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COLLECTION Identifier: ecb00008

Philadelphia Cabinet photograph collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains articles and other printed secondary source materials about the history of the Commerce Museum and its collections, and correspondence about the provenance of the Philadelphia Cabinet photograph collection. The bulk of the collection is 91 photographs mounted on paperboard with descriptions on the back. One duplicate photo entitled Cutting Cinnamon without a description is also included in the collection, provenance unknown.


  • circa 1900-2011


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


1.2 linear feet (5 boxes (1 half width document box, 4 flat boxes))

Biographical Note

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum was established in 1893 by Dr. William Wilson to encourage and facilitate American commercial ventures outside of the United States. Wilson was born in Oxford, Michigan, on October 17, 1844. He graduated from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1878 and eventually became a professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania. After visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Wilson was inspired to create a museum that would display artifacts of international commerce. The museum would eventually house over 200,000 artifacts and become the unofficial repository for World’s Fair objects. The museum also housed a Bureau of Information that served as a business library containing and distributing information about overseas markets.

In the early 1900s, the museum responded to teachers’ growing demand for educational samples by producing teaching exhibits for Philadelphia school children. This represented a shift from the role of commerce information leader to educator. Hundreds of exhibits of commercial material specimens, each set of which also included 100 to 200 photographs with accompanying descriptions, were given to Pennsylvania schools free of charge. The photographs were intended to supplement the specimens and demonstrate the growth, preparation, and manufacture of various international commercial products. Four different sizes of these exhibits, known as Philadelphia Cabinets, were created to cater to different grade levels. The smallest of these collections could fit into one cabinet 42 inches high, whereas the largest collection included up to 15 additional drawers and was contained in two upright cabinets. The photographs in this collection most likely came from the largest of these exhibits.

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum was renamed several times in the 1950s and 1960s and finally became known as the Philadelphia Civic Center Museum. The Civic Center Museum closed its doors to the public in 1994. Materials remaining in the collection were distributed to other museums throughout the state. Thousands of artifacts were moved to the University of Pennsylvania Museum.


Clinger A. 1927. William Powell Wilson: 1844-1927. Washington D.C.: The American Association of Museums.

Conn S. 1998. An epistemology for empire: the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, 1893-1926. Diplomatic History. 22(4):533-663.

Toothaker C. 1920. Educational work of the Commercial Museum of Philadelphia. Bulletin of the Department of the Interior Bureau of Education. 13.


The photographs were originally intended to be paired with specific cabinet trays (or drawers) for instruction and have been arranged by tray.


The Philadelphia Cabinets may have been acquired by the Harvard Botanical Museum during the time of Oakes Ames, who was director of the Botanical Museum from 1937 to 1945.

The Philadelphia Cabinets are part of the Economic Herbarium of Oakes Ames in the Harvard University Herbaria. The photographs were briefly transferred to the Arnold Arboretum Archives but were transferred back to the Harvard Botany Libraries.

Related Materials

Philadelphia Commercial Museum Photograph Collection. Manuscript Group 219. The Pennsylvania State Archives.

Processing Information

Processed by Joseph C. Melanson, 2002. Additional processing by Rachel Parker, 2017.

Commercial Museum (Philadelphia, Pa.). Philadelphia Cabinet photograph collection, circa 1900-2011: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries.The Economic Botany Library specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. The Archives of the Economic Botany Herbarium of Oakes Ames houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Economic Botany Herbarium.

Harvard University Herbaria
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