Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: A Revolutionary Christmas

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - As director of the Liberty Bell Museum at Zion’s Reformed UCC Church, Sara Brace found herself in a quandary. Last year as she was watching the crowds that flock to the museum to see the annual Hess/Pip the Mouse display and puppet show, she noticed something.

“We still get a lot of people who remember Hess’s at Christmas and love Pip’s puppet show, especially the children,” she says. “But there are the children’s parents and others in their 20s who have no memory of Hess’s and are not interested in a puppet show.”

Brace decided that what was needed was an exhibit that would have a larger appeal and emphasis on Zion’s Church important role in American Revolution as the place where the Liberty Bell was hidden during the British occupation of Philadelphia from September 1777 to July 1778.

Long believed that the Liberty Bell was moved out of fear that it might have been melted down by the British to make cannon, some historians now argue that, since the British had plenty of cannon and the Americans very few, patriot leaders wanted to save the “State House Bell” as it was then known, in case they might as a last resort have had to melt it down as cannon for Washington’s Army.

Brace, after consulting with LB museum board member Marcella “Marci” Schick, contacted Kurt Zwikl to see what he might suggest. Her reason for contacting Zwikl was his deep interest in history.  A former state representative, he has been the chairman of the state’s Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Zwikl  has also served with other historical related organizations, most recently as executive director of the Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area. On July 1st Zwikl was named president of the Allentown School District Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Since the 1970s Zwikl has been collecting original prints of 19th century engravings of the battles of the American Revolution. In 2014 they were part of an exhibition entitled “Bringing the War of Independence to Life—19th Century Illustrations of the American Revolution.” It was shown at the Valley Forge Historical Park and the Morristown National Historical Park in 2014.

The exhibit, which opens at the Liberty Bell Museum on November 8th in the evening with a talk by Zwikl and closes the first week in January, consists of 42 images from Zwikl’s collection. They include wood cuts and steel engravings and were taken from publications in the 19th and early 20th century. Some are in color but most are black and white. They appeared in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly and Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion.

It may seem strange in our image-saturated era to imagine these prints as being exciting, but the Revolutionary War was an era that attracted a lot of attention in the 19th century. For one thing the nation witnessed the tragedy of the Civil War when many feared and others hoped the country created out of that revolution would not survive.  It also witnessed in 1876 the celebration of the Centennial of the United States. These two events focused attention on the heroic roots of the country.

One thing to remember, since photography would not be invented until the 1830s there are very few photos, and those only when they were quite old, of people who lived in the 18th century. It was only with the Civil War that actual images of men in battle, or largely after the battle, that people got to see a close-up of war.

Although Matthew Brady and the many photographers who worked for his studio are known today to sometimes have moved dead soldiers to make them more “artistic” or “dramatic” they were actual people the viewer was seeing. These were followed in the 20th century by newsreels and television film. Vietnam became the first television war and the conflicts that have flowed out from it.

Zwikl notes that one of the few illustrator artists who lived through the Revolution was John Trumbull (1756-1843). Anyone who has been to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. has seen the four huge, iconic paintings Trumbull did of events from the Revolution. He served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill. After the war he studied painting in London with Pennsylvania born American artist Benjamin West. Trumbull’s paintings quickly became popular as engravings in the 19th century. Engraved copies appear in the exhibit. Among them are the “Surrender of Burgoyne” and “The Death of General Montgomery.” The oldest of these engravings dates from 1810 and appeared in the Life of George Washington by Mason Weems, a book that helped spawn the famous “I Cannot Tell A Lie” cherry tree legend.

Another illustrator in the Zwikl collection is John Walker Barber (1798-1885). Like Trumbull, a native of Connecticut, he learned wood engraving in his youth. Although not a fine artist he was able to learn with time and produced some popular books of engravings that appealed to a wide audience. Lacking historical training, Barber let his imagination have free rein. One of his illustrations in the exhibit, “Washington at Morristown N.J.,”  shows the “Father of His County” standing sentry duty while his men huddled around a fire. Although he showed a great deal of concern and compassion for his men as a general, Washington probably never did guard duty.

One of the best known illustrators in Zwikl’s collection is Alonzo Chappel  (1828-1887).  Chappel, a native of New York City, had professional art training and had ties to large book publishers. His illustrations were very popular with writers of history books of the day. Among those works in the exhibit is “Lafayette Wounded.” It shows the moment at the Battle of the Brandywine when the French patriot is hit by a British bullet, his sword flying into air as he falls to the ground.

Howard Pyle (1853-1911) is perhaps the best known of that artist illustrators in Zwikl’s collection. Pyle lived most of his life in Philadelphia and was quite popular.  According to Zwikl it is estimated that Pyle’s work appeared in 3,500 publications. His illustrations are more robust and realistic compared with that of his predecessors. The reproduction technology had so improved by the late 19th and early 20th century that it showcased his talents. Pyle also had training as a fine artist. In 1910, while in his late 50s he went to Italy to study mural painting and died there the following year.

By the time the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, movie newsreels were making battlefields all too real.

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