Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the early 1930s Milton S. Hershey established an Indian Museum in the town which he had built around his chocolate factory. Like the town’s amusement park, ornate theater and fa­mous Starlight Ballroom, the museum was provided as a source of enjoyment and recre­ation for Hershey’s workers and their families. In 1935, in a move which broadened the focus of the original Indian Museum, the chocolate titan bought a large and important collection that consisted pri­marily of old household arti­facts and decorative arts objects. The collection had been assembled by Lancaster County native George H. Danner between about 1870 and his death in 1917. While Danner’s interests and taste were somewhat eclectic, much like those of nineteenth anti­quarians, he concentrated his collecting mainly on house­hold artifacts used by the early inhabitants of central Pennsyl­vania, especially those of Ger­man stock. Perhaps the most important feature of Danner’s collection lies in the ordinary quality of the things he ac­quired. For the most part, they are the things that people of average means used in their homes – items that too often are not represented in muse­ums. Today, Danner’s collec­tion continues to form the core of the Hershey Museum’s diverse holdings.

George Danner was born in Manheim, Lancaster County, in 1834, the eldest of two sons born to Daniel, a wood turner, and his wife Elizabeth. George attended school in Manheim through the age of nineteen, at which time he began learning the dry goods business work­ing for David Baer in Lancas­ter. He stayed in Baer’s employ for six years, residing in a Lancaster boarding house.

In 1860, at the age of twenty-five, Danner returned to Manheim to open a general merchandise store in partner­ship with Jacob Kline. “Kline and Danner” operated in a modest two-story clapboard structure on Market Square. In 1861, as the Civil War broke out, Danner managed to avoid conscription by hiring an indi­vidual to take his place. Freed from military service, Danner prospered as a merchant, eventually buying out his partner, and in 1882 he erected a new three-story brick build­ing. He carried an assortment of products, including dry goods, groceries, shoes, queensware and men’s cloth­ing. In 1882 a reporter for the Lititz Record described the building.

It is one of the largest in this county. Its dimensions are 30 by 125, three stones high, attached to which is the shoe department, also of respectable proportions. Everything is complete in structure from top to bottom, and well filled with goods of most any kind desired. In fact we agree with a friend at our elbow who thought Mr. Danner was a second John Wanamaker. The bookkeepers’ department is nicely arranged along the side, enclosed with plate glass. The counters and shelves are of handsomely ornamented wood; the front receives its day­light through the immense glass front on either side of the en­trance, while the rear is furnished with skylights. At night no less than forty lights illume the place with gas. On the second floor front is the carpet and oilcloth room, and in the rear is the clerks’ sleeping department.

Danner employed several clerks, including his brother Aaron, to run the store. It was the clerks, in fact, who at­tended to everyday business while Danner supervised with a watchful eye. Every morning in his swallow-tail coat he would settle into a chair by a round radiator in the middle of the store. There he spent the day, observing all comings and goings, issuing orders and corrections to the clerks, and chatting in “Pennsylvania Dutch” with his customers.

Danner’s store continued to be profitable. He also became involved in other business ventures, helping to organize, and investing in, the United States Asbestos Company, Manheim Water Company, Manheim Manufacturing and Belting Company and Manheim and Keystone na­tional banks, among others. He also acquired land holdings in Seattle, Washington. Profits from his store, investment income, and money acquired through his marriage to Serena G. Weidler in 1867 made Dan­ner a wealthy man.

In 1891, Danner enlarged his store, including in his addition a complete floor de­signed specifically to house his growing collection of antiques, relics and curios. He prized his “relics,” as he called them, so much that the new room was made fire-proof, and he in­stalled an elevator to move things in and out, although visitors still had to climb two long flights of stairs to see them.

