Did you know there used to be an outdoor rooftop gym in Center City Philadelphia? It wasn’t even supplementing some luxury condo. Nope, Wanamaker’s Department Store used to boast rooftop tennis and handball courts, and an outdoor track for its staff to use!

Check out this aerial view of the store circa 1925 by Philly-famous photographer William N. Jennings, *probably* taken from the top of City Hall. Then there’s this shot of young lady staffers of the Wanamaker Commercial Institute in marching band formation practicing on the roof gym.

Check out more images from our Wanamaker collection on our Digital Library here.

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PEP (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Lieutenant (JG) Harriet Pickens (1909-1969) & Ensign Frances Wills (1916-1998)

In honor of African American Women’s History Month, we are highlighting the first two African American women who were commissioned as officers in the armed services.  Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills were commissioned in the United States Navy on December 21, 1944.

Lieutenant Harriet Pickens, a public health administrator with a master’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University, was the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP.  Prior to her military service, Harriet was the Executive Secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.  In addition to this position, she was a supervisor of recreation programs in the New Deal’s WPA (Works Project Administration). 

Ensign Frances Wills was a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Hunter College.  While Frances pursued her MA in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, she worked with famed African American poet, Langston Hughes.  She worked in an adoption agency, placing children in adoptive homes.   Her experiences as a pioneering naval officer led Frances to eventually write the book Navy Blue and Other Colors under her married name, Frances Wills Thorpe.

Obviously, these were two accomplished and well educated women, highly qualified to serve their country as military officers in time of war.  It was only their race that stood in their way and the remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down.  They were sworn in as apprentice seamen in the US Navy in November 1944. 

After receiving their commissions a month later, both Harriet and Frances serviced at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, NY, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) recruits.  Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions up until her death in 1969 at the age of 60.  Frances Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests.  She died in 1998.

Lieutenant Pickens’ and Ensign Wills’ military files are two of the records in our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) collection at the National Archives at St. Louis. Due to the high volume of attention and research on their military career, Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills’ record was placed in the PEP collection and digitally copied. The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes PEP records by placing the documents in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples and undertaking any required repair actions that will extend the life of the documents. An entire record is then scanned and placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas, thus preventing damage to the original documents.

We are proud to highlight the lives and achievements of these two courageous women who in the face of segregation and hatred overcame and changed the face of the United States armed forces forever.

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Early underwater photography by Louis Boutan, 1898. The sign the diver is holding (upside down) says “photographie sous marine.” 
[From the James Dugan papers.]

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Early underwater photography by Louis Boutan, 1898. The sign the diver is holding (upside down) says “photographie sous marine.” 

[From the James Dugan papers.]

The Molly Maguires were an Irish-American secret society based in anthracite coal country Pennsylvania in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Known for allegedly murdering several mining bosses, policemen, and other officials during the Long Strike of 1875, the group holds a reputation as one of the fiercest in American history.

The Mollies apparently served their victims with notes called “coffin notices” warning them of their impending murder. Here are some examples received by bosses working for the Coxe Brothers Mining Company in July 1875, just after the not-so-underground violence of the Long Strike ended. The handwriting may not be the best, but the illustrations sure get the point across.

For more information about the Mollies, the Long Strike, and violence in mining-country, head over to this essay.

Scenes from Camp Wanamaker, circa 1927. While it might look similar, Moonrise Kingdom this wasn’t. In 1901 John Wanamaker began a summer camp offshoot of his successful Wanamaker Commercial Institute in Island Heights, New Jersey, which functioned as a military-style boot camp for his youngest employees—some as little as 10 years old. The children, who needed their jobs at Wanamaker’s to scrap together a living, would have otherwise been unable to attend school or camp if their employer hadn’t supplied it for them.

In between military training exercises, the kids swam, participated in competitive sports (hence the trophies), and played in marching band.

Check it out on our Digital Library, here.

Watercolor of the ideal cot set-up before barracks inspection, as painted by Army Captain M. Nixon-Miller during World War I. Check it out on our digital library!
If you’re in the area, come out tomorrow night to see this painting and many other items related to Philadelphia during World War I at HSP’s launch party for the World War I online centennial exposition, “Home Before the Leaves Fall” at wwionline.org. Here’s more information about tomorrow’s event and our ongoing document display.

Watercolor of the ideal cot set-up before barracks inspection, as painted by Army Captain M. Nixon-Miller during World War I. Check it out on our digital library!

If you’re in the area, come out tomorrow night to see this painting and many other items related to Philadelphia during World War I at HSP’s launch party for the World War I online centennial exposition, “Home Before the Leaves Fall” at wwionline.org. Here’s more information about tomorrow’s event and our ongoing document display.

A very happy Juneteenth to everyone!
This is an illustration by Thomas Nast, lithographed by King & Baird Printers, Philadelphia. It appeared in the January 24, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

A very happy Juneteenth to everyone!

This is an illustration by Thomas Nast, lithographed by King & Baird Printers, Philadelphia. It appeared in the January 24, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

That John Wanamaker collection is full of surprises. Today we came across a full box of cigarettes, deemed “Wanamaker’s Own Blend.” Each one has his initials imprinted, and advertises on the bottom of the box that you, too, can have your initials stamped on all of your cigarettes at no extra cost—as long as you order more than a thousand.

The box is undated, but I’m guessing the blend was at least created in Wanamaker’s lifetime? He died in 1922. Does anyone out there have a clue regarding the date of this cigarette box?

Also note: the cigarettes smell AMAZING, like black currant tea, and not at all like today’s chemical hazards.

New on HSP’s Digital Library: ephemera from the Thelma McDaniel collection relating to the Black Power and Civil Rights movements in Philadelphia.

This Free Angela Davis NOW poster was one of many produced by the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis and was probably designed by Félix Beltrán. It uses a popular photograph of Davis taken by F. Joseph Crawford. The same New York Committee produced this bright bumper sticker for the cause.

For more about the history and uses of Angela Davis ephemera this Collector’s Weekly article is great.

On a 1920s tour of the furniture department at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, you would have come across three separate rooms: one for grand pianos, one for upright pianos… and one for phonographs. Vintage surround sound!

Photos from the John Wanamaker collection [2188], Historical Society of Pennsylvania, circa 1920.