Found in Collection

Found in Collection (136)

Thursday, 30 November 2017 21:24

Dogs and Taxes

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Earlier this week I came across a small collection of papers concerning a local dog tax.  The papers span several decades and list Norristown dog owners and their assessments.


Today in Montgomery County, dogs are licensed by the county for a nominal fee.  In the 19th century, we found two reasons for the dog tax.

In a 1955 article “Tax Experiments Make a Bewildering Record,” Norris (aka Edward Hocker) writes about how a national economic crisis, generally called the Panic of 1837, led Pennsylvania and several other states to repudiate their debts and suspend interest payments.  In an effort to shore up the state coffers, the legislature sought new taxes.   According to Hocker, the state taxed gold watches, pleasure carriages, stocks, cattle, and eventually, dogs.

Now, Hocker may not have seen our tax records, which show dogs being taxed as early as 1834.  It could also be the tax was actually started in response to an earlier recession.  In any case the tax seems to have expired and restarted.  Our collection has assessments for the years 1834 – 1836, 1838, 1852, 1854, 1862, and 1867.

Our records suggest a different reason for the tax on dogs, as shown by this 1829 petition of citizens from several townships, and is couched in patriotic language of developing the United States’ developing wool industry.  The tax on dogs in this case, would create a fund to compensate the owners of sheep who were attacked by dogs. 


Whatever the reason, the tax records show some interesting things.  Most of the people assessed have dogs, that is, males.  Only a few, ahem, female dogs are listed.  One wonders how the species survived.  The tax on dogs in this 1867 list was 75 cents, while females were taxed a full dollar, so that might explain the difference. 

In this list, you can see the Bank of Montgomery County had two dogs, perhaps as guard dogs. 


Here, you can see the name of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s father, B. F. Hancock, who owned one dog.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017 21:28

Commemorating the First Passenger Steamboat

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During our inventory project, we uncovered a small, decorative tile. At first glance, this tile may not appear to have much connection to Montgomery County history. However, upon closer inspection of the detailed artwork, we realized the steamboat depicted on the tile was inspired by the first passenger steamboat used in the United States.


Made in Doylestown, PA, this decorative tile was inspired by John Fitch’s steamboat. In 1785, Fitch, who suffered from rheumatism, began designing a steam engine to make it easier for people to travel.[1] Once he realized a steam engine had already been invented in England, Fitch sought to improve his engine and attach it to passenger boats.[2] Despite difficulty acquiring investors, Fitch managed to build his steamboat and test it on the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.

Fitch Steamboat

On August 22, 1787, Fitch demonstrated his invention to members of the Constitutional Convention on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton.[3] Although many people were impressed by the steamboat, Fitch continued to struggle with finding investors. Fitch’s steamboat carried passengers between Philadelphia and Trenton until 1791. Unable to compete financially with stagecoaches, Fitch was forced to end his passenger steamboat service.[4] In 1798, Fitch died in Bardstown at the age of 55. Although Fitch failed to maintain a passenger steamboat enterprise, his work set the stage for Robert Fulton to further improve the steamboat design in 1807.[5]

[1] “The Legacy of John Fitch,” Historic Craven Hall & The John Fitch Steamboat Museum,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Thursday, 09 November 2017 21:05


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Sometimes, I venture out into the world and meet new people, not very often, but it happens.  Inevitably, someone asks what I do.  The conversation goes like this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m an archivist.”

“Oh, an architect!”

“No, an archivist.  It’s like a librarian but with unpublished papers instead of books.”

“Oh, you mean an arCHIVist.”

[Suppressing a sigh] “Sure.”

Then my new friend says how interesting it must be and ask what I’m working on, and lately, I’ve been working on records from turnpike companies.  This gets more questions, and many people are surprised to learn that many roads were built by private companies.  They were toll roads, operated privately, and usually ran as corporations with stock holders and dividends. 


The earliest turnpike to come through Montgomery County was the first in Pennsylvania.  It was built in 1792 and ran from Philadelphia to Lancaster, passing through four miles of Lower Merion along the way.  Germantown Pike was built by the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike Company, beginning in 1801.

