Inception, Collection, Reception: Reading the Graphic Arts Collection

From soon after the establishment of the Library Company in 1731, the institution acquired graphic art works from Library members and patrons to foster a literate society with books and visual materials. As noted by scholars of reading, before you can learn to read, you need to learn to look. Reading a graphic art work does not only involve looking at its visual content. One must also consider its inception, collection, and reception. When the visual material is historical, the period in which it was created and acquired, and the periods of time of when it was viewed in the past and present, is part of that interpretive process.

Visually literacy is essential to be an engaged citizen. It is a safeguard to understand what we see today and a tool to understand what was seen by those previously. Through a selection of graphic materials received by the Library Company over its first two centuries as a public library, this section invites you to look closely and think about how you see, value, and understand your visual world and how the generations before you saw, valued, and understood it.

Items marked with an asterisk (*) appear only in the online exhibition.

Imperfect History is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Walter J. Miller Trust, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jay Robert Stiefel and Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Empty ornate frame.

Empty frame to represent unlocated 18th-century print of an orrery given by Thomas Penn, 1733.

In 1733, the Library Company made its first record of the receipt of a graphic work. Pennsylvania Proprietor Thomas Penn (1702-1775) gave a print of an orrery that “was fram’d & hung up at our late annual Election of Officers, when the Presenter was frequently named with just Gratitude.” Today, this notable graphic in the Library's history is unlocated. The image of a model of the solar system is just one of a number of benchmark artworks given to the Library before 1850 that no longer appear to be a part of our holdings.


Why is graphic art historically treated as less significant and more dispensable than textual material as a tool for knowledge?

Black man wearing loin cloth stands holding a paper with text and illustration. The man’s skin appears white on parts of his legs, torso and head.

Primrose: The Celebrated Piebald Boy, a Native of the West Indies; Publicly Shewn in London 1789 (London: Printed & Sold at [Wm. Darton & Jos. Harvey?,] No. 55 Graceh. Strt., ca. 1789). Hand-colored engraving. Inscribed: Presented by T. Pole Surgeon, London, to the Library of Philadelphia. Gift of Thomas Pole, 1790.

This hand-colored, full-length portrait engraving depicts John Richardson Primrose Bobey (b. 1774) at age fifteen. The young, enslaved Jamaican man with the pigmentation disorder vitiligo had been exhibited as a specimen of curiosity and science since a small child, including throughout England. By his adulthood, Bobey was a proprietor of a menagerie in London. The donor and the possible artist of this print Dr. Thomas Pole (1753-1829) was an expatriate, Philadelphia-born Quaker physician and administrator of an anatomy museum. Pole objectified Bobey by exhibiting him in his London museum in 1789. About the time of the print and Bobey’s exhibition, Pole published an instructional book with anatomical illustrations after his own hand that was still in use into the early 20th century.


What can we conjecture about the effect of the racial and scientific sociopolitics of the later 18th century on Pole’s motivations to give this print to the Library? Pole also possibly drew this portrait and ostensible advertisement. Why did he choose to depict Bobey unattired as he is and in a tropical setting to promote his exhibition in a European city?

A crowd of men talk and drink, their words appearing in speech bubbles. Most of the men are white, and one man is Black. The devil watches from a corner

A Peep into the Anti-Federal Club (New York, August 16, 1793). Engraving. Inscribed: This Caricature the work of an Artist of our own Country is presented to the Library by the friends of that Institution. Gift, [1793]. Accessioned 1899.

Acquired by the Library Company during the French Revolution, this starkly-designed, yet strikingly composed cartoon is one of the earliest acquired by the institution. The etching satirizes anti-Federalists as "un-American." The voyeuristic view includes depictions of probably Philadelphia astronomer David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) at the telescope, the Devil, and an African American man. Through a montage of verbose caricatures decrying a Federal government, the artist satirizes Democratic-Republicans as atheists, illegitimate citizens, eccentrics, and anarchists. The identities of most of those depicted as reprobate revolutionaries continue to not be definitively known as does the identity of the artist who drew them.


The "Friends of the Institution" that presented this print made sure to note that the artist was of "our own country.” What does this emphasis reflect about the nascent political and cultural identities of the early American nation in the fostering of an American art culture? How does this early caricature of a Black man in a work of popular American art resemble and differ from those seen in other works in other exhibition sections?

