Current and Coming features detailed information about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania. Originated as “Currents.” Retitled “Current and Coming,” Winter 2003, and then retitled “Out and About,” Fall 2005. Revived as “Current and Coming,” Winter 2013. Ran regularly, Spring 1984 to Spring 2008, and then occasionally, Winter 2013 to Spring 2015.

Wrecks and Rescues

In the early nineteenth century, the shore posed great danger to sailing ships seeking to reach port. The long and lonely approaches to coastal cities, such as Philadelphia, were poorly marked stretches of sand dunes and salt marshes with a few isolated settlements. Unexpected storms with winds blowing from the northeast could suddenly force a ship onto perilous sandbars extending from three hundred to as many as eight hundred yards offshore. It might take hours – even days – before a stranded ship was discovered. Passengers and crew who attempted to swim ashore most often drowned or suffered from extreme effects of exposure to cold water. For those who made it to land, there was often no place along the desolate coast to find help.

Coastal communities struggled to assist shipwrecks, but inadequate equipment and a lack of skills hampered rescue attempts. In 1848 and again in 1854, the federal government allocated money to build and equip small “houses of refuge” along the coasts of New Jersey and Long Island, but a more comprehensive rescue system was needed.

The U.S. Life Saving Service (USLSS) was established in the mid-nineteenth century. Designated superintendent in 1878, Sumner Kimball created a uniformed service that provided an efficient rescue network in stark contrast to the earlier volunteer and community assistance groups. Kimball’s improvements, in conjunction with extensive personnel reforms, which required drills, practice sessions, and planning for the orderly expansion of the service, ensured the long-term success of the new organization. Kimball encouraged research and development of new rescue technologies and techniques. Among the innovations inspired by experience and ingenuity were the Coston Flare, Lyle Gun, Francis Life Car, breeches buoy, surfboat, and lifeboat.

When a surfman discovered a wreck during a routine foot patrol, an entire crew sprung into action, pulling a beach cart full of equipment along the sandy shoreline, frequently covering a distance of several miles. In addition to rudimentary medical supplies, a typical beach cart may have contained flares, lanterns, and powder flasks.

In order to ensure long-term Congressional and public support for the USLSS, Kimball maintained an ambitious and prolific public relations force. Spellbinding stories, accompanied by gripping woodcut illustrations, of grisly wrecks and valiant rescue efforts appeared in popular periodicals of the day, including Harpers’ Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Scientific American.

From its origins along the Atlantic Coast, the USLSS expanded to the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Coast, eventually becoming a national network of professionally operated stations that provided help to distressed ships. New stations, which reflected modern efficiency and design, were constructed in Victorian period architectural styles to complement resort buildings and summer houses characteristic of seashore communities. Several standard designs were employed across the country, allowing modifications to accommodate local conditions or taste.

By 1915, the successful national service that Sumner Kimball carefully created and methodically groomed over the course of forty years was beginning to dissolve. The USLSS, along with the Revenue Cutter Service and the Light­house Service, became the genesis for an entirely new branch of the federal government: the United States Coast Guard. Motor power and improved navigational equipment reduced the risk of shipwrecks as formerly desolate shorelines grew into thriving coastal resorts. During its existence, the USLSS aided more than twenty-eight thousand ships, an incredible record of service and achievement.

An exhibit entitled “Wrecks and Rescues: The History of the U.S. Life Saving Service” is on view at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia through Sunday, December 28, 1997. The exhibition features a wide variety of objects and artifacts drawn from both public and private collections, including an 1887 twenty-seven-foot-long Merry­man Lifeboat, an authentic Life Car, uniforms, life saving medals, a breeches buoy, and paintings, prints, and photographs. Lenders to the exhibition include the Philadelphia Art Museum, United States Coast Guard Museum, National Archives, CIGNA Museum and Art Collection, Delaware Art Museum, Mariners’ Museum, and the National Park Service, among others.

“Wrecks and Rescues: The History of the U.S. Life Saving Service,” funded in part by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, will be accompanied by several public programs this fall.

