While many historical sites and museums are currently closed, you can still check out collections and exhibits online. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania currently has three digital exhibits up which you can view through Google Arts and Culture.
The first exhibit titled “Wake Up Black Theater” tells the story of how Black theater artists have used the stage in the struggle for racial justice from the late 1800s through the twentieth century. The exhibit uses images and artifacts from HSP’s collections including nineteenth-century stock advertising pictures, a letter to the general manager of the Works Progress Administration about discrimination against the Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project, and advertisements from the drama club at Howard University. “Wake Up Black Theater” provides an interesting glimpse at the intersection of politics and art and shows how art can fuel activism.
“The Presidency in Times of Turmoil” highlights cartoon depictions of US presidents in the historical society’s archives. American presidential cartoons are as old as the nation itself; the earliest cartoon in the exhibit critiques Thomas Jefferson and the Antifederalist party. Particularly interesting are the cartoons depicting Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860 prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War. In one cartoon, a giant Lincoln contemplates which of his two Democratic party opponents to eat first. Lincoln’s remark that “These fellows have been planted so long in Washington, that they are as fat as butter,” is reminiscent of commentary on political entrenchment today.
The final exhibit illustrates the development of female philanthropic societies in Philadelphia. The number of formal philanthropic societies dramatically increased after the Revolutionary War. These institutions set the ground for the welfare state that would begin to develop in the early twentieth century. Female philanthropic societies provided a realm where women, barred from the formal politic sphere, could engage in their own cultural and educational activities. One such female association highlighted in the exhibit is the the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor. Founded by Quaker women in 1795, this organization was the first female charitable society in the United States. The exhibit shows photographs of nineteenth-century women practicing sewing and weaving skills they learned from the society.
These three exhibits offer a glimpse of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s vast collections. If you are interested in viewing more, HSP’s Digital Library contains digitized materials that span from the colonial era to the twenty-first century. With countless images and documents available online, you may discover a historical treasure in HSP’s archives from your own home.