Curatorial Space and Place

A group of newly-arrived enslaved Africans stand on an auction block on a city street, awaiting their fate. An incarcerated white man imagines an enslaved family trekking toward their freedom in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation while reckoning with his own captivity. An African American woman calls out to a white photographer taking images of her home, resisting what she sees as an unwelcome encroachment into her daily life.

The scenes that the graphic materials in this section depict and the interpretations that they evoke are varied. When looking at them, we are prompted to consider the social conditions that structured Philadelphians’ everyday experiences of urban space. These images also reflect the perspectives of the people who made and collected them. The way that we describe and memorialize these spaces is also a fundamental piece of the historical paradigm.

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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Double-sided photograph of exterior view of the stone Chew Mansion house with a Black man standing next to a tree in front of it.

John Moran, Chew House, Germantown (Philadelphia, ca. 1867). Albumen on stereograph mount. McAllister Collection. Gift of John A. McAllister, 1886.

[Chew Mansion, Germantown, Philadelphia] (Red Bank, N.J: New Jersey Stereoscopic View Co., ca. 1875). Albumen on stereograph mount. Found in collection, 1981.

The Chew House, also known as Cliveden, belonged to Benjamin Chew (1722-1820), the patriarch of an influential Quaker family. He was one of Pennsylvania’s largest enslavers. Partly because of its historical significance as the Revolutionary War site of the Battle of Germantown, the Library Company holds a number of graphic materials that depict the estate. Recent scholarship, however, has uncovered the Chew family’s involvement in the slave trade and has affected contemporary interpretations of the site. The stereograph that includes Black groundskeeper James Smith on the property disrupts past narrative omissions of this history. Although Smith was not enslaved, his physical presence makes visible histories that are often hidden within visual materials and their descriptions.

Exterior scene of enslaved persons on display on a platform on barrels in front of the three and half story London Coffee House corner building. A Black woman walks nearby.

William L. Breton, London Coffee House (Philadelphia: Kennedy & Lucas, 1830). Lithograph. Gift of James Rush, 19th century.

During the 18th century, London Coffee House, at Front and Market Streets, was frequented by merchants and businessmen. This lithograph is a reimagining of the site, with a scene of an auction of recently-arrived enslaved Africans. The illustration was part of the 1830 edition of Annals of Philadelphia, which was a volume by antiquarian John Fanning Watson (1779-1860) that traced the cultural history of Philadelphia. Despite being billed as a comprehensive narrative, Watson did not note the auction that Breton illustrated. In the hundreds of years since the publication of Annals, a historical marker has been placed where the building stood to acknowledge the site’s connection to the slave trade that was previously omitted in the historical record. This evolution in how the site is remembered and commemorated exemplifies the need to recognize the malleable and ever-evolving nature of historical interpretation, which is also deeply informed by the eras in which we live.

Scene showing a Black family of ten men, women, and children traveling by horse back and on foot past a building in the distance.

Alexander Kitzmiller, [Migrating African Americans Emancipated from Enslavement], ca. 1863. Watercolor. Purchase 1997.

This watercolor by Alexander Kitzmiller (b. ca. 1839) is a caricatured adaptation of an illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Kitzmiller was incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary when he made this work and gave it to Samuel G. Woodhouse (1821-1904), the prison’s resident physician. The Annual Report of the Library Company for 1997 situates the watercolor within a broader history of minstrelsy in the 19th century, which is described as both disparaging and with admiration of African Americans. Nearly twenty-five years later, a different interpretation of the image, which departs from the original and much more sympathetic print in Frank Leslie’s can be offered. The racism of the depictions of the figures is more palpable. Additionally, our understanding of the nature of the conditions at Eastern State has evolved. The artist possibly understood his innate freedom in direct contrast to that which the formerly enslaved African Americans were beginning to experience, and he likely imbued that sentiment in his work.

View of Black woman standing next to a two and a half story brick residence with outside door to a basement cellar.

George Mark Wilson, "What do you all want to do wif dat pixture tak’en contraption," ca. 1923. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Mrs. Margaret Odewalt Sweeney, 1979.

This photograph by amateur Philadelphia photographer George Mark Wilson (1879-1925) shows an African American woman standing beside a row home situated a few blocks east of the current Library Company building. Primarily interested in documenting Philadelphia’s architecture, Wilson remarked in notes on the back of the image that the residence was, “a good example of a mechanics home.” He also noted that the depicted woman was vocally resistant to her photograph, but then did eventually oblige him. A document of 19th-century architecture, it is also an encapsulation of the voyeuristic and racist dynamics that could undergird the practice of photography in Philadelphia’s urban spaces.

