Gunther and his family moved from Württemberg to Pennsylvania in 1842, then resettled in Peru, Illinois. In 1860, Gunther traveled south and landed a job with Bohlen, Wilson & Company, an ice distributor based in Memphis, Tennessee. When the American Civil War broke out, Gunther pledged to "stick by Memphis," and helped transport Confederate soldiers along the tributaries of the Mississippi River. He was captured by Union troops in 1862, but was released and traveled back to Illinois. During the later years of the war, he worked as a traveling salesman for a Chicago candy manufacturer, mainly selling goods throughout the southern states.
After the Civil War, Gunther traveled to Europe to learn from the candy makers there.
He started his own candy company "Gunther's Confectionery" in 1868, specializing in caramel, which he is credited with introducing to the United States, but the store at 125 South Clark Street was destroyed in the Chicago Fire in 1871. Besides the store and inventory lost in the fire, his newly formed collection of rare artifacts that included a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation were also destroyed.
Afterwards he was able to reestablish himself in 1872 at 212 State Street, Chicago.
Excerpt from: "Chicago by Day and Night. The Pleasure Seekers Guide" Published in 1892. Coming to the consideration of candy, confectionery, and fine fruits, the name of Charles Gunther first challenges attention. The Gunther store, 212 State street, is without doubt one of the sights of the city, containing, as it does, in addition to the regular stock-in-trade, the Gunther museum, which the proprietor has spent the best years of his life in collecting. The museum embraces curios of all sorts and some of them are of great value. The entire collection is worth a fabulous amount and there is a well-defined impression abroad that the owner intends to give it to the city some day. The furnishings of the Gunther store are magnificent. Tall mirrors reflect the customer's shape at every step. The rear part of two floors is dotted with tables, at which iced drinks, ice cream, and light luncheons are served. Whether with a view of purchase or not, the store will well repay a visit. Gunther's candy is advertised the country over, and the concern enjoys an enormous out-of-town trade.
|Gunther's Candies Company on the northwest corner of|
South Wabash Avenue and Harmon Court, Chicago, Illinois.
|Gunther's Candies Tin Box.|
|Original Packaging for Cracker Jack in 1893.|
Gunther's collection continued to grow, and he eventually turned his sights to the Libby Prison, a former Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. Gunther purchased the structure and had it dismantled and shipped to Chicago where it was reassembled and converted into a museum to house Gunther's artifacts.
During the 1890s, Gunther became involved with Chicago's growing convention industry. When the original Chicago Coliseum burned down in 1897, Gunther decided to build a new Coliseum on the site of the Libby Prison War Museum, since attendance at the museum was beginning to wane. He was the organizer of the Coliseum Company and its first president. He gave many paintings to the Y.M.C.A. hotel, and some of his finest works adorned the walls of the South Shore Country club, to which they had been loaned.
The prison building was disassembled, and parts of it were donated to the Chicago Historical Society, of which he was a director for twenty years. Gunther offered the rest of his collection to the city, with the hope that the city would build a museum for it in Garfield Park, but Illinois law prevented such a building from being constructed on public parkland.
Gunther served two terms (1896–1900) as a Chicago alderman and one term (1901–1903) as city treasurer. He was briefly a Gold Democrat and supported John McAuley Palmer for president in 1896. In 1908, Gunther sought the (regular) Democratic Party's nomination as an Illinois gubernatorial candidate, but lost to Adlai E. Stevenson I.
He offered his entire art and historical collection to the city of Chicago, providing a fire-proof building was erected for it. The city made no appropriation and in his will he left it to his widow and son. Gunther was a thirty-third degree Mason, a member of Medinah Temple shrine. Other affiliations were the Academy of Sciences, of which he was a trustee; the Art institute. Geographical association, Chicago Association of Commerce, and Illinois Manufacturers association. His clubs were the Iroquois, Union League, Illinois Athletic, Aero, Germania, and Press club. Mr. Gunther was also a member of the Illinois State Historical Society.
He died of pneumonia on February 10, 1920, at the age of 83, at his home 3601 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. His funeral was at his home. He was buried in the family mausoleum at Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago, where his son Whitman (1872-1907) had been interred thirteen years earlier.
|The Gunther family mausoleum at Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago.|
By that point Gunther's collection included Lincoln's deathbed, Lincoln's piano, Lincoln's carriage, Lincoln's dispatch to Gen. U.S. Grant saying, "Let the thing be pressed", a towel used to soak up Lincoln's blood, a shoe from John Wilkes Booth's horse, and other Lincoln memorabilia. Also in his vast collection was the table on which Gen. Robert E. Lee accepted Civil War surrender terms at Appomattox Court House.
Shortly afterwards, the Chicago Historical Society began building a $1 million museum to display its expanded collection. The building opened in 1932 at Clark Street and North Avenue, and is currently known as the Chicago History Museum.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.