Harrison 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
Charles Custis Harrison was born in Philadelphia in 1844 to George Leib Harrison and Sarah Ann (Waples) Harrison. The family also included an older daughter, Harriet Morgan, and eventually two younger sons, Alfred Craven and William Welsh. George L. Harrison was the proprietor of the successful Franklin Sugar Refining Company; all his sons would eventually work their ways through this business. Charles received his education first through a private tutor, then through St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Academy. His studies culminated in 1865 with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Later in life he received several honorary degrees from Princeton University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to working with his father in the sugar refining business, Charles became best known for his work as a trustee and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Charles became a University trustee in 1876 and provost in 1894, a post to which he was permanently elected in 1895 and held until 1910. During this time, the University experience rapid growth and Charles helped raise funds for numerous school buildings and dormitories. He personally financed the George Leib Harrison Memorial Foundation, an endowment which the University still maintains to this day. Charles also held memberships in various local organizations such as the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Numismatic and Antiquarian societies.
Ellen Nixon (Waln) Harrison was born in Philadelphia to Edward Waln and Ellen Cora Nixon in 1846. Not only was she part of the Waln family, members of which were well-known in the area for their mercantile pursuits, but she was also the great-granddaughter of Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Ellen spent much of her life caring for her children. However, she, like her husband, had close ties to the University of Pennsylvania. Around 1900 she became one of three women (the other two being Mrs. Edward M. Paxson and Mrs. George Wharton Pepper) to serve as managers of the university’s hospital.
The Harrison family papers are a small collection that primarily contains 136 family letters, the majority of which are between Charles Custis Harrison and Ellen Nixon (Waln) Harrison before and during their marriage. The bulk of the letters span from 1869 to 1870, but items in the collection range from about the late 1850s to the mid 1900s. There are also photographs, genealogical papers on the Harrison and related families, one of Charles Harrison’s subscription books, photocopies of drawings in a journal kept by Charles Harrison in the 1880s, letters to Harry Waln Harrison from Charles, and a 1961 certification (or appraisal) of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
When accessing this collection, researchers will find that all of the original letters have been cataloged, numbered, and transcribed. Letters to Charles Harrison are numbered C1, C2, C3 and so on. Letters to Ellen Harrison are similarly numbered with the prefix “E” and miscellaneous items are numbered with the prefix “M.” Within each group, the letters are in chronological order, so the lower the catalog number, the earlier the letter. A significant number of the letters are undated; their current order was created prior to the collections’ arrival at HSP and has been maintained.
Additionally, there are two sets of transcriptions of these letters. One set is housed with the original letters in the same number order. The other set had been compiled into a collection of correspondence meant for Harrison family descendants. In this latter compilation, the correspondence is also arranged chronologically; however, the letters are mixed to show the progression of Charles and Ellen’s relationship, that is, a letter from Ellen to Charles is often followed by the response from Charles to Ellen. Since, as the author of the compilation noted, “many notes and letters referred to in this collection are not extant,” there are gaps in which there are only letters to or from one person. The compilation of letters also contains an image of “Glenwood,” the family home of George and Letitia Harrison, and various remarks on the family and the letters.
The letters between Charles and Ellen date from the time of their courtship, starting in about 1868, through the first several years of their marriage, until about 1875 (Box 1, Folders 1-6). Many of Ellen’s early letters, in addition to requests that she and Charles get together, contain various reports on friends and family members and her own activities. “I spent the day at Mrs. Meade’s,” wrote Ellen in one such letter,” and wanted a locket so very much but never the less I did not complain. On Friday I expect to spend the day in Trenton.” A couple days later, Charles replied, “I have only at this moment received your note of Thursday night from Trenton. I can hardly devise any proper means of going to W[althamstowe] to-morrow, as the horses are all at Glenwood still, and as I expect to go out of town early on Monday morning.”
As their relationship grew stronger, their letters grew longer and revealed in more depth their feelings towards one another. “May I not,” wrote Charles to Ellen on May 30, 1869, “from my long lesson to-day, ‘go one up’ in the class of your friends? I wonder how long before I shall be ‘head’!” This statement of Charles’ hope to become Ellen’s number one “friend” concluded nine-pages of what he deemed a “very egotistical letter” in which he wrote about his mixed but ultimately loving emotions towards Ellen.
Despite the fact that Charles and Ellen were married in February 1870, there are almost no indications of this event or their prior engagement in their letters. However, there are a few congratulatory letters from family members and later references to various presents they received after the wedding. After the wedding, in early 1870, Charles and Ellen moved from their respective family homes to 1620 Locust Street in Philadelphia, a residence given to them by Charles’s father, George Leib Harrison, who occupied the house next door at 1618 Locust Street.
In addition to letters between Charles and Ellen, the collection also contains letters to the honeymooning couple from Charles’s parents, George and Letitia Harrison. (Charles and Ellen spent a lengthy honeymoon in Florida.) There are also several letters to Charles from various members of his family and several miscellaneous letters to Ellen from friends, including one from Margaretta S. Meade, wife of General George Meade. Miscellaneous items in this collection (Box 1, Folder 7) include articles of partnership for Harrison Havemeyer & Co, the company that established the Franklin Sugar Refining Company, a poem written by Charles entitled “Among the Laurels,” and a draft of Charles’s resignation from Franklin Sugar.
Gift of Jean Hyland, 2006.
Accession number 2006.041
- Harrison, George L. (George Leib), 1811-1885.
- Harrison, Charles Custis, 1844-1929.
- Harrison, Ellen N. (Ellen Nixon), 1846-1922.
- Harrison, Harry Waln, 1879- .
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Cary Majewicz
- Finding Aid Date
- ; 2008
- Processing made possible by a generous donation from William Hyland.
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.