Collection of the Month - The Potts Family Papers

Those interested in the history of the Philadelphia Area and its Quaker inhabitants may enjoy a new addition to Haverford College’s Special Collections: The Potts family Papers

Posted on September 15, 2015

Potts Family Papers

Those interested in the history of the Philadelphia Area and its Quaker inhabitants may enjoy a new addition to Haverford College’s Special Collections: The Potts family Papers. All materials belong to the family of Joseph Kirkbride Potts, who was the grandson of the founder of Pottstown, PA: John Potts.  John Kirkbride Potts began a textile enterprise in the entrepreneurial Potts family spirit; however, unlike his colonial predecessors, he endured severe economic hardships following the War of 1812. The failure of his enterprise displaced him, his wife, Sydney Bonsall, and their eight children to at least four addresses around the Philadelphia area.

While this collection contains various materials detailing the estate and inheritance of Joseph Kirkbride Potts, the heart of this collection is the hundreds of journal pages of Joseph Kirkbride Potts’ daughters, mostly Mary Potts. Mary’s journal entries provide a peek into the surprisingly cheerful domestic life of her family, and illustrate how they found stability in their Quaker faith and philanthropic and volunteer work.

Though Mary Potts’ journal entries range from her childhood to her later adulthood, her musings never lose their whimsical and childlike quality, even in describing the more mundane moments of her daily life. Mary especially admires “genius of conversation,” and gives charming accounts of its presence and absence in her siblings’ and visitors’ dialogues: “He gave her a piece of bread till I told him I did expect he spoiled that cat. It was very stiff between us till we got into a little conversation about raspberries and cherries,” and “the boys talked considerably, discussed our weights again and told how much everyone weighed.”

Also among the journals is an 1879 unsigned biological/geological journal, possibly written by Mary Potts. The journal includes written reports and various drawings of local specimens and fossils. The research shows the writer to be applying basic scientific processes to published data to better understand the Philadelphia countryside. Though there are several amusing digressions about the writer’s conviction in the importance of the findings, the writer’s grappling with the greater scientific world is nonetheless remarkable. Biology and geology would be unusual and ambitious pursuits for any resident of the 19th century; if Mary Potts was the writer of the journal, her interests would have taken her far outside of the stereotypical domestic bubble of 19th century women!

The collection also includes a scrapbook overflowing with snippets from Mary Potts’ world: memorandums of her ministers, friends, and family, as well as newspaper clippings, photographs and daguerreotypes, most in good condition.