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Philadelphia History Museum local history collection


Held at: Philadelphia History Museum [Contact Us]15 South 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19106

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia History Museum. 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

Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has been an important center of American cultural, political, intellectual, and business life for over three centuries. The area was inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Native Americans prior to colonization by European settlers, was briefly occupied by the Swedish, and then was settled largely by English and Welsh members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), along with subsequent other immigrant groups.

Over the course of the 18th century, Philadelphia expanded from humble beginnings to become the capital of the American colonies. The city grew wealthy due to the rich natural resources of the surrounding region, the enterprise of its citizens, and its advantageous port location. Intellectual and cultural life developed commensurately; many of the nation's first cultural and educational institutions were established in Philadelphia. When the American colonies began discussing rebellion against the British Crown, the centrally-located and politically vibrant City of Philadelphia was the natural choice for a meeting place. The Declaration of Independence (1776) and US Constitution (1787) were both written in Philadelphia, and the city served as the capital of the new nation from 1790 to 1800.

As the 19th century progressed, New York became the nation's most populous city, the federal government moved to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia dropped from its preeminent status on the national stage. Still, Philadelphia maintained an influential position. "The City of Brotherly Love" was a driver of social change, home to one of the North's largest free African American communities, with a strong contingent of abolitionists who seized on the Liberty Bell as a symbol of their movement to end American Slavery. In the 19th century the city industrialized and became one of the world's most important centers of manufacturing. Known as the "Workshop of the World," it was especially significant for its textile production, locomotive manufacturing, shipbuilding, iron and steel production, and sugar refining. National focus shifted to Philadelphia for the 1876 US Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which brought nearly 10 million visitors to the city.

Over the 20th century, Philadelphia's population diversified with booms in immigration from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Russia, Eastern Europe, and other foreign regions prior to immigration quotas in 1924, as well as influxes of African Americans as part of the "Great Migration" of individuals seeking economic opportunities in the North. Racial tension erupted in a series of mid-20th century strikes, debate over the desegregation of Girard College in the 1950s and 1960s, police confrontation with the radical black liberation organization MOVE in the 1970s-1980s, and other incidents. At the same time, Philadelphia struggled economically as manufacturing declined and as industry shrank in the wake of the Great Depression and shifted to the Sun Belt and overseas in the late 20th century. Suburbanization caused the city's urban population and tax base to shrink. Nonetheless, Philadelphia never receded from the national stage. The city developed nationally-recognized cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra (1900), Lubinville film studio (1910, one of the nation's first such studios), the nation's first Thanksgiving Day parade (1920), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (revitalized in a new building that opened in 1928), the first International Style skyscraper in the United States (PSFS tower, 1932), the "American Bandstand" television show (1956), Philadelphia International Records (the "Sound of Philadelphia," 1970s-1980s), and other culturally significant institutions, events, landmarks.

The dawn of the 21st century saw Philadelphia reinvigorated and poised for future growth. With investment in urban revitalization, historic preservation, development of service and technology industries, and tourist attractions, Philadelphia reversed the trend of suburbanization and in 2008 gained population for the first time since the 1950s. As of 2014, it is the largest city in Pennsylvania and the fifth-most-populous city in the United States.

The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent engages Philadelphians and regional visitors with its extraordinary collections that reflect Philadelphia's rich history and the diversity of its people and their neighborhoods through exhibitions, educational programs and technology which explore the past to better understand the present. Founded in 1938 and opened to the public in 1941, the Museum is located in a Center City Philadelphia building designed by famed architect John Haviland and occupied by the Franklin Institute from 1826 to 1933. The Philadelphia History Museum was originally called the Atwater Kent Museum, named for the inventor and radio pioneer A. Atwater Kent, who purchased the historic building and gave it to the City of Philadelphia. In 2010, during a major renovation that closed the Museum between 2009 and 2012, it was re-named The Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

This collection consists of a wide variety of paper materials from, or relating to, the Philadelphia region from the late 17th century to the 21st century. The collection is particularly strong in visual documentation and in printed materials, although there is also a large number of manuscript and other written documents. It includes: printed materials, such as newspapers, magazines, sheet music, and atlases; postcards, trade cards, valentines, and greeting cards; ephemera, including handbills, broadsides, brochures, newsletters, programs, and advertisements; photographs, including film and glass plate negatives, lantern slides, photo albums, and film reels; drawings and prints; blueprints, technical drawings, and diagrams; scrapbooks; financial and property records, such as deeds, tax documents, receipt books, account books, and other ledgers; organizational and business records, such as meeting minutes; personal and family papers, such as diaries, certificates; and much more. An extensive number of individuals, families, businesses, organizations, and buildings are represented.

The collection is organized into sub-collections based on document type or creator/donor. The creator- or donor-based sub-collections are all small, measuring less than 1 linear foot of materials. The format-based sub-collections include postcards (over 2,500 postcards organized by subject), trade cards (about 3,500 trade cards organized by industry), and valentines (over 500 items, about half donated by Elton F. Herbert).

The collection as a whole constitutes an extremely robust and rich resource on Philadelphia history overall. Many items within the collection may command particularly high interest, especially within specialized subject areas. For example: the minute book of the first Bank of the United States, 1781-1784; diaries of William Chapin, an instructor at the Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind, 1831-1888; and a visitors register of the Department of Public Comfort of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

An item-level inventory is available on site.

Materials collected from various sources over time.

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2012-2014 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact Philadelphia History Museum directly for more information.

Philadelphia History Museum
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Sarah Leu through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Access Restrictions

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Collection Inventory

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