Currents

Current and Coming features detailed information about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania. Originated as “Currents.” Retitled “Current and Coming,” Winter 2003, and then retitled “Out and About,” Fall 2005. Revived as “Current and Coming,” Winter 2013. Ran regularly, Spring 1984 to Spring 2008, and then occasionally, Winter 2013 to Spring 2015.

The Census

A well known senior official of the Census Bureau, and a student of census history until his demise in 1988, Theodore G. Clemence saw the impor­tance of the federal census as threefold. He considered its first purpose to be the estab­lishment of equitable political representation as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The second function was quickly acquired as the nation discov­ered that the census answered its quest for knowledge, pro­viding an insightful and useful statistical portrait of the people and the economy. In recent years, a third role emerged: by participating in the census, respondents see themselves as stakeholders, influencing the roles of new enterprises, be­coming involved in the opera­tion and even helping to validate the usefulness of census results.

According to Clemence, census participants discover what they need to know, and decide how to address prob­lems, trends, opportunities, public issues, consumer mar­kets, corporate plans, affirma­tive action, education, urban revitalization, rural conserva­tion and similar pivotal issues.

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau is required to docu­ment the hundreds of uses the federal government makes of census data. These justifica­tions offer a fascinating glimpse on how widespread the country’s reliance on the census statistics has become. Although individual census information is strictly held confidential for a minimum period of seventy-two years, tabulated statistics influence much planning undertaken by both the government and the private sector. Some of the uses of the census include: age data to plan community pro­grams for the elderly, as re­quired by the Older Americans Act of 1965; statistics about disability to improve public transit services for the handi­capped, organized by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA); infor­mation on income levels and poverty to enable the Job Training Partnership Act to fund training programs; and statistics to enforce laws for­bidding racial discrimination.

The census statistics on the local level are especially intriguing-and meaningful. The 1840 census recorded that more than ninety percent of Chester County’s workforce was employed in agriculture. By 1980, a scanty three percent still engaged in farming. These statistics and other revealing facts set the stage for a fasci­nating exhibition, “Two Hundred Years and Counting: The Statistics of Change,” on view at the Chester County Histori­cal Society in West Chester through September 2 [1990].

“Two Hundred Years and Counting: The Statistics of Change,” depicting the num­bers and images that record two centuries of Chester County history, commemo­rates the bicentennial of the United States Census, which has been tracking population data since 1790. Chester County, whose geographic configuration has remained the same since the first census, is a microcosm of the flux and growth of the nation as a whole. Juxtaposed against the major issues of the American past, the county’s data relates hundreds of compelling stories.

The society’s extensive selection of both documents and objects, drawn from its archives, library and museum, illustrates key issues in the county’s development. The advent of railroads, the impact of immigration, the contribu­tions of industry, the contro­versy of slavery and the issue of suffrage are addressed in this exhibition. Each is seen in the context of population change and is revealed through photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, as well as objects as diverse as political campaign buttons and a spike from West Chester’s trolley line. “Two Hundred Years and Counting” empha­sizes the relationship of the numbers gathered to real life, and seeing the statistics as storytellers in their own right.

The nation’s first census of 1790 was one of the earliest acts of George Washington’s new government. It counted only the number of free white males age sixteen and over, under sixteen, the number of free white females, all other free persons, and the number of slaves. The first census, which took more than eight­een months to complete, counted 3, 900,000 inhabitants. The 1990 census, now fully computerized, is expected to count as many as 250,000,000 United States residents! The work of the United States Census Bureau has become increasingly complex; it cur­rently produces monthly, quarterly and annual reports on housing, population, man­ufacturing, business, construc­tion work and government.

“Two Hundred Years and Counting: The Statistics of Change” challenges the visitor to predict the findings of the 1990 census in Chester County.

In addition to “Two Hun­dred Years and Counting,” the Chester County Historical Society has recently opened a companion exhibition entitled “More Than Just a Head Count.” The exhibition offers an educational look at the United States Census, its his­tory and its uses by a country whose appetite for self­-knowledge appears insatiable. Designed as a hands-on, ex­ploratory exhibit, “More Than Just a Head Count” invites visitors to consider the impact of census data that has sum­marized twentieth century trends in the nation. A series of school-related programs will teach students how to collect and analyze population data and encourage them to think about the crucial planning decisions that emerge from changing information. “More Than Just a Head Count” will be on view through Monday, May 21 [1990].

