The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Browse Exhibits (37 total)

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    A History of Steamboating in the Ohio Valley

    The successful transit of the steamboat New Orleans down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in the fall and early winter of 1811 signaled a new era in American history—the age of the steamboat. The advent of steamboats on western waters impacted transportation, industry, business, communication, and culture. Ohio Valley residents quickly embraced its advantages and accepted and bore its dangers.

    The letters, diaries, business records, books, maps, photographs, prints, paintings, and artifacts in The Filson’s collection provide a record of the steamboat era in the Ohio Valley, from the famous voyage of the New Orleans to the period’s final years, when the few remaining paddle wheelers were used for entertainment and leisure travel. 


    All Dolled Up: The Handmade Paper Dolls of Carrie Douglas Dudley Ewen

    This unique collection of hand-drawn and painted paper dolls was created by Kentucky artist Carrie Douglas Dudley Ewen. Her artistic abilities surfaced at a young age, as she spent much of her time drawing and crafting paper dolls. Ewen was a pioneer for women artists in the commercial world. She is known for her work illustrating children’s books and cookbooks, as well as her work designing holiday cards.

    Though Ewen was a well known professional artist, it is believed that she had no intention of profiting from these beautiful dolls. Instead she gave them as birthday and holiday gifts to the children in her family, who cherished them throughout their lives.

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    Before the Wrecking Ball: Views of “Lost” Louisville

    The history of Louisville, like so many cities, is one of expansion and change. Over time the landscape of the city changes. Buildings come and go; residential areas shift farther from downtown as businesses increase; once fashionable areas fall into decay; and the old makes way for the new. In short, to put a twist on an old saying - what was here yesterday is often gone today.

    The urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century leveled entire city blocks deemed substandard and not worth preserving. It also displaced viable and often vibrant communities (this is particularly true for African American areas of Louisville, especially the old Walnut Street business district) in the name of “progress.” Granted, some areas had declined to the point that demolition was a reasonable solution and modern and much more useful buildings were built. But the frequent “scorched earth” approach of urban renewal all too often destroyed structures that today might be considered gems of 19th century architecture. The preservation movements that often battled this practice enjoyed some successes, but the wrecking ball often left gaping holes in the city’s landscape; holes that fifty and more years later sometimes remain as vacant lots.  

    Projects to document this urban “renewal” and what was being razed have provided important visual documentation of these lost buildings and streetscapes. Professionally and sometimes personally photographed, they record the visual history of the city and its neighborhoods that the wrecking ball permanently changed. Anyone with a camera could walk the streets snapping photos of buildings destined for destruction. Louisville was no exception. Agencies involved with urban renewal efforts documented their work. While the photos can be quite plentiful there inevitably are views missingThus, photos snapped by individuals can help fill those possible gaps.  

    The images in this exhibit are from a collection of photos from the Filson's collection that in part document areas of Louisville razed by urban renewal. They focus on the area on the western side of downtown near the primary African American business district along Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Blvd.).The photographer is unidentified but apparently lived at 734 Dixie Highway. The listed owner at that residence during the time these photos are dated (1946-1959) was Gertrude Simmons. She was a senior citizen and it is doubtful that she was the photographer. It is likely that we’ll never know who took the photos, but because they did, these images of a “lost” Louisville were preserved.  

    See the entire photo collection on Past Perfect Online:

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    Breaking the Mold: Sculptor Enid Yandell

    October 2019 marks the 150th birthday of Louisville-born and nationally-renowned sculptor Enid Yandell (1869-1934). This celebratory exhibit examines how Enid broke the mold that society and the art establishment imposed on women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by pursuing a career as a sculptor. The materials in this exhibit come from the Filson Historical Society's Special Collections and represent a sampling of Enid's life as a sculptor and activist.


    Bricks and Mortar, Soul and Heart: The Evolution of Louisville's Young Men's Hebrew Association and Jewish Community Center 1890-2022

    On its 50th Anniversary, celebrated in 1940, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) of Louisville dedicated ceremonies to its former president, Benjamin S. Washer. During his tenure (1911-1920), Washer led a successful campaign to build an expanded new YMHA facility. Reflecting on this triumph, community leader Louis Cohen wrote “The community’s gift of money was translated into stone and steel, lumber and plaster, bricks and mortar…but something more than money, energy, and material things that go to equip and erect a building were needed, and that was soul and heart.” 

    Indeed, community centers are physical spaces, but they are also social and emotional places. More than mere structures, they offer grounds for gathering, learning, growth, and connection. This exhibit provides glimpses into one of the oldest continuously operating community centers in the state of Kentucky, tracing its evolution from the late nineteenth century up through the present day.


