Megan Good

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Helen Oakes: Philly’s Public Schools’ Biggest Fan

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Just before the winter break, we wrapped up processing at Urban Archives with the Helen Oakes papers.  This was truly an exercise in team processing with Forrest, Megan G., Megan A., Christiana and me contributing to the effort.

Helen Oakes was a pretty remarkable lady who devoted her life’s work to advocating for public education in Philadelphia in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.  She believed that children across the city deserved equal access to education and that the city’s public schools could and should provide it to them — if only they could get their acts together.

Oakes first became interested in the schools in the late 1960s, when she was an active member of the League of Women Voters.  The League conducted a survey of schools which found that schools with a higher percentage of African American students were getting shortchanged when it came to funding.  Angered by this blatant inequality, Oakes launched her newsletter, Oakes’ Newsletter, in 1970, to publicize this and other issues in Philadelphia’s public schools.  The Oakes’ Newsletter was devoted to the discovery and understanding of problems in the school district, of which there were plenty.  Enough, in fact, to keep Oakes writing for nearly twenty years!

Oakes research into public education was relentless.  She investigated the ways in which public education was outright failing the city’s youth, as well as the external forces exacerbating the already taxed school system.  She carefully studied the budget; teacher training; standardized testing and integration.  She investigated programs designed for special needs students and sex education.  She looked at the relationships between education and external issues such as drug use, teen pregnancy, race, poverty and crime–and she published everything in Oakes Newsletter. Oakes wrote to shock her readers and to expose issues in the public schools for sure, but she had a more noble purpose.  She wanted the public schools to be better, and believed that they could be if the school district faced some of the major issues head-on.

A full run of the published newsletter along with her research files are available at Urban Archives. The collection also contains scant files related to her term on the Philadelphia Board of Education in the 1980s.  An outspoken and critical member of the board, Oakes was not asked to serve again after her term expired in 1989.

Schuylkill Navy photographs at Independence Seaport Museum

Monday, November 1st, 2010

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There are some archival collections which one processes that are straight forward and standard. Then, there are those collections that the archivist or processor will always remember, for whatever reasons. For me, the Schuylkill Navy records at Independence Seaport Museum were the latter. I was able to spend over a month working with this fascinating collection and because of it, will always have great memories of the experience when thinking of it.

For those who have not heard of the Schuylkill Navy, it is an association of Philadelphia rowing clubs based on the Schuylkill River. The association has the distinction of being the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States, as it was founded in 1858. The Schuylkill Navy oversees all rowing clubs and activities on the landmark Boathouse Row, organizes major prep, collegiate and professional rowing regattas throughout the year and promotes the sport of rowing. In the past 152 years of its existence, the organization has produced numerous Olympic and World class rowers including Paul Costello, Jim Burk, John B. Kelly, Sr. and John B. Kelly, Jr. Currently, there are rowers training on the Schuylkill River in hopes of making the trials and finals for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.

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As I look back, there are many reasons why I enjoyed working with this collection. There were hundreds of old regatta programs and posters that were beautifully designed and well-crafted. Another highlight was finding the original documents that created the Schuylkill Navy organization and the like new condition of those records. However, the most enjoyable part of this collection for myself was processing the photographs series.

The series started off as a small, diminutive group with a few old photographs and a 1970s era scrapbook. However, we kept finding more photographs as Forrest and I processed the collection as a whole. When it came time to start arranging this series, there were over three boxes of photographs, of which the bulk were not previously organized. I would have never thought at the time that the abundance of newly found materials would prove to be so much fun to process.

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The photographs series ended up being memorable for a variety of reasons. First, the series showed an extensive, detailed visual history of men’s rowing from the late 1800s until the late 1960s. The photographs also showed such an array of rowing activities from regattas and Olympic races to social events and life on Boathouse Row. The series actively documented the lives of rowers over the course of an eighty year span, which is remarkable in my opinion.

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Another memorable aspect of the photographs series was doing investigative work to accurately describe the pictures. The majority of the photographs did not have any written inscriptions so there was a lot of matching photographs with negatives, internet exploration on possible rowers and research into what rowing crews wore what. Of course, this was actually made more challenging since more than half of the series featured topless rowers, which being a professional future archivist, did not deter me from my work for too long.

While all of the aforementioned reasons made this collection memorable, the photographs series also helped me to recognize access points in a collection. When we started processing the Schuylkill Navy collection, I assumed that the only potential users interested in this material would be those in the rowing community or members of the Schuylkill Navy. By the end of our processing, I realized how wrong I was to presume anything about the collection before I actually heavily worked with it.

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Now, I can see how many different users would be interested in the Schuylkill Navy collection. It could include people whose interests pertain to rowing, recreation, leisure sports, sporting associations and even physical change in athlete’s bodies. Maybe there is even a researcher somewhere that is writing a book on the evolution of sports training and needs photographs to supplement their work. Not only would they find the photographs of the Schuylkill Navy collection informative, I hope that the user would also enjoy the series as much as I did while working on it.