According to Frederick C. Swinehart’s article “The Turnpikes of Pennsylvania” (HSMC Bulletin, V. IX, April, 1955), by 1821 there were 146 turnpikes authorized in Pennsylvania.  Not all of them would be built, however.  It was not uncommon for the companies to fail to sell all their stock.

minute book

The Historical Society has records from several of the turnpike companies, including the Norristown, Bridgeport and King of Prussia Turnpike Road Company, now DeKalb Pike.  Originally chartered in 1848, construction began in 1853.  Shares in the company were sold for $10 apiece.  Investors didn’t see a dividend until 1885.  Soon after that, the road was “freed,” meaning it was transferred to public ownership (the company received $11,000 in this case) and tolls were no longer collected.

We also have records for the Plymouth and Upper Dublin Turnpike (Butler Pike).  Started in 1853, it wasn’t until 1857 that the company was ready to collect tolls.  Charles Dewees was paid $5 a month and use of a house and two acres for manning the tollgate at Broad Axe.


A toll house on York Road in Cheltenham

When automobiles began appearing on the roads, some of the turnpike companies decided to take advantage of what was then a luxury only the very rich could afford.  The Chestnut Hill and Springhouse Turnpike (now Bethlehem Pike) raised the toll from 1 or 2 cents a mile to 25 cents a mile.  When the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike did the same, drivers in Norristown went to court.  The company settled outside of court.  Rates were lowered to 2 cents a mile for a 1 seat car and 3 cents for a two seat car.


The tolls on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike in 1917

Cars brought new problems as well.  In 1913, an automobile accident on the Springhouse and Hilltown Turnpike caused headaches for the company.  Soon after the accident, correspondence of the board of managers begins to question if the company could be maintained much longer.  It was freed in 1921.


The last privately held turnpike on our county was the Springhouse and Penllyn Turnpike.  It was freed in 1923.

Thursday, 02 November 2017 20:32

The Village of Three Tuns

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3 tuns

Located at the corner of Butler Pike and Norristown Road, the village of Three Tuns in Upper Dublin township derives its name from a tavern built at that intersection.  The tavern, built in the mid-eighteenth century by Jacob Timanus, had three wine casks (also called “tuns”) on its sign.  In 1803, John Collom began operating the Three Tuns Inn at the same location.


The inn was the center of public life in the village for many decades.  Various meetings, including the first meeting of the Association for the Recovery of Stolen Horses, Detention of Horse Thieves, and Obtaining Other Stolen Property, were held there, as were the earliest court sessions in the township.  The inn burned down in 1948.


Clement Jones built his store in 1834 across the street from the Three Tuns Inn,.  It also served as the village’s post office, and it was the first home of the Union Library of Upper Dublin until the library moved into Ambler in 1888.  This building was demolished in 1907 when Wilmer Atkinson bought the property for his new mansion.  Atkinson was the publisher of the Farm Journal.



A humorous pair of portraits of Wilmer Atkinson from a booklet celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Farm Journal

Atkinson had been raised in Three Tuns and returned to the area after the success of the Farm Journal.  He allowed the public free access to his large property and built a new post office for the community.  He also bought the gained control of the corporation that owned and ran Butler Pike, and, according to Edward Hocker, was known to hand out boxes of strawberries at the toll gate.  He died in 1920.



Thursday, 26 October 2017 19:55

The Bubbling Springs of Spring Mill

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Spring Mill Copy

There is one corner of Whitemarsh Township known as Spring Mill.  Until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century it was the populous village in Whitemarsh and the township’s industrial center.  Situated along the Schuylkill, the village was once home to numerous mills and furnaces.  Much of its early success can be traced back to the spring that gave the village its name.

The earliest mill in the area was built right next to the bubbling springs around 1690.  James K. Helms reported in his “Historical Notes” article of July 4, 1927, that George Washington bought flour and corn from this mill.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the first water main was built over the springs, by Charles Hamilton to supply his paper company and some private homes with water.


The springs bubble up from underground streams in two spots in the shallow lagoon they form.  Helms writes, “Both of these bubble up in a curious manner, spreading a number of continually forming and dissolving rings over the surface.”  Helms estimated that they released 4.5 million gallons a day with enough force to throw up small stones and bits of flint.


The underground waterways appear in some of the stories of Charles Heber Clark, resident of nearly Conshochocken.  In one story locals repeatedly try to bury a coffin that falls into the subterranean streams and washes in the river every time.

