Displaying items by tag: Norristown

Wednesday, 22 May 2024 13:55

Nelson Dairies

This is the time of year when most people enjoy frozen treats like ice cream. In the collection at HSMC, we have an emery board advertising a local ice cream maker from our county.

Nelson emery board

Emery Board Advertising Nelson Dairies, 2023.044.002, HSMC Collection

Nelson Dairies started as a family dairy business in Royersford in 1916. They created their first ice cream in 1935 and became a corporation in 1946. The original flavors were vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and peach. At their peak in Royersford, the business made over 40 different flavors of ice cream.

You may have noticed the emery board we have mentions Norristown with the phone number 0406. That's because the company also had a location in Norristown. From about 1936 to 1957, Nelson Dairies appears in the Norristown Directories. They were located at 1920 W. Marshall Street.

Nelson 1936

1936 Norristown City Directories, HSMC Collection

Their Royersford Ice Cream shop officially closed in 2013 and the next year they re-branded as Nelson's Creamery under new ownership. According to their website, as of 2019, Nelson's Creamery was launching new flavors, containers, and design. As of now, I have not been able to locate information stating what became of the company since then.


Published in Found in Collection
Wednesday, 13 March 2024 21:03

The Venezuelan Volcano

Hollywood stars have a wide range of backgrounds. One star in particular has a connection to Montgomery County. Burnu Aquanetta, also known as the Venezuelan Volcano, was a rising star in the early 1940s. She originally told agents she was from Venezuela, hence the nickname Venezuela Volcano.

october 17 1942

Norristown Times Herald, October 17, 1942, HSMC Microfilm Collection

Aquanetta was a model in New York City when she was first discovered by a publicity agent. She also attracted the attention of columnist Elsa Maxwell at the El Morrocco night club. Maxwell helped to introduce Aquanetta to people in Hollywood.

When one agent asked to see her Venezuelan passport, Aquanetta admitted she had never been to Venezuela. She then claimed she was born in Wyoming and her parents, members of the Arapaho Tribe, died when she was young. She went on to claim she was adopted by another member of the tribe named Linda, but ultimately ran away when she was a teenager. Her story continued that she followed a gypsy camp until she finally ended up in New York.

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Norristown Times Herald, October 17, 1942, HSMC Microfilm Collection

There were also stories circulated at Universal Studios that Aquanetta was born in the West and adopted by New England artists Don and Ann Brothers. This story continued by saying she was a member of the Narragansett Tribe.

Ultimately, on October 17, 1942, an article in the Norristown Times Herald revealed Burnu Aquanetta's real name was Mildred Davenport. The article described her as "the girl who fooled Hollywood". She lived on Green Street in Norristown and graduated from Norristown High School in 1938. Some of you may remember a 2022 blog post I wrote about her brother, Judge Horace A. Davenport.

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Norristown Times Herald, October 17, 1942, HSMC Microfilm Collection

So why did she make up the stories about being Venezuelan and Native American? The most common explanation I found was that she wanted to work in Hollywood, but did not want to be turned away for being African American.

Published in Found in Collection
Wednesday, 24 January 2024 19:57

The Dill Company

One question people often ask me is "How do you research some of the items in HSMC's collection?" This depends a lot on the type of item in question and what we already know about it from the donor's records. For example, there are some items, like this medicine bottle pictured below, that come to us with limited information.

dill 3

Medicine Bottle, The Dill Co., HSMC Collection, 2013.016.020

For this piece, we can see that it is labeled "The Dill Co." on one side and "Norristown, PA" on the other. Based on its size and shape, we can guess it was likely a medicine bottle from either the late 1800s or early 1900s. Beyond that, we really did not know anything about this Dill Company.

Since it was a business, the best place to start searching was our Norristown City Directories. Sure enough, from 1908 to 1931 I found references to Dill Co. and Dill Medicine Co. under the "Patent Medicines" section. The directories list C. H. Alderfer as the president.

dill 5

Medicine Bottle, The Dill Medicine Co., HSMC Collection, 2013.016.009

Now the question remains, who started this business? Based on my searches, I know there was a Dr. Wallace W. Dill (1877-1953) living in Norristown at the same time the company operated. We also have two other medicine bottles connected to this company. One is labeled "Prof. W. W. Dill" and the other is labeled "The Dill Medicine Co." The one with Prof. Dill's label is my personal favorite because the bottle was supposed to hold something called the "Balm of Life". I wonder what could have originally been held in that bottle.