A white man on horseback approaches three galloping horses on a hill near a body of water. Handwritten note in lower right corner.

M.E.D. Brown, Wild Horses (Philadelphia: [Childs & Inman], 1832). Hand-colored lithograph. Inscribed: Published for the "Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports" and presented by the editor, Jno. Doughty, 1832. Gift of John Doughty, 1832.

Drawn and printed by one of the first lithographic artists and commercial lithographic firms in Philadelphia and the country, this early specimen of American lithography shows the fluid rendering of the physiques and graceful movements of the equine figures made possible through this flat-surface printing process. The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports, in which it was an illustration, contained the first colored sporting art prints produced in America.


What can be inferred about the role of the Library Company in the antebellum Philadelphia printers’ community that made it important for Doughty, who was not a member, to present a “first of its kind” print to the city’s public library?

Attached four-story buildings with adjacent store fronts with prominent signage. Merchandise is displayed outside and within the windows.

George Lehman, [Taylor & Teese, Saddlers and A. R. Chambers, Currier, 67 & 69 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia] (Philadelphia: Childs & Inman, [1832]). Lithograph. Bequest of Charles A. Poulson, 1866.

This advertisement, a commercial art lithograph, shows the four-story adjacent storefronts for leather dealer Andrew R. Chambers and saddlers Taylor & Teese, neighbors on the 200 block of Chestnut Street between circa 1832 and circa 1837. Given to the Library Company as part of the 1866 bequest of the collection of Charles Augustus Poulson (1789-1866), publisher, Philadelphia antiquarian, and son of Library Company Librarian Zachariah Poulson (1785-1806), the view inscribed by the collector and after the work of artist and early American lithographer George Lehman (d.1870) aesthetically feels like an engaging portrait of an approachable building. The merchandise visible through the open doorway of Chambers’ business invites the viewer and the possible consumer into the store.


How do Poulson's inscriptions affect the perception of the context of the print? What does the 1847 date signify? What other clues/signs in the image are keys to reading when the print was designed and why it was collected?

Right, bust-length, profile portrait of older Rev. White, with long white hair, looking down, and wearing white clerical robe.

Albert Newsam, Rt. Revd. William White, D.D. First President of the Institution for the Deaf & Dumb (Philadelphia: P.S. Duval's Lith., [1844]). Lithograph. McAllister Collection. Gift of John A. McAllister, 1886.

In the Directors’ Minutes dated April 4, 1844, it was noted that a “Portrait of the Rev. Bishop White on stone by Newsam from the Penna. Institution for the Deaf and Dumb” was received. This copy is not the one acquired in 1844, but one given to the Library Company in 1886 by Philadelphia antiquarian John A. McAllister (1822-1896) as part of a large donated collection of graphic, ephemeral, and manuscript material. Our original copy was possibly lost or traded to be replaced by the McAllister copy.


Was the “spectacle” of a disabled artist the motive for the receipt of a copy of the print the year of its production? Does the name of the institution at which Newsam was a pupil during the 1820s influence your reading of the portrait?

Section “As Time Goes By” includes another example of Newsam's work received in the McAllister Collection, as well as a telling means of his work style and process of communicating with his peers.

View through an alley of brick building with a steeple of Carpenters’ Hall. Portions of storefronts are visible.

Frederick De Bourg Richards, Carpenters' Court and Hall (in perspective), Chestnut St. bet. Third & Fourth St. May 1859. Salted paper print. Bequest of Charles Augustus Poulson, 1866.

This cityscape photograph, like the Teese & Taylor lithographic advertisement, was given to the Library Company in 1866 as part of the Charles A. Poulson bequest. Included in one of eleven scrapbooks compiled by the antiquarian, the early paper photograph was commissioned by Poulson as part of a series of 120 cityscape views by Philadelphia painter and photographer Frederick De Bourg Richards (1822-1903) to document the changing architecture of the city. Richards' painter's eye for composition is visible in this perspective view of Carpenters’ Hall, the historical building that housed the Library Company 1773-1790. Richards’ photograph encapsulates the tacit acknowledgement that a city needs to preserve its history but also needs to evolve to remain vital.

