J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library

The J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library of Independence Seaport Museum is one of the nation's premier regional maritime research facilities, offering an impressive range of materials widely used by historians, authors, genealogists, teachers, students, sailors, filmmakers, boat and model builders and the merely curious from all over the world. More than 15,000 volumes, 12,000 ship plans and a significant collection of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and charts are housed in the department. The collections focus on the Delaware Valley region, but are of national, and even international, relevance.

Archival Collections

The principal treasure of the department is its unique archival collections: the letters, diaries, logs, business, financial and legal papers, plans, drawings, ephemera, photographs, photograph and scrapbook albums of sailors and captains (and their families), shipbuilders, sail makers, merchants, nautical instrument makers, social welfare organizations, insurers, explorers, travelers, architects, rowers, fishers, naval surgeons, and marine artists, dating from the seventeenth century to the present. Such collections are of interest to scholars of not only maritime history, but also economic, technological, scientific and social history as well.

The Archives include:

  • Approximately 1,200 linear feet of manuscript collections, both personal papers and corporate records.
  • 12,000+ ship plans (drawings and prints) from Philadelphia-area builders and companies.
  • More than 25,000 images ranging from ship construction photographs at local yards to early underwater photographs to glass plate slides of action at the Battle of Manila Bay.
  • Thousands of pieces of ephemera, such as menus, passenger lists, programs, and advertising cards from ocean liners, local businesses, churches, clubs and events.
  • Over 750 rare (pre-1800) maps and charts of the greater Philadelphia region, the United States and the world relating to history of cartography and geography.
  • Audio tapes and digital recordings of oral histories recording the experiences of local shipyard and river industry workers.
  • Film and video tapes from shipyards and rowing clubs, and also museum events.



Book, Publication and Reference Collections

Along with archival collections, the department also contains an impressive general reference, rare book and publication collections. 

The book, publication and reference collections consist of:

  • Over 15,000 volumes of general reference books available on open shelving in the Library. Subjects covered include Philadelphia history, American history, naval history, science, architecture and technology, water sports and recreation, marine ecology and oceanography.
  • Relatively complete publication runs of American Bureau of Shipping Register (1874-present), Lloyd's Register (1764-1986), and New York Maritime Register (1869-1941). These serials are helpful in determining when, where and by whom a ship was built, and other statistical data.
  • More than 400 rare books covering a wide range of maritime subjects. The rare books include tomes dating back to the 16th century, fore-edge painted volumes and titles in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Latin. Titles include: Vier bucher der Ritterschoft…, a German edition of Flavius Vegetius Renatus' De Re Militari printed in 1534; The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation…by Richard Hakluyt (1599); A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Francis Drake's West Indian Voyage (1652), Signal Book for the Ships of War (1777), and An Essay on the Preservation of Shipwrecked Persons by J. Berryman (1812).
  • Periodicals that include Naval Proceedings, Wooden Boat and Yachting. Also available are 19th and early 20th century serials, including: Annual Reports of the Life-Saving Service (1876-1908), Revue Maritime (1890-1914), Rudder (1896-1977), and Sailor's Magazine and Naval Journal (1828-1838).

For initial research or "last resort" fact-checking on hundreds of subjects, researchers may use the newspaper clippings, magazine articles and other printed items in the reference files. The files are arranged alphabetically and contain a wide variety of genres and subjects. Most often, the reference files bolster research inquiries by directing users to sources of information that are not archival in nature.