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Medicine Bottle, Balm of Life, HSMC Collection, 2013.016.010

Anyway, although Dr. Wallace W. Dill's address was not the same as the Dill Company's address, it is still very possible that he was the creator of this company. As for C. H. Alderfer, if I found the correct person, Clayton H. Alderfer served in the Norristown Banking industry at this time. Perhaps he helped Dr. Dill with a loan or money matters and was thus made the president of the company.


Published in Found in Collection
Tuesday, 09 January 2024 17:37

Jacob Strahley

For our first blog of 2024, we are going to look at a beautiful secretary at HSMC. When unlocking the drop-down front, it reveals a series of additional drawers and a prospect door. The prospect door was designed to store more important documents that could be kept behind a separate lock.

196711262001 2

Secretary, 1967.11262.001, Bequeathed by Mrs. Flora High Taeffner, a descendant of the maker

This secretary is made from bird's eye maple and Circassian walnut. It was made around 1850 by a Norristown cabinetmaker, Jacob Strahley. It was bequeathed to HSMC by Mrs. Flora High Taefner, who allegedly was a descendant of Strahley.

Strahley was born in 1827 and was a long-time cabinetmaker in Norristown. His business was listed at a few different addresses on Main Street throughout his career, which lasted from at least 1850 until the 1880s. By the end of his career, he was suffering from Bright's disease, which made it difficult for him to keep working as a cabinetmaker.


Secretary, 1967.11262.001, Bequeathed by Mrs. Flora High Taeffner, a descendant of the maker

He married Andora "Annie" Missimer on January 26, 1860 at the Nazareth Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Together they had a daughter, Sallie M. Hallowell. When Jacob Strahley died on May 3, 1887, he was believed to be one of the oldest cabinetmakers in Norristown. Jacob is said to have only had one heir at the time of his death, Sallie's son Strahley Hallowell.

Jacob, Andora, and Sallie are all buried in Section A, Lot 40-42 at Historic Montgomery Cemetery.


Published in Found in Collection

Often when we consider buildings or locations as historic in Pennsylvania, we immediately think of events such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War or time periods such as the Colonial era. However, there are some historic places that are more modern. They could have been built during your lifetime or that of a parent's or grandparent's. One such example is the Gen. Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory. As far as General Thomas J. Stewart is concerned, we have written about him previously when we had his sword on display. Feel free to revisit that article here:

Ceremonial groundbreaking of armory
Ceremonial groundbreaking for the armory. Photograph from the HSMC Photographs Collection.

The armory, sometimes referred to as the Norristown Armory, was built between 1927-1928 and is located at 340 Harding Blvd in Norristown. The architects were Philip H. Johnson and Frank R. Herong. Presently the building houses the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League (EDIT 2023-06-09: thanks to some of our followers on Facebook we confirmed that it is no longer owned by PAL but is instead owned by Norristown and functions as a recreation center. This just goes to show you that you should always double check your sources and nobody is perfect!). During its early years it served as an armory for the National Guard, including the years of the second world war.

On July 12, 1991, the Gen. Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory garnered a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Headline from Times Herald, July 27th, 1991 page 5.

Are there other, more modern, buildings that deserve a spot on the National Register? In our almost 250 years as a county, we certainly have a lot of history and continue to make more of it everyday. Maybe one day a place you have often visited will be considered historic. It could even be within your lifetime.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 21 October 2021 19:48

Some Norristown grocery stores


This week, we accessioned an interesting item – a poster advertising a 25 cent sale at Almar Gocery stores. So, in addition to highlighting it, I thought we could look at a few items in our collection related to local grocery stores.  The poster is undated, but the reverse of the poster lists three locations of Almar markets in Norristown and one in Jeffersonville.

