We’re Moving!

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania just rolled out their spiffy, redesigned website, and they’ve given our blog its own page! Please follow our “Archival Adventures in Small Repositories” at http://hsp.org/blogs/archival-adventures-in-small-repositories.

The new site comes with a whole section specifically for Historical & Heritage Organizations, so if you’re one of our friends at a small repository, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on http://hsp.org/historical-heritage-organizations.

Our bags are packed and we’re ready to go. Don’t forget to stay in touch! Find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Check Out the Union Library of Hatboro

by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

As a student of library science with a love of history, it would have been surprising if I didn’t fall in love with the Union Library of Hatboro. Of course I did. Formed in 1755, this Montgomery County institution lays its claim as the second oldest library in the state, and 12th oldest in the country. Now it is an independent public library, but still operating under its original charter after more than 250 years. Walking into the place, I was immediately struck with a confused sense of anachronism. It feels a lot like someone chopped the roof off a 2oth-century library and floor off an 18th-century one, and then spliced the two together.  At eye level, the books you would expect to find at any public library are assembled in the typical fashion. But if you raise your eyes, an additional stratum is packed with antique books, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries!

The Union Library has maintained a remarkably comprehensive set of its own records, the highlight of which are probably loan books tracking the borrowing choices of its users. The research potential of these ledgers may not be self-evident, but the consideration of reading habits within particular socio-economic contexts is an increasingly popular line of inquiry. A few months ago you may have seen the article in Slate, “This Book Is 119 Years Overdue: The wondrous database that reveals what Americans checked out of the library a century ago.” In it, John Plotz delights in introducing What Middletown Read, a database of the digitized circulation records of a public library in Indiana, 1891-1902. Scholars who made use of the Middletown library database discerned a number of interesting patterns, such as the tendency of white-collar families to borrow “new releases,” while blue-color borrowers were more likely to check out older books. Plotz also alludes to the value of borrowing records for genealogists: how cool would it be to have a list of the books your great-grandfather read?

Plotz notes in his article that “Precious little data for libraries from before 1860 exists,” which makes the Union Library of Hatboro’s records all the more valuable. They aren’t online like the Middletown (Muncie, Ind.) records, so you’ll have to head over to Hatboro in person. But while you’re there, you can check out that new bestseller you’ve been meaning to read. Convenient!

Visit the Union Library of Hatboro’s website at http://www.hatborogov.org/library.html. Email hat.lib@verizon.net or call 215-672-1420 for more information. Don’t forget to “like” them on Facebook!

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Sesquicentennial Memories at Strawberry Mansion

By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

The Sesquicentennial International Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1926, is widely considered to be a monumental flop. Hoping to recreate the success of the Centennial Exposition of 1876, funders pumped a veritable fortune into building a temporary city on what is now Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. For goodness’ sake, the first bridge between Philadelphia and New Jersey (today known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) was built in greedy anticipation of hordes of paying customers. But the hordes didn’t come, and, embarrassingly, the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association was placed in equity receivership in 1927 for its inability to pay off its debts.

In the midst of this disappointment and scandal, one exhibit stood out as a rare success: “High Street of 1776.” Organized by the Women’s Committee of the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association, the street reproduced the look of High Street (present-day Market Street) as it was around the time of the Revolution. Visitors strolled through the streets of replica homes, shops, and other structures, surrounded by docents in period costume. To cover a portion of the expense, the Women’s Committee secured the participation of local businesses and groups (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution), to sponsor a building and furnish its interior. The overall effect was as desired, and word-of-mouth publicity was good: to the extent that anyone flocked to the Exposition, they flocked to High Street.

After the close of the Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Women’s Committee was still riding high on their success. They parlayed that enthusiasm into forming the Committee of 1926, which was composed of many members from the dissolved Women’s Committee. The Committee of 1926 accepted stewardship of Strawberry Mansion, owned by the City of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission. They furnished and refurbished the historic property, turning into a museum, and continue to operate Strawberry Mansion to this day. Strawberry Mansion is the repository for several archival collections, including the records of the Women’s Committee, the Committee of 1926, and even a tidy number of John Lukens letters (Surveyor-General of Pennsylvania from 1961-1989).

