Register of the Records of
LA SOCIETE DE BIENFAISANCE DE PHILADELPHIA
(THE FRENCH BENEVOLENT SOCIETY OF PHILADELPHIA)
Michelle A. Ducellier
For a more complete General History, see the items listed in the Select Bibliography.
The French Benevolent Society was founded on February 6, 1793--the anniversary of the alliance between France and the United States in the Revolutionary War. Although its existence was threatened in 1798, the organization developed a Constitution in 1804, was chartered in 1805, then re-chartered in 1835. It adopted new Articles of Incorporation in 1986 and became an incorporated charity in 1987. Francis Dallett, the honorary Vice President and Archivist of the Society, donated the Society's materials to the Balch Institute in 1993 where they exist today.
The Society was founded to offer moral or financial assistance to those of French descent. This tradition started in 1793 to aid those fleeing the Revolution in France and the West Indies. When an outbreak of yellow fever occurred in the City of Philadelphia in August of 1793, the Society's existence was sealed. Twenty-two percent of the population affected were new comers from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and of French descent. The Society assisted the survivors and new arrivals from Saint-Domingue who were also fleeing revolution. Among the members of the first Society were diplomat Jean de Temant, Philadelphia lawyer Peter Stephen du Ponceau, dentist James Gardette, ship broker and notary public Benjamin Nones and Consul General Antoine de la Forest. Nineteen others helped to co-found the Society. The Society was predominantly Catholic, but membership was open to all, and there existed both Protestant and Jewish members.
In 1798, the Society faced a slump, as the political scene became stable and French émigrés were once again able to return to France. The Society had invested its money wisely, though, and was able to regroup in 1804. In that year, its members numbered one hundred and forty-four. Jean Baptiste Marie Dubarry, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, and Stephen Girard were all influential members of the "new" Society, now faced with the next wave of French emigrationthe Bonapartists in 1815.
The Society continued to aid needy persons throughout the 1800s. Between the years 1847-1861, an annual ball was given to raise money. It became the toast of the season, selling out the Musical Fund Hall and generating hundreds of dollars for indigent French persons. When World War I left many French children without Fathers, the Benevolent Society was quick to sponsor these children, sending money so that they could remain in school. It helped on the homefront, as well, by assisting the wives of Frenchmen who enlisted as soldiers.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Society had many investments in properties throughout Philadelphia. The moneys generated through these investments enabled the Society to continue to help those who applied to them for assistance, whether it be for a job, for funeral expenses, or for transport back to France.
Through much of its existence, membership in the Society cost only three dollars. These annual subscriptions added to the revenue, along with money and properties they inherited from members and others who were deeply appreciative of the work the Society did for the French in the City. Architect and former President of the Society Paul Cret, Lucy Kille, Jules Kerle all left legacies to the Society affirming the need for it and the love and support of its members.
The Society often honored those whom it felt were deeply deserving. A portrait was made and a banquet held for H.A. Pintard, a long time member of the Society. A medal was engraved for the first President of France, M. Thiers, and was presented to him by the American Consulate in France. Telegrams were sent to Woodrow Wilson regarding American involvement in foreign wars. Letters of condolence were sent to the families of Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley. These efforts were always acknowledged by the distinguished recipients demonstrating the respect the Society generated both in the United States and in France.
The Members of the Board met monthly to go over the disbursements made, but the full membership met only once a year at the Annual Assembly. At the assembly, the President gave a report. These reports were often printed and always dictated into the papers of the Society.
There are few materials in this collection post 1941. The Society has slowly suffered a loss in membership and what remains of the more recent materials can be found in the collection of Francis Dallett, also held by the Balch Institute. His extensive research on the history and origins of the members of the Society blossomed into a vast collection of the French influence in Philadelphia and the French families who lived there.
Dallett, Francis James. The French Benevolent Society of Philadelphia and the Bicentennial: An Address to the Assemblee Generale of the Society held at the Union League of Philadelphia, November 15, 1976. Copyright 1976 by the Author.