RTC Shipbuilding Company records

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

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Another interesting collection that we have processed at Independence Seaport Museum is the RTC Shipbuilding Company records. The collection covers the shipbuilding and repair history of the company’s work from 1934 to 1965. It contains a great number of design plans and photographs that help document the building process of many ships.

RTC was started by three men, whose initials stand for each letter in RTC. The company was based in Camden, New Jersey, right across the river from Philadelphia. One of the neat things is that you can see the area where RTC operated from outside of the museum. The heaviest building period for RTC occurred during World War II when they built oil barges, tug boats and oil tankers for the United States Navy. For their high quality of workmanship and fast rate of production, RTC received two Army-Navy “E” Pennant four star awards. Not only was this a proud achievement for the company, it also solidified their presence as a major shipbuilding corporation on the Delaware River.

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The best part of processing this collection had to be looking at all the images in the “Photographs” series. There are photographs of christenings and launchings, shipbuilding, the employees, company social events and the yard. Out of all the other collections we have worked on, I have never seen such a thorough collection of photographs that cover a wide extent of the supporting paper documents. It is a great benefit for researchers that I’m sure will be taken advantage of.

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Another interesting part of this collection are the J.J. Baugean glass negatives of French ship prints. All the glass slides are prints of engravings of various French and European ships from history. They are absolutely beautiful when seen and from some research that I’ve completed, they are also somewhat rare. It is a mystery as to whom they belonged or how they got to RTC. Dates written on their box indicate that the prints were made or purchased in the early 1920s, which is before RTC was created. Our best guess was that the slides were used to make large decorative prints to hang in the RTC offices, but we were just speculating for our own enjoyment!

Overall, the RTC Shipbuilding collection was a great collection to work with and a good candidate for minimal processing. The majority of the collection was foldered when we started, so the bulk of our time was spent arranging the material into series and entering in all the data into Archivists’ Toolkit. With the extra time that we saved, Forrest and I were able to research and analyze the ships more which helped us to have a better understanding of the company and the collection. RTC was a very active company in the shipbuilding and repair industry and I know that this collection will be extremely useful to anyone interested in their work.

Thomas D. Bowes M.E., Associates records

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

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At the Independence Seaport Museum, the first collection that Forrest and I processed was the Thomas D. Bowes M.E., Associates records. This collection contained design plans, measured drawings, photographs, printed materials, patents and records all relating to the naval architecture firm of Bowes. With 95 boxes and 4,123 rolled plans, it was also the largest collection that we worked on at the museum.

Known as “Tugboat Tom,” Bowes designed over 800 vessels during his sixty year career as a naval architect. He designed over eighty tug boats, several of Philadelphia’s fire boats and over 300 yachts. Bowes also held many different patents for various vessel designs, including the Bowes Drive, which reduced the speed between the engine and drive shafts in marine installations. He was known as a specialist in compressing maximum power and utility into minimum hull space for his clients that wanted compact crafts.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Bowes grew up sailing on the Jersey Shore at both Cape May and Atlantic City. His father not liking the seafaring lifestyle, encouraged Bowes to become a lawyer or bishop to which he replied: “I have neither the brains for law not the goodness for religion. I will be what I have to be.” So hoping to give his son a reality check, Bowes’ father sent him out on square-riggers during his summer vacations. Bowes would join the ship in Philadelphia or New Jersey, sail around the Horn of South America and arrive in California with just enough time to take a train back East to start school again. The rigorous voyages did not deter Bowes from his dream of working with ships and by the time that he entered Cornell University in 1901, he had earned the rank of second mate.

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An interesting aspect of this collection is how well it ties into the other collections that we are processing at ISM. Two other collections that we are working on, the John H. Mathis Company collection and RTC Shipbuilding Corporation records, actually built and repaired ships and yachts that Bowes designed. It is interesting to be able to track the history of some vessels through their different stages of life and use.

One of the most famous ships that Bowes designed was the diesel yacht Lenore II for Sewell L. Avery, the President of Montgomery Ward, Director of U.S. Steel and President of Gypsum. Finished in 1931, the yacht was Avery’s personal cruiser until the United States government loaned her during World War II as a patrol vessel. The Navy seized her in 1945 to become an escort and stand-in for the White House yacht Williamsburg for President Truman. However, when President Eisenhower came into office, he refurbished and rechristened the Lenore II as Barbara Ann and made the yacht the Presidential yacht. The next three Presidents renamed the yacht during their terms in office. President Kennedy named her Honey Fitz, which President Johnson kept in his honor, and President Nixon named her Patricia.

In 1970, the yacht was sold by President Nixon, who wanted a larger ship, to the Seaport Line in New York City where the yacht was used as a charter boat. For the next eighteen years, the ship bounced between owners and eventually was bought in 1998 by a business for $5.9 million dollars. The name Honey Fitz has been restored to the yacht and it is currently undergoing extensive repair and restoration, which you can watch here.   There are also great links to news stories and Kennedy home movies that feature the yacht.