Independence Seaport Museum, dedicated to exploring the maritime heritage of the Delaware River, Delaware Bay, and their tributaries, opened on Philadelphia’s waterfront in July 1995, after serving more than thirty-five years as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum. The museum is open daily, from 1O A.M. to 5 P.M. Admission is charged; discounted rates for groups are available.

For additional information, write: Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, 211 South Columbus Blvd. and Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106-3199; or telephone (215) 925-5439.


Fraktur Frenzy

This year is proving to be a banner year for fraktur. A plethora of exhibitions, conferences, and publications throughout Pennsylvania and beyond is reexam­ining the history of the early American decorated manuscripts that have been prized by private collectors and public institutions for years. Most fraktur, which date from the mid-eighteenth century through the present, are personal records such as birth and baptismal certificates, family registers, and marriage certificates made by and for Pennsylvania Germans and German Americans. One of the most distinctive and colorful forms of early art, this manuscript illumination by the Commonwealth’s German settlers is noted for its vivid hues and stylized decoration (see “The Pennsylvania Germans’ Gentle Art” by Karen M. Fox in the Winter 1987 edition).

“The Prints and the Penmen,” a major exhibition which recently opened at the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County, traces the origins and evolution of fraktur from examples drawn about 1740 at Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, through the printed forms of the nineteenth century, to those being made today. The exhibition showcases a wide variety of printed forms, several of which will surprise even those visitors well-acquainted with this genre. Various types of fraktur are featured in “The Prints and the Penmen,” and the sixty-five examples – borrowed from private and public collections – include tauf­scheine (birth or baptism certificates), watercolors, bookplates, religious texts, vorschrifts (writing samples), and Bible records. The exhibition also illustrates how fraktur motifs, and especially the angels found on tauf­scheine, carried over to other art forms, such as textiles, including a possibly unique sampler, and paint-decorated furniture (see “Finding the Fabulous Furniture of the Mahan­tongo Valley” by Henry M. Reed in the Fall 1995 edition).

For many who thought they knew much about fraktur, time-honored tenets are beginning to crumble. The Heritage Center Museum’s exhibition dispels the common belief that sharp distinctions can be made between fraktur printed on a press and those made by hand by important eighteenth-century makers Henrich Otto, Friederick Krebs, Henrich Dulheuer, and Friedrich Speyer, among others. “The Prints and the Penmen” demonstrates that such distinctions be­tween major artists of hand-done fraktur and the penmen who relied on prints are blurred. Major artists did use prints. In fact, they used prints more often than first estimated. Before his death in 1815, Friederick Krebs purchased more than seven thousand prints from printers in Reading, Berks County. Most of Henrich Otto’s fraktur were printed forms, produced at Ephrata beginning about 1784. Henrich Dulheuer and Friedrich Speyer used prints almost exclusively. Ironically, Dulheuer is considered a major artist, but not a single freehand example by him is known. He appears to have avoided decorating fraktur, preferring to print the bird panels that flank text on his works at Ephrata Cloister’s print shop (see “Pushing William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ to its Limits: Ephrata Cloister” by John Bradley in the Summer 1996 issue).

Another misconception is the contention that major artists worked early (some claim before 1800) and the scriv­eners worked late. Scriveners on printed forms actually began much earlier than previously believed. Major artists Henry Young (1792-1861), Daniel Peterman (1797-1871), and Samuel Bentz (1792-1850), often called the “Mount Pleasant Artist,” did not embark on their fraktur careers until well after the opening of the nineteenth century.

A widely held notion that tauf­scheine were as popular in Europe as in America is also disproved by “The Prints and the Penmen.” American fraktur had its roots in European decorated manuscripts, but the tauf­scheine itself is rare in Europe. Most of the manuscripts so artfully embellished in European countries were religious texts. The most similar piece in Europe is the taufzedel, or taufpatenbrief, which was paper presented during the baptism ceremony by the baptism spon­sors. Unlike their American counterparts, which contain names, dates, and locations, the taufzedel bear only the names of the sponsors-not the names of the child and the parents.

