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

The American museum was and is an idea.

The European museum was a fact. Almost without exception the European museum was first a collection. With few exceptions most American museums were first an ideal,” Philadelphian Nathaniel Burt wrote in his 1977 history of the American museum, Palaces for People. Unlike their European counterparts, which were usually created to house the great collections of the nobility, most American museums began with a deliberate appeal to the public.

Beginning with the first great surge of museum founding in the nineteenth century, American museums reflected the ideals of the day. Their collections and activities sought to satisfy curiosity, diffuse useful knowledge, refine public taste, and often enhance patriotism and national pride. Their founders were generally accomplished men – and occasionally women – whose successful careers were founded on traditional virtues, including the civic mindedness that led them to assume new roles as cultural leaders.

It was thirty-six such men and four such women who affixed their signatures to the application for a charter of incorporation for the Chester County Historical Society on Tuesday, April 11, 1893. Their common purpose was “the acquisition and preservation of property and information of historic value or interest to the people of Chester County.”

In both its goals and its leadership, the Chester County Historical Society reflected the wave of museum founding at the end of the nineteenth century. “Our objective is to preserve historical landmarks, Indian relics, newspaper files, portraits and pictures, family records, literary products of the County and old pieces of furniture and implements,” opined Gilbert Cope in the Daily Local News in April, 1893. The new organization would collect and preserve those documents and objects that gave Chester County its unique identity, joining in a national interest in celebrating America’s pride.

Its founders were an extraordinary group, whose “characters and reputation in the County,” described by Wilmer W. MacElree in a fiftieth anniversary tribute to the society in 1943, were “as lofty as their purpose of founding was noble.” Many had reputations of achieve­ment far beyond the county. Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock, the society’s first president, is known as the “Father of Penn­sylvania Forestry.” A physician and a botanist, he served as the first president of the Pennsyl­vania Forestry Association, which initiated and promoted measures to protect the state’s forests. Under Rothrock’s direction, nearly six hundred thousand acres were pur­chased for forestation.

Credentials of fellow founders and first officers were equally impressive. Dr. Edwin Atlee Barber authored pioneering books on pottery and porcelain. Dr. William Dell Hartman was an interna­tionally known conchologist, and as a botanist was quoted by the British naturalist Charles R. Darwin concerning the habits of the cicada. Cope was a widely respected genealogist and historian who co-authored with Judge J. Smith Futhey a monumental history of Chester County to 1881. (Cope was eventually elected into the National Genealogical Hall of Fame.) Benjamin Matlack Everhart was an internationally known cryptogamic botanist. George Morris Philips was principal of the West Chester State Normal School (now West Chester University) for nearly forty years. Julius Friedrich Sachse was a prolific writer of history in Pennsylvania. Charles Henry Pennypacker was an authority on mineralogy. William T. Sharpless was a practicing physician for six decades. Still others included newspapermen, educators, lawyers, and businessmen.

In May 1893, the Chester County Democrat proclaimed, “the zeal with which we preserve the memory of the great deeds of our ancestors is one of the best signs of a free people.” Public institutions throughout the country were transforming aspects of America’s past into icons to guide the future. As one of Pennsylvania’s first counties, erected in 1682, Chester County abounded with “great deeds” and “great men.” Washington, Wayne, Lafay­ette, and Pulaski, the Battle of the Brandywine and the Valley Forge encampment, the heroism of the early settlers­ – all were firmly implanted in local lore, and the fledgling historical society set out on an ambitious program to honor this past.

With an air of reverence, the society commenced plans for a series of tablets to com­memorate historic events and places. The first of these was erected on the Brandywine Battlefield (now administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) to mark the site where the Marquis de Lafayette was wounded. But it was an inauspicious beginning.

Instead of granite, the marker honoring the military leader was made of kallistolite, and cracks in the shaft and base appeared even before the formal dedication. Despite this early public embarrassment, however, the young society continued to erect markers for decades, commemorating such diverse subjects as the grave of Indian Hannah, the last of the Lenape Indians in Chester County; the New London Academy, typifying the county’s many famous schools; the site of the first courthouse in Chester County; and the mill site where the first boiler-plate was rolled in the United States.

