Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Alea Henle

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Established in 1824 to gather and protect historical materials, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) developed from a learned society and gentlemen’s club into a professional institution with a robust publication program and an extensive research library. Over the decades, the society also expanded its activities to support education and public history programs and coordinate with related organizations.

Lawyer Roberts Vaux (1786–1836) and other wealthy Philadelphia men founded the Historical Society during the triumphal tour of the United States by the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), the upwelling of celebration and remembrance attendant on the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and celebration of the 142nd anniversary of the arrival of William Penn (1644–1718) in Pennsylvania. Attorney William Rawle (1759–1856) became the first president.

[caption id="attachment_28419" align="alignright" width="300"] In the twenty-first century, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s headquarters houses over six hundred thousand printed items and more than twenty-one million manuscript and graphic items, providing researchers with more than 350 years of historical sources. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Members came from the upper middle classes, as with earlier historical societies established in Massachusetts (1791), New York (1804), and other northeastern states; lawyers predominated over ministers among the early members. French-born Peter S. Du Ponceau (1760-1844) served as the society’s second president, from 1837 to 1845, and Charles J. Stillé (1819–99), of Swedish descent, as the eighth (1892–99). Otherwise most board members were men of Anglo-American descent well into the twentieth century. The Historical Society served as a gentlemen's club, offering a forum for exchange of historical papers and research. A voluntary association with nominal dues, it relied on the energy and support of members.

The Early Years

The Historical Society first received housing courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, then moved to rooms in the Athenaeum of Philadelphia in 1847. Records of the early decades reveal meetings canceled due to a lack of quorum, periods of inactivity, and irregular publication of its Memoirs, which contained miscellaneous articles including excerpts copied from William Penn’s correspondence. Nevertheless, the society gathered collections documenting Pennsylvania history in general and Penn in particular. Correspondence with Penn’s heirs in 1833 resulted in gifts that invigorated the society’s collecting.

Biases—in regard to race, class, and gender in particular—restricted the society’s developing collections. Members focused upon documenting the history of the worlds they knew, thus their collecting activities centered on politics, religion, civil society, and leading figures. The society avoided addressing materials documenting the history of slavery and Americans of African descent, whether free or enslaved, although it did gather printed abolition tracts. The outbreak of the Civil War initially reduced the society’s finances and attendance. However, in 1862 the society extended membership to women and individuals born outside of the United States, which revitalized the society while reducing the influence of the pro-Southern contingent. The broader membership had an immediate impact on collecting, although biases remained.

Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the society became as much research library as gentlemen’s club. Collections grew to the point where, in 1871, the society leased the Pennsylvania Hospital’s Picture Building on Spruce Street. Two years later, the society obtained sufficient funds to purchase a sizable collection of Penn’s papers. The society participated in organizing the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, marking a shift towards engagement with public history. Member Henry Armitt Brown (1844–78) delivered speeches celebrating Revolution-era leaders on the lecture circuit, and the society published brief biographies of Declaration of Independence signers in its new quarterly journal, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, first published in 1877.  

Thirteenth and Locust Streets

Outgrowing the Picture Building, society officers raised funds to purchase a mansion and adjoining lot at Thirteenth and Locust in 1883. The society built annexes in 1890 and 1905, then erected a new fireproof building in 1910, which continued to serve as the entry point to the society after a series of renovations in the mid and late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

[caption id="attachment_28421" align="alignright" width="223"] Thomas Lynch Montgomery, born in Germantown and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, supervised the library staff of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Publisher and bookseller Townsend Ward (1817–85) was elected librarian in 1851 and two years later became the society’s first paid staff member. By 1921, librarian Thomas Lynch Montgomery (1862–1929), a leader of the American Library Association, supervised a staff of thirteen including eight women. The society hired Jane C. Wylie (1853?–1925) in 1891 and she rose to head the manuscripts department. Staff learned on the job rather than through formal training; staff shortages contributed to a chronic cataloging backlog. Ongoing collecting continued to focus upon the lives and experiences of upper-class Americans of European descent.

