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History’s hoarders: At Philadelphia’s Wyck Historic House, no one met a piece of paper they didn’t like — for 300 years

The American Philosophical Society has now taken stewardship of all 100,000-plus documents. Piled up, they would reach more than 15 stories high.

This early math book is part of a huge cache of papers collected over three centuries by the family that occupied Wyck from about 1690 to the 1970s.
This early math book is part of a huge cache of papers collected over three centuries by the family that occupied Wyck from about 1690 to the 1970s.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As Philadelphia historic sites go, Wyck Historic House & Garden, a National Historic Landmark in Germantown, has been rather retiring, in a Quakerly sort of way, eschewing the bluster of, say, flashy country affairs like Cliveden up the street, the Chew family manse.

But the family that occupied Wyck through nine generations, beginning around 1690 when German immigrant Hans Milan and his wife, Margaret, built the original square log structure, had staying power.

Milan’s descendants through marriage — notably Wistars and Haineses — were not flashy. They did not win famous battles or become captains of industry commanding armies of workers. But they were engaged, industrious, and prominent in a variety of fields from business to science to agriculture and public affairs for three centuries. (They were cousins to the Wistar Institute branch of the family.)

And they liked to save.

How much? Plenty, as the American Philosophical Society well knows. APS has just taken full possession of the entirety of the Wyck papers — all 100,000-plus letters, recipes, and accounting ledgers, notes, diaries, journals, and business documents. A towering skyscraper of paper that, were it stacked up, would surpass the height of a 15-story building, APS leaders said.

“It’s hard for me to describe the size,” said Patrick Spero, librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society Library, across Fifth Street from Independence Hall.

Over the course of 300 years and nine generations, the family wrote and saved. They filled drawers and trunks, boxes, baskets, and shelves.

“This family was history’s hoarders,” said Jennifer L. Carlson, Wyck’s executive director. “They really held on to things.”

The papers have been on deposit at APS since 1987, where they are believed to be the society’s largest single holding. Until the recent transfer of ownership, however, Wyck remained responsible for care and preservation of the mountainous stash. The far deeper pockets of APS will now make possible extensive conservation, digitization, and development of public programming, said Spero.

Historian Sandra Mackenzie Lloyd, Wyck board chair and the first curator for the papers while they were still largely stuffed everywhere at Wyck, likened the generations of Wistars and Haineses that occupied the house to a kind of family of Zeligs.

“They are unknown, but they witnessed a whole lot,” said Lloyd.

The papers, she said, “provide a window that is incredibly personal,” providing a rich source not just for scholars but for the general public and schools, as well.

“There’s an astonishing collection of letters written during the Yellow Fever epidemic,” she noted, by way of example.

Yellow fever raged through the city multiple times in the late 18th century. George Washington was so concerned about the deadly disease that he moved his household and federal government operations to Germantown, then a country village, when the fever raged in the heart of the city during the summer of 1793.

As Washington hightailed out of the danger zone, Reuben Haines I and his wife, Margaret Wistar Haines, lay wracked by the disease in the city. In the face of such peril, their son, Caspar Wistar Haines, decided to move his family back into Wyck. In letters preserved in the Wyck collection, he wrote about his mother’s decline and death.

“I have not been in the room nor do I intend it," Caspar Wistar wrote to his sister. "I have been near the door and spoke to her twice and have Garlick or Segar [cigars] constantly in my mouth besides using vinegar and salts. …”

But cigar smoke and vinegar and garlic did nothing for his mother, and on Oct. 3, 1793, she died.

“It rips your heart out,” said Lloyd. “The papers give a real human voice to these distant events.” Letters back and forth between Caspar’s sisters are also part of the collection.

Spero notes that the family, through generations, were “early adopters of agricultural technology,” and the Wyck farm was managed largely by women. The papers, as a result, offer a window on “agricultural development in the early 19th century” and the emergence of Philadelphia as a power during “the market revolution.”

“They were agriculturalists,” he said. “Each individual story has a larger context” that the papers illuminate. The house in Germantown, which was redesigned by William Strickland in 1824, also boasts the oldest rose garden in its original plan in the nation. It dates from the 1820s.

And although the family names might not be as familiar as Biddle or Dorrance or Franklin or Penn, for that matter, their range of collective activities puts them at or near the center of many now-venerable city institutions and organizations.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Eastern State Penitentiary, the Franklin Institute, the American Philosophical Society, and the Library Company of Philadelphia all benefited from deep involvement of family members, particularly in the institutions’ early years.

Generations of the Peale family corresponded with generations of the Wistar-Haineses. John James Audubon was a friend; so was Bronson Alcott. The family was active in the abolition movement and in experiments in education.

Collectively, they tell the story of the city.

“It’ll be an honor to steward such an important collection,” said Spero. “It’s an unbroken record of this remarkable family.”