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Historical Sketch

The Foundation of the Society: John Beale Bordley

The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was established in 1785, when John Beale Bordley proposed to members of the American Philosophical Society that they form an American agricultural society in the British pattern. On the first of March the Society held its charter meeting with twenty-three members present. Charter members include prominent judges and lawyers (John Beale Bordley, Richard Peters, James Wilson, and Edward Shippen), military leaders (General John Cadwalader, Colonel George Morgan, Colonel John Nixon), doctors (Benjamin Rush, John Jones, George Logan, Adam Kuhn), and politicians (Samuel Powel, George Clymer, Henry Hill, Philemon Dickinson, Samuel Vaughn, Lambert Cadwalader, Tench Francis, Charles Thompson). Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine became members later in that year.

In its early years the Agricultural Society met on the first Monday of each month, when six or eight prominent men would come together to discuss agriculture and rural affairs. These men hoped to encourage new developments in agricultural practice through experimentation and scientific research. In the patriotic spirit of the time, early members were concerned that America not fall behind England's rapid agricultural advances. Central to their concerns were crop rotation, soil fertility, and animal husbandry. Prizes or premiums were offered for agricultural accomplishments in order to stimulate experimentation. Papers published by the Society (among them the ground breaking "Address to American Farmers, " and George Morgan's "Plan for a Farm Yard") had broad circulation and were widely influential in American farming practice.

One of the most concrete accomplishments of the early Society was the construction of a permanent bridge over the Schuylkill river, the first of its kind in America, and the longest covered bridge in the world. The Society drew up the plans for the bridge and raised the $300, 000 necessary to fund the project. Completed in 1804, the Schuylkill bridge facilitated the transport of farm produce from Chester and Lancaster Counties into the Philadelphia Market.

Though a few truly gifted scientific minds (such as Morgan and Bordley) did make considerable advances in theories of agriculture, the group never realized its goal of offering leadership to the common farmer. Throughout its early years the Society was riven by political conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalist, and several times members left the Society to start rival groups. In the period between 1793 and 1805 meetings were held only periodically, and the activities of the Society were for the most part abandoned.

The Early Nineteenth Century: Richard Peters

In 1805, after the death of President Samuel Powel and of Vice President and founder John Beale Bordley, the Society was reorganized under the leadership of Richard Peters. Once again, a handful of wealthy patrons of agriculture gathered monthly to discuss agricultural methods. The practice of offering awards and premiums was revived. The first Agricultural exhibition was held in 1822, featuring cattle, farm products, and machinery. In this, the most fruitful period of its history, the Philadelphia Society tested, identified, and analyzed seeds and plant specimens. They also served as a distribution center to make foreign seeds available to American farmers for experimentation. The Society researched methods of animal husbandry and soil fertilization, investigated outbreaks of plant and animal disease, and encouraged the development of labor-saving machinery. During this period five volumes of Memoirs were published (in 1808, 1811, 1814, 1818, and 1826), each containing significant agricultural articles of the time. From 1816 to 1829 the Society published an almanac to propagate scientific developments in agriculture among working American farmers.

After the death of Richard Peters in 1828, John Hare Powel was elected president, followed by Nicholas Biddle from 1831 to 1844 and James Mease from 1844 to 1846. Throughout this period the Society continued to offer premiums for plant breeding and farm management. From 1838 to 1856 they sponsored annual exhibitions. These exhibitions featured livestock, displays of agricultural implements, and a plowing match. In 1847 members established the Farmer's Club as an auxiliary to the Society. This group initially met at the farms of different members to inspect the farm and then to discuss agricultural issues of current interest. Later the Club functioned primarily as a social gathering.

This early period was the most intensely active and the most fruitful of the Society's history. The Society's members from this time were among the most influential thinkers in experimental agriculture. The scope of their vision of agricultural progress as well as their insistence on rigorous experimentation and scientific method laid the groundwork for the rapid advance of American farming practice in the nineteenth century.

