Subject Guides

The Society’s collections center on eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and parts of Delaware and Maryland, but also include a wealth of materials on the eastern United States, the founding of this country, and the diversity of ethnic and immigrant experiences across the United States.

Areas of particular strength include the following (click on a heading for more information about our holdings relevant to that topic.)

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Subject Guides

The depth and breadth of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s 20th-century collections is significant. These rich collections, dating up through the late 20th century, have both a regional and national scope. They document the greater Philadelphia area, national figures and organizations, as well as individuals and associations that had a nationwide impact. The experiences of diverse segments of society, including African Americans, women, and various ethnic and immigrant groups, are well represented.

HSP’s collections document the experiences and representations of African Americans from the colonial era to the present. This guide provides an overview of these resources, including manuscripts, books, pamphlets, serials, prints, broadsides, other graphics, and microfilm.

The collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania document Philadelphia’s rich residential and commercial architectural history from the colonial period through the 20th century with sources as diverse as original architects’ drawings to real estate development brochures. 

HSP's collections in Arts and Culture include works of art on paper, playbills and scrapbooks related to the performing arts, literary manuscripts, records of cultural institutions, and the personal papers of visual and performing artists.

The Society’s extensive business-related holdings document three centuries of business activity, primarily in Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia region. In addition to the manuscript collections outlined below, the Society also has many business-related publications, including company and government reports, circulars, catalogs, guides, timetables, and legal records.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania's collections include a variety of resources on the experiences of Chinese immigrants in Philadelphia and beyond. Resources include published materials, manuscript collections, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, and other graphics. 

by Daniel N. Rolph, Ph.D., Head of Reference Services   
REVISED 12/2010; web formatting updated 2/2013

Civil War collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are excellent primary resources that offer eyewitness accounts and reveal the fears, prejudices, and heroism of the individual soldier, as well as the deprivation and destruction of civilian life, in America's most devastating conflict to date.           

Interest in the American Civil War is as intense as ever. In the United States, more books are published annually about the 1861-65 conflict between the North and the South than any other historical topic. Whether one is exploring an historical aspect of the Civil War or investigating an individual who was involved in that great upheaval, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's library contains some of the most impressive resources for research.

HSP's collections include a broad range of materials representing philanthropic, service, self-help, and mutual benefit initiatives. From churches to ethnic associations to community service organizations to individual philanthropists, these collections offer unique resources for research.

The Society’s outstanding holdings on the formation of Pennsylvania and early administration of the Commonwealth begin with the largest assemblage of William Penn materials, many of which are in the Penn Family and Penn-Forbes Family papers. Among other notable collections are papers of the Logan, Cadwalader, Drinker, Jacobs, Lardner, and Norris families. There are extensive early grants, deeds, and maps.

Even before the merger with the Balch Institute, HSP had significant holdings related to ethnic and immigrant history, particularly regarding African Americans, Germans, and Native Americans in Pennsylvania. These materials are now joined with those of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which set out to document all ethnic groups in the United States. There is also substantial documentation on the history of American nativism and ethnic stereotyping.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is one of the most complete and professional genealogy centers in the nation—and the largest in the Mid-Atlantic region. The Society collects genealogical materials from Pennsylvania and every other state east of the Mississippi River. However, its collections also cover pre-migration from Europe, the genealogical “stepping stones” across the Caribbean, and out-migration to Canada.

The Federal Population Census enumeration, taken every ten years since 1790, can provide some of the most rewarding information for genealogical and historical research. The collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania include the 1790-1900 Federal Census returns for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (with the exception of 1890, as explained below), as well as those for a number of additional states.

The financial records of a business can hold a wealth of information. With business records, a researcher can obtain much information, whether he or she is interested in nineteenth century purchasing patterns, the cost of materials used in textile manufacturing, or the everyday operations of a brewery. The main types of financial materials found among business records are account books, account statements, receipts, bills and shipping information. Correspondence, legal cases and minute books also offer more insight into the operations of a business.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania's collections include a large number of resources that relate to German-speaking immigrants in Philadelphia and beyond, dating from the earliest colonists into the twentieth century. Resources include published materials, manuscript collections, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, and other graphics. 

This glossary defines types of documents frequently found in collections of family papers.

A guide to Philadelphia Jewish resources at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania including resources on genealogy, synagogues, and cemeteries.  Resources include materials from published materials, manuscript materials, and graphics.

This bibliographic guide contains materials from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's published materials, manuscript collections, images, and maps relating to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The manuscripts within the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania document the acquisition and inheritance of lands by Pennsylvania families from the 17th to the 20th century. Generally grouped together in the category “land records,” these collections provide insight into early land laws, genealogy, and may provide early descriptions of the Pennsylvania landscape.

For more than 350 years, millions of Americans have been involved in military service, both at home and abroad. Consequently, military records are one of the most fruitful resources for biographical and genealogical research.

Hundreds of useful handbooks, guides, and histories have been written about Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. This list includes only a few of them. Please see our other research guides for more comprehensive bibliographies of the sources available.

Philadelphia city directories are an excellent source for locating information on the city's residents, businesses, and city-wide development. In HSP's library is a complete run of city directories beginning in the late 18th-century and running consistently through 1935. This guide contains information on the directories, as well as other published resources on Philadelphia's development.

Philadelphia has more than 100 separate neighborhoods, each with its own historical memories. Among HSP's collections are many materials that document the rich histories of Philadelphia’s communities. This guide serves as an overview of the types of records we have pertaining to neighborhood history.

This guide will help you navigate HSP's holdings of high federal, state, and local officials, and government publications from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. Topics covered in other collections include: Philadelphia political history, the political debate over slavery, suffrage and women's rights, labor movements, and political advocacy and reform movements.

Comprising this guide is a bibliography of resources to aid in research when using collections of family papers.  They provide further information on the types of records one might encounter in collections and how to interpret them.  Listed are print and web resources.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania maintains a significant collection of resources necessary to identify and validate Pennsylvania and other states' vital records from the 18th to mid-19th centuries. This guide contains an overview of such records, including cemetery, church, baptismal and Bible records, family histories, and newspaper announcements.

HSP's collections document wars from the colonial period through World War II. This list provides an overview of such records that range from personal papers of soldiers to those from families affected by war to accounts kept by commanders, medical personnel, and provisioners. 

HSP's collections provide an exceptional source of women’s writings during the Civil War years. The following guide provides an annotated resource for these records, which include diaries, correspondence, and account books kept by women and women's organizations prior to, during, and after the war.

The collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania contain a wealth of documentary evidence of women’s historical experience from the earliest colonial settlements through the twentieth century. This guide serves as a brief discussion of the diversity of sources available at HSP, including manuscripts, published material, and images.