J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library

Due to health and safety precautions regarding COVID-19, the J. Welles Henderson Archives & Library is temporarily closed. We are not accepting research requests or appointments until further notice.

Collections at Independence Seaport Museum span from the 18th century through the present and touch upon numerous topics, from social and economic issues during the nation's founding to the effects of the Industrial Revolution to the Delaware River today. 

The collections target a deeper understanding, appreciation, and experience of the Philadelphia region's waterways. Geographically, this includes the Delaware River watershed, including the major commercial ports of Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington, in addition to New Jersey and Delaware coastal regions that have, and continue to, leave their imprint on the maritime culture of the area. We strive to collect art, artifacts, documents, and reference material that tie the museum to the public through the lenses of history, art, science and community. 

Collections fall into two distinct categories: material culture (all 3-D material), and archives and rare books. All collections are on a scheduled maintenance review cycle and are stored in climate controlled, secure areas. Our continuous goal is to make all collections available to the public as broadly as possible through our in-house and online exhibits, educational and community programming, in addition to public access (by appointment) for the J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library. 

Material Culture

We house an impressive collection of artifacts and art relating to the maritime past that ranges from ship relics, ship models, clothing of the region's diverse maritime communities, tools, mementos, and small craft native to the Delaware River and New Jersey shore. Our rich art collection includes works by such luminaries as Thomas Birch, James Hamilton, and Edward Moran, who capture maritime-related subjects through their artworks, tying them to the cultural and political economy of Philadelphia. Of particular historic significance is our figurehead by William Rush, John Barry's octant, and the many pieces of modern nautical equipment by the John E. Hand Co. These pieces substantiate culture and decorative art holdings, confirming the extensive global trade conducted by local merchants.  

Archives and Rare Books 

One of the largest collections of regional maritime research materials in the nation, the archives and rare books section features documents, manuscripts and books, all focusing on the maritime culture of the Delaware River watershed, the Port of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Records range from business, personal and organizational to photographs, ship plans, measured drawings and ephemera from the 18th century through the present. Of note is our collection of colonial and revolutionary materials such as the John Barry Collection, the Reed & Forde Business Collection and the Captain John Green Collections. In addition, we hold a rich collection of material regarding the founding and growth of the American Navy. Other highlights include records relating to Cruiser Olympia and Submarine Becuna. Our extensive map and rare books collections serve to complete a multidimensional and comprehensive research environment.  


Collections Policy 

Digital Preservation Policy

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