Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with Mom

Gary, Mom, and I visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on Wednesday evening. It was a bit of a last-minute decision, but a very good one, as it turned out. Gary had mentioned seeing an article about the Society's recent remodeling in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, on Tuesday, I spied a follow-up feature that detailed highlights of Wednesday's celebratory open house: a handwritten draft of the U.S. Constitution, printer's proofs of the Declaration of Independence, one of three known copies of "The Star-Spangled Banner" written and signed by Francis Scott Key, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln. Such treasures! On Wednesday, the HSP doors would be open to the public from 12:30 to 8:00, and admission would be free.

I called Mom. We had been trying to schedule a visit with her. Would she like to meet us in Philadelphia and check out the Historical Society? Mom is into Americana big time; the Revolutionary War is her specialty. Her rec room is donned floor to ceiling in red, white, and blue: American flags, pillows, throw blankets, wall hangings, and figurines. You name it; she has it. Yes, she was up for a trek into the city to see the "real deal."

We met Mom near Suburban Station about 4:30. Gary let us off at the Historical Society (13th and Locust), then parked while we registered. We were greeted at the huge doorway (the Society occupied the premises since 1824, but the building is much older) by several docents bearing give-away maps that listed the exhibits and tours. We took in the magnificently high ceilings, fresh paint job (in "celery"!), and newly tiled black and white checkerboard-patterned floors. The effect was breath-taking. Floor-to-ceiling "digital walls" cycled greatly enlarged images of items from the collections—manuscripts, art, and photos—really bringing them to life.

Once Gary joined us, we enjoyed some complimentary refreshments, then headed into the main display room, where we took our leisure, perusing the many artifacts we had read about through glass cases. It was difficult to believe that items of such deeply significant value to all Americans were just inches away from our eyes and our hands!

Once we had our fill of the displays, we decided to join a tour of the second-floor Archives. There, we met a Society staff member who was quick to point out the rows and rows of very new, and very high, gray metal shelving. She discussed the recent renovations, which, she said, gave the Society about 30% more storage space. And at the rate donations were coming in, that should (only) be enough for about another 10 years of collecting! She explained what it was like to catalogue and preserve a donation—how long it actually took. An archivist (there were two on staff) went through the box(but many times, boxes upon boxes) painstakingly, listing each item in a record, then carefully labeling each artifact and placing it into an acid-free envelope. I thought it would be somewhat boring (all of those letters in dusty boxes!), but the idea was actually quite fascinating, once I thought about it: Each donation documented events in people's lives, events that touched many others' lives, and the archivist quietly perused, documented (and also touched!) each item. A privilege. And, the materials would then be available to almost anyone who made an appointment to see them.

Before returning to the first floor, we stopped to take in a book binding demonstration. The spines of many old books and manuscripts that come into the Society need a new covering, in order to preserve and hold together the pages inside. The young woman we spoke with had been a printmaking student at University of the Arts. When the opportunity to work with the Society came along, she jumped at the chance. She said that it is kind of funny, on some days the staffers and volunteers will joke around about their work, "What, more of that guy Washington's stuff?" as if yet one more find concerning our nation's first president could ever be boring. But, she intimated, they do see a lot of it. Something she really did get excited about recently was finding a recipe for peach pie that dated back to the 1800s. One never knows what might turn up in a donation.

Our last stop was a tour of the Reading Room, on the first floor, and a talk on the Library's services. Our guide, Dan, was a former professor at Hahneman University. With a rich Southern drawal, he relayed anecdotes about collaborating with the Library Company next door (a staff member from that organization was in our tour group) and working with geneaological researchers. The walls of the stately, quiet high-ceilinged room were lined with volume upon volume of birth, death, and other family records. (The Society had acquired the holdings of both The Geneology Society of Pennsylvania and the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. They also partner with, but the Historical Society has more records.)

Individuals can make appointments with the Society to research their family's history. (About 50% of the Society's researchers are family historians; the other half are professionals—researching for masters' theses or PhD dissertations, or authoring books to be published.) If any particularly rare artifacts or records are requested, the researcher is asked to sign out the items and view them in "the cage," a fenced area of the Reading Room. The items are then signed back in afterward. And, if you're not living locally or are pressed for time, the Society will do the research for you—for a fee. Check out their site to learn more.

After we were satisfied that we left no historical stone unturned, we headed out to the nearby Caribou Cafe for dinner. The fabulous "bar menu," boasting quiche, crusty sandwiches, and crepes (and a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine), made a perfect end to the evening. I'm sure Mom will make a follow-up visit to the Historical Society, however, to research her family (or Dad's), or just to assuage her own curiosity, for at dinner, she just couldn't stop talking about it. Mom is nearly 85, but she still has a lot of miles to go—places to see, people to meet. If anyone retraces our family's steps, it will be her. It was great to see her devouring that small slice of American historical pie so enthusiastically. It held her interest more intensely than did the Roasted Chicken with Brie.

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