Collections of interest to Hispanics

When you visit the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s webpage and read the description of what we do, you’ll find a reference to additions to our collection of documents acquired in 2002 from The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. Although HSP has excelled in keeping and providing access to valuable documents about American colonial history, we do hold collections pertaining to Latino (or Hispanics) groups that have settled in Pennsylvania. The additions from The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies add even more records to HSP’s holdings related to the Latino experience in Pennsylvania, particularly that of organizations and individuals established in the Philadelphia area.

As a guide to researchers interested in subjects connected to Latinos in United States, or collections with papers produced by persons associated with major events in Latin America, we offer an inventory (by no means exhaustive) of what we at HSP have.

The John Rutter Brooke papers (Collection 0078) contain, among other things, documents about his roles as an important military commander during the Hispanic-American War, and as military governor of Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Joseph Sill Clark papers (Collection 1958) feature documents related to the 1965 US invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic, and memorandums pertaining to Argentina’s 1960’s political situation. Sill Clark was mayor of Philadelphia and served as United States senator from Pennsylvania. The Adolfo Fernández Cavada diary (Collection Am .6956) was written while serving as Captain with the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 23rd Regiment; and includes a detailed personal account of the Battle of Gettysburg. Fernandez Cavada was one of three brothers born in Cienfuegos, Cuba who later joined the Union Army. Puerto Rico legal and government papers (Collection 0518) is an assortment of licenses to masters of vessels, passports, copies of government rules, regulations regarding ports, and similar legal documents issued by the Puerto Rican government.

Among the collections describing the Latino experience in Philadelphia we can mention the Nelson A. Diaz papers (Collection 3079), featuring documents produced while working as a Philadelphia attorney who served on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas and as general counsel for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. We also have the records for the Spanish Merchants Association of Philadelphia (MSS114), founded in 1970 by Puerto Rican businessmen in Philadelphia to distribute Minority Business Development Agency funds in the Latino community; the Puerto Rican Week Festival records (MSS119), produced by the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of Philadelphia; records for the Pennsylvania branch of Aspira, Inc. (MSS148); records for the Philadelphia Center of The League of United Latin American Citizens (Collection MSS149), founded in Texas as an advocacy group to increase educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans; papers for the Post #840 of the American Legion in Philadelphia (MSS165), whose membership was primarily Puerto Rican; The Latino Project records (MSS117), headed by attorney Luis P. Diaz, provided legal assistance and representation to Spanish-speaking groups and interests in Greater Philadelphia area; the Hispanic Federation for Social and Economic Development records (MSS116), non-profit organization serving Puerto Ricans and Latinos in Philadelphia; records for Fifth Street Merchants Association (MSS118), formed in 1975 to represent the interests of merchants within the so-called “Golden Block,” the Fifth Street corridor bordered by Lehigh Avenue and Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia; and the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of Philadelphia records (MSS120), organized in 1962 as a liaison between the Spanish-speaking and non-Latino communities, and intended to coordinate existing Spanish organizations and to create new programs and activities for their constituents.

It’s worth pointing out that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds thousands of documents on the history of United Sates in general, and on Pennsylvania in particular. Hence, this is only a small sample of collections that may contain materials about Latinos in United States.

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Hot soup on a cold day: the records of the The Kensington Soup Society

The company's letterhead (circa 1940)

I recently finished processing a  set of records from the Kensington Soup Society (KSS).  KSS, which closed in 2007, was Philadelphia’s last neighborhood soup kitchen.  It was founded in 1844, at a time when there were other soup kitchens in the city, each one serving a particular neighborhood.  In KSS’s case, its serving boundaries extended from (using current street names) East Norris Street to North Front Street to East Laurel Street to the Delaware River.  Early on in its history, KSS offered food, rooms, and even work to its patrons.  From the early 1900s to the 1960s, it also offered free coal to the most destitute.  But KSS was first and foremost an establishment that served soup and bread to its neighborhood residents between the months of November and March.

Appeals card (1918)

KSS’s records  came to us in good shape, with most of the material being labeled or in labeled folders (yay!), and the processing work fell mostly on the minimal side, though I did spend more time arranging several large loose groups of papers into the overall scheme of the collection (administrative papers, financial papers, and miscellaneous papers).  The collection was also adopted by the organization—this helped pay for processing and conservation work.

Report of the Board of Managers (1874)

Now, one might expect that the records from a 163-year-old organization would span 163 years, but that’s not the case with this collection, which comes in at a modest 4.8 linear feet (8 document boxes and 13 volumes).  The earliest records date from the 1860s and the latest date from 2009; but the bulk of the records cover the years 1870 to 1962 with, unfortunately, significant gaps. There are very few records from 1900 to 1930 and from the mid 1960s to the early 1990s; and those that do exist from those years are primarily bills and receipts.   (Are the missing records truly missing? Or are they perhaps sitting in a former employee’s closet or basement?  The world may never know.)  There’s very little out in the published world (web or paper) specifically on the society, save for a wonderful book by Kenneth W. Milano entitled The History of the Kensington Soup Kitchen (and even he, in consulting KSS’s papers, acknowledged the lack of records from certain years).

Contributor's request (circa 1870)

Still, the collection provides a nice assortment of records that add to the study of the history of social service in Philadelphia, and also indirectly document the history of social conditions in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.  The finding aid for this collection is now on our website.

On a related note, HSP also has a collection of records from Philadelphia’s first soup society, the Southwark Soup Society (Collection 3024), which was founded in 1805.

