Foerderer family papers
Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 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 originator of the Foerderer family in America was Robert H. Foerderer (1860-1903). Born to Edward and Augusta Julia (Oehme) Foerderer, Robert became well known in Philadelphia for his self-titled leather manufacturing and tanning business, Robert H. Foerderer, Inc. He invented a tanning process using chrome as the main ingredient which made goat skin leather that was soft, supple, and could be used for a variety of goods, most popularly, shoes and gloves. For his product, Robert trademarked the named “Vici Kid,” and in 1892, he built a large plant in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. In addition to his successful leather business, he participated in several local clubs, served as the president and director of the Keystone Telephone Company, and in 1900, was elected as a U. S. representative from Pennsylvania’s At-large congressional district. He married Caroline Fischer (1861-1934) in 1881, and the couple had a daughter, Florence, and a son, Percival Edward. The family resided first on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. In the late 1890s, Robert moved his family to a multi-acre estate in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia. The estate had been named “Glengarry” by its previous owner, Charles Macalester, a local businessman and broker. The Foerderers later re-named the estate “Glen Foerd” in honor of its past and current owners.
Percival Edward Foerderer (1884-1969) was born in Philadelphia on October 25, 1884, and was educated at the Cheltenham Military Academy and William Penn Charter School. He desired to become a doctor and entered a medical program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1903. That same year, Percival learned that his father had become quite ill. Knowing that he would more than likely succeed his father in the family’s leather business, Percival quit school and asked to become part of the company. Even though he started at an entry-level position, by 1908 Percival had become president of Robert H. Foerderer, Inc. Two years later, Percival married Ethel Tillyer Brown (1885-1981), the daughter of John Adam(s) Smith Brown (1858-1937), a Philadelphia textile machinery manufacturer, and Harriet Hogeland Tillyer (1860-1920).
For the first few years of their marriage, Percival and Ethel lived in Philadelphia, on Walnut Street adjacent to Rittenhouse Square. There they had their first child, a daughter named Mignon Estabrook (1911-2002). In 1915, the small family moved to their first suburban home in Merion, Pennsylvania, which was built on a few acres of land the couple had previously brought. Several years later, Ethel gave birth to two more daughters: Florence deRapleye (1926-1999) and Shirley Avril (1927-1999). Around 1929, the family settled into their newly built estate named “La Ronda” in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Created by architect Addison Mizner in a Mediterranean style (a departure from the Colonial and Tudor style estate homes that were popular around this time), La Ronda was situated on over two hundred acres of what was previously Brookfield Farm, the estate of Pennsylvania lawyer and politician Wayne MacVeagh, who died in 1917. The family remained at La Ronda until Percival’s death in 1969, around which time a portion of the estate was sold to nearby Villanova University.
In addition to his successful run as president of Robert H. Foerderer, Inc., Percival E. Foerderer’s career was marked by numerous other civic, philanthropic, and business interests, and he managed his father’s estate for at least five decades. During the late 1910s he served on the War Service Committee of the Leather Industry and on the Committee on Labor Problems, which investigated labor conditions in the leather industry. Percival retired from and dissolved Robert H. Foerderer, Inc. sometime around 1937 and pursed other interests. He attained the positions of director of the Land Title Bank and Trust Company and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Mutual Life Insurance Company. Percival also served in the military during World War II and achieved, in 1942, the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Specialist Corps.
Furthermore, Percival became well-known in Philadelphia for his lengthy service to Jefferson Medical College and Hospital of Thomas Jefferson University. From 1928 to 1961 he served as a trustee; in 1950 he was elected chairman of the board and remained in this position for eleven years. During his years with the hospital, Percival, as well as his wife Ethel who also served the hospital in various capacities, achieved numerous and impressive tasks, such as bringing about the hospital’s $40 million expansion program in the 1950s. This included the creation of a new structure at 11th and Walnut streets. The building was completed in 1954, and in 1962 it was named the “Foerderer Pavilion.”
