Written by Elizabath Mosimann
The Library is the heart and soul of the Society. Long after you and I are gone from this earth, the Library will remain as a perennial narrative, telling the story of the Society over and over again.” Those words were my last words to you when I addressed the Society at its special meeting in Van Pelt Library in September 1993. We sat surrounded by a beautiful display of some of the treasures from the Society’s Library. The occasion for the meeting was simply Mark Allam’s desire that the members of the Society actually come see these extraordinary materials.
As I look out over the room, I see many familiar faces, but I also see so many new ones. And that is what is exciting–that this oldest of agricultural societies keeps revitalizing itself with younger faces, with new men and women of the industry. And so it is necessary to keep telling the story of the Society and its Library over and over again.
For many years before that meeting in 1993, when I was working at the Library at Penn, Mark kept saying to me– “We need to get the members here (to Van Pelt Library). They need to see this material.” My how the world has changed. Sit tight, don’t move. We will bring these treasures to you.
The manuscript in Figure 1 is the first page of the minutes of the first meeting of the Society which took place on February 11, 1785. Among the attendees were Benjamin Rush, an important early American physician, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Constitutional Conference; Robert Morris, a signer and conference member and a member of the U.S. Senate; Samuel Meredith, first U.S. Treasurer; George Clymer, also a signer, conference member and member of the U. S. Congress; Samuel Powell, mayor of Philadelphia and first president of the Society; and John Beale Bordley, a former member of the Governor’s Council of Maryland and a commissioner of the United States Bank.
The Minute volume was one of the first items that were restored during the Conservation Project which began about 1987. After our bicentennial exhibition in December 1985, I became concerned with the condition of the earliest manuscript material because as a part of a conservation project earlier in the century, the pages had been encapsulated in silk. The thought was that this process would prevent aging of the paper. In fact, the glue had become full of acid and was causing the pages to become very brittle. We now know that the quality of eighteenth-century paper which is made from cloth is so good and the fibers are so strong you do not need to do anything to it. Just keep it flat and away from extensive exposure to light, because light will fade the ink. Then two things happened almost simultaneously. I sent some sample sheets to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and Mark Allam came to me and said–“We need to do something to preserve this material. We need to raise some money.” Within a year Mark Allam, along with Beverly Murphy, had convinced the Pew Foundation to offer PSPA a matching grant. We were able to have this volume taken apart, the silk removed from the pages, and the volume rebound in its original covers. You can understand that this kind of work is tedious and expensive.
The Minute volume has a great deal of sentimental value to the Society. It records the meeting George Washington attended and at which he turned over to the Society the six volumes of the Annals of Agriculture given to the Society by Arthur Young. But the early archives of the Society also provide an uncommon resource for the study of the improved farming practices in the early days of this nation. There is a wonderful array of material here. The Society was formed because, as Timothy Pickering, who was to be secretary of State under Washington, explained, there was concern for the ‘imperfect state of agriculture in this country.” Pickering claimed that while farming practices in England had been advancing over the past 50 years, in the colonies, that is in the new United States, they had remained stationary.
How bad could things be? First of all, by the time of the founding of our nation, there already was a problem with soil fertility because of poor farming practices. Then in 1788 George III, who besides being at times mad was also a very good farmer, banned American wheat from entering England because of the destruction caused by the Hessian fly. The problem was particularly severe in Pennsylvania.
In a letter Figure 2 written in 1825 to Richard Peters, President of the Society, former President James Madison recalls the effects of this ban on the foreign market. The collection also contains a letter from George Morgan (a former Indian agent and a founding member) to General George Washington, dated July 31, 1788. Morgan had been observing the Hessian fly on his own farm. He writes to Washington that the egg is carried, not on the grains of wheat which the British feared, but on straw and litter. Unfortunately, it is not killed by the winter freeze, and, therefore, manure must be mixed with lime and turned well to avoid infestation.
You can see the focus of the new Society needed to be on gathering and publicizing information on farming practices, but agricultural experimentation was important as well. Within a month of the Society’s first meeting, their first publication announced a competition “upon interesting subjects, relative to actual experiments and improvement–and for the best pieces written on proposed subjects.” This first competition was won by Morgan who anonymously entered a plan Figure 3 for the construction of a farmyard that won the first prize.