In the 1930s, librarian Julian P. Boyd (1903–80) pushed the society to embrace progressive approaches to historical scholarship and become a professional scholarly society. In 1934, early in his tenure, he met with black Philadelphia printer Leon Gardiner (1892–1945), who contributed his collections, including extensive materials from the defunct Afro-American Historical Society, also known as the American Negro Historical Society. Five years later, Boyd facilitated the development of a statement that refocused the society’s mission on inclusion of all groups regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or religion.

Twentieth-Century Expansion

By the latter half of the twentieth century, the Historical Society expanded to include a diverse array of initiatives. Under the leadership of Nicholas Wainwright (1914–86), who served in several capacities, including editor, librarian, and director, the society formed agreements with commercial publishers in the 1960s resulting in facsimile and microfilm publications of Indian Treaties (1963), the Pennsylvania Gazette (1968), and African American–related reprints (1969). By 1976, the society held the papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, a process begun in the 1920s. The society also hosted related projects. In the 1970s, it provided space for the William Penn Papers project, which prepared first a microfilm and then a letterpress edition. In the 1980s, it supported the Pennsylvania Newspaper Project, another microfilming project, and in the 1990s the Biographical Dictionary of Early Pennsylvania Legislators project, although a dispute over the latter’s autonomy led it to relocate to Temple University. In addition, the society developed a closer relationship with its neighbor, the Library Company of Philadelphia, producing joint exhibitions and initiating a fellowship program to support scholarship.

[caption id="attachment_28420" align="alignright" width="300"] Housing over six hundred thousand printed items and more than twenty-one million manuscript and graphic items, the archival and library services of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania have been critical to the organization’s operation and longevity. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the society moved to hire professionally trained library staff and added positions focused on educational programming. Members also elected their first female and African American board members: Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Beatrice Garvan (b. 1929) in 1966 and scholar Charles L. Blockson (b. 1933) in 1976. In 1990, museum administrator Susan Stitt (1942–2001) became the society’s first female president.

Society leadership played a large role in shaping and reshaping the society. Historian Peter Parker (b. 1936), first hired as head of the manuscript department in 1970, served as director in the 1980s; under his guidance, the society embraced public education through exhibits, lectures, and outreach to schools. Under Stitt, supporting research became a higher priority. She also made the controversial decision to transfer the society’s art and artifact collection to the care of the Atwater Kent Museum; this was completed in 2002 with official ownership transferred in 2009. David Moltke-Hanson (b. 1951), who succeeded Stitt and had previously served as director of the Southern Historical Society, focused attention on education, facilitated the launch of Pennsylvania Legacies in 2001, and secured grants for major archival projects. In 2002, the Historical Society successfully merged with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies (founded 1971), resulting in deeper and more diverse collections.

The society had a long symbiotic relationship with the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (founded 1892); Genealogical Society members held membership in the Historical Society, which in turn provided housing and research support. Amid monetary woes in the 1990s, officers attempted to merge the societies, but failed. The two organizations developed an alliance in 2006, depositing the Genealogical Society’s holdings with the Historical Society. Genealogy became an increasingly important focus for the society in the twenty-first century.

Organized as a learned society and gentlemen’s club, successive generations of leaders expanded and contracted the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s spheres of action. Over the course of nearly two centuries, the society transformed into a professionally staffed institution and amassed extensive, diverse collections while struggling with how best to serve the public good and support historical research.

Alea Henle is head of public services librarian at Western New Mexico University. Her research interests explore how efforts to preserve materials for history have shaped what survived.

Historical Societies

Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans started establishing historical societies to collect and preserve historical materials. In 1815, Philadelphia became the fourth U.S. city to host a historical society, the American Philosophical Society’s Historical and Literary Committee. The city’s religious tolerance and central location made it a natural location for religious and ethnic societies. Interests in preserving the history of local places and peoples led to the creation of county, city, and neighborhood historical societies. Leading citizens used history to affirm the area’s contributions to the formation and development of the United States.

