When you are a woman who works in public history, a woman focused on the histories of other women, March tends to be a busy month. It’s Women’s History Month, a time when a female’s perspective supposedly matters most. Articles, presentations, panel discussions–they must all happen before the 31st because by April Fools’ Day we are on to the next topic.
In March 2018 I first wrote about the pioneering preservation work of Frances Anne Wister, a woman whose efforts remain overshadowed by the men that followed her. And it is Wister whom I continue to think about as I have watched, even during a year spent in the clutches of a global public health crisis, the wrecking ball rip through Philadelphia leaving behind empty lots. Ours is a city full of vacant space featuring signage promising to be “The future site of something wonderful.” As I hear the heartbreak in the voices of my friends who continue to fight the daily battles for historic designations and to rescue entire historic districts stuck in the Philadelphia Historic Commission’s purgatorial prison, I think of Wister’s words, written in 1941, as she lamented the historic sites lost when time or money ran out. “Places of interest and importance are to be found in every section of Philadelphia, but how long they will be found is another question. How many years will it take to educate the public to preserve landmarks?”
This year is not just about lamenting loss, but a time of reckoning with history writ large. A time to reconsider our historical narratives by looking closer at the sites and monuments we value, the stories we have ignored, and the histories we have left buried deep in our national psyche. It is a time to continue asking the questions around how we bring social justice into the work we do. Many of us are committed to “doing better” and to being more inclusive. But what does that look like?
For me, it involves not just learning more about why we celebrate certain histories, but also seeking to know more about the people and their motivations behind creating historic sites and monuments. Here in Philadelphia, and indeed in many cities across the nation, historic sites exist primarily due to the work of women. The preservation movement was started and driven forward by women. It was a women’s movement. The famous story of George Washington’s beloved home left in ruins starts with the words of Louisa Bird Cunningham, who wrote to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?”
Starting with the creation of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1853, followed by a renewed passion for preserving historic collections and buildings influenced by the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first wave preservation movement would hit its apogee in the 1890s. Before women were given the right to vote, they were preservationists.
Women’s Organizations in Philadelphia
The Colonial Dames of America (CDA) formed in New York in 1890 and incorporated a year later. CDA members are descended from an ancestor who lived in British America and provided service to the Colonies through the military or holding political office between 1607 and 1775. Originally, certain ladies from Philadelphia had been asked to join the CDA in New York, but it was soon decided to initiate chapters. While the women in Philadelphia thought about it, Baltimore organized Chapter I, and Philadelphia ultimately became Chapter II. Present day CDA headquarters are in Manhattan at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden.
A year later, in 1891, a separate group with similar aspirations established The National Society of Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA). While the CDA is centrally controlled, the NSCDA was organized as a federation of relatively autonomous state societies. Its national headquarters is at Dumbarton House in Washington D.C. Membership is similar, but slightly expanded from CDA. In April 1891, the NSCDA in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (NSCDA/PA) formally joined the organization, with its present day headquarters located on Latimer Street in Philadelphia.
The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded by direct lineal descendants of soldiers of the American Revolution and others who aided in gaining independence, is a vast national organization that also maintains a large headquarters in Washington D.C. In 1892, the Philadelphia Chapter, followed in 1899 by the Independence Hall Chapter, organized in support of the restoration and furnishing of the second floor of Independence Hall. Chester and Delaware Counties created chapters in 1894, followed by Betsy Ross descendants establishing the Flag House Chapter in 1903, with additional regional chapters created in the 1920s as women moved to the suburbs.
It should be noted that other smaller women’s preservation groups, such as The Committee of 1926 that administers Historic Strawberry Mansion, cared for other properties around the region. While not here in Philadelphia, during this period the National League of Colored Women took on the restoration of Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill. The United Daughters of the Confederacy promoted their Lost Cause ideology by funding major monuments. The Richmond Virginia headquarters of the Daughters of Confederacy was the site of a George Floyd protest in May 2020.
Colonial Dames of America Chapter II, Philadelphia
As part of my ongoing research into the life of Wister, I spent time this past summer studying the history of the Colonial Dames of America Chapter II, Philadelphia. Wister, her sisters, and mother were active members. Ella Wister Haines edited the book Glimpses Into History, published in 1961, which records the history of the organization and many of the women involved. While the book itself is not long, I spent hours delving into the lives of these women to discover what I could about their individual connections. The amount of time and effort these women put into their chosen projects is astounding.
