Images of “by-gone days:” Visualizing the Manayunk of yesteryear

Oftentimes, history can seem like an accumulation of paper trails, a collection of stories told through the letters, diaries, and other written records that our ancestors leave behind.  However, graphic materials are also compelling historical artifacts, as I’m continually reminded while working on rights and reproductions orders at HSP.  Within our rich and diverse collections, HSP houses over 300,000 graphic items and these materials, whether they be photographs, watercolors, lithographs, maps, or other media, are a valued part of the historical record and often integral to the stories that our patrons aspire to tell.

Manayunk circa 1840 (Bb 862 M312)

A few months ago, I received a request for historic images of Manayunk for a documentary about Samuel Hughes, a Welshman who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1837 and settled on a dairy farm in Manayunk.  While searching our collections, I found this oil and watercolor in one of our graphics collections and was immediately captivated.  Painted by an unknown artist sometime around 1840, this image, with its lush, green landscape and open farmland, was so far removed from my own vision of present-day Manayunk that it prompted me to search for more information about Manayunk’s progression from rural farmland to metropolitan hub.

 

Title page of "Early History of Roxborough and Manayunk" (Am .3724)

Among the varied resources concerning Manayunk in our collections, my favorite is a hand-written volume by Horatio Gates Jones, Jr. entitled “Early History of Roxborough and Manayunk, 1855.”  A former corresponding secretary for HSP, Mr. Jones wrote the volume for the entertainment of his family and friends and aimed to take readers back to “by-gone days-when this whole country was a wilderness” (Jones p. 3).  With charm and wit (not to mention impeccable handwriting!), Mr. Jones gives a lively account of the settlement of a small tract of land bordered by the Schuylkill River to the west  and Germantown, or “the German Township” as it was then known, to the northeast (p. 4).  Initially part of Roxborough, the area that became Manayunk was settled, beginning in the 1680s, by such families as the Leverings, Rittenhouses, and Gorgas, whose legacies persist in Manayunk’s street names.  Interestingly, the expansion of these families and the area itself went hand-in-hand in these early years.  Indeed, according to Jones’ account, the central thoroughfare into Manayunk, Green Lane, owes its existence to the efforts of the Levering family to seek “a free egress and regress” between the tracts of land that Wigard Levering and his sons Jacob and William claimed along the Schuylkill River (p. 20).

Railroad Bridge over the Wissahickon, Near Manayunk, circa 1834 (Bb 7 R131)

As late as 1817, the population of present-day Manayunk hovered around 60 inhabitants, but the construction of a canal and dam to regulate the Schuylkill, along with the establishment of Manayunk’s first mill in the 1820s, helped the area blossom into a manufacturing hub that drew comparisons to Manchester, England.  Still considered part of Roxborough, the expanding mill town was known by the name of its dam, “Flat Rock,” but rapid population growth brought a push for a proper name.  In 1824, the names “Udoravia,” “Hydoravia,” and “Bridgewater” all came under consideration, but it was “Manaiung,” the Native American word for river, that ultimately provided inspiration for the name “Manayunk” (p. 24).    On June 11, 1840, Manayunk officially incorporated as a borough, completing its transformation from, in Jones’ words, a “once quiet and retired valley” to a miniature town that finally became part of the extended city of Philadelphia in 1854.  

Jones' account of the naming of "Manayunk" (Am .3724)

The more I read about the early history of Manayunk, the more I came to appreciate this painting and the other images in our collections as snapshots of a moment time that perfectly capture Manayunk’s development from a stretch of open farmland along the Schuylkill River to a budding industrial center.  Explore HSP’s Digital Library (http://digitallibrary.hsp.org/) for more great graphic materials that complement and enhance our understanding of the past – you never know what visual history you’ll uncover.

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Transparency in documentary editing

Postmodernist theory, which emphasizes the inevitable existence of individuals’ subjectivity and bias, has for the most part, become commonplace thinking. Within academe, postmodern critical analysis has affected all disciplines, including the “pure” sciences, which are no longer viewed as completely objective and neutral.

The reality of subjectivity has caused scholars in the humanities and social sciences to try to be more balanced in their work and/or transparent about their own personal biases as well as the biases inherent in their work. In the case of historians, this means acknowledging the subjective nature of the materials with which they use to construct past events. Historical records—primary source materials—are not static and objective carriers of truth. Among other things, they are the products of persons or groups who had the means to create and maintain them. Produced for specific purposes and within specific contexts, records harbor their creators’ biases and viewpoints.

