Solving the mystery of Perkasie’s first photographer

A.R. Housekeeper’s name is familiar to collectors of early Victorian photos from Bucks and Montgomery counties. But little has been known until recently about a man who played a brief, but important role, in Perkasie’s history.

One of Perkasie’s oldest known photographs was reprinted in the Borough’s 50th-anniversary book in 1929, showing the town as it looked at its founding. It turns out A.R. Housekeeper took the picture, but probably not in 1879. Housekeeper also took several other Perkasie photos in the 1880s that are very rare, in addition to the numerous portraits he made in his traveling photography wagon.

Perkasie 50th Anniversary Book

Photo in Perkasie 50th Anniversary Book

Housekeeper’s carte de visite, or CDV, photos are collectibles. The small pictures were produced cheaply on heavier card stock and were a combination of a calling card and a trading card. People had their own CDVs made, kept them as family heirlooms, or swapped them with other people.

The Perkasie Historical Society’s project to digitize editions of the Perkasie Central News from 1881 to 1943 shed a great deal of light on the enigmatic Mr. Housekeeper, who turned out to be a household name in Perkasie for much of the 1880s. Little was known of him personally, except that he swept into town by 1881, and left abruptly by decade’s end. The Central News printed various anecdotes and advertisements about A. R. Housekeeper “the Artistic Photographer” for almost nine years.

Then as fortune had it, Housekeeper’s great-grandson, Jerome Feaster, contacted the society from Shiloh, Florida. Jerome and his family have been researching Housekeeper and had the original Perkasie landscape photograph, along with other mementos of his business career.

Perkasie in 1886-1888

The original photo is from 1886-1888 and shows Perkasie’s Opera House on Walnut Street on the far right. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

This unusual find, combined with their genealogy work, the Historical Society’s newspaper project, and the recent discovery of a brief lifetime diary kept by Housekeeper, show a detailed picture of his short career in Pennsylvania as an itinerant photographer.

Born in 1841 in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, Abraham Housekeeper’s father died when Abraham was just three years old. For the next 14 years, Abraham said he lived with neighbors, and occasionally his mother, in the Hilltown area. He spent much of his time with the Enos Moyer family.

According to his diary, Abraham learned how to make cigars at the age of 16 and began his full-time career in 1859 as a cigar maker in Philadelphia at the age of 19. He also remained in school, where he was taught briefly by another Hilltown resident, Abraham K. Funk, who was just a year older than Housekeeper.

Housekeeper Trademark

Housekeeper used his penmanship skills for his own calling card trademark. Source: Author’s collection

For the next decade Housekeeper worked locally in Bridgetown, Pa. (now South Perkasie) and Hellertown, Pa. making cigars, but he also traveled to Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Providence plying his craft. After attending Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1867 to learn ink-and-pen drawing, Housekeeper started a wholesale cigar business in Chicago.

On a trip back home, Housekeeper met Hannah Kile, from a well-known Mennonite family in Dublin, Pa. They married in 1870 after a brief courtship and started a family in Chicago. However, the Housekeepers fell on hard times. They survived the Great Chicago fire in 1871, but Abraham’s cigar business failed, and Abraham, Hannah, and their son Eugene moved to Philadelphia. Soon after, Eugene died from scarlet fever in Philadelphia, and Abraham picked up work as a photoengraver where he could use his artistic training. For the next few years, Abraham wrote in his diary about how the family split up and reunited as he sought work. He eventually came to Perkasie as a cigar maker, with the family living at his in-law’s home in Rockhill Township.

CDV by Housekeeper

Typical Housekeeper CDV photo, subject unknown

By 1880, things were looking promising for the Housekeeper family. A daughter, Agnes, and her brother, Sinclair, were joined by a young brother, Thomas, as Abraham Housekeeper finally started his own photography business. Then more tragedy struck. Hannah Kile Housekeeper died from typhoid fever in October 1880 and young Thomas died just weeks later. Suddenly, Abraham Housekeeper found himself in the same situation he experienced as a child.

In 1881, Abraham made the difficult decision to split up his family. Agnes was sent to live in Bethlehem while 6-year-old Sinclair went to Indiana to live with Abraham Funk, who had become co-owner of the Mennonite Publishing Company. At that point, Abraham’s career as a photographer took off. However, his diary record shows that he remembers the time as being “ALONE.”

Mammoth Photography Wagon

The Mammoth Photography Wagon. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

Accounts from the Central News and Housekeeper’s diary show that the Artistic Photographer spent much of his time on the road while renting a room in Perkasie when not working. In 1883, Housekeeper spent 42 weeks traveling in Montgomery County with his photography “car.” In one newspaper item, it was noted that Housekeeper appealed to those who wanted pictures as “reminders of friends who have left this dreary world.” Another touted him as an “artist of considerable merit.” At the same time, Housekeeper frequently advertised in the same newspaper.

By 1884, Housekeeper, 42, kept his “mammoth photography wagon” in Telford, Pa., as he remarried that summer, to Mary C. Miller of Dublin, who was half his age. By March 1886, his daughter Agnes had returned home and Housekeeper had a young son, Emanuel, with Mary, but tragedy struck again in July 1886 when his older son Sinclair, 10, died in a drowning accident in Elkhart, Indiana. The Central News noted that when informed of Sinclair’s death, it was a “severe blow to Mr. Housekeeper.”

Housekeeper had steady work while in Perkasie as a photographer. He also advertised for extra help at the time of the large July 1887 camp-meeting at Perkasie Park, just north of town. The newspaper noted that Housekeeper had just “taken a view” and was also photographing the Sellersville Chair Factory, most likely owned by State Representative John Schwartz, a camp-meeting co-founder.

Housekeeper family at Perkasie Park

A.R,. Agnes, Emanuel and Mary (or M. C.) Housekeeper at Perkasie Park. Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

His landscape photo of early Perkasie is likely from the 1886-1888 period since shows the steeple of St. Stephen’s Reformed Church, which was built in 1886. A pair of pictures of the Perkasie Park Camp Meeting taken by Housekeeper are from the same period.

But in 1888, Housekeeper sold his photography business and went back to Philadelphia the following year, and in 1891 the Housekeeper family moved to the Tampa, Florida, area after Abraham had bought land and had a house built before they moved.

For the next three decades, Abraham Housekeeper held various jobs in Florida, including sales positions, making copies of photos, selling marriage directories, farming, and clerking. By 1922, Abraham was unable to work due to health issues, and he passed away in July 1924 at the age of 83 at Agnes’ home in Tampa. On Abraham’s death certificate, his son-in-law informed the coroner that Abraham Housekeeper’s life occupation was “photographer.”

Housekeeper Ad Card

Credit/Source: Feaster Family Collection.

To be sure, Abraham Housekeeper was a man of many talents and many careers who worked for 67 of his 83 years, but he spent only about 9 years as a full-time photographer in our area, according to his diary and newspaper records. That legacy gave us a brief glimpse into life in a long-forgotten era. Or as A.R. wrote on one of his own advertising cards, “You’ll never regret if you have a good picture of every member of your family.”

Author’s Note: Many thanks to the Feaster family for sharing their pictures and records. 

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