German Society of Pennsylvania

Building of the German Society. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

611 Spring Garden Street

Founded by German immigrants in 1764, the German Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) is the oldest German organization of its kind in the United States, and moved to this site in 1888. Originally founded to offer charitable and practical assistance to newly arriving German immigrants, the German Society later evolved into a cultural organization, with a research library focused on German American history. The GPS’s founding mission is explicitly indicated by its formal name as stated in its 1781 act of incorporation: “the German Society contributing for the relief of distressed Germans in the State of Pennsylvania.”

Eighteenth-century German immigrants often faced deplorable conditions and exploitation both aboard the ships transporting them to America and upon arrival here. Ship owners would demand exorbitant payment for the passage—payments which newly arrived, poor Germans were incapable of paying except by working off their debt for years after their arrival. The founders of GSP worked to end this contracted servitude, and to improve the conditions of the struggling German immigrants by providing them with resources and assistance as they established themselves in their new circumstances. The German Society established a variety of programs aimed at helping newly arrived German immigrants adjust to life in the United States. An employment bureau, a legal aid committee, and English classes were among the organization's offerings. The library was established in 1817 to serve the reading interest and needs of the GSP membership, and the German American Archive was founded in 1867 specifically to collect materials documenting German American history.

By 1892, Philadelphia had more than 600 secular, non-political German organizations that ranged from singing societies to lodges and gymnastics clubs. German Philadelphia encompassed many diverse subcultures, including Lutherans, Catholics, socialists, and the working and middle classes; a sense of common German-ness was forged primarily through fraternal societies. The German Society aimed to provide a neutral ground for German Americans to meet, although in reality its membership was primarily middle-class. By the 20th century, the German Society’s mission had evolved from providing charitable assistance to immigrants into preserving German American history and culture. Today, the German Society offers its members German-language instruction, cultural programs, lectures, and a research and lending library dedicated to German American History. Housed in the recently-restored original 1888 reading room, the Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library contains 70,000 volumes, including over 50,000 German-language books.

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