Historical Collections

Common Law

Initial E with King Edward III of England. Statuta Nova, c. 1470, f. 46r. Carson Collection LC 14 9.5.

The growth and development of the Common Law is the subject of a comprehensive collection assembled by the noted Philadelphia lawyer and legal scholar Hampton L. Carson. Beginning with 14th-century manuscripts of Magna Carta and other statues, the collection includes over 9,000 yearbooks, abridgments, statute books, reports, state trials, and editions of fundamental treatises by Ranulf de Glanville, Henry de Bracton, Thomas Littleton, Edward Coke, Matthew Hale, and William Blackstone. These works are supplemented with some 2,000 letters of English and American lawyers and more than 8,000 prints of legal interest. The collection was deposited by Mr. Carson at the Library in 1927 and became part of its holdings upon his death in 1929. A catalogue of the Carson Collection was published in 1962.


Map of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola showing some of Drake's military maneuvers, from Walter Bigges, A svmmarie and trve discovrse of Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage. London: R. Ward, 1589. Free Library of Philadelphia Elkins 50.

The Americana collection assembled by William M. Elkins is devoted primarily to the discovery and exploration of America from the earliest European voyages to the western expeditions of the 19th century. In addition to the 1493 Latin and 1497 German editions of the Columbus letter, the collection includes the rare English edition of Thomas Hariot's Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590); a manuscript confession of witchcraft signed by Abigail Hobbs at Salem Village in 1692; and over 100 autograph letters and documents of American revolutionary figures. Among the accounts of western exploration are Prince Maximilian's Travels in the Interior of North America (1843), with its magnificent illustrations by Karl Bodmer; a pre-Gold Rush guide book by Overton Johnson and W.H. Winter, Route across the Rocky Mountains, with a Description of Oregon and California (1846); A.E. Mathews's Pencil Sketches of Montana (1868) and Gems of Rocky Mountain Scenery (1869). A checklist of the Elkins Americana Collection, compiled by Howell J. Heaney, appeared in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1956.

Letters of the Presidents of the United States

Autograph letter, signed, from President Abraham Lincoln to the Sec. of War [i.e. E. M. Stanton] concerning Henry M. Judah, dated February 17, 1862.

This distinguished group of letters was collected by Norman H. and Charlotte Strouse and donated to the Free Library in 1960. Beginning with a letter of George Washington, written in 1780 during the final stages of the Revolutionary War, the letters document events of historical political, and personal significance in the lives of the Presidents and the history of the United States. An online finding aid is available for this collection.

Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Imprints

Birth and Baptismal Certificate (Geburts und Taufschein) for Eva Eissenhaer, decorator and scrivener: Sussel-Washington Artist (active c. 1760-1779). Free Library of Philadelphia Fraktur FLP 681.

The manuscript folk art produced by the Pennsylvania Germans is called Fraktur after the broken character of the letters in which they were written. Birth and baptismal certificates, writing examples, music books, religious texts, house blessings, rewards of merit, and bookmarks were gaily decorated with tulips, hearts, stars, crowns, angels, unicorns, eagles, and other figures. The Library's collection contains over 1,000 pieces. Complementary to the Fraktur are some 2,000 books and broadsides produced by early German printers in America. The original collection, assembled by Henry S. Borneman, was purchased with trust funds. Additions have been made, notably from the collections of Levi E. Yoder, Dr. Wilbur Oda, Lee Kuhn, Arthur J. Sussel, and others. A catalogue of the Fraktur, compiled by Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney, was published in 1976. In 2009, with generous funding from the Barra Foundation, the collection can now be searched and viewed in an online database.

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