After Percival retired from the hospital’s board in 1961, the couple established the Percival E. and Ethel Brown Foerderer Foundation, which was initially designed to give funds “to purposes wholly charitable, educational, religious, literary, and scientific.” Over time, however, its funds went increasingly to subsidize university fellowships. In 1994, the foundation’s assets were transferred to Thomas Jefferson University into the new, similarly titled “Percival E. and Ethel Brown Foerderer Fund.” This fund, now generally known as the Foerderer Fund, continues to finance projects of university students and fellows, particularly those who wish to study abroad.
Percival Foerderer died in 1969 and his wife Ethel carried on his legacy and maintained her own as well. Ethel Tillyer Brown Foerderer worked primarily as the family caregiver, although she held many outside interests. She served on the Women’s Board of TJH for twenty-two years, from 1930 to 1952, five of which (1947-1952) were spent as its president. She spent much of her time fundraising and building relationships with internal bodies and external organizations. In addition to TJH, Ethel served on the Wards Committee of Bryn Mawr Hospital and on the Women’s Board of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She passed away at her Haverford, Pennsylvania, home in 1981, survived by her three daughters and several grandchildren.
Mignon Estabrook Foerderer (1911-2002), the oldest Foerderer daughter, attended Shipley School in Bryn Mawr and graduated from the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont. At the age of fifteen, she composed several works that were sung at the Triangle Club in New York City. She was “presented to society” as a debutante in 1929 and later joined the Junior League of Philadelphia. She married John Moore Kelso Davis in 1939. Florence Foerderer (1926-1999) never married and became a successful dog breeder. She owned Pemsfoerd Kennels in Paoli, Pa. Shirley Foerderer (1927-1999) married several times, lastly to Francis Wisner Murrary III. Both Mignon and Shirley oversaw the 1983 rededication of the Foerderer Pavilion at Thomas Jefferson Hospital.
The Foerderer family papers, spanning from the 1880s to the early twenty-first century, contains an assortment of items such as clippings, photographs, correspondence, legal and business papers, scrapbooks, and bound volumes. Most prominently featured throughout the collection are Percival Foerderer’s achievements in the leather business and his work with Jefferson Medical College and Hospital; Ethel Foerderer’s family history and personal activities are represented primarily through writings on Percival; however there are documents pertaining to funds she bequeathed to various organizations. Through clippings, photographs, scrapbooks, and other ephemera, the lives of Mignon and her husband, John Moore Kelso Davis are well documented. Shirley and Florence Foerderer are represented to a lesser degree mainly in photographs and a few pieces of correspondence.
The collection has been organized into four series: Series 1 is small and houses the earliest materials on the Foerderer family especially the lives of Robert H. Foerderer, his wife Caroline Fischer, and their estate, Glen Foerd located in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia; Series 2 and 3 are more substantive with the bulk of the collection representing the lives of Percival Foerderer, his wife Ethel Tillyer Brown and their home, La Ronda; and the lives of Mignon Estabrook Foerderer and her husband John Moore Kelso Davis respectively; Series 4 houses the remains of the collection with the focus on Florence and Shirley Foerderer and miscellaneous memorabilia.
Series 1 is housed in Box 1 and contains the earliest part of the family’s history. There are genealogical notes including a report on the descendants of Robert H. Foerderer and the ancestry of Percival Foerderer in Germany. Two early wedding invitations, one for the 1881 marriage between Robert H. Foerderer and Caroline Fischer and one for the 1883 marriage between Hattie Tillyer and John A. S. Brown, together with two disbound scrapbooks can be found here. One booklet contains memorial addresses given on the “Life and Character of Robert H. Foerderer” (April 10, 1904). Materials about Glen Foerd, the estate owned by Robert Foerderer and his family, are housed with Series I and contain memorabilia about events held at the estate, its history as a Lutheran Center (1968-1982), and the sale of the property.
