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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Library Company of Philadelphia

Library Company of Philadelphia

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It turns out that business records are FASCINATING

Monday, March 14th, 2011

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When I was preparing to process the Thomas Leiper and family business records at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I was a little less excited than I usually am—although one would think that I have learned not to judge a collection by its type (in this case, business records).  This collection is an absolute treasure trove—and will be amazingly useful for so many different researchers, especially those interested in early American business, the tobacco and quarrying businesses, workers, estate management, and the American Revolution.

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There were a couple of volumes in this collection that I found particularly fascinating.  First, there are the letter books, which are largely business related, but are peppered with copies of more personal letters.  Leiper, in addition to being an intrepid business man, was also a patriot.  Based upon some of the letters, he was clearly an advocate of independence and in order to prepare for this dramatic step, he helped found and later served in the first Light Troop of City of Philadelphia.  He was actively involved in the city’s goings-on and as a result, his letters are full of news and updates on the events of the day.

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As mentioned before, Leiper was quite the business man.  He owned businesses in the tobacco and quarrying fields, and as a result of his success, he purchased land for further business developments and worked extensively for improved transportation in Pennsylvania.  If that is not enough to make the collection pretty amazing, Leiper’s business interests seem to have been inherited by his descendents and some form of these businesses as well as a few new ones continued into the 20th century.  One of the volumes relating to Leiper’s quarrying business contains a roster of early American stone masons and builders.  As a historian interested in how the “common man” (and woman) lived, I was quite enthralled with volumes entitled “Wage Book” and “Work Book” which can be found with the quarrying and tobacco business records, respectively.  The quarry business is documented via the “Wage Book” which effectively shows the cost of running a business from 1833 to 1839 with information on the cost of boarding workers, wages, freight bills, vessel charges, and expenses for the business and the people who supplied services.  The “Work Book” contains information about Leiper’s workers in the tobacco business from 1776 to 1795:  their names, the type of work they performed, their hours and their wages.  Both are a great snapshot of what it was like to own a business in the 19th century and serve as a laborer in the 18th century.

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All in all, this collection was a surprise for me and in the small amount of time I was able to look through the volumes, I was excited to find a few of the many hidden gems located in this collection.  Also, I love collections where I can go into the community and find remnants of their work.  The Thomas Leiper and Sons quarrying efforts live on … you can see their quarried stone at Girard College, Swarthmore College and the Leiper Church.  It would take quite an expert to locate, but apparently, his stone is also found throughout Philadelphia in curbstones and steps for city homes. We may even thank him (or curse him) for some cross-Pennsylvania roads.

Ahh, history … it is all about us … we just need to use archival collections to know where to look!

Early Philadelphia Litterateur: Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was such an amazing lady!  She was a poet and an intellectual whose opinions mattered to people developing the world in which we live today.  She is found not only in her own collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, but also in the John Dickinson papers and the Rush family papers.

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The Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson papers consists of six volumes of her writing.  It is probable that these volumes represent the bulk of her writing.  The content of the volumes is very indicative of who she was:  there are two volumes of poetic interpretation of Psalms, with an introductory letter explaining her project to her friend Reverend Richard Peters; two volumes of poetic translation of Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemaque, which was, according to notes within the volumes, a favorite book during her childhood; and two volumes containing a variety of writings including poetry, prose, letters and memorandum.  All these volumes include writings about topics which meant something to Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, but the last two do so in an unstructured manner.  A poem memorializing a yellow fever victim might be next to query regarding currency.  These volumes show the lively and diverse intellect of a woman in the late 18th century.

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I would love to have the chance to write all about Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson who was, as mentioned before, a truly amazing lady … but I am not going to because there is already a really good biography of her.  But to pique your interest and encourage you to read about her, let me simply say that she is a plucky figure (engaged to William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, who married someone else; married to Hugh Fergusson, whose loyalty to the new United States was questioned; vilified by many of her contemporaries for her relationship with her husband; and championed by her friends in helping her regain her property after it was seized as a result of the Confiscation Act of 1778). After writing that, I am surprised there is not a film about her!

