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.

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A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was hundreds of miles from the battlefields of the Cold War, but the state was prepared to be on the front line of war at a moment’s notice. With the ever-present threat of nuclear  warfare hovering over the state, officials worked tirelessly to protect the Commonwealth. Beginning in the early 1950s federal, state, and local government created a civil-defense system for Pennsylvania that would prepare citizens for an inevitable nuclear attack.

Following World War II, American relations with the Soviet Union swiftly broke down and seemed to be on the brink of war. At the same time, American and Soviet forces were working the develop new powerful nuclear weapons that would likely target cities and other civilian areas. Once the Soviets successfully tested their own nuclear bomb in 1949, the American home-front became much more vulnerable to attack. Many Americans feared attacks like the ones that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a few years earlier. The United States began to train and prepare citizens for civil-defense: to protect themselves and their property in the event of a nuclear attack. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania developed a sophisticated civil-defense system within the state. “There’s still a big difference between taking a punch you’re prepared for,” Commonwealth officials reasoned, “and getting knocked out in the first round because you didn’t see it coming.”

“By every possible criterion, Pennsylvania will be a No. 1 target so long as men possess weapons,” one civil-defense pamphlet read. Civil-defense officials feared that the concentration of resources, vital industry, and transportation systems would make the Commonwealth a likely target for Soviet bombers. If Pennsylvania’s resources and industries were bombed and destroyed, they reasoned, “there would be little point in any farther resistance on the battlefields. The war would be over and the country in the hands of a foreign overlord.” Continue reading “A Hot Reception for the Cold War: Civil Defense in Pennsylvania”

More than an Institution: Farview State Hospital

Farview 12
The view from Farview State Hospital extends for miles. Visible in this picture is the Superintendent’s home. Circa 1920 Image credit: PA State Archives RG23.992 Farview State Hospital.

Driving along Route 6 in Wayne County, the view extends for miles. The Moosic Mountains dominate the landscape with their graceful peaks and quiet valleys. Small ponds and lakes add shades of blue to the landscape, and there are only a few small houses and farms in sight. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful scene in Pennsylvania. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that these “restful and healthful qualities” have attracted tourists and admirers since the early 19th century.[1] The area’s beauty, isolation, and healing features, however, have also welcomed another group of Pennsylvanians: the intellectually disabled. Since 1912, thousands of patients lived on top of a Wayne County mountain plateau at Farview State Hospital, Pennsylvania’s first and only institution devoted to the care of the criminally insane.

From its modest beginning of a few wards and administrative buildings, the patients and staff at Farview worked hard over the decades to expand the hospital and its grounds and turn it into a self-sufficient community with all the facilities needed for the care of mentally insane patients. By the 1960s the institution had grown to become the home of over 1400 patients from all over Pennsylvania, complete with dozens of buildings and a 300 acre farm. For 84 years, Farview served as a home and community for patients who needed care and attention unavailable in prisons or other mental institutions. The hospital’s colorful history, full of challenges and dramatic transformations, sheds light on society’s changing views regarding proper care for the intellectually disabled, as well as the experiences of Pennsylvania’s intellectually disabled citizens. Continue reading “More than an Institution: Farview State Hospital”

The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography

“Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”

Harry Whittier Frees was a Pennsylvania native and creator of novelty animal postcards in the early 1900s. He is best known for his photographs of kittens and puppies dressed up and acting out human scenes.

The Cook
Harry Whittier Frees, “The Cook,” 1914. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Continue reading “The Littlest Models: Harry Whittier Frees’ Animal Photography”

Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian

Apparently Pennsylvania politicians had mixed opinions on the Smithsonian Institution when it was first opened in the mid 1800s. I was looking at some early documents in Smithsonian history and happened across some coolquotes from two Pennsylvanians, George Dallas and Simon Cameron, both politicians that left their home state to work in Washington D.C. in the middle of the 1800s. In D.C., they both encountered the Smithsonian Institution, a brand new research organization that had been founded in 1847. Their reactions to the young Smithsonian, were totally opposite and pretty interesting! Continue reading “Pennsylvania Weighs in on the Smithsonian”