The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), in partnership with the National Constitution Center, is opening American Treasures: Documenting the Nation’s Founding, an exhibit illuminating the founding era through priceless drafts of the U.S. Constitution, including Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson’s own handwritten drafts.
Exclusively for Founder’s Award 2017, honoree James McBride will perform his quintet mix of spirituals and jazz renditions of classic gospel songs as inspired by abolitionist John Brown, a key figure in McBride’s latest novel, The Good Lord Bird (2013).
“When I talk with a genealogist, I seem to sit up with a corpse,” Ralph Waldo Emerson spat in 1855.
The 'Sage of Concord' may not have been a fan, but I'd argue that the study and tracing of lines of descent is certainly more scintillating than a cadaver. That it is now a $1 billion+ industry speaks for itself.
Undated portrait of author Ralph Waldo Emerson. From the Simon Gratz collection [0250B]
The exponential increase in genealogy's popularity in the past few decades – with the modern upswing commonly traced to Alex Haley's Roots and broadband Internet – is not simply a function of retirees armed with smartphones and disposable income.
Instead, genealogy's current prevalence speaks to a swelling – though far from unprecedented – desire to moor ourselves to something (our heritage) or to someone (our ancestors).
Perhaps more interesting than any one family's history is what genealogy reveals about genealogists themselves and their orientations to the past and future.
What does this say about our sense of identity? What is it that we hope to discover about our ancestors and – in the process – about ourselves?
Detail from the Scotland Royal Family Genealogical Chart (Record Number: 4840)
The vast majority of genealogists I've encountered are seeking something far more than a comprehensive pedigree chart. Instead, they are trying to put "meat on the bones," to reconstruct the social histories surrounding their ancestors.
Over the past few years, DNA testing kits have become the go-to for many genealogists as they begin their research. For experienced genealogists, these tests often help break down "brick walls" when searching for, say, the village of your ancestor's ancestor.
Don't get me wrong: These kits are clearly helpful, but they don't get to the heart of the matter. DNA breakdowns do not reveal our ancestors' personalities any more than a seismograph reveals the cause of earthquakes.
What should we consider before investing in the latest cheek swab wizardry?
Photograph of Dr. Ruth Patrick ca. 1937. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]
For those on a librarian's salary, a much cheaper solution is to chat up your parents and grandparents as best as you can, to start with them and work your way backwards.
With characteristic grace, HSP's collections guru Lee Arnold recently addressed the need to take advantage of those living links when possible, such as at family gatherings during the holidays.
But this is not a cure-all, as my recent foray into genealogy demonstrated.
Diving head first into my family's history put in plain evidence the need for learning about the craft of genealogical research. This led me to consider the upcoming Researching Family in Pennsylvania course (and I encourage you to, too.)
Let me explain:
(As per a rite of passage for all genealogists, I will now try my best to put you to sleep with my own family's history.)
The child of parents who waited a very long time to have children – compared to their generational cohort – I am a 27-year-old without any living grandparents. My folks are nearing 70. Our 13-year-old yellow Labrador is perhaps willing but ill-equipped to fill me in.
Compounding this is my parents' tendency to (biographically) under-share.
Often we don't "know" our folks as individuals. They are less (given name) and (given name) than simply "Mom" and "Dad."
For me, this was driven home recently by my father's fiftieth high school reunion, which prompted the digitization of his high school year book.
There he is, flexing, in then-trendy white Levi's and a Christmas sweater, the leader of "The Punch-for-Lunch Bunch."
The image struck a resounding chord because – exactly 50 years later – I had unwittingly adopted a similarly ridiculous pose.
At first, I thought this lent credence to Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits. In this case, a predilection for faux machismo.
But what really hit home was not his youthful vigor and bicep bluster (he was a sedate, gray-haired academic by the time I arrived on the planet).
Instead, it was the stark difference between this image and one I had seen as a kid: my pops' Fort Dix boot camp "yearbook" photo.
Even though the pair of photographs had been snapped barely a year apart and both depict my father, the faces staring back at me looked like they belonged to two different people.
