One of the most interesting aspects of our tour of the German society was a discussion by our guide on how the role of immigrant societies has changed. Earlier in their history, the function of these societies was to help immigrants assimilate into American life – providing English language and cultural lessons, banking, and other such necessities (see The Italian, Italian Market post for images of Philadelphia banks set up for Italian immigrants). Today, European immigrants rarely need these kinds of services, so the German society’s function has taken on the role of promoting German culture through events such as concerts, German language lessons, Bierfests, etc..
As part of his mission to establish a colony based on religious freedom, William Penn invited German Mennonites to settle in his colony. By 1683, a group of Quakers and Mennonites had founded the city of Germantown just outside Philadelphia – the first recorded German settlement in the English colonies. Nearby, German immigrant William Rittenhouse founded the first paper mill in the US. Immigration increased, and a majority of the German immigrants arriving in the US prior to the revolution settled in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1764, the German Society of Pennsylvania is the oldest German-culture organization in the United States, and was founded to provide “for the relief of distressed Germans.” Their current building consists of an 1829 townhouse attached to the 1888 purpose-built main building (the original townhouse entry is hidden between the buildings).
In addition to a large auditorium,
the society houses the largest private German-language library outside of Germany.
Founded in 1817, the library’s primary mission is to document German-American history and culture, but contains interesting historical pieces, including one of the original architectural drawings for the society’s building:
Beer and soft pretzels in the basement Ratskeller are a fun treat!
A piece of the Berlin Wall is located in the adjacent garden.
As interesting as the society’s history is, the organization is looking to the future as they work to refurbish their historic building. A geothermal energy system and rainwater collection system are just 2 of the ways the society is planning for the future.