Drexel Launches Digital Database, Making Atwater Kent Collection Available to the Public

The Atwater Kent Collection includes an extraordinary assemblage of some 130,000 historic artifacts and archival materials relating to Philadelphia and American history.
Abraham Lincoln's hat in the Atwater Kent Collection
 A hat worn by President Abraham Lincoln on the passage from Harrisburg to Washington D.C. in March of 1861 for his first inauguration. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania/Atwater Kent Collection at Drexel.

Drexel University has launched a new online database of the Atwater Kent Collection, making it available to the public for the first time. The digital collection is available at Philadelphiahistory.org.

“The launch of this digital database is a major milestone in stewarding the Atwater Kent Collection and sharing it with the public,” said Drexel University President John Fry. “Drexel’s role in preserving the history of Philadelphia extends the University’s commitment to civic engagement while furnishing a new opportunity to showcase the considerable talents of our professional staff, students and faculty.”

The Atwater Kent Collection includes an extraordinary assemblage of some 130,000 historic artifacts and archival materials relating to Philadelphia and American history. The Philadelphia Orphans' Court cleared the path for Drexel to become the new trustee of the Collection in May 2022. Since then, the University has focused on moving the Collection — from a former warehouse location to the Hamilton Building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Center City; continuing work on a comprehensive collection evaluation; and working toward public access online.

"Moving the collection to a space right in Center City with proper museum controls was so important for ensuring the safety of the collection,” said Rosalind Remer, senior vice provost for Collections & Exhibitions. “But we’re also excited that PAFA is partnering with us to enable some great exhibitions in the coming years.”

With the help of grant funding, the new online database debuts with over 1,000 objects on virtual display. These include items from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) collection that are part of Philadelphia’s history and materials related to the African American experience in Philadelphia. Additionally, some of the most popular and famous items in the Atwater Kent Collection are also part of the online debut. These include George Washington’s writing desk, Abraham Lincoln’s hat and Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves originally part of the collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Washington’s desk was purchased in 1789 from Thomas Burling in New York and was sold at the end of his presidency in 1797. Lincoln’s hat was worn by the former President on the passage from Harrisburg to Washington D.C. in March of 1861 for his first inauguration. Frazier, an American professional boxer, wore the gloves while competing from 1965 to 1981.

Lesser known items that are part of the online debut include a large straw hat with two holes for a horse's ears that was worn by horses to avoid the effects of the sun; a paint box dating back to 1780 that belonged to artist William Birch; and a wreath made of chestnut wood shavings, possibly from the beams of Independence Hall. The work continues as thousands of photos need to be taken to provide comprehensive photography for each object in the Atwater Kent Collection that will be added to the online database.

“The collection is a rich repository of objects from the mundane to magical, each with their own unique Philadelphia story,” said Stacey Swigart, director of the Atwater Kent Collection. “Teacups, sketchbooks, candy molds, shopping bags, sports equipment and paintings can collectively tell the story of the city in its evolution of neighborhoods, celebrations, upheaval and growth."

Through a partnership with PAFA, the University has not only secured storage space to house the Collection, but also office and workspace to support the ongoing processes of preserving, cataloging and sharing all artifacts and archival materials.

As part of its trusteeship of the Collection, Drexel has set out to eventually make all items of the Collection accessible to the public and to use the Collection for education, teaching and research. Funded through a grant from Colonial Academic Alliance, Drexel’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships and the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware developed a toolkit for K-12 schools and universities seeking to use historical collections for civic engagement and innovation learning.

Two exhibitions are planned for the public at PAFA this summer and next. The first, “Seeing Philadelphia,” will present views of Philadelphia from different media (prints, drawings, photos, paintings and maps) in the Collection and through the writing and artwork of students and community members who will respond to these views. The second, “Philadelphia Revealed,” will focus on what it means to tell the multiple and diverse stories of Philadelphians over three hundred years.

Drexel continues to evaluate, research and organize the materials in the Atwater Kent Collection. The University also will continue to work with Philadelphia's many institutions and cultural organizations to ensure that items can be borrowed, displayed, interpreted and, once again, appreciated throughout the city.