Strawberry Mansion is currently closed while it undergoes renovations, but you can visit their website at http://www.historicstrawberrymansion.org/. Email strawberrymansion@me.com or call (215)228-8364 for more information. “Like” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

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Awbury Arboretum: Worth the Journey

By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

Who wants to come with me on a trip to Europe? We’ll go visit Paris, and Rome; it’ll be fun! Oh, but before you pack your bags, I should probably mention this one tiny detail: We’ll be going in 1877. Many nights and days will be passed on coal-powered trains, and it’s going to get pretty bumpy… The, ahem, bathroom facilities might not be quite up to 21st-century health standards… I’ll just come out and admit it: this is not going to be a glamorous trip.

When Annette Cope (1843-1916) set out on just such a trip in 1877, she kept a beautifully-illustrated travel diary that documents alike the pleasures and discomforts of her journey. Annette was the granddaughter of Thomas Pim Cope, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant and member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She was a frequent visitor to Awbury, as estate established by her uncle Henry Cope in 1852, that today is open to the public as the Awbury Arboretum, historic house and landscape. Annette Cope’s travel journal is today housed at the Awbury Arboretum archives.

Perusing “Adventures of Three Travelers,” as Annette called her journal, is a fascinating way to study travel and leisure toward the end of the 19th century. The meticulous illustrations and often humorous notes provide an intimate, first-person view of the realities of travel. Where many travel accounts gloss over the unpleasant aspects, Annette’s offers an honest, straightforward telling. And because she is not afraid to confront the bad, her depictions of the good are all the more joyful by contrast.

More photos of Annette Cope’s journal are on our Picasa page.

Visit the Awbury Arboretum’s website at http://www.awbury.org/, or call 215-849-2855 for more information. “Like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @awburyarboretum.

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Happy New Year from the HS of Whitpain

By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

Happy New Year! This beautiful card comes from the archival materials at the Historical Society of Whitpain. We have learned a lot about Normandy Farm recently, since it falls in the collecting area of both the Historical Society of Whitpain and the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society.

Ralph Beaver Strassburger (1883-1959) was a prominent businessman born in Norristown, Pennsylvania. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he entered the Navy as a young man, and later entered the diplomatic service during World War I. He married May Bourne, daughter of the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, in 1911. He likely used his father-in-law’s wedding gift to purchase the property Normandy Farm in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, which he named after his French honeymoon destination.

In 1921 Strassburger entered the newspaper business, combining two local papers into the Norristown Time Herald. An avid historian and genealogist, he published his family history in 1922, and a book on Pennsylvania German Pioneers in 1934. Strassburger was also well known as a Thoroughbred racehorse owner and breeder. After his death in 1959, Normandy Farm remained in his family until 1994.

Michael and I drove past Normandy Farm twice on our way to the Historical Society of Whitpain! We accidentally put the wrong address into the GPS–we first went to the historical society’s restored one-room schoolhouse, the Franklinville School, instead of their meeting space and library at the historic Boxwood House. Both sites are worth a visit, so be sure to add a day of history in Whitpain to your list of New Year’s resolutions for 2012!

The Historical Society of Whitpain’s website is http://histsocwhitpain.org/. The Franklinville School is at 1701 Morris Road, Blue Bell, PA 19422. But if you want to use their archival collections, remember to use the address for the Boxwood House: 1098 W. Skippack Pike, Blue Bell, PA 19422.

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Christmas in Goschenhoppen

by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

I’m not particularly scared of Santa Claus (his freakish ability to withstand the heat inside a chimney notwithstanding). But if I had grown up in a Pennsylvania German community and heard stories about Belsnickel, I would probably be terrified. We managed to capture a rare candid photo of him while surveying the archival collections of the Goschenhoppen Historians (right), and you have to admit, he’s a bit intimidating. The Goschenhoppen Historians told us that Belsnickel comes to everyone’s house at Christmastime, just like Santa, and similar to Santa, Belsnickel also brings candy. However, instead of putting gifts in children’s stockings while chuckling merrily to himself and scarfing down cookies and coca-cola, Belsnickel throws the candy on the floor. When the children bend down to pick it up, he whips them with a switch! Good children, you see, wouldn’t be so greedy…

