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.

Posted by: ccooper2014 | October 8, 2014

1983: The Society Acquires the Thomas Garrett Tray

A real treasure, a goose-bumps object, came to the Delaware Historical Society this year: the silver tray that Wilmington’s African Americans presented to Thomas Garrett in 1866 at the celebration of the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, held at Ezion ME Church (now Ezion-Mount Carmel United Methodist Church).

Thomas Garrett is well known as Delaware’s leading conductor on the Underground Railroad.   He worked untiringly and took great risks to help many enslaved people claim their freedom.  It’s difficult to express thanks and appreciation for such a great gift—no words, no physical object can measure up to what is meant by freedom, even the second-class freedom that blacks had to accept.  That was the quandary that faced Wilmington’s black citizens late in 1865, with the Civil War over and slavery ended in the United States: how do we honor the man who did so much for us?

This is what they did: they raised money from the community and had a silver tray engraved with this inscription: “To Thomas Garrett through evil report and good report, the faithful friend and wise councilor, The fearless champion and generous benefactor of the wronged and the oppressed.  From the colored people of Wilmington. January 1866.”  Simple and dignified words that said exactly what needed to be said.

The tray remained in the Garrett family until descendant Laura Patrick generously donated it, along with a family tea service, to the Delaware Historical Society in 1983.

Tray presented to Thomas Garrett by African Americans

Tray presented to Thomas Garrett by African Americans

In 1982, Cynthia K. Hoagland (1924-2001) became the Delaware Historical Society’s first female board president.  She came by her interest in the Society through her family—her grandfather was Christopher Ward, historian, civic leader, and Society president in the 1940s. During her four-year tenure, the Society began the renovations that joined two of the houses in Willingtown Square to the Research Library building, completed the restoration of the Read House in New Castle, and substantially increased its membership.

Cynthia Hoagland shared her grandfather’s commitment to civic involvement and history.  In addition to serving the Society for many years, she was also on the boards of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and Gunston Hall in Virginia.  She also served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Delaware, was president of Delaware Curative Workshop, and was chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission, among other civic commitments.

Cynthia K. Hoagland, 1982

Cynthia K. Hoagland, 1982

Posted by: ccooper2014 | October 3, 2014

1981: Read Family Cookbooks

In 1980 and 1981, Margaret Janvier Holcomb, a Read family descendant, gave the Society a collection of documents and other materials that included three Read family manuscript recipe books, two of which are of special interest.  Both help us understand a bit more about life in the Read House.

One, small and fragile, was given to Mrs. G. Read in 1813—it says so right on the cover.  But that really isn’t much help, since both Mary Thompson Read, wife of George Read II, and Louisa Dorsey Read, wife of George Read III, were alive in 1813.  Our best guess is that the book was given to Louisa Read, since she had married just a few years earlier and was still in the early stages of  her housekeeping career.  We also don’t know who gave her the book, or the source of the recipes.  The book contains recipes for a variety of foods, including an early tomato recipe.

The other recipe book is even more interesting.  It was found tucked into a 19th century Read family recipe book—and upon examination of the handwriting, it was determined that George Read (1765-1836) had compiled it.  Now that’s a rare find!  Nineteenth-century men just didn’t compile recipe books.  But for some reason George Read did.  Internal dates show that he did it the in 1830s, towards the end of his life.  He clearly liked carbs and sweets—all of the recipes are for baked goods and desserts.  We have tried some of his recipes—some taste good to us today, others not so much.  This blogger has looked at many published cookbooks of the era to try to figure out where he got his recipes, but with very little luck.  So why George Read did this, and where he got his recipes, remains a mystery.

First page of recipe book written by George Read, 1830s

First page of recipe book written by George Read, 1830s

Posted by: ccooper2014 | October 1, 2014

1980: The Old Custom House

In 1980 the Delaware Historical Society considered purchasing the Old Custom House at Sixth and King streets in Wilmington.  Although the Society decided not to buy the building because it didn’t have the resources, this decision provides an opportunity to remember this now-neglected architectural treasure.

Completed in 1855, the Wilmington Custom House and federal building was designed by Ammi B. Young in an Italianate style.  The building is extremely sturdy and secure: its walls are three feet thick and its supporting structural features are all of iron.  The building is important for its role in the development of fireproof construction and cast and wrought iron technology.  The customs offices and Wilmington post office were on the first floor and federal courts met upstairs until 1897, when a new federal building was erected.  Wilmington’s Water Department was there in the 1890s and the WPA used the building in the late 1930s.

As King Street became the focus of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, the fate of the Custom House became uncertain.  One Wilmington mayor thought the building was an impediment to future development and wanted to demolish it, but his successor saw its value. In 1966 it was envisioned as the centerpiece of a historic enclave (see blog for 1976), but this did not come to pass.  From 1981 to 2004 Wilmington University used the building for classes, but today the Old Custom House is vacant, awaiting its next life.

Custom House, 1890s

Custom House, 1890s

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