Eingarth, Annette H. French Philadelphia. Philadelphia Council for International Visitors, c.1976.
Toll, Jean Barth and Gillam, Mildred S. Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations. Atwater Kent Museum, c. 1995.
Dallett, Francis James. "The French in Philadelphia: The French Benevolent Society of Philadelphia," pps. 78-82.
These records were donated to the Balch Institute in 1992 by Francis Dallett, archivist of the French Benevolent Society.
This collection consists mainly of ledgers and correspondence in English and French. The correspondence is generally arranged chronologically but was also sorted by subject. The chronological arrangement was sometimes sacrificed, as the method in which the society kept its records was such that subjects of correspondence were housed in envelopes or document containers which were labeled by handwriting. This original arrangement was strictly preserved, and is reflected in the final formal arrangement. The original envelopes still exist as a part of the correspondence collections but the condition in which they are in is very unstable. Whenever possible, the envelopes were kept, clipped between two pieces of acid free paper. When the condition was too fragile, a photocopy was made and the original discarded. Some of the correspondence was also done on this type of paper. The brittle paper was photocopied onto acid free paper and the original is clipped between this photocopy and another piece of acid free paper. This treatment was also necessary for some of the correspondence from the Depression era. Newspaper clippings were photocopied onto acid free paper if they did not pre-date 1850. The Scrapbooks in Series V; Box 24; Folders 17 and 18 were NOT disassembled, nor were they photocopied, although the newspaper clippings are post-1950. In an effort to preserve the true nature of the scrapbooks and the clippings and items within them, they were instead lined with acid-free paper. In this collection the scrapbooks have more meaning as a unit and the destruction of them would mean a loss to some researchers.
SCOPE AND CONTENT NOTE
The French Benevolent Society was founded in 1793, but there are no remaining records from this original charter period. The organization was re-chartered in 1805 and then re-chartered again in 1835. The materials from the period between 1804 and 1835 are mainly the correspondence of Jean Claude Laval (the first president under the 1805 charter). Much of this correspondence is with a book seller, James McCoy and has little to do with the activities of the society. The 1804 constitution is housed in Series IV; Box 16; Folder 5. Beginning in 1835, the collection becomes rich in materials. It is assumed that this is when a formal record retention policy was instituted, and it is the earliest date on a formal ledgerthe History of the Society Ledger (Series IV, Box 16, Folder 2) dates from 1835-1875.
The correspondence dating from the 1830 through the 1850s is again mostly correspondence of Jean Claude Laval. There are also society notices and meeting announcements and society condolences in this period as well. The bulk of the material begins in the 1850s. The correspondence between 1848 and 1864 is held in the Lettered Correspondence Series III, Sub Series A, in the "K" and "R" sequences The French Benevolent Society hosted an annual Ball that began in 1847. Series V; Boxes 24 and 26 contain the Ball correspondence and scrapbooks.
The Financial Records of the Benevolent Society mostly contain the Property records.
The Society generated revenue through investments in properties. They collected rent on these properties and it is these records which are housed in Series II. Treasurer's Reports can also be found in the Lettered Correspondence Series III, but remain there because of the original order of Lettered envelopes (see Series Notes below). There are financial records and Income/Expense reports covering the years 1843-1941. There are Membership lists and Meeting Minutes from 1830-1941. (Administrative Series IV; Boxes 18-23).
The restricted Case Files cover the years 1914 through 1941. Most cases records are in this period which encompassed World War I, the Depression, and the beginning of World War II. The Fatherless Children of France adoptee records are contained in this series, and the photographs removed from the collection were removed from this Box (27). The List Helped Ledgers (Unrestricted) contain records from 1874-1913.