Just how and when Danner began seriously collecting is still not certain. One story contends that he literally picked up his first objects from the field at Gettysburg shortly after the battle. His obituary in the Manheim Sentinel and Lan­caster County Advertiser, how­ever, described his collecting and collection:

In 1876 Mr. Danner began the collection of antiques. He con­ceived the idea from a corner china closet which his motlier had filled with old dishes. He filled several similar closets. Them he arranged his collection in a small room, and later in a larger room, and so on until at present it fills a room 125 feet long by 19 feet w,de, and yet there is not sufficient room. His collection consists of antiques of all descriptions including furni­ture, dishes, docks. stoves, musi­cal instruments, carved and ornamental wood, in fact all things that are rare and valuable. People of prominence from all parts of the country have visited and admired this wonderful collec­tion. Mr. Danner’s collection of antiques is said to be the finest individual collection in the country. Men of authority have placed values on this collection ranging from $50,000 to $200,000.

During a period in which dramatic technological changes were taking place, George Danner had the fore­sight to preserve things from an earlier era that many people thought of as out-of-fashion or obsolete. But history held a special fascination for him. His purpose, the Philadelphia In­quirer reported in 1895, was “to awaken an interest in local history in the hearts of coming generations:’ He started his collection by saving family objects that were handed down to him by his parents. And he never failed to tell his visitors about those family associations. “Yes,” he told the Lititz Record, “and here is mother’s spinning wheel and reel, and here is her rocking chair, and the settee, and that was her bureau, as well as all the chairs in this room, and that bedstead and bedding over there in the corner was hers and u,at hat lying on the bed was father’s.”

Much of the richness asso­ciated with Danner’s collection today can be attributed to the information he provided about the owners and origins of his beloved artifacts. Many items that belonged to Danner’s parents, and some that were used by other members of his family, including his grandpar­ents, are well documented. Danner attached hand-written labels to some objects, and many others incorporate in­scriptions into their fabric. A coverlet made by Manheim weaver John Brosey, for exam­ple, contains in its border the name E. Danner, referring to George’s mother Elizabeth. A globe is inscribed “FRE­DERICK DANNER, MANHEIM, August 1834” within a heart-shaped border. Frederick, George’s uncle and a minister and schoolteacher, drew the geographical features on the wooden globe turned by his brother Daniel. “A. DANNER,” George’s grandfa­ther, Adam, owned the fire bucket that is so inscribed. The Danner family is well docu­mented by the household possessions, clothing, personal books, and business and per­sonal papers now safeguarded by the Hershey Museum. The array provides extraordinary insight into the lives of some very ordinary people.

To the family objects which formed the nucleus of his early collection, George Danner added many items of local interest and importance. Of special fascination, not only to Danner but to subsequent generations as well, were things associated with Henry William Stiegel. A reporter for the Columbia Daily News enthu­siastically recounted his visit to Danner’s museum in 1889.

The first object of attention was the old ten-plate stove made for Baron Stiegel in 1769. Although the plates were cast in coverless molds the designs are distinct and the letters read clearly: “H.M. [sic] Stiegel, Elizabeth furnace 1769.” A grist mill and a hunting scene are also depicted. The stove has been quite a traveler since it left Manheim, visiting Mt. Hope and Philadelphia and returning to Manheim only about a week ago… The ring of a silver bell is not more clear and beautiful than that of three glass finger bowls made by this same great baron in the first [sic] glass works of America located at this place, and whereon hung both fame and poverty for the enterprising nobleman.

Popular interest in Stiegel items has always been as much, if not more, the result of his reputed eccentricities and lavish living, as it was due to the beauty of the objects themselves.

Perhaps Danner’s greatest love – certainly his largest single collection – was ce­ramics. He collected English ceramics especially avidly, particularly hand-painted creamware and pearlware, and transfer-printed Staffordshire wares. Danner corresponded with, bought from, and traded with a number of other ce­ramics collectors, including Edwin Atlee Barber, whose important collection went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By the time Milton Hershey bought Danner’s museum, the ceramics collec­tion numbered more than two thousand items and repre­sented a broad range of Eng­lish wares made for export. The Philadelphia Inquirer corres­pondent who visited Danner in 1895 was certainly im­pressed by what he saw. “The largest collection by far is the glassware and china. This is arranged everywhere on the walls, forming Mr. Danner’s initials, stars, and other fanciful patterns, and on dozens of tables.”