I wondered what he would think today if presented with both pictures. Would he recognize himself in each one, or would both seem utterly unfamiliar?
Many parents – including my own – aren't inclined to discuss their pasts for a multitude of reasons, even if you manage to wrangle them around the holiday dinner table.
In these circumstances – with parents and grandparents removed as possible sources – aspiring genealogists are stymied from the get-go.
That I was able to find anything else out about my folks was a lucky break represented by loose-lipped extended relatives.
As far as my father's early life goes, much of what I've been able to reconstruct is thanks to the efforts of his sister who – despite her career at CSX – would make for a great archivist.
She presciently kept many of my father's records, which – I assume – he forgot about or assumes no one would bother pestering his sister to find and fax.
Little did he know.
The son of an Italian ballerina and a Bavarian handyman, he grew up in Erie, PA like many other children of Baby Boomers - with a street chock full of enough kids to field two baseball teams, which they played in an unaware farmer's field.
Graduating from high school in 1967, he didn't enroll in college to pursue a spot on the U.S. Olympic swim team.
Your correspondent's father (front row, third from right) in his varsity swim team photo, ca. 1967.
His number was up by the end of the summer.
He tested into Army Special Forces, learned both Russian and Chinese at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, and was subsequently sent to Thailand as part of a clandestine operation to intercept and decode short-wave radio transmissions.
So secluded were they that he and several of his fellow "crypies" – short for "cryptologists" – suffered from scurvy.
Fresh fruit – and all rations for that matter – were only deliverable via airdrop. These supply missions were far from always successful, for obvious reasons.
While I grew up vaguely knowing he served in Vietnam, my father only ever explicitly revealed two things about his wartime experiences.
The first was that he accidentally shot an orangutan. This is patently false. Neither Pongo abelii nor Pongo pygmaeus are found in that part of Southeast Asia.
The second was that he escaped "KP" duty by playing drums in the Army band. I could not confirm this with requests from the National Archives.
Which made the cache of documents from my aunt all the more essential.
One document in particular was a gut punch. Written by Charles J. Denholm – commanding officer of what would become the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command – the letter commends my father for charming his British spymasters during cryptography school at GCHQ in Cheltenham, England.
In all those afternoons watching and re-watching Dr. No and Her Majesty's Secret Service together, he never once thought to mention this. To this day, I'm confident he believes these two bits of information – the primate homicide and percussion privilege – are all I know about his wartime service.
I am not so untoward to let him know otherwise. I am happy to play the fool. For those readers with similarly self-contained parents, this needs no explanation.
In any case, that period of his life is a half-century removed. He is now a bespeckled practitioner of the "dismal science" and a guitar collector.
But through genealogical research, I feel as if I now know him more as a person – as "Charles" – rather than simply as "Dad." I imagine this is a feeling common to many genealogists.
Your correspondent and his father, ca. 2015.
Mercifully, my mother did not practice the same sort of slash-and-burn record keeping as her spouse, though she was equally tight-lipped when I tried (not subtly enough, it turned out) to inquire about her childhood.
Again, an extended relative saved the day, this time her younger brother.
My mother's early life was no less trying. She grew up in what was then the poorest county in the country. Both JFK and LBJ visited and were shocked at the region's poverty and lack of educational, medical, and civil services.
Both vowed to change things. Both failed.
Not unlike many readers' parents, these material challenges did not stop her. She neither needed – nor waited for – a hand-up.
One of five children supported by an itinerant laborer, she twice read every book at the local "library" (a pickup truck with books hauled to town every Sunday from an affluent city 60 miles away).
She graduated valedictorian before becoming the first in her family to attend college. She put her way through by hawking theater costumes.
At commencement, the 21-year-old donned her Magna cum laude honor cords and walked off stage into a full-time job in one of the state's most resource-starved public schools.
Four decades later, she is still introducing the joys of reading and learning to five-year-olds. Many of her recent class rosters include the children of her inaugural students, which is perhaps the highest compliment a teacher can be paid.
