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A lost piece of Theater History


One of the most satisfying aspects of working in a digital library is the opportunity to expose people to a life or a story they may not have realized existed. A week ago I was presented with an archival box full of pieces of a puzzle. The pieces belonged to a man named Howard Merrill Shelley and the puzzle I am working on is how to put together the events that make up the life of this man. I have begun scanning in images and other assorted items from the box, and his story is slowly coming to light, possibly for the first time in fifty years.

Howard Shelley (1879-1956) was known primarily as a Philadelphia theater and opera personality. However, before I go into that, I would like to delve into his ancestors, an interesting topic of its own. Howard Merrill’s lineage plays like a who’s who of American history. Howard’s mother, Sophia Rittenhouse Shelley, is directly descended from the famous scientist and astronomer, David Rittenhouse. Howard’s grandmother, Amanda McClellan is related by marriage to none other than Benjamin Franklin and is directly related to the Civil War general, George B. McClellan.



George himself was the grandson of General Samuel McClellan of the Revolutionary War. Samuel married Rachel Abbe, a direct descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, Massachusetts.



Howard also had a famous second cousin named Kate Shelley. While not a household name today, in her own time she was a famous poet and folk hero. As a young girl she risked her own life to save hundreds of lives by averting a potential train accident.

Not surprisingly, Howard Shelley thought his own family history quite interesting and wrote a successful play about it in 1914 called The Family Tree. At the time in Philadelphia, as well as other major cities, there was a craze to document and brag about one’s own family history in order to secure social prestige and Howard took advantage of this subject to write his satirical comedy. Prior to The Family Tree Howard co-wrote a popular musical called The Beauty Doctor in 1904. An article in the Geneva Daily Times described this production as a piece “based on the beauty culture craze, which is handled in a broadly humorous way and is said to afford ample opportunity for hearty fun”.

After writing two successful satires for the stage, Howard went on to become a theatrical press agent. He wrote an early form of gossip column about society under the name Barclay Beekman for the New York Daily Mirror and was also employed by stars of the stage, including Lillian Russell, an actress and singer, and Luisa Tetrazzini, an Italian opera soprano.


Digitizing the Howard Shelley Collection has been like working on a miniature time capsule of Philadelphia genealogy and theater history. I have only completed about a third of the collection and am eager to discover how the other pieces of the puzzle come together. What I find remarkable is that despite having two hit shows and an active life in theater and opera, Howard Shelley and his productions have managed to escape history’s grasp. It causes one to realize that the majority of popular culture today may not survive a hundred years, for better or worse. For my part, I am glad to have the opportunity to once again put Howard Shelley in the spotlight.

Posted for Karla Irwin, Fall 2011 Digital Library Intern.


Roman Catholic High School Partnership Signed

Posted for Darren G. Poley, Outreach Librarian

Villanova’s Digital Library recently signed a digital partnership agreement with the Alumni Association of the oldest free Catholic high school still in operation in the city of Philadelphia, Roman Catholic High School. The impressive Gothic building on the northeast corner of Broad and Vine Streets continues to be the main building of the historic school commonly known as Roman. But Roman is not just another private Catholic high school for boys. Serving the entire metro area, while still staying close to its roots in the center of the city, Roman Catholic High School has the distinction of being the first free Catholic high school for boys in the United States. The partnership between Roman and Villanova University will allow Falvey to scan rare and fragile documents for the sake of preservation and to promote scholarship on urban Catholic education in Philadelphia at the turn of the last century; including, for example, a printed copy of the founders will, the first year book, and the earliest extant editions of the student newspaper and literary magazine.

In fact, as Joe Clark, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, reported in a Sept. 8, 1989 article entitled “Celebrating the Roman Century,” Roman is “the oldest and first free Catholic high school in North America.” Clark went on to say: “The school was founded and built through the benevolence of Thomas E. Cahill, a wealthy Catholic layman and Philadelphia merchant. When he died in 1878, Cahill left the bulk of his almost $1 million estate to establish a high school for the ‘practical and free education of boys over 11 living in Philadelphia.’” In the same article, Clark also wrote, “On Sept. 11, 1890, Roman Catholic High School opened its doors to 105 boys who four years later would be members of the school’s first graduating class of 1894.”

Known at different times as the Cahill School and Catholic High, it is no longer free, in the sense that it now charges a modest tuition as compared with the other Catholic prep schools in the area, but it continues its proud scholastic and athletic tradition which has produced some of the city’s leading citizens as well as fiercely loyal cohorts of what are affectionately known as “Roman men.” Falvey Memorial Library is now proud to aid Roman in an effort to document and preserve for scholars archival materials held by the Alumni Association at the school related to the school’s founding and it long heritage as a prominent Catholic educational institution.


The Digital Library: now more social!

Our Special Collections and main scanning lab have been restricted to limited access due to renovations in the library, but of course we’re still available online! And over the summer, we became a lot more social! Social media, that is. The icons and links for all of our social media accounts now appear on the Digital Library home page, but here’s a breakdown of the types of things posted to these accounts:

Twitter: Random selections from our collections as well as interesting news related to digital libraries.

Facebook: News and highlights from the Digital Library.

Tumblr: We had a Tumblr account before, but it was languishing for a while, so I’m refreshing it now. This is for slightly longer posts than Twitter or Facebook, but still shorter than here on the Blue Electrode blog, hence the Tumblr is called Blue Electrode Lite.

Flickr: Again we’ve had Flickr for a while now and I have been updating it (semi)regularly, but I just wanted to link to it again with our other social media accounts. I pick random pages from inside longer books, so this is a good way to discover some interesting content you might not know about unless you paged through an entire volume. You can also interact with the images here by adding tags, notes, or comments.

While I’m here, I’ll also mention that we have a Facebook and Twitter for our open source digital library administration application, VuDL, as well.

All of these accounts are curated by me (Laura) and I’ve noted that on all of the account profiles. I like people to know there’s a friendly face behind the institutional/product name on the accounts!

Please follow along with one or more of these accounts and feel free to ask questions or post comments! (The same applies right here on the Blue Electrode, too, of course!) And if I can’t answer your question myself, I’ll find someone who can. Social media is for conversations, so I would love to hear from you!

Join the conversation! [image source]



Last Modified: September 8, 2011