Monthly Archives: May 2012

Sol Feinstone ~ A revolutionary collector

The Ellis Island official misspelled his last name, but the 13 year old boy didn’t put up a fight.

Sol Feinstone, as the officer named him that day in 1902, had a heart full of dreams and a penny in his pocket that he had found on the boat during his journey from Lithuanian.

That penny would turn into millions of dollars with in decades.

Son of a Jew script, Feinstone became a businessman, philanthropist and collector of one-of-a-kind Americana literature, which he later donated to the American people before his 1980 death. He was 92.

His entire Americana collection is housed at the David Library of the American Revolution, what used to be his sanctuary, in Washington Crossing, Upper Makefield Township, in Bucks County.

“As he studied the founding era, he really fell in love with those founders,” said Meg McSweeney, chief operating officer at the library. “He recognized their genius, their master organization. First the Declaration, the Revolution, then the creation of the Constitution, he was madly in love with those ideals. He worshiped George Washington, he saw him as an ideal human being with attributes that we all can learn from and benefit if we followed. He believed he was the perfect leader. That was his personal hero.”

There he stored his valuable collection that focused on Washington, his military, his personal business in Mount Vernon, and political compatriots – such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton – from the start of the American Revolution (1775-83) against the British crown until the founding father’s death on December 14, 1799 from a throat infection less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon.

Eighty percent of Feinstone’s collection is comprised of documents from between 1774 and 1800. He contributed some 2,482 manuscripts, originals he had collected throughout the decades, to the collection. The originals are now stored at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, but the Library retains ownership and control of the collection, and has copies of the entire collection onsite for use by researchers and scholars, McSweeney said.
Beyond Feinstone’s collection, the library also owns additional manuscript materials, in microfilm and published form, from across the country, Britain and Canada.

Feinstone had a deep respect for America, especially the founding fathers. He admired them and considered them geniuses ahead of their time.

As a child in Lida, Lithuania, he dreamed of living in America. But before moving west, Feinstone lived through some emotional wounds.

He was born Solomon Bialagrudsky in 1888.

“In the Napoleonic area, Jews in central Europe didn’t have last names,” said Francine Lida Stone, Feinstone’s granddaughter. “They were referred to as …Joseph the scribe…Napoleon barged his way around making the modern world in his model, the government of the day in greater Lithuania said ‘Alright Jews you all have to have a name, tomorrow you have to get yourselves a name. At that point a name was chosen for our family. Bialagrudsky. Nobody really knew what it meant. Nobody really knew how to spell it.”

Feinstone deeply adored his loving mother, Rose. For his strict father, Joseph, he had respect. He had several siblings, Stone said, adding that the family is unsure how many.

His father was a trained scribe, who wrote the written word of the Torah and respected the act of writing and the art of the parchment paper, she said.

Feinstone scrapped the skins and prepared the parchments for his father, so it was natural for him to find the beauty in the manuscripts. His later collection manifested two of his loves – America and parchment.

When he was nine years old, his mother died. A year later, his father remarried. He and siblings were unable to develop a relationship with their stepmother, so Feinstone’s older siblings left for America. They worked relentlessly to save enough money to buy their little brother’s boat ticket to America.

Feinstone left Lida against his father’s wishes and lived and work with family and, at 14 years old, he boarded a ship to America.

He never looked back.

Upon his arrival to New York City, he started working at a sweatshop in the city’s Lower East Side, where he was first hired to sweep floors.

“Then, he persuaded a man who did coat sleeves to hire him,” McSweeney said. “He was very short. He graced 5’2’’ at his tallest in life. He had to persuade the man at the sweatshop to hire him because (the work station) was like stationary bike with pedals. They told him ‘You’re to short.’ And he said, ‘If I sit at the edge of the seat and point my toes.’ He ended up being very productive because he was paid by the piece. He could produce something like 600 coat sleeves a week. He became very active in the sleeve-makers union…

“Till his dying day he always had a soft spot for immigrants because in his view, he saw that the immigrants were the ones who wanted it the most and fought for it and he gave a lot of time and money to causes that would help the immigrants. He strongly believed the influence of so many cultures is what made America great and strong,” McSweeney said.