Your correspondent's mother as a senior in high school ca. 1976. Nicknamed "Bubbles" due to her indefatigable optimism and preternaturally youthful looks, she still finds time each week to scold your correspondent to cut his hair.
Genealogy, because it deals with families, is as complicated as the relationships that characterize connections between people both within and across generations.
It is messy, filled with feints, miscues, and impacted by memory loss and purposeful withholding. Often we find ourselves in a genealogical cul-de-sac of brick walls capped with dead-ends.
But that doesn't stop us from wanting to learn about where and whom we come from.
We try to make sense of those that came before us, what they experienced during the social and political upheavals often disembodied in history books we read at school.
We cannot help but wonder if we are as resilient as them, as well-equipped to surmount similar obstacles. We wonder if we're made of the same "stuff" that allowed them to triumph through enslavement, or famine, or political oppression, or uprooting their lives and starting anew in a strange, often hostile country, or – in the case of many families – all of the above.
Your correspondent's maternal grandfather, Davido, at 18-years-old, ca. 1950. A first generation immigrant and the only of five siblings to survive infancy, he once described his childhood as "just like the film Grease, without all that dancing."
That we are here is a testament to their strength and their perseverance.
But this is what I'm curious about exploring: The ways genealogy often reveals more about the genealogists themselves than the individuals they are researching.
What is it that we're hoping to discover about our ancestors, and what do we hope this will reveal – ultimately – about ourselves?
Your correspondent and his sister in front of their Olde Kentucky Home, ca. Easter 1995. (It's a clip-on)
This post was written by guest contributor Gene O'Lowgee. He will be exploring these topics and more in this one-in-an-occasional series.
Researching Family in Pennsylvania, a week-long genealogy course designed to explore and explain the records and repositories available to family historians researching ancestors in Pennsylvania, will take place at HSP July 31 - August 4, 2017.
This course is designed for all levels of genealogical exploration, from those beginning to research their family history, to the advanced genealogist. Click here for a detailed curriculum and instructor bios.
Presenters include Judy Russell, Amy Arner, Aaron McWillliams, Lee Arnold, Sue Long, and more.
When students study history, the story of what happened can seem predictable or even pre-destined. (Of course, George Washington was the first president; the North prevailed in the Civil War; etc.) But when historians are first presented with documents and other sources, they often do not know what the story will be. It is their job to carefully sift evidence, weigh bias, interpret facts, and come up with the storyline that makes the past relevant for the future. Having students “think like historians” can build their skills in research, critical thinking, and communication.
And that’s what a public history project in the classroom is about – just ask the students of Michael Karpyn’s social studies classes at the Marple Newtown High School in Pennsylvania. Two years ago, as the school neared its 100th anniversary, Karpyn had his students take on researching and writing the story of the school district. They were faced with mountains of documents – from photographs to yearbooks to sports memorabilia – and bemoaned at first that “there is no story.” As Karpyn guided them in the ways of the historian, a chronological story of how a school district is born and changes through time evolved.
Eventually a timeline exhibit was built in the front hallway of the school. Money was raised by community groups and individuals adopting each decade, and a graphic designer was hired. Other school personnel chipped in to build frames and help host an opening on the actual 100th anniversary.
The impetus to do public history in the classroom remains. During the project so much material was unearthed within the school and by the community that now Karpyn is creating an online archive. Working with other faculty and students, he is making use of a free scanner from the Pennsylvania Library System.
And if there is any question about the learning that took place, this year some of the students were asked to share the timeline with school visitors. One student exclaimed later that he was amazed at how much he remembered when he had trouble remembering his textbook for the next class. Being a historian - creating the story – made history relevant to him.
PHILADELPHIA, PA–As part of the Google Arts & Culture project, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) has created a new exhibit, The Presidency in Times of Turmoil, featuring more than 70 images from HSP's collections.
Historic political cartoons are visual proof that political consensus has never been a feature of American political debate. When viewed critically, however, they can provide a shared base of evidence for understanding the politics of the past and present.
