Read Nature and Be Wise

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Cabinet Hall as it appeared ca. 1880

….Was the motto of a group of scientific men who organized the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences in West Chester back in 1826 as Chester County’s first natural science museum.  The ambitious mission of the organization was to collect specimens of every plant, mineral, insect, bird, fish, reptile and animal of Chester County, Pennsylvania. It was all housed in an Italianate building designed by one of the United States most important architects.

Cabinet Hall is the latest in the new series of Chester County Time Machine sites and it is located at 18 S. Church St., West Chester, PA

Dr. Robert B. Gordon, an Instructor in the Department of Sciences at West Chester University, published an article in Science magazine in 1952 stating that the Chester County Cabinet was one of the earliest herbariums in the United States, pre-dating the collection at the Boston Society of Natural History.

Why was the relatively small town of West Chester able to put together a natural science museum that was the envy of large cities?

Here in West Chester was a coterie of naturalists with specialties in many different fields of natural science who had the interest and the means to organize a natural science museum. The museum collections included minerals, shells, insect and bird specimens, their eggs and nests, zoological specimens as well as a herbarium of thousands of plants from Chester County and around the world. They also had a library of scientific books as well as “philosophical instruments” such as microscopes, telescopes, and chemistry equipment.

The prime mover in the organization was botanist Dr. William Darlington, who would author Flora Cestrica and Florula Cestrica, two scholarly works cataloging the plant life of Chester County. Darlington began collecting plants for his herbarium in 1815.  Of the original ten members, others included banker David Townsend, lawyer Thomas S. Bell (later an Associate justice of Pennsylvania Supreme Court) and Jonathan Gause principal of West Chester Academy. Nominees could only be received into membership by a unanimous vote.

After a number of years in rented rooms, the organization desired their own building. Lawyer, William Williamson gave the organization a lot on South Church Street for this purpose in lieu of the $50 membership fee. The land was not the most desirable plot, on it was a pond that the locals used for ice skating. In 1836 the group raised $2000 to begin the work and hired Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter to design the three-story building to include an auditorium, library and collections rooms. Walter was already well known to them since he had donated a “valuable collection of minerals” to the cabinet in 1833 and for having designed the First Presbyterian Church in West Chester. This architect is best remembered today for designing the United States Capitol dome.

Ground was broken in early spring of 1836 and on October 15th, Cabinet Hall was ready for the first meeting. The members organized lecture programs which were open to the public for a fee. They presented a variety of topics progressive in their day such as phrenology, poetry in nature, physiology, astronomy, chemistry and natural philosophy. Thomas U. Walter presented an entire course on architecture in 1840 which included lectures on the architecture of the Middle Ages, Ancient Greece and Modern day.

The Cabinet of Natural Sciences received some significant donations over the years. In 1831, Isaac Wayne, donated his father, General Anthony Wayne’s reflecting telescope. Other interesting donations included a 3 foot long eel caught by Edward Brinton at his dam in Birmingham. In 1838 they advertised for submissions of reptile and fish specimens asking that they “be preserved in alcohol or good whiskey.”

Dr. Darlington was well known in botanical circles and received correspondence from around the globe. In 1835 the Cabinet received a box of 116 plant specimens from Dr. Charles Martins of Paris, including 37 species from Egypt. In 1842 they received 1500 plants from Mr. E. Durand of Philadelphia which were collected in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and New Holland (today Australia). By this time the collection now reached 7,000 plant species.

The Cabinet also became the resting place for many curiosities from around the world. According to the annual report of the Cabinet in 1842 Peter A. Brown, Esq. sent a specimen of a crocodile, plumage of the Sacred Ibis and linen taken from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy. Edward Johnson of Philadelphia sent an East Indian hookah and slippers. Mrs. George D. Callahan sent relics from the ruins of Pompeii and Wm. B. Goddard, Esq. of Philadelphia sent “Chinese curiosities.”

Because of a significant cost overrun in the construction of the building, Cabinet Hall was rented out to outside organizations for meetings. The actual construction cost of $5043.54 topped the $4500 estimate. However, some of the rentals were cause for concern. In 1839 the members voted to no longer allow the Chester County Anti-Slavery Society to hold meetings in their building fearing that “excitement against the Society could lead to injury.” Just the year before, Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was burned by rioters sending members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society running for their lives.

The membership was at its zenith in 1835 with 50 members, but began to decline thereafter until in 1846 there were only 18 members left. Dissention between the members over various issues caused some fall out. Industrialist Philip P. Sharples resigned when, despite his protest, the hall was rented for military purposes. This action resulted in the resignation of other Quaker members as well.

Unable to support their collections with so few members, the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences transferred their collections to West Chester Academy. When the Academy reformed as West Chester State Normal School, the collections were passed along. Dr. William Darlington’s Herbarium is treasured by the Biology Department of West Chester University today.

Cabinet Hall had to be sold and through the years was altered for many different purposes. The building was sold to Pocahontas Lodge #316 in 1848 and it became known as Odd Fellows Hall. In 1850 it was transferred to West Chester Academy who used it until 1866. A girl’s school used it for the next three years. The Mathematical and Classical Institute for Boys run by J. Hunter Worrall, used the building in 1880. The McCall Post of the Grand Army of the Republic used the hall before moving to permanent quarters in Horticultural Hall. The building was also used as a Post Office with Lewis C. Moses as Postmaster until it was converted for use as West Chester Steam Laundry in 1910. Today it is a Laundromat used by many residents and college students on South Church St.

You will find a Chester County Time Machine QR code to view more images of Cabinet Hall at 17 S. Church Street, West Chester on the offices of Ray Ott Associates. Many thanks to Ray Ott for participating in the Chester County Time Machine Program.

Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist

This project is generously sponsored by AT & T Foundation and Digital Exhibition Systems, Inc.