For the continuation of the French Benevolent Society Records, see the F. Dallett Papers Collection (preliminarily processed as of 8/13/97, with inventory). This collection also contains background on French families in Philadelphia, with a special emphasis on the families of the members of the French Benevolent Society. There are notes on the French influence in Philadelphia, Maryland and New York.
The following paragraphs describe the scope and content of the collection at the series levels:
This series contains the earliest correspondence, and that of John Laval, the first President of the 1805 Charter. Box 1, Folders 1-5 contain letters from Laval to several merchants, some traveling south to New Orleans and other destinations. There is a series of letters between Laval and James McCoy, a book merchant, which offers an interesting look into the difficulties that early settlers faced in starting businesses and acquiring materials promised from them from the more settled eastern states. Also included is correspondence between Laval and his bank in Pottstown, Pennsylvania which gives a small indication of his financial situation. There is a series of legal correspondence over a land dispute and materials on the sale of properties and the like.
In Box 2, Folders 4-7, there is an interesting series of materials covering the making of a Medal for M. Thiers, first President of France. The members of the French Benevolent Society "subscribed" to the making of the medal by donating money and when it was finished it was presented to M. Thiers by a representative of the American consulate in France. Some subscription booklets, a book of "Homage," news clippings and correspondence are all included.
There is a significant increase in the number of folders in Boxes 3-5. As much as possible, each folder is subject specific and the Folder list should be consulted. Much of the middle 19th Century correspondence (and, more specifically, the Civil War period) was contained in the Lettered Envelope Series III. The "General Correspondence" contained in Boxes 1 and 2 consists mainly of society notices, meeting and funeral announcements. These folders were listed as such, or "General," except where there was a significant amount of material on the same subject. This is not the case in Boxes 3-5, and to the extent possible, there are no "General" areas contained.
Box 3 contains correspondence from the middle period of the series and the first materials in this series from the 20th Century. In 1903, the members sought to recognize the work of M. H. Pintard, President for many years of the French Benevolent Society. Folders 3 and 6 cover the portrait which was commissioned and the banquet which was held in his honor in 1912.
The French Benevolent Society was a charitable organization. Some of the interesting highlights of Boxes 3-5 are the Estate materials. In Box 3, Folder 15 are the materials from the Estate of Lucy Kille, a wealthy woman who left money to several Philadelphia charities, including the French Benevolent Society. Box 4, Folder 5 contains materials concerning the estate of Alphonse Stephani, imprisoned in Attica. Stephani's father was a wine merchant in Philadelphia, and a subscribing member of the Society. The French Benevolent Society filed a petition on his behalf in the New York State Supreme Court, and although it was denied, Stephani did not forget them, and, before a codicil was included, under certain circumstances, they were to have received income from his estate. Whenever a society member or other individual left money to the Society, the correspondence, and often a copy of the will, are included in the folder. Generally, a "lost" heir will appear, and this interesting correspondence is also included. The society always checked their authenticity before addressing these people or giving them information about the deaths. The Manuel Waldteufel estate (Box 4, Folder 25) and the Blanc folders (Box 5, Folders 6-7) contain the largest amount of such materials. The estate of Victor Archambault (Box 5, Folder 5) was contested and this folder contains a copy of the case itself Box 4, Folders 16, and 45 and Box 5, Folders 8, 10, 11, 15-18 are also estate materials.
Box 5, Folders 19-25 all contain information about member deaths. Death announcements, condolence cards and correspondence are all included. These materials extend into the 1980s.
Included in Box 5 are the materials from the sale of Robinson's Cemetery. Robinson's Cemetery used to exist between Fitzwater and Bainbridge Streets, and between 9th and 10th Streets. Today, it is owned by the City and is called Palumbo Park. The folders in this series include the correspondence between Charlotte Atkins and the Society. Charlotte Atkins was the driving force behind the preservation of the Cemetery, but it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Efforts were made to collect donations from lot owners and those who had family members buried there. The French Benevolent Society owned lots in this Cemetery; it was founded as a place to bury those without means to buy expensive lots elsewhere and many early residents of moderate means were buried here as well. A lot was owned by John Laval and another was acquired by them apparently to bury those helped by the Society but without family or means. There is a news clipping from 1920 showing what the Cemetery looked like. It was formally donated to Mayor Moore and the City of Philadelphia in 1922 to prevent the destruction and scattering of those buried there. The names of those buried there are in the "City Tablets" and the headstones were removed. It is an interesting little section of this series.