With their annual blockbuster Folk Festival, three museum spaces, and a library and archives, the Goschenhoppen Historians are working on all fronts to preserve and interpret Pennsylvania German folk culture. I particularly enjoyed their exhibit on Fraktur, a Pennsylvania German folk art form of illuminated marriage and baptismal certificates. I was fascinated to learn about Martin Wetzler (active circa 1854-1888), a Jewish Fraktur artist. He inscribed family Bibles and created Fraktur for Christian events like baptisms, but added a Jewish touch with his signature–he often drew a Star of David and wrote his name in Yiddish.

The Goschenhoppen Historians’s archival holdings include many manuscripts, ledgers, deeds, and more. Surprisingly, one of their richest archival collections is records from the local lodge of the Independent Order of Redmen, a patriotic fraternal organization. Given the close proximity to Amish country, it would be interesting to see how this nationalist group interacted with the more insular Pennsylvania German communities of the area. There’s a lot to study at Goschenhoppen!

Visit the Goschenhoppen Historians website at http://www.goschenhoppen.org/. You can email them at redmens_hall@goschenhoppen.org or call  215-234-8953 for more information.

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A Christmas Wish in Ambler, 1936 (Wissahickon Valley HS)

By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen

What do you want for Christmas this year? Imagine if the president of your company agreed to pay off all of your debts–mortgages, hospital bills, everything–or give you $1,500 cash if you had none. Imagine if he didn’t just do it for you, but agreed to pay the debts of everyone working at the company? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful Christmas?

That is exactly what happened in Ambler, Pennsylvania in 1936. It cost James Gravell, president of the American Chemical Paint Company, about $100,000–that would be over $1.5 million today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally met with Gravell, and thanked him for the “generous remembrance of your employees at the holiday season.” Gravell wrote a pamphlet about ‘The Cause and Cure of Depressions,” and addressed the U.S. Congress on the topic. His generosity extended beyond the one-time gesture–he also implemented a profit-sharing plan to continue spreading benefits to his employees.

James Harvey Gravell was an engineer, innovator, and philanthropist born in Philadelphia in 1880. While employed by Hale-Kilburn Metal Company, Gravell helped develop a chemical treatment for preventing rust and peeling on painted metal. He purchased the patent for the “Deoxidine,” and started his own company, the American Chemical Paint Company, in 1914. After operating in a rented space in Philadelphia, Gravell opened a chemical manufacturing and research facility in Ambler. The company was extremely successful, and Gravell became a rich man. He donated money to a number of worthy causes, including giving his employees the best Christmas ever.

After Gravell died in 1939, the company went through some restructuring, including a name-change to AmChem Products, Inc. It was acquired by Henkel in 1980, a company which continues to operate today. In 2011, a group of former AmChem employees donated a large collection of AmChem records to the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society, where you can go to learn more about the company’s history. The collection includes photograph albums, subject files, a box of patents, and some financial records. There is even an income/expense ledger from 1934-1938, a period that includes the infamous 1936 Christmas gift.

Industrial history doesn’t happen to be my specialty, but if it was, I would spend some time in Ambler. If you read the last blog post, you already know that Ambler used to hold the dubious honor of being the asbestos capital of the world, thanks to local asbestos manufacturer Keasbey & Mattison. K&M spurred the economic and civic development of the borough at the end of the 19th century, even if its disastrous effects on community health weren’t understood until the end of the 20th. We first learned about K&M at the Historical Society of Fort Washington, but the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society also has some ephemera and documents relating to that company. The two historical societies are very near to each other, so my recommendation would be to swing by both repositories and learn the fascinating stories of Keasbey & Mattison and the American Chemical Paint Company in one fell swoop.

Incidentally, in the midst of national asbestos investigations, the American Chemical Paint Company has also come under fire for exposing its employees to asbestos. But we won’t talk about sad things like that right now. It’s almost Christmas!

The Wissahickon Valley Historical Society has a website at http://www.wvalleyhs.org/. You can also call (215) 646-6541 or email  info@wvalleyhs.org for more information.

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