Archival Adventures in Small Repositories
Women's History Resources
Women's voices and actions can be found throughout HSP's large collection of manuscript and published materials. This subject guide is intended to help researchers delve deeper into materials or subjects that are particularly rich sources for learning more about women's experiences at different points in history.
You can find descriptions of HSP's manuscript collections, as well as more information about HSP's books, maps, and other items in our online catalog. You can also contact a Reference Librarian for further assistance.
You may also be interested in HSP's subject guide to "Women During the Civil War."
The following guide includes advice compiled as part of a 2003 HSP effort called the Documentary Families Project, which focused on the access and preservation needs of some of the Society’s richest collections of family papers. During that three-year effort, project staff (Joanne Danifo, Katherine Gallup, Sarah Heim, and Leslie Hunt) created a guide to finding women's voices in collections of family papers; that work is now incorporated here.
One obvious place to look for women's voices is in their diaries and correspondence, but researchers will also find women's history in scrapbooks, financial and legal records, and the records of many social, cultural and political organizations. Even in manuscript collections named for men, researchers can often find rich veins of information about the central figure’s mother, sisters, wife, daughters, or even friends.
The following is a small sampling of some of the manuscript resources available at HSP:
Diaries and Journals
Of all types of manuscript materials, diaries and memoirs provide the most direct insight into women’s lives. Memoirs recall past events in a continuous narrative, while diaries are written over time in discrete, dated entries. (Manuscript collections at HSP usually use the word “diary” to describe an account of life written in daily entries, while the term “journal” is reserved for a particular kind of business ledger.) Though impacted by literacy rates and the cost and availability of writing supplies, these accounts often provide rich documentation of the day-to-day experiences of women.
Some diaries are highly informative, containing details about the writer’s daily life, her interactions with family and friends, and her reflections on current events. Others are quite terse and consist mostly of notes about weather and meals. Notable examples in the Society’s collections include those of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker (1758-1807); Ann Head Warder (1758-1829); Sarah Logan Fisher (1776-1795); Deborah Norris Logan (1815-1839); and Katharine Johnstone Brinley Wharton (1856-1920).
Some women kept diaries throughout their lives, but more often writers made entries only sporadically, or to record unusual experiences. Mary Rodman Fisher Fox, for example, initiated her diary writing in 1849, a day before her marriage to Samuel Fox. Mary wrote faithfully for the first several months of her marriage and vividly described her intense love for her husband, her sadness at having to leave her family in Philadelphia, her disagreements with her mother-in-law, and her dismay after realizing she was pregnant during the first month of her marriage. Mary's writing tapered off over time, but she periodically picked up her pen to describe other important events, such as the details of her three year-old son's death from scarlet fever in 1853, and giving birth to a new son just a few days later. (Find Mary's diary in the Logan, Fisher, and Fox families papers, collection 1960.)
Another diarist, Mary Edith Powel, was inspired by the onset of the Spanish-American War to begin a diary late in life. Through the course of the war, she consistently recorded her impressions of current events and policies, and continued intermittently recording observations about her personal activities for another twenty years. (See the Powel family papers, collection 1582.)
Some women also chose to recall their lives by writing memoirs. In addition to keeping a diary, Mary Edith Powel wrote detailed memoirs of her childhood, recording social events, family news, and some historical events from the 1840s through the 1860s. (See the Powel family papers.) In 1906, Bertha Horstmann Lippincott Coles wrote a short memoir recounting the deterioration of her relationship with Edward T. Stuart. (See the Horstmann-Lippincott Family Papers, Collection 1899.)
Household Receipt and Account Books; Other Financial and Legal Records
Financial and legal records demonstrate that women played significant roles in economic matters, especially in their roles as mothers and household managers. Even in pre-Revolutionary days, women could be named in wills as executors, could hold property under certain circumstances, and could buy and sell goods.
Elizabeth Willing Powell (1742-1830), for instance, oversaw a small fortune after the death of her husband Samuel Powel in 1793. She took on responsibility for family finances, and her papers include various items related to legal and financial affairs, including letters from debtors, creditors, and family members to whom Powel continually contributed significant amounts of money for the financing of travel and education. (See the Powel family papers, collection 1582.)
The most common variety of financial or legal document associated with women is the receipt book. Even married women, who were historically legal extensions of their husbands, often had their own receipt books in which they recorded payments made to merchants, landlords, or other creditors. These books show not only women's economic agency, but also give information about details of domestic life, such as the prices of meat and cloth at particular times. By studying these details, researchers can track changes in the use and popularity of goods like ready-made clothes, and also gain understanding of women’s homemaking activities in bygone days.
