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

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.

 

Voted Most Smartest

December is almost over and I am sitting here surrounded by a mound of collections that I would love to finish before January 2nd, but realistically will not have finished until the end of next year.  I am a little nostalgic this year, because of everything that has happened, and because I just finished the most awesome collection that can be found in almost every historical society across the country.  This collection is the most under-utilized and never thought of primary resource.  Do I have your attention yet?  Are you wondering what collection could possibly be THAT interesting?

One of the most interesting primary resources that goes virtually unnoticed are yearbooks.  That’s right….yearbooks.  Now, in Berks County, we have a ton of schools, including the Boy’s High School, Girl’s High School and Standard Evening High School which all became Reading Senior High School.  Some Townships had their own, like Shillington and Sinking Spring, until they merged into Wilson.  Then, like in the case of Oley, after a while started printing separate yearbooks for their Elementary School and Middle School.  These are just a few examples.  I still wonder how they came up with their names like Colophon (Wyomissing High School) and Muhltohi (Muhlenberg Township High School).  Maybe if I had the opportunity to read the inside it would be explained.

PLEASE NOTE:  when requesting yearbooks in the HJL, researchers should request by Township, except for Reading.  We all know the Arxalma is for Reading High School.

Now, why are they over-looked as primary resources?  Go, grab your senior yearbook.  Go ahead.  Open it up.  Now, when your done laughing at your hairstyle, clothes or what your friend wrote over her picture, really take a look.  Yearbooks, especially a full run, whether it’s yours from Kindergarten till graduation, or a 50 year run for a school district are a treasure trove of information.  While they “attempt” to document a school year, they actually chronicle clothing and hair styles, changes in attitudes and societal influences.  Often, they document “current” events for a particular year all under the auspices of “Memories”. Best of all, they have photographs.  So, if you can remember your grandmother’s maiden name and what year she graduated, you can see a picture of her, when she was 16, 17 or 18 and just starting to make her way in the world.

While they are a reminder of your past and 18 years of your life that some people want to forget, or in my case can’t really remember, they document a society.  Currently, my yearbooks are at my parents house in New York.  But I did happen upon one or two while processing for 1995.  I am a graduate of Newfane Senior High, Class of 1995.  In looking through those yearbooks, they reminded me of mine.  Even though there is (what seems like) a gazillion miles distance between Berks County and Newfane, NY, we all had the same hair styles, clothes, and un-stylish glasses.  We all acted the same, thought about the same things; all had the same hopes and dreams that were rudely dashed upon entering college.  We all struck out into this world wanting to contribute and make something of ourselves, just like our parents (Class of 1960-something) and our grandparents (class of 1930-something).  And lets face it…we all thought we had style back then!

So, while your home visiting family this Holiday Season, break out those yearbooks.  Whether they are yours or your parents, take a look.  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn or uncover within those pages that can add to a family discussion, or your research!

From all of us at the Henry Janssen Library have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH and a very safe and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Awkward Middle School Years