In the 19th century, grocery shopping looked very different than it does today. The stores were much smaller and there seems to be have been one on each corner. Here’s part of the list from the 1890 Norristown city directory:


Our earliest photograph of a grocery store (I think) is this one of Ephraim Bickel’s store, which first appears in the directory in 1880. At that time it was located at 400 W. Marshall St. In 1882, the store is listed at 419 W. Marshall St., the building you see here.


Around 1890, the listing for the store changes to being owned by Harry Bickel. Seeing the same building, ten years apart, lets us see how Norristown developed at the end of the 19th century. In the first photo, the lot next to the store is empty, but in the second, another building has filled it in. In both images, the street appears unpaved.


William Wismer’s store was at the corner of Willow and Elm. Looking at that spot on Google maps, you can see it’s the same building.



Willow and Elm

This store, Bean Brothers, first appears in the directory in 1910, which I suspect is when the photo was taken. Located on Main St., you can see it’s paved with bricks. There’s also a sewer clearly visible.


In stores like these, customers would have ordered groceries at a counter instead of pushing a cart through wide aisles. The modern sort of self-service grocery store was developed in 1916 in Memphis. It spread through the country and led to the modern supermarket we know today.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 23 September 2021 19:40

McDivitt’s drug store


A delivery truck for McDivitt's decorated for Halloween

Yesterday I sat down with our photograph collection (even I need a break from old books), and scanned a collection that came to the Historical Society in 1988 from John and Martha Shinn. The photographs feature Hooven Rutty of Norristown and his family. Hooven worked at McDivitt’s Drug Store on Main Street for most of his working life.


Hooven behind the counter

Joseph McDivitt began his drug business in 1909. He first appears in the 1910-1912 Boyd’s City Directory as a seller of patent medicines at 315 DeKalb St. in Norristown.  According to his obituary in the Norristown Times-Herald, the business grew quickly, and he moved to a larger space around 1916.  That location, 75 E. Main Street, was gutted by fire in 1926.  


Norristown, c. 1920, showing a sign for McDivitt's Cut Rate Store

McDivitt worked out of a space in the new completed Valley Forge Hotel before moving to 7 W. Main St. where the business would remain until the 1970's.


Joseph McDivitt

Joseph McDivitt died in 1938, but it looks like his widow, Esther, continued to own the store hiring other managers to run it. Later, in the 1960’s the store passed to new owners.


Hooven B. Rutty shaking hands with Esther McDivitt

Hooven B. Rutty was born in Norristown in 1880. He married Hannah Shinn in 1921. He was already working at McDivitt’s by that point. Hooven worked for the drug store from the 1910’s until he retired, probably around 1960.


Hooven as a young man

 In the 1970’s the name changed to Quality Drug Store, but soon after that it disappears from the directories.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 20 May 2021 18:57

Henry K. Bussa and Norristown Concrete


Recently we accessioned an interesting album of photographs of a company called Norristown Concrete. The photographs were taken by Henry K. Bussa, a local photographer who was active for over 50 years.


Bussa was born in Honesdale, Pa. in 1881, and his first photography job was in Wilkes-Barre, according to obituary in the Times-Herald from 1957. The article describes a little of what that job was like:

“All of the work of the photographer in those days had to be done in daylight as the facilities for making pictures by artificial light were not yet developed. The printing room was on the roof, with glass on all four sides. In the small room all the negatives were printed. In the Summertime [sic] the temperature reached 110 degrees or more.”

In 1905 he opened his studio in Norristown, where he was mainly a portrait photographer. He expanded into commercial photography in the 1920’s and later added framing.

We have many examples of his photographs, easily identified by his signature in the lower right hand corner. The majority of our photographs are of local civic groups and schools, usually graduating classes and sports teams. These are the first photographs of an industrial site I’ve seen by Bussa.

Even though they are photographs of an industrial plant, I think they show life at a slower pace. Norristown Concrete, according to the 1925 City Directory, was located at the foot of Barbadoes Street, right on the Schuylkill River. In this photo a rowboat sits lazily on the bank.


Here, there’s some laundry drying on a line next to piles of concrete blocks.