The following article was written by HSP volunteer Randi Kamine and is being posted on her behalf.
"My Dearest X.Y.Z. I want to tell you everything that has occurred lately and I want you to ask me questions which I am bound to answer.” So begins the first entry in the diary written by Selina Richards Schroeder in early 1889."
This diary is the first of three extant diaries in the possession of HSP in the Schroeder family papers (Collection 4054), which was recently processed. The second volume continues to May 1889; Selina was to turn fourteen later that year. The last of the three diaries ends in the year 1891 when Selina was sixteen.
Selina was the daughter of Louisa and Gilliat Schroeder. Gilliat uprooted from Mobile, Alabama, to New York where he developed a thriving business in the commerce of cotton. The family was upper middle class. Their home base was New York City. Selina, in her musings, did not aim to place herself in the context of social or economic class. However, class distinction is apparent in Selina’s excellent handwriting and grammar and the activities in which she participated, including painting lessons, music lessons, drawing lessons, and buying hats and dresses in up-scale shops in New York. She belonged to the economic class whose members were literate and had time and means to reflect, to the extent there is reflection in her writings.
The diaries give the reader an insight into the late 19th century adolescent world. Particularly, reading Selina’s entries casts some light on the function diaries had for Selina and girls of that era. She writes about friends, family, and herself in often candid prose, although friends and family are seldom introduced by name, which makes it difficult to figure out who is who (she uses initials and nicknames more often than full names). While much of the correspondence in the Schroeder family papers from which the diaries emerged is formal and stilted, the diary of the young girl is open and intimate. She was adamant, however, that her thoughts stay private between her and her written words. To provide secrecy she often wrote in code. [See example below – can you figure out the code?]
Selina writes about things teens today are concerned with (albeit in hand written form as opposed to digital). Indeed, one may observe that things have not changed much when it comes to the thoughts of teenage girls. There is little in the way of comments on current events and few political observations.
The last of the three diaries is filled with ephemera collected from dinners, concerts, and events Selina attended. In the three year period Selina wrote these diaries, she began to take her place in the society in which she is surrounded. It is perhaps in the third volume that readers can best capture the tone of upper middle class urban culture.
In the first volume there is a stern warning that, should the book be found, it should not be opened. Selina writes, “This book is absolutely private – except to S.R. S.[Selina herself] and her two friends E.L.S and X.Y.Z.” (Perhaps using a convention used by diarists in the nineteenth century of writing to an imaginary friend in the second person). She writes that she wants “to tell you everything that occurred lately.” This first page of the first volume has a photo of Selina and two of her friends [see photo below]. It seems that despite her warnings her secrets were not well guarded. She writes shortly after starting the diary that “Harry, and Jim and G. got hold of this book and read part of it. I was so mortified that I tore part of it up and put in the fire !!!” She will henceforth “carry the keys to my desk in my corset so nobody can get them.”
Selina’s cares revolve around who “stands up” for her and whose friendship disappoints her. In the first few pages, she gives written portraits of several of her friends. As she herself acknowledges, most of her comments are negative. She tries hard to be generous, but her compliments tend to be left handed and she quickly veers toward criticism even when starting out with a positive observation about the character, looks, or demeanor of her friends. She refers to her brothers as “the brats” throughout the diary.
Young men were at the top of Salina’s thoughts. Her descriptions of the boys in her dancing class tend to be caustic and not terribly kind. For example, “He looks as if he had swallowed a bayonet – so stiff.” Indeed, descriptions of boys, news of engagements, observations of male-female relationships predominate throughout this first volume. She wonders which of the women a boy named Basil has been pursuing for marriage—will she be the the one he loves or the one who has money? She appreciates praise given to her by her father. “Papa says I said two very clever things at dinner tonight” she writes. After a joke about grass and hay fever, (“I think that was very clever of me.”) her Aunt M. and Pa were talking about how “much darker and more Indian like” the Americans were getting , Selina quipped, “perhaps in another generation we would all be perfectly black – I think that was rather clever too, don’t you?”
