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The Early American Judaica Collection

The Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica, donated to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries in 2012 by the Kaplans, and growing each year, teaches us about the everyday lives, families, businesses, communal institutions, religious organizations, voluntary associations, and political circumstances of Jewish life throughout the western hemisphere over four centuries.  It provides a unique window into the changing character of colonial life and culture around the Atlantic world and within the United States.   It documents changing perceptions and experiences of new worlds of space and time, not only from the perspective of its Jewish colonists and citizens but also in the context of the larger societies in which they have lived.  The collection, in short, is more than the sum of its parts. It is the constellation of unlimited potential connections among its many pieces from the time of colonial settlement in the sixteenth century into the era of mass migration at the end of the 19th century.

A Collection Unlike Any Other

The Kaplans’ core collecting focus over the last half-century has been on the evolution of Jewish business life in the Americas. So, for example, early cartographic evidence in the collection marks colonial Jewish plantations in Surinam and the Caribbean as well as merchant activity in Atlantic port cities throughout the western hemisphere.  Unique financial records reveal the trading activities of Jewish family businesses during the 18th and 19th centuries. Manuscript ledgers and correspondence from the late 18th century document Jewish commercial networks in North America, such as the expansion of the fur trade in upper Michigan and French Quebec. Just as notably, thousands of ordinary sources of information detail the daily struggles of Jewish peddlers, craftsmen, and small business owners. Bill heads - a type of printed form listing the products, prices, seller's name, date and other pertinent information – offer an archival trove for studying Jewish-owned businesses.  Individual treasures also may be found such as a beautiful set of five of the rarest advertisement cards for the Levi Strauss clothing business that supplied pants worn by the “forty-niners” during the California Gold Rush.  These primary sources have been avidly collected by the Kaplans and trace the growth and connections among Jewish businesses in the U.S. South, Midwest and Far West throughout the 19th century.

Thanks to the Kaplan Collection, we now have the ability to study and analyze in precise detail
a wide spectrum of Jewish business experiences, i.e., degrees of success and failure represented by
great wealth, moderate prosperity, the working poor, and those in need of charity.

The Kaplans' decades of passionate collecting have brought into focus what the ordinary lives and labor of many different classes of Jews were like: the variety of ways in which they earned a living, the families they built, the children they raised, the education they gave these children, how they cared for the sick, and how they responded to the controversial public issues of their day. We also catch glimpses of the fabric of their daily lives, what clothes they wore, what furnishings were found in their homes, what they bought, ate, and read. Notably, the Kaplans have not neglected nor shied away from collecting controversial source materials documenting business activity by Jews in the Americas such as slave ownership. The Kaplan Collection opens new vistas that show how Jews, male and female, individually and collectively, helped to shape the towns, cities, and frontier communities in which they lived.

To achieve their all-inclusive collecting vision, the Kaplans have uniquely assembled entirely new bodies of primary source material for scholars to mine. Two of the most extraordinary components of the Kaplan collection simply cannot be duplicated: trade cards and the aforementioned billheads. Deanne Kaplan first drew attention to and developed the Kaplan’s sub-collection of thousands of exquisitely illustrated 19th century Victorian Jewish trade (or advertising) cards.  Arnold Kaplan traveled around the country visiting paper shows collecting bill heads and receipts.  Each item taken by itself is ephemeral. A corpus of thousands of such items offers an entirely new set of untapped resources for piecing together the complex history of American Jewish commercial life. 

The Kaplan Collection contains diverse format types, including what may be single largest collection of early Jewish photography in the United States.  These photographs, produced by Jewish photographers and Jewish-owned photographic businesses, depict both non-Jewish and Jewish subjects, including what may be the earliest photograph of a carver of a Jewish tombstone. Noteworthy photographs include Civil War–era photos, for example, of the devastation in Richmond, cartes de visite, portrait (or studio) photos, and dozens of stereoscopic images, the nineteenth-century version of 3-D glasses. 

The Kaplans took a keen interest in all types of artistic expressions, visual as well as craft, of Jewish life in the Americas.  Their collection includes original oil paintings that date from the eighteenth century, most from the nineteenth century, some in their original frames, as well as textile samplers, pastels, watercolors, handwritten sketches, and lithographs. There are three-dimensional, museum-quality artifacts, including presentation silver. The collection contains rare flatware with the stamps of Jewish silversmiths, and silver bowls of historic significance, such as one inscribed and given to a member of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites (the first Jewish lobbying/defense association, established in New York City in 1859).   There also are examples of the first American glass ever blown to make bottles with raised Hebrew lettering.  Among the unusual three-dimensional artifacts is a Civil War–era pistol owned by Jonas Levy, an officer in the U.S. Navy and the younger brother of Uriah P. Levy, the nation’s first Jewish naval commodore.  This pistol, as well as an oil painting of a naval ship, and a shaving mug, were owned by Jefferson Monroe Levy, the son of Jonas Levy, and were kept at Monticello.  Jefferson’s uncle Uriah Levy had purchased Monticello in 1834.  During the Civil War, Monticello was seized by the Confederacy and sold but afterwards was reclaimed by Jefferson Levy after a lengthy court battle.  On repossession, Monticello was in a state of terrible disrepair. Jefferson Levy then undertook to restore the historic home at great personal expense.  The Kaplan Collection has numerous documents relating to the Levy family and the fate of Monticello.

