Gustavus “Gus” Egolf was a German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania and eventually became one of the most prominent antique dealers in the United States.
Egolf was born in Baden, Germany in 1849 and moved to Philadelphia at a young age. He attended school sporadically until the age of fourteen, when he became a teamster. Saving as much money as he could for nine years, Egolf eventually was able to launch a contracting business where he employed eight teams who hauled goods all around Philadelphia. By the early 1870s, he was a financially successful businessman and went on an extended holiday to his first home in Baden. Afterwards, he spent several months touring Germany, France, Ireland, and England. Perhaps it was because of the many treasures that he saw on his European travels, when Egolf returned to Philadelphia he established an antique, china, and furniture business.
Business in the antique trade was good to Egolf and he had to move his store several times into larger and larger buildings to make room for all his wares. It was around this time that he also married his wife Eliza Egolf (no relation I think). They would have 10 children together. In 1879 he moved out to nearby Norristown where he occupied a four story building on Main Street. Egolf was also a prominent local historian and was well known nationally for his extensive personal collections of antique coins and china.
The captain of the antique industry also caught the attention of one of the most important advocates for Pennsylvania history- Samuel Pennypacker. Pennypacker, best known for serving as the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania from 1903-1907, was an avid collector of antiques and other historical items- especially books. Pennypacker had so many books!
Pennypacker served as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and personally published several books on the history of the Keystone State. As a prominent politician and lawyer from a venerable Philadelphia family, Pennypacker had the means and energy to amass a huge collection of antique books, maps, and other historical materials that documented the history of the state. And Gus Egolf was Pennypacker’s favorite antique dealer. Here is what Pennypacker remembered about Mr. Egolf in his autobiography:
“My books came to me in all kinds of ways, and from over the earth, and I became known to the dealers and writers not only at home but in Amsterdam, London and Berlin. Some of the incidents which occur in the search for out-of-the-way treasures are both romantic and dramatic. Gus Egolf, short and stout, with a wen on the back of his neck nearly as large as his head, a keen dealer in old furniture and old books, lived and still lives in Norristown, where he has a store. Often I went ‘incog’ in an old suit and broken hat with him to the sales of the German farmers in the country and I have bought as many as a three-bushel bag full of books at a sale. The auctioneer would hold them up at a window, half a dozen at a time, and knock them down for a few pennies. There was little or no opportunity for preliminary inspection and often the purchase proved to be of little value, but every once in a while there turned up a Franklin, an Ephrata or a Sower imprint. In this way I secured nearly all of my Schwenkfelder literature.”
Pennypacker also supported his antique dealer politically. The Governor appointed Egolf (a staunch Republican who “always contributes his share to the success of the party at the polls”) a factory inspector in Philadelphia, a position that Egolf held until he died in 1916.
It doesn’t appear that Egolf’s antique business lasted long after his death, but it was a major force in the antique world at the time. Today, you may find an old clock or a piece of china or furniture with his name on it though, a reminder of the many antiques and fine articles that were made or sent to him from all over the world and sold at his store.