With regards to the Greenfield Digital project, there is bias inherent in the records that Dana and I are using to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company. About 95% of the records that we are editing come from the Albert M. Greenfield Papers (1959). Thus, it is largely through Greenfield’s eyes that the history of Bankers Trust Company will be told. Although the story of the bank was closely interwoven with that of Greenfield, who played a principal role in the bank’s founding, expansion, and subsequent demise, his documentary records only captures part of the story.

Dana and I have made it a point to try to be as transparent as we can in order to make clear that this project is not an authoritative or all-encompassing analysis of the story of Bankers Trust Company. Following the lead of other documentary editing scholars and TEI best practices, we are employing several means with which to do this.

We have developed editorial principles for our document selection process as well as for our encoding and transcription practices. These principles will be included on the web site. The document selection principles outline the criteria we used to decide what materials from the Greenfield papers and other collections, including the Philadelphia Record clippings and photo morgue, to include to tell the story of Bankers Trust and why.

With regards to our transcription and encoding methodology, Dana and I agree with Michael E. Stevens and Steven B. Burg’s assertion that documentary editors “…have an obligation to explain how they have treated the text” since there are multiple ways to present the text of a document, “ranging from heavily emended to absolutely literal.”[1] In explaining our methodology, we will be following the lead of other digital editing projects, such as the Women Writers Project, that have provided such transparency.

We will also include information about our editorial decisions for each document and also document decisions such as the taxonomy we’ve chosen to use to describe the documents which will affect users’ search capabilities. For this project, we’re using the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. This information will appear in the header of the TEI documents:

Moreover, Dana and I have discussed the possibility of incorporating Web 2.0 technologies into the project to allow users, especially educators and scholars, to contribute their knowledge of the materials as well as how their using the materials in the classroom.

Despite the inadequacies and biases that we face, the Greenfield project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, will contribute new and intriguing information about bank failures and Philadelphia during the Great Depression, and serve as an important resource for educators and scholars among others.


[1] Stevens, Michael E. and Steven B. Burg, Editing Historical Documents: a handbook of practice (Walnut Creek, CA : AltaMira Press, 1997), 12-13.

Rights and Reproductions, or “R&R” for those in the know

William Penn, chalk portrait by Francis Place

Since starting at HSP in July as the new Rights and Reproductions Associate, I’ve handled lots of orders for digital reproductions of HSP materials and permission to distribute these materials in books, exhibitions, and other media.  Processing R&R orders provides a great front row seat to HSP’s unique and diverse materials, not to mention the cool ways in which patrons are using our historical artifacts.  While some materials are perennial favorites with patrons (Francis Place’s chalk portrait of William Penn is especially popular among textbook publishers), here’s a snapshot of MY favorite (and sometimes less well-known) R&R materials from the past two months:    

Not long after I began working at HSP, I received a request from Christie’s New York for a copy of a watercolor of Harriton House by William L. Breton.  Built in 1704 by a Welsh Quaker, Harriton is located in Lower Merion and is best known as the home of Charles Thomson, “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”  A Philadelphia merchant, Thomson became the first and only Secretary to the Continental Congresses and, in April 1789, traveled to Mount Vernon to inform George Washington that he had been elected the first President of the United States.  Over 200 years later, a carved mahogany side chair belonging to Charles Thomson was featured in Christie’s September auction of American furniture, folk art, and decorative arts and the watercolor of Harriton House was used as an illustration in the auction catalog.

Charles Thomson's Residence Harriton in Lower Merion

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is perhaps best known for its colonial and early American history holdings, but we also have many collections of compelling twentieth-century materials.

WPA poster of William Penn House

 

One of my favorites is the Work Projects Administration posters collection, which includes over 900 examples of works by Federal Art Project artists from the 1940s. While the Work Projects Administration was a federal program, it spawned many state and local subsidiaries, among them the Pennsylvania Art Program.  Accordingly, while the subjects and styles of the artworks in the poster collection are diverse, many are also specific to Philadelphia and feature such local landmarks as the Philadelphia Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Defense Steel" by Horatio C. Forjohn

The color and style of these woodblock prints notably contrasts with the charcoal shades of more well-known WPA artworks like Horatio Forjohn’s “Defense Steel,” which will be published in a forthcoming volume on industrial art.

 
 
 

Sometimes the best history is personal history and two recent reproductions requests follow that mantra.  The first order was for a digital copy of Thomas C. Simpson’s personal cashbook; a nineteenth-century merchant, Mr. Simpson emigrated from Northern Ireland to Norristown and the cashbook has helped his modern-day descendants in England unravel a piece of family history.  “Family” was also the watchword for a young bride and groom, who ordered a copy of Samuel Carpenter and Hannah Hardiman’s 1684 marriage certificate from HSP’s Isaac Cooper Jones collection of marriage certificates.  Descendants of Samuel and Hannah, the couple plans to display the certificate at their wedding and have their relatives sign it, just as the Carpenter and Hardiman families did in 1684.  It is these connections between past and present that make working at HSP so rewarding and make R&R a great opportunity to share our collections with patrons far and wide.

