Philadelphia Museum (“Peale’s Museum”)

Watercolor of the Long Room, 1822

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TIMELINE & QUICK FACTS
  • 1782. Charles Willson Peale opens a portrait gallery of Revolutionary War heroes out of his home in Philadelphia.
  • 1786. The portrait gallery is combined with an institution for the study of natural law and the display of natural history and technological objects. On 18 July Peale’s Museum opens to the public. Admission is 25 cents.
  • 1794. Peale retires from portrait painting — partly because his revolutionary activities had ostracized Philadelphia's upper classes and made it difficult for him to acquire patrons, but especially to focus on his museum.
  • 1794. The museum moves from Peale’s home to Philosophical Hall, rented from the American Philosophical Society.
  • 1802. Running out of space, the museum moves to the top floors of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) until 1827.
  • 1816. Financially this is the museum’s best year with nearly $12,000 in revenue.
  • 1820. The museum contains over 100,000 objects — including 269 paintings, 1,824 birds, 250 quadrupeds, 650 fishes, over 1,000 shells, and 313 books. Unlike European museums which display specimens against a plain white background, Peale invents the diorama, giving the displayed animals a more naturalistic three-dimensional setting against painted backgrounds.
  • 1827. The Philadelphia Museum moves from the State House to the Arcade Building, Philadelphia's new mercantile center and the first shopping mall.
  • 1838. The museum moves again, this time to a building erected just for the museum. It includes a stage that accommodates both lectures and musical performances.
  • 1849. Falling on hard times due to changing tastes and poor management, Edmund Peale, C.W. Peale’s grandson, sells the collection — except for most of the paintings — to P.T. Barnum.
  • Aftermath. The Peale collection is divided and then largely destroyed by fires in 1851 and 1865. Eventually, a number of specimens end up at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where some have been identified and can be viewed today.
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FURTHER READING

Yet there is no doubt that his natural abilities were what most distinguished [John] Marshal from other lawyers and jurists. His head, said Senator Rufus King, is the best organized of anyone I have known. Marshal could grasp a subject in its whole and yet simultaneously analyze it parts and relate them to the whole. He could move progressively and efficiently from premise to conclusion in a logical and rigorous manner and extract the essence of the law from the mass of particulars. In the words of Justice Story, he had the remarkable ability to seize, as it were by intuition, the very spirit of juridical doctrines. Even Jefferson acknowledged Marshall’s talent, but he scarcely respected it. Jefferson told Story that when conversing with Marshall, I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it were daylight or not, I’d reply, Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)