Our Five Senses | Sampling History: The Whiskeys of Pennsylvania

By Chris B. RSS Thu, September 26, 2019

whiskey in shotglases

Our Five Senses, an ongoing exhibition in Parkway Central Library's Dietrich Gallery opened earlier this year, and over the past few months, we've had the honor of sitting down with some of the authors and illustrators who appear in the show. We’re departing from that format slightly to sit down with Megan MacCall, curator of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Map Collection to discuss an atlas of whiskey warehouses that appears in the show.

Megan, thanks for sitting down with us to discuss this amazing (and humongous) atlas that appears in Our Five Senses! Can you tell us a bit about the history of this piece?
"Sanborn’s Surveys of the Whiskey Warehouses [...]" is a collection of fire insurance maps of various whiskey warehouses across the region. Insurance companies would look to these highly detailed maps to determine fire insurance premiums. This was more cost effective than sending out a surveyor to each and every site that requested insurance.

Yet, there’s still a bit of mystery around this particular book. The Sanborn atlases I’ve seen all focus on particular cities or counties, so why would they make one solely about whiskey warehouses? I have not yet found an answer to this, even after following up with various companies and institutions. I suppose a couple possible reasons are the prevalence of whiskey production in the region prior to Prohibition and the inherent fire risk of storing whiskey-filled barrels.

That’s fascinating. Discussing this, I’m glad we were able to include it in the Our Five Senses exhibition so the public has the chance to see it. When we were originally looking at the atlas, we immediately saw all the penciled marginalia in the book [Note: Marginalia refers to the notes made in books, frequently in the margins]. Can you tell us why those notes exist?
Rather than reprinting the book every time changes were made, surveyors would either write annotations in the book or paste revisions (printed on slips of paper) right on top of the existing map. Interestingly, the handwritten notes on the pages date to later years than the revision years printed in the beginning of the book.

man opening barrel of whiskeyAs this is an "all-ages exhibition," it was fun to find something that might also appeal to adults. Speaking of, we’ll be exploring whiskey early next month with an adult program co-hosted by the Map Collection and the Children’s Literature Research Collection entitled Sampling History: Whiskeys of Pennsylvania, on Thursday, October 3 at 6:30 p.m. Can you tell us a little about the program?
"Sampling History" came about the way all great programs at the Free Library do—through discussion and collaboration. One of the things we are inspired to do is cross-departmental collaboration so that we can highlight ways that collection materials relate to and support one another despite their seeming dissimilarity. In talking with other curators and staff, we learned that many of our collections house materials that relate to Pennsylvania’s rich and complex history of whiskey production.  

The Map Collection in particular houses a collection of Hexamer General Surveys that illustrate several historic distilleries. Although the pages are carefully hand-colored and beautifully detailed, the collection is in need of additional preservation. So this program seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only learn about the history of whiskey in Pennsylvania, but also fundraise for the long-term care of Map Collection materials.

Serendipitously, the Pennsylvania Distillers’ Guild launched the Whiskey Rebellion Trail this past summer, so we thought this program would be a nice compliment!

It sounds like everything came together perfectly! If someone purchases a ticket to Sampling History, what can they expect?
First and foremost, they can expect a fun and interesting night!  

We’ll be looking at some of the objects from the Free Library’s Special Collections and I’ll be using these to guide a conversation with three regional distilleries: Dad’s Hat Rye, Manatawny Still Works, and Wigle Whiskey. During the conversation, participants will sample a flight of whiskeys from the distilleries and learn what makes each whiskey unique.  

This sounds like it’s going to be a fun night! Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, Megan!


The Sampling History: Whiskeys of Pennsylvania event will take place on Thursday, October 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the Map Collection at Parkway Central Library. Tickets are $20 and must be purchased in advance. Tickets will not be sold onsite. Proceeds will help fund preservation efforts in the Map Collection.

Our Five Senses is open now through November 2, Monday – Saturday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. For more information, please visit www.freelibrary.org/fivesenses.

Support for this exhibition has been generously provided by Independence Foundation and PNC. The Free Library of Philadelphia gratefully acknowledges additional contributions from individuals.

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This sounds amazing!
Chris - Philadelphia
Thursday, September 26, 2019

I didn't know the library did things like this. I'll definitely be there.
Robin - Germantown
Thursday, September 26, 2019