Three-quarter length portrait of Black woman, attired in a dark velvet shirtwaist and printed, straight skirt, standing next to and resting her hands on a studio prop resembling a pedestal.

Snyder & Walton, [Unidentified Young African American Woman], ca. 1893. Albumen on cabinet card mount. Purchase 2000.

[Unidentified African American Man], ca. 1875. Albumen mounted on cardboard. Accessioned 1982.

Although the identity of these sitters is unknown, much can be inferred about these individuals and their circumstances through visual clues. The nicely painted background and tree trunk prop in the Snyder & Walton photograph suggest that the studio served an upper-middle class clientele. The woman’s immaculate clothing provides further proof of this. The portrait of the man, however, is a collage of the sitter's image and an ornate background. This presentation suggests that the man could not afford to sit for a portrait at a more well-resourced studio. The details of these different studio settings showcase the divergent socioeconomic statuses and experiences that African Americans had in the aftermath of slavery. The portraits also show that the desire to signal a refined appearance to counter racial stereotypes was one that crossed class boundaries.

Eighteenth century portrait painting of white woman, looking slightly left, her long hair pulled back at the sides, and attired in a gown with a plunging neckline.

Marriott Canby Morris, Wife of Robert Elliston and Robert Elliston. Original Paintings on Wood in Possession of Mrs. Quill, Smiths’ Parish, Bermuda, ca. 1890. Reproductions of glass transparencies. Purchase 2001.

Amateur photographer Marriott Canby Morris (1863-1948) was a descendant of the prominent Philadelphia families, the Perots and Morrises. These images taken during Morris family visits to Bermuda show portraits of Perot family relatives New York Comptroller of Customs Robert Elliston (1681-1756) and his wife Mary that hung in a family friend’s home, Smiths’ Parish. Morris’s ancestors, who were Caribbean merchants, benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade. Most likely intended as views to show his family, friends, and fellow photographers at social gatherings, the lantern slide images are also historical markers of the Morris family ancestry that facilitated their upper-class status. This standing, which was achieved through the labor of enslaved Africans nearly 700 miles away, is also reflected in these photographs.

Nineteenth-century three-quarter length portrait photograph of Black woman holding a white baby in her lap while a white boy stands by her side.

Frederick Gutekunst, [Copy Photograph of African American Woman Caregiver with Two White Children], copied ca. 1880. Albumen on card mount. Purchase 2015.

Frederick Gutekunst, Woodrow Wilson, ca. 1900. Albumen on cabinet card mount. Gift of Dr. Milton & Joan Wohl, 1991.

In 1856, Frederick Gutekunst (1831-1917), a prominent Philadelphia portrait photographer, opened a studio at 712 Arch Street. Gutekunst photographed prominent figures, including future president Woodrow Wilson, as well as middle-class Philadelphians. The African American caregiver was possibly among his daily clientele during the 1860s, or her copied image was originally taken by a different photographer. Viewing these portraits together, we can begin to question dominant narratives of U.S. visual culture that have long relegated Black working-class women to the margins of the country’s socioeconomic history. Until recently, the historical record has primarily focused on figures like Wilson, despite the fact that Black women have always been present in the spaces wherein history was written, and in this case, photographed.

Racist card advertisement with caricature of older, balding Black man, in a red shirt and standing at and holding a newspaper out a window.

S.H. Zahm Goldman & Co., Dealers in New and Second-Hand Books, Stationery, and Blank Books, Nos. 18 & 20 South Queen Street, Lancaster, PA (United States, ca. 1880). Chromolithograph. Gift of David Doret and Linda G. Mitchell, 2017.

This trade card advertises the Lancaster, Pennsylvania bookselling business of S.H. Zahm (b. ca. 1839). Whereas many of the era's trade cards used racist caricatures to promote products and industries that were typically associated with Black labor, such as housework and agriculture, this card appears as an anomaly. A direct connection between bookselling and racial stereotyping is, at first, difficult to perceive. This dissonance demonstrates the ubiquity of visual stereotypes in the realm of commerce and the social acceptance of this harmful imagery as a marketing tool. The trade card also symbolizes the ways that the physical labor and bodies of African American people were integral to the workings of capitalism in the United States.