There once was a time when you could be arrested for possession of margarine in Philadelphia.
That happened to a luckless fellow named George Dunlap, of the Gray’s Ferry neighborhood in 1899. He was a victim of an aggressive lobbying effort by the dairy industry against imitation butter.
Dunlap’s arrest record, a packet of documents neatly folded into thirds, is permanently on file in the city archive for anyone curious about the history of oleo. It’s just one of the 22,000 cubic feet of documents in Philadelphia’s record archive, dating back more than 300 years.
It’s one of the oldest and largest archives of any American city, in part because Philadelphia has been really good at keeping records, says the city’s commissioner of records Jim Leonard.
“We also have been lucky enough to not have had a fire, like some other cities have that have compromised their historic record,” said Leonard.
He is in charge of moving this archive from its current location in West Philadelphia, inside a leased space on the Drexel University campus, to a building at 5th and Spring Garden. Drexel is looking to repurpose its building next to 30th Street Station, so the city records must go.
Philadelphia city records fall into two general categories: one is the historic archive; the other is day-to-day business of running the city, across all departments. For the most part those documents, a huge amount of paper material, will not be made permanent unless something is produced of historical interest.
“The archives are the permanent archives of the city,” said Leonard. “The other function is the records storage center. Those are business records, existing on a retention cycle. As they age out, they are recycled.”
A big part of Leonard’s job, which he has held for just a year and a half, is getting ready for this move. The other is to shepherd city departments toward electronic documents, to cut down on paper material. “It saves on space, and makes operations more efficient,” he said.
The permanent archive has the original city charter, signed by William Penn. It has the first recorded minutes of a city council meeting, dated 1704. It has records of city loans — then called indentures — approved by Benjamin Franklin who was once a justice of the peace.
These are all available for public perusal. Leonard says they are mostly of interest in genealogists seeking birth and death records, urban historians looking up property records, and people interested in the history of public health.
Take a ledger from the old Lazaretto Hospital, near where the airport is now. It was the nation’s first quarantine hospital for newly-arrived immigrants.
In the summer of 1800, two illegal slave ships en route to the sugar plantations of Cuba were seized by the U.S.S. Ganges. The ships were forced to dock in Philadelphia – at the time, a strongly abolitionist city. All the captured Africans onboard were sent to Lazaretto hospital.
“This is a ledger book from the city’s Department of Health,” said Leonard, with a neatly hand-written list of medical treatments from 217 years ago. “It lists the care given to the folks on the ship. Those were slaves — or to-be slaves — destined for the Caribbean. Ultimately they were freed.”
Recently, descendents of those Africans visited the city archive to research their ancestors. Leonard says many of them had the last names listed as Ganges, after the navy ship that intercepted the slave ships.
The new location for the city archives, at 5th and Spring Garden, will have a research room designed to be much more inviting than the current, somewhat drab space in West Philadelphia. It will include a large, interior art installation, commissioned to a local artist, encouraging the public to look into the history of the city.