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Joseph W. Thomas and Sons nursery records


Held at: Chester County Historical Society [Contact Us]

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Chester County Historical Society. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

The Joseph W. Thomas and Sons Nursery in Chester County was one of the oldest and longest running horticultural enterprises in the state of Pennsylvania. It operated from 1853 to 1990 and was owned by three successive generations of the Thomas family.

The Thomas nursery actually began in 1828 as a small farm and orchard called “Maple Farm,” which was owned by Charles and Ruth Thomas. It was their son, Joseph Williams Thomas, who formally established the nursery on a small portion of the farm around 1853. He named his burgeoning business, Chester Valley Nursery. Later, he changed the company’s name to Joseph W. Thomas and Company. Around 1888, Joseph’s sons, Edwin and Charles Lincoln, joined him in business and the name of the firm was changed once more to Joseph W. Thomas and Sons, reflecting the new partnership. In 1904, just after Joseph’s death, his son-in-law, Frederic J. Smith joined Edwin and Charles Lincoln Thomas in partnership.

Though he married twice, Edwin had no children of his own. As such, management of the firm eventually passed to two of Charles Lincoln’s sons, Charles Edwin and Raymond. After Charles Edwin’s death in 1974, Raymond continued to manage the nursery until he decided to close its doors permanently in 1990. The land was sold to Bentley Developers of West Chester for the construction of a new residential development.

Throughout its history, the nursery was a more or less successful business. According to author Herb Fry, it “…was noted for a variety of black walnut [that was] discovered growing on the nursery land by Joseph sometime before 1884…The absence of hooks and grooves [made for] easy…extraction of the [walnut] meat,” (p. 88). However, other activities were incorporated to increase profits. For example, there was a working farm, orchard and dairy which operated well into the mid-twentieth century.


Fry, Herb. “The Joseph W. Thomas and Sons Nursery.” Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society History Quarterly, vol 32: 85-97. (Accessed April 21, 2010)

The Joseph W. Thomas and Sons Nursery records contains documents created by that business from 1884 to 1993. Researchers will find financial records; general business records, especially plant order books; and a small collection of horticultural publications. There is also a very small portion of general records that relate to the nursery or nursery profession but were not created by the business, such as articles relating to the history of the nursery, a completed nursery order form from 1896, nursery stationary and printed ephemera, records of hours worked, and two grange booklets. The bulk of the collection is made up of business records, and in particular, client orders.

The collection is arranged into three series, "Financial records," "General business and other records," and "Horticultural and botanical publications."

The "Financial records" series is arranged alphabetically by record type and chronologically within those groups. Included records are cash books, account books, check receipt books, and a ledger. The cash books appear to list client payment information as well as commissions earned by various nursery salesmen. Account books in this series list the nursery's receipts and expenses. The ledger contains client account information and has an index.

Like the financial records "General business and other records" are arranged alphabetically by record group and chronologically within those groups. Included are newspaper clippings and a historical article by Herb Fry; an order for nursery plants from 1896; nursery stationary and printed ephemera; order books; a Pennsylvania Grange booklet as well as an Oxford Grange dues booklet; and records of hours worked by employees. Order books represent the largest record group in the series, dating from 1893 to 1990. Most order books document customer orders for one or two seasons (usually spring and fall), providing a list of names and prices of the items purchased. Though individual orders within the order books are frequently undated, the books themselves are. Occasionally, client contact information is included. Thomas and Sons' clients were both private individuals and other nurseries. A small number of order books appear to document orders taken by specific salesmen and this is noted in the container list when known.

The series "Horticultural and botanical publications" is arranged alphabetically by publication title or subject. Included are American Association of Nurserymen convention books; a D. Hill Nursery commemorative volume of poetry; directories of regional nurserymen and North American arboretums and botanical gardens; a copy of Manual of Tree and Shrub Insects; plant, tree and seed related booklets and pamphlets; and plate books. Of note in this series are the plate books, which contain colorful illustrations of numerous types of fruit, flowers and trees.

This collection will be of interest to horticulturalists, those interested in the nursery business and those interested in the history of Chester County.

The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.

This collection was minimally processed in 2009-2011, as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories. A minimally processed collection is one processed at a less intensive rate than traditionally thought necessary to make a collection ready for use by researchers. When citing sources from this collection, researchers are advised to defer to folder titles provided in the finding aid rather than those provided on the physical folder.

Employing processing strategies outlined in Mark Greene's and Dennis Meissner's 2005 article, More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal With Late 20th-Century Collections, the project team tested the limits of minimal processing on collections of all types and ages, in 23 Philadelphia area repositories. A primary goal of the project, the team processed at an average rate of 2-3 hours per linear foot of records, a fraction of the time ordinarily reserved for the arrangement and description of collections. Among other time saving strategies, the project team did not extensively review the content of the collections, replace acidic folders or complete any preservation work.

Chester County Historical Society
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Jennifer Duli
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research use.

Use Restrictions

Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Chester County Historical Society with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.