The old mill was still operating in 1927 when James K. Helms wrote his article about it.  He mentions several times how old it looked.  It finally burned down in 1967 and the stone foundation as demolished soon after.  The miller’s house still stands, however, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The springs are still there, too, according to Philip and Sharon Welsh's book Conshohocken in Vintage Postcards.  Located off of Barren Hill Road, the springs are overgrown and no longer visible from the road.

Thursday, 19 October 2017 19:56

Two explosions in Conshohocken

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In the nineteenth century the Montgomery county towns along the Schuylkill were busy industrial centers.  These mills provided good jobs for many, but they also meant that Montgomery County had its share of industrial accidents.

On February 3, 1873, at about a quarter past four in the afternoon, a boiler at the John Wood & Bros. foundry and rolling mill exploded, killing a total of fourteen people, including 2 boys who were working at the Albion Printworks, across the canal 150 feet away from the boiler’s original position.  

An engineer named W. Barnet Le Van wrote up an explanation of the event for the Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1873.  He explains that the boys were working in the kier (a vat in which cloth is bleached).  The friction of the 5,500 pound boiler hitting the kier caused the cloth inside to ignite.

boiler FI

The county convened a jury to investigate the accident and determined that the explosion was caused by the age of the boiler (it had been in operation for 20 years).  Le Van argued that the flues were too small for the amount of pressure the boiler was running, 85 pounds per inch.  He also argues that in inexpensive hydraulic test would prevent future accidents.


Records of the incident were donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County by William A. Cooper in 1950.  These records include medical bills for the injured and funeral bills for the dead.


Bill for room and board for one of the injured men.


Doctor's bill from the accident.


Funeral bill labeled "McNulty," presumably for James McNulty, one of the boys killed.

Long time residents of the county will of course remember another explostion in the area, the 1971 gas explosion that happened in West Conshohocken on the night of January 27.  That explosion happened on a residential street, and 15 homes were destroyed by the explosion and the resulting fire.  Four people died in the tragedy.  Volunteer fire fighter Joseph W. Powers was struck by debris.  He was only 19 years old when he died. 

WC explosion


Two children, Michelle Pruitt (7) and Michael Pruitt (14) were originally declared missing.  Police searched block by block with a public address system, but by the next day both their bodies had been recovered.  Their grandfather, Calbert Rupp died as a result of the wounds he received in the fire.

We don't have any primary sources for the 1971 explosion; it's probably too recent history for people to think of donating it to us.  Do you remember that night?


Wednesday, 11 October 2017 20:12

Science or Fiction?

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Experimentation with medical devices to cure ailments is common among every culture throughout much of human history. Even today it is nearly impossible to turn on the television or log onto the internet without seeing an advertisement for a new cure for a common ailment. However, as many of us know, some of these medical devices do not cure the ailments described in their advertisements.

At HSMC, we have a collection of medical devices that were used in Montgomery County. One of these devices is an example of a medical device that did not cure the ailments described in advertisements. Dr. Young’s rectal dilators were advertised as a permanent relief of piles, constipation, nervousness, dyspepsia, sick headache, neuralgia, rheumatism, insomnia, asthma, indigestion, eczema, and all diseases caused by sluggish circulation, malnutrition, defective elimination and the abuse of cathartic drugs. It was even claimed that these dilators could be a cure for insanity.[1]

rectal dilators

Made by F.E. Young & Co., these dilators were used by many Americans around the turn of the 20th century. In 1940, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York seized a shipment of these dilators, claiming they were misbranded. This lead to many legal cases, including one in Philadelphia, which revealed the dilators did not have any proven scientific cure for every ailment they claimed to fix.[2] The FDA eventually labeled the product to be hazardous to a person’s health if it was used as frequently as the company advised its customers.

rectal dilator advertizement

[1] Editorial Comments. The New Way. Medical News. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea's Son & Company. April 29, 1893. p. 471.

[2] U.S. National Library of Medicine, “335. Misbranding of Dr. Young's Rectal Dilators and Dr. Young's Piloment. U. S. v. 67 Sets of Dr. Young's Rectal Dilators and 83 Packages of Dr. Young's Piloment. Default decrees of condemnation and destruction.”
March 1942,

Thursday, 05 October 2017 19:45

The Junior Literati of the Trappe

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Earlier this week, our curator turned up an interesting book in her inventory of our museum collection.


The minute book of the Junior Literati of the Trappe is a small book that the group used to records its business from 1850 to 1851.  At some point after 1851, the book was reused as a scrapbook and newspaper articles were pasted on top of the minutes.