When starting this collection, we had no idea how Bowes and his company influenced ship and boat design. Many of his ships are still used today in different ports around the country. This collection was a great way to get our feet wet in naval and maritime history at the Archives of the ISM.

Hollywood in Philadelphia? The Lubin Manufacturing Company collection at Free Library of Philadelphia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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While at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Forrest and I had the opportunity to process one of the most interesting and exciting collections that we have ever seen: the Lubin Manufacturing Company records collection. The collection contained scrapbooks, bulletins, business records, photographs, advertisements, and artifacts relating to Siegmund Lubin, the founder of the Lubin film empire, and his company.

Lubin created one of the largest motion picture production companies in the world from 1895 to 1916, all of which began with the purchase of a film projector. His biography truly spells out the American dream. Lubin emigrated from Germany to the United States, worked as an optician, and found his way into the movie industry solely by his extreme interest in film production. He was a savvy entrepreneur and a gifted marketer, but unfortunately, did not invest in the overall quality of his films or heed the copyright laws, all of which led to the company’s collapse in 1916.

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Since the Lubin Manufacturing Company lasted for such a brief time, its records are sparse and the films even more rare. An explosion destroyed thousands of feet of film in Lubin’s main studio in 1914. Currently, there are only a few institutions that have Lubin Manufacturing Company collections, of which the Free Library has the largest amount of textual material. So, this collection was not only exciting to work with, but rewarding to process since the materials had little original order and were scattered throughout the Theatre Collection at the Free Library.

A couple of photographs of one movie, ‘Disaster Movie,” caught us by surprise. We kept finding stills of a time progression of two trains colliding into each other, all with the title of the film penciled in on the reverse of the photographs. Deciding to do some further research into the movie, we found out that the train scene cost $20,000 to film in the 1910s and that two old scrapped engines were purchased to make this scene. Since it cost so much to get the train disaster scene and the audiences loved it, Lubin decided to use it in five different films to get the most for his money (again, he was a savvy business man). There is a clip of the train scene on YouTube and you can watch it by clicking here.

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Even though the whole collection was fascinating, the artifacts were the icing on the cake. There is a Lubin paperweight, a Lubin film projector from 1905, and even the hood ornament from Siegmund Lubin’s car: his logo created into bronze bell. Also included in the artifacts was a box of reels and VHS tapes about the company, film clips, and ones that only had vague names, like Reel 8. With no way to know what is on the reels and no equipment to view them on, it is sad that we couldn’t have spent more time finding out what they were and who they were about.

Starting the Lubin collection, we knew that we were going to have a fun time processing these materials. But one thing that I don’t think that we realized was the rarity of the collection and Lubin materials in general.

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Because of the 1914 explosion, only 29 Lubin films have been located in the world, the majority of which are fragments. Luckily, while searching about the train scene, we came across the Betzwood Film Archive. Located at Montgomery County Community College, the archive maintains information about the Lubin company and Betzwood history. Every year they host the Betzwood Film Festival, at which a selection of Lubin films are screened the way they were meant to be shown: on a large screen and with live musical accompaniment. Needless to say, the Lubin collection at the Free Library is an exceptional resource to researchers interested in the Lubin film empire and the history of early moviemaking.

Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his Students at Free Library of Philadelphia

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

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While at the Free Library of Philadelphia, we processed the Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his students. The long name of the collection matched its size: large! This collection contained correspondence, art work, photographs, tear sheets, and many more items regarding Howard Pyle and his students from the Brandywine School of Art.

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While Howard Pyle’s name might not be well-known, several of his students are widely acclaimed as some of the best American illustrators of the 20th century: Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. Pyle, an accomplished artist, taught drawing and illustration at Drexel, starting in 1894. The success of his classes led to the creation of the School of Illustration within the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry. Disliking the lack of personal attention he was able to give his students’, Pyle left Drexel and taught students at his studio in Wilmington and at Chadd’s Ford Mill. He was quite a character in the art world and was known for his lack of time restriction on a student’s education. Pyle taught students until he felt that his instruction was no longer needed.

The collection was donated by Thornton Oakley, a student of Pyle, who collected materials about Pyle, other students, and information about the Brandywine School of Art. Processing this collection was unique due to the fact that the materials we had included primary and secondary sources. This really helped Forrest and me to develop a better understanding of the people, places, and art work in the collection.

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One of the most rewarding experiences processing this collection was the ability to handle and see the art work and prints of Pyle and his students. Some of the artists have completed work at the Pennsylvania State Capital, like Violet Oakley, while others have done murals at local institutions such as The Franklin Institute, like Thornton Oakley.

Overall, the Oakley collection at the Free Library is such a treasure to not only Delaware Valley and Philadelphia history, but also to the history of 20th century art. With the extent of Oakley’s collection, I would not hesitate to say that the collection is arguably one of the most complete documentations of great American Illustration.