Collection Inventory

Account book, 1884-1904.
Volume 1
Account book, 1928-1939, 1933-1990.
Volume 2
Cash book, 1925-1930.
Box 1 Volume 3
Cash book, 1930-1939.
Box 1 Volume 4
Cash book, 1934-1942.
Box 1 Volume 5
Cash book, 1942-1951.
Box 1 Volume 6
Cash book, 1952-1962.
Box 1 Volume 7
Cash book, 1962-1972.
Box 1 Volume 8
Cash book, 1973-1990.
Box 1 Volume 9
Check receipt book, 1923 October-1927 June.
Box 1 Volume 10
Check receipt book, 1927 July-1932 January.
Box 1 Volume 11
Ledger (client account information), 1890-1894.
Box 1 Volume 12

Newspaper clipping and article on history of the Nursery, circa mid 1990s.
Box 5 Folder 1
Nursery order, 1896 May 21.
Box 5 Folder 2
Nursery stationary and printed ephemera, undated.
Box 5 Folder 3
Order book, 1893-1896.
Box 2 Volume 13
Order book, 1909 Spring, 1909 Fall.
Box 2 Volume 14
Order book, 1910 Spring, 1910 Fall .
Box 2 Volume 15
Order book, 1910 Fall, 1911 Spring.
Box 2 Volume 16
Order book, 1911 Fall, 1912 Spring.
Box 2 Volume 17
Order book, 1912 Spring, 1912 Fall.
Box 2 Volume 18
Order book, 1913 Spring, 1913 Fall.
Box 2 Volume 19
Order book (salesmen: J. Harry Thomas, J. [C]. Davis, Douglas Moister, James Mullin, Hiram M. Jones), 1913 Fall-1924 Fall.
Box 2 Volume 20
Order book, 1913 Fall, 1914 Spring.
Box 2 Volume 21
Order book, 1914 Spring, 1914 Fall.
Box 2 Volume 22
Order book (salesman: James Mullins), 1914 Fall, 1915 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 23
Order book, 1915 Spring, 1915 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 24
Order book, 1915 Fall, 1916 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 25
Order book (salesman: Harry Trorer), 1916 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 26
Order book, 1916 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 27
Order book, 1917 Spring, 1917 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 28
Order book, 1918 Spring, 1918 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 29
Order book, 1918 Fall, 1919 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 30
Order book, 1919 Spring, 1919 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 31
Order book, 1919 Fall, 1920 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 32
Order book, 1920 Spring, 1920 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 33
Order book, 1920 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 34
Order book, 1921 Spring, 1921 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 35
Order book, 1921 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 36
Order book, 1923 Spring, 1923 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 37
Order book (salesmen: David F. White and John Kindig), 1923 Spring-1931 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 38
Order book, 1923 Fall, 1924 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 39
Order book, 1924 Spring, 1924 Fall, 1925 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 40
Order book, 1924 Fall and 1925 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 41
Order book (salesmen: J.[C.] Davis and James Mullin), 1925 Spring, 1926 Fall, 1930 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 42
Order book, 1926 Fall, 1927 Spring.
Box 3 Volume 43
Order book, 1927 Spring, 1927 Fall.
Box 3 Volume 44
Order book, 1928 Spring, 1928 Fall, 1929 Spring.
Box 4 Volume 45
Order book, 1929 Spring, 1929 Fall.
Box 4 Volume 46
Order book, 1930 Spring, 1930 Fall, 1931 Spring.
Box 4 Volume 47
Order book, 1931 Fall, 1932 Spring, 1932 Fall, 1933 Spring, 1933 Fall.
Box 4 Volume 48
Order book, 1933 Fall, 1934 Spring, 1934 Fall, 1935 Spring, 1935 Fall, 1936 Spring.
Box 4 Volume 49
Order book (appears to contain many entries of items sold to other nurseries/businesses), 1936-1971.
Box 4 Volume 50
Order book, 1936 Spring, 1936 Fall, 1937 Spring, 1937 Fall.
Box 4 Volume 51
Order book, 1938, 1939 Spring.
Box 4 Volume 52
Order book, 1939 Fall, 1940 Spring, 1940 Fall.
Box 4 Volume 53
Order book, 1941 Spring, 1942, and 1943.
Box 4 Volume 54
Order book, 1943 Fall.
Box 4 Volume 55
Order book, 1946 Fall, 1949 [Spring ].
Box 4 Volume 56
Order book, circa 1949-195[0].
Box 4 Volume 57
Order book, 1951.
Box 4 Volume 58
Order book, 1953.
Box 4 Volume 59
Order book, 1955.
Box 4 Volume 60
Order book, 195[7] Spring.
Box 4 Volume 61
Order book, 1959-1961.
Box 4 Volume 62
Order book, 1961-1964.
Box 4 Volume 63
Order book, 1964-1967.
Box 4 Volume 64
Order book, 1967-1970.
Box 4 Volume 65
Order book, 1970-1975.
Box 4 Volume 66
Order book (appears to contain many entries of items sold to other nurseries/businesses), 1975-1990.
Box 4 Volume 67
Pennsylvania Grange booklet and Oxford Grange dues booklet, 1892-1898.
Box 5 Folder 4
Record of hours worked, 191[5] April-1917 October.
Box 2 Volume 68
Record of hours worked, 1928 July-1930 August.
Box 2 Volume 69
Record of hours worked, 1930 September-1933 January.
Box 2 Volume 70
Record of hours worked, 1957 January-1958 October.
Box 2 Volume 71
Record of hours worked, 1972 January-1976 January.
Box 2 Volume 72

American Association of Nurserymen convention books, 1921, 1925, 1927.
Box 5 Folder 5
D. Hill Nursery Company commemorative volume, "Tree Tributes" (poetry), circa 1930.
Box 5 Folder 6
Directories of regional nurserymen, and North American arboretums and botanical gardens, 1938, circa 1940's, 1990.
Box 5 Folder 7
Manual of Tree and Shrub Insects, 1926.
Box 5 Folder 8
Plant, tree and seed related booklets and pamphlets, 1933, 1936, undated.
Box 5 Folder 9
Plate books, undated.
Box 5 Folder 10

Print, Suggest