Development of Agricultural Organizations and the Society's Decline

From the beginning the Agricultural Society believed one of its primary tasks to be the establishment of a network of agricultural organizations in the region and across the country. As S.W. Fletcher writes in his history of P.S.P.A.:

It was a comprehensive and far-seeing program for the advancement of Pennsylvania agriculture in several other ways, including the organization of county agricultural societies, the establishment of pattern farms, the endowment by the state of professorships in agriculture and its supporting sciences at colleges, elementary teaching of agriculture in the public schools, and specialized instruction in agriculture at institutions of college grade. (Fletcher, 73)

In 1855 this ambition was partially realized with the founding of the "Farmer's High School," now Penn State University. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine also owes its existence in part to the influence and support of the Philadelphia Society. James Mease, an officer of the Society, delivered the first series of lectures in Veterinary medicine as early as 1814, though it was not until 1883 that the Society's ambition to start a Veterinary school was formally fulfilled through the founding of the Veterinary School. Throughout this time the Society toyed with the idea of a model farm or "Pattern Farm, " which would serve as a working laboratory for agricultural experimentation. This project never came to fruition, but the principles behind it were realized with the establishment of agricultural experiment stations across the region in the late nineteenth century.

The Society also played a role in the organization of state and federal departments to oversee agriculture. In 1851, the establishment of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society represented the achievement of a long-term goal for the Society. At the same time, the role P.S.P.A. had played in collecting and distributing agricultural knowledge was made obsolete by the growth of this network of governmental and academic research institutions. County and regional organizations drew membership away from the Philadelphia Society, and more authoritative regional and federal associations sapped their influence on the national agricultural scene. The State Society encroached on the local functions of P.S.P.A. when it took over the task of sponsoring the annual agricultural exhibition (later the State Fair).

The onset of the Civil War also disrupted the Society's activities. One member recalls: "The bitter discussions over the incidents of the Civil War 1860-1866 caused the attendance at the meetings to fall off to nothing. Consequently there were no more meetings held during that period. … It is a curious fact that these horny fisted Farmers of the Agricultural Society were to such a large proportion, Southern sympathizers" (Letter from Burnet Landreth to George Curwen, May 12, 1926). Toward the end of the century meetings became irregular and eventually ceased altogether in 1885.

While its activities were sometimes erratic and its projects often never realized, during its most productive period the Society did vastly influence the development of agricultural education and research in the nineteenth century. The primary achievements of these early members were neither their activities nor their projects. Their legacy to American agriculture was instead the direction of their vision, toward scientific experimentation and research, formal agricultural education, and a strong role for government agencies in the advancement and supervision of agricultural progress.

Revival of the Society, 1909, and Early Activities

In 1909 Leonard Pearson (Dean of the Veterinary School) discovered several cartons of books and papers belonging to the old Society in the basement of the Veterinary School. This discovery inspired the five members of the old Society who were still living to meet once again. Twenty years after the last meeting of the Old Society, the modern P.S.P.A. was born. Membership rapidly expanded, and the group soon adopted the By-Laws established in the 19th century.

From the time of its reinception, the modern Society (or junior Society as one member termed it) was preoccupied with its early history and self-consciously worked to mimic the activities of the older group. Many of the junior members were descended from charter members, and an effort was made to enroll members with such legacy. Their concern and care for the early Society's library and artwork reflect this veneration as well.

By the 1920s and 30s, however, the junior Society began to redefine their role in regional agriculture to better suit the twentieth century. The Society showed an active awareness of agricultural issues of the time. In 1920 a special committee was formed to investigate Bovine Tuberculosis. This committee recommended that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reimburse farmers whose cattle had been destroyed because of Tuberculosis. In the late 1920s the Society sponsored agricultural prizes for Potatoes and Hickory Nuts in order to encourage progress in plant breeding and fertilization. In 1932 the Society revived the custom of honoring achievement in agriculture with annual awards. In the early 1940s the practice of invited guest speakers to lecture on topics of agricultural interest was resumed.

Memoirs VI

In honor of the Society's 150th anniversary in 1935, Rodney H. True, of the Library and Archives Committee, presented a paper on the early history of the Society. This paper was printed as a pamphlet, entitled, "A Sketch of the History of P.S.P.A." This historical sketch revived interest in the history of the Society, and inspired John Okie to propose a wider scale reprinting of the work in 1936. This project gradually evolved "due to a desire to offer something more, a greater value." The Society undertook to produce a larger volume, including the "Sketch, " but also complete with illustrations, reproductions of original letters, and transcriptions of manuscript material. This expanded history would be the sequel to the earlier volumes of Memoirs published by the Society in the nineteenth century. "It is proposed to add considerably to the original pamphlet, making of it a bound book such as might be designated Memoirs VI " (from an undated [1937?] memorandum by J. M. Okie). The writing, publication, and sale of Memoirs VI became the focus of John Okie's efforts and the center of much of the Society's business for the next several years. After publication of this volume in 1939, Okie collected reviews and letters responding to Memoirs, and bound them together as the two volume Comments on Memoirs VI . At the time of his death in 1947, Okie was gathering material for a proposed seventh volume of Memoirs.