There are two interior photos in the book that show some of the equipment used in manufacturing concrete in the 1920’s as well as two of the plant’s employees.


Norristown concrete seems to have gone out of business in the mid-1930’s. Bussa died in 1957.

Published in Found in Collection
Wednesday, 12 May 2021 15:50

Burgess Rev. J. Elmer Saul

We recently received some digital pictures depicting former Norristown Buress, Rev. John Elmer Saul. He was born on November 2, 1872 in Maidencreek, Berks County. He was a reverend at the First Baptist Church of Pottstown prior to coming to Norristown. 

J Elmer Saul with wife Eleanor Nellie Saul, L to R   Ruth Saul, Frances Saul ,Raymond Saul (2)

From left to right - J. Elmer Saul, wife Eleanor "Nellie" Saul, Ruth Saul, Frances Saul, Raymond Saul.

Saul was elected Burgess in a close, three-way race in 1913. He narrowly won election by 23 votes! Saul was the Washington Party candidate. This was a progressive third party that split from the Republican Party around 1912. Outside of Pennsylvania it is referred to as the Progressive Party or Bull Moose Party. Saul's competitors were Republican Abraham D. Hallman and Democrat T. J. Baker.


Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 1913

Saul's term as Burgess occurred just before Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Saul was known for his support of Prohibition and thus frequently pushed for anti-alcohol policies in the borough. He remained Burgess until 1918. Based on an article in the Evening Public Ledger, it seems Saul chose not to run again for office. Samuel D. Crawford was elected as his replacement.

Eureka Printing Press on Barbadoes St Norristown (1)

Eureka Printing Press Advertisement

In addition to being Burgess, Saul was an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Norristown. He was often credited for his superb speaking abilities. In addition to his religious work, Saul founded the Eureka Printing Press Company in 1902. This company was located on Barbadoes St. in Norristown.

Back row Ruth Saul, Raymond Saul. First row J Elmer Saul, Helen Saul in lap, Eleanor Saul, Frances Saul (1)

Back Row - Ruth Saul and Raymond Saul. Front Row - J. Elmer Saul, Helen Saul (in lap), Eleanor Saul, Frances Saul.

Thank you Susan Weidner Novak for sending us these digital images and information about Burgess Saul!



Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 1913.


Evening public ledger. (Philadelphia [Pa.]) 1914-1942, November 07, 1917, Final, Page 10, Image 10 “Wets and Drys”

The Bankers Encyclopedia, Volume 47,

Industrial Directory of Pennsylvania, Volume 2


Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 04 March 2021 18:36

Schissler College


The Albertson Trust Building, showing Schissler College on the second floor

Recently one of our members sent me a link to a postcard for a long forgotten business school in Norristown and suggested it might make an interesting topic for this blog. I recognized the name from some items in our collection and thought maybe others would find it interesting.

Schissler College began as a night school founded by the 23 year old A. J. Schissler in 1887. Schissler had been born in Manayunk and attended school only to the age of nine when he was sent to work at a local mill. He continued his education by attending night school and at 21 he took a business class and was able to begin clerical work at a local grain merchant. He began the school by teaching in his home two nights a week, but soon expanded to nightly classes in separate buildings. Day classes began in 1890.


The following year, Schissler founded a second school in Norristown. Housed in the Albertson Trust Company building at the corner of Main and Swede Streets, it had classes during the day and in the evenings for both men and women.


Example of shorthand from the 1896 prospectus

Courses at the college included bookkeeping, commercial law, penmanship, shorthand, and typing. Students could also choose an academic course “for pupils who contemplate a more complete course of study, but are not prepared to enter upon it, because of lack of early education.” French, Italian, and Spanish were also available for an addition fee of $5 per month.


The college also maintained an employment bureau for its students, and the college prospectus has a long list of firms at which it has placed students. In addition to three years of the college’s catalogs, we also have a graduation booklet from 1896. That year, the Norristown College graduated 53 men and 64 women in a ceremony at the Grand Opera House.

I don’t know how long the college lasted. The latest record I could find of it was this 1915 advertisement from the Conshohocken Reporter.

schissler ad

Published in Found in Collection
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