Perry Hargrove


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About the Artists

Perry Hargrove was heir to the Hargrove Textiles fortune and, in 1782, sailed with his family from England to the United States, where they established themselves in Philadelphia. His father, Nathan Hargrove, dabbled in politics during his free time. The Hargrove home became a gathering place for the political elite, and young Perry was well-known among the country's forefathers, as he would entertain by playing violin and telling outrageous and opinionated stories. Benjamin Franklin once remarked, "A conversation with young Hargrove is more enlightening than with any member of Congress."

Perry fell in love with the rough new country. Taking his birthdate of July 4, 1776 as a sign, he began collecting objects and trinkets related to the American Revolution, which he would boast about with his schoolmates and visitors. He could display any object and tell exactly how he acquired it, who gave it to him, and what particularly important event happened on that day. The objects became a diary of his youth.

When his father constructed a new stable on their estate, he let Perry move his growing collection into the old outbuilding. Perry began collecting in earnest, amassing one of the largest and most comprehensive histories of early America at that time. By the mid-1790s, it was customary for wealthy visitors to Philadelphia to pay a visit to Perry's stable, and hear him tell tales of his youthful encounters with presidents, senators, and other influential persons, accompanied by such rarities as George Washington's wig, John Adams' spade, or his prized possession, the quill pen used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.

As the textile trade grew, Perry was charged with handling more and more of his father's operations. It was a task he cared little about, and he didn't appreciate taking time away from his collecting. At 27, he married Anne Witherspoon, the daughter of a Connecticut lawyer. They had four children: Josiah, Evangeline, Edgar, and Thaddeus, but Anne spent as much time looking after her husband's collection as she did the household.

In his 30s, Hargrove became a walking encyclopedia of early America's history, especially the Revolution. Many were surprised that he was too young to have lived through the war, so vivid were his descriptions of the events, always backed up by some artifact from the battlefield. During the War of 1812, Perry eagerly abandoned his family business and took up arms against the British on the Canadian frontier. Along the way, he scavenged artifacts and treasures that he sent back home to his wife. He even witnessed the 1814 burning of Washington, and saved some of the burnt timbers of the White House for his collection.

After the war, Perry took a position teaching history at the University of Pennsylvania, using his objects to relate the events of the revolution. By this time, his collection had grown so large that it completely filled the old stable on his estate. He planned to use his inheritance to construct a building on the University campus to house the collection, and make it accessible to students and the public alike. Unfortunately, during a fireworks celebration on July 4, 1818, the old stable caught fire and Perry's entire collection was destroyed.

Without the artifacts, Perry found he could no longer remember historical events and had to resign from the University: "My memories reside within the artifacts, and without them my mind is empty. It is as if I had never lived." Despondent, Perry admitted himself into an asylum, and died in 1825 at the age of 49.

Perry Hargrove

1809 painting by Charles Bird King, on display at the University of Pennsylvania.


Nathan Hargrove (1740-1801)
Moved to the United States in 1882 to establish a textile trade with England.

Henrietta Hanson (1750-1812)
The Hanson family was well-regarded in Surrey, where they produced cheese.


Charles Hargrove (1768-1846)
Ran for the Pennsylvania Senate but lost the race to William Findlay.

Edward Hargrove (1770-1825)
Maintained the family textile business in Philadelphia.


Anne Witherspoon (1785-1833)
The daughter of a Connecticut lawyer, Anne organized social events for Perry.


Josiah Hargrove (1804-1871)
Maintained the family textile business until it went bankrupt after the Civil War.

Evangeline Hargrove (1806-1860)
Married a wealthy Philadelphia banker who was an early investor in railroads.

Edgar Hargrove (1809-1854)
Collector of art and oddities who travelled the Atlantic seaboard performing feats of magic and seducing women.

Thaddeus Hargrove (1810-1813)
Died of smallpox during the War of 1812 while Perry was away in Canada.

This website is a companion to the "The Hargrove Family History" exhibit by Tara Varney and Bryan Colley at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which runs from December 2012 to March 2013. You can find out more about the artists at