    Butchertown: A Notable Louisville Neighborhood

    Originally Louisville's meatpacking district, butcher shops dominated the area in the 1800s. Today, the neighborhood is home to a number of restaurants, bars, a distillery, and more, along with unique shotgun style houses. 

    The Notable Neighborhoods Series from the Filson Historical Society is designed to connect people with history in a meaningful way and to highlight resources available at the Filson.  This small gallery features maps, photographs, and other historic material from the Filson's special collections.

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    Cecelia Larrison: A Story of Self-Liberation from Slavery

    Cecelia Larrison is one of many people who liberated themselves from slavery long before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1846, at age 15, while on a trip to Niagara Falls with her enslavers, the Thruston family of Louisville, Kentucky, Cecelia slipped away and crossed the border into Canada. 

    Throughout her years as a free woman, Cecelia faced many joys and hardships. The details of her life, like those of many formerly enslaved people, could have been lost to history. But fortunately, we have significant documentation of Cecelia’s movements and struggles, much of it coming from an unlikely source: a woman who was once her enslaver, her childhood playmate, and perhaps even her friend.  

    After her liberation, Cecelia started a nearly decade-long correspondence with her former "mistress," Frances "Fanny" Thruston. This online exhibit uses some of these letters to tell the story of Cecelia’s life after slavery. 


    To learn more about Cecelia and Fanny and how their lives were entwined, read Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and Her former Mistress by Brad Asher.

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    Celebration Menu Collection

    This is an exhibit of menus from across Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee from various celebrations including; Christmas, Thanksgiving, Weddings, and even appreciation dinners. These menus show us what foods were popular over the years and what traditions were common depending on location and hierarchy. 

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    Continuity of Care: Transforming Jewish Hospital for Modern Louisville, 1945-1980

    Jewish Hospital opened in 1905 as a charitable institution with a joint mission of patient care and education. Funded entirely by Louisville’s Jewish community, it provided culturally sensitive treatment to new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, as well as training and practice opportunities for aspiring Jewish doctors facing professional restrictions. Forty years later at the end of World War II, Jewish Hospital made a major leap: leaving its original Kentucky and Floyd Street location for a state-of-the-art new facility in the heart of Louisville.  

    OUR GOAL IS A NEW JEWISH HOSPITAL,” wrote Jewish Hospital Board President Milton Trost in 1945.  “It is our only expression of providing the city of Louisville with an institution dedicated to service for all religions and citizens. The expanded and thoroughly modernized Jewish Hospital opened on Chestnut Street and Brooks in the winter of 1955. By 1980 it had become a nationally renowned multi-specialty medical center. These decades were full of challenges and growth as the hospital worked to uphold its original mission amid major social, economic, and medical changes.

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    Encountering the First American West

    As late as Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the majority of the United States’ population was still hunkered down close to the original British settlements along the Eastern seaboard. With so many people opting for the security of familiar surroundings, what prompted others to move into what seemed to be uncharted and dangerous territories? What type of land did they hope to find? How would they lay claim to it and establish political, cultural, and financial institutions? Whose societies, institutions, and beliefs would they encounter in this supposedly empty West? What conflicts would result? In over two hundred years of national history, our fascination with this settler colonial era has never diminished.

    For more than two centuries, American national identity has been tied inextricably to the idea of the West. The western dream of individual freedom and limitless expansion has shaped American cultural values and political ideologies. Literature, theater, and film have retraced the legends of the West and reinterpreted its heroes for modern audiences. At the same time, the violent acquisition of Indigenous lands and the transplanting of enslavement of African-descended people into new states set the stage for generations of sectional conflict and a lasting legacy of trauma and legal, economic, and geographical structures of inequality.

    Encountering the West has become a means of examining America itself, a way of understanding the possibility and loss embodied in the national experience.

    With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Filson Historical Society has re-launched the First American West, an online collection of letters, financial records, sermons, books, maps, and objects relating to the Ohio River Valley in the mid-1700s through the early 1800s, that was originally a collaboration with the Library of Congress and the University of Chicago. 

    In our relaunch, an NEH-funded research team (Hailey Brangers, Marissa Coleman, and Jade Wigglesworth) has expanded the project to highlight the experiences of those originally excluded, including the voices of women, those enslaved, and the Indigenous communities that called our region home. 

    On this page, you can browse the vast collection of documents by theme. 