Dedicated to preserving and interpreting the county’s rich history, the Chester County Historical Society offers group tours and educa­tional programs for the public. For additional information regarding admission, special events and visiting hours, write: Chester County Histori­cal Society, 225 North High St., West Chester, PA 19380- 2691; or telephone (215) 692-4800.

 

Thurston Classic

When the Thurston Classic takes to the skies again this spring, it will honor Crawford County’s irrepressible ballooning pioneers, Samuel and Alic Thurston. Although today’s balloons with their brightly colored nylon envelopes and roaring propane burners are dramatically different from the nineteenth century muslin spheres filled with hydrogen or “purified natural gas,” the enthusiastic spirit of balloon­ing in the county remains virtually the same.

Local historians are not quite sure why Samuel Thur­ston, at the age of thirty-seven, abandoned his Guys Mill farmstead and moved to Meadville, the county seat, to become an innkeeper and aeronaut. Perhaps he was intrigued by the observation balloons which returned Civil War veterans home, or fasci­nated by the the widespread accounts of Lancaster’s John Wise and his jet stream flights of 1859.

It was not long before Thur­ston’s balloon ascensions were a regular part of Meadville’s holiday celebrations, often launched from Diamond Park, as the community’s central green was called. As both his skills and popularity in­creased, Samuel Thurston traveled the country, his dark balloons easily spotted by the name of Meadville in six foot high stark white lettering. During the ensuing twenty-­one years before his demise in 1888, Thurston had made 216 scheduled balloon ascensions, among them one carrying a couple and a minister to per­form what he claimed was “the first marriage high above the mundane plain.”

Upon his death, Thurston’s son Alic added balloon ascen­sions to business ventures, which included managing the Crawford House with his mother, peddling Thurston Mineral Water from five wag­ons which plied the streets of Meadville, and manufacturing balloon sheaths and hydrogen at the family farm. Although he traveled less than had his father, Alic flew endlessly, setting time and distance re­cords. In 1894, he offered bal­loon rides during the Pennsylvania State Fair when it was held at Meadville’s vast fairgrounds. Upon the open­ing in 1898 of Oakwood Park, an amusement park reached by trolley, Alic Thurston’s tethered rides and ascensions were one of the most popular attractions. “Lady parachut­ists,” borne to great heights aboard Thurston’s balloons, jumped to thrill waiting throngs below.

Alic Thurston and the Meadville flew until 1915, just four years after Calbraith Perry Rodgers landed his Vin Fiz in Meadville on the first trans­continental flight. Later he would take his first airplane flight, about which he com­mented: “You feel safer in a balloon somehow.” However, fixed wing flight was the new rage, one which eventually garnered universal attention and, later, acceptance. Air­boats were tested on – and often in – Conneaut Lake. Airports were constructed and airmail delivered. Young Harold Kantner left Meadville to train Pancho Villa’s “air force,” and became the first test pilot for the revolutionary Ford Tri-Motor airplane.

Alic Thurston lived to see contrails hovering in the sky above his farm, but his heart stayed loyal to the balloons. “You have no idea,” he said, “what a beautiful place you live in until you get a mile up in the air – just suspended in space.” That same appreciation still lives today and will fuel the Thurston Classic during its annual run from Friday through Sunday, June 15-17, in Crawford County. More than thirty balloon pilots will pay homage to Samuel and Alic Thurston as they soar toward the heavens, earning points in national standings during this year’s ascension.

To obtain additional infor­mation regarding the annual event, write: The Thurston Classic, Balloon Ascension Committee, 363 Chestnut St., Meadville, PA 16335; or tele­phone (814) 337-0877 or 336-3144.

 

Hex Signs

Each year, thousands of visitors travel Pennsylvania’s “hex highways” looking for the distinctive, almost anach­ronistic, designs that continue to emblazon barns in the Com­monwealth’s southeastern counties.

The designs used in this regional folk decoration were brought to the New World by German-speaking immigrants who were mistakenly called “Pennsylvania Dutch” (for Deutsch, meaning German). In the mid-nineteenth century, the stars, rosettes, swirling swastikas, tulips and other symbols, often used on other forms of Pennsylvania German folk art, such as fraktur and painted furniture, began to adorn the gable ends of barns as well. Although often said to be powerful talismans against evil – “hex” means “witch” in German – the reasons why the designs were used on barns remain a mystery.