Series II-Financial Records
Sub Series A-Properties
During the 1930s and 1940s, much of the income that the French Benevolent Society received was return on their property investments. These Boxes contain the materials from mortgages and deeds to properties that the Society bought. The Society would buy a mortgage and would use the collected money as revenue. There is a large volume of receipts for improvements, estimates, correspondence about potential investments, etc. Certain residences generated more material than others, usually indicative of a need for extensive maintenance and improvements. The largest collections are Box 6, Folders 11-15 (631 Chester Pike which actually went through several address changes), Box 7, Folders 13-15 (526 Pine Street), and Box 7, Folders 16-17, Box 8, Folders 1-4 (3142 and 3150 North 8th Street). To keep track of their investments and also an indication of the importance of them, four chronological ledgers were kept logging receipts from 1887 through 1952. These ledgers are housed in Box 9.
Sub Series B-Treasurer's Reports
Along with the Treasurer's Reports in the Lettered Envelope Series III, Boxes 13 and 14), there is a complete set of Reports as generated by the society from 1836-1879. It is unclear why the collection of Treasurer Reports was separated into two series, but in the interest of keeping the original order, it was necessary to keep the Lettered Envelope Series Reports within their own series. In the Financial series, there is a bound ledger entitled "S.B.F. Archives" which contain records from 1836-57 and then a straight run of reports from 1869-1879. This continues the series found in the Lettered Envelope Series (1843-1868). There do not appear to be any Treasurer's Reports in the collection after 1879, but there is a series of ledgers in the General Accounting series which accounts for Income/Expenses up to and including 1922. For further financial records it is necessary to look at the Annual Reports which have been separated to the Library as a periodical series.
Sub Series C-General Accounting
The bulk of the material in this series was generated in the post World War I period. The Society had invested in Liberty bonds and it generated revenue through the sale of these loans and bonds after the War was over. The correspondence with the different companies (see folder list) deals mainly with the sale of individual bonds. At the end of this series in Folders 13-15, there is a series of Income/Expenses ledgers which covers the incoming and outgoing payments of the society from 1850-1922. For further financial records it is necessary to look at the Annual Reports which have been separated to the Library as a periodical series.
Series III-Lettered Envelope
Note from Preliminary Inventory Control List: "The following items ... were originally in heavy paper packets (document envelopes) and have now been opened and placed in folders. The packets...had each been given an alphabetical letter...." To preserve original order, this series of materials was not broken down and incorporated into the series into which they appear to belongall materials were kept in Sub Series corresponding to the letter that was given to them on the Document Envelopes by the French Benevolent Society Secretary. Below is a short description of each Sub Series. The description was made from observations and the help of the Archival Inventory made by the Society in 1903 and included in Series IV, Box 16, Folder 3.
Sub Series A-Series "K"
Folders 1-6 contain the numbered correspondence which relates to an inventory that is not included in the collection, or was not matched to this series of letters. It includes letters numbered 1-120, and the dates range from 1848-1869. It includes "letters of Consuls, Ministers and Mayors, etc.; letters of resignation from offices, diverse propositions, presentations of medals; letter from M. Epineuil, letter from the Pennsylvania Hospital and letter from the flag factory".
Sub Series B-Series "L"
Folders 7-8 start a series of Annual Assembly President's reports from the years 1845-56.
Included are years 1845, 1848, 1850, 1853, 1854-56. Also included was an "exemplaire," a typical example of La Gazette Francaise, a French language newspaper which was not retained.