Marriage certificate of Samuel Carpenter and Hannah Hardiman

Interested in purchasing high-quality digital scans of HSP materials? Contact us at rnr@hsp.org or visit http://www.hsp.org/node/2032 for more information on our Rights and Reproductions service.  You can also view already-digitized materials online in HSP’s Digital Library.

Dad humor of the early 1900’s

Phase two of HSP’s Digital Center for Americana Project is well underway. This project has the same broad goals of processing and creating digital access to collections as the pilot phase did, but this time around the focus is on ethnic history collections rather than the Civil War. The collections in DCA2 all come from families and individuals who were immigrants to the Philadelphia area, or groups which documented the lives of those immigrant families and communities. These collections span over 300 years (from the late 1600’s to the early 2000’s) and represent people and families from Germany, Sweden, France, Japan, Korea, Greece, Italy, and various nations in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East. All of these collections are receiving some kind of digitization and will be available for you to access via HSP’s digital library in the future. Collections will either be entirely digitized or we will digitize a selection of images that best represent the content of the collection.

One of the first collections to be processed was also one of the most charming I’ve ever seen. Charles A. Quinn was a postal worker in Philadelphia in the early 20th century who kept himself busy in his off hours by photographing his growing family, developing the photographs himself, placing them in an album, writing captions for every photograph, and hand painting decorations for the album pages.

Charles A. Quinn family album

Charles Quinn and Ann Weber's courtship

The album begins during the courtship and engagement of Charles and his wife, Ann Weber, and documents his family throughout the growth of their two daughters. By the end of the album, the youngest Quinn daughter is graduating from secondary school, quite the sophisticated young lady.

Charles A. Quinn family album

Now comes the baby. "Here I is -- Mother!"

But it isn’t the breadth of the album that I find so appealing – it’s how much of Charles Quinn’s personality comes through in the photographs, decorations, and captions. This was a man who adored his wife and children, and demonstrated it by spending years carefully creating a representation of their happy life together. You can see his affection in captions like the one under a photograph of his betrothed, who coyly poses for him, hand under her chin: “Here we have the lady in a likely pose.” Or in shots of his infant daughter laughing for the camera: “Here I is — Mother!” and “Is dinner ready, Muvver?” Or in a photo of his daughter with her schoolmates on their graduation from secondary school: “Surely no school worries here!”

Charles A. Quinn family album

School days

This is corny, dad humor circa 1910, which I’m inclined to think (after processing this collection) is the best kind.

(The entire album is not yet digitized as of the date of this post, but some images are available via HSP’s Digital Library. When digitization is completed, the entire album will be accessible by following the same link. View the finding aid for this collection here.)

These American Lives

With part two of the Digital Center for Americana project underway, collections coming up the digital library pipeline include family album watercolors and oral history sound recordings that provide unique glimpses into Philadelphia family life, as well as how family life changes when individuals leave their country of origin for Philadelphia.

Najma Davis shares her first impressions of America.

Given the role that genealogy plays here at HSP, family history and ethnic heritage are especially fitting highlights, as they also tap into the question of how genealogy exists for recent immigrants and those that have been displaced against their will. Indeed, not all materials are delightful or even pleasant.

Among the massive linear span of the Chew family papers, three boxes in the collection document plantation activities and slavery in the North. Folders filled with bills, lists, and receipts seem dull and repetitive until they build context for human holdings. In the document below, the sale of “a Negro girl named Sarah” is chillingly ordinary.

The going rate in 1754? Thirty-two pounds and ten shillings. And the cost for impertinence? 15, 25 strokes, likely depending on the whims of your overseer.

Not all of the settlers or immigrants who arrived in America came for or received a better life. The stories in these collections include those openly shared as well as those, if we’re lucky, will be extracted by dedicated researchers. Some of them may evoke familiar themes, but history is always best when tangible. This project reminds us that each story comes with a name attached.

Getting from paper pages to digital texts

Now that we’re elbow-deep in encoding the 300 or so documents for the Greenfield Digital Project, my colleague Faith Charlton and I are spending a lot of time at the keyboard.

As I’ve explained in past posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating primary source documents to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930. This project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

We’ve selected our documents and passed them to HSP’s digital imaging team, and we are now focused on creating our XML text-encoded files.

Step one is getting the text from paper to a digital file.