    NEH Preferred Seal

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    Evolving Inspiration: The Art and Design of Julius Friedman

    Innovator. Experimenter. Prolific. Lively. Artist and graphic designer Julius Friedman (1943-2017) was Louisville’s beloved and renowned image maker and cultural advocate. Throughout his fifty-year career, Friedman embraced a vast range of media and methods to delight viewers with his visual artistry. As a designer he crafted iconic advertisements for clients in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors and produced dozens of book publications. As an artist, he experimented extensively, constantly pushing the photographic medium and exploring book arts, sculpture, dance, and video. An enthusiastic collaborator and dedicated member of Louisville’s arts community, Julius Friedman is widely and deeply missed.

    In 2018, the artist’s sister and longtime manager, Carol Abrams, generously donated works from his estate to the Filson’s collection. From September 26th, 2019 through February 28th, 2020, the Filson mounted an original exhibit based on this collection in the Nash Gallery called Evolving Inspiration: The Art and Design of Julius Friedman. We present here highlights from the exhibition and a digital tour through the phases of Julius Friedman’s rich and multi-faceted career.

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    Forgotten Foundations: Louisville’s Lost Architecture

    In the mid-20th century, downtowns were “modernized” in response to residential decline and suburban growth, with structures levelled and rebuilt. Louisville lost many historic buildings during these decades yet failed to recreate the vibrant urban scene of years past.

    Do we need so many new buildings, or should we focus on spaces that people use and enjoy? How can we apply urban planning and architecture to make city streets places where people are present, day and night? How do we create an urban experience through architecture – a place with its own unique ambiance? 


    Geneva H. Bell Textile Collection

    The textiles of Geneva Howard Bell (1905-2013) became a part of The Filson’s museum collection in mid-2015. Geneva was the wife of Dr. Jesse B. Bell, a nationally-recognized physician and prominent figure in Kentucky’s African American community. Dr. Bell was the first African American physician to practice at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. Both Geneva and Dr. Bell worked tirelessly to improve health and education for Kentucky children. Geneva was an active member of Mount Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church and a teacher in the Louisville Public School System.

    The collection consists of twenty-eight pieces varying from shift dresses to hats, accessories and outerwear. The items represent fashions from the 1960s-80s and are a wonderful compliment to the Jesse B. Bell Photograph Collection (006PC5); Jesse Bennett Bell (1904-1998) Papers, 1924-1998 (Mss. A B433 1-21); and the Dr. Bell portrait (1999.13.1). The textiles were processed in May 2015 by Filson volunteer and museum professional Jennifer Spence.

    The following gallery highlights only a portion of the collection; researchers may visit The Filson and view the remaining items digitally through PastPerfect, The Filson’s museum software database.

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    History of the Louisville Legion

    The Commonwealth of Kentucky has a long history of military service, dating back to its frontier days as a Virginia territory. Volunteer militias were initially formed in the Kentucky territory as a fighting force opposed to indigenous tribes still living in the region. Kentucky combatants were particularly infamous amongst the indigenous peoples of the midwestern territories for their ferociousness in combat. As military engagements developed from frontier skirmishes to large-scale battles with sovereign nations abroad, the Kentucky military responded with enthusiastic service. This fierce spirit in combat would define the military history of Kentucky, particularly the history of the Louisville Legion. 

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    I Scream America: The History of Enslaved People at Oxmoor Plantation

    The state of Kentucky and its people have a complex relationship with enslavement and the disenfranchisement of Black and Indigenous peoples. The institution of slavery touched every aspect of American life before, during, and after the Civil Warand we still see the scars of bondage on our state today. 

    The title "I Scream America" comes from the art of Red Biddix, whose work from the Filson collection is featured in this digital exhibit. In this work, Biddix presents her view of how America was founded on anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and her belief that these inequalities continue to be baked in our education systems, prisons, police workforces, and more.  

    This digital exhibit highlights the families of those who were enslaved by the Bullitt family at the Oxmoor and Cottonwood plantations in Kentucky from the founding of the state to the late 1870s. After a brief history of the two plantations, this exhibit discusses the roles that gender, marriages, hemp house burnings, and self-emancipation played in subverting the institution of slavery. This exhibit reworks the Bullitt Family Papers-Oxmoor Collection, one of the Filson's largest manuscript collections, to speak from the perspective of those in bondage, and to highlight their agency within enslavement. 

    One of these families is the Sanders family, headed by Eliza Sanders and her husband, Jim Sanders. While not all people enslaved by the Bullitt family were tied by blood to the Sanders family, the use of the Sanders name in the project and the digitization and exhibition of these sources aims to recognize all of the people and families enslaved by the Bullitt family and bring academic attention to the complex community they fostered among each other while in bondage.

