The Fabric of Daily Life: Museum Textile Collection

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Often referred to as “show towels” by collectors, these long, narrow pieces of cloth were originally known as “hand towels” to their makers. Most were made by Mennonite and Schwenkfelder women in Lancaster, Lebanon, Berks and Montgomery Counties from about 1800 to 1880. Meant for display rather than for actual use, such towels were typically hung on the door between the door of the Stube (parlor) and the Kammer (bed chamber) in a Pennsylvania German home.  The example pictured here, marked “M. B. 1840” is one of several attractive examples which we have found during inventory of the Berk’s History Center’s textile collections.

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While some items were strictly for show, other items intended for daily use were no less in quality and craftsmanship. During our inventory of the Textile Collection we also found a somewhat worn potholder with a date of 1855.  Despite its condition, it is a significant discovery which reminds us that the Pennsylvania Germans of Berks County had  a propensity for decorating very common, utilitarian items which they intended to use.  The artifact was donated by Dora Wanner of Shillington (1877-1967).  We believe it was made by her aunt, Lydia Wanner, (1834-1883).

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention

 

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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

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Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

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Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

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Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)

 

This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

Remembering the U.S.S. Maine & a local Monument at the Henry Janssen Library

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(From the Postcard Collection, Henry Janssen Library at Berks History Center)

Today in 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded and sank in the Port of Havana. 267 Americans were killed, including one man from Reading–Frank Anders. Many at the time believed Spain deliberately blew up the ship because it was sent to the area during Cuba’s revolt against Spain. The Spanish-American War started about two months later. Parts of the ship were salvaged after the explosion, including an anchor later presented to the City of Reading. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the monument, which still stands in City Park, on July 31, 1914. The monument was rededicated in 2014.

In addition to numerous postcards depicting the anchor in City Park, we also have two scrapbooks in the Henry Janssen Library compiled by Frank Anders’ family.

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”.

Happy Birthday, Henry Janssen!

You may recognize the name “Henry Janssen” from recent news surrounding the sale of his former Wyomissing home. At the Berks History Center, Mr. Janssen is the namesake of our Library and Archival facility on Spring Street. Our Library is also the home of many items related to the businesses Janssen founded with Ferdinand Thun–including early ledgers from Textile Machine Works and bound copies of The Yarn Carrier, the magazine published for Wyomissing Industries employees. Henry Janssen was born on February 8, 1866; and, in honor of his birthday, our Library staff wanted to take a moment to remember Mr. Janssen’s contributions to Berks County and share a few tidbits about his life.

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Portrait of Henry Janssen, 1937 by Egon Josef Kossuth

(Painting hangs in the Research Room of the Henry Janssen Library)

Heinrich Janssen was born in Barmen, Germany (then Prussia) in 1866. Barmen became an center for industry in the 19th century. The town was situated between hills and a river–not unlike Janssen’s future hometown–and became known for its textile industry and coal mining. Janssen’s future partner, Ferdinand Thun, was born a few blocks away in Barmen, on February 14, 1866. Both lived and studied in Germany until the late 1880s. Janssen studied manufacturing before coming to New York City to work in a braiding plant in 1889. It was in New York that Janssen met Thun and, after discovering their similar childhoods and textile skills, they decided to go into business together.

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Barmen (1870) by August von Wille

(Source: Wikipedia, Image is in the Public Domain)

Janssen and Thun’s first business venture in Berks County was a small factory on Cedar Street in Reading, which they opened in 1892. This was the beginning of Textile Machines Works. In 1896, they moved their business to Wyomissing. The partners incorporated Narrow Fabrics in 1900, after they began using their own machines to make braids and other items. Six years later, Janssen and Thun added knitting machines to their lineup, which they used to produce their own range of stockings (specifically full-fashioned, which was the trend at the time). This company was incorporated as Berkshire Knitting Mills. According to many accounts, Janssen was a perfectionist. He insisted that the products produced by his companies were of the highest standards and he wanted his employees to maintain that high quality in themselves. The February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier (which was dedicated to Janssen following his death) included a quote by Janssen from March 1929. He advised one of his employees in German, of which the English translation is roughly: “Be thorough and accurate in both large and small things. May this always be your guide and success will never fail you.” (The Yarn Carrier vol. 17, no. 11, page 12).

