If you work in an archival repository, you know that no matter how uninteresting or randomly assembled a collection may appear, it probably meant a lot to whoever decided to put it together. Archivists are also used to dealing with the hyperbolic language of the auctioneers from whom collections are sometimes purchased. Everything has to be “unusual,” “rare,” “unique,” etc. to attract the generous offers of the bidders. So, there seems to be nothing special about the note that opens the 15-volume scrapbook set of “Theatricals in Philadelphia”. The anonymous writer – probably an employee of the well-known Philadelphia auction house of Stanislaus Henckels – informs us that “somebody has devoted almost a lifetime in making this collection,” which is of course defined as “invaluable,” at least to “those interested in Philadelphia theatrical affairs.”
But let’s face it: who, in 1920 Philadelphia, could be interested in purchasing a huge pile of materials on literally anything happened on the city stages only a few decades before? Sure, today’s opera aficionados would likely love to read page after page of Pavarotti programs, and admire dusty portraits of the singer clipped out of 1990s magazines; and theater buffs may crave to know more about the time when the Trocadero – which will permanently close at the end of May 2019 – was the kingdom of burlesque, and the 4,000-seat Broad Street Metropolitan Opera House – which was recently reopened as a concert venue – was used as a church. But 3,500 pages of this (and what’s more, in no apparent order)? Maybe it’s a bit too much.
Luckily for us, Arthur H. Quinn thought differently. An English professor at Penn, Quinn (1875-1960) was in charge of what was then known as the Clothier Collection of American Drama of the University of Pennsylvania, a remarkable resource that, in 1918, was described as “one of the three foremost Collections of American Drama in the Country.” Considering the breadth and purpose of the Clothier Collection, it only makes sense that Quinn was also interested in materials documenting the recent theatrical life of Philadelphia. The 4-foot long set of “Theatricals in Philadelphia” scrapbooks well served the purpose, and joined the Clothier Collection in May 1920. These volumes contain a wealth of programs, posters, newspaper clippings, images, and portraits of artists of the stage, and offer a unique perspective on every possible theatrical genre of the second half of the 19th century, from opera, melodramas, and Shakespeare dramas to circus, minstrels, and freak shows.
About a century after their acquisition, these scrapbooks are surrounded by mystery. For instance: who assembled them? No attributions are given in the set, and their creator was probably also unknown to Henckels, from whom Penn acquired the scrapbooks. The title “Theatricals in Philadelphia” itself was not chosen by the scrapbook’s author, but likely derives from the description provided by Henckels in the auction catalogue. Most importantly: what place did Quinn envision for this set within the Clothier Collection as a whole? The volumes are not mentioned in any known survey of the Clothier Collection. Yet, in 1940, Quinn wrote that about 10,000 theater programs had “recently been surveyed and indexed under the auspices of the Works Program Administration.” Is this why every single item in the scrapbooks, including newspaper articles and advertisements, was listed by title in alphabetical order in a (barely usable) 7-volume index prepared by a W.P.A. worker? Were the “Theatricals in Philadelphia” scrapbooks nothing more than a bunch of theater programs to Quinn? Even assuming that this was the case, however, this episode would speak more to the changing significance of archival materials over time, than to Quinn’s supposed neglectfulness. Simply put, not everything that appears valuable today was seen as such 100 years ago.
Take, for example, minstrel shows. Not much more than a moribund theatrical genre in the first decades of the 20th century, minstrel shows came under increasing scrutiny in the following decades because of the dehumanizing and stereotyping practices that they promoted. Their history and lasting legacy are widely recognized today: after all, the blackface scandal that recently involved Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam must come from somewhere. Yet, for the W.P.A. worker who prepared the index in the 1930s, it was possible to simply list the hundreds of minstrel-related materials included in the scrapbooks under the “minstrel” category – with no further indication about title or performers – under the letter M. And what about late 19th-century programs of early silent movie exhibits, such as those found in volume 15? In 1920, they were but the progenitors of newer – but equally silent – products of the movie industry. Today, they mark the inception of the media culture in which we live.
But the scrapbooks offer surprises at every turn of the page. Have you ever wondered how many fires scourged U.S. theaters in the 19th century? Have a look at the dedicated section in volume 3: you will find not only a list of all the theater fires that happened in Philadelphia between 1798 and 1888 – there were 24 fires, by the way – but also an impressive collection of clippings, programs, and images documenting the material and moral devastation that they left. Are you interested in the current political debate on immigration in the U.S.? You may be interested to know that if somebody thinks Mexican immigrants steal American jobs today, there was a time when famous European theater actors and opera singers were accused of stealing money and professional opportunities from their American colleagues. Are you obsessed over the Victorian obsession with automata? There are incredible sources waiting for you in volume 15, including playbills advertising wonders such as Joseph Faber’s talking machine or Zadoc Dederick’s mechanical Steam Man. And what if, more simply, you are looking for information on a specific performer, a singer, or a long-forgotten Philadelphia theater? With its thousands of rare playbills, newspaper articles, portraits, and programs, the “Theatricals in Philadelphia” scrapbooks very likely have you covered.
To help you find what you need, a finding aid for the “Theatricals in Philadelphia” has been recently prepared. In it, researchers can find a complete description of each volume, complete with a list of the most prominent artists or theatrical companies featured in the volume, a list of performing venues, and a summary of notable articles, images, programs, playbills, and other materials found in the scrapbook. Start your research here!