Over the course of the last 130 years, CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia would make its headquarters in four significant Philadelphia sites. While in the beginning it met at the grand 22nd Street home of member Mrs. Clifford Lewis, Sr., which featured a spacious ballroom fit for meetings, the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia soon realized the need for dedicated space. In 1900 it moved into the Randolph House, a property acquired by the City of Philadelphia in 1869 as part of the formation of Fairmount Park. Today we recognize this house by its original name, Laurel Hill, which was rechristened in 1976 during Bicentennial celebration planning. The house holds incredible women’s history including the story of Rebecca Warner Rawle who built it as well as later owner Sally Physick Randolph who inherited it from her famous doctor father.
The second home of the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia was at the Shippen-Wistar House on 4th Street. Dr. William Shippen built this esteemed house circa 1750, which would later become famous for the Wistar parties thrown by Dr. Caspar Wistar for visiting dignitaries and members of the American Philosophical Society. The chapter’s third location, Wakefield, a City-owned property in East Germantown, was very much a homecoming for several of its members. Mrs. Edward Cheston (Emily Read Fox) grew up at Wakefield until her father’s death in 1918. Her memories included 40 acres of land, an unpaved Broad Street, and life before the furnace was installed in 1903, but not before her baby brother’s milk bottle froze. Wister was also personally connected to Wakefield as it was built by Thomas and Sarah Logan Fisher, her great-great-grandparents. After 30 years stewarding Wakefield, the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia was drawn to the more centrally located Lemon Hill, just above the Art Museum in Fairmount Park overlooking the Schuylkill River. Like Laurel Hill, the City assumed ownership of this property in 1845. While serving as the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fiske Kimball and his wife Marie, the first curator at Monticello, called Lemon Hill home from 1926 through 1955.
A common thread related to the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia stewardship and choice of locations connects all four properties. Residence at each home included full renovation planned and paid for by the organization. The Shippen-Wistar House, leased to the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia by the Mutual Assurance Company, required work to make it habitable. It was noted in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on February 9, 1916 that the organization made great improvements and were able to utilize original furnishings that had been left behind by the Shippen family. Updating and restoring Wakefield in the mid-1920s was surely a heartfelt project given the close family ties. By 1937, the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia formally opened the doors to historic tours, banding together with other historic sites in Germantown. Its occupation of Laurel Hill and Lemon Hill came with conditions required by the City as administered by the Park Commission. At Laurel Hill, the City mandated the CDA to restore the house inside and out, including replacing the roof. The organization was also required to hold weekly open house hours and host parties. For instance, in May 1911, as Mayor John Reburn welcomed the Third National Conference on City Planning to Philadelphia, he asked the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia to host a reception at the Randolph Mansion in honor of the visiting dignitaries. When the organization took on its second park house the renovations were not as extreme. While the Kimballs had restored Lemon Hill to its original state, it was still left to the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia to decorate and furnish the first floor rooms as a proper museum dedicated to displaying Federal Style furnishings and period pieces. Once again, occupancy required maintaining weekly open house hours and hosting special events.
The project of creating museum rooms was taken on with the utmost care. A discussion around finding just the right material with which to make the drapery panels for the oval dining room presents interesting insight into just how serious they were about getting the details right at Lemon Hill. When the correct crimson damask fabric was not to be found, CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia located a perfect sample in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collections, which was then sent off to the offices of The House of Scalamandré in New York City, which arranged for its silk weaving factory in San Leucio, Italy to create a reproduction. A delay caused by a flu outbreak in the factory left only five days before the official Lemon Hill opening on December 6, 1957 for the fabric to be made into draperies and properly hung. Even with all that effort in those earliest days the curtains were sacrificed in the 1990s after the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia funded a historic structures report and worked towards further authenticity in presenting a country house, which Lemon Hill was built to be.
In recent years an even more difficult decision was made to give up the stewardship of Lemon Hill altogether. Significant changes in how the City administers the park houses, a lack of full-time staff, and dwindling volunteers, along with the realization that sustaining Lemon Hill, or any historic house, was taxing in the best of times, led the CDA to shift strategy. Today CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia has refocused its energies by supporting preservation students and emerging professionals through scholarships, fellowships, and internships.
“Keeping house,” the general term Federal Census enumerators have utilized for as long as they have been tracking women’s occupations, is really a misnomer for what these women did through the years. Along with its restoration efforts, the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia raised funds in support of such projects as the gates at Jamestown, Virginia, the doors at Valley Forge Memorial Chapel, the upkeep of Christ Church graveyard, restoration work at Historic Strawberry Mansion, the purchase and restoration of the Powel House, the purchase of property next to the Betsy Ross House, and the creation of several William Penn commemorations, to name a few. It also sold bail bonds during WWI, sent financial support to Marie Curie for her work with Radium, protested the use of billboards in rural areas, helped fund the National Committee for Unemployed Relief in the 1930s, and became members of the Women’s Council of National Defense to combat communism. Its junior members sewed, knitted, and collected clothing for the Phipp’s Institute and exiles of the Russian Revolution. The CDA served as ambassadors, dressed in period costume, ready to graciously greet visitors from around the country and the world. It also provided a color guard with flags at all the significant events, commemorations, and funerals, including the 150 anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the 300 anniversary of the landing of the Swedes, and the 200 anniversary of the birth of George Washington.