[caption id="attachment_24303" align="alignright" width="300"]Before moving to their headquarters at Thirteenth and Locust Streets in 1882, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania rented space in a number of locations, including the Pennsylvania Hospital's Picture House. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) Before moving to its headquarters at Thirteenth and Locust Streets in 1882, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania rented space in a number of locations, including the Pennsylvania Hospital's Picture House. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Two early historical initiatives foreshadowed the city’s subsequent history of secular and religious societies. In 1791, pioneering historical editor Ebenezer Hazard (1744–1817) of Philadelphia received a letter from Boston, where citizens had just founded the first historical society in the nation, asking about Philadelphians following suit. Hazard replied such an enterprise would likely be considered the province of the American Philosophical Society. Members of the society came to the same conclusion, albeit a quarter-century later, and established a committee to investigate the history of the United States in general and Pennsylvania in particular. Roughly contemporaneous with this action, Protestant Philadelphians established a Religious Historical Society dedicated to Christian history. The list of founders and early officers included ministers from several denominations: Dutch Reformed Jacob Brodhead (1782–1855), Baptist William Staughton (1770–1829), and Presbyterians Samuel Brown Wylie (1773–1852) and Jacob Janeway (1774–1858). Both societies were moribund by the early 1820s.

Elite members of society formed state societies in the early and mid-nineteenth century to preserve the histories they valued. Amid the celebrations leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphians William Rawle (1759–1856), Benjamin H. Coates (1797–1881), and others established the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1824, likely due to the encouragement of collector and chronicler John Fanning Watson (1779–1860). Citizens in New Jersey founded a state society in 1845, while Delawareans waited until 1864. Nineteenth-century historical societies primarily drew their membership from the ranks of professional men of European descent. Women participated, first behind the scenes and later in their own right, but class and ethnic biases persisted. The societies relied on their membership for volunteer action and operating funds as they gathered collections of historical materials, lobbied governments for support and preservative action, and prepared historical publications.

[caption id="attachment_24305" align="alignright" width="300"]The American Baptist Historical Society was founded in Philadelphia and held a ten thousand volume library in its Publication House on Chestnut Street. A fire destroyed the collection and the society later relocated to Rochester, New York. (Photograph by Lucy Davis for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia) The American Baptist Historical Society was founded in Philadelphia and held a ten thousand volume library in its Publication House on Chestnut Street, third building from the right in this photograph. A fire destroyed the collection and the society later relocated to Rochester, New York. (Photograph by Lucy Davis for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philadelphia hosted a flowering of religious historical societies founded to preserve denominational histories. In the mid-nineteenth century, Presbyterians and Baptists created societies (Presbyterian Historical Society, 1852, and American Baptist Historical Society, 1853) and located their collections in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s central location and religious tolerance made it an apt choice, and several denominations followed in the steps of the Presbyterians and Baptists, including the German Reformed (later Evangelical) Church (1863), Society of Friends (1873), and Catholics (1880). The Baptist historical society’s collections were destroyed in a fire at the Publication House in Philadelphia in 1896; members rebuilt the collections, but in the mid-twentieth century the society relocated to Rochester, New York, and united with the Colgate Rochester Divinity School’s extensive historical collection.

