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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

George A. Wolf -- Publisher and Artist

George A. Wolf postcard of the old Marshallton Mill
 I think anyone who does historical research would agree that one of the most enjoyable experiences associated with the task is when you run across a connection or a fact that makes you sit back and say, "Wow, I did not see that coming!" I had just such an experience recently while doing what I figured would be some quick, mostly fruitless research. It dealt with a man who wasn't born in, nor did he live in, Mill Creek Hundred, yet some of what we know of the area a century ago is because of him. He's probably not well-known to most these days, however some detail-oriented people who enjoy old pictures and postcards may be somewhat familiar with the name of George A. Wolf. His name is on many of the picture postcards of Wilmington and the surrounding area that date from the first decade of the 20th Century.

Because his name appears on many of the pictures I've seen of Wilmington and vicinity (especially Brandywine Springs Amusement Park, where he was the "official" publisher of postcards), I had always assumed that George A. Wolf was a photographer. The more I started to uncover, however, the more I realized that this was not the case. The key was the postcards, not necessarily the photographs on them. It turns out, Wolf was actually a publisher in Wilmington. "Publisher", though, doesn't quite cover all of it. He was also more of what I'd call a graphic artist, a fact we'll return to shortly.

George Aloys Wolf was born in Camden, NJ in 1862, and moved to Wilmington sometime around 1890. Whether this was a cause or a consequence of the move, I don't know, but in 1891 he married Rebecca George France here in Wilmington. By at least 1893, Wolf had set up shop in the Equitable Building at Ninth and Market in Wilmington (the building, although heavily altered in the mid-20th Century, still stands). As you can see in the ad below, Wolf advertised "Designing, Illustrating, Engraving", and his ad urged businesses to use woodcuts in their advertisements (we'll see an example of his work in a moment).

Wolf didn't only print advertisements, calendars, and postcards, though. He also printed a number of books -- seemingly mostly local histories and travel guide-type books, the sorts of things that would have lots of illustrations and pictures in them. At the Historic Red Clay Valley Visitor's Center Museum located at the Wilmington & Western's Greenbank Station, we have a copy of a marketing booklet printed by Wolf that was a joint publication between the Wilson Line steamboat company and Brandywine Springs Park. It's filled with pictures documenting the trip from Philadelphia to the park, via the steamboat and trolley. It's not clear whether or not Wolf actually took the pictures he published, but my guess would be no. Although it's possible that he was the photographer, my thought is that he either had photographers on staff, or bought the images from other photographers (the "Ye Old Mill" picture above, for example, was taken by Ed Herbener of Newark). That answer, though, is yet to be found.

The 1900 census shows that George and Rebecca (or Rebekah) lived on N. Van Buren St. in Wilmington, on the block that's now between I-95 and the condo tower (formerly the hospital, Memorial, I believe). By 1910, they had moved out of the city to the Hillcrest area in Brandywine Hundred, next to Bellefonte. It appears that Wolf may have gotten out of the printing business in 1911, as this note in a trade magazine states that he was leasing his printing plant to Harrison W. Barnes. In the 1920 census, George and Rebecca are listed as living on Concord Pike, and George's occupation is now "Farmer", not "Publisher" as it had been. This seems to be what happened, as I've never run across a Wolf postcard from later than about 1910.

Now, finally we get to the "Wow" discovery I had alluded to at the beginning. As stated, George A. Wolf did advertising work and woodcuts as a part of his business. At least in the 1890's, and possibly later, Wolf's office was in the Equitable Building in Wilmington. In 1906, another Delaware company housed its headquarters in the Equitable Building, at least until they erected their own building a block north two years later. In 1906, the company was looking for a new logo, and they turned to George A. Wolf to design it. What he came up with was probably the most iconic logo in Delaware in the 20th Century. The original woodcut, seen below, is on display at the company's old headquarters at Hagley.

Yes, the same George A. Wolf who printed many of the postcards that show us how our region appeared a century ago also designed the DuPont Oval. His original design had a banner with "Established 1802" weaving through the letters, but this proved too difficult to use on much of the packaging, so the design was simplified for general use. Wolf's full design was still used for some printed pieces, though, including gracing the cover of the company's annual reports until 1955. Stories about the origin of the logo describe Wolf as being part of the company's advertising department, but I think it's much more likely that he regularly did work for them as a freelancer, rather than being an actual employee. Here is another DuPont ad from 1906 done by Wolf, although without the logo (they didn't actually start using it until about a year later).

Needless to say, this was all much more information than I was expecting to find about George A. Wolf. I can also say that I'll never look at the DuPont Oval quite the same way again.


  1. I have reread this post a number of times since you published it.It is a great article.
    It is amazing the number of different postcards published by George Wolf. It would be amazing if some of his relatives saved some of his material. I roughly calculated that his great great grandson would now be in his 60/70's . What is the best way to track his lineage to the present ?

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I'm afraid that I've got nothing but bad news, though. From the looks of it, I don't think George and Rebekah had any kids. Never any in any censuses. George had two siblings. Lillian who died unmarried in 1933 in NJ, and Frederick who died unmarried in 1899. I would have no idea where to turn next. George himself died in 1946 in Queens, and was buried in Lyndhurst, NJ. Ain't I a ray of sunshine.

  3. That is too bad as it would have been great to track them down and see what was in their attic or basement