Like its CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia sisters, the NSCDA/PA women raised funds and celebrated the important anniversaries. But in contrast to the slightly more itinerant CDA history, the women of NSCDA/PA have cared for and operated James Logan’s Stenton continuously since 1899. And like the CDA Chapter II, Philadelphia, this group is dedicated to the highest standards of curatorial work. Laura Keim, Stenton’s dedicated curator, has in recent years spoken of her almost 15-year archaeological “dig” restoring the Yellow Lodging Room, which began when she took notice of the curious hooks in the bedchamber ceiling. Having the time and space to figure out how a room worked—from studying primary documents, paint finishes, and dye analysis to creating a flying tester bedstead—is the kind of painstaking research required to visually set the stage. As Keim reminds us, the past looked different. And it is important to acknowledge that when a room is as historically accurate as we can claim, the visual experience of the space transports us outside of time. A “served space” or the “best room” should look different than the garret where the enslaved slept. It is through physical and documentary archival research processes that we uncover the historical truth.
Women’s History, Women’s Future
I became a member of the NSCDA/PA in the beginning of 2020. It was a conscious decision to join the world of (mostly) women after years of working at historic sites controlled primarily by men. My attraction to joining had much to do with the curatorial standards with which Stenton is run. I have always enjoyed a house museum and even once resided in one as a site manager. As a white woman, I always felt welcomed into these spaces which provided domestic context for all those mind-numbing battle dates I memorized as a young girl. Still, as a child born into the uprooted realm of 1960s Los Angeles, colonial history always felt slightly removed. It was after all someone else’s ancestors. Until it wasn’t. I discovered that through my previously ignored maternal grandfather’s family line, my ancestors came to America over 300 years ago. It then became my patriotic duty to learn the truth of this history, warts and all. If we as a nation are going to come to terms with our history, and particularly its injustices, we need to pay attention to the details. We need to learn our individual histories. To some it may seem counterintuitive to join an organization that was founded to celebrate our colonial past, especially given our current cultural climate. I hear cries of “this is not who we are” amidst “this is who we are,” and I step into this gateway to find and support the truth.
Yet, I think it is imperative to honor the work done by all these women in the context of their organized societies over the past century. The countless hours of free labor, the untold amounts of money raised, donning a great-grandmother’s musty dress to greet an esteemed visitor with a smile–whatever it took to accomplish their goals. They saw it as their patriotic duty to venerate their male ancestors and educate younger generations. Today I see hopeful glimpses of women working quietly behind the scenes, moving the social justice ball forward by uncovering and amplifying silenced voices. Through a continued pursuit of authenticity in the smallest details we keep figuratively picking at the corners of a room to uncover the hidden stories that might be found quite literally buried in a bunch of broken pottery bits or in a yet-to-be-found burial plot.
Discovering my ancestors were enslavers changed me. Understanding how I benefited from their profits, despite the fact I lived oblivious to their existence, has changed me. But I understand it’s my responsibility to share this knowledge. To inhabit the rooms I always did, but to inhabit them in a new way. Our historic buildings, the objects that furnish them, and the histories they represent deserve to be preserved. But we need to continue to push the boundaries of authenticity. We need to get real and comfortable with the painful truths we may discover. We need to be willing to toss out the crimson Scalamandré drapery, despite the effort they required, when we learn they no longer serve a purpose. We need to expand the spaces we already inhabit, so that people who don’t look like us feel welcome and included in the narrative. We also need to pay attention to and support the work of preservationists working well beyond familiar colonial boundaries. The narratives we care about need to inclusively expand.
My intention for writing this essay was to honor the women who started a movement, but also to acknowledge it’s time for 21st century women to step up again and push further. I recently learned that 85 percent of the current students in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania are women. That is a great sign of things to come. To gain further insight on the state of things, with the intention of ending this piece on an uplifting note, I checked in with a number of women currently working in various capacities in the historic preservation field. After several in-depth discussions I discovered we are just beginning a new conversation. Too many women are still being pushed to the side during important planning. This must change. We need to be out front and leading, and our work should be elevated, valued, and celebrated well beyond March 31.