Historical Collections

The Rare Book Department has a number of fine collections that document the history of early exploration and settlement of the Americas and the development of our federal constitutional republic.

Leaf preceding Romeo and Juliet from the Free Library of Philadelphia's copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare. A hand pre-dating c. 1670 wrote this text as well as annotations throughout.

Pennsylvania German Fraktur and Imprints

The highlight of our Pennsylvania German collection is the 18th- and 19th-century American folk art known as Fraktur. This collection is comprised of almost 1,500 artworks, plus manuscripts, hand-colored bookplates, and nearly 3,000 early printed books and broadsides.

Fraktur is an important source of genealogical history, a colorful and exuberant art form that was primarily practiced on documents. Birth and baptismal certificates, religious texts, house blessings, and rewards of merit are among the types of items represented in this collection.

Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney compiled most of the fraktur collection for the 1976 publication, The Pennsylvania German Fraktur of the Free Library of Philadelphia: An Illustrated Catalogue.

Digital Collection Catalog

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

Common Law

Noted Philadelphia lawyer and legal scholar Hampton L. Carson assembled a comprehensive collection on the growth and development of the Common Law in 1927 that has been a part of our collection since 1929. 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. Among items in this collection are manuscript copies of the Magna Carta from the 1300s.


Lacquered painting on wood, illustration for the <i>Vicar of Wakefield</i> by George Cruikshank, in the Free Library's Rare Book Department.

Letters of the Presidents of the United States

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 from George Washington, written in 1780 during the final stages of the Revolutionary War, these letters document events of historical, political, and personal significance in the lives of the Presidents and the history of the United States.

Finding Aid


The collection of Americana donated by William McIntire Elkins has more than doubled in size since Elkins's original gift. It is mostly devoted to early European voyages and visits to the Americas—consisting largely of accounts by Europeans of their forcible settlement and destruction of Indigenous lands.

Items in this collection include:

  • The 1493 Latin and 1497 German editions of the Columbus letter
  • A manuscript confession of witchcraft signed by Abigail Hobbs at Salem Village in 1692
  • Over 100 autographed letters and documents of American revolutionary figures
  • Accounts of western explanation such as 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)
Digital Collection Catalog