Preserving History

You might call Joyce Mitman Welken America’s unofficial curator of retail jewelry. As president of the oldest jewelry store in the United States—Bixler’s Jewelers in Easton, Pa.—Welken oversees a collection of 200-year-old (and older) documents and aging photographs that make up a historical record of the family business. She also educates and entertains by sharing 217 years’ worth of retail jewelry history through countless interviews with the press. Her goal: to maintain the Bixler retail legacy for as long as she can.

In a shop filled with museum-quality American artifacts, JCK learned first-hand about events that transpired over the course of more than two centuries, with Welken serving as guide and narrator for Bixler’s Jewelers photo-biographical tour.

A ledger book from 1785 is in remarkably good shape. Its fading marzipan cover opens to reveal thick pages showing signs of age. The paper is yellowing but intact, and the ink is still legible. A hodgepodge of entries fills the pages—children’s birthdays, clock designs, garden tips (one bit of advice: “The best time to plant fruit trees is in the fall in November.”), customer lists, and sketches of detailed carvings for brass clock fixtures. “Christian Bixler wasn’t just a jeweler,” says Welken. “He was also a burgess [public official], so he must have kept track of other business dealings in this book as well.”

The antiquated handwriting—flourishes of elaborate scrolled text—is hard to decipher, but among the readable entries are some curious spellings of the word “timepiece”: “A plan for a time peas, 1791,” reads one entry; another refers to a “time pease.”

Out of this wealth of well-preserved business history, only a single merchandise receipt survives. A short, white, rectangular scrap of paper—about the size of a personal check—features a scrawled note stating that “three pieces of solid silver—a coffee pot, creamer, and sugar—sold for $233 on May 3, 1888, to F. S. Bixler.”

“Apparently, they were sold to a relative,” notes Welken. This receipt came to her a year ago via distant cousins who were settling their deceased mother’s estate. “My mother’s second cousin died four or five years ago, and her children found the receipt in a box.”

By 1945, Arthur Bixler, Welken’s grandfather, had no sons, was dying of leukemia, and assumed there was no one to inherit the business. He let the store deteriorate and was prepared to let the 160-year-old business die with him. But Arthur Bixler’s sister asked the only male relative—Welken’s father, engineer Kenneth Mitman—if he would give the business a try. Mitman agreed and patched up the crumbling business until it was better than new. “My father should definitely be given credit for keeping the business going,” Welken says.

Mitman made a number of improvements to the store. He sold his car in 1947 to get money to beef up the inventory—”There was just $11,000 worth when he took over,” Welken notes—and in 1955, he bought beautiful local stone from the nearby Unitarian church, which was undergoing renovations, to rehabilitate the store’s shabby façade.

To free up shop space, Mitman was forced to retire a lending library that was located in the rear of the store. “My grandfather used that [lending library] to supplement income when times were tough,” Welken says. Finally, to improve the store’s reputation in the community, Mitman joined the American Gem Society. He retired in 1983, and son Phil Mitman stepped in to carry on the family business. Joyce Mitman Welken took over in 1998.

By the time Bixler’s moved to its second location, then-owner C. Willis Bixler had installed a handsome street clock, circa 1860-1870. But while trying to make ends meet some years later, his son Arthur Bixler sold the clock to cousin Stanley Bixler, owner of Orr’s department store, just around the corner from the jeweler. “For years, that clock was known as Orr’s clock,” says Welken. In the late 1990s, when Orr’s was going out of business, Welken’s family bought it back, refurbished it, and reinstalled it outside of Bixler’s.

Bixler’s current location has been in Centre Square in the heart of Easton since 1925 (see color photo on page 107). “During the 1960s and 1970s, things were tough in Easton,” Welken recalls. “A lot of old buildings were torn down for a redevelopment that never took place. But our family always felt it was important to stay in downtown Easton, so we never entertained the idea of moving into a mall. Today, Easton really is experiencing a rebirth, what with lots of New York commuters living here and lots of tract developments going up. … Houses around here are all selling over the market price.”

How Bixler’s acquired store merchandise—including pocket watches and silver candelabras—is still a mystery. “Maybe vendors came to the store,” suggests Welken. A photo of the store’s interior from 1900, when Bixler’s operated from its third location at Fourth and Northampton streets, shows original cherry wood showcases (still used today) packed with product. “Clearly there was no inventory control,” jokes Welken. “Either that, or they just weren’t selling much.”

Clock Number Approximate Date
1–163 1785–1794
164–202 1795–1800
203–348 1800–1803-04
349–417 1804–1807
418–424 1808–1809
425–443 1809
444–465 1810–1812