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Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds American treasures

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), long considered Philadelphia’s Library of American History, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Since the society’s founding in 1824, it has collected and preserved an astonishing array of documents, including more than 21 million manuscripts, books and graphic images spanning the 16th through the 21st centuries.

The archives hold priceless pieces, including William Still’s Journal C documenting Harriett Tubman’s arrival in Philadelphia, the first two drafts of the United States Constitution and an original printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence.

In conjunction with the anniversary, the society published “Two Hundred Years: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1824-2024,” which features 100 essays highlighting carefully preserved artifacts, spanning the 17th to late 20th century. Drawing on everything from letters, maps, paintings, photographs, family Bibles and musical scores, the book reflects on the early days of the nation; the relationships colonists had with indigenous peoples; the rapid development of Philadelphia; and the evolution of banking, engineering and medicine, among other industries and sectors.

One of the most treasured artifacts in the HSP’s collection is one of 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, printed in Philadelphia, signed by Abraham Lincoln and sold at a fair in 1864 for $10 to support relief for soldiers, widows and orphans.

Randall M. Miller, 78, professor emeritus of history at Saint Joseph’s University who served on the editorial committee that organized the book and wrote articles for it, said, “The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American History. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it fundamentally altered the character and direction of the Civil War, and it fundamentally altered the trajectory of the United States because it was a promise to end slavery.”

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued under the constitutional authority of President Lincoln as commander in chief, and it shifted the war aim from not only saving the Union but also to giving new birth to freedom and in effect to remake the Union.

“It was a promise. It had no legal standing after the war because it was a war measure, which is why Lincoln pressed immediately to have a 13th amendment to constitutionalize the end of slavery,” Miller said. “This is one of those critical moments in history where you can say there really is a major shift going on here that is going to have implications not just for that generation but for every generation after, even to our own day.”

Fellow editorial committee member Alice L. George, an independent historian and author, wrote about an advertisement for Wanamaker’s department store in a 1905 catalogue from the society’s John Wanamaker Collection, among her contributions to the book. Department stores, she wrote, were “merchants of dreams.”

George said prior to the appearance of department stores in the 19th century, shoppers would have to go to a little shop for goods. Now, one store had “a huge array of products, some of which they had never seen before and many of which they loved seeing but they didn’t have the money to buy. But it was just as much fun to go to a department store and walk through because it did create dreams for people of what their life could be like.”

People would make a day of going to Wanamaker’s. They would have lunch and talk to the salespeople. “It was exciting and fun and inspirational,” said George, 71, who lives in Center City.

A woman might see a dress at the store that was “far too expensive for her to buy.” But she could make one like it for herself. “Even people who didn’t have the money could see these grand things and think of ways that they might be able to achieve a different lifestyle,” George said.

Visitors can step into the past and explore the countless artifacts, showcased in curated exhibits, among the Historic Society of Pennsylvania’s collection, located at 1300 Locust St. in Philadelphia. For more information, call 215-732-6200 or go to

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

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