Philadelphia’s largest trove of memories has a new home. Rubbing shoulders with Yards Brewing in a 200,000-sq-ft. industrial building on Fifth and Spring Garden, the Philadelphia City Archives are enjoying modern amenities for the first time in decades.
This is good for the upkeep of archives themselves, but also for people who might want to explore them.
Department of Records Commissioner Jim Leonard hopes residents will feel more invited to take advantage of the collections, which date from present day property deeds to the the original 1701 City Charter. Their old University City location was, Leonard suggested gently, as dated as its contents. But with the larger, more centrally located space, Leonard hopes to expand the usual crowd of historians and researches.
I stopped by the archives for a tour of the new facilities from Leonard and Jill Rawnsley, a preservation with the consultant who’s been working there for the last decade. But rather than a traditional look at the new facilities, I asked the duo to pull some of their preferred treasures, as well as some that caught my eye on the shelves. From the intriguing to the banal, here’s a sample of what you can find.
Hand-drawn neighborhood maps and drawings of City Hall
The archive maintains hand-drawn maps, blueprints and sketches that range from the mundane (think 19th century Streets Dept. road surveys) to the borderline artistic, like the original hand-colored studies of City Hall by its architect John McArthur Jr., which are among Rawnsley’s most treasured records (couldn’t snag a picture of these, unfortunately).
The above parchment map surveys the area around Pennsylvania Hospital back when South Street was Cedar Street, as it was called in William Penn’s original grid. The exact date of this map is unknown, but Rawnsley estimates its origin in the 1770s.
Mugshots of horse thieves and pickpockets
Philadelphia has been policed since the early days of English colonists, who appointed constables to crack down on thievery and regulate vice among the city’s early settlers. The advent of Philly’s modern police department in the mid-19th century brought with it some of the codified practices we know today — like the mugshot. The archive still arches 19th and early 20th century “rogues galleries” with printed photographs. Details are scarce: the suspect’s name, a charge, and what appears to be a case number.
Popular criminals of 1888 included strangely specific classes of thieves — listed are sneak thieves, bank thieves, servant thieves, boarding house thieves. In some rogues gallery volumes, Rawnsley noted, nearly all of the men are wearing bowlers, homburgs or other era hatwear. And on occasion the mugshots are most than just aesthetically dramatic.
This accused thief who refused to sit still for Philly cops in 1889
Remember, 19th and early 20th century photography required sitting still — often in an uncomfortable chair for long periods of time, which is probably worse if you’re in a police station accused of being a “bank sneak” like Charles Crane, aka “Kelly.”
The district attorney’s 1901 scrapbook — because there was no Twitter
A brown-paper folio resting on a shelf reads: “District Attorney’s scrapbook, June 16, 1901.” In an era long before Twitter, it was commonplace for government bodies to collect news clippings and pasted documents as a kind of semi-formal work log. The pinned tweets of the day, if you will. The Tumblr of the industrial era. Scrapbooks weren’t just for family photos.
You’ll find these journals from Philly’s industrial-era mayors housed in the archives, and others attributed to city agencies like the charmingly named Office of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, which was eventually absorbed as a wing of the Commerce Department. I also saw scrapbooks for the “Port of History” and the “Festival of Denmark,” for the latter of which I can find no reference for in Philly except on this 1967 issue of the Daily Pennsylvanian.
City Council’s earliest meeting minutes from 1704
The city’s earliest legislative body was known as “The Common Council,” and — good for them — they started keeping records right away. I didn’t get a chance to leaf through the old ledgers, but I’m sure it’s just as exciting as the modern legislative bodies.
Death records! Early immigration records! Hospital records!
Since 1906, death records for Pennsylvania residents have been handled and centralized by the state government. But from July 1860 to June 1906 — and then for nearly another decade afterward — the city was dutifully tracking its own deceased. Looking for your great great grandparents death certificate? Find it here.
The archives also carries naturalization records from 1811 to 1854, before the federal government assumed stewardship over immigration matters. And there are troves of medical records as well, including copious files from city’s long-gone charity hospital, the Guardians of the Poor.
Millions of old photographs
Looking for an archival photo of your neighborhood? Come in and talk to the archives specialists who will help you procure the right space. Many of the faded neighborhood images from Philly you might see in Facebook groups originated in the archives.
You can browse a lot of the photography collection online at PhillyHistory.org. But it’s a lot more fun in person.