Page of 19th-century photograph album with four slots. Page includes full-length portraits of older Black man and young Black woman and bust-length portrait of young Black man. One slot is empty.

Album of Richard DeReef Venning, ca. 1865-ca. 1922. Photograph album. Gift of descendants Cordelia H. Brown, Lillie V. Dickerson, Mary Hinkson Jackson, and Georgine E. Willis in honor of Phil Lapsansky, 2012.

More than 150 years after middle-class, white antiquarian Charles A. Poulson bequeathed his scrapbook of photographs of the changing cityscape of Philadelphia to the Library Company, the descendants of the multiracial Stevens-Cogdell/Sanders-Venning family gave us this photograph album of their ancestor African American government worker Richard DeReef Venning (1846-1929). Descended from Richard W. Cogdell (1787-1866), a white, South Carolinian merchant and Sarah Sanders (1815-1850), an enslaved woman in his household, Venning's family was active in the Philadelphia middle-class African American cultural, political, social, and educational community after their arrival in the city during the decade when Poulson commissioned the photographic views by Frederick De Bourg Richards.

Sitters in clockwise order: Edward W. Venning (1806-1886), father of Richard DeReef Venning; Sarah Venning (1845-1866), sister of Richard DeReef Venning; Richard DeReef Venning (1846-1929)


Included in the album are portraits of family members and acquaintances from and outside of the city, as well as the work of Gallo Cheston (ca. 1846-1882), one of the few identified late 19th-century African American studio portrait photographers in Philadelphia. Until recently, this album held the Graphic Art Department's only examples of Cheston’s work.

Considering the provenance and content of these albums received a century apart, how had the scope of the Library Company's graphic arts holdings evolved or not between the 19th and 21st centuries?

Three early 19th-century cut-out profile silhouettes of two men and one women on blue paper.

Moses Williams?, Silhouettes, ca. 1803-ca. 1810. Bequest of James Rush,1869. Accessioned 1991.

In 1869, Library Company patron Dr. James Rush (1786-1869), bequeathed to the Library his and his father Dr. Benjamin Rush's (1746-1813) collection of “ephemeral publications, play bills, broadsides, posters, circulars cards, carriers addresses, [and] advertisements …” The gift included hundreds of early 19th-century silhouettes created at the Peale Museum, the majority probably cut by Black silhouettist Moses Williams (1777-ca. 1825). The younger Rush presumably acquired the mostly unidentified portraits of mainly white sitters when auctioned by the Peale family in 1849. Unlike most of the Rush ephemera, which was arranged over a decade after the bequest, the silhouettes were not accessioned and arranged until 1991.


A silhouette of Williams, probably by his own hand, is on display in Section “As Time Goes By” of the exhibition.

Why did the silhouettes remain “hidden” in the Library’s collections for over 100 years? Is Williams’ composition of his self-portrait and those of his sitters the same or different?

Line of hand-written text accompanies sketch of figures at fort in upper left corner. Another more detailed drawing depicts seated figures near a body of water.

Peter Moran, Sketchbook During New England Summer Excursion, July-August 1882. Pencil sketch. Found in Collection. Accessioned 2011.

These pencil sketches by Philadelphia artist Peter Moran (1841-1914) are in a sketchbook of life studies and landscape views that was found in the collections in the 20th century. In this sketch, Moran annotated his work with the historical reference "Destruction of Schenectady by French & Indians. Attack at night. Cold and snow on the ground" to refer to the 1690 violent action that was similarly illustrated in an 1850 John and Elizabeth Barber history text. When this sketch was drawn, white men creators like Moran, and his artist brothers Edward (1829-1901), John (1831-1902), and Thomas (1837-1926), dominated the art profession, same as in prior and forthcoming decades. The material shown in this section was mainly created by white men.


By not knowing when and how the Library Company acquired this sketchbook, what does the content itself tell us about the cultural influences on the art practices of Peter Moran? What can be read about the "who, what, and why" that is seen and not seen within and past the margins of his work and the work of the other white men on display?

Four color printed cards. First shows flowers and a card. Second shows humanized cat. Third shows a carnival. Fourth shows 19th-century family on beach.

