Sol Feinstone ~ A revolutionary collector

14 May

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


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