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Henry Janssen (center) with partners Ferdinand Thun (l) and Gustav Oberlaender (r), late 1920s-early 1930s (Image from the collections of the Henry Janssen Library, Berks History Center)

Henry Janssen was one of six children. At the time of his death, Janssen had two surviving siblings. Paul Janssen was also a businessman and later Mayor of Offenbach, Germany; while Johannes served in the German Parliament in the early 1900s. During their childhood, their father, Albert, owned a printing and book shop in Barmen. Henry married Wilhelmina Raeker in Brooklyn in 1890. Their son, Harry Janssen, died during WWI. Janssen’s two son-in-laws continued to work for Wyomissing Industries after his passing. In addition to their role at Wyomissing Industries, Janssen and Thun developed the Borough of Wyomissing. Janssen served on the Borough Council for forty years, while he also served on the Reading Hospital Board (including ten years as President). Janssen became a US citizen less than ten years after immigrating from Germany. His death on January 28, 1948 shocked many–not only in the community, but around the world. From the pages of tributes printed in The Yarn Carrier following his death, it is obvious Janssen’s influence was far-reaching. Here are just a few:

“…He was a driving force in the building of an industrial empire unparalleled in the textile industry, and unique in the entire U.S. industrial force.”

Knit Goods Weekly

 

“He will be missed not only as a pioneer of the hosiery industry but also as an outstanding person of the deepest humanitarian interest.”

–Robert Reiner, Inc.

 

“Every day was too short for this man who rate the title of industrial tycoon, titan of industry, capitalist or whatever the popular terms of the day. He could have rested on his laurels. He didn’t.”

–Herbert C. Kohler, in a Reading Times editorial, January 30, 1948.

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Three photos of Janssen, about middle age.

(Images from the February 1948 edition of The Yarn Carrier, page 9)

Janssen’s philanthropic and industrial contributions live on. The Reading Health System has grown exponentially since Janssen and Thun first made their contributions. Families still flock to the grounds of The Reading Public Museum–another project of the partners. Textile Machine Works products are still in use today. In Wyomissing: An American Dream, the father and son team at Barbett Industries in Reading are shown using Thun and Janssen designed products that are over a hundred years old. They argue that these machines were made to last, unlike many produced today. This is a testament to Janssen’s commitment to perfection. In honor of his industrial expertise and advances, Barmen (now part of Wuppertal, Germany) named a street after Henry Janssen, which intersects with the street named for Ferdinand Thun.

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Heinrich-Janssen-Straße [Street] Sign, Wuppertal, Germany

(Image from GoogleMaps, 2017)

 

If you would like to learn more about Henry Janssen, PBS39 produced a wonderful documentary on Janssen, Thun, and Wyomissing called Wyomissing: An American Dream. It is available to view both on the PBS39 website and on YouTube.

Researched and Written by BHC Archival Assistant Stephanie Mihalik

Sources:

The Yarn Carrier, vol. 17, no. 11. Produced by The Wyomissing Industries: February 1948

Partners: A History of the Development of the Wyomissing Industries. Published by The Wyomissing Industries: 1936.

Wyomissing: An American Dream. Produced by PBS39 WLVT: 2016.

 

Colonial Records – cannot the man see!

At a Councill held at Philadelphia ye 7th of ye 7th Mo. 1683.

The Petition of Hugh March and Other Persons against James Kilner, Mr. of the Levee of Leverpoole, was read, and ye Council proceeded to Examine into ye Business.

Hugh March Compts Saith yt Mr. James Kilner Trode upon him on board the Ship, whereupon, he said Dam it, cannot the man see! for which ye Mr. beat him and made his mouth bleed.

James Kilner Confesses he being in a Storme, trode on him by change, and ye Other Daming of him and calling him foole, Caused him to Cuff him.

John Fox complaineth against James Kilner, and Saith he bid him cleane the Deck, he answered it was cleane already, whereupon ye Master beat him.

James Kilner answered that one night he Spake to Jno. fox to cleane ye Deck, who said he would not, and also gave him ye Lie, whereupon ye Mr. Struck him.

Edward Jones said he drew some Water and afterwards The Mr. seeing ye hhd of water open, feel upon ye sd Jones, and beat him with a staff and made his nose bleed, and afterwards drew him by ye harid of the head to the Mainmast, kickt him on the side, and run his fingers up his nose.

James Kilner answereth yt he asked ye said Jones why he lett ye water run at wast, who said he did not let it run at wast and gave him ye like and other ill words, whereupon ye Mr. struck him.

Nich. Newtin declareth between both, that there was a Caske weh wanted a pegg, That was almost out, and ye Master spake to Edwd Jones to put a pegg into it, which he did, but still it runn out, whereupon the Mr. struck him several blows.

Adjourned till ye 8th 7th Mo. 83.

Colonial Records – Witch

At Councill held at Philadelphia ye 27th of the 12th month, 1683.

Margarit Matson’s Indictmt was read, and she pleads not Guilty, and will be tryed by the Countrey.

Lasse Cock attested Interpriter between the Propor and the Prisoner at the Barr.

The Petty Jury Impanneld; their names are as followed:  Jno. Hasting, foreman; Albertus Hendrickson; Robt Piles; Robt Wade; Nath. Evans; Edwd Darter; Wm. Hewes; Jer. Collet; Jno. Kinsman; Jno. Gibbons; Walter Martin; Edw Bezac.

Henry Drystreet attested, Saith he was tould 20 years agoe, that the prisoner at the Barr was a Witch, & that severall Cows were bewitcht by her; also, that James Saunderling’s mother tould him that she bewitcht her cow, but afterwards said it was a mistake, and that her Cow should doe well againe, for it was not her Cow but an Other Person’s that should dye.

Charles Ashcom attested, saith that Anthony’s Wife being asked why she sould her Cattle; was because her mother had Bewitcht them, having taken the Witchcraft of Hendrick’s Cattle, and put it on their Oxon; She myght Keep but noe Other Cattle, and also that one night the Daughter of ye Prisoner called him up hastely, and when he came she sayd there was a great Light but Just before, and an Old woman with a Knife in her hand at ye Bedd’s feet, and therefore shee cryed out and desired Jno. Symcock to take away his Calves, or Else she would send them to Hell.

James Claypoole attested Interpritor betwixt the Propor and the Prisoner.

The affidavid of Jno Vanculin read, Charles Ashcom being Witness to it.

Annakey Coolin attested, saith her husband tooke the Heart of a Calfe that Dyed, as they thought by Witchcraft, and Boyled it, whereupon the Prisoner at ye Barr came in and asked them what they were doing; they said boyling of flesh; she said they had better they had Boyled the Bones, with severall other unseemly Expressions.

Margaret Mattson saith that she Vallues not Drystreet’s Evidence; but if Sanderlin’s mother had come, she would have answered her; slao denyeth Charles Ashcom’s Attestation at her Soul, and Saith were is my Daughter; let her come and say so.

Annakey Cooling’s attestation concerning the Gees, she denyeth, saying she was never out of her Conoo, and also that he never said any such things Concerning the Calve’s heart.

Jno. Cock attested, sayth he Knows nothing of the matter.

Tho: Balding’s attestation was read, and Tho: Bracy attested, saith it is a True coppy.

The Prisoner denyeth all things, and saith that ye Witnesses speake only by hear say.

After wch ye Govr gave the jury their Charge concerning ye Prisoner at ye Barr.

The jury went forth, and upon their Returne Brought her in Guilty of haveing the Comon fame of a witch, but not guilty in manner and forme as Shee stands Indicted.

Neels Mattson and Antho. Neelson Enters into a Recognizance of fifty pounds apiece, for the good behavior of Margaret Matson for six months.

Jacob Hendrickson Enters into the Recognizance of fifty pounds for the good behavior of Getro Hendrickson for six months.

Adjourned till ye 20th day of ye first Mo., 1684.