The Kaplan Collection has an abundance of materials that relate to Jewish service in the military, first in colonial militias, in the course of the American Revolution, in the wars in which the United States engaged in the nineteenth century, and on both side of the bloody divide between the North and South during the U.S. Civil War.  From the French and Indian Wars in the mid-18th century are documents of Jewish merchants who provisioned the colonial British army; a unique handwritten business ledger kept by the Jewish merchant David Salisbury Franks between 1774 and 1776, while he resided in Montreal, Canada bears witness to his place as the first Jew to be jailed for supporting the American Revolution; from the War of 1812, there may be found the first known example of a Presidential pardon in a case involving an American Jew, Uriah P. Levy, who served as a witness in the court proceedings concerning acts of piracy and murder on the high seas (the aforementioned Levy famously would later become the first American Jewish naval Commodore); from the U.S. Civil War, there exists a watercolor drawing by Max Neugas, a Confederate Jewish prisoner of war, of the Union Barracks at Fort Delaware where he was held from 1863 until the war's end in 1865.

Though mainly focused on original manuscripts and unique works of fine and folk art, the Kaplan Collection also contains approximately three hundred fifty volumes of rare printed books, serials, and pamphlets.  Among them are a remarkable variety of landmark first edition imprints of Judaica Americana, such as Judah Monis’s Hebrew grammar Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet [Ivrit, i.e., Hebrew].   Printed in Boston by Jonas Green in1735 with Hebrew font imported from London, this grammar is regarded as the first Hebrew textbook in colonial America.  The Kaplan Collection also holds the second such grammar, authored by Samuel Sewall and printed in Boston in 1763, which is the only other Hebrew grammar published in North America before the nineteenth century. The grammars of Monis, a convert to Christianity, and Sewall, a Christian Hebraist, bear witness to the early Protestant American interest in the language of the Old Testament.  In fact, students were required to study Hebrew as part of the early standard curriculum at Harvard, where both men taught.  Also found in the Kaplan rare print collection is the Essai historique sur la colonie de Surinam (Paramaribo [Suriname], 1788) by David Nassy, which contains the first history of the Jewish settlement of that Dutch colony.  Nassy, a physician who came to Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, successfully treated the city’s inhabitants, defying the bloodletting methods  employed by Dr. Benjamin Rush. The printed record of how he did it, based on his experiences in tropical Suriname, is also in the collection: Observations on the Cause, Nature, and Treatment of the Epidemic Disorder, Prevalent in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Parker & Co. for M. Carey, 1793).  Also noteworthy is the first children’s book by a Jewish author (Isaac Gomez), which is accompanied by a printed approbation from former President John Adams pasted inside its cover; the first Jewish almanac (lu’ah), printed by Moses Lopez (the Kaplan copy once belonged to Rebecca Gratz and contains her handwritten notes); and what is perhaps the first bar mitsvah sermon printed in the United States. 

The Kaplan Collection also contains important original source materials documenting the history of Atlantic Jewish emancipation and the beginnings of modern Jewish politics.  For example, you find the original printing of the British Plantation Act of 1739, which granted Jews and other non-subjects in the colonies’ naturalization.  You find primary sources that tell the story of how Jews became American citizens, how their constitutional rights were secured, and how their state rights were eventually won. You can learn too about painful episodes of oppression, anti-Jewish antagonism, both social and political, the conflicted position of Jews on opposite sides of the American Civil War.

The collection of rare early American newspapers includes reprintings of the famous letters of congratulations sent by the Jewish congregations of the new republic to George Washington on the occasion of his inauguration as the first president of the United States. Found here is perhaps the most important exchange in American Jewish letters, that between Moses Seixas, representing the Jews of Newport, and Washington, in which he famously echoes Seixas’ phrase “to bigotry no sanction.” The phrase heralded a new epoch for Jews as citizens of a republic entitled to the same rights and privileges as all other (male) citizens. Remarkably, the Kaplan Collection holds copies, some in mint condition, of the contemporary newspaper reprintings of the letters from all six cities (Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah).   Other newspaper accounts, pamphlets, and broadsides bear witness to painful episodes of resistance to Jewish civil rights such as occurred during the legislative debates over the Maryland Jew Bill to rectify the exclusion of Jews from serving in that state’s assembly, political infighting during the Jacksonian era, and in other moments of anti-Jewish antagonism, both social and political, such as the Mortara Affair in 1858, an international uproar caused by the Vatican’s defense of the secret baptism of a Jewish infant who later was taken from his parents to be raised as a Catholic.

Finally, in the field of American Jewish religious history, the Kaplan Collection contains unique documents of the history of observant Judaism in early America, a subject that until recently has received scant attention relative to the study of the origins of Reform and Conservative denominations of American Judaism.  Most notably, the Kaplans built the largest private collection of personal correspondence of Isaac Leeser, the most important antebellum American Jewish communal leader, institution builder and publisher. These sources have been inaccessible to scholarship for a generation and now are available to help rethink the history of enlightened observant Judaism in America.  While some histories of early American Jews have focused on forms of assimilation, secularization or reform, the Kaplan Collection, without neglecting any of these traditional subjects, meanwhile paints an entirely different canvas of religious renaissance and revival.