He used the earnings from his day job at the shop to pay for evening English classes, and he eventually got the equivalent of a high school diploma.

He was headstrong about being educated, so at 23, Feinstone began forestry studies at the University of Missouri, but later transferred to New York School of Forestry at Syracuse University, where he also studied chemistry and received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, according to his The New York Times obituary from Oct. 19, 1980.

“He was constantly working to better himself…” McSweeney said. “He was an early conservationist. The reason he wanted to be a forester because he had read the words of Gifford Pinchot, who was an early environmentalists. When he was writing, Sol was in school.”

Out of college, Feinstone got a job at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard working on a syphilis case study. After a couple of years, he quit without having another job.

He picked up an issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he noticed a job posting for a secretary position at a real estate firm. He was hired, although the bosses deemed him overqualified for the position. Within a few years Feinstone was a partner in the firm.

“He really was bright guy. He could figure things out. He was a quick study. Just widely intelligent,” McSweeney said. “He apparently also had a canny knack for investing. He actually made money in the stock market during the depression…when everyone else was losing money there was opportunity for him to make money. It’s also when he started collecting his manuscripts because some of the fine families of Philadelphia who had these things (were selling off the collectables).”

McSweeney said Feinstone’s collection started with bargain hunting.

“He had appreciation for good things, but he didn’t like to pay top dollar. So he has cash during the depression, people were selling good things he starts going to estate sales and initially to buy furniture for his house in Philadelphia. Suddenly, he sees ‘Oh these people have a letter from Benjamin Franklin,’” McSweeney said, adding that he initially only made purchased in Philadelphia.

Eventually, he started to attend auctions and East Coast dealers were reaching out to Feinstone. Where did his fascination for American delicacies come from?

“He had deep gratitude to this country because of the opportunities he had here that he would have never had in Lida,” McSweeney said.

Once Feinstone had wealth, he resigned from the real estate firm, enrolled at University of Pennsylvania, where his thesis was comparing the Russian Revolution and the American Revolution. He finished the course work, but didn’t submit the thesis, so he didn’t graduate.

“He referred to that as the richest intellectual period of his life,” McSweeney said, adding that despite his bank account at that time, he was involved and supported the Socialist movement.

Feinstone was involved in the Socialist student club and took a trip to Russia with them in 1927 to interface with Communists. He later changed his political views, “because he believed in individual responsibility…it eventually clashed with his personal philosophy, and toward the end of his life he got more conservative… (was) an anti communist. He was always for civil rights,” McSweeney said.

He had an eye for fine property near sites with historical value.

In 1945, he purchased Buckstone Farm, a 200-acre working dairy farm in Bucks County, which was considered the Hamptons of the country in those days.

During this time, he was semi-retired and he began focusing more on his developing his collection.
Then, in 1959 he founded the David Library, which he named after his grandson David Golub, who was born developmentally disabled, McSweeney said. Feinstone initially set up the library inside the visitors’ center at Washington Crossing Historic Park.

After some disagreements with the management, he removed his collection from the center. Feinstone searched for a new home for his valued collection at educational institutions, but those attempts turned out fruitless. Feinstone was adamant that he wanted his collection to be easily accessible to the public; had he turned the collection over to educational institutions there would have been limited access to them.

Determined to relocate his collection on a site where the public would be able to view it, Feinstone turned his barn into a library. It was one mile north of the visitor center and just outside his Upper Makefield home.

In 1974, Feinstone started the construction of the library; he sold off acreage along the peripheries of Buckstone Farm to finance the Library’s endowment, so now the library owns 118 acres.

Stone, his granddauther, remembers seeing her grandfather delicately handling the 18th century manuscripts of Gen. George Washington, as if they were the sacred texts.

World scholars visit the library to research the collection for history and biographical books of the great revolutionaries.

The library houses the 2482 original manuscripts that Feinstone purchased himself.

Among the collection is 260 letters written by Washington, many of which are handwritten by the general. Additionally, there are some 40 letters that were sent to Washington.

The collection also includes 55 letters written by Alexander Hamilton, another 65 letters by Thomas Jefferson and 40 letters by the Marquis de Lafayette. There are between 10 and 20 letters each in the handwriting of John Adams, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and James Madison.

