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University Archives Staff Discover Personal Letters by Anthony J. Drexel

March 4, 2021

Influential financier. Businessman. Visionary. University founder and philanthropist.

Anthony J. Drexel was regularly referred to by all these names. His founding of Drexel University and his partnerships with J. P. Morgan and institutions such as the Edison Electric Light Company and major railroad companies of the late 1860s are well documented.

But while we still see the fruits of his business acumen even today, few people knew who he really was. He was an intensely private person, and little is known about his personal life. He destroyed his personal papers and letters, refused to give newspaper interviews and rarely posed for pictures.  

That is what makes the University Archives’ latest discovery so exciting.

While searching through one of the University Archives’ Drexel family collections, Simon Ragovin, Archives Technician, stumbled upon two previously unknown letters A.J. Drexel wrote to his son, John, in 1890.

“I’ve been collaborating with Assistant Professor Elizabeth Kimball to create a new class called Literature as an Archive (ENGL 395), which will be structured around doing research with archival material, particularly personal correspondence,” Ragovin explained. “I was leafing through a folder of letters in our Drexel family collections and saw what I was pretty sure was A.J. Drexel’s signature. I shared it with Molly Reynolds (our Project Archivist and Drexel family expert), and she confirmed the signatures… Had it not been for this course, these letters may have remained undiscovered for much longer.”

The letters were saved by A.J. Drexel’s son John and passed down through that family, ultimately becoming part of the John R. Drexel III and Alice Troth Drexel Collection in the University Archives. The correspondence in the collection was catalogued in groups rather than individually (which is standard practice in archives), and so Archives staff weren’t aware of the author or content of each letter.

In one letter, A.J. Drexel is writing from his office in Philadelphia, and in the other, from Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary) in what is now the Czech Republic, where he traveled annually for vacation and treatment of recurring health issues. In both letters, Drexel writes with affection to his son about their shared love of music and about John’s mother Ellen, who was ailing at the time. In the letter written in June 1890, Drexel mentions John’s wife Alice and their newborn son, John Drexel, Jr.

“Before Simon’s discovery we weren’t aware that we had any of A.J. Drexel’s family correspondence in the University Archives,” said Molly Reynolds, Project Archivist & Coordinator at the Drexel University Archives. “Drexel was known to be an extremely measured and level-headed person, so it’s exciting to read details about his personal life in this more familiar tone rather than short correspondence related to business matters.”

While the University Archives has a handful of letters written by Anthony J. Drexel, only these two are addressed to another Drexel family member—as far as we know. Two other letters in the University Archives are particularly significant because they were written the day before and day of A.J. Drexel’s death. Those letters—addressed to Walter Burns, a partner at Drexel, Morgan & Co.—describe his health and current business concerns.

“Archival research is unpredictable in general. The downside is looking and looking for something—letters between two particular people, material that addresses a specific issue, photographs from the right time period or that include a particular detail—and not finding it,” Ragovin said of the nature of archival research. “The upside is the delightful surprise of finding something you wouldn’t have thought to look for, but which is of great interest or historical importance, or which brings up questions or introduces you to a topic that hadn’t occurred to you before. Serendipity is an important part of using archives for research, and since the historical record that exists in archives is always partial, research that is guided by what you find in the collections (rather than what you set out to find) may be more rewarding in the end.”

Digital images and transcripts of the newly discovered personal letters, as well as his final business correspondence, are now available in the Drexel Family Digital Archive.

For more information about the Drexel Family, visit the new Drexel Family Digital Archive exhibit.

Interested in learning more about incorporating material from the Drexel Family collections in your courses? Watch a recording of the webinar Incorporating Archival Material in Your Curricula: Drexel Family Collections on the Drexel Libraries’ YouTube channel.