Sub Series C-Series "M''
The continuation of a series of Annual Assembly reports are included in Series "M".
Folders 10-13 contain years 1857-1861, and the "discourse of M. A. Vaillant."
Sub Series D-Series "N"
The "N" series continues the series of Annual Assembly reports and includes the years 1862-1868.
Sub Series E-Series "0"
The series of Treasurer's reports which is continued in the Financial Record Series 11 (Box 10) is included here. Series "0" contains Reports from the years 1843-1859.
Sub Series F-Series "P"
The "P" series continues the series of Treasurer's Reports and includes the years 1860-1867.
Sub Series F-Series "Q"
This is a series of General Correspondence and includes Folders 10-14. According to the S.B.F. 1903 inventory, Series "Q" contains copies of resolutions of the Administrative Bureau, letters of condolence, letters of thanks, letters of M. Frenaye relative to the history of M. Lafour which was related at a Society Ball, letters to Emperor Napoleon and his Ministers.
Sub Series G-Series "R"
The "R" series is described as "letters of the members of the Society." Folders 15-22 include correspondence from 1848-68.
Sub Series H-Series "S"
Folders 1-4 include correspondence between different regional French Benevolent Societies, including Baltimore, New York City, Chicago, Dubuque and Cincinnati.
Sub Series I-Series "T"
This is an interesting series as it includes election results and materials from the election of the Board Members in the years 1847-68. It includes attendance records, meeting notices, funeral notices and administrative notices.
Sub Series J-Series "U"
Again, the election tallies and materials contained in Series V are of interest as far as Board Administration is concerned. Administrative correspondence is also included in this series.
Sub Series K-Series "W"
Series "V" contains information about the Society Balls held in 1864-66 (see Series V for more Ball materials). It also contains printed Treasurer reports from the years 1847-56. There are also annual reports from 1847-56 included in this series.
Sub Series A-General History and Constitutions
The first three folders in this Sub Series contain bound volumes of 1) Original Documents and a Scrapbook of Society Happenings from 1862-1960, 2) a History of the Society from 1835-1875, and 3) an Inventory of the Society Archives which was taken in 1903. These three volumes are rich with information concerning the Society during its early and middle years and to a lesser extent from the later years. The inventory is very useful in placing items which have been inadvertently taken out of their original order or context, and the scrapbook can support correspondence found elsewhere in the collection.
Folder 4 contains news clippings and newspaper articles, collected from the years 1850-1900 but not placed in any scrapbook.
Folders 5-8 and the continuation of the series in Box 17, folders 1-4 contain Constitutions and revisions of constitutions dating from 1804-1891. Most notable, of course, is the original 1804 constitution located in Box 16, Folder 5.
Sub Series B-Annual Reports
A complete series of Annual Reports, both hard bound and soft bound have been separated from this section to the Library. What is contained in this series are paper copies of these reports and notes for the printing of them.
Folders 5-8 contain a full series of Annual Reports gathered from 1830-1856. It also has an annotated version of the 1850 Annual Report. There are notes for the Annual Reports printed between 1905 and 1915 and ten years (1858-68) of Annual Reports from the New York French Benevolent Society.
Sub Series C-Membership Information
Box 18-20 Membership information is mostly contained in the form of Ledgers. The Society kept careful ledgers, due to the fact that membership was subscription based. These ledgers keep track of names and amounts paid throughout the years. The five ledgers in Box 18 contain membership information from between 1835 and 1940, complete. There are two odd sized membership ledgers in Box 19 which duplicate information found in the regularly bound volumesthey cover the dates 1835-1874. A large oversized volume covering 1861-78 completes the series in Box 20. It is unclear why so much of the membership data is duplicated.
Sub Series D-Meeting Minutes
Like the Membership information, the meeting minutes were kept in ledgers. Boxes 21-23 contain a complete series of Society minutes from 1830-1942. Because it is odd sized, the meeting minutes from the years 1884-98 are housed out of order in Box 23. This is noted on the Folder Inventory.