[caption id="attachment_24304" align="alignright" width="300"] A black and white photograph of the German Society of Pennsylvania, a two-story red brick building with arched windows on the first floor, and prominent balconies and faux Greek columns on on the second floor. Decorative stone railings, urns, and cupolas adorn the roof. The German Society was founded in 1764 to assist newly-arrived German immigrants, particularly those in indentured servitude, by providing interpreters and legal aid among other services. In 1867 it established its archives, which today house over 50,000 books. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Other new historical societies attempted to redress imbalances and preserve the history of racial and ethnic groups. In 1897, several black Philadelphians organized the Afro-American Historical Society, also known as the American Negro Historical Society, to preserve and disseminate black history. Although the Afro-American Historical Society lasted little more than a quarter century, member Leon Gardiner (1892–1945) preserved its collections, later deposited with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Academics and historians organized the Swedish Colonial Society in Philadelphia 1909. Less than two decades later, colonial society founder and historian Amandus Johnson (1877–1974) established the American Swedish Historical Museum. The older German Society of Pennsylvania (1764) largely focused on charitable and cultural activities, but established archives in 1867. The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, founded in 1971, sought to gather material reflecting ethnic, racial, and immigrant diversity. Over the following decades, ethnic cultural organizations advocated for the history of Latinos and Asian Americans in the area. For example, Philadelphia’s Mexican Cultural Center or Centro Cultural Mexicano sponsored historical lectures.

Most historical societies focused on documenting and preserving place-based local, secular identities—particularly in areas where residents felt overlooked by existing societies. In 1834, responding to the older Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s tendency to focus on Philadelphia, Pittsburghers formed the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Although it proved unstable (reorganized in 1843, failed, then reestablished in 1858), it set a pattern for waves of historical society creation over the following centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, Bucks (1880), Montgomery (1881), Chester (1893), and Delaware (1895) Counties in Pennsylvania and Salem (1884) and Camden (1899) Counties in New Jersey had established societies. Gloucester (1903), Cumberland (1905), and Burlington (1915) Counties, as well as New Castle County (1934) in Delaware followed suit.

[caption id="attachment_24302" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the American Swedish Historical Museum, a white, classically-inspired building with a green roof adorned with a columned edifice. In 1926, to coincide with both the Sesquicentennial of the United States and the forthcoming tricentennial of New Sweden, historian Amandus Johnson founded the American Swedish Historical Museum. It is the oldest Swedish-American museum in the United States. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Inspired by the historic preservation movement, residents of various cities, towns, and townships in the region also began to organize societies over the course of the twentieth century. In some cases, existing societies took on preservation responsibilities. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America assumed care for the Logan family’s house, Stenton. In other instances, residents created new societies to preserve a particular building or site. For example, the Highlands Historical Society (1975) in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, formed to save Anthony Morris’s Highlands Mansion. The societies’ goals generally expanded to include other preservation activities. The Sharon Hill Historical Society (1991) organized to preserve a train station, but went on to publish a book of photographs. This place-emphasis facilitated the proliferation of historical societies within the region. Philadelphians founded societies to preserve the histories of particular neighborhoods including Germantown, Bridesburg, Frankford, Northeast Philadelphia, and University City. Philadelphia was not alone in hosting multiple societies; Quakertown became home to the Quakertown Historical Society, Quakertown Train Station Historical Society, and Richland Historical Society.

In addition, other societies incorporated historical objectives into their missions over the course of the centuries. Although the American Philosophical Society’s historical committee failed, the parent society shifted to preserve its historical collections and support research. Other institutions, such as the Athenaeum and College of Physicians of Philadelphia, also recognized and acted to preserve their collections’ historical value.

By the early twenty-first century, the region witnessed the creation of even more societies, but encouragement from granting agencies, such as the Barra Foundation, led to consolidation and cooperation among existing societies. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania took on the manuscript collections of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies (2002) and the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (2006). The Germantown Historical Society merged in 2012 with Historic Germantown, an association of historic houses and museums, to form Historic Germantown: Freedom’s Backyard. Historical societies, individually and in collaboration, supported researchers, developed public programs, advocated for preservation, and more.

Over the course of two centuries, Philadelphians established scores of societies to preserve the history of local places and people. In the process, they laid the groundwork for the region’s extensive historical collections and buildings.

Alea Henle is head of public services librarian at Western New Mexico University. Her research interests explore how efforts to preserve materials for history have shaped what survived.

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