Many family manuscript collections contain examples of the types of records created and maintained by women in their roles as mothers and household managers, including data about disease and the management of illness, cooking and food, childhood education, household economy, and fashion.
Throughout history, women have played an invaluable role in the activities and successes of many social, cultural and political organizations. In addition, charitable groups were created by women and men to serve the needs of women. HSP holds the records of numerous organizations, societies, clubs, and similar groups, in which women served as leaders or benefited as participants. Notable collections include the records of the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia (collection 2016); the Orphan Society of Philadelphia (collection 1913); and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania (collection 2095).
Collections of correspondence to and from women are often found as part of larger family collections, and as individual collections. Even collections that emphasize men’s professional activities, such as the Irvine-Newbold family papers (collection 1890), often include letters to and from wives and daughters. General Irvine, for example, was more forthcoming about his views about Native Americans in letters to his wife Ann than in his official correspondence.
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century correspondence from and among women tends to be rich in information about social and familial networks, courtship, childrearing, household management, medical treatment, travel, and religion. In those days, as now, women often had primary responsibility for maintaining the fabric of social connection, a task that required communication. Frequent, detailed correspondence was common among family members who were separated.
For example, when Sarah (Duncan) Irvine left her family in Philadelphia for her husband’s property in far northwestern Pennsylvania, she wrote twice a week to her Aunt Emily, pouring out her affection for her husband Dr. William A. Irvine, her difficulties in finding and keeping servants, her worries about her children, and her efforts to establish a church and Sunday School in the area. After Sarah died, and Dr. Irvine sent the children to live in Philadelphia, the flow of letters reversed as Aunt Emily wrote to him at least once a week with detailed accounts of the children’s health and schooling. (See the Irvine-Newbold family papers, collection 1890.)
Notable examples from HSP's collections include the correspondence of Hannah Penn, William Penn’s second wife (see the Penn family papers, collection 485A); Fanny Kemble (see the Wister and Butler families papers, collection 1962); Catherine Franklin Sharples (collection 3062) and Florence Bayard Kane (collection 2055).
The correspondence of Elizabeth Willing Powell (1742-1830), a prominent member of Philadelphia society, provides particular insight into a wealthy widow's social and financial responsibilities. (See the Powel family papers, collection 1582.)
The Jones and Taylor family papers (collection 2037) include correspondence of Margaretta Jones Taylor (1809-1874) and Minnie Taylor McClung (1835-1902). The letters, most of which are addressed to Andrew M. Jones, discuss family events such as births and deaths, financial difficulties, current events, and a variety of other topics. The death of McClung’s first husband, William J. Taylor Sr., and her subsequent remarriage to Rufus McCling figures prominently in the correspondence, along with financial difficulties and the challenges of raising a family. The letters provide a richly textured picture of life in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Gertrude Gouverner Ogden Meredith was also an avid letter writer, and penned epistles to her husband William Meredith and to her son William Morris Meredith, when they were away from home. Her lengthy letters are noteworthy for their eloquent literary style and for their vivid portrayals of marriage, motherhood, and social life in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Gertrude viewed marriage as a partnership, and being a good mother was one of her highest ambitions. She used the first several paragraphs of her letters to describe her daily domestic responsibilities but used the body of her letters to assert her female authorship. Several of her letters include excerpts from her poems and her literary critiques of works published in the popular Philadelphia magazine, The Port Folio. Gertrude, incidentally, also had some of her own writings featured in that publication. (See the Meredith family papers, collection 1509.)
Some women's correspondence also highlights their commitment to activism during war times. For example, Sarah and Harriet Hallowell's correspondence to their relative T. Morris Perot, Jr., documents their World War I and World War II reflief work in the small town of Moret, France. They volunteered at a local Moret hospital; converted their home into into a sewing house and crocheted clothing for fleeing refugees, for the people of invaded districts, and for soldiers; and secured donations from their American relatives to aid their relief efforts. Their letters also contain their impressions of France's political struggles, the German occupation of France, war-time conditions, and America's contributions to the Allied war effort. (See the Perot family papers, collection 1886.)