Series V-Fund Raising Events
Sub Series A-Annual French Society Ball
Box 24 To raise funds, from the years 1847-1861, the French Benevolent Society hosted an Annual Ball at the Music Fund Hall. It became one of the most anticipated events of each season, coming in late January or early February, breaking up the long Philadelphia winters. Information pertaining to each ball was housed in a separate envelope, with the exception of the fourth ball in 1850, whose envelope was lost or misplaced. The other 13 balls are arranged chronologically in Folders 1-13. Contained in these folders is largely correspondence related to the organization of the Ballsbills from local caterers; invoices from print shops for the printing of the dance cards and invitations; advertising fees from the local English and French newspapers. Also included is information on ticket sales and totals, including revenue earned from each ball. The total funds raised is generally written on the original envelope, all of which have been retained or photocopied and included in the corresponding folder.
Sub Series B-Other Events
Included in Folders 14 and 15 are materials from the Society's two Musical Concerts, both held at the Musical Fund Hall. These Concerts seem to have been an attempt to take the place of the Annual Ball (perhaps due to the Civil War) during 1862 and 1863, and appear to have been well attended. Folder 16 contains materials generated from a Theatre Matinee in 1871. This was apparently a controversial event because the actress donated the proceeds of the show to the French Benevolent Society without the consent of the Theatre owner himself. The news editorials concerning the event are included.
Sub Series C-Memorabilia
Folder 17 includes subscription booklets from the 13th-15th Balls and also for the two concerts. Folders 18 and 19 are the highlights of the series, featuring two scrapbooks from the Balls and Concerts, including examples of the dance cards, invitations, and newspaper clipping concerning the events. It is a wonderful documentation of this Society tradition.
Series VI-Case Files
Sub Series A-Unrestricted Files
Contained in Boxes 25 and 26 are ledgers documenting those the Society helped. The names and amounts are included from the years 1874-1913. These ledgers can be used to ascertain whether or not a person was helped by the Society and whether permission should be sought to obtain further information held in the restricted files.
Sub Series B-Restricted Files
Super Sub Series 1-Fatherless Children of France
The French Benevolent Society, through the Franco-American Fraternity, adopted French children who had lost their father and in some cases both parents during the first World War. Folders 1-14 contain the correspondence that these children and their mothers sent to the society, the reports from the field workers who kept case notes on these children and notes as to which member of the society was responsible for the subscription of the child. The series dates range from 1917-1923; some children have larger files than others due to the length of time the society supported them. Ten of the twelve photographs removed to Photo Group 361 were taken from these records and are also restricted. See Folder List and attached Separation and Transfer Record to identify which children and families have photographs included in their file.
Super Sub Series 2-General Cases
Boxes 27 and 28
Box 27, Folders 15-19 and Box 28, complete, contain the folders of General Society cases. People of French descent in need could petition the society for aid, but most often, the members of the society would recommend a person and the case would be examined. Also popular was petitioning the Society for help in finding employment or for use as a reference when traveling to a new city. This correspondence is included in each person or family's folder. The folder list and ledgers should be checked to identify who was helped, and the notes written on the original correspondence for the action taken in each case. Box 28, Folder 39 is entitled "Smaller Cases" and includes a list, also attached below.
Series VII-Printed and other Ephemera
Items in this series were kept in this Box when their use was questionable or their context unclear, but not to an extent that separating the item to the Library, Museum or to a Photo collection seemed appropriate. See Folder Inventory for list of items included.
Related Collections housed at the Balch Institute are:
Francis Dallett Papers (unprocessed as of August 7, 1997)
L'Alliance Francaise de Philadelphie (Inventory available, unprocessed as of August 7, 1997)
The box list of the Register of the Records of the French Benevolent Society
of Philadelphia is twenty-eight pages long.