“The Prints and the Penmen” helps place the fraktur tradition in context, and graphically illustrates its evolution. The exhibition shows how, after the Civil War, printers increasingly took over the design of fraktur, even though the im­mensely popular printed angel style continued to dominate the market through most of the nineteenth century.

Funded in part by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, “The Prints and the Penmen” continues through Tuesday, December 30 [1997]. Visiting hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM. to 5 P.M. Admission is free.

On Saturday, October 18, the Heritage Center Museum will host a symposium focusing on the history of fraktur in Lancaster County. Historian and author Frederick Weiser will give the keynote address entitled “Short Cut, Mass Production, and Dead End.” Panelists and speakers include well known fraktur scholars and Americana experts. A fraktur documentation workshop and fraktur conservation demonstration will also be offered.

Additional information about the exhibition and symposium is available by writing: Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County, 13 West King St., Lancaster, PA 17603-3813; or by tele­phoning (717) 299-6440.


Fish Stories

In 1881, the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society in Wilkes-Barre received an official request from the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries. Alarmed by the disappearance of the American shad – a species once synonymous with life along the Susquehanna River – the commissioner sought detailed information about areas where shad had once flourished.

The construction of numerous dams on the Susquehanna River earlier in the nineteenth century, coupled with rampant overfishing, had all but eliminated the species that had sustained life on the river for centuries. Federal fisheries officials hoped to one day return shad to the Susquehanna.

The old adage – now a timeworn cliché – that history repeats itself holds true. This year, a similar request for information has been issued. The federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program is seeking historical accounts of shad fishing along the Susquehanna River as part of a novel approach to restoring the species to the watershed. The idea behind the project, according to coordinator Carin Bisland, is to focus initial habitat restoration efforts in areas where shad once thrived. But identifying those creeks and streams has proven difficult.

Because very little historical biological information is available, researchers decided to try to collect anecdotal information. Bisland is hopeful many Penn­sylvanians have diaries, letters, family histories, or old newspaper clippings detailing spring fishing trips to tributaries throughout the river basin. Leads provided from this information will assist scientists in targeting habitat restoration and restocking efforts.

Susan Q. Shanahan, author of Susquehanna, River of Dreams (see “Bookshelf,” Summer 1995), believes this is a perfect example of using historical data to aid scientific research. Richard St. Pierre, who has spent years on the shad restoration effort as the Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Service, sees another benefit of gathering historical data. Information that shad, river herring, or other species which once inhabited a tributary could be used by fisheries officials today to protect streams from construction of new structures such as dams.

“Our goal is to eventually open the river everywhere,” says Bisland, “but the fact that an area once sustained a healthy shad population would definitely affect our decision-making about where to target our initial funding.”

If history does repeat itself, anecdotal information should literally pour in, just as it did in 1881.

The Wyoming Historical and Geological Society possessed records of shad fisheries on the North Branch dating to the 1780s. Historical society leaders decided to augment these records with their inquiry. Newspapers throughout the country carried articles about the search for shad-fishing stories. Responses arrived from Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and from many Pennsylvan­ians with vivid memories.

Eighty-nine-year-old Gilbert Fowler of Berwick recalled the Samuel Webb Fishery near Bloomsburg, Columbia County, where between eleven and twelve thousand shad were netted in a single haul. “From the banks of the river at this fishery could be seen great schools of shad coming up the river when they were a quarter of a mile distant. They came in such immense numbers and so compact as to cause or produce a wave or rising of the water in the middle of the river extending from shore to shore. These schools, containing millions, commenced coming up the river about the first of April and continued during the months of April and May. There was something very peculiar and singular in their coming.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program is looking specifically for information on how far upstream shad and herring swam on these spawning runs before blockages, such as the Conowingo Dam, which closed hundreds of miles to fish. This information will not only help target areas for restoring spawning and nursery habitat, but will assist in planting trees to provide shade, cleaning the water, and restoring tributaries, streams, and wetlands. The program is relying on stories because no one has ever documented all the places migratory fish once used throughout the watershed.