Bertha Horstmann Lippincott Coles was another activist, and her letters document her American relief work during the two World Wars. At the onset of WWI, she participated in the Red Cross convalescent soldier program, Navy Relief Society, and United Service Club. For these organizations, she donated blankets and medical supplies, volunteered her time to visit recuperating soldiers in hospitals, and opened her home for weekend visits in an attempt to aid recovery, boost morale, and help patients in their gradual readjustment to civilian life. Bertha became a favorite among the soldiers, and many of them continued to write to her about their careers, personal lives, and struggles after they returned to active duty and throughout their lives. Bertha's correspondence also documents her efforts to re-open the United Service Club, a social and lodging facility for off duty officers in the Philadelphia area, through private donations, after it had lost government funding following the signing of the Armistice in 1918. (See the Horstmann-Lippincott family papers, collection 1899.)
The Edith Madeira papers (collection 2053) document Edith's work as the chief nurse for the American Red Cross Commission to Palestine from June 1918 to January 1919. The correspondence vividly details her journey from the U.S. to Palestine, including her experiences in South Africa, Ceylon, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal. Her later correspondence describes the difficult working conditions in hospitals and clinics in Palestine and Armenian refugee camps. Madeira’s travels to nearby countries, including Egypt, are also noted.
Of course, women participated in many other activist and political causes. The Dora Kelly Lewis correspondence (collection 2137) provides a glimpse into the women's suffrage movement. Dora became an executive member of the National Women's Party in 1913, served as the chairman of finance in 1918 and as the national treasurer in 1919. In 1920, she headed the ratification committee. Her correspondence includes encouraging and endearing letters from her husband, Lawrence Lewis, 1884-1903, reporting on his legal practice and commenting on Dora's suffragette activities. The letters dating from 1914-1921 are, for the most part, from Dora to her children, some from prison reassuring her family that her actions were not illegal, and to her mother.
The Caroline Katzenstein papers (call number Am .8996) document Caroline's participation in the suffrage movement from 1909 to 1921, her efforts to help women obtain equal pay for equal work in the 1920s, her tireless promotion of the Equal Rights Amendment from 1923 to 1965, and her career as an insurance agent (1909 to circa 1930).
Scrapbooks, Autograph Books, or Commonplace Books
Before the advent of inexpensive photography, scrapbooks and autograph books offered a method for preserving memories or information. Often these volumes contain a variety of items, from poetry composed or transcribed by friends to pasted-in pictures from newspapers. The selection and juxtaposition of texts and images offer insight into the popular culture of the day and the inner lives of the women who created these documents.
For example, the texts Amy (Hornor) Coates (1765-1838) copied into her commonplace book included odes by the English poet Thomas Gray, advice on marriage from Quaker minister John Churchman, “Extracts from the Institutes of Hindoo Law translated from the original Sanscrit [sic] by Sir William Jones,” copies of school compositions written by her son Benjamin Hornor Coates, and brief passages from philosophical essays and orations. (See the Coates and Reynell family papers, collection 140, Series IVb). Her commonplace book served as a filing cabinet for interesting snippets of literature and information, and it demonstrates Amy’s interest in religion and philosophy, as well as her desire to monitor the intellectual development of her children.
The scrapbooks of Sarah (Duncan) Irvine (1814-1839) contain pictures cut from popular magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and poems either composed or transcribed by friends and relatives. She sometimes selected pictures to complement the transcribed text, as when she pasted an image of an Italian musician opposite a poem entitled “Music” written or copied by her cousin Mary Gustine. (See the Irvine-Newbold family papers, collection 1890.)
Photographs, Prints and Drawings
The Society’s collection of photographs, prints and drawings includes a number of images pertaining to women’s experiences. Notable subjects include prominent women, domestic views, and family groups. Specific collections to consider include the Historical Society of Pennsylvania print collection (collection V89), Historical Society of Pennsylvania photograph collection (collection V59), the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (collection V07), and many smaller family collections. Some images may be available in our Digital Library.
Published Sources & Periodicals
HSP contains an extensive selection of contemporary and recent publications discussing multiple aspects of women’s experiences. Publications of many local and regional civic, religious, philanthropic and political organizations are represented. In addition, privately published biographies, histories and narratives are available. All publications can be located through the online catalog. Subjects of particular interest include personal narratives, abolitionism, charitable organizations and general women’s history.
Several nineteenth century periodicals published by or for women are available for research, including Godey’s Lady’s Book (edited by Sarah Josepha Hale, call number Dm .254); The Lady’s Friend (call number Dm .255) and Arthur’s Home Magazine (call number Dm .133). Later publications, many of them political or ethnic in nature, are also available. Please refer to the online catalog for further details.