Series 2 is rich in materials about the lives of Percival and Ethel Tillyer Brown Foerderer, their home La Ronda located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and their work with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. These materials are housed primarily in Boxes 2 and 3. Personal items on Percival include a letter certifying his birth name, his World War II records, an address book dated from the 1950s, legal documents concerning the settlement of his trust (April 1954), and mausoleum documents for a memorial at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bryn Mawr. Ethel is represented by handwritten and typed notes on Italian painters and painting techniques dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Accompanying her notes are images of Italian artworks. Also there is an outline of Ethel’s will together with an inventory of her property (July 1913). The couple’s home, La Ronda is well documented with maintenance records, list of furnishings, newspaper clippings, and legal documents regarding the sale of the property to Villanova University (1968-1969). Reports from the Foerderer Foundation and agreements between the Foerderers and Thomas Jefferson University for the transfer of Foerderer Foundation assets along with other materials such as a “History of the Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson University” by Frederick B. Wagner (circa 1986) conclude Series 2.
Series 3 is the largest part of the collection and centers on the personal lives of Mignon Estabrook Foerderer and her husband John Moore Kelso Davis and is mostly housed in Boxes 5-7. The youthful Mignon is documented through scrapbooks, correspondence, memorabilia, photographs, school items such as a typing and shorthand book from the 1930s, a travel diary and postcards. Her wedding to John Davis took place in the spring of 1939. There is a wedding gift book, lists of gifts received by the bride and groom, formal wedding photographs, and passports for both Mignon and John dated 1939. The couple went to Europe for their honeymoon and photographs (Box 7, Folder 12) show European scenes probably from their honeymoon. Of note are two original photographs of Adolf Hitler, one with Hermann Wilhelm Goring and one with Goring’s wife and child. There is no way to directly connect these photos to the couple except the fact they were in Europe and there were other typical trip photos housed originally with these two pictures. Additionally the young child in the photograph was born in June 1938. The couple’s married life is represented by Mignon’s journal and account book (1939-1977) and a guest book from Doncaster (1988-1997). Mignon’s collection of Presidential china is documented through an inventory and appraisal together with numerous correspondences with the White House. To a lesser degree, the life of John Kelso Davis is recorded through a baptismal letter of information (1930), correspondence, a resume, and World War II photographs and postcards. Additionally Series III concludes with some older Davis family memorabilia including school awards from the Catholic Seminary in Washington DC (1857-1859), an immunization register for Newton B. Davis (1944), and some Brainard family memorabilia.
Rounding out the collection is Series 4, a small collection of material on Florence and Shirley Foerderer and other miscellaneous memorabilia. Florence Foerderer is better represented than Shirley. Through photographs, a camp journal, writings, clippings, letters, and newspaper articles, Florence’s love of dogs and her generous nature are evident. Florence is the least documented and is shown only through photographs and several letters. Among the miscellaneous materials are several folders connected to the surname Brown, the maiden name of Percival Foerderer’s wife, Ethel Tillyer Brown, together with newspaper clippings and a couple of pamphlets. This series is housed in Box 8.
Gift of Ethel Davis, 2006, 2015, and 2016.
Accession numbers 2006.052, 2015.015, and 2016.036.
To HSP library:
Wagner, Frederick B. Jr., ed. Thomas Jefferson University: Tradition and Heritage. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1989.
The following duplicate book was discarded from the collection. It is available in HSP’s library: Cornell, John W. Jr. History of a Philadelphia Builder. N.p.: John W. Cornell, Jr., 1975. [UPA/Ph TH 140.C6 C6 1975]
- Robert H. Foerderer, Inc.
- Thomas Jefferson University. Hospital.
- Thomas Jefferson University.
- Vici kid.
- Leather goods--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia
- Leather industry and trade--Equipment and supplies
- Painting--Italian--15th century
- Painting--Italian--16th century
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Susan Kearney and Cary Majewicz
- Finding Aid Date
- Processing made possible by a generous donation from Ethel Davis.
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.