A traveling exhibit, “The Pennsylvania German Hex Sign,” a poster panel show mounted by the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, addresses many of the curious myths and beliefs surrounding the Pennsylvania Germans’ uses of the hex signs at their farmsteads. One individual long fascinated by hex signs, journalist and television com­mentator Alistair Cooke, who authored the preface to the exhibit, recalls his first encoun­ter with the unusual signs in 1937. He was a young writer reporting on America for the British press and had under­taken a search for “exotic” people and places. Although Cooke could never substanti­ate the legends that accom­pany the hex signs and witches, his interest in the subject has remained keen.

The mid-nineteenth century Pennsylvania German commu­nity found itself in a crisis precipitated by events in the German Reformed Church, public school laws, a second continental Germanic immi­gration and the accelerating Industrial Revolution in the United States. In collective proclamation of ethnic pride and identity, these ordinary, everyday personal images were magnified as barn signs and quilts to publicly an­nounce a unified message of ethnicity.

“The Pennsylvania German Hex Sign” will be on view at the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts in Pottsville from Monday, April 2 [1990], through Monday, May 14 [1990]. For more information, write: Schuylkill County Council for the Arts, 1440 Mahantongo St., Potts­ville, PA 17901; or telephone (717) 622-2788.

book entitled Hex Signs: Penn­sylvania Dutch Barn Symbols and Their Meaning, published by E.P. Dutton in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, accompanies the exhibit. It was written by guest cura­tors Thomas E. Graves, co­-editor of Keystone Folklore, and Don Yoder, professor of folklife studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Alistair Cooke authored the introduction.

 

Family Portrait

Philadelphia’s venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) recently unveiled a rare colonial period American painting, The Gordon Family, circa 1762, by Henry Benbridge. In private hands for two centuries, the painting was acquired by PAFA in 1987 and, after examination by its conservation department and following fitting in a new period-style frame, The Gordon Family has been publicly dis­played at the Academy for the first time in history.

The Gordon Family is a con­versation piece, a popular type of eighteenth century group portrait, in which figures are posed informally. Conversa­tion pieces of the size and importance of The Gordon Family are relatively rare in early American art. The work is a significant addition to PAFA’s collections. Because the institution was founded in the early nineteenth century, and for the most part began collect­ing works by living American artists, the representation of major eighteenth century works – particularly of the colonial period – is less inclu­sive than the following century.

Philadelphia artist Henry Benbridge probably painted this ambitious oil about 1762, when he was nineteen years old. X-radiographs made dur­ing the analysis of the painting revealed fascinating alterations made to the piece by the artist. Conservators discovered that Benbridge’s composition origi­nally included only five fig­ures: the artist’s mother, Mary Benbridge Gordon; her second husband, Thomas Gordon; Gordon’s daughter by his first marriage, Dolley; and Thomas and Mary’s two young chil­dren. After another child was born to the couple, it appears that the artist was asked to repaint the portrait in order to accommodate the new family member. To accomplish the task, Benbridge was forced to alter the entire composition!

Henry Benbridge was born in Philadelphia in 1743. His father died in 1751, and his mother married Thomas Gor­don, a wealthy merchant who strongly supported his step­son’s artistic career. After re­ceiving his inheritance in 1764, Benbridge traveled to Rome, where he studied with Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni. Five years later he studied in London with Ben­jamin West. He was one of the few American painters of the colonial period wealthy enough to take advantage of such training.

Henry Benbridge returned to Philadelphia as a much traveled, highly recommended painter. He married Letitia Sage, a miniature painter and one-time student of Charles Willson Peale. They lived for brief periods in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Nor­folk, Virginia, where he gave painting lessons to young Thomas Sully. Throughout his career, Benbridge excelled at group portraits which, in addi­tion to The Gordon Family, include Family Group, now in the collections of the Philadel­phia Museum of Art, and The Tannatt Family, owned by the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa. Benbridge died in Philadelphia in 1812.

Founded in 1805, the Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the oldest art institu­tion in the country. Its collec­tion of American art includes works by the prolific Peale family, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Henry O. Tanner, George Luks and Winslow Homer.

For additional information regarding both permanent installations and changing exhibitions, write: Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Sts., Phila­delphia, PA 19102; or tele­phone (215) 972-7600.

 

Franklin’s Bicentennial

Patriot, inventor and states­man Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with not much more than two loaves of bread. During his long and prosper­ous lifetime, his innovative contributions in the fields of publishing, printing, science and technology, diplomacy, politics, communications and the arts have left indelible marks in the fabric of Philadel­phia, Pennsylvania, the nation – and the world. Throughout 1990, Philadelphia institutions and organizations will celebrate one of America’s most beloved, ingenious, outspoken, inventive, contro­versial and influential figures with a year-long extravaganza of exhibitions and events enti­tled “Benjamin Franklin 1990: Celebrating 200 Years of His Genius.” The multi-faceted celebration will offer walking tours of eighteenth century historic sites, exhibitions and related activities.

As part of “Benjamin Frank­lin 1990,” the Rosenbach Mu­seum and Library has mounted an exhibition entitled “The All-Embracing Dr. Frank­lin,” which not only commem­orates the bicentennial of his death, but pays homage to his contributions as statesman, wit, author and scientist. While displaying some of the most famous of Franklin rarities – such as the only surviving copy of the first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanac – the exhibition also embraces the more intimate side of Ben­jamin Franklin. The center­piece of “The All-Embracing Dr. Franklin” is his manuscript of “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress” (“in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones”). His charming letter to Madame Brillon, telling “The Story of a Whistle,” in which he relates how he learned restraint and thrift, celebrates one of his most cherished friendships. Letters of the sisters Christine, Betsey and Marianne Alexander, recount­ing their encounters with Franklin at the noted salon of Madame Helvetius, provide a contemporary view of his popularity with women. “The All-Embracing Dr. Franklin” will be on view through Sun­day, May 27 [1990]. For more infor­mation, write: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2010 DeLancey Pl., Philadelphia, PA 19103; or telephone (215) 732-1600.

Opening Tuesday, April 17 [1990], and continuing through Sun­day, May 27 [1990], at The Franklin Mint is an exhibition offering a representative sampling of two and three dimensional images from its private collection. Aptly entitled “Ben Franklin: Images,” the exhibit also in­cludes other Franklin-related art forms. Additional informa­tion may be obtained by writ­ing: The Franklin Mint, Franklin Center, PA 19091; or by telephoning (215) 459-6000.

A conference entitled “Re­appraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective” will be held at several locations throughout Philadelphia and at the University of Delaware at Newark from Tuesday through Thursday, April 17-19 [1990]. Several institutions, which have also mounted accompa­nying exhibits, will explore the contributions of Franklin to the literature and culture of the eighteenth century, as well as examine his role as thinker, writer, scientist and politician. Symposium speakers include distinguished international scholars and historians. For complete details, write: The Library Company of Philadel­phia, 1314 Locust St., Philadel­phia, PA 19107; or telephone (215) 597-7919 or 546-5588.

During the year, Bartram’s Garden will host many special activities for visitors in con­junction with “Benjamin Franklin 1990.” These events will range from colonial period teas – featuring rhubarb pies, a John Bartram concoction using rhubarb plants that Franklin send him from London – to “electric picnics” and kite­-flying demonstrations. To obtain addition information, write: John Bartram Associa­tion, 54th St. and Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19143; or telephone (215) 729-5281.

On Saturday and Sunday, April 7-8 [1990], the Franklin Institute will host the fourth annual Invention Convention, dedi­cated to the spirit of ingenuity. The event features a number of displays and demonstrations, as well as a theatrical presenta­tion, Inventive Moments, which explores the creativity of Ben­jamin Franklin. Further infor­mation is available by writing: Franklin Institute, 20th and the Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103; or by telephoning (215) 448-1200.

“Benjamin Franklin 1990: Celebrating 200 Years of His Genius” features hundreds of special activities and events sponsored by dozens of insti­tutions and organizations throughout the greater Phila­delphia area. To obtain addi­tional information on all events, write: “Benjamin Franklin 1990,” Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bu­reau, 1515 Market St., Phila­delphia, PA 19102; or telephone (toll free) 1-(800)-321-WKND or (215) 636-3330.

 

Contemporary Artists

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a major exhibition of the work of nearly one hundred and thirty artists from the tri-state area, selected from more than twenty-five hundred appli­cants through a rigorous two-­phase jurying process.

“Contemporary Philadel­phia Artists: A Juried Exhibi­tion” will be on view from Sunday, April 22 [1990], through Sunday, July 8 [1990]. The exhibition is the largest of three regional shows funded by The William Penn Foundation as part of Philadelphia Art Now, a three­-year project designed to en­hance the visibility of area artists. “Contemporary Phila­delphia Artists: A Juried Exhi­bition” will reveal the lively and diverse art scene today through the works of forty­-three painters, twenty-two crafts artists, twenty-one pho­tographers, twenty sculptors, fourteen graphic artists, four installation artists, three who make books, and two video artists.

On Thursday, April 19 [1990], a special evening preview will allow subscribers to meet the artists and be among the first to view and purchase their works.

In an effort to include more regional artists in related events, and to involve galleries and nonprofit spaces which have greatly contributed to the city’s development as a signifi­cant center for contemporary art, weekend gallery walks and tours will be held concurrently with this show. More than fifty galleries will join the celebra­tion by showing the works of area artists during the week­end of May 19-20 [1990].

“Contemporary Philadel­phia Artists: A Juried Exhibi­tion” will be accompanied by a catalogue featuring full-color illustrations of works by each of the artists represented in the show. A brochure listing all galleries participating in the weekend tours will also be available.

For additional information regarding the exhibition and accompanying programs, write: Philadelphia Art Now, Philadelphia Museum of Art, P.O. Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646; or telephone (215) 7876-5442 or 787-5431.

 

Iron

“Iron,” the new major ex­hibit recently opened by The State Museum of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg, provides a com­prehensive view of the Key­stone State’s role in the country’s industrial revolution. On view through Sunday, April 29 [1990], the exhibit offers visitors an in-depth tour of iron – from the natural re­sources needed to produce it, through the era of early blast furnaces, charcoal pits, bloomeries and casting shops and into the heyday of its great production.

“Iron” focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when more than six hundred charcoal blast fur­naces and forges dotted Penn­sylvania’s countryside. For early colonists, Pennsylvania was rich in the natural re­sources needed for the devel­opment of an iron industry. There were seemingly endless forests for fuel, rivers and streams for water power and, of course, vast iron ore and limestone deposits. European settlers brought with them an understanding of iron ore and limestone outcroppings, and supplied the knowledge and labor necessary to exploit this natural resource. As the de­mand for iron grew both here and abroad, bloomeries, fur­naces and forges were erected, new workers welcomed, vil­lages and towns expanded, production increased and transportation improved. Thus began Pennsylvania’s great role in the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.

Wrought iron, the earliest type of iron made in Pennsyl­vania, was easily welded and forged, and could be made into useful products. Wrought iron was made in the bloom­ery, although most was pro­duced at a more sophisticated forge supplied with pig iron by the blast furnace. Pig iron was heated until soft and then beaten, reheated, folded, welded and stretched to form merchant bars for sale to blacksmiths.

Cast iron was made in the blast furnace. Most often, the bulk of cast iron products were made in foundries, where pig iron was reheated, melted and poured into molds that would eventually create tools, toys, lamps and railroad car wheels, as well as the famous Franklin stove and thousands of other objects. Patternmakers, the most respected of craftsmen, played a crucial role in the cast iron process. Their wooden patterns created the intricate forms from which sand molds were made. Molten iron was then ladled into these sand molds. Both rare wooden patterns and sand molds are highlighted in this exhibition.

The complex and compli­cated production of iron required that management and labor live together near the demanding, labor-intensive blast furnace. The distinctive lifestyles of the laborers and the wealthy iron masters is well documented in “Iron” by artifacts from southwestern Pennsylvania’s Cambria Iron Works when John Fritz served as superintendent. Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County is an excellent example of a commercial success in Pennsylvania’s iron industry. Located near rich quarries and timberlands, and supported by an entire village of laborers, the furnace remained in opera­tion until it closed in 1973 – after 232 years of continuous production!

“Iron,” designed to simplify the technology of iron produc­tion, offers visitors a glimpse into the past, demonstrating what life was actually like for those intimately involved in an industry that brought Pennsyl­vania unrivaled prosperity. In three major galleries, video presentations provide the historical background of charcoal-making and blast furnaces. Also included are several hands-on displays, a blacksmith shop, a circa 1800 kitchen showing appropriate iron artifacts, and a section devoted to life in the iron com­munities. Of the five hundred objects featured in “Iron,” many are on loan from historic sites and museums adminis­tered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission, including Cornwall Iron Furnace, Daniel Boone Homestead, Landis Valley Museum and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

The State Museum of Penn­sylvania is located at Third and North streets in center-city Harrisburg. Visiting hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., and Sunday, Noon to 5 P.M. Admission is free. For additional information, write: The State Museum of Pennsylvania, P.O. Box 1026, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026; or telephone (717) 787-4978 or 783-9882.