Modern society’s knowledge of natural science, geology, ethnography, archeology and so forth, is the result of human curiosity first unlocked with the development of the “cabinets of curiosity.” Often housed in small rooms, these “cabinets” were filled with a large assortment of exotic oddities that first begun across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Early museums built on the original cabinet of curiosity idea but refined it by dividing collections based on subject and theme.
Perhaps better known as the Landis Museum, Lancaster’s first museum once stood on our very own Penn Square during the early 1800s. Established by John Landis, an innkeeper of Lancaster City, who opened the building on December 4, 1819 charging a fixed rate of 25 cents for admission with the operating hours of “9 o’ clock in the morning until sunset” Monday through Saturday. The principal attraction at the Landis Museum was its wax statuary. Among these statues were forms crafted in the likeness of Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, George IV, King of England, and Catharine I, Empress of Russia. In addition to the wax figures, were curious works of art and mechanical genius, historical relics, specimens of natural history, minerals, fossils and shells.
According to local records, the Landis Museum had moved around from place to place throughout downtown Lancaster between the years of 1819 and 1837. A circus theatre (which held dramatic exhibitions) was opened by Landis and a relative of his first wife, and was located on the corner of Prince and Orange streets, opposite of where the museum was located. Sometime afterward the collection was removed to a building that formerly stood as the Examiner Printing Office, which today exists as Fulton Bank and then onto the Penn Square location where the museum gained popularity and flourished during its residence. Around 1836, John S. Gable erected a building on the corner of West Chestnut and North Queen Streets to be named the Rohrer House. It was at this time that Mr. Landis decided to move the collection. Not long before the collection had settled would it be moved again as it was sold to J.M. Westhaeffer in 1838. One year later, Mr. Westhaeffer sold half of the collection to Charles S. Getz and it was managed under the firm of Westhaeffer & Getz until 1842. Mr. Getz then sold the collection to Mr. Noah Smith who conducted it until 1849. That same year it was sold to Wood & Peale of Cincinnati who unfortunately owned it for only one year before the entire collection was lost in a fire.
Although very little information is available about this short-lived assortment of rarities that once sparked interest in the patrons of Lancaster city, I am comforted in knowing that this individual had the ambition to make available these “curiosities” so that others may take part in contemplating the mysteries of art and science.