Beyond Feinstone’s collection, the library also owns additional manuscript materials, in microfilm and published form, from across the country, Britain and Canada. That includes more letters, diaries, military records, newspapers and books. The letters and dairies were written by British officials and soldiers, American patriots, and the British-hired mercenary soldiers, Hessians.

In addition, the David Library also collects biographies, atlases, guides, and indexes. It also has a reference collection of more than 40,000 books and pamphlets, 10,000 reels of microfilm containing about eight million pages of documentation, some of which is British material that can’t be found anywhere else in the country, as well as American political government documents and military records.

Feinstone once owned 126 letters by Washington that focused on his farm and business in Mount Vernon. He purchased them for $250,000 at an auction; he later donated them to the Ladies Society of Mount Vernon, McSweeney said. For his contribution, he was thanked by President Gerald Ford during his White House visit in 1976.

That was just one of his many philanthropist moves. He built a school in Upper Makefield, which bears his name. He leased property to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a yearly sitting of toast and milk. And he later donated the 118-acre library to Pennsylvania.

“He loved this country, and for what it stands for,” McSweeney said.

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Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Uncategorized


Edward Hicks ~ Artist or Preacher?

Millions flock to museums to get a glimpse of European paintings by Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. Others rush to see the masterpieces of Frida Kahlo, while other art enthusiasts and wannabes bolt to capture the craft of Diego Rivera’s paintings and murals.

Van Gogh’s personal life generated as much interest as his paintings, perhaps even more. He had cut off a portion of his ear in his later days and eventually committed suicide. Kahlo and Rivera – both 20th century Mexican artists with radical political views – had a tumultuous marriage, that involved Rivera having several affairs, including with Kahlo’s sister.

The life of Bucks County 18th century painter Edward Hicks was a lot more passive and his art less popular to the masses.

To art insiders, though, paintings of the self-taught, naive artist are most valuable and hard to come by.

“They are expensive,” said Connie Kimmerle, curator at the James A. MichenerArt Museum in Doylestown in Bucks County. “There aren’t many on the market.”

His oil canvas paintings are market driven, making it difficult to put price tags on them, she said.

What makes them so valuable?

Hicks is considered an American primitive folk painter, Kimmerle said.

He died at 69 years old. The paintings of his last 10 years are considered his best, such as the “The Grave of William Penn,” “The Cornell Farm” and “PeaceableKingdom” – all are owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Before painting on canvas, Hicks painted coaches for a living, and became a devoted Quaker minister. It wasn’t until he was middle aged that he started to make easel paintings, some of which had moral messages that derived from his Quaker roots.

“Although he feared that art was contrary to religion, he testified that it could sometimes bring meaning to life,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Kimmerle said the Michener museum would “love” to have a Hicks painting in their permanent collection.

The museum, however, has had Hicks’ “The Landing of Columbus” on loan from the National Gallery of Art for more than five years, Kimmerle said, adding that loan is under annual renewal.
The painting depicts about a half dozen dark-looking men arriving to a land with palm trees in a small-wood vessel. A man is standing on the bow holding a white flag. In the background there are two large caravels waiting.

The museum does own a portrait of Hicks, which is part of its permanent collection. The art piece was painted by Thomas Hicks, his younger cousin, who he taught to paint.

It’s a dark shadowed portrait of Hicks sitting down holding a color palette and he’s dressed in a time-period three piece outfit.

Hicks was born in Attleboro – now Langhorne Borough – on April 4, 1780.

In the town’s council chambers there’s a large reproduction of Hicks’ most admired and notable art piece – “Peaceable Kingdom.”

Hicks was devoted to his Quaker faith and drew about farm life, landscape, animals and peace. In “Peaceable Kingdom,” he portrayed just that.

He painted more than 60 versions of it between 1820 and his death, according to Worcester Art Museum, the owner of the most popular version.

“The theme of this painting, drawn from Chapter 11 of Isaiah, was undoubtedly attractive to Hicks and fellow Quakers not only for its appealing imagery but also for its message of peace: ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and fatling together; and a little child shall lead them,’” reads the museum’s website, “Into many versions, including the Worcester painting, Hicks incorporated a vignette of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, an image he adapted from a popular painting by Benjamin West. Hicks may have viewed parallels in the two parts of the composition, inasmuch as Penn, who had introduced Quakerism into Pennsylvania, had also brought about a measure of the peaceable kingdom on earth.”

