Citron Cake and Guestbooks: Summer Practicum Part I

Update: PhilaLandmarks wrote about me (and mostly these documents) on their blog! If you want to learn more about these account books and Elizabeth Powel, check it out!

Perched on an office chair on the third floor of the Keith-Hill-Physick (henceforth “Physick”) House, I gingerly pulled off the lid of the box–one of those boxes that letterhead comes in, with “Powel 2006” scrawled on it in sharpie–and peeked inside. Two account books with marbled boards, and a loose stack of letters, loosely held by a bit of twine that had kept them together for two centuries and was enjoying its retirement.

These documents were found by some Powel heirs in a false bottomed trunk and made it to the Powel House and PhilaLandmarks in the last year.

I lifted the papers onto the desk in front of me and began making my way through them, squinting to decipher the handwriting and trying to jot down any relevant information in a spreadsheet for future reference. They were receipts, some simply slips of paper, some more elaborate letters with wax seals. They acknowledged payments for jewelry from a London goldsmith, retention of legal counsel, and a barrel of shad. Amidst the approximately 30 receipts, there were also three receipts for citron cake. I was intrigued.

I was in the office of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks) at Physick House as part of my summer practicum. I will be looking at these papers–the accounts of Elizabeth Willing Powel from the early 19th century–about once a week for the rest of the summer in an attempt to flesh out Elizabeth’s story after the death of her husband in 1793. I will produce a couple blog posts for PhilaLandmarks and a summary of my findings on Elizabeth Powel. This summary may later form a part of a grant request or an interpretive plan; we will see where these documents take us!

Another portion of my 140 hours of practicum will be completed at Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel, beginning to process the archival materials of the Friends of Chamounix Mansion for accession to the Temple University Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). I’ve written about Chamounix Mansion before, so I won’t provide too much context on the space other than to say I find it a fascinating historical space that’s been a youth hostel for fifty years. My time there will be spent combing through the two filing cabinets worth of documents from the last fifty years and asserting some organizational scheme to it. I’ll be helped in this effort by Margery Sly, archivist at the SCRC, who will also be teaching the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking this fall. I’m very excited!

The desk in the basement store room at Chamounix. filing cabinets are to the right, as are industrial-sized containers of pancake syrup and toilet bowl cleaner.

I am aware that I’ve been using the future tense around these experiences. While I’ve made one visit to each set of documents already, early summer excursions out of town and trying to work four days a week have limited my availability to work on these projects yet. Those trips are over now, though, and I have set aside a couple weekdays each week for practicum work, beginning next week.

My busy schedule has also made communicating with various stakeholders in the process (the Chamounix board, Sly, PhilaLandmarks folks) a bit difficult, which has held back my progress. Again, I’m hoping that my new work schedule will help with that.

But back to what I have found. At Chamounix,  I found that there is a complete–I think–collection of the meeting minutes of the Women’s Committee. I had found the reports from this committee to the Board and a couple scattered memos, but this folder offers a more complete picture of the group that maintained much of the hostel and oversaw its historic furnishing.

I also found a binder that served as a guest book in the late 1990s. It provides some evaluation of the hostel at that time, and I think there might be some from other eras as well. The collection also has a lot of ephemera, which could make for an interesting exhibit…*cues wheels turning*…

And the citron cake! After finding Pat Reber’s blog post on candied citron and its use in cakes (“Citron Cake and other Recipes for Candied Citron“), I went down a rabbit hole of old cookbooks available via the Hathi Trust, Archive.com and other corners of the internet, trying to find the earliest reference to Citron Cake. I’m sure I didn’t. Old cookbooks are fascinating though! After a bit of conversation over email with Reber, I feel pretty sure that citron cake is just a variation on pound cake that includes candied citron. I might look into it a bit more and try to bake some of this cake!

I’m looking forward to many more little discoveries like these over this summer!

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