This kind of repurposing was very common in the nineteenth century.  The Historical Society has at least a dozen scrapbooks that were repurposed ledgers or even printed books.

At an even later point, someone decided the minutes of the Literati Society were more interesting than the newspaper articles.  This might have been someone here at the Historical Society or it might have been before the book came to us.  That person had mixed success in removing the pasted on newsprint, but the palimpsest underneath gives a good idea of what the club was about.


Meetings took place at the Augustus Lutheran Church, often called the Old Trappe Church, and the group met weekly.  It consisted of young men, probably teenagers based on some quick searching on


At the end of each meeting a topic of discussion or question for debate was offered. 

Can the Union be dissolved for under any circumstances?  The group resolved that no, it couldn’t.

Is the world was advancing in moral improvement?  There was disagreement.

They also debated the use of the Bible in common (public) schools, whether George Washington was entitled to more honor than Christopher Columbus, and whether one obtains more information from reading or from traveling.

The minutes end early in 1851 and give no indication of what happened to the club.  About one dozen pages were cut of the book, and the last sixteen pages are blank.  It may have been a short-lived club.  On the other hand, maybe someday we'll find more records from this group.

Thursday, 21 September 2017 18:44

Florex Gardens

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blog329 copy

Did you know that at the beginning of the 20th century, the largest green house in the world was here in Montgomery County?

Florex Gardens was built in 1907 in Upper Gwynedd, just across from the North Wales train station.


These pictures were donated by David E. Groshens in 1954.  This photo gives a great sense of its size, but if you’d like exact numbers, here they are:

North Wales007

700 feet long

172 feet wide

35 feet high

The green house was located right by the tracks of the North Penn Railroad.  The company primarily grew flowers, and a note that came with the photographs says that the greenhouse could grow nearly 100,000 rose bushes at once.

The greenhouses were dismantled in 1951, and the land was sold to Leeds and Northrup, a manufacturer of electronic parts.  This part of Upper Gwynedd became an industrial area with other manufacturers like Zenith and Sharp and Dohme, which can be seen in the upper left hand corner of this photo.

North Wales003

The solvents used by those and other companies led to the EPA declaring the area a Superfund site in 1989.

In the 1990’s Leeds and Northrup moved production to Florida, and Merck bought the land for an expansion.  Last year, Merck donated nine acres of the property to the Wissahickon Watershed, and it was opened as a public greenspace called “Dodsworth Run Preserve.”

Wednesday, 13 September 2017 20:14

Why Do We Decorate Eggs?

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Decorating eggs for crafts and religious holidays is prominent in American culture, but have you ever wondered why we decorate eggs? While the precise date of the first decorated egg is not known, historians have uncovered decorated eggs from as early as the middle stone age![1] Since eggs symbolize life, renewal, and rebirth, many cultures around the world continue to decorate eggs for religious ceremonies.[2]

While decorating eggs is a common form of decorative arts, how people decorate eggs varies. Before you decorate the egg, there are three options: drain the egg, cook the egg, or decorate as it is. Many people choose to drain or cook the egg because this process increases the life-expectancy of the egg. If the egg was not drained or cooked, weak parts of the shell could crack over time and cause the interior liquid to seep through the cracks.

Once the egg has been prepared, or not, the decorator can use dyes, plants, wax, and carving tools to create their design. To this day, people are still exploring new ways to decorate their eggs.


At HSMC, we have a beautiful collection of decorated eggs. However, one in particular stood out to our volunteers during our inventory project. This beautiful decorated egg dates back to 1832. Upon removal from the box, we encountered a powerful smell. Once we examined the egg, we realized it had never been drained! Miraculously, the liquid interior never leaked through the shell. Due to its age, we determined that anything left on the inside of the egg has likely turned to powder.

Egg 1832   

The artwork on the egg is in amazing condition. We can clearly see the designs of people, flowers, and a clock tower. One mystery that remains is: Who created this decorated egg? The initials “E.N.” are on the egg, but we have not been able to uncover this person’s name. Based on the clothing styles of the people depicted on the egg, it is possible the decorator was a middle or upper class woman who lived in Montgomery County.

Egg, Woman

[1] Stephanie Hall, The Ancient Art of Decorating Eggs, April 6, 2017,

[2] Stephanie Hall, The Ancient Art of Decorating Eggs, April 6, 2017,

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