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William Wagner–York’s Renaissance Man

Marriage Certificate–Engraving by William Waqner
Perhaps some of you have marriage certificates that came down through your family similar to the one above. They were created by the multi-talented Yorker, William Wagner (1800-1869).
Wagner was a nationally known engraver and die-sinker. Some of his other occupations included banker, printer and druggist. Wagner held several civic offices, including Chief Burgess of York.
One of the legacies that Wagner left to York Countians is a book of 38 watercolors that he painted of various scenes of York in 1830. Through these images, which he executed with the skill of an engraver, we know precisely how the York area looked nearly 200 years ago. The originals are now in the collections of York County Heritage Trust, who published a replica of Wagner’s book of drawings several years ago. These are now available at the YCHT Museum Shop at a very reasonable cost.
For more on William Wagner, see below for my previous York Sunday News column on one of York County’s most talented individuals.

Scenes of York engraved by William Wagner for York Bank currency

The Talented William Wagner

Our paper money has undergone change recently. The “greenbacks” aren’t just green anymore. Whatever their color, they are still uniform nationwide, not like the days when you could pay your debts with a bank note beautifully engraved with a scene of York.
William Wagner was a nationally known engraver and a great deal more. He was born in 1800, one of six children of German Reformed minister Daniel Wagner and the former Anna Marie Reitzel. Although his father died when he was ten, William grew up among thriving older siblings. His oldest brother George, a War of 1812 veteran, was a merchant, in partnership with brother Samuel. They sold necessities, such as wine vinegar and candles. George also served as secretary of the local Society for Detection of Horse Thieves until he died in 1823.
An amateur beekeeper, Samuel Wagner was the first editor of the American Bee Journal, and he also edited the Lancaster Examiner. He went on to publish two York newspapers, the English York Recorder, and the German Der Republicanische Herald. After selling the newspapers Samuel became Cashier of the York Bank, York’s first bank.
The Wagner girls married successful husbands. Anna Maria wed tobacconist Martin Danner. Catherine’s husband was brewer Jacob Barnitz, Jr., and Elizabeth married Frederick Rauhauser, a German Reformed pastor.
Successful as his siblings were, young William spread his talents even wider. According to the York Recorder, in 1824 he moved his two-year-old drug business to the northwest corner of Main [Market] and Beaver streets, at ‘The Sign of the Gold Mortar.” The ad also announced that he would continue his engraving and his copperplate printing. William was already a skilled engraver by the time he was 21, when he published the still-useful 1821 Map of York & Adams Counties from actual survey with partner Daniel Small. It sold for one dollar plain, or one dollar and fifty cents colored [by hand]. Orders were taken by subscription, with a gratis copy offered to anyone obtaining ten subscribers. That July the York Republican reported the plate for the map was in the hands of the copperplate printer in Philadelphia. At 20 x 24 inches it may have been too large to have been printed locally. A descendant has presented the original copyright certificate for the map, signed by John Quincy Adams, to the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives.
Wagner most likely received his formal education at the York County Academy. Their father had been a trustee, as both Samuel and William would be later in life. He probably learned his engraving skills from one of the local clockmakers, silversmiths, or jewelers who would have used engraving in their trades. He was, in fact, the administrator of the 1835 estate of watchmaker and inventor Phineas Davis.
Besides being a prolific engraver, Wagner was a busy printer. He produced large quantities of marriage certificates engraved with an intricate oval wreath of flowers and clasped hands and heart under the motto “What God Hath Joined Together Let No Man Put Asunder.”
He also created a vast amount of seals for organizations, businesses, and governmental bodies all over the country. York County Heritage Trust has plaster casts of some of these seals, such as those done for the Commercial Bank of Florida and the Pennsylvania Surveyor General’s Office. In 1968 a correspondent reported to the Historical Society of York County that he had the seal of the Circuit Court of Appomattox County, Viriginia. The back was marked “Wagner, York, Pa.” He related that his ancestor, who was on General Grant’s staff, had “captured” it about the time of Lee’s surrender.
Wagner found time for other pursuits without giving up engraving. By 1840 he was elected Chief Burgess [similar to mayor] of York Borough. In 1845, probably as York’s first resident photographer, he advertised that he was set up to take “Daguerreotype Likenesses.” This was only six years after Daguerre had made photography practical.
City directories list William Wagner as an engraver until the end of his life. He gave up photography in less than a year, however, perhaps because he had just been named the first cashier of the newly chartered York Savings Institution, later to become the York County National Bank.
He created some of his most charming engravings, however, for the York Bank, where brother Samuel was cashier. William engraved plates for a series of bank notes for York Bank. The five dollar note showed an appealing streetscape of the York Bank building on West Market Street, still the site today of the offices of its successor, M&T Bank. The ten dollar note portrayed a view of York from the north, showing a pretty town framed by the pastoral Codorus Creek. No matter how colorful our current currency is, it can’t compare to these charming examples of local art put to a practical use.

Click here for more on Wagner as York’s first resident photographer.
Click here for information on Wagner’s contemporary, York folk artist Lewis Miller.
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