Worcester Art Museum officials did not return phone calls to BucksCountyInTime after leaving several voice messages.

Scholars say “Peaceable Kingdom” portray the artist’s, “feelings and beliefs depicting the conflict between the inward spiritual and religious life and the outward worldly life” and Hicks “was driven by his need to visualize the lessons he learned from Isaiah’s prophecy and the importance to Quaker quietism, such lessons centered on denying or relinquishing the willful self,” according to

Very much a Bucks County man, Hicks lived nearly 40 years in Newtown Borough, where he died on August 23, 1849.

In the Newtown area – Newtown Borough abuts Newtown Township – Hicks is recognized not only for his talent of crafting works of art, but also for his leadership in the Quaker faith.

Hicks came from humble and tragic beginnings. During the American Revolution, Hicks suffered major financial losses. His mother, Catherine Hicks, died when he was a year old. He was sent to Newtown Township, where he was raised by the Twining family, who were Quakers.

Because he didn’t have any scholarly interests, he began an apprenticeship at 13 years old with the Tomlinson brothers, who were coachmakers in Attleborough, according to National Gallery of Art.

His artisan skills took off from there.

“This apprenticeship furnished him with the technical skills he would apply to the easel paintings he executed fairly late in his life,” according to the National Gallery of Art website,

At age 20, Hicks ventured into setting up his own shop. He closed it, though, to help a doctor from Northampton Township craft a new carriage style. During his time working with the doctor, Hicks would have religious discussions that lead him to rediscover his Quaker faith. After suffering from a severe illness, Hicks began to attend Quaker meetings, which lead him to become interested in ministry.

In 1801, the young Hicks moved to Milford, now Hulmeville, where he was employed by another coachmaker. In his twenties, Hicks painted items such as signs, furniture and coaches.

In 1803, Hicks wedded childhood friend Sarah Worstall; they had four children.

By spring of 1811, he moved his family to Newtown Borough. That same year, Hicks started his ministry tour, one of many.

“He moved into the house with the brick front on Court Street near Tucker’s Tavern (the Court Inn), which he had bought from Abraham Chapman (a prominent attorney at the time,)” reads Newtown Historic Association website, “He soon opened a shop in his back yard and carried on his business of coach and sign painting. A few months after this move, he became a Friends minister.”

During his tours, he reportedly allured crowds, has been “described as one of the most popular and leading ministers of his time,” according the National Gallery of Art website.

“From this point on his religious interest would dominate his life,” reads the website. “Nonetheless, he continued painting, which he described as ‘one of those trifling insignificant arts’ and principally a way to ‘get an honest living.’ He briefly left the painting trade for farming in 1813 but had returned to it by 1815, when he began to produce elaborate signs with the help of several assistants.”

When he moved to Newtown Borough, the Quaker faithful was determined to establish the town’s first Friends Meeting House, which ultimately was erected onCourt Street on a two-acre lot. Hicks was the first speaker at the first meeting in 1817.

“Through serving on Friends’ committees he became involved with the major social concerns of his day: peace, temperance, relations between the sexes, education, poverty and race relations,” reads the historical association’s website.

Hicks was cousin to Elias Hicks, who was a liberal Quaker and abolitionist advocate. He broke off from the old school Quaker teachings after a theological quarrel in 1827-28, and created his own sect and his followers referred to as Hicksites.

Hicks supported his cousin’s religious movement and visited him 1820.

“Several of his paintings reveal how profoundly this controversy affected the artist’s life. Elias Hicks appears in all of the canvases, and two of them include a verbal allusion to Hicksite doctrine,” according to the National Gallery of Art.

Ten years after moving to the borough, Hicks built a stone house on what is now Penn Street. There, he built his coach shop in the back yard and his paint shop above the carriage house adjoining his home. Local businesses went to him for their storefront signs, according to historical association.

The stone house has been preserved without any drastic changes. The public can visit it.

He lived in quaint Newtown until his death and is buried in the Friend’s cemetery in the borough. There were about 3,000 mourners at his funeral, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized