14 People from History You Should Learn More About

To celebrate Another Century’s 2nd year, I thought I’d go back and look at some of the most interesting individuals that have appeared in the blog so far. I asked my wife Andra to pick 14 people appearing in blog posts that she thought were cool or fun to read about, and I’ve put them together in a list for your reading pleasure. If one of these characters catches your eye, go back to the original post to learn more!

1. Jean LeBlanc

Ok, technically Jean LeBlanc is not a person, he is a horse. But is cool enough to start this list with. When Edmond Mandat DeGrancey traveled to the Dakota Territory to inspect his land investments in 1883, he purchased a fine looking horse he named Jean LeBlanc. DeGrancey wrote that Jean’s “acrobatic accomplishments are the subject of general admiration.”

DeGrancey riding Jean LeBlanc. Bibliotheque nationale de France.

2. George Washington Hill

George Hill was the autocratic president of the American Tobacco Company. He lived to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. Hill was responsible for creating tons of controversial advertisements for his beloved smokes, and they were always sure to make someone mad.

George Washington Hill
George Hill spend a fortune advertising Lucky Strikes. And made an even bigger one selling them! Sold American: The First Fifty Years.

3. P.T. Barnum

Most people have heard of P.T. Barnum and his famous circus and his American Museum in New York. But did you know he also introduced the Dutch Belted Cow to America? He brought the black and white striped cow over from Europe in the 1880s as a circus attraction, its a great story (trust me, I looked it up).

PT Barnum and Tom Thumb
Posing with General Tom Thumb, Barnum could swindle a buck from even the cleverest of people. National Portrait Gallery.

4. Thomas Hicks and Andarin Carbajal

Hicks and Carbajal were both runners in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis. Carbajal, a Cuban athlete, lost all his money on the trip to St. Louis and had to hitchhike to the race. During the race he stopped to eat some apples, they turned out to rotten and he passed out on the course. Carbajal ended up reviving and getting fourth anyways! Hicks, the race winner, nearly died during the race too. Choking on the dusty Missouri roads, his trainer administered him strychnine, hard boiled eggs, and brandy to keep him going. Hicks, a native of Massachusetts, finished the race ashen-faced and eight pounds lighter.

Starting line of the St. Louis marathon. Hicks is #20 and Carbajal is #3. The Olympic Games, 1904.

Continue reading “14 People from History You Should Learn More About”


Another Century Turns Two!

I can’t believe this blog is two years old! It really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but my first post was published on this day in 2016. I started writing about nine months after I got my Masters degrees in history and library science from the U. of Maryland. Once I had entered the real world and was working a 9 to 5 job, I realized that I missed doing research and writing about history. At the same time, my tenure in graduate school was marked by a hundred books that I never had time to finish and a thousand more ideas that I thought would make a good paper one day. My first post, “Are you a Cowboy or a Colonel?” was actually an extended review of a book I stumbled upon one day in school and never got a chance to read until after I graduated. If you haven’t read that post, it’s a fun one that you can find here.

Last year I conducted a records inventory in an abandoned patient ward in a Philadelphia mental hospital. There was no power and broken windows made for a dark and drafty job.

When I started this blog, I was a few months out of school, recently married, and just starting my career. At the time I was a lowly contract processing archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropology Archives. A few months later I got a job offer at the Pennsylvania State Archives and Andra and I moved up to Harrisburg. I’m working in acquisitions section, traveling around to different government offices and institutions to look for their historical records. I’ve gotten to dig documents out of squirrel infested attics and moldy basements that were just as creepy as you might imagine. My job takes me to places like prisons, fish hatcheries and executive offices; anywhere historical records are to be found I go and check them out!

Being at the PA State Archives has also had an impact on this blog. You may have noticed that there are a decent number of posts I’ve done on topics from Pennsylvania history. This seems pretty natural since I sift through the state’s history 8 hours a day. I have also gotten into more posts that touch on my own family history. A lot of genealogists  visit our archives and I guess I got hooked too! It has been fun finding my own family’s connections to interesting historical events, especially in the travel adventures of Frank and Nell Felter and in the tragic death of Albert Sergeant at Dimmock Hill. I’m still working on several more posts like these so check back soon for those.

I started this blog just as a personal exercise in research and writing, and as a way to keep a running list of historical books I’d like to read one day. I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and am excited to see what happens in the next two years. Thanks for reading!

Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers

“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”

Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907

Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.

Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.

Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.

Danville messenger
#2183. Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading “Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers”

The Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania

Inmates training in the kitchen at Muncy. Lycoming College.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.

Muncy Cottage
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,

“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”

Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.

Muncy Group
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!

Gus Egolf: Captain of the Antique Industry

Gustavus “Gus” Egolf was a German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania and eventually became one of the most prominent antique dealers in the United States.

Gus Egolf
Gus Egolf with a “homemade velocipede,” 1896. Photo credit: PA State Archives, MG 171.21

Egolf was born in Baden, Germany in 1849 and moved to Philadelphia at a young age. He attended school sporadically until the age of fourteen, when he became a teamster. Saving as much money as he could for nine years, Egolf eventually was able to launch a contracting business where he employed eight teams who hauled goods all around Philadelphia. By the early 1870s, he was a financially successful businessman and went on an extended holiday to his first home in Baden. Afterwards, he spent several months touring Germany, France, Ireland, and England. Perhaps it was because of the many  treasures that he saw on his European travels, when Egolf returned to Philadelphia he established an antique, china, and furniture business.

Business in the antique trade was good to Egolf and he had to move his store several times larger and larger buildings to make room for all his wares. It was around this time that he also married his wife Eliza Egolf (no relation I think). They would have 10 children together. In 1879 he moved out to nearby Norristown where he occupied a four story building on Main Street. Egolf was also a prominent local historian and was well known nationally for his extensive personal collections of antique coins and china.

Gus Egolf Furniture
Advertisement for Egolf’s furniture and anqitue business from a c. 1900 Directory of Montgomery County, PA.

The captain of the antique industry also caught the attention of one of the most important advocates for Pennsylvania history- Samuel Pennypacker. Pennypacker, best known for serving as the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania from 1903-1907, was an avid collector of antiques and other historical items- especially books. Pennypacker had so many books!

Samuel Pennypacker
Governor Pennypacker in 1906. Capital Preservation Committee.

Pennypacker served as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and personally published several books on the history of the Keystone State. As a prominent politician and lawyer from a venerable Philadelphia family, Pennypacker had the means and energy to amass a huge collection of antique books, maps, and other historical materials that documented the history of the state. And Gus Egolf was Pennypacker’s favorite antique dealer. Here is what Pennypacker remembered about Mr. Egolf in his autobiography:

“My books came to me in all kinds of ways, and from over the earth, and I became known to the dealers and writers not only at home but in Amsterdam, London and Berlin. Some of the incidents which occur in the search for out-of-the-way treasures are both romantic and dramatic. Gus Egolf, short and stout, with a wen on the back of his neck nearly as large as his head, a keen dealer in old furniture and old books, lived and still lives in Norristown, where he has a store. Often I went ‘incog’ in an old suit and broken hat with him to the sales of the German farmers in the country and I have bought as many as a three-bushel bag full of books at a sale. The auctioneer would hold them up at a window, half a dozen at a time, and knock them down for a few pennies. There was little or no opportunity for preliminary inspection and often the purchase proved to be of little value, but every once in a while there turned up a Franklin, an Ephrata or a Sower imprint. In this way I secured nearly all of my Schwenkfelder literature.”

Pennypacker also supported his antique dealer politically. The Governor appointed Egolf (a staunch Republican who “always contributes his share to the success of the party at the polls”) a factory inspector in Philadelphia, a position that Egolf held until he died in 1916.

It doesn’t appear that Egolf’s antique business lasted long after his death, but it was a major force in the antique world at the time. Today, you may find an old clock or a piece of china or furniture with his name on it though, a reminder of the many antiques and fine articles that were made or sent to him from all over the world and sold at his store.

The Dutch Belted Cow: A Research Mystery

Have you ever heard of an Oreo cow? They’re really handsome looking black cows that have a big white stripe in their middles, just like the cookie. I’ve seen a few out in Missouri near my wife’s family’s farm. They aren’t very common, but if you  happen by one they’re hard to miss. These cool looking cows have a really interesting back story that I was able to uncover that involved museums, circuses, a long search on the internet, and even the famous P.T. Barnum! If you’ve got a few minutes then take a seat and I’ll take you through the whole thing.

Recently, we were in an antique store, and my wife and I were looking at an old children’s book on farm animals. I wish I could remember what the book was called but I just can’t. But what I do remember was there was one page with a big picture of an Oreo cow! But what most caught our attention was the accompanying text that called it a “Dutch Belted Cow.” We had never actually known what Oreo cows were actually called, so this was a cool surprise. I texted my father-in-law and he confirmed that the so-called Dutch Belted was the same as an Oreo cow, but of course that wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more!

Continue reading “The Dutch Belted Cow: A Research Mystery”