The Society's Library and Manuscript Collection

The Society began to build up a collection of agricultural books in the early nineteenth century. Under the direction of Dr. James Mease, foreign and American agricultural books and pamphlets were collected. Other works were contributed by correspondents. In 1825 a catalog of the library was assembled and published. In 1888, around the time that the Society began to dissolve, P.S.P.A.'s library of more than 500 volumes was deposited with the University of Pennsylvania and housed in the Furness library (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library). At the same time a fund was established for the purchase of additional books to expand the collection over the years.

At the time of the revival of the Society the collections were removed to the basement of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, where the Society then held their meetings. In 1922, 121 volumes were purchased in England on the recommendation of Rodney H. True. These books were housed in the "Main Library, " as opposed to the Veterinary School library, where there were an additional 610 volumes (Hoopes, Librarian's Report, 1926).

In 1935, several months after the 150th anniversary celebration, John Okie discovered the manuscript material of the early Society. He removed the material to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, where he had it conserved according to contemporary practices. Despite the Historical Society's wish to keep the manuscripts in their library, the collection was returned to the library of the Veterinary School in 1939.

In the mid-1950s the library was moved from the Veterinary School Library to the Rare Book Collection, where some cataloging and conservation work was done. Also under discussion was whether the library fund, administered by the University of Pennsylvania, would finance the history of the Society to be written by S.W. Fletcher. In the early 1960s the collection was moved to Van Pelt Library where further conservation and indexing was accomplished.

In the early 1980s, during the renovation of Horticulture Hall in Fairmount Park, three hundred 19th century agricultural books were found mildewing in boxes in the basement. After some confusion about the ownership of the library, P.S.P.A. paid the City of Philadelphia $1.00 for the collection, which was then distributed among interested agricultural organizations.

In the late 1970s, the University of Pennsylvania refused the addition of Amos Kirby and James Hornor's collections of Agricultural books to their holdings in the Rare Book Collection. The library then stated that it would accept only books printed before the 19th century (Letter from S. C. Loveland to S. Forde Hansell, July 17, 1980). Then President James Hornor, believing that the collection should be housed in a single library, offered the Society's book and library collection to the American Philosophical Society on "permanent deposit" in 1978 (letter of Whitfield J. Bell to James Hornor, October 5, 1978). This incited intense debate and some tension between the Society and the University of Pennsylvania and prompted a legal investigation into the ownership of the collection. The Society voted on a resolution to give the collection to the University of Pennsylvania in December of 1980. The difficult situation was finally resolved in a meeting between P.S.P.A. and the Penn Library. "The books now on deposit at the University Library will remain there in the care of the University as they have in the past. The University Library, from time to time, will accept additional historical and contemporary books, manuscripts, and papers which the Philadelphia Society deems important to add to the collection… It is thought that such additions will not exceed ten volumes annually" (letter from S.C. Loveland to Joan I. Gotwals, Dec. 15, 1980). In 1986 the Society raised funds and received a Pew grant for the restoration and conservation of their library and archives.

Recent History

In the 1970s the Society briefly moved its headquarters to the historic "Kidd-Fling House, " which it shared with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The group remained active in local agricultural events and fairs, and in 1976 was involved in Philadelphia's celebration of the American Bicentennial. This included their participation in a documentary film project on the history of Pennsylvania agriculture. In 1985 P.S.P.A. celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary by organizing a forum of speakers on the topic of international issues of food and hunger. This event marked a considerable change in the scope of the Society's activities, with the shift of its focus to the international community, and the combination of scientific research and social policy. The success of this event brought the spotlight back on the Society within the Philadelphia community, and revitalized the interest of the membership in hosting conferences and publishing scientific papers.

While P.S.P.A. members of the second half of the century are still not farmers, they are less often "patrons of agriculture, " or farm hobbyists. Rather they are the journalists, politicians and businessmen shaping American food industry. They might work for the U.S.D.A., for Agricultural and Veterinary schools, or in Agribusiness, such as Campbell Soup, or Dupont. The younger generation of members have global interests that tie together farming, world politics, and economics.


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