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I am going to write, instead, about my discovery of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.  Not being an early American scholar, prior to processing this collection, I did not know anything about this woman, but now I have worked with three collections in which she is referenced or to which she contributed:  her own, the Rush family papers, and the John Dickinson papers (all at the Library Company of Philadelphia).  Together, with a few other collections at Dickinson College and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, these collections paint a fairly complete picture of this woman’s life—far more complete than a researcher would find if accessing only her collection of poetry and writings.  For instance, examples of the legal aid provided to her by her friends in order to help restore her property after her husband’s alleged treachery is found within the John Dickinson papers.  Benjamin Rush, one of her closest friends, received letters, poems and drafts from Fergusson, which he saved and are now available for research.  The real question I have is how many more collections containing material created by or about Fergusson are still out there, unprocessed and still hidden?  Regardless, when the Library Company of Philadelphia’s finding aids are made available, researchers will have a lot more to look at when researching Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.

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Right around the time that I was processing this collection, I was on my way to a coffee shop and passed directly next to Christ Church.  As I was slowly meandering through the tombstones, I happened upon Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s marker.  After all the time I spent with her (intellectually speaking), I felt as if I was greeting an old friend.  I was actually a little surprised when I reminded myself that only a few months earlier, I had never even heard of her.


Big plans mean big worries: John Dickinson and the establishment of this country

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Thinking about starting a new organization or a new business?  How about a new nation?  John Dickinson’s papers give just the smallest hint into what it took to create a new nation, geographically vast and ideologically diverse.  What I love about Dickinson’s papers are the notes he took about the problems that arose and required solutions.  They show that he was a thinker and a planner.  In fact, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence:  not because he believed that remaining a part of Britain was the right thing to do, but because he did not believe that America was ready to be independent.  His papers prove that he had a right to worry!

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Some of Dickinson’s biggest concerns related to providing for an army of a brand new country fighting to preserve their independence … and even though I knew the story of American soldiers leaving bloody trails in the snow because they did not have shoes, I guess I never really thought about the planning that is required to determine what a new army needs. As a result, there are a lot of lists (and I do love a list) determining what food each soldier needed as well as the type of munitions necessary to succeed.

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Then, after winning the war (and this collection includes a letter from Thomas Barclay telling of the peace treaty in 1783), how about paying for it?  Our founding fathers started with the Articles of Confederation and an intentionally weak federal government.   Dickinson needed to worry about changes in imports and exports.  And he really needed to worry about the foreign debt, which according to records in the collection, amounted to more than 7 million dollars in 1783 (other sources place it closer to 12 million).  I just checked an inflation calculator which tells me that that amount would be a staggering 123 million dollars in today’s money.  Perhaps that is not too much for today’s United States, but I feel sure that it was an overwhelming sum to a group just establishing themselves.  All these issues made it clear that the Articles of Confederation were not really going to work.  So, Dickinson and his colleagues wrote the Constitution.  All in a day’s work, I suppose, when your name is John Dickinson!  I like that Dickinson was a worrier … had I lived during the late 1700s, I would have felt comfortable about the future of the country knowing that someone like Dickinson was thinking about all the potential problems and coming up with solutions.

I occasionally (alright, constantly) worry about this project being completed within the time frame.  However, after working on this collection, I felt much more confident.  After all, I only have to manage the processing of 114 collections in 27 months … I don’t have to start a new county or feed an army.  So, if you ever feel a little overwhelmed by your plans, I highly recommend that you come to the Library Company of Philadelphia and look at Dickinson’s papers.  I suspect that you will suddenly feel like you can do whatever you have set your mind to do!

Art in the Archives: Doodles, Sketches, and Fine Art

Monday, January 24th, 2011

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People often think of archival collections as dusty boring boxes of papers, but even if the boxes are dusty and full of paper, they are rarely (never, in my opinion) boring.  Who knows what you will find when you pop open that liquor store or candy bar box ?  One of the things that I love finding is artwork, which is very prevalent in archival collections, in varying degrees of artistic quality.  Regardless, I love it because it really allows you to see the world through the creator’s eyes.  Textual material allows you to discover the way the creator thought , but art allows you to see what they saw (or maybe not … maybe it is what they wanted to see).  Fascinating!

