Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the summer of 1731, Benjamin Franklin later re­counted in his autobiography, “I set on foot my first Proj­ect of a public Nature, that for a Subscription Library.” He encouraged fifty subscribers to contribute forty shillings each for the purchase of books that were considered indispen­sable to colonial Americans, but were generally too expensive for any one individual alone to buy. With that, the Library Company of Philadelphia was born.

The library’s first order, sent to agent Peter Collinson in London, included classic reference works in architecture, medicine, agriculture, history and literature. The collection grew with subsequent gifts and purchases, and in 1741 Frank­lin printed a catalog of the library’s holdings of 375 titles. To­day, the rare books in the Library Company number approxi­mately 200,000.

During the early days, however, the institution was more than simply a library. It housed, for example, scientific in­struments frequently used by Franklin and others, and pro­tected treasures of eighteenth-century explorations – Eskimo parkas, fossils and Indian relics. Most of these natural history items were later given to museums, but a few remain, includ­ing the hand of a mummified Egyptian princess presented by the artist Benjamin West in 1767.

When the Continental Congress came to Philadelphia in 1774, representatives made frequent use of the library, then located on the second floor of Carpenters’ Hall. Until 1800, when Washington became the nation’s capital, the Library Company served as the de facto Library of Congress. Throughout the nineteenth century, it also functioned as Philadelphia’s public library, but has since become an inde­pendent scholarly research library, strong in American im­prints before 1860.

The collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prints and photographs, begun in 1733 when Peter Collinson sent “a Print of the Orrery” to the infant institution, numbers nearly 40,000 chiefly Philadelphia-related items. Prints trickled in during the eighteenth century, and a large number of graphic items were bought in 1785 from the estate sale of Pierre Eu­gene du Simitiere, the Swiss-born collector of American ephemera.

In 1830 John Fanning Watson, Philadelphia’s first his­torian, donated one volume of manuscript notes and illustra­tions for his Annals. Later, more pictorial items were ac­quired through gifts and purchases. At the bequest of Charles A. Poulson in 1866, scrapbooks packed with Philadelphia prints and photographs were added. Four years later, more lo­cal views were bought from the photographer John Moran. During the 1890s the library received the lifelong collection of Philadelphiana assembled by John A. McAllister, which in­cludes lithographs, maps, posters and photographs. Thus, the print room became an important repository and a major source of information about nineteenth-century graphic art.

The Library Company was the first of its kind and is unique in its purpose. Many items in its collection, including those il­lustrated here, are also “firm” or “onlies.” To see some­thing from the distant past that was never meant to be saved, such as a ticket to a fancy ball, is to have a stronger vision of life in Pennsylvania generations ago. In the same way, a “first-of-its-kind” recaptures the essence of the era in which it was created. A unique image from the past is worth a thou­sand words of history.

The accompanying illustrations portray the diversity and richness of the Library Company’s print collection. Where else can one find the treasures and ephemera of three centuries so amicably preserved? The unique prints and out­standing rare books in the library are choice primary sources for researching the early days of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the nation. Today, as it did a quarter of a millennium ago, the Library Company invites the public to use its re­sources “for the advancement of knowledge and literature.”

“This Library afforded me the means of Im­provement by constant Study,for which I set apart an Hour or two each Day …” – Benjamin Franklin


“The South East Prospect of the City of Philadelphia.” By Peter Cooper. Oil painting on canvas, Philadelphia, ca. 1720.

Peter Cooper’s work is the earliest known view of Philadel­phia, and possibly the oldest surviving painting of any city in North America. This view of the forty-year-old town was taken from the Camden shore of the Delaware River. Although the work is judged to have been painted circa 1720, no record of it appears until 1744, when it was “communicated” to the Society of Antiquaries in London. The painting resurfaced in 1857 at a meeting of the directors of the Library Company. George Mifflin Dallas, American minister at the Court of St. James, had been given the picture by a member of Parliament who had found it rolled up in a London curiosity shop. Dallas sent the “antique daub” to the Library Company as a gift, and it hangs there in the reading room today.

“Benjn. Randolph, Cabinet Maker, at the Golden Eagle in Chesnut Street Between third and fourth Streets, Philadelphia.” Engraving, Philadelphia: I. Smither Sculpt,

Benjamin Randolph (1721-1791) was already a joiner at the time of his mar­riage in 1762. His business, primarily house carpentry, prospered. In 1769 he moved his shop to its permanent loca­tion on Chesnut [sic] Street, and com­missioned an elaborate trade card from engraver James Smither, lately arrived from England. The card depicts “all Sorts of Cabinet & Chairwork” which could be purchased at the largest furni­ture shop in the city. Most of the pieces represented on the card were copied from Thomas Johnson’s Book of Orna­ments and Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Direc­tor. When Randolph became a member of the Library Company in 1766, he was able to borrow from its shelves works by Chippendale and others tO design the furniture that was exceedingly popular in Philadelphia. His card at the Li­brary Company is the only extant copy.

Ticket for the Meschianza. By John Andre. Engraving, Philadelphia, May 1778.

During the winter of 1777-78, while the American army froze at Valley Forge, Gen. Sir William Howe and his British troops made themselves at home in Philadelphia. As a result of their in­action, Howe and his men were recalled in the spring. On the eve of Howe’s de­parture, his officers arranged an extrav­agant party called the Meschianza. This ticket, sent to Becky Redman, is the only one that has survived. It was de­signed by Captain (later Major) Andre and was probably engraved by James Smither. Howe’s crest rests above the mono Andre chose for the occa­sion: “Descending I shine; with added splendor I rise again.” Howe never did reach the same height of glory; Andre was hanged as a spy in 1780.

“Rally for the Defence of the City!” Philadelphia: King and Baird Printers, [1863].

When news reached Philadelphia in June 1863 that Lee was advancing northward, the city scrambled to defend itself. The mayor urged businesses to close in order to help meet Pennsylvania’s quota of 50,000 troops. Printers immediately set to work creating eye-catching broadsides. The Union League of Philadelphia was founded in 1862 to advance the efforts of the Northern states against the “rebel invaders” of the South. It soon gained the approval of the War Department to recruit regiments of white and black troops for the army. New recruiting posters appeared nearly every day. The broadsides were not meant to be saved, but several far-sighted Philadelphians collected and donated hundreds of them to the Library Company.

“North-East corner of Third & Dock Street. Girard Bank, at the time the latter was occupied by the Military during the riots.” By William and Frederick Langenheim. Oversize half-plate daguerreotype, Philadelphia, May 9, 1844.

In 1844 Philadelphia was afire with riots and gunshots as native-born Amer­icans clashed with immigrants. The principles of the Native American or Know-Nothing party included the right to use the Bible in public schools and the enforcement of a twenty-one-year residency requirement for immigrants be­fore they could vote. By May, the vio­lence was such that the military was called in to keep the peace. Headquarters were established at the Girard Bank which was across the street from the Langenheim brothers’ studio. German­-born William and Frederick Langen­heim settled in Philadelphia in 1840 and soon established a daguerrean studio. They were the first to take views of Niagara Falls, and many of their experi­ments with photographic processes be­came commercial successes. This daguerreotype was Philadelphia’s first “news” photo.

“Magna Britannia: her Colonies Reduc’d.” By [Benjamin Franklin.] Etching, [London, late 1765 or early 1766].

Benjamin Franklin’s initial support of the Stamp Act, passed by Parliament in 1765, was one of his few political mis­judgments. He had underestimated the furor that was aroused in the colonies by the tax on nearly everything written or printed. Newspapers in the colonies ceased publication; many colonists joined in a non-importation agreement, refusing to buy goods from England while the Act remained in effect. One year after its enactment, Parliament de­bated its repeal. Franklin, who now strongly advocated its repeal, drew this cartoon to prove that England depended so much on her colonies that she would be harming herself by abusing them. The cartoon was printed on cards which were distributed to members of Parlia­ment as they entered to debate the issue. This is the only surviving copy.

“Atlantic Petroleum Storage Company For Refined Oil/Empire Stores For Crude Oil.” By Edward J. Herline. Chromolithograph, Philadelphia, [1866].

For many years during Pennsylva­nia’s early oil-producing period, Phila­delphia was the largest storage and ex­port center in the country. Near the con­fluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the Atlantic Petroleum Storage Company built huge iron tanks for holding over 75,000 barrels of oil. With railroads connecting the oil fields to the company and with its own docks for ex­port, Atlantic Petroleum was destined to thrive. In 1866, its first year of opera­tion, it ordered the first chromolitho­graphic advertisement of the industry from German-born Edward J. Herline who practiced in Philadelphia between 1852 and 1872 with the firm of Herline and Henzel. Below the color print are a description and plan of the plant and a list of the officers and directors of the company. The Library Company’s print is the only known copy.


Jean M. Benoit, administrative assistant of the Library Com­pany of Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in English literature and foreign careers from Lehigh University in 1979. Prior to join­ing the Library Company, she did editorial work for the Chil­ton Book Co. and the Franklin Institute Research Center.