Remarkably, the images formed by plates and soup bowls which once hung on the walls are still discernible. The third floor of Danner’s store, where he kept his museum, has remained virtually un­touched since the contents were removed to Hershey in 1935. As a result, dark shadows on the walls still show where plates. pictures, and “relics” were displayed.

Danner’s museum con­tained a broad range of objects aptly described as “relics” and “curios.” Before the advent of television, radio and movies, museum displays of curiosi­ties, rarities and oddities were a source of entertainment as well as education. Danner’s curio collection included a large case full of stuffed birds; minerals, shells, animal horns, and eggs; Indian artifacts; and objects associated with great people and significant events. In 1899, a Harrisburg resident wrote to Danner, “Dear Sir, Understanding that you appre­ciate ‘curios’ or relics, it gives me pleasure to enclose you a wooden nutmeg made from the ‘Charter Oak’ of Connecti­cut, together with a voucher thereof.” Danner also dis­played a block of wood taken from Old Ironsides, a deep glass-covered frame containing “Relics from the ruins of the Reading Silk Mill which was destroyed by a Cyclone,” and a tripod table with a marquetry top “said to contain 7600 pieces and … made by monks who lived on the Madeira Islands.” Unquestionably, the greatest curio of all was the famous “Apostolic Clock,” which every hour presented a tableau depicting Christ bless­ing his Apostles, along with other symbolic and religious figures. The clock was given to Danner, so the story goes, by its maker, John Fiester. Danner apparently cared for Fiester during a period of illness, and Fiester gave Danner the monu­mental dock out of gratitude.

Danner’s collecting took him beyond his family and beyond Manheim, throughout central and southeastern Penn­sylvania, occasionally out of state. The Manheim Sun reported in 1891 that Danner had recently purchased from a woman in Chicago a table “upon which General Lafay­ette took his meals during his visit to Baltimore in 1824.” Danner also bought things for his museum at the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 and the Alaska-Yukon­-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. He purchased primarily souvenirs.

Danner developed quite a reputation as a collector of things old and antiquated. He regularly received letters offering sales or donations of what many people were anxious to dis­pose. Danner himself was active in seeking out appropriate old things, making regular forays into the countryside. After his death, a former clerk, John Gish, recalled the story of how Danner found an eighteenth-century schrank. “The large wardrobe with the legend ‘1768 P H W S P’ and very beautifully inlaid, and with rat tail hinges was discov­ered by Mr. Danner in the barn of a Mr. Shriner at Lexington three miles north of Lititz. It was white-washed and being used as a harness closet. Mr. Danner scraped the whitewash away at several places and discovered it to be a solid wal­nut cabinet, and upon pur­chasing it he had it refinished as it is today.”

Danner was notorious for a favorite method of acquiring the china he prized so highly. To the unsuspecting owner of an old lusterware tea set he might say, “Why, that china is old – you’d like some nice new china, wouldn’t you?” And he would immediately offer to replace the antique luster with new, plain white queensware. Danner is still remembered today for his wily, even con­niving, attempts to acquire things for his collection.

Danner’s museum, also known as his “Relic Rooms,” was open to the public every Thursday. Admission was free, although Danner maintained a collection box labeled “Benevo­lence.” He or one of his clerks guided visitors through the museum. taking “great pains to impart the interesting data concerning the various ob­jects.” During his lifetime. thousands flocked to examine his collection; most were cen­tral Pennsylvanians, but a significant number came from outside the state. Even Dan­ner’s obituary reported on the museum’s popularity.

The museum was distinctly one of the points of interest in Lancaster County, and many thousands of Lancastrians and visitors to the Garden Spot were taken through it by the gracious courtesy of its owner. Nothing gave him greater pleasure. Even hundreds of distinguished for­eigners visiting at various tunes in this locality have registered their names in the big book of record he kept, while pilgrimages by schools were frequent.

