The recent public launching of our genealogical and biographical database, HSP Encounters, is an exciting event. HSP Encounters is now available remotely to HSP members and to onsite researchers, and is a part of Discover, HSP's online catalog. The database is based upon making accessible unique HSP collections that are rich in personal information, assisting family researchers in both establishing their family trees and learning about the lives of their ancestors. The project has just begun its fourth year, funded by a generous grant from the McFarland Foundation.
One great resource in the database are the index cards for the Oliver Bair funeral home records, with the names of the deceased and of the person, usually a family member, responsible for paying the funeral home bills. The researcher has the option of purchasing a copy of the funeral file, which contains a plethora of valuable information about the deceased, often including their former occupation, name of spouse, date of birth, names of parents, cause of death, and (for those who are interested) the type of casket and assorted funeral expenses. The hair and eye color, and weight, of the deceased person are usually included, and many files contain additional documents, usually newspaper obituaries or correspondence relating to the payment (or non-payment) of funeral home bills.
There are two other large sets of index cards in HSP Encounters that had been assembled over the years by library staff and volunteers, to the Pennsylvania Revolutionary War Battalions and Militia muster rolls and to the Genealogical Scrapbooks and Research Folders collection. We’ve gotten a steady number of requests for copies of the muster rolls (as transcribed in the Pennsylvania Archives) which we send along with any descriptive information in the Pennsylvania Archives about the military activities of the company. The genealogy cards refer to research that is not apt to be found any other way, since the information on the noted family is usually contained in research primarily (and hence cataloged as) about another family. It is but one example of how much information lurks in the nooks and crannies of the HSP.
Most exciting, due to the depth of documentation, are the record descriptions provided in HSP Encounters from the registers of the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Home for Infants, and the Philadelphia Placement Office, all late 19th Century charitable organizations. The register of the Home Missionary Society records 4,891 visits by representatives (three energetic individuals, working solo) to poor families in Philadelphia over a six year period. The society generally dealt with the female head of household, providing her name but also noting the number of family members, street address, religious denomination, race, and the relief granted (coal, clothing, groceries, or cash). A brief remark is often made about the reason for the family’s predicament, such as “Husband drinks, wife sickly” and “Husband a wounded soldier, disabled.” The combination of the specific relief granted and the note on the family situation creates vivid images of families in distress.
The records of the Philadelphia Home for Infants are, if anything, even more interesting. The register records the name of the infant and (in most cases) of the parents or guardians. Many infants were sent to the Home by another charitable organization or a governmental authority, but most frequently infants were brought there by their mother or other family members. The child’s mother was often hired by the Home to work there, usually as a wet nurse, an employment that ended when the child was released, usually “taken away” by the mother. The Home functioned in part as an early form of day care for working class mothers. The Philadelphia Placement Office was an employment agency, and its register reveals a world where child labor was widespread and widely accepted, and prospective employers stated their preferences and prejudices freely. The brief comments on people looking for work, or of people looking for workers, provide sharp images of the people—Rose Heenan sought a position “scrubbing and cleaning”; Charles Curlett was “a Girard College boy, wants to drive a milk wagon”; R. Howell “wants a half grown girl [for domestic service], will not send her to school” whereas Bella Pepper “wants a girl of 12 to educate and train.”
Some of these records will be essential in resolving “brick walls”—since there is often scant documentation for poor people, the family relationships revealed in the Home for Infants and Home Missionary records may not available from other sources. There are still “brick walls” out there to be resolved, and one goal of this project is to help demolish such walls. At the same time, it is true that bare bones genealogical research is becoming easier. With more and more genealogical records becoming available, on ancestry.com and familysearch.org and other web sites and in countless libraries and archives, there are going to be fewer family researchers who say, “I have been looking for thirty years to know who the parents of [a particular ancestor] are.” If establishing the family tree is easier, why not use some of excess energy to learn more about the lives of your ancestors? That’s why we named the new genealogical database “HSP Encounters”—researchers can have an encounter of sorts with their ancestors through records that are rich in personal detail. A narrative can be built about one’s family, an ever evolving story of many individuals.
And to understand this narrative, to make sense of it, means learning more about history.
We need to know the ways in which society was different than it is today to gain a deeper understanding of the records. That’s why we have included historical essays on the collections in HSP Encounters—and asked questions like: What were the goals of an institution like the Philadelphia Home for Infants? Who founded it? Why did infants end up there? What kinds of family backgrounds did the infants come from? How many suffered from diseases? Were the children well-treated? How successful was the institution in bettering the lives of the infants? Learning more about the Philadelphia Home for Infants will enrich one’s understanding of the records of one’s ancestor’s specific involvement with that institution. The historical essays provide a bridge to history, for those willing to cross it.
Members: To access HSP Encounters remotely, click here or visit pal.hsp.org. Please login with your HSP website/PAL (Patron Access Link) username and password and select HSP Encounters from the database list