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The kind of art that our project has revealed was created for lots of purposes:  work, clarity, creativity, and boredom (or perhaps nerves—I am a nervous doodler).  Workwise, we have found amazing sketches in the Academy of Natural Sciences Exhibit records reflecting the creation of the dioramas  with plans for the backgrounds, the foliage, and habitat.  A professional artist’s work is represented in the Thornton Oakley collection on Howard Pyle and his student.  The John H. Mathis Company records contains ship plans; and when we process the Armistead Browning, Jr. papers at the University of Delaware, we will be working with landscape plans.  Natural historians documented their scientific studies as well as amazing new things they discovered:  Pierre Eugene du Simitière and J. Percy Moore are notable examples.  The Logan family papers include some drawings that show James Logan’s interactions with the Native Americans in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

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We also have student artists who saved their work—this is evident in the Reinhardt, Hawley and Hewes family papers, the Marvin Rosefield Keck, the Vaux family papers and Nicholson and Taylor family papers.  The artwork in these collection is far beyond amateur and both William Nicholson Taylor and Mary Vaux Walcott studied art formally.  Taylor and Keck used their considerable talents to draw humorous cartoons of the world they observed.  Mary Vaux Walcott created beautiful paintings from her experiences with the United States Board of Indian Commissions.

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Others drew plans of their hopes … James Rush has amazing sketches of architectural features for a home he was building on Chestnut Street.  In John Dickinson’s papers, there are sketches of a bathtub (introduced by Benjamin Franklin) as well as plans for succeeding in a military battle.  I can only imagine how wonderful a bathtub seemed in a time when plumbing was scarce.  The Logan family papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania include tons of land surveys—quite beautiful … I don’t know if the Logan, Dickinson and Norris families were planning to buy land or or already owned it.

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Finally we have the doodlers … and I love the doodlers!  I cannot decide if I like the doodles on the inside covers of Benjamin Rush’s financial books or John Dickinson Logan’s doodles on the list of rules for officers serving in the Civil War.  Either way, these doodles are of a most decidedly human nature … I have a strong suspicion that I, and many of the readers of the blog post, would doodle in similar situations.  Hopefully, you have not been doodling during the perusal of this post!

More processing please…

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers at the Library Company of Philadelphia posed one of the more challenging trials in minimal processing that I have experienced to date (almost more than the Read family papers).  The Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers document the development of a prominent middle class African American family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The family began with the emigration of John Stevens from England in 1760.  His daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth Stevens married George Cogdell and had three known sons, John Stephano Cogdell, Clements Stevens Cogdell, and Richard Walpole Cogdell.  The son Richard Walpole Cogdell (1787-1866) married a women named Cecilia, and had three sons.  Although he was married with a family, Richard Walpole Cogdell sought the relations of a black woman, Sarah Martha Sanders (d. 1850).  With Sarah Martha Sanders, Richard Walpole Codgell fathered ten children.  It is from the Codgell-Sanders relationship that the birth of this family in Philadelphia began.

As with many family papers, obtaining the story of Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family requires the researcher or the archivist to sit with a large genealogical tree to understand who or what is happening in the collection (this is also complicated by the fact that everyone has the same name).  This collection is further problematic because of the nature of the materials and how they were maintained.  The materials, which were predominately scrapbooks at one point, are now pages from scrapbooks and pieces of scrapbooks that are removed from the pages.  This “arrangement” creates an environment that minimal processing cannot handle and the optimal situation for the materials would be for an archivist to put the puzzle pieces back together and try to re-establish some type of original order.  This is not done at two hours per linear foot, nor even at twelve hours per linear foot.

Our resulting finding aid includes folders named after individual family members with a slight description as to what is in the folder, and a series titled “Scrapbook Pages,” which contains information that pertains to many family members.  Even with this shortcoming, the Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers holds an immense amount of information for researchers.  The collection includes numerous people who would be great to research, such as Miranda Venning.  Miranda Venning was a teacher and later a principal of the Joseph E. Hill School.  She received her education at the Institute for Colored Youth, Robert Fortens private school, and The Vaux School.  She was also the first black graduate of Philadelphia’s Girls Normal School in 1882.  Miranda’s scrapbooks contain a wealth of newspaper clippings from Philadelphia black newspapers as well as information regarding the music scene in Philadelphia, including information on the prominent singer Marion Anderson.  John Stevens’ letterbooks contain numerous letters to his supposed prodigal son, who moved to Jamaica after leaving his job and responsibilities behind.  To add to the collection’s interest even more, the family has a relation to the Chew family of Philadelphia.  Overall, the Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers offer an excellent glimpse into the lives of a prominent black middle class family’s life and they would be a worthy addition to research pertaining to black history.

