The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf

Alex Bartlett, Archivist and Librarian, Germantown Historical Society

Morris Hall, the home of the Industrial School and the Institution’s printing department. Germantown Historical Society, Pamphlet Box Collection/ Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Box 1, 201792942.

In 1820, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb— now called the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf—was founded. After being located at 11th and Market Streets, the school would move in 1825 to a building constructed specifically for the purpose, at Broad and Pine streets. The Institution would remain at that location until 1892, when it purchased a farm and orchards in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mount Airy, which was still quite rural at the time. Though reasons for the move aren’t clear, the large property would have allowed for the school’s continued growth and expansion, and would have provided a more healthful environment for its students and faculty to live in; this would have been particularly important as many students, faculty, and staff lived on campus. A series of Gothic Victorian buildings were constructed at the new campus; most of these were named after local creeks.

The school contained several smaller schools, including a primary, intermediate, and academic school, as well as a vocational/ industrial school. The students in this latter school received much of their instruction by performing tasks around the campus. These included but were not limited to projects involving bricklaying, carpentry, sewing, millinery, plumbing, building small outbuildings around the campus, agricultural work (the Institution had vegetable gardens across railroad tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s line to Chestnut Hill from the main campus, on a separate parcel), and later, electrical work. A printing press also provided training for the students; they would print the Institution’s annual reports and their journal, Mount Airy World, there.

This photograph published in the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf’s 1922-1923 annual report shows students with sight and hearing loss receiving instruction. Germantown Historical Society, Pamphlet Box Collection/ Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Box 1, 201792946.

The annual reports were particularly detailed, providing information on course content and methods of instruction. These classes included those on the instruction of children who had lost both sight and hearing; several such students were present at the Institution each year. As noted in the annual reports, the Ladies’ Committee did extensive work for the school each year, with the Ladies’ Auxiliary being founded in 1916. Laura C. Outerbridge, a local resident and head of the Ladies’ Committee, provided a summary of the school’s events for the annual report each year for much of the 1910s and 20s; in association with the children mentioned above, she noted in the 1918-1919 annual report that “The deaf-blind girls continue to advance most favorably. Miss Whitman resigned to enter upon other work and Miss Ball to be married. Miss Whitman has been succeeded by Miss Serena E. Foley, and Miss Ball by Miss E. May Trend.”

As illustrated here, the annual reports often focus not on the hearing impaired students, but on those with partial and sometimes complete loss of vision. For example, the 1915-1916 annual report notes that “The two blind children, Kathryne May Frick and Grace Pearl, have now been six years at this Institution and their stay here has been of the greatest help to them. They show by their bright and happy faces that this Institution means all that a home could be or should be to anyone.”

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 would prove to be a difficult time for the school. During the 1918 Pandemic, the school went into lockdown, with no visitors allowed to enter the property. The school superintendent noted in the 1917-1918 annual report that “Most happily the recent serious visitation of Spanish influenza which laid such heavy toll upon the lives of our citizens of Philadelphia and other large cities and towns, failed to make any serious inroads upon the health of our Institution family. During the period covered by this report but two or three cases of a mild character occurred owing to the early quarantine that was established by the Board of Directors and cheerfully acquiesced in by the whole school. For this happy dispensation we feel deeply grateful." However, Laura Outerbridge reported in the 1918-1919 report that four students had later died from influenza.

The 1920s saw continued growth for the Institution, and in circa 1923, the school dropped “and Dumb” from its name. It would remain at 7500 Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood until 1984, when it relocated to 100 West School House Lane, where it remains to the present day. As for the old campus in Mount Airy, it became the home of Spring Garden College in 1985. It would remain there for approximately 10 years before finally closing its doors. The campus would then become the home of the New Covenant Church, which has remained there for the last 25 years.

Ready to explore? Visit collections related to this exhibit in In Her Own Right: the Pamphlet Box Collection/ Pennsylvania School for the Deaf at the Germantown Historical Society.