Veneration of the past was evident in the words describ­ing the society’s collections and activities. Objects were “relics” or “icons,” while trips to historic places were “pil­grimages.” Society members collected vigorously, soliciting the materials they believed would create awareness and appreciation of a reassuring heritage. And, asked the Daily Local News in 1895, “Where will the treasures be stored?”

It was a question that would be repeated many times.

Within its first five years, the Chester County Historical Society amassed a library of three hundred and seventeen books, six hundred and fifteen pamphlets, seventy-two magazines, and a continuing run of all the county’s newspa­pers. Its first object was the tavern sign of the famed Turks Head Inn, a landmark that stood at the well-traveled crossroads that had brought the county seat to West Chester in 1782.

The quest for space was temporarily solved under the leadership of George Morris Philips, who served as president of the society from 1894 until his death in 1919. An exceptionally able adminis­trator, Philips found quarters for the organization in the new library building at West Chester State Normal School. Before long, however, collec­tions of Indian relics, antique husbandry implements, more newspapers, and even a “big top-hat of Centennial vintage,” had created the impression of “an old curiosity shop with the most incongruous articles resting side by side.”

The crisis was not resolved until 1937, when the historical society acquired a building with a history as rich as its collections. The structure, originally named Horticultural Hall, had been built in 1848 as headquarters for the Chester County Horticultural Society. Its architect, Philadelphian Thomas Ustick Walter, designed the United States Capitol dome, as well as its House and Senate wings, while he was working as a government architect in Washington, D. C., from 1851 to 1865. Walter’s classicism was spare, practical, and disciplined, a suitable style for West Chester with its heritage of Quaker simplicity. He had designed several buildings in the community, earning West Chester the title, “the Athens of Pennsylvania.” Legend claims that Walters donned workman’s overalls to demon­strate to his work crew how to build the unique inverted Norman arch that serves as the hall’s centerpiece.

Horticultural Hall was used for public meetings and lectures and hosted such famous speakers as Lucretia Mott, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Horace Greeley. It witnessed many of the great social reform movements of the nineteenth century, serving as the site of anti-slavery society meetings at mid-century and the first Pennsylvania women’s rights convention in 1852. In 1880, a nearby resident, Uriah H. Painter, purchased the hall and, after altering it exten­sively, opened it as the West Chester Opera House. With seating for four hundred and twenty on the main floor and nearly two hundred in its new balcony, the Opera House remained a center for social and cultural entertainment for fifteen years.

On his death in 1900, Painter’s widow deeded the building to the McCall Post of the Grand Army of the Republic for as long as it was needed, after which it was to be conveyed to the Chester County Historical Society. It would be a long wait. In 1929, when the 124th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers convened at the building for the forty-fifth time, only ten veterans attended. Still the Society waited. It did not take possession of Memorial Hall­ – its name was changed in 1904 – until 1937.

After a vigorous fund­raising effort led by Isabel Darlington, the county’s first woman lawyer (and the only one for forty-five years), the Chester County Historical Society opened, debt-free, in 1942. In his tribute to the society’s anniversary, Mac­Elree wrote, “With such surroundings, it was believed that the most unimaginative listeners would unconsciously glide into the past and breathe its atmosphere.” Among the treasures he called attention to were a Conestoga wagon, Indian artifacts, rare examples of eighteenth century furni­ture, Edward Paxson’s collection of pewter, surgical instruments and deadly firearms, a “scientifically constructed” orrery, William Marshall Swayne’s marble bust of Anthony Wayne, and “numerous compartments” containing agricultural implements, local pottery, models of Chester County inventions, farm machinery, and hardware of many kinds.

In recent years the Chester County Historical Society has become especially well known for its collections of decorative arts. Many of these collections were added during the decades between the move into Memorial Hall in 1942 and the next major expansion of the building in 1979. The organization had made its transition from a volunteer­-directed institution to a professionally-staffed organi­zation prior to the opening of the new building, and the stage was set for rapid growth and acquisition.

The growth of the museum and decorative arts collections reveals a period in which they were prized primarily for their beauty and exceptional quality. The descriptive language of the society publications evidences a subtle new emphasis in the museum’s purposes. Museum collections once assembled for “instruc­tion” and “curiosity” were being exhibited as the “best” or “rarest” of their type. Among the major gifts acquired by 1979 were examples of Tucker and Hemphill china, an extraordi­nary collection of dolls from the estate of Thura Truax Hires, and masterpieces of furniture and decorative arts bequeathed by Deborah Howell Brinton. The acquisi­tion of these important collections warranted an early interpretive emphasis on Chester County as a center of extraordinary era craftsmanship.

Through the years, Chester County has produced espe­cially distinctive furniture, making it well known among international antiques collec­tors and dealers. Early furniture makers had easy access to fine cabinet woods, as well as to the latest trends and styles in nearby Philadel­phia. The county’s strong Quaker presence demanded furnishings that were “plain but of the best sort.” Local craftsmen met this challenge by designing beautifully made furniture with restrained design and embellishment.

Many craftsmen left an individual mark. Several chairmakers created their own turnings. Locally-made wainscot chairs, for instance, often exhibit a strongly outlined “Chester County crest rail.” One furniture maker designed a round birdcage support for his tilt-top tables, replacing the usual square shape, and many craftsmen turned out handsome spice chests. These spice chests, now coveted by collectors and curators alike, were rarely found outside of the Philadel­phia region. They were constructed of beautifully grained cabinet woods and fitted with interiors of various­-sized drawers.

One interesting woodwork detail, attributed to still unknown Chester County furniture makers, is a unique type of inlay known as “line and berry.” This distinctive decoration, found on chest drawer fronts, spice box drawers, and table drawers, consists of gently interlaced inlaid volutes of a light wood, each ending in a group of three round berries, one of light wood and two of a darker wood (or vice versa). Its graceful charm and simplicity is suggestive of a folk art motif.

County clock­makers also were among the most individualistic craftsmen, developing recognizable details of both construction and decoration. This fact is particu­larly noticeable when studying documented pieces from a historic and cohesive small area like Chester County. The society’s large collection of regional tall case clocks exhibits the intricate details of clock­making in this region, The work of four generations of one family, the gifted Chandlee family of Nottingham, reflects both tradition and variation.

The county has made unique contributions to the history of ceramics. Its northern hillsides and the fertile valleys to the south provided readily available clays for more than thirty known potteries. The first of the county’s unique ceramic productions was one of America’s first true porce­lains. Called Tucker China for its creator, William Ellis Tucker, the hand-decorated pieces are said to rival those imported from France. The production of Tucker China was made possible because of the presence of kaolin discov­ered near Kennett Square. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Schuylkill clay found near Phoenixville led to the production of the highly popular Etruscan Majolica, capable of taking high lustre, colorful, hand­-applied slips for inexpensive tableware. Special pieces were given as premiums by the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company with purchases of tea or coffee.

Another significant collec­tion of ceramics, Chester County redware, illustrates a more recent shift in the interpretation of collections­ – and one shared with many museums. The society’s early history has been shown to parallel the nineteenth century founding of museums to praise the past and identify “icons” of greatness. In mid­century, its fine decorative arts collections were exhibited to express the idea of museums as connoisseurs, exhibiting “treasures,” the beautiful and the rare. Current practices and activities, however, reveal a modern interest in re-examin­ing the past, looking for the common man, and studying the process of history rather than focusing primarily on the products.

To illustrate this shift, Chester County redware, one of the Society’s distinctive collections, can be studied as a centerpiece for historical inquiry. In addition to fine examples from the county’s ample potteries, the historical society’s collections also include the rich documentation of account books, newspaper articles, advertisements, and personal records that were so vigorously collected by its founders. Together, the materials encourage the study of redware for far more than its aesthetic appeal.

The restrained decora­tion on Chester County redware reveals the English and Scotch­ Trish Quaker influence. The fancy flower­pots that are the most recognizable form of local red­ware are found to be specially commissioned pieces. They generally have an incised date or name on the side, usually the name of a Quaker woman. Since most of Chester County’s potters were also Quakers, the commis­sioned flowerpots offer one piece of evidence of the trade networks that existed between meetings. Account books, price lists and newspaper advertisements reveal what kinds of shapes and forms were readily available to the public. They also show trade patterns and customs. The account books of Milton Hoopes show that his customers sometimes paid him with bricks, lime, straw, and wood for his business or more personal items for him and his family. One gentleman exchanged shoemaking services for redware and a woman exchanged a velvet bonnet. These types of records and their analysis provide historians and casual visitors with new insights into the past. Simply put, reverence is replaced with inquiry.

Several notable collections enhance the society’s ability to study “ordinary” lives. Such common objects as clothing, needlework, tools, toys, and games offer provocative insights. An exceptionally extensive archives of photo­graphs – containing more than seventy thousand images!­ – provide extraordinary visual documentation of the past. A large collection of Quaker clothing includes numerous work clothes, as well as garments worn for special outings. A recent exhibition drawn from the society’s collection interpreted what it meant to “go plain” for Chester County’s Quaker women. The exhibition’s focus was further documented by Gilbert Cope’s genealogical glass plate negative collection, showing many of the women with their families, and by household inventories, letters, and diaries.

Women’s lives are also reflected in the extensive collection of samplers pains­takingly made by young school girls. The sewing included basic stitching, darning, and complex embroi­dery. Westtown School girls stitched elaborate globes, featuring continents and land masses far less complete than today’s understanding. While the young women practiced, their male counterparts at West Chester Academy studied the orrery, a clock­work model of the universe. Not only does the orrery tell something about the curricu­lum in an early nineteenth century school, but it also documents what was known of the universe at the time; only six planets were known to exist.

Government records are invaluable resources for social historians. Over the years the society had unofficially become a repository for many of the county’s governmental records, some donated privately and others trans­ferred directly by county officers for safekeeping and accessibility. In 1982, the society and the county government established an archives to administer Chester County’s historical records through an unusual partner­ship. The archives is a treasure house of local government documents, including a wide variety of papers, ranging from criminal records to almshouse records.

When Memorial Hall was remodeled for the expanding historical society in 1979, the old wooden doors were replaced with glass – and for reasons far more important than architecture and aesthet­ics. The director cited the removal of the forbidding Bastille-like doors as a symbol of Chester County Historical Society’s new image of accessibility. Today, more than fifteen thousand students examine the society’s collec­tions each year. The emphasis on social history has been incorporated into public programming that attracts fifty thousand visitors and partici­pants annually.

Concurrent with its centennial celebration, the Chester County Historical Society is once again expanding its vision. Its handsome nineteenth century building will be Jinked with an adjacent historic structure, providing an efficient, modernized complex that will triple the present space. in keeping with its commitment to the multiple needs of its audiences, this new regional History Center, scheduled to open in 1994, will provide new public spaces for educational programs to complement exhibition and research facilities.

For the past century, the Chester County Historical Society has been fulfilling its mission of helping generations of Americans understand themselves. It has done so by showing both the wisdom and the folly of ancestors and by exploring both the finest and the most humble aspects of a regional heritage. As inquiry replaces reverence, the transition admits a new humility about human knowledge and understand­ing. As new visions replace earlier dreams, the Chester County Historical Society continues to explore how it can best “put people in touch with their past.”

 

For Further Reading

Burt, Nathaniel. Palaces for People: A Social History of the American Art Museum. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.

Carlson, Robert E., ed. Chester County Bibliography. West Chester, Pa.: Chester County Historical Society, 1981.

Futhey, J. Smith, and Gilbert Cope. History of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881.

James, Arthur E. Chester County Clocks and Their Makers. West Chester, Pa.: Chester County Historical Society, 1947.

____. The Potters and Potteries of Chester County, Pennsylvania. West Chester, Pa.: Chester County Historical Society, 1945.

Schiffer, Margaret. Arts and Crafts of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Company, 1980.

Schiffer, Margaret Berwind. Furniture and Its Makers of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

 

The authors gratefully acknowl­edge the important work of Dr. Robert E. Carlson, professor emeritus of history at West Chester University, in research­ing and compiling a history of the Chester County Historical Society. They also wish to thank Pamela C. Powell, Roseman; Philips, Margaret Bleecker Blades, and Roland H. Woodward for their contributions to this article.

 

Beverly Sheppard is associate director of the Chester County Historical Society where size coordinates the organization’s extensive schedule of educational and public programs. She edited and contributed to Building Museum and School Partner­ships, a recent publication of the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations. A graduate of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, she received her masters degree in painting at Marywood College, Scranton.

 

John Sheppard is a free lance writer, publicist and consultant, specializing in marketing and promoting the arts. A graduate of the Pennsylvania State Univer­sity, he served for eighteen years as the public relations director of the Brandywine Conservancy and its Brandywine River Museum. His articles on arts marketing have appeared in numerous national and regional publications.