Ladies of Courage: Breast Cancer Survivors Then … and Now

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

I recently finished processing the Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and while doing a little research for the biographical note on these amazing family members, I discovered that Susanna Dillwyn Emlen was a breast cancer survivor. She had surgery in 1814 and survived for 5 years before her death in 1819. The cause of her death is unknown.

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Susanna’s illness is only mentioned in the last few folders of this extraordinary collection of correspondence between Susanna and her husband Samuel Emlen, Jr. and her father William Dillwyn, but the raw emotion in the letters brought tears to my eyes. It is hard to imagine how frightened and worried Susanna, her husband and her father must have been about this mysterious disease. I am sure that today, despite all the facts, the scans and the treatments, fear and worry still rival hope in the day-to-day coping of this illness. For a very detailed overview of Susanna’s experiences, see Women and Health in America, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt (2nd edition).

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Susanna discovered her tumor, the size of a “partridge egg,” in December of 1813, but only told her husband after several weeks and decided to try some treatments advised by her aunt which included a salve. Only after much thought and family discussion did she decide to even consult a physician. Dr. Philip Sing Phyick, the father of surgery in America, was a brother-in-law of Samuel and Susanna; and once he was consulted, he urged Susanna to consider surgery. Susanna did decide to have the surgery which was performed by Dr. Physick and four other doctors. She describes to her father the events which led up to the surgery and how her “whole being was absorbed in pain” which was “severe beyond expression.”

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Perhaps one of the factors of Susanna’s recovery was the support she received from her friends and family. One of my favorite parts of this collection is the overwhelming love that shines through the formal writing and the physical distance separating Susanna and Samuel Emlen from William Dillwyn who was living in England. The collection begins with Susanna’s “dear father’s first letter to [her]” in 1770. The first letters are written to a child, but their relationship evolves despite rarely seeing each other. Their letters are full of affection and news of family, friends, and neighbors. Susanna describes in vivid detail the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, her father writes of abolition, and their Quaker beliefs are evident throughout the letters. In 1794, Samuel Emlen Jr. asks William Dillwyn’s permission to marry Susanna and receives it, and thereafter, is included in the correspondence.

With love and encouragement from family, neighbors, and fellow Quakers, Susanna’s support system was strong. However, she also possessed an immense strength of her own which helped her face her fear, address the “momentous question” and opt for surgery, and then fight to survive an operation without anesthesia. Susanna Emlen was amazing! So, I would like to raise an imaginary glass (libations not being smiled upon when working in close proximity to the collections) to all the women of today (especially someone very special at the Library Company of Philadelphia) and yesterday who found, and continue to find, the strength to fight breast cancer … and win.

Does Love Lead to Madness?

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Some days this job seems too good to be true … and today is one of those days.  I am in the midst of processing the Rush family papers at the Library Company of Philadelphia and I will admit that I am a bit daunted by Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), a renaissance man who appears to have dabbled in an inordinate number of activities.  Upon closer examination, however, it is obvious that this man did not dabble, he did.  He was a doctor, a patriot, a soldier, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a founder of Dickinson College … to name only a few.  On occasion, it is difficult to remember that he was a real person.  As I process, though, I find many little indications that Rush was a real person: a father, a husband and a friend. There is note about his grandchild being stillborn, letters from his wife while she traveled to Canada, notes from his friends who valued his opinion and judgment, and criticisms of his medical treatments, especially during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793.  And then you have those who sought his advice … on all sorts of topics.

The following is a transcription of one of my favorite letters I have ever found in an archival collection.  Upon receipt, perhaps Dr. Rush laughed, or perhaps he responded with sensitivity and saw signs of madness in this fellow … certainly Rush’s work with the mentally ill is legendary, and as you can can see by the final document … in the late 1700s, love COULD lead to madness!

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“Dear Sir,
I am now in a most dreadfull dilemma, will you be so favourable to give me your ingenious observations on the passion of Love, it will tend to extricate me from the dreadfull Situation.
To love and be disappointed [illegible] most unhappy dreadfull state! Advise how to forget a lady whom for years (think it not recent for it has subsisted four years) I had the most ardent passion. I enjoyed every promise and privilege, save only I can say we were not united? Teach me the noble science to forget? Teach me how to conduct myself when frequently in her company, she appearing in tryumph at my mortification.