There were, however, moments of serious news. “My Dear [speaking to her diary], is it not dreadful, we have just received a telegram saying Aunt F. has the Typhoid fever.” Family planned to be going to her side, in Washington, the day after hearing the news.
Comments on current events are few and far between. However, Selina does report that she was present at the New York City celebration of the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration on April 29 through May 1, 1889. She saw President Benjamin Harrison “as he went by on his boat as all the men-of-war saluted him. He was rather late and we thought perhaps that Baby McKee [Harrison’s grandson] had left his bottle behind and had to go back for it….” Later she saw the President drive by City Hall. “He stayed so long at his lunch we were afraid he had had an attack of indigestion because he had eaten so much.” Always the wisecracker.
Near the last pages of volume one, Selina has this to say about “Society.
"My Dear, there was such a delightful young beardless youth, Oh so handsome at The Wick’s. His name was Douglas Taylor. He was awfully jolly and clever. He was not a bit of a flirt and he and I looked out the window and had lots of fun. But he does not appear in Society like those ossified “beardless” idiots who do. I’m not going to let my children (particularly boys) make their appearance until they are twenty-five, as I think these youths or “cads” who go out in Society put on airs and are unbearable and detestable…. [T]hese youthful, idiots, beardless cads monopolize Society."
The second volume continues in 1889. “It is absolutely necessary no one shall open it [the diary] but myself and my chum Edith L. Speyers,” she writes. After writing, “I never get tired of writing in it and it affords me unlimited pleasure and fun,” the next twenty pages are taken up with the topics of love and romance. “Engaged: Miss Alice Jerone to Mr. Benjamin B. Lawrence (Uncle Ben) [she writes in large capital letters taking up two pages]. The most exciting thing that has happened in years !!!!!!!” This volume is replete with drawings depicting couples, women swooning over men, men swooning over women, and couples in various social activities such as rowing along a river. A drawing of said Uncle Ben and Miss Alice has the caption, “This is Aunt Alice and Uncle Ben out walking. He is so much in love with her that he can’t keep his eyes off her…This is so romantic.” Selina does not seem particularly aware of a larger meaning of events or of time passing in any historical sense. Selina’s identity as an urban, elite young woman is not explored very deeply in her day-to-day observations. She easily accepts the social order as natural.
Despite Selina’s desire for strict secrecy concerning her own diary, she was apparently not too shy about delving into others’ confidential papers. She writes, “We have just discovered a whole package of letters from Berkely MacCauly’s ten page letters !!!!” to her Aunt Julia. “Strictly private,” Selina warns above this confession, “Only S.R.S. and E.L.S. can see this.” Apparently, Selina and her friend were well aware they would get into trouble for snooping.
A description and accompanying drawing of the Schroeder family starting on a European trip, (“they are all going to Rome to study art!!!!!”) is indicative of the Schroeder family’s social and economic standing. Unfortunately, although it appears that Selina was among those going, there are no notes about the trip. (Not every page is dated so it’s difficult to say how much time passed between entries.) In this volume there are walks along Fifth Avenue, an East Hampton summer and other idle pastimes that speak to a life of leisure and at least moderate luxury. A trip to the dentist also attests to her economic standing. There are visits from friends from England who came bearing gifts and who returned from their European sojourn with seven pairs of gloves.
As in the first volume, not every entry is frivolous. Selina mentions a funeral of a friend’s mother. “Poor Mr. J. Van S … lost his mother a few weeks ago, and is in great danger of losing a good deal of his money.” Not exactly a sympathetic observation, but she does mention that the girl interested in poor Mr. Van S. went to the funeral and wept a great deal, went to bed and was “dissolved in tears almost the entire night.” A few pages later Selina shows a modicum of generosity when she notes that she participated in a fair for the Fresh Air Fund and helped raise $75.00.
There is one political reference. Selina pasted a printed copy of a poem:
"Why doth the little busy bee
And Blaine and Burchard too
Forever sing the G.O.P
It is their nature to."
