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From Confections to Fossils: Charles F. Gunther

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Created: 3/2/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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Charles F. Gunther was born on this day in 1837. Although he spent a large portion of his life as a successful confectioner, he also contributed to the Chicago Academy of Sciences in a number of ways.

Charles F. Gunther

Charles F. Gunther

Gunther was born in Germany, then moved to the U.S. with his family, first to Pennsylvania then Illinois. After fighting in the Civil War, he traveled to Europe to study and learn from confectioners in Europe. He started his own company in 1868, specializing in caramels, and saw tremendous success. So much so, that he began to use his fortune purchasing unique, if not always legitimate, historical artifacts. His collection included everything from shrunken heads, to fossils, to Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, to alleged Biblical relics. He then bought the Libby War Prison in Richmond, moved it Chicago and turned it into a museum to house his collection. It was open from 1889 to 1899. It was around this time that he became involved with the Academy.

He joined the Academy’s Board of Trustees in 1889, and soon after began donating some of the natural history pieces of his collection to the Academy. From 1895 to 1911, he contributed fossils, minerals, birds, fish, snakes, lizards, and cultural items. Some of the largest (and most impressive) pieces he donated are actually still on display in the Nature Museum. This Mastodon jaw and tooth are from the Pleistocene Epoch and, coincidentally, were found 6 miles from Abraham Lincoln’s first home in Macon County, Illinois.

Mastodon mandible

Mastodon mandible. Donated by Charles F. Gunther.

Event though his own museum closed in 1899, Gunther remained an Academy trustee until 1911. He had hoped to open a new museum for his collection, but his condition that the city provide a building to house the museum in Garfield Park was never met. Gunther died February 10, 1920, but the impact he had on the Academy’s collection remains.

Mastodon tooth

Mastodon tooth. Donated by Charles F. Gunther.

Learn more about Gunther's work by checking out the resources below:

Museum Work: Including the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums Volumes 1 & 2 pp. 205-206

Charles F. Gunther 1837-1920

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