Selections from Emily Phillips Advertising Card Collection, ca. 1879-ca. 1882. Chromolithographs. Gift of Emily Phillips, 1883.

In 1883, Jewish philanthropist gentlewoman Emily Phillips (1822-1901) gave a scrapbook of trade cards to the Library Company, the first recorded gift of graphic artworks from a woman. Collected by a wealthy woman, these promotions on display are roughly arranged as they were in her scrapbook before it was disassembled by curatorial staff in the later 20th century. The assemblage provides a glimpse of an average week in her life as a consumer of means.


The Library Company’s archival records reveal that it employed two women on a weekly basis about the time of Phillips's gift. Elizabeth McClellan (1851-1920), the first woman library assistant hired in 1880, earned $40 a month. She was white, from a prominent family, and the niece of Civil War Major General George McClellan (1826-1885). Margaret Gibbs, a "scrubber" on staff for almost thirty years, earned $16 a month. She was Black, from the working class, and earned $1.50 more a month than Joseph Collins (b. 1864), the lowest paid man on staff, a white library assistant under the age of twenty.

What aspects of their lives did these women and man see in these commercial works of art that were encountered daily in the later 19th century and that depicted fantastical, hyperbolized, and sentimentalized scenes of everyday life to promote consumption of goods and services?

Watercolor depicting two-story building with restaurant advertising ale. Two figures carry wooden barrels while others walk by.

John Mackie Falconer, [Fulton House, No. 121 South Second Street, Philadelphia], 1861. Watercolor.

Like many of the Library Company’s visually appealing graphics acquired before the mid-20th century, this watercolor, created by John Mackie Falconer (1820-1903), was framed and hung on the wall, serving more as a decoration than as a research item. From a note on the back of the watercolor we know that it was once in the collection of Philadelphia antiquarian Samuel Castner, Jr. (1843-1929), but institutional records do not indicate when it came to the Library. Stolen off the wall of the Juniper Street building’s reading room along with other framed items in the 1930s, this view of the building where inventor and engineer Robert Fulton (1765-1815) served an apprenticeship as a young man, was returned to the Library by a local bookseller in 1970.


How does a library balance protecting and conserving its collection while also making it accessible to the public?

Poster with stylized text and image of smiling, injured WWI soldier wearing torn uniform and carrying three helmets and a rifle.

Vic Forsythe, And They Thought We Couldn't Fight. Victory Liberty Loan ([Washington, D.C.]: [United States Department of the Treasury], [ca. 1919]). Color lithograph. Found in Collection. Accessioned 1980.

From a note on the back of this World War One poster, we learn that Mrs. Freeman of the South Philadelphia Women’s Auxiliary Liberty Loan Committee brought it and other posters to the Library Company’s Juniper Street building to encourage the public to support the war effort. It was not until 1980, however, that the Library’s more than 300 World War One posters were formally added into the collection. Sometime before 1980 almost all of the posters were backed with linen in an attempt to strengthen their thin and easily torn paper.


What other information may have been lost in this ill-guided preservation effort?

Detail of back of print with text reading Phila Library cor. Locust Juniper Sts. From Mrs. Freeman. South Phila. Woman's Liberty Loan Com.

Reproduction of note on back of And They Thought We Couldn't Fight. Victory Liberty Loan.

Print depicts a brick twin house. In the yard, one figure rests a hand on a fence as another carries lumber. Hanging laundry sways in the wind.

*Frank H. Taylor, Franklin's First Home in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Frank Taylor, 1915). Photogravure. Acquired ca. 1916.

In the first few decades of the 20th century the Library Company acquired few graphic items (or at least did not keep good records of such acquisitions). Ever-Changing Philadelphia: Twenty-Four Drawings, with Descriptive Text (1915) by Frank Taylor (1846-1927) was one. In this photomechanical print, Taylor depicts Benjamin Franklin’s 18th-century residence as it appeared in the early 20th century. The accompanying text details the then possible plan to relocate the building to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, a move that never took place. By acquiring Taylor’s portfolio, one of only fifty issued, the Library revealed an interest in collecting the work of a contemporary artist, presumably because the subject matter was historical.