Another competition entry, the Bailey Mowing Machine, is shown in Figure 4 along with testaments vouching for its usefulness. The Society actually purchased the machine, the first mowing machine in Chester County, because it maintained a collection of tools and machines for display. One eyewitness called this mowing machine a cross between a war chariot and a saw mill. Its usefulness seems to have been problematic because the field had to be level as a lawn in order for it to mow effectively.
On the other hand, John Beale Bordley’s high yields of wheat demonstrate that his drill for clustering wheat Figure 5 merits serious consideration. It is material of this kind which makes the collection so rich in research value.
But the research value isn’t just in the manuscript material. The Society members immediately began to exchange books and pamphlets with other distinguished agriculturalists. It was the common practice to publish notable talks for distribution. Between 1816 and 1824 the Society gathered the pamphlet material it received and, along with many of its own separately published pieces, bound them together in 14 volumes. The decision to bind the pamphlets together, while not the best for the items physically (some are folded into a much smaller shape than they should be), actually saved many pieces from being lost. I am sure there are some pieces of printed material in this collection whose existence may be little known.
Of course, the most celebrated gift is the first six volumes of the Annals of Agriculture, published by Arthur Young, one of the foremost agricultural writers in English. Young was made an honorary member of the Society, and he sent these six volumes in the care of George Washington who personally delivered them to the Society.
The Proceedings that the Society published until recently, and our new web site on the Internet actually continues a long tradition of interest in and recognition of the importance of disseminating information. The Society declared in its first publication that “publishing in print is the most expeditious and effectual way for disclosing knowledge.” For the early years the various newspapers of the day–The Pennsylvania Mercury and The Pennsylvania Gazette– carried notices of meetings and published the addresses given before the Society; the Society, as I just mentioned, often published as pamphlets some of its more significant talks.
In 1808 the first volume of the Memoirs of the PSPA appeared. One of the main movers behind the publication of the Memoirs was James Mease, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and a surgeon in the War of 1812. He gave early but unsuccessful lectures at Penn on the disease of domestic animals. He was also a founding member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
I consider the first five volumes of the Memoirs the most important printed books in the Library. There is an enormous amount of information here on the farming practices of the early nineteenth century, the way of life then, and the hope and efforts for the future. In the first three volumes we can read about the “Outlines for a Plan for a State Society of Agriulture,” “The Expenses and Profits of a Dairy,” an article “On Timber at Valley Forge” by Isaac Wayne, “Observations on the Propriety of a Farmer Living on the Produce of His Own Land, “The Description of A Kitchen Stove, or “An Account of the Produce of Wheat and Rye During Sixteen years in Lower Merion Township.”
The illustration of Tunis-Mountain sheep Figure 6 appeared in the supplemental notes of Richard Peters for a talk to the Society “On Tunis Mountain Sheep-Wool.” The craze for merino sheep reached in fever pitch in nineteenth century America, and this was largely due to E.I. Dupont, the Dupont today known for his manufacture of gunpowder. He imported a particular variety (Don Pedro) known for its fine wool. In 1810, the year of Peter¹s talk, two ewes and two rams sold in New York for $6000. Richard Peters, Secretary of the Board of War during the Revolution and later appointed by Washington as Judge of the U.S. District Court, was a founding member of the Society and an important force in building its achievements. It was during his tenure as President that all five of the historic volumes of the Memoirs were published.
Judge Peters real claim to fame was his work on the use of gypsum as a fertilizer, and his pamphlet on this subject was one of the most widely circulated pamphlets of the time and influential in promoting its use throughout the Atlantic states. That he strongly believed in the interdependence of many fields of interest in the common bond of agriculture is seen in the Society’s support, during his tenure as President, of the building of the bridge over the Schuylkill. The engraving of the bridge Figure 7 appears in volume one of the Memoirs.