George Danner died in 1917, predeceased by his wife, and without children. His will instructed the executors to make the following provisions for the museum.

My collection of antiques, old dishes, and curios in the fireproof room on the third story of the store building, shall not be sold, but shall be retained by my Execu­tors … as a museum for the instruction and amusement of the public. My Executors … shall appoint an honest and upright person … to open the museum every Thursday during nine months of the year and take visi­tors through the room, but no children under six years of age shall be permitted, as they are too young to appreciate it. The room shall be closed to visitors during the months of July, August, and September of each year, during which time the room and contents shall be thoroughly cleaned by the superintendent. Everything in the room shall be kept intact as it now is …. if friends at any time desire to contribute any rare curios to the museum, the superintendent shall receive them with thanks and shall carefully label them.

The museum had given pleasure to many visitors dur­ing Danner’s lifetime, and he hoped to guarantee that it would continue unchanged after he died. But Danner had another, conflicting, goal: he wanted to establish a home for the elderly poor of Manheim. To that end, he instructed his executors to build the “Danner Home,” as it was to be called, when the income generated by his estate grew to twenty thou­sand dollars. The “Home” would be built next to the house where Danner grew up, and would be furnished with Danner’s household possessions.

One year before his death, Danner modified his will. He was concerned that his estate might not produce twenty thousand dollars in accumu­lated income, so he directed his executors to see how much money accrued after twenty years. If they had only ten thousand dollars, they were to proceed and construct a less expensive building. And as a last resort, if it were the only way to finance the “Home,” they were to sell his beloved museum.

In 1935, still lacking suffic­ient funds to build the “Dan­ner Home,” the executors of Danner’s estate decided that they must sell the museum. Milton Hershey, perhaps through his family relationship to Danner’s business partner and executor, Monroe M. Pfautz, learned that the collec­tion was for sale and offered to buy it for fifty thousand dol­lars. Three years later, the Danner collection was on view in the former Ice Palace at Hershey, remodeled as the Hershey Museum. Much of it can still be seen in “Adam Danner’s World,” an exhibit at the Hershey Museum which explores everyday life in early nineteenth-century central Pennsylvania.

Danner’s place in the rich story of early collecting and antiquarianism remains to be explored. Certainly, he was among the very earliest Penn­sylvanians to develop an inter­est in preserving old artifacts. Edwin Atlee Barber, the noted ceramics collector and scholar, was a contemporary of Dan­ner. He served on the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1892 until his death in 1916. Henry Chapman Mer­cer helped to establish the Bucks County Historical Soci­ety in 1880, and avidly col­lected things that would “illustrate the daily of a people al a given lime” in the early part of this century.

 

The Hershey Museum of Ameri­can Life features a recently installed permanent exhibit, “Adam Danner’s World,” depicting the life of a typical Pennsylvania German family during the early nineteenth century. Nearly ninety-five per­cent of the museum’s extensive holdings of Pennsylvania German objects and artifacts were collected by George Danner, subject of this article. Open daily, the Hershey Museum is located adjacent to Hershey Park. For additional information regarding schedules and admission fees, write: Hershey Museum of American Life, P O. Box 170, Hershey, PA 17033;or telephone (717) 534-3439.

 

For Further Reading

Arbor, Marilyn. Tools and Trades of America’s Past. Doy­lestown, Pa.: Bucks County His­torical Society, 1981.

Castner, Charles Schuyler. One of a Kind: Milton Snavely Hershey, 1857-1945. Hershey: The Derry Literary Guild, 1983.

Hark, Ann. “An Astonishing Timepiece on Display al the Hershey Museum.” Philadelphia Inquirer Everybody’s Weekly. June 3, 1945, 4

 

Jonathan P. Cox of Hershey has held the position of curator of collections for the Hershey Mu­seum of American Life since 1982. He received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Delaware and was awarded his master of arts degree in the uni­versity’s Winterthur Program in Early American Culture in 1981. A native of Bethlehem, his special interests include the history of the Moravians and similar communal societies. He is currently research­ing the origins and evolution of resorts and spas.