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

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

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:

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