The saga of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House continues…

First I should start by correcting myself a bit. In my last blog I said that the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. objected to the idea put forth by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.K. to use theatrical presentations to tell the story and have a science lab on the upper floors of the house. To finance the U.K. groups plan would require that entrance fees be steep. The U.S. group thought that the cost would deter visitors. Well this seemed to be precisely the U.K. group’s intention. Knowing that the upper floors of the house were fragile they thought that pricey admissions would make it so that large numbers of people were never traipsing through the house, potentially damaging it. Since the U.K. group did not want to restore the house to as it looked when Franklin lived there citing that it would not be interesting enough to attract visitors, I have to wonder if both group’s reasoning was flawed. When the choice is to limit attendance by either price or ‘interesting-ness,’ would either one actually be viable in the long-term? This seems to be a recurring problem for house museums today. Do we simply create a snapshot in time and hope for the best, or do we forsake some of the history in order to infuse it with some 21st Century thinking (and still hope for the best)?

One of the largest files I’ve come across was one simply labeled ‘Hallam.’ Apparently in 2005 Margaret and Martin Hallam, Franklin historians living in England, were hired by the Friends U.S. to create a guidebook to 36 Craven St. As the book neared completion, the Hallams expressed interest in also printing to book in the U.K., and selling it at Craven St. when it opened. The reaction of the U.S. group was severe to say the least. Their response was that they did not want something they funded to be used in the U.K. They could not understand why the Hallam’s were even asking. Ultimately, no solution was ever found and the book went unfinished. The last documents in this particular file were of Mrs. Hallam requesting payment for the work that they did complete.

I also uncovered a document that further explains Lady Bessborough’s refusal to give back some Franklin memorabilia that was given to her for safekeeping during renovations. Bessborough apparently kept the artifacts because she felt that their “security would be compromised by theatrical presentations.” How the presentations and the security of the artifacts were related she did not elaborate on. Possibly this was just another way to stall the U.K. group, which by this time was rapidly moving towards achieving their goal for the house.

Still many files to look at…

From the Business Files of the Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, U.S.

My first task as an HSP Archives Intern was to create a finding aid for the business files of an organization called The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. From these files a narrative unfolds that shows the difficulty of restoring and opening an historic house museum. Not only is the physical restoration a painstaking process, but the process can be hampered when those undertaking the restoration cannot agree. Therefore, the Benjamin Franklin House also serves to highlight the interesting question of what exactly we are to do with the few historical residences still standing. But first a little background…

The Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. was a non-profit charity group dedicated to the renovation and development as a museum of a decaying 18th century home at 36 Craven Street, in London. Benjamin Franklin rented rooms at 36 Craven Street from 1757 to 1774 while he lived in England as a representative of the Pennsylvania colony. Franklin enjoyed immense popularity and fame during this time in England, and his stay was only cut short by the stirrings of revolution in the colonies.

Three centuries later, the Craven Street house stood as the only residence that Franklin ever lived in still in existence. The cause to save and restore the house was led by Mary Bessborough, the U.S.-born wife of the 10th Earl of Bessborough. Lady Bessborough and her late husband were able to use their influence to secure the house and also procure a sizable collection of Franklin memorabilia and The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.K. was established as a non-profit charity in 1978. However, it was clear that to fully stabilize and restore the house would be very costly. In order to obtain government funding, the management structure of the charity was strengthened and Sir Robert Reid was named as chairman. The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. was established as a separate non-profit charity in 1992 to raise funds on the other side of the Atlantic to support the restoration.

Where the two organizations split was on what the function of the house should be. Reid and the U.K. group favored using the home to create a theatrical experience for visitors complete with an actress/tour-guide complimented by pre-recorded sounds. The upper floor would feature a children’s science lab where Franklin experiments could be recreated. Access would be limited and entrance fees would be steep. Bessborough and the U.S. group felt that the theatrics were dubious, the upper floors were too fragile to support the foot traffic, and that the high entrance fee would limit attendance. The specifics of the infighting are where the files come in handy.

The files themselves consist of a myriad of documents. For every file that illuminates the story a bit better, there are multiple files of fax reports, travel itineraries, party invite lists, Christmas cards, and good old junk mail. As a budding historian I can appreciate the act of saving everything – after all, you never know what’s going to be important. I was also quite glad that these people carried on their correspondences in the “old-fashioned” way – through faxes and… snail-mail. The abundance of all the unimportant documents made the instances when I ‘hit’ on an important document all the more thrilling.
The first hint of trouble I came across were correspondences between the BFH US and the Charity Commission of the United Kingdom. Apparently, there had been an issue with some funds that the U.S. group raised and how the U.K. group had used those funds in the restoration. It would appear as though the U.K. group had used the funds to continue forward with their plan of using the upper-floors of the house for a science center. Ultimately, the Charity Commission decided that the matter was one that needed to be settled “internally.”

Adding to the tension was the case of the Franklin memorabilia. As I said, prior to renovation, the Friends had put together a collection of Franklin’s old belongings and other Franklin-related pieces. While a display case was being constructed to house these items, they were given to Lady Bessborough for safekeeping. However, when the case was finished, Bessborough refused to give the items back, citing that the case was inadequate and furthermore that the security of the artifacts would be compromised by the theatrical presentations going on. Documents from a lawyer retained by the U.K. group threatening Bessborough with legal action if the objects were not returned is how this particular anecdote came to me. It’s not clear how the situation was finally resolved, but it is safe to assume they were returned not long after this letter arrived.

There are plenty of boxes of files left to sort through, and no doubt plenty more interesting tidbits on this story. Stay tuned for more.