4, 1919 and is now on display in the BHC Museum.

History in a Shaving Mug: More than Barbershop Banter

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Although this photograph does not capture the barbers of the Victorian Era, this Babershop Quartet, the “Original Four Quartet,” does depict the longstanding tradition of the “wet shave” and shaving mug. (From the Photograph Collection of the Berks History Center Research Library, Penn Wheelman Folder)

During the Victorian Era, it was common for a man to visit his barber for a “wet shave”.  To perform a wet shave, the barber placed a round bar of soap into a mug, and then scrubbed that bar with a brush to produce a thick lather.  Many barbers kept individualized shaving mugs for their customers, and such mugs became popular gifts for men.

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The Berks History Center is home to a collection of 25 shaving mugs which came from the barber shop of  Fred Messmer (1880-1959).  Messmer was a German immigrant who operated a barber shop on North 11th Street in Reading from about 1900 to 1943.  Each mug is decorated and marked with the name of a customer.  We are fortunate that this group survives to provide unique insight into a local barber’s clientele.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith