Stereoscopic views of the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia, June 1860—transformed into GIFs! Just because not everyone has a stereoscope viewer, and these images were meant to be 3D.

Also, if you’re in the Philly area, come check out HSP’s display of items (including these stereographs and more!) related to the Sanitary Fair. It’ll be up for another 2 weeks.

Stereographs from the Historical Society’s Photograph Collection [V59], on our Digital Library here.

Flipping through some letters in one of our genealogical collections, I found this delightful stationary feature. Pennsylvanians, you’re welcome. 
You can see the full letter on our Digital Library here.

Flipping through some letters in one of our genealogical collections, I found this delightful stationary feature. Pennsylvanians, you’re welcome.

You can see the full letter on our Digital Library here.

"What is in those celestial spaces void of Matter? And whence is it that ye Sun & Planets Gravitate mutually towards one another, the spaces between being void of Matter? How comes it yt Nature acts nothing in vain? And whence proceeds yt admirable Beauty of ye Universe?”

—Sir Isaac Newton, quoted on this gorgeous John Senex map of the solar system. It was published as the first leaf in his book Universal Geographer, or, Compleat Atlas, published in London, 1708. The map shows the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in addition to many observable comets. Senex printed Newton’s text from Opticks as orbiting bodies unto themselves.

In 1743, Benjamin Chew decided to leave his comfortable home at Duck Creek, Delaware, to study law at Middle Temple, in London. He was 21. After a long and stressful trans-Atlantic trip (the young Chew apparently fell severely ill several times on the journey), he arrived at the legendary law school, expecting, “a better opportunity of contracting an Acquaintance with Gentlemen who were in the Prosecution of the same Studies with myself & I made no doubt but that their Conversations & the frequent Disputes which I did imagine they must necessarily be involved in & which must chiefly twin [?] on the subject of their studies…” Adorable.

But instead Chew describes in this diary entry, above, the devout Quaker’s nightmare come to life. Instead of the bright young men talking incessantly about their studies, he found a scene that seems not dissimilar to today’s college party culture:

"I find the Young Fellows here employ all their Time in Debaucheries and Extravagancies of all kinds… When they meet together their last Debauch is commonly the Subject of the Conversat[ion]. one stretches & swears he was d—d’d drunk last Night another yawns & says he was up all the Night at a Bawdy House, a third at the Gaming Table & so on, in short such is the Depravity of the Times that they are not ashamed of owning nay & bragging too that they are in the constant Practice of every kind of Vice."

Poor Benjamin. Maybe he felt like a country bumpkin around all those Londoners, having grown up in the rural Delaware colony. Maybe he just needed to relax and live a little. It’s clear enough that he felt much more religious than any of the other “Young Fellows.”

In any case, Chew’s nerdery paid off—he was named chief justice of Pennsylvania (under the colonial government—he remained a loyalist in the Revolution) in 1774.

Above is Benjamin Chew’s silhouette, from the Simpson Plates Collection [3237A]

Check out more from our extensive Chew Family Papers collection [2050] on our Digital Library, here.

This morning I found flowers pressed in a bound volume of The Irish Shield, a radical literary and historical newspaper for Irish immigrants in America. This particular issue is from May, 1831.

New in our Digital Library: one of the Society’s favorite treasures, the Washingtoniana Case! Compiled by Harold Edwards in 1882, it features a signed letter by Washington, two portraits, and (*drum-roll please*) a lock of our first President’s hair. As his blurb explains, Edwards received the lock from a relative, John Perrie, who was Washington’s hairdresser.

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.


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.


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


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 1884. 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.