You know the feeling when you see a photograph of a place you recognize, and there’s almost a secondhand excitement in knowing the combination of your experiences of that place and the newly gained perspective on it you have from the picture? That’s what I’m experiencing over and over again exploring the history of Philadelphia as an intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia this summer.
For nearly two hundred years, researchers of Philadelphia history from all disciplines and backgrounds have turned to John Fanning Watson’s extensive Annals of Philadelphia to help uncover the realities of the city’s past. First published in 1830 and subtitled “A Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, & Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants from the Days of the Pilgrim Founders,” Watson’s Annals have become an enduring and impactful source of knowledge on a range of Philadelphia’s legacies; with information on everything from agriculture and apparel to transportation and military history. Following its initial publication, numerous later editions of Annals were published that extended existing chapters, added new accounts of recent happenings, and provided extra illustrations to the text. Once the 1879 expansion by Willis P. Hazard was added to the Annals of Philadelphia, Watson’s detailed analysis of city life from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spanned three volumes and more than 1,600 pages in total.
The Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania each have one of only two manuscript copies of Annals. “Manuscript” is curator-speak for “handwritten,” in this case by Watson, with additional insets like paper money and fabric pieces from formal dresses worn to the 1778 Meschianza held in honor of British General Sir William Howe. Featuring annotations and anecdotes that often differ substantially from the published editions of Annals, the manuscript copy provides a unique perspective on Watson’s approach to history.
Watson (1779-1860) was motivated to write his magnum opus by the same principle that guided his involvement in Philadelphia’s community of antiquarians and with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania: the final generation that experienced a colonial Philadelphia was dwindling, and Watson saw it as a moral imperative to preserve stories of the “olden times” through oral histories, interviews, and other accounts and relics. A banker by trade, Watson’s methods were often dismissed in his day as being “good but not entirely trustworthy, and the National Gazette wrote that:
“Mr. Watson has so long been living in spirit with those who lived on earth some fifty or a hundred years ago that he has imbibed a strong affection for ancient modes and customs, and seems to think the former state of society preferable to the present.”
Despite criticism from his contemporaries, Watson’s Annals have inspired scholars and Philadelphians alike to delve deeper into the history of the city. The Annals of Philadelphia had a particularly strong resonance for Joseph Yerkes Jeanes (1859-1928), who endeavored to collect as many images of old Philadelphia as he could to create his own extra-illustrated version of Annals using prints, photographs and photomechanical images, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera.
The owner of one of just 100 twenty-part sets of Annals on large paper “suitable for inserting additional plates, illustrations, and manuscript notes,” Jeanes’ copy reflected his desire to heed the call to expand upon the text. In 2014, The Library Company acquired these twenty parts and Jeanes’ collection of additional materials to be included, totaling more than 400 images.
As an intern in the Print & Photograph Department, my project is to complete what Jeanes never did before his death. By accessioning and analyzing the hundreds of images belonging to Jeanes and matching them up to the appropriate place in Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia, I am learning the ways in which history can be told and retold through different lenses depending on one’s historical positionality. In other words, what Watson may have thought was important information for future historians, like the story of Johannes Kelpius, called “the Hermit of the Wissahickon,” may not be what later researchers like Jeanes, who collected over 110 illustrations of the Battle of Germantown, were aiming to find in their history books. Ultimately what emerges at the intersection of Watson’s Annals and Jeanes’ collection is a more vivid, more complete, and more detailed version of the Philadelphia of the past that carries the potential for ongoing research into the city’s history in the future.
Some personal favorites? Watson’s description of the young ladies of the day “not knowing a thing about modesty” and disrespecting their grandparents by not supporting the war effort of the day, a satirical banknote criticizing the financial system dated 1847, and a portrait of a “merchant with distinctive nose.”
I am immensely grateful to the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities for making this experience possible, and look forward to taking what I have learned from this internship into my senior year at Haverford.
Written by Allison Wise ’20, religion major, sociology minor, and gender and sexuality studies concentrator
Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19