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Travels of Punch around York’s Square

Northwest view of square around 1870 looking west.  Trinity Church steeple on left.  Jordan & Bro. later site of Bear's department store.  Punch and friends to right.
Northwest view of square around 1870 looking west. Trinity Church steeple on left. Jordan & Bro. later site of Bear’s department store. Punch and friends to right.

I have always been intrigued by the large and colorful Punch cigar store figure in the York County Heritage Trust collections. As I relate in my recent York Sunday News column, it is especially interesting that he “moved” around Centre/Continental Square in York over the years.

In this and the next few posts, we will follow Punch’s trail through photographs from the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives.

From the York Sunday News:

Closer view of Punch from VonNeida and Coombs photo, about 1870
Closer view of Punch from VonNeida and Coombs photo, about 1870

Punch statue moved around Continental Square

Last year friend Gordon Freireich wrote in his column of his memories of visiting the Historical Society of York County (now part of York County Heritage Trust) as a child. The museum was then situated at 225 East Market Street, York, across the street from the present location. He was especially impressed by the colorful, and somewhat menacing, cigar store figure of Punch, based on the Punch and Judy puppet shows.

This Punch is still an impressive object in the York County Heritage Trust collections. It is not currently on display, but it often has been exhibited in the past and will be again in the future. Besides being always impressed with the wooden statue, which stands about six and a half feet tall, I am fascinated with the way Punch “moved” around York’s square, as documented by numerous photos in the YCHT Library/Archives. I am sharing some of those travels here, as well as a recap of what is known or speculated about YCHT’s Punch. Additional photos will be posted on my Universal York blog.

Punch’s maker is unknown, although articles can be found online with images of nearly identical wooden Punch cigar store figures, some of which have sold at auction for extremely high sums. Unsigned, they are usually attributed to either Samuel Robb (1851-1928) of New York or James Campbell (1851-1901), who reportedly lived in Baltimore.

There is conflicting speculation as to the age of Punch. In an 1924 article York County historian George R. Prowell wrote that this Punch was on the square before the Civil War; that would be too early for either Robb or Campbell to have carved him, as several experts think is true. One of the earliest photos of Punch shows him standing by the entrance of the McCreary & Adams tobacco shop, just left of the inside corner of the northwest quadrant of the square. Two young men are leaning companionably on the statue. The photo is signed Von Nieda and Coombs, a photo studio that was in business around 1870.

The rest of the Punch photos show him on the right side of northwest square quadrant, but even there he appears at several different positions and elevations over the years. In Prowell’s 1924 article he is in the possession of Charles Sieker, then owner of the Young & Busser cigar store and pool hall, at the corner of George Street. Prowell traces that tobacco business to Charles Fox in 1855, with unknown others before him. After Fox the business went to brothers Samuel and Murray Adams, then Murray only. It was sold to James Pfleger and William Kunkel, then next was Pfleger and Young. Charles Young took in partner John Busser, creating Young & Busser. Charles Sieker kept that name after he bought the business. Sources indicate that Young & Busser closed in 1931.

Our Punch was pictured in the February 1941 issue of Antiques magazine with the information that Yorker Elmer R. Kottcamp won honorable mention with the photo in the magazine’s 1940 photo contest. The same image also seems to have been submitted by Kottcamp to the Index of American Design, a Federal Arts Program in the late 1930s and early 1940s. HSYC purchased the figure in 1943, perhaps from Sieker.

Most of the photos aren’t precisely datable unless they show a particular celebration or parade. In what seems to be the next photo, Punch has moved around the corner, still at street level, by an open door in the Centre Hall/Lebach building. Since it also shows one of the Center Square market sheds, torn down June 1887, it had to be taken before then.

Punch reaches new heights in a photo of a crowd tentatively identified as a Columbus Day School Parade, 1892. In that photo Punch seems to be bracketed to the front of a roof jutting from the second story level of the same building as above. He is shown in this position in several other photos guessed to be from the 1890s. A photo of the square with the large white arches commemorating the 1899 York County Sesqui-centennial was taken from a second-story window behind Punch and shows a good bit of his cap.

The square was heavily decorated with banners and bunting for a 1904 Knights Templar parade. Punch is no longer suspended, but now has just moved a few feet higher and is standing on the roof that overhangs the storefronts, a position that seems more secure.

In a circa 1910 photo, the George Street corner is teeming with automobiles, buggies and electric trollies. The extended roof has been removed, replaced with a wide ledge just below the second story windows of the former Centre Hall/Lebach building. Punch is perched on the ledge close to the building to the right.

In a panoramic photo of the entire square, taken about 1915, Punch is on the very corner of the square and North George Street. The bottom of his platform is the same height as the second floor window sills.

When a 1932 photo of an unidentified parade is snapped, Punch is nowhere in sight. Whelan’s Drug Store has moved into the Young & Busser space. Punch gave up his wandering ways, with only another stop or so before finding his permanent home with the historical society.

Punch today
Punch today

Click here for Travels of Punch, Part Two.

And click here for the third part of Punch’s travels around York’s square.