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    Jerry Abramson, Louisville’s Mayor for Life

    The long career of Jerry Edwin Abramson (b. 1946) took him from a small family grocery store in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood to City Hall, the Kentucky State Capitol, and eventually the West Wing of the White House. One of the most prominent politicians in Louisville’s history, Abramson holds several distinctions in city memory and politics: the first Jewish mayor of Louisville and the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, earning him the local title “Mayor for Life.” Throughout three decades in municipal government, Abramson’s impact on Louisville has been profound, and his legacy endures in the modern landmarks, policies, and infrastructure of Kentucky’s largest city. In 2011, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky under Steve Beshear and, in 2014, was appointed Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs under President Barak Obama.  

    In 2020, Jerry and Madeline Abramson donated an extensive collection of papers and photographs to the Filson, documenting years of family and professional history. This exhibit provides highlights from the collections, life and work of Louisville’s Mayor for Life. Interested in learning more? Visit finding aids for the Abramson Papers and Photographs 

    The Filson is tremendously grateful to Rabbi Stanley Miles for all his work arranging the Abramson collections and writing their biographical and contextual notes.  

    In 2016 and 2017, Dr. Carol Ely interviewed Madeline and Jerry and Abramson for the Kentucky Jewish Oral History Project led by professors Jan Fernheimer and Beth Goldstein at the University of Kentucky Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. The complete interviews are fully digitized and accessible. Jerry's interview can be found here, and Madeline's here. Links to these interviews are also included throughout the exhibit sections. 

    Exhibit curated by Dorian Cleveland, Abby Glogower, and Danielle Spalenka 

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    Life in the Mountains: The Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston Photograph Collection

    The Mountain Photograph Collection consists primarily of photographs taken by Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, and Southwestern Virginia between 1882 and 1905.

    Thruston (1858-1946) was a member of one of Louisville’s most prominent families. He was an engineer by education and vocation, and a historian and photographer by avocation. Thruston was also a benefactor and longtime president of The Filson Historical Society (1923-1946).

    In 1882, Thruston was hired as a geological assistant under Albert Rogers Crandall (1840-1926) of the Kentucky Geological Survey. The Survey’s goal was to explore and record the natural resources in Appalachian counties. Thruston helped survey, photograph, and document the region. The photographs in this exhibit were produced during the mid-1880s, when Thruston and Crandall worked for the Kentucky Geological Survey, and from the 1890s through the early 20th century, when Thruston continued to work and document Appalachia during his time with the Kentucky Union Land Company. The counties featured in this exhibit include: Bath, Bell, Breathitt, Breckinridge, Carter, Elliott, Floyd, Harlan, Knox, Letcher, Pike, Whitley, and Wolfe in Kentucky, and Wise and Lee in Virginia.

    CREDIT: Filson Collections Staff

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    Louisville, City in Transition

    Ivey W. Cousins captured streetscapes and buildings in downtown Louisville from Broadway north to the Ohio River and the residential district of Third and Fourth Streets in Old Louisville in 1959. During an era of transition with urban renewal in full swing, construction of expressways, and the expansion of the downtown medical complex—Cousins documented many of the buildings and streetscapes lost to history.

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    Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance, Co.

    Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance, Co. (1915-1992) was one of the largest Black-owned and operated companies in Kentucky's history. Four individuals founded Mammoth Life during the "Golden Age of Black Business" in Louisville, Kentucky: B.O. Wilkerson, Rochelle I. Smith, William H. Wright, and Henry E. Hall. By 1928, Mammoth Life opened district offices in seven neighboring states: Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The corporation was central to the Black community for decades, especially during the height of racial segregation. In 1992, Atlanta Life Insurance brought out Mammoth Life, another Black-owned business headquartered in Georgia. By 1994, Atlanta Life closed down the flagship Louisville district office. This digital exhibit pairs together black and white photographs, newspaper clippings, and pastel portraits of former presidents to explore the history of Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance, Co.

    Please note that the Filson Historical Society does not have insurance policy records for Mammoth Life. Requests for their insurance policy records should be made to Kemper Life Insurance Company at 1-800-777-8467.

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    Novia James White Photograph Collection: Life in Peace and War

    The Novia James White Photograph Collection shares snapshots of a life in peacetime and in war. Through these pictures, we can glimpse some of the ordinary days of White's life growing up in Kentucky and marrying in Los Angeles. But the bulk of the collection shows the extraordinary days of his Air Force service in Japan during World War II, including many photos taken from the air.

    See more photos from the collection here.