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Philadelphia history trove sought by Drexel includes untold wonders — Abe Lincoln’s ‘disguise’ hat, for one

A public meeting Wednesday will consider the university's proposal to acquire the former Atwater Kent collection for safekeeping. Precious black-history artifacts are among the 110,000 items.

A tiny replica of Elfreth's Alley at the storage facility for the Philadelphia History Museum on Thursday, February 21, 2019.
A tiny replica of Elfreth's Alley at the storage facility for the Philadelphia History Museum on Thursday, February 21, 2019.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

No city can be contained within a building, certainly not Philadelphia, big and old, and full of quirks and oddities that don’t really fit anywhere.

But a few hours spent poking around the 10,000-square-foot climate-controlled storage facility where the entire collection of the Philadelphia History Museum now resides generates a vivid sense of the city’s vast, strange, pompous, playful, inventive, and sometimes-shameful hodgepodge of a self.

There may be no lost ark or Rosebud in this cavernous place, but the whole conveys what Philadelphia is and has been, deep down in its iron-forging, money-making, doll-loving, ball-playing, art-creating soul.

On Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the National Constitution Center, a public meeting will be held to mull over what to do with this unusual collection, what one historian calls “a gold mine of stuff” —beginning with what has been billed as the oldest doll in America (supposedly played with in the 17th century by Letitia Penn, William Penn’s daughter).

It keeps going with the shackles worn by John Brown on his way to the gallows, the felt hat worn by Abraham Lincoln as he tried to sneak through Philadelphia, the faux throne constructed for John Wanamaker, and on and on and on.

Drexel University has proposed that it take over the collection, organize, prune, digitize, and care for it, and serve as a kind of lending library, farming out an Elfreth’s Alley model here, a Ben Franklin drinking glass there, a miniature Schoenhut circus, complete with big top, way over there — to institutions and organizations mounting exhibits in neighborhoods around the city.

The city and the museum, which abruptly closed in June amid a budget squeeze, have agreed to this plan, which is now being presented to the public for comment. No part of the plan is cut in immutable marble (unlike about 35 stolid marble busts in the collection, including two of Lincoln), so public input is welcome and desired, say Drexel, museum, and city officials.

The ‘city’s attic’

But what is the Philadelphia History Museum? What does its collection represent? In many past newspaper stories, it has been routinely described as the “city’s attic,” which in a sense it is.

Established by a city ordinance in 1938, and opening its doors in the original home of the Franklin Institute on South Seventh Street, the museum is mandated by the City Charter to serve as repository for Philadelphia’s “material culture.”

The neoclassical landmark building on South Seventh Street, however, donated to house the museum by radio magnate A. Atwater Kent, is on the small side. When it shuttered, there were only about 450 artifacts — from a collection of over 110,000 pieces — on display.

For visitors it may have been a thrill to see the desk used by George Washington when he was president during Philadelphia’s time as the nation’s capital. It may have been exciting to see Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, or Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves, or Jimmy Rollins’ spikes, or the wampum belt supposedly presented to William Penn by the Lenni-Lenape back in the day.

But those and similar objects, as dazzling as they might be, are but a pale reflection of the collection as a whole. The museum may be the city’s attic, but where did you go in Grandma’s house to get a real idea of who she was and why she acted the way she did?

When in doubt, don’t throw it out

The first thing the museum teaches about Philadelphia is that the city and its residents don’t like to throw things away. (Selling them is a different story, and the museum has had spasms of wheeling and dealing in the past, just like the city.)

This desire to cling is not just peculiar to individuals. Institutions do it too. So one thing to know about the museum is that it is made up of a lot of different collections.

One example is the collection of artifacts from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. When the museum opened its doors in 1941 — it was known then as the Atwater Kent Museum — it had no collection. So the historical society and other institutions and companies loaned many objects.

In the 1980s, the now-stuffed museum began returning those objects, and then, at the turn of the millennium, the historical society gave all of its 10,000 artifacts and artworks back to the museum. What goes around, comes around — and then, apparently, goes around again.

Among those former historical society objects, lying on a low warehouse shelf now, unobtrusive and almost retiring, are shackles purportedly worn by abolitionist John Brown as he made his way to the gallows.

A pike used during his famous raid at Harpers Ferry lies nearby. So does what is believed to be John Brown’s own long gun, quiet now, but speaking to the city’s rich African American legacy and resistance to slavery.

“The collection has a great deal of African American material,” said Page Talbott, the former president of the historical society, who is working to organize and review objects in the warehouse.

Standing on end, not too far away, is an iron bed slab. Near it are an iron cell-block gate, a latticework iron cell door, and a key-shaped iron weather vane — all from Moyamensing Prison, which once loomed over Passyunk Avenue and Reed Streets.

The jail is infamous for many things, not the least that Moyamensing was the place of imprisonment for abolitionist Passmore Williamson, jailed for his work with William Still spiriting people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman visited Williamson at Moyamensing.

Such cruelties of the nation and the city are all tucked away near shelves of Atwater Kent “cathedral” radio cabinets , Philco TVs (all made in Philadelphia), and a huge, precious collection of Eadweard Muybridge glass negatives.

Muybridge created an important body of work in stop-motion photography at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1880s, working with Thomas Eakins.

Half a block of clothing

Plain-style clothes from the Friends Historical Society, plus colorful frocks and fashionable walking dresses ready for promenading, hang on covered racks that extend for half a block.

There are drawers and drawers of shoes that trace the rise and fall of women’s fashion across centuries. Other cases contain multiple drawers of ladies’ undergarments, and all manner of millinery.

The museum and the city were big on hats. There are Stetsons aplenty here, along with velvet bonnets, and helmets of firefighters, some wildly decorated. And there is the soft, tawny felt hat worn by Abraham Lincoln as a disguise when he passed through the city on his way to his 1861 inauguration.

It was thought that assassins were lying in wait, perhaps in Philadelphia, more likely in Baltimore, so Philadelphia hatmaker Charles Oakford & Sons fashioned a little illusory haberdashery for the stovepipe-wearing president-elect.

Furniture is everywhere. A plain, 17th century drop-front desk, a chair of Washington’s, two marble chairs from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and, not to be overlooked, the great throne of Wanamaker, the quintessential Philadelphian, the Jeff Bezos of the 19th century.

Wanamaker had attended the coronation of George V and Mary of Teck as king and queen of England in 1911, and was so impressed by the seats in Westminster Abbey that he had a replica chair crafted here in the city.

He used it at department store board meetings, where it lent, presumably, a royal gravitas to discussions of lingerie shipments and income streams.

Now it’s in the museum collection, high on a shelf peering out over models of Market Street from the 1950s — possibly used by planner Ed Bacon when he was dreaming up what was the Gallery. Here, too, are a massive unrealized “Playland” for Fairmount Park, and a 15-foot long exact replica of Elfreth’s Alley, created by craftsmen working with the WPA in the 1930s.

From the great bell that once hung in the Disston Saw Works to the fashionable clothing, the iron stoves fashioned by Philadelphia’s Liberty Stove Works, the horse-drawn delivery carts for department stores and even rag pickers, Philadelphia emerges from this collection as an incredibly diverse industrial and commercial powerhouse — complicit in the slave trade through its robust textile-based manufacturing economy, quick to exploit immigrant workers, and then marketing wares to those very workers, and always, always ready to grab a bite on the run. (Little Pete’s signs, tables, and counter seats are all here.)

Like the objects in this collection, as Talbott noted, the city “doesn’t tell a story if it hasn’t got a history.”