Why Berks History Matters to Me: A Letter from a Former Intern

 

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Dear Fellow Members and Friends of the Berks History Center,

Admiration. Curiosity. Gratitude. These are the feelings that capture the essence of my experience with the Berks History Center. In the fall of 2016, I had the pleasure of working alongside seasoned museum professionals at the Berks History Center (BHC) museum. As a junior at Albright College, I interned at the BHC and helped with their collections management initiative, which involved inventorying more than 28,000 items in the collection. From textiles to furniture, to posters and machinery, my eyes were exposed to more curiosities than I ever could have imagined. Some days I felt like Abigail Chase from the film National Treasure, holding the Declaration of Independence and eager to uncover the detailed history woven into its fabrication.

Despite being a South Jersey native, I developed a sincere admiration for the Berks County artifacts we inventoried. Each had a place in the museum and I wanted to know how and why all of these items were collected, and how they contributed to preserving the legacy of Berks County.

On one of my first days at the museum, I learned about the mystery of the Chippendale chairs. There was a rumor that the chairs belonged to the former Pennsylvania governor, Joseph Hiester. My supervisor, BHC Curator Brad Smith, said that he wanted to find out if the legend was true. So we began our quest with several visits to the BHC Research Library and the Berks County Courthouse.

It was from those visits that we discovered the legend was true!

Thanks to the curiosity of our team, we located the original acquisition documentation for the chairs, which traced the lineage to the former governor. I felt like a museum detective and only wanted to explore more mysteries!

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Photo: Mackenzie inventorying items in the BHC Museum Collection.

After getting a taste of curatorial research, my admiration for Berks County history grew exponentially. I wanted to know things like: why the collection held so many fire company artifacts; how a Conestoga wagon got into the basement; and how so many valuable things had been acquired.

I discovered the answers to these questions and more through persistent research and constant support from the BHC’s talented and supportive staff.

As more information was uncovered, I realized that I was beginning to help preserve the legacy of Berks County. It wasn’t until my last few weeks at the BHC that I noticed how much gratitude I felt for the collection, its keepers and its scholars.

In the winter of 2017, Brad asked me and fellow intern, Erin Benz, to present our findings at a community event at the BHC. Through this experience I understood that I had the potential to grow as a museum professional.

After presenting some of my favorite paintings from the collection, I was told by an attendee that one of the works was improperly labeled. I was grateful to this community member because I learned that historical organizations like the BHC rely on input from the local community to accurately preserve and interpret local history.

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Photo: (left to right) BHC Intern, Erin Benz; BHC Curator, Brad Smith, BHC Intern, Mackenzie Tansey; Executive Director, Sime Bertolet

When I left my internship at the BHC, I knew it wouldn’t be a final farewell.

The BHC is a place I admire for both its collection of artifacts and its dedicated staff and volunteers. It’s also a place where curiosity is welcomed and shared among scholars and a place I’m grateful for because it’s where I discovered my passion for collections management.

The BHC has the power to ignite a fire of curiosity in community members of all ages and backgrounds. That fire found its way into the heart of this Albright Lion from New Jersey and I believe it can touch the hearts and minds of many more to come!

This year I’m giving back to the place that supported me by making a $100 donation.

Please join me today and share your gratitude to the BHC by donating any amount you can to support this vital community treasure. Click here to donate online or you can mail your support to 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The BHC continues to find innovative ways to preserve history while educating and inspiring the citizens of Berks County and beyond. Your strong financial support is vital to ensuring that it can continue to do just that. Thank you for your help.

With gratitude,

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Mackenzie Tansey
2016 Berks History Center Intern

Berks History Center Awarded the PA Museums 2018 Special Achievement Award

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce that PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s statewide trade association serving museum professionals and institutions, has awarded the Berks History Center (BHC) an Institutional Achievement Award for the BHC’s Collections Management Project.

Each year, PA Museums recognizes the special achievements of museums and historical organizations in Pennsylvania. The PA Museums Institutional Achievement Award distinguishes the BHC for establishing and maintaining standards of excellence in the BHC Museum. The award specifically recognizes our Collections Management Project, an initiative that aimed to inventory, organize, and evaluate the BHC’s entire collection of museum artifacts.

The project began in August 2016 when Bradley K. Smith, former Senior Curator of the Pennsylvania State Museum, was contracted to undertake the project through generous support from the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust and other friends of the BHC. The project involved several phases beginning with an inventory of the entire collection, a process that took several months and revealed nearly 30,000 artifacts.  The inventory was followed by a justification process, which compared the inventory records against catalog, accession, loan, deaccession, and other institutional records. The project was completed with a reconciliation phase, which sought to review the discrepancies uncovered during the justification process in an effort to solve problems.

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Curator Bradley K. Smith and Intern Erin Benz conducting the inventory in the BHC Museum

The BHC’s Collections Management Project was one of several institutional leaps at the BHC in recent years and the initiative now serves as a springboard for ongoing improvements in the BHC’s collections management practices. Curator Bradley K. Smith, now a full-time staff member at the BHC, is establishing full physical and intellectual control over the BHC’s collections. In other words, we are improving the knowledge of exactly what artifacts are in the collection, where they came from, how they were used, and where they are currently stored.

As explained by Bradley K. Smith, “The Berks History Center has been collecting historic artifacts for more than a century. Preserving these artifacts for present and future generations, and making them available to the public, is a critical component of our mission. Completing the Collections Management Project enhances our ability to realize this facet of our mission, and it will facilitate the creation of richer exhibits, programs and publications. We take our role as community stewards very seriously, and we consider it an honor to be recognized by PA Museums for our efforts.”

By conducting a collections management initiative in the BHC museum, and subsequently in the BHC Research Library archives (2019), the BHC will be fully equipped to share Berks County’s most important history with our community. Getting our collections organized means that we can tell more accurate, relevant stories about the history that matters most.

“We are very excited about this award and we are proud of the work that Curator Bradley K. Smith, his volunteers and the BHC staff have done on this project to be recognized by our peers in the museum profession. We couldn’t have achieved this award without the support of the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust,” says Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “We are deeply grateful for the Trust’s commitment to our mission for preserving Berks County’s historic legacy.”

The PA Museums Institutional Achievement Award will be presented to the Berks History Center at the PA Museum’s Annual Conference on April 15, 2018 in State College, PA.

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About PA Museums

PA Museums is Pennsylvania’s statewide trade association serving museum professionals and institutions. Based in Harrisburg, PA Museums was founded in 1905 and during its long history was known as the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies and the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations. PA Museums creates and supports the museum community in Pennsylvania through advocacy work, professional development programs, information sharing, and an annual awards program to recognize exemplary work in the Commonwealth.

Among the Greats: Victor Nehlig Painting in the BHC Museum Collection

 

Daniel Boone by Nehlig 2.jpgVictor Nehlig (1830-1909) was a French-born painter renowned during his lifetime for historical paintings.  While no longer a household name, Nehlig’s works are preserved in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and even the Berks History Center.

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Berks History Center’s Nehlig painting, shown above, depicts Berks County native Daniel Boone in a frontier scene. This was one of several studies which Nehlig completed while he lived in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1870s.  Nehlig hoped to earn a commission painting scenes of the iconic frontiersman for display in the Kentucky State Capitol, but the commission never materialized.

Researched & Written by 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

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