These volumes are notable not only for the information they contain, but also for what they effectuated. The Society sent these volumes far and wide. They were read and appreciated and spread the fame of the Society. In return organizations and authors sent their publications as gifts. Today these five volumes of the Memoirs can be found in many important collections around the country, and they are also available on the Readex microprint series of Early American Imprints.
While the Society had no women members in these early years, the important presence of women could be felt. Mrs. John Q. Adams sent samples of silk that she had produced from unbaked cocoons and was given a Medal for her work in promoting the cultivation of the silkworm. Another woman won a prize for her cheeses. Figure 8 shows an invoice of sorts for the printing of the Memoirs by Jane Aitken, a notable printer of the time.
Aitken’s father had printed the first English Bible in America, and she herself printed the first American translation of the Bible. Isaiah Thomas, the preeminent historian of early American printing, calls her work “handsomely executed.” Another printing historian has noted that records of Aitken’s work are virtually non-existent. This historian did not know of the Society’s holdings of receipts from the Aitken establishment. Now, of course, with the listing of manuscript materials on line this kind of information is readily accessible.
The activity of the Society waxed and waned over the years of the nineteenth century. In one of the last flurries of real activity, the Society established in its quarters on Chestnut Street “a Free Reading Room for Farmers, open weekly on the evening preceding the principal market day, and furnished with the best agricultural journals of the United States and Britain.” It was staffed by a Librarian who received a stipend for this service.
I think you could say that largely due to the opening of the Reading Room and the many years of preparation for this opening, the Society has a solid collection of the agricultural periodicals of the time, which was the hey-day of periodical publication. I think that some of this material is now on microfilm as part of a nineteenth century periodical project. It is my surmise that this collection of periodicals was one of the main reasons Mark Allam became so concerned with the condition of the collection. The century is not noted for the quality of its book material. The paper tends to be very acidic, and the leather used on the bindings tends to get “red rot”, a virus which attacks the leather, causing it to rot. The leather sheds and stains anything it comes in contact with. The condition of these books nearly fifteen years ago was such that it was harmful for the books to be used.
One of those journals whose subscription was kept up despite the closing of the Reading Room was The Cultivator and Country Gentleman. The Library has a wonderfully long run, and many of these volumes have survived in the original temporary binding which sewed together the issues as they were received. These volumes in their conserved condition illustrate the compromise that conservation involves. Leaving them in their original condition was compromising their preservation. But the original condition had artifactual value. Therefore, the decision was made to box the volumes and retain separately in each box the original covers along with the needles and string that held the issues together.
In 1885, the Society’s centennial year, George Blight wrote to George Pepper, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania: “The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture has done good work in its day, but age has krept upon it and its usefulness has passed.” The secretary to the University described Charles King, the Society president, as almost the last survivor. But like a phoenix, we rose again. The collections in 1886/7 were sent to the University’s new Library building, the building now known as the Furness Fine Arts Library. Then in 1909, Leonard Pearson, Dean of the Veterinary School, found the old books and manuscripts and began the movement of revival. The Library stayed in the Veterinary School until Mark Allam became Dean. Mark recognized the rarity of the collection and its need for more care than the Veterinary School could give it. Of course, he knew rare books–there is the exquisite Fairman Rogers Collection of books on horses housed at New Bolton Center. By the time that I came to the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, Mark had already retired as Dean. But he always maintained contact with the Library. Until his death, he was the main figure in the Library’s care, its growth, and its preservation. He believed as I do that “the Library is the heart and soul of the Society. Long after you and I are gone from this earth, the Library will remain as a perennial narrative, telling the story of the Society over and over again.
(The preceding paper was presented before the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture on March 4, 1999.)
Figure No. 1: First page of the first minutes of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture.
Figure No. 2: An 1825 letter from James Madison (President 1809-1817) to Richard Peters, President of the Society.
Figure No. 3: Plan for the construction of a farmyard.
Figure No. 4: The Bailey mowing machine.
Figure No. 5: Bordley’s drawing of a wheat drill from a letter written on February 16, 1786.
Figure No. 6: Tunis-Mountain sheep.
Figure No. 7: Engraving of the Schuylkill River Bridge.
Figure No. 8: Bill for printing the Memoirs from Jane Aitkens.
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