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Her company an arrow dipt in poison to my heart. How must I conduct myself? Can I hate when I once so passionately loved? Can I seek revenge? Or is it the refuge of a narrow depraved mind? Will it give any satisfaction?
Think not, Dr. Sir, my subject too frivolous for an answer, for remember what Solomon the wise man says: ‘Love is as strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave, the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame, many waters cannot quench love, neither can the flood drown it, if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be be contemned.’
Now, Sir, if you will be so kind, Mr. Cary’s Museum is where I wish to read your thoughts–if you will oblige as long as life remains a student of medicine and one of your class.”

From a quick Google search, I learned a few things … Mr. Cary is Matthew Carey (1760-1839), an Irish immigrant to Philadelphia who became a prominent publisher.  His magazine American Museum is almost certainly the one in which the Student of Medicine wished to have Dr. Rush publish his response.  He is also quoting the Song of Solomon 8:6.

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Not long after finding the above marvelous letter, I found a “List of Lunatics in the Pennsylvania Hospital on May 1, 1784.”  At least two of the twelve “lunatics” listed are considered to be insane/manic because of love.  Since our Student of Medicine does not give his name, and his letter is undated, who knows?  He may be included on this list! I hope not …  I hope he wrote many more letters to Dr. Benjamin Rush and they are just waiting to be found!

Processing plans for minimal processing

Monday, March 1st, 2010

You haven’t heard much from me in the past month or so because I have been out in the field on a reconnaissance mission, so to speak.  Since the middle of January, I visited Independence Seaport Museum and Presbyterian Historical Society, and Holly joined me at The Library Company, Free Library of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Chester County Historical Society, to gather information about collections for the creation of processing plans.

Our processors do not have a lot of time to think about their processing decisions and once those decisions are made there’s no turning back.  Not to mention, we are working with students, who are learning the art of archival processing as they go and therefore do not have a lot of experience to draw from when making decisions about arranging collections.  Even so, because of the nature of the project, we need our teams to work independently.  As such, the processing plan is a very important part of our work flow.  It is completed prior to the processors’ arrival, provides them a place to start, and guides them in their decision making as they begin to divide collections into series and subseries.

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I spent from one to four hours with each collection, its accession file (if there was one), and collecting biographical information about its creator(s). Taking this information (and lots of photocopies) away with me, I created processing packets.  Each collection’s packet contains the processing plan, a preliminary biographical/historical note (written by Holly or me), copies of useful documentation from the accession file, a copy of the PACSCL survey record, and copies of any historical/biographical information we found about the creator(s). The processing plan itself identifies basic information about the collection, including its date range, linear footage and container count, and a basic list of supplies needed for processing.  More importantly, the plan offers a list of proposed series and subseries as well as specific processing instructions for collections that are especially unique or potentially problematic.  For example, at the Independence Seaport Museum, numerous collections contain large numbers (1000s, actually) of rolled ship’s plans, which will present significant problems in terms of time–the students will not have time to unroll the plans in order to identify them nor will they have time to figure out how to effectively deal with them.  As such, Matt Herbison, the Director of the Library at the Seaport Museum, and I took some time one afternoon to figure out the best way to handle those collections that would enable both greater intellectual and physical access.  The systems we came up with are outlined in the processing plans for those collections for the students to replicate.

Our teams are instructed to completely read all the materials in the processing packet prior to processing.  In doing so, the teams quickly become acquainted with the collection and its creators and are made aware of the various types of records to look for and how to group them.  Additionally, through the packets students gain a sense of the historical context in which the records were created—information that they do not have enough time to uncover on their own and that we believe to be essential in understanding archives and their value.

Since the students will ultimately devote a lot more time to the collections than we can, we do allow them to adapt the processing plan as they see fit.  If they feel additional or different series are necessary to maximize the collection’s accessibility, they may make those decisions on their own.

At all the repositories I have visited thus far (there are a few more stops along the way) I have gotten quite an in depth “sneak peek” at what’s in store.  Based on my experience over the past couple of weeks, we have some exciting collections coming up that are sure to be both interesting and challenging from the perspectives of history AND minimal processing — so stay tuned!

Here are some teaser snapshots of what’s to come: