Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 31, 2014

1993: Thelma Young and Helen Thomas collections come to HSD

In 1993, the Society acquired two significant collections related to women’s history in Delaware. The first details the work of Thelma Young, an educator and advocate in the African American community from the 1930s through the 1960s. The second collection belonged to Helen Thomas, a leader in the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Thelma Young, a native of Arkansas, came to Wilmington in the early 1930s after graduating from Columbia University. She taught cooking at Howard High School and later worked at H. Fletcher Brown Technical High School in the practical nursing program. Her dedication to young people extended beyond the classroom as seen through her involvement in the Walnut YWCA and the Girl Reserve program.

Thelma Young (seated) with students at H. Fletcher Brown Technical High School

Thelma Young (seated) with students at H. Fletcher Brown Technical High School

Helen Thomas’s collection of documents, photographs, and tapes details her years of leadership in the women’s movement in Delaware. She became involved in the movement in August 1970 when she and two other women set up a table in Rodney Square to recruit members for a Delaware Chapter of the National Organization for Women. She later served on the Governor’s Council for Women and the Delaware Commission on the Status of Women.

Helen Thomas, leader in women's movement in Delaware

Helen Thomas, leader in women’s movement in Delaware

The actions of each of these women significantly improved the quality of life in Delaware and their papers enrich the collections of our Society. Today, these two collections form the foundation for collecting the diverse stories of Delaware women.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 29, 2014

1992: HSD acquires Woolworth’s building

In January 1992, the Historical Society of Delaware expanded its physical size with the purchase of the old Woolworth’s building at 504 Market Street. The F.W. Woolworth Company originally erected the 48,000 square-foot-building in 1940. At the time, it was the third largest Woolworth dime store in America. The building now joined the Research Library, Old Town Hall, and the Willingtown Square houses to form the historical society’s Wilmington campus.

Woolworth's building at 504 Market Street, ca. 1940

Woolworth’s building at 504 Market Street, ca. 1940

The Woolworth property more than doubled the current exhibit, program, and storage space, a much-needed relief for the growing organization. In 1991, the Society reported that it served more than 100,000, 30,000 of whom visited the Wilmington campus. For the following year, the organization planned to sponsor more than ninety-five programs for adults, ranging from a sneak peak of a PBS film shot on location in Delaware to a series of preservation workshops offered throughout the state. The Society found that the open interiors of the Woolworth building were well-adapted to these needs. Plans for the new space involved permanent and rotating exhibits on the first floor, programming and classroom space on the second floor, and collections space on the third floor and basement.

Rendering for new facade of Delaware History Center, 1992

Rendering for new facade of Delaware History Center, 1992

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 27, 2014

1991: The Read House hosts Great Gatsby party

On June 1, 1991, the Society held a Great Gatsby party at the Read House. Attendees arrived in costume and were greeted by footmen in tails who escorted them from their cars. At the front door, guests shook hands with Philip and Lydia Laird and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, portrayed by Mr. and Mrs. Walter J. Laird, Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. Philip Flynn, respectively.

From 1926 to 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, their five-year-old daughter Scottie, and Scottie’s governess resided in Wilmington. As he began writing his third novel, Tender is the Night, Scott reached out to his college roommate, John Biggs, for help in finding a quiet space. Biggs, a lawyer in Wilmington, arranged for the Fitzgeralds to rent Ellerslie Farm in Edge Moor, Delaware. However, rather than serve as a tranquil place, Ellerslie was home to many social events hosted by the couple. By 1929, the Fitzgeralds were ready for a change and they moved to Paris.

The Society’s summer newsletter lightheartedly joked, “It does not appear the two couples [The Lairds and the Fitzgeralds] met socially…until this gala evening corrected a glaring oversight in Delaware’s history.” The party was rounded out with a tour of the Read House including a viewing of a painting by Zelda Fitzgerald never before exhibited, dancing, and refreshments in the garden. The event was well attended.

Guests arrive at the Read House for Gatsby-inspired party

Guests arrive at the Read House for Gatsby-inspired party

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 24, 2014

1990: Ken Burns lectures at the Society

After his acclaimed series “The Civil War” aired on PBS in September 1990, Ken Burns became a hot ticket in the lecture circuit. So where did the one-time resident of Newark, Delaware decide to make his first public appearance after “The Civil War” premiered? The Historical Society of Delaware, of course!

Burns spoke at in front of a standing-room-only audience of 1,000, the largest in the Society’s history. He discussed the history of the Civil War and the process of making the series. One audience member said, “I felt tonight as though I was a witness to history in the making.” Following his presentation, Burns autographed copies of his book, The Civil War. The presentation also included a screening of one of the episodes, “Into the Valley of Death.” His appearance was part of a three-part series held at the Wilmington Friends School which also included an Abraham Lincoln lecture and a talk by James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning specialist on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Over 1,800 people attended the lecture series.


Ken Burns autographs copies of his book, The Civil War

Ken Burns autographs copies of his book, The Civil War

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 22, 2014

1989: Opening the Door to Freedom

Twenty five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Historical Society of Delaware mounted an exhibit to commemorate this significant event in our history. “Opening the Door to Freedom” opened on November 19, 1989 on the first floor of the Old Town Hall Museum. The exhibition represented a collaborative effort between the historical society, the City of Wilmington, and the Wilmington Civil Rights Commemorative Commission. It was the first major exhibit to discuss the history of the black experience in Delaware.

“Opening the Door to Freedom” focused on the struggle for equality in Delaware beginning with the arrival of the first slave in 1638 and covering slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the period of Jim Crow, through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Items featured in the exhibit came from the collections of the Historical Society of Delaware, the Delaware State Archives, as well as the personal collections of James Baker, Littleton Mitchell, and Pauline Young. Additionally, the Society offered educational packets for classroom exploration, a lecture series, and special programs for adults and children.

The exhibit also provided an opportunity for the Society to uncover new insights hidden within existing collections. The Society’s spring 1990 newsletter reported that, upon closer examination of cards from a Civil War draft in Sussex County, that both slaves and free blacks in Delaware were eligible for army service. Likewise, the William Furrough Collection shed light on the experience of African Americans in World War I through photographs, papers, and other memorabilia.

Part of the "Opening the Doors to Freedom" exhibit

Part of the “Opening the Doors to Freedom” exhibit

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 20, 2014

1988: A royal visit to Old Town Hall

1988 marked the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden. As part of the celebratory events, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden visited Wilmington. On April 13, the royal couple was in attendance to officially open the Historical Society of Delaware’s exhibit, “Treasures of the Kronan” at Old Town Hall. King Carl addressed the crowd speaking of his personal interest in the Kronan recovery project and Queen Silvia cut the ribbons spanning the museum doors. Afterwards, curators took the king and queen on a private tour of the exhibit. King Carl and Queen Silvia then briefly stopped in at the library before heading to their next stop in Philadelphia.

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden officially opens the Kronan exhibit, as Queen Silvia, Governor Castle, and Mayor Frawley look on.

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden officially opens the Kronan exhibit, as Queen Silvia, Governor Castle, and Mayor Frawley look on.

The exhibit featured objects rescued from the Kronan, the flagship of the Swedish Admiral Lorentz Cruetz. In 1676, the ship went down in battle against Denmark off the coast of Oland, near Kalmar. Fully armed and carrying a crew of 842, the Kronan keeled over, blew up, and quickly sank. Only forty members of the crew escaped the explosion. For 300 years, the remains of the ship and all of its historical treasure remained at the bottom of the Baltic. In 1980, Swedish naval historian Anders Franzen discovered the wreck after more than thirty years of research. The following summer, marine archaeologists began to bring to the surface remarkable treasures from the Kronan.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 17, 2014

1987: Society celebrates completion of infill addition and bicentennial of Constitution

The Society’s renovation projects of the 1980s continued with the construction of an infill addition between the research library and the Dingee and Ferris houses. This project, which was completed in the spring of 1987, created modern restrooms with handicapped access, a new kitchen for special events, and a lobby for receptions and small exhibits in built-in wall cases. A reception to celebrate the opening of the addition was held on April 8 after the Society’s annual meeting. Attendees of the event also got a tour of the newly completed, climate-controlled, collections storage in the basement of the research library located under Willingtown Square.

Completed infill addition

Completed infill addition

1987 also marked the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. To mark the occasion, the Society launched an exhibit in Old Town Hall titled, “Life in Delaware in the 1780s.” The exhibit told the story of daily life for eighteenth-century Delawareans by featuring three “typical” citizens—a poor farmer, a middle-class miller, and a wealthy landowner. The exhibit also highlighted the state’s political contributions to the Constitution from its participation in the convention in Philadelphia to its role as the first state to ratify the new document of government.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 15, 2014

1986: IMS grant supports library cataloging project

In 1985, the Society received a grant from the Institute of Museum Services (IMS) to catalog unprocessed collections and improve collections management procedures. The project picked up in 1986 as registrar Thomas Beckman and assistants Pamela Nelson, Frances Allmond, and Lisa Nicols worked to bring the museum cataloging and filing up to date and to finish accession records for new major acquisitions. A second part of the project involved creating a detailed inventory of all the contents of the Read House.

At the end of 1986, new museum storage space became available in the basement of the recently renovated Research Library. Collections that had previously been stored in the less-than-ideal spaces in Old Town Hall were then moved over to climate-controlled storage across Market Street. In the 1986 Spring-Summer newsletter, the Society projected that, “By the end of 1987, we anticipate all of our museum records—from when the first object was received by the museum in 1964 to the present—will be in a consistent format that meets with the standards of the museum profession.”

In 2010, the Society received another large grant from the IMLS to catalog our library collections. The project, which wrapped in 2012, successfully cataloged 65% of the Research Library’s holdings. Only this time records were created on AskCaesar, our online public access catalog, not file cards. So while technology may change, the Society’s commitment to preserving and making accessible our state’s history remains the same. Makes you wonder what a cataloging project in 2040 will look like!


Registrar and assistants at work cataloging collections

Registrar and assistants at work cataloging collections

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 13, 2014

1985: The Read House reopens

Three years after Lydia Laird bequeathed the Read House and Gardens to the Historical Society of Delaware, the Society undertook major architectural renovations to restore the house to its original 1801 appearance. In 1985, those projects came to an end and the house was reopened to the public.

Furnishing the interior of the house was the last step in this long process. However, unlike other house museums, the interpretation of the Read House needed to represent two distinct time periods and owners. The dining room, master bedroom, and basement taproom were furnished to show the lifestyle of the last owners, Philip and Lydia Laird. These rooms were furnished with original objects from the 1930s almost exactly the way they appeared in photographs of the period. First floor spaces including the parlor were furnished to reflect how the house appeared a century earlier, during the life of George Read II. The Society’s curators used Read’s 1836 estate inventory to find and purchase items that resemble what he would have had in his home during the early 19th century.

After its reopening, the Read House attracted large numbers of tourists. The Society reported that between March 1 and August 15, 1986, nearly 8,500 people visited the historic site, including over 4,500 school children. The house was also used for special events and receptions for the Friends of Viellies Maisons Francaises, the Delaware Valley chapters of the Association for Preservation Technology, and the Museums Council of Greater Philadelphia. Today, the house and gardens continues to serve as a popular tourist attraction.


Curators hang a mirror in the newly renovated Read House.

Curators hang a mirror in the newly renovated Read House.

Posted by: Delaware Historical Society | October 10, 2014

1984: Thomas Companius Holm’s book acquired

In 1984, Charles Dorman donated many rare and unique items of Delawareana to the collections of the Historical Society of Delaware. Included in that gift was a notebook used by Thomas Rodney from 1784 to 1795 to record his thoughts on politics, religion, and science as well as The Renowned History of Little Good Two-Shoes, a collection of moral tales for children published in Wilmington in 1793.

But perhaps the most noteworthy item in this gift was Thomas Companius Holm’s Kort Bescrifning om Provincien Nya Swerige uti America (A Brief History of the Province of New Sweden in America). The book was published in Sweden in 1702 and is based on notes and diaries kept by Johan Companius Holm, the Lutheran minister who served in the Delaware colony between 1643 and 1648. The book includes some beautiful and unique renderings of the Delaware Indians and life in New Sweden.

Although the book was published after the fall of the Swedish colony, it is one of the few items in our collection that dates to that period in our history. Also in our library collections from that time is a medical book that belonged to Tymen Stidham, the first doctor-barber in New Sweden. Together, these items provide a rare glimpse into life in New Sweden.


Peter Lindstrom's late 17th century rendering of Delaware Indians which appeared in Holm's book.

Peter Lindstrom’s late 17th century rendering of Delaware Indians which appeared in Holm’s book.

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