Saturday, January 02, 2016

Elkins Park

Many of you will have heard the name "Elkins Park" for the first time this week as the jurisdiction of Bill Cosby indictment. It is undoubtedly the most famous thing that Elkins Park has been known for. However, it has a connection to books and libraries that those of us involved with books and libraries should celebrate as a counter to this newly acquired notoriety.

The Elkins family was one of the 19th century's big names in Pennsylvania. William Lukens Elkins was one of the first "oil barons" whose company was the first to produce gasoline, just in time for the industrial and transportation revolution that would use untold gallons of the stuff. His business partner was Peter Widener, and the two families were intertwined through generations, their Philadelphia mansions built across the street from each other.

Eleanor Elkins, daughter of WL Elkins, married George Widener, son of Peter Widener, essentially marrying the two families. Eleanor and George had a son, Harry. Unfortunately, they were rich enough to book passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912. George and Harry perished; Eleanor Elkins Widener survived.

Harry Widener had been an avid book collector, sharing this interest with his best friend, William McIntire Elkins. Harry had graduated from Harvard, as had his friend WM Elkins, and his will instructed his mother to donate his collection to Harvard, "to be known as the Harry Elkins Widener Collection." His mother took it one further and funded the creation of a new library that would house both her son's collection but also the entire Harvard library collection. Yes, I am talking about the now famous Widener Library.

His friend, William McIntire Elkins, lived until 1947, and during his lifetime amassed a huge rare book collection. He was particularly interested in Dickensiana, which included not only first serially published editions of Dickens' works, but also Dickens' desk, candlesticks, ink well, etc. His will left his entire collection to the Free Library of Philadelphia. Well, it turned out that it was not only his book collection, but the entire room, which was moved into the library, looking much as it did during Elkins' life.

Elkins Park is named, of course, for the Elkins family whose massive estate held an impressive array of mansions and grounds. Much of the estate has been divided up and sold off, but portions remain.

So that's the story of Elkins Park and how it fits into libraries and the rarified world of rare books. But I have another small bit to add to the story. In 1947, at the time of his death, John and Eleanor King, my grandparents, were working for (as he was known in my family) "old man Elkins" -- that is William McIntire Elkins. My grandfather was gardener and chauffeur for Elkins, and my grandmother was (as she called it) the executive of the household. When the library was transferred to the Free Library of Philadelphia, photographs were taken out the windows so that the "view" could be reproduced. Those photographs show the grounds that my grandfather cared for, and the room itself was undoubtedly very familiar to my grandmother (although she would never admit to having done any dusting with her own hand). A small amount bequeathed to them in Elkins' will allowed them to own their own property for the first time, just a few acres, but enough to live on, with sheep and chickens and a single steer. I have early memories of that farm, and a few family photos. Little did any of us know at the time that I would reconnect all of this because of books.

1 comment:

stevenb said...

I am one of those librarians who does know about EP. I lived in the area for 25 years until I moved to Haverford a few years ago. Drove by the "estate" many times. It always looked vacant. Thanks for sharing many historical facts and details of which I was not aware.