One obvious method is simply to retype the text on a computer. That works great for brief documents and is essentially the only option for handwritten documents, where each author’s writing must be carefully deciphered. But we have another tool in our toolbox for longer typescript and print documents: optical character recognition, or OCR.

Software programs like ABBYY FineReader or OmniPage can perform sophisticated transformations of digital images into editable text files. For a variety of reasons, I decided it didn’t make sense to invest in that type of software for our project.

Instead, when we encounter longer typescript or printed documents in our project, we are using a free tool: Google Documents, or Google docs for short. You can upload .jpg, .gif, .png, or .pdf files to a private storage area, and the system will do its best to translate that digital image file into an editable text file. You can then copy and paste the text into any other software you’d like, including the software we’re using for text encoding, oXygen XML Editor.

The crucial check-box in the Google docs uploading process is near the bottom: "Convert text from PDF or image files to Google Docs documents."

Depending on your perspective, the Google results are either amazingly accurate or frustratingly imperfect. (I fall into the “amazingly accurate” camp.)

For example, the following four-page letter has about 1300 words total. I could type it from scratch in about 15-20 minutes; Google docs can do the same work in less than a minute.

The first page of the digitized letter, in which Bankers Trust Co. President Samuel Barker proposed a new business venture, Bankers Securities Corp.

Here is how Google docs transcribed the first page of the letter:

June 11, 1927
Mr. Albert Pi. Greenfield, Bankers Trust Building, Philadelphia.
Dear A 0
Let me give you more concretely than I did in brief conversation a few days ago my thoughts cmcerning a Bankers Securities Corporation and the much that can be accomplished through such an organization. I s11:’;ll try to put the proposition, as I vision it, with the strong conviction that the time has come to act in the matter.
When I first proposed it, immediately upon organization of Bankers Trust Company you and others thought the time premature. You were right. Since then the way has cleared and been opened in many and important ways for Bankers Securities Corporation to be brought into life. There is ready for it a largely advance prepared and very profitable field, with real things at hand for it to do-—things of creative as well as money-making character. What I see is this:
1. Bankers Trust Company is now safely and surely established. Already it holds recognized position in Philadelphia. Important financial interests elsewhere, as in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are glad to do business with it. From now forward there is pretty sure promise of earnings which will give increasing net income for the stock. There are about 500 stockholders. Without support the stock is much above both issue price and book value. The premium is one measure of the belief which exists that the Company has a large future.
2. Resources of Bankers Trust Company have more than doubled; its deposits have increased 60% in five months. Directly, some 12,000 people are banking with it. Already, with a securities department only in swaddling clothes, Bankers Trust Company has been welcomed to the table with grown-ups and taken into the inner circle by big financial groups. I fill in this picture as follows:
a. It enjoys full syndicate position with Kuhn,
Loeb and Company, so getting securities which that banking house issues at bottom issue price.

If you compare the original and the transcription carefully, you’ll see that Google skipped the printed letterhead at the top of the page and had problems with the recipient address, salutation, and first paragraph. But overall, it made relatively few mistakes.

Of course, both my typing and the Google docs transformation require careful proofreading. Google often skips over text that confuses it, and it seems to do worse if there are multiple styles of text on a page (like the letterhead and typescript above). It also has a hard time distinguishing between typescript 3s and 5s, among other issues. But for our purposes, these shortcomings are a fair tradeoff for the price.

Sharing Ideas

April was a month of learning, sharing, and inspiration for me, thanks to several conferences and workshops.

First, I attended the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), held in Pensacola, Florida this year.

I bumped shoulders with several hundred other public historians from around the country and learned about how others are tackling various challenging issues, from shaping new historical narratives to engaging new audiences to measuring student learning. You can read attendees’ commentaries about these and other topics on the NCPH conference blog.

While in Pensacola, I also attended a one-day THATCamp (The Humanities And Technology Camp) at the start of the NCPH conference. Billed as an “unconference,” THATCamp is a collaborative information-sharing, training, and problem-solving event for people working in the digital humanities (like me!).

Among the topics on the agenda: mobile apps and mobile technologies, how people are crafting digital oral history projects, and the differences (if any) between “digital history” and “digital public history.” Notes from these and other conversations are available on the THATCamp NCPH blog.

Finally, I was on the road again last week — this time to Providence, Rhode Island for a text-encoding seminar.

Led by the talented folks at the Women Writers Project at Brown University, the workshop focused on how to include contextual information in text encoding projects like our Greenfield digital project. My colleagues Tammy Gaskell, Faith Charlton, and I also had a chance to get feedback on the technical side of our project. Next up: putting that advice into practice in our project’s custom encoding schema.