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Philadelphia Society of Free Letts records


Held at: Philadelphia Society of Free Letts [Contact Us]531 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19123

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts. 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 Philadelphia Society of Free Letts, or Filadelfijas Brivo Latvju Biedriba (BLB), is the oldest Latvian Society outside of Latvia. The population of Letts, the Baltic ethnic group native to the area that is modern Latvia, first became significant in Philadelphia during the mid 1880s when oppression against the Lettish community in Tsarist Russia caused many to flee. The Philadelphia Society of Free Letts was established as a settlement house in 1892. Soon after, in 1894, it was formally incorporated as a benevolent, educational, and charitable organization with goals including: helping to acclimate Lettish immigrants to American society and laws, maintaining a bilingual library, and providing relief to poor, sick, and distressed members. The BLB also became a social center for the Lettish community in Philadelphia, serving food and drink from its hall. It was a popular spot for Lettish sailors, a common profession due to the close proximity between the Lettish homeland and the Baltic Sea.

A large wave of Lettish immigration to Philadelphia following the 1905 Revolution in Russia brought many new members to the BLB. In 1910 the group purchased the building at 531 N. 7th Street where it has remained for over 100 years, with major improvements completed in the 1960s. The BLB was especially active during the Soviet era, advocating for Latvian independence. In the 21st century, it is primarily a community center dedicated to forwarding and supporting Latvian culture. It also holds one of the largest Latvian-language libraries outside of Latvia.


Philadelphia Society of Free Letts. Constitution and By-Laws, 1928.

Chakars, Janis. "A Small People in a Big City." NewsWorks. March 7, 2012. Accessed July 21, 2014.

The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John. "History." Accessed July 21, 2014.

This collection includes both records created by the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts/Filadelfijas Brivo Latvju Biedriba (BLB), including administrative, financial, and membership records; as well as other materials, principally ephemera, either donated or collected from other sources.

Administrative records of the BLB include the 1894 charter, constitution and by-laws, and monthly minute books from 1902 to 1984. There is also a fair bit of correspondence. Financial records include treasurer's reports, receipts and disbursements, and check stubs. There are also many building-related records such as blueprints, mortgage and loan paperwork, rental requests, and inventory/supplies for the bar operated by the BLB. Membership records are extensive, including membership applications (which list name, occupation, address, age, and sponsor), membership and officers lists, dues ledgers, and sick and death benefits ledgers. There are some photographs and photograph albums of BLB members and activities. Some records relate to clubs or other subgroups of the BLB. For example, there are meeting minutes from the theater club, and library regulations and inventory lists. Also available on-site are scripts from theater club productions and music used by the many singing clubs of the BLB.

The records dating from the term of former BLB president Roberts Lidums, 1973-1986, are organized into binders, mostly chronologically, with binders on special topics including the Latvian Exhibition at the United States Bicentennial and the 90th anniversary of the BLB. These binders contain BLB records such as financial reports and mailings, as well as mailings received by the BLB from other Latvian groups and cultural heritage organizations or documents pertaining to Latvian cultural events. Most of the correspondence is directly related to Lidums' role as BLB president, although a small amount of personal correspondence appears to be mixed in as well.

Slightly more than half of this collection is newsletters, news clippings, pamphlets, event invitations, event programs, and other ephemera from the BLB, about the BLB, or by or about other Latvian organizations (mostly in the US but also in other countries and in Latvia). Most of this ephemera is organized chronologically into scrapbooks; some of the scrapbooks have original records, such as meeting minutes or correspondence, intermixed.

The BLB also holds a small amount of personal papers donated by members. Papers from Latvian sailor John Herman, for example, include immigration papers, Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation certificates of discharge (1926-1940), family photos (circa 1910-1950), and colors slides (1970).

Materials collected by or created by the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts 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 Society of Free Letts directly for more information.

Philadelphia Society of Free Letts
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.
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