Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum Offers Public an Intimate Window to the Past

From Bram Stoker to George Washington, the Museum provides a glimpse beyond material culture into the minds of some of our most iconic historical and literary figures.

Original hand-written working notes of Bram Stoker on paper, grist that would find its way into his famous signature book, Dracula;

An original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses;

The first and only existing printing of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac; 

More than 100 personally inscribed letters of George Washington;

Parts of manuscripts from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby…………

These are but a tiny sampling of the holdings of the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, tucked almost inconspicuously among a row of 19th-century townhouses in the Rittenhouse-Fitler historic district in the center of bustling Philadelphia. It presents a streetside appearance that doesn’t turn heads like other major tourist sites in this city.

But make no mistake. Its outward appearance belies its significance. Within its walls is a collection of thousands of the original first-print books, manuscripts, letters, illustrations and other works of art of some the most famous and noteworthy literary, historical and artistic figures of the past, a treasure house for historians, historical archaeologists, others doing primary research………and for you and me. What arguably distinguishes it from most museums and archives of its kind is its offering of an up-close and personal experience: With a scheduled Hands-on Tour, the museum curators will permit the visitor to hold and turn the pages of an early printing of a book like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or read from an original manuscript like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, or view drawings made by William Blake himself. 


rosenbachmuseumThe Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Wikimedia Commons


The namesake institution was founded in 1954 by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother, Philip. As book, manuscript, and fine art dealers, they were also instrumental in the establishment of private libraries that became the repository for important rare books. Among these libraries are the well known Folger and Huntington Libraries. In the 1970’s, the Rosenbach became the central repository for the works of Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of the book, Where the Wild Things Are, among others), and remains so today. 

Now, for the first time, the Rosenbach has opened a special exhibit for the general public displaying pages from the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses, side-by-side with the Shakespearean plays and poems that inspired it. It will show until August 31, 2014. And until November 2, 2014, visitors can view an exhibit that relates how Maurice Sendak’s art reflected the effects of events in his life that caused personal turmoil. 

For those of us who like books, old things, and history, it could pleasantly top off a memorable visit to this historic city.

For more information about the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, go to the website, or visit the museum at 2008 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, not far from Rittenhouse Square.


Cover Photo, Top Left: Fall of Princes by John Lydgate England, probably London, c. 1465–75, Boccaccio Has a Vision of Adam and Eve. Boccaccio’s tale of the fall of noble persons begins with Adam and Eve. The opening miniature shows Boccaccio seated at his desk as Adam steps into the room. Outside, Eve receives the apple from a human-headed serpent twisted around the Tree of Knowledge. Document housed in the Rosenbach Museum


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