The poem above is in reference to James G. Blaine and Rev. Dr. James Burchard. Rev. Burchard was a prominent Presbyterian New York minister and supporter of James G. Blaine. Burchard was accused of killing the chances of Blaine winning the Presidency in 1884 against Grover Cleveland by Burchard’s bigoted slurs against Roman Catholics.
There are more printed poems, stories, and vignettes in this second diary than the first. Selina’s drawings have improved and her world seems to have expanded a bit. She took up photography and photographed places she visited and her girlfriends. Her primary interest, however, is still with her social “set” and the romantic interactions that seem to be the center of her universe. (“Edith gave me a punch and shrieked, ‘Is that Archie?’ I turned around and spied a pair of legs and a very long nose swaying down 14th Street. I almost fainted…you see I am so excited I can hardly write!”) [Followed by dozens of exclamation marks.] Her adventures in book two include being locked in a closet for a spell and witnessing a runaway horse with an empty wagon.
The third volume starts on December 3, 1890, and has a somewhat different tone than the previous two. There are dozens of loose pages with appointment dates and descriptions of activities. It seems that Selina is busy every day of the week with social engagements. Among her mementoes is a program from her first dinner party at the Berkeley Lyceum on W. 44th Street in New York; playbills for plays at Madison Square Garden and other theaters; and concert programs. The many comments on these souvenirs include, “Grand,” “Splendid,” “Perfectly Divine,” and “Glorious.” It is clear that Selina embraces the time and place in which she lived. And no wonder—her material life is well taken care of. She records a list of Christmas gifts that would be the envy of any adolescent today. The catalogue of thirty-four gifts includes two clocks, a silver pin, a silk bag, stockings, and cash.
Potential romance is still uppermost in Selina’s mind. In speaking of a Mr. Atcheson, she says, “To tell you the truth I am dead gone on him !!!! He is very good looking and has the loveliest smile and a divine voice, and when he looks at me, such emotion thrills through every vein…He is a vision and a Dream.” Whew.
The several drawings of dresses and costumes in the diary are a portent of Selina’s future (see picture below).
In early July, 1891 Selina closes this third volume with:
"I must close with a fond farewell as I am going to Luzerne tomorrow morning… Farewell. S.R.S."
For those of us who remember those tender teenage years, and especially those of us who wrote in diaries, the intimate musings in these books will surely have us thinking, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” And yet, the reader might wonder, while reading about the familiar emotions that were expressed by Selina -- have things really stayed the same, or, with social media being the predominate mode of communication, is there no longer an outlet for this type of expression. Perhaps in studying these and other diaries historians can contribute to a subject that is being intensely discussed these days, that is, the diminished sense of privacy, and its implications.
Curious of what became of our carefree teenager? In her mid-twenties she opened a dress shop in Manhattan due to a turn in her father’s fortunes! She married Charles Lawrence in Westchester, New York, in 1900.
For more information on her and other working women see What Women can Earn: Occupations of Women and their Compensation, by Frederick A. Stokes (1899)
PHILADELPHIA, PA—Join the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) for a free workshop on March 9, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. exploring a new digital resource available for genealogists researching African American ancestors.
#MuseumSelfie Day, now in its fourth year, is a nationwide initiative encouraging museum visitors, staff, and volunteers to snap a selfie at their favorite institutions and share it on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #MuseumSelfie on January 18, 2017.
Begun as a way to highlight museum collections and inspire more people to visit them, #MuseumSelfie Day was launched by museum professional Mar Dixon in 2014.
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) is partnering with the International Society for British Genealogy & Family History (ISBGFH) to explore various educational opportunities for researchers to explore their British Isles family history. Plans are currently being formulated to provide classroom presentations on basic British Isles research at HSP in the coming months, with more information to be released this spring.
From the city's first elderly care organization to foreign-born soldiers serving in the